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Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

“So, Dolph,” Sans began.  He paused to formulate his question.

Though he’d never said, Sans assumed the building manager was gay.  Sans’ gaydar wasn’t good.  With men from the South or England it’s hard to tell.  Having only recently escaped from the former, Sans had had little opportunity to hone his skills.  The minister at his Mom’s church back home seemed as gay as a holiday tablecloth.  But Sans had met the man’s wife and gone to school with his kids.  Neither was the last word – particularly in the South – but it was the kind of background interference that fuzzed a clear gaydar signal.

Being part of an invisible minority was a big part of the reason Sans moved to Los Angeles in general and West Hollywood in particular.  He’d had enough of guessing and tiptoeing around the question.  He’d developed more than a few crushes on guys who turned out to be straight, despite their product and fashion sense.  Sans wanted to be certain somewhere besides gay bars.  He wanted not to have to be certain.  He wanted the chance to let his heart decide.

So far, the move had made very little difference.  He was still too shy to ask and too southern to assume.

He was all moved in and wanted to avail himself of one of the principle amenities of his new apartment – the highest gay population density in the world.  There were lots more gay residents in New York, say, or even Atlanta, but they’re all mixed in with everyone else.  Nearly half the small town of West Hollywood is gay.  Despite the promising percentages though, Sans still found that, unless you asked or observed someone engaged in a fairly intimate act, there was no way to tell for sure, even in West Hollywood.

This invisibility, combined with the absurd gay notion of being “straight acting,” further clouded the  issue.  The gym-to-population ratio in West Hollywood was as high as the gay population percentage.  Local residents, gay and straight, looked and dressed like He-Man — without his sword.

Sans’ fantasy was that there, like straight people everywhere else, he would be able to meet his great love at large in the world — albeit a very small West-Hollywood-sized world.   What he’d discovered was that he wasn’t bold enough for that and, even with its positive demographics, West Hollywood offered no more assurances than anywhere else, just a higher probability.  Resigned, Sans had decided to go back to the dark, smelly, second class recesses of the still smaller, more limited world he knew – the gay bars.

He ran into his building manager at the mailboxes, screwed his courage to the sticking place and resolved to find out what he needed to know — or at least to ask.  Engaging with Dolph, Sans had discovered, meant listening to him wax rhapsodic about tales of old Hollywood.  It was as though he was giving Sans a crash course in something.  To move things along, Sans pretended to know who Norma Shearer was and laughed at the lines he vaguely recalled from his one viewing of the movie The Women.  The fact that Dolph seemed to know the entire film verbatim offered further assurance as Sans prepared to make his inquiry.

Dolph bid him adieu.  He turned to walk back across the garden court with his copy of Vanity Fair and coupon mailers.  Sans spoke and stopped him.

Dolph turned and looked back at Sans expectantly, but with a gentle smile.

“Dolph, which of the bars on Santa Monica are the gay ones? Do you know?”

Dolph’s eyes grew wide and wet.  There was a moment’s awkward pause.  Sans feared a repeat of the horrible afternoon he’d decided to confide in his mom’s preacher about his sexuality.  Dolph’s lip quivered.  Sans considered running.  There was a clear shot to the street.

Suddenly, Dolph was laughing uncontrollably.  He staggered to a nearby bench.  Sans caught him by the elbow and helped him to sit.

“I’m sorry,” Sans said.  “I didn’t mean to presume.  I just thought, being a local and all, you might know which bars are the gay ones.”

“My dear boy,” Dolph said, putting his hand over Sans’.  “All of them.”

Sans sat on the bench beside him.

It was more than he could take in.  Back home there were usually two gay bars in a town.  The hot one and the one that used to be hot but was going out of business cause everyone had gone to the hot one.  Sometimes there was a small one for the elder tribe members, but that was for more cosmopolitan places like the state capital.  There were tons in places like Atlanta or New York, but there was nowhere Sans knew of where all the bars were gay.

He began to laugh, too.

In the end, he decided to go on a one man bar parade.  Like General Sherman’s march to the sea, Sans planned work his way east down the boulevard, hitting each bar along the way.  He would have one drink at each stop.  There were enough bars that he’d decided to walk, or possibly stagger there and back.  He began at the westernmost bar, Mother Lode.

He made it as far as a place called Mickey’s.

It was Meet the Porn Stars night at Mickey’s and, well, Sans just figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and those other bars would always be there.

The “stars” were not only appearing and signing videos and pictures and such, they were dancing in next to nothing on the stages scattered throughout the place.  Sans had seen gay porn, they had internet in South Carolina and flush toilets, too.  He’d never been a huge fan.  He’d seen quite a few films and liked what he saw.  But, aside from one or two guys, he would have been hard pressed to identify any of the actual performers by name.

He had friends who followed porn like sports.  They had their favorites, followed the blogs about industry performance drug scandals, knew who played what position and spoke with authority about the real names, identities and stats of performers past and present.  Sans just felt like the videos were filled with good looking men who were naked and up to something.  Who cared what their names were?

Despite his professed lack of interest, he took root on a bar stool, intent on staying for the whole event.

“Hellooooo,” the drag queen with the enormous head screamed into the microphone.

“Hellooooo,” the crowd screamed back.

Tuna Manhattan – aka Steven Swartz – was literally a local institution.  Tuna was not only a fixture at every local event, fundraiser and street fair, she was the name sake of TMI (Tuna Manhattan, Inc.) Productions.  The small film company had grown from Steven’s documentary film crew for his senior film school project into one of the largest porn production houses in the country.  As a local business owner and tireless self-promoter, Tuna/Steven was as ubiquitous in West Hollywood as rainbow flags.

“Are you ready to meet the stars?” Tuna screamed.

The answer was raucous and affirmative.  The “stars” were herded onto the main stage area to be presented to the crowd.  As each was introduced they danced a bit on stage and then into the crowd, through the room and onto the various bars and boxes around the place.  Eventually there was a steady flow of beautiful, half-naked men parading down the bar where Sans had been wise enough to stake out his seat.

Sans got kisses and hair musses that he wouldn’t soon forget, in exchange for the thrill of the furtive contact that a dollar in the g-string buys.

“You’re beautiful,” one particularly vacuum-packed looking bleach blond giant said.  The bronze god grabbed him and planted a full Rhett and Scarlett on Sans’ shocked lips.

The bar cheered.

“Here’s my number,” the giant said, snitching a pen from behind the bartender’s ear and writing on Sans’ left palm.  He closed Sans’ hand into a fist and kissed his knuckles.  “Hang on to that and call me.”  He tossed the pen to the bartender and sashayed down the bar.

Sans tried not to pass out and fall off his stool.  He watched as the giant danced away blowing kisses.

“Who that hell was that?” Sans said, more to himself, but aloud nonetheless.

“Don’t you know!?” the man on the next barstool demanded over the din.

“No, idea,” Sans said, shaking his head.

“That was Ryan Candler,” his bar mate squealed, like a kid with the game ball.  “Only the hottest and biggest gay star at TMI.”

“Yeah, he looked pretty big,” Sans said, staring.

Ryan turned and winked at him as he proceeded down the bar, leaving a tide of broken hearts in his wake.

“He looks even bigger without the g-string,” the man said, with a cackling laughed. “Hi, I’m Bobbi, by the way.”  The i was implied.

“Golly,” Sans said, laughing nervously.

“Golly?” Bobbi howled louder.  “Are you blushing?”

“Well, I just can’t account for that,” Sans said.  “I don’t usually get that kind of attention.  Or any attention.”

“I can’t believe that,” Bobbi said.  “Where have you been hanging out?”

“Florence,” Sans said with a sigh.

“Benvenuto!”

“Florence, South Carolina.”

“More grits, y’all?”

“Nice,” Sans grinned.

“Oh, don’t look now,” Bobbi said, taking Sans’ hand.  “Here comes my favorite.  Billy Blake.”

Sans shrugged.

“Perhaps you’ve seen him in Gang Bang Paperboy? Or Gang Bang Bike Messenger? Or maybe in his Adult Video nominated Gang Bang Office Boy?”

Sans only laughed and shook his head.  “I’m sensing a theme, though.”

“I guess it’s more of a specialty,” Bobbi said, wiggling his eyebrows.  “Like Meryl Streep and her dental appliances. His record is twenty-two, in Office Boy.  Hence the nom.”

Sans was still laughing when Billy reached their spot at the bar.

Bobbi held up a twenty and, before Sans could turn around, Billy was on his back, his legs aloft and his nether end up in the air.  Bobbi all but stood on his barstool as he flossed the twenty into Billy’s thong.  Billy threw his head back over the edge of the bar.  His unkempt mane of trademark surfer boy hair spilled into Sans’ lap.

Their eyes met.  The shock was mutual.

“Ric?” Sans said, recognizing his neighbor.

“It’s Billy,” Ric hissed.

“But I . . .” Sans managed.  Billy threw his arms around Sans’ neck and sealed Sans’ lips with his own and an upside down Spiderman kiss.

“Unhand him, bitch!” Ryan shrieked bounding back down the bar in their direction.

“What cologne are you wearing?” Bobbi said, dropping back onto his stool.

.  .  . to be continued

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Brighton parked her Prius on the far side of the lot at Sunset Plaza.

She stared through the window at the amazing view of the city.  The best views at Sunset Plaza were in the parking lot.  The odd collection of designer shops, restaurants, salons and Eurotrash hangouts was perched on a ridge along the south side of Sunset Boulevard.  The tables and the show windows were all on the streetside so that the patrons could be seen.  The parking lots, at the back, faced a majestic view of the Los Angeles basin over the rooftops of West Hollywood.

Using the mirrors and a ruse of checking her makeup, Brighton surveyed the parking lot to make sure she hadn’t been followed.

No sign.

Warily, she emerged from the little black car.  Shouldering her oversized black bag, she again scanned the lot.  A couple of girls in impossible heels and blackout sunglasses, their hands filled with shopping bags, clattered down the stairs and across the pavement to their Bentley.  A few rows over, a couple emerged from their standard-tourist-issue-looky-loo-rental-red-Mustang-convertible.

Brighton smiled.  The couple, like most tourists to Los Angeles, were dressed as they thought people from Los Angeles dressed.  The girl’s gold-chainmail off-the-shoulder-handkerchief top hung precariously from her breasts.  Her companion’s hyper-embroidered designer jean pockets drooped well below his butt cheeks.  The sight lifted Brighton’s spirit’s.

Lowering her guard, she took a couple of tentative steps.  Persols shielding her eyes, she moved out from under the shade of the tree she was parked beside and into the lot.  The garish out-of-towners and the giggling Bentley girls, lifted her mood.

She smiled.

It was a perfect LA afternoon.  Sunny, cloudless, cool, a breeze rustled the leaves overhead.

Brighton flinched.  A black SUV with darkened windows had somehow managed to steal up behind her.  She saw the reflection of the Darthmobile in the window of a nearby Austin-Martin.  Pretending to search her pocketbook, she stepped into the shadowy alley between a nearby Hummer and a Range Rover.  Risking it, she turned to look.  The Darth was driven by a bleached-blonde-Beverly-Hills-shiksa-housefrau orbiting the parking lot.  She would burn up half a tank of gas waiting for a space ten feet closer to the door and was oblivious to Brighton and anything other than a prime space or someone leaving one.

Though relieved, Brighton’s spider senses still tingled.  She darted between parked cars erratically to avoid becoming an easy target.  She hit the back door of Chin Chin and raced up the tiled stairs to the street level dining room above.  A booth in the back was negotiated with the host in hushed tones.  Brighton settled in, her back to the wall, out of sight but with a view of the nearly empty room.  It was late for lunch, even in LA and early for dinner for those under 80.  She liked the quiet.

Convinced of her safety for the moment, her breath became steady.  She relaxed on the uncomfortable wooden banquette.  She surveyed the tall skinny menu.  Visions of shrimp toast danced in her head.  It was a long ago luxury she had eschewed along with most carbs, but in such proximity of her crispy fantasy she dreamt shrimp toast dreams.

Her crustacean meditation was shattered by lightning flashes and chaotic, frenzied, familiar shouts.

“Over here, Milan.”

“This way, Milan.  One for me.”

“Hey Milan, how much have you earned from the video?”

The video was called A Weekend in Milan.  It was a home movie of Brighton’s sister, Milan, engaging in a Karma Sutra’s worth of sexual antics with Brighton’s ex-boyfriend, Cody, all over the Carlton family vacation home in Aspen.  The commercial release of the video had been a key cause of Brighton’s break-up with Cody.  She hadn’t spoken to Milan until she could no longer stand to read about her not speaking to Milan every time she went to the grocery store or passed a newsstand.  She managed to patch things up with her sister but she never again ate at the breakfast table in their Aspen house.

“Naughty, naughty,” Milan giggled, shaking a finger at the photographer who asked the offending question.  With a photogenic toss of her fake blonde hair, she disappeared through the glass door and stepped behind the wall of plate glass.  Milan waved at Brighton as she runway-walked across the fishbowl of a restaurant.  “Brighton,” she shouted for the benefit of at least the photogs plastered against the windows like flies on a screen door on garbage day.

Milan was the sort of person who did everything as though someone was watching.

Brighton lifted the outsized black leather menu over her face and pretended not to see her sister or the swarm of paparazzi buzzing behind her.  She knew her sister had set her up.  She knew Milan had either tipped off the paps or found them and allowed herself to get “caught” and lead them there.

“I thought we were here to have lunch,” Brighton said, unsuccessfully trying to avoid the showy kisses her sister planted on both Brighton’s cheeks (and the pages of the next week’s tab mags.)

“We’re at Chin Chin,” Milan said, tossing herself into the both, clearly frustrated that her back would be to the windows.  “I thought you liked Chinese.”

“This is a photo op,” Brighton said with a sigh.  Giving up, she put down her menu.  “What do you want?”

“Why do I have to want something?” Milan said, straddling the banquette and turning so she was in profile to the cameras.  “Can’t I just have lunch with my sister?”

“Since when do you eat lunch?” Brighton asked with a laugh, amused at the idea.  “I can’t remember seeing you eat at all.  Not since we were kids.  Are you a vampire? So, trendy.”

“Don’t be like that, Brightie,” Milan said.

“Okay, Millie,” Brighton answered with a look that Milan returned.  Both hated the nicknames and would not use them again at that lunch unless there was a fight.  “Shrimp toast?”

“Just some tea,” Milan said, drumming her thick, fake nails on the menu.

“Tea is not lunch,” Brighton sniped.

“And a Chinois Chicken Salad.  Half.  Or we could split half.  Are you hungry?   I’m really not that…”

“What do you want, Milan?” Brighton enunciated firmly, cutting her sister short.

“What do you want?” Milan huffed.

“Shrimp toast.”

Another look.

“A pot of jasmine tea and two cups,” Brighton called to a member of the staff, most of whom were trying to look busy and get in the shot with Milan at the same time.  The trick was to not to block Milan but to get close enough into the frame that you couldn’t be easily cropped out.

Four of the black-apron-wrapped waiters scurried at the sound of Brighton’s voice.  Two collided.  One jumped a chair to be first to fill the order.

“Well?” Brighton said.  She fixed Milan with her patented And-That-Is-The-End stare and held Milan in it until her sister squirmed and looked away.  Milan may have gotten most of the press and all of Brighton’s boyfriends, but the look-could-kill event went to Brighton every time.

“They want me to do a reality show and I thought it would be great for your clothing line if you were in it.”  Milan blurted it out so abruptly that a nearby waiter, pretending to attend to planter of bamboo, gasped.  Caught he blushed and fled.

“Just thinking of me, eh?” Brighton said.  The look.

“I thought it would more interesting if we were both in it,” Milan winced under the glare.

The waiter arrived with the tea but was frightened by the way Brighton was looking at Milan and left before he could get his picture taken or ask them if they wanted to order.

“You’re smarter than me and it’ll just be . . .” Milan sighed.  “They won’t do it unless we’re both in it.  They want to capitalize on the fight over Co. . .”

“No.”

“Oh, come on,” Milan pleaded getting up and squeezing in on Brighton’s side of the booth.  It not only allowed her to wheedle Brighton more directly, she was once again facing the camera and, best of all, out of Brighton’s creepy-look eye line.  “It’ll be fun.  They’ll get us a place in West Hollywood and decorate it all up . . .”

“We both already live in West Hollywood.”

“Not a real place,” Milan explained petulantly.  “Something fun and hip and authentic.  And then they follow us around for a few days . . .”

“Just like the show you already did with Cissy?”

“Not exactly,” Milan said, putting her head on Brighton’s shoulder.  “We’ll call it Sisters.  Hot, right?”

“Why not just get Cissy to do it with you?”

“She’s mad at me.”

“I understand that make these kinds of things more popular.”

“She won’t speak to me.”

“Oh my God, Milan,” Brighton said turning and trying to catch her sister with the glare.  “Did you sleep with Cissy’s husband.”

“Ex-husband.”

“Since when?”

“Since I slept with him.”

 

. . . to be continued.

 

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Sans moved to West Hollywood by UPS.

He packed his few belongings before he left South Carolina.  He figured once he found an apartment, all he’d have to do was schedule a pick up and get a friend to address the boxes.

Before Sans got a tour of Sweetzer Court, he got tea – they actually had tea – in Randolph’s grand and stunning apartment.  Randolph never mentioned his last name and insisted on being called Dolph.  He talked mostly about the history of the building and the apartments available while he wheedled information out of Sans.  All Sans found out about his host was that he was the building’s resident manager in accordance with West Hollywood ordinance.  The Court’s owner, Dolph informed him, was crazy, French and a former circus performer.  She was also the bane of Dolph’s existence.  He told stories about her as he rattled around the kitchen preparing the tea.

“She inherited the building from her husband,” Dolph explained of the building dowager.  “But even before the old man died, Griselda – that’s really her name – moved in this terrifying Russian dyke business manager to tend to their affairs.  The girls still live together.  Sus-PI-cious!” he sang.

Sans looked around the perfect, set piece of a room as he half listened to Dolph’s voice drifting in through the open kitchen door.  Oil paintings in ormolu frames, bronze nudes and richly upholstered furniture filled the rooms to bursting.  A gold fan screen stood on the marble hearth before what was clearly a working fireplace.  Sans took a seat in one of a pair of matching wing chairs that flanked the fireplace.  He listened to the steady rhythm of the mantle clock played in counterpoint to the arpeggio of Dolph’s stories.

“So when he still didn’t pay, she had all of his things burned!” Dolph exalted, triumphantly.

Through the window, Sans could see a tall, angular man moving down the wall in the gallery opposite, leaning against the windows of one of the ground floor apartments.  A longhaired man, in a bathrobe with a chopstick carelessly holding his tresses up in a messy heap, hustled his visitor inside, casting nervous glances toward Dolph’s windows.  Then both men disappeared inside and the blinds fell abruptly.  Sans delighted as humming birds appeared in the tangles of vines around the garden in the absence of human company.  A rare treat back home, the little birds danced from blossom to blossom in the garden as Sans watched them at their lazy late lunch.

Tea was served properly on a table between them.  Dolph poured.

“So, dear boy,” Dolph began, turning his focus and the subject to his guest at last.  He settled back into his yellow velvet wingchair, his delicate porcelain tea cup and saucer balanced on the tips of three fingers.  He fixed Sans with a hunter’s gaze.  “What will you do here in Los Angeles?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Sans said, missing the landlord’s real question.

Dolph’s eyebrows arched.

Sans realized, too late, and tried to save himself.  “I’ve got some freelance clients still, so I’ll probably work from home a good deal at first.  But, I’m not sure what I’ll pursue here, in the end.”  Translation: I don’t have a job or even a prayer of one and will take anything I can get.

Dolph smiled , satisfied with the answer and amused by the artless subterfuge.

“What sort of freelance work?” the coy inquisitor asked, pushing the cookie plate nearer his guest with a perfectly manicured finger.

“Writing,” Sans explained, helping himself to a second shortbread.

“Ah, the songs of Calliope,” Dolph sighed.

“Well, it’s more advertising than epic poetry,” Sans blushed.

And the apartment was Sans’.  Dolph looked at him as though waking up.  “You know your muses.”

“I hope to,” Sans grinned.  “I’m not sure if direct mail and social media updates are the best way to pay court to even a demigod.”

“You’ll find yourself in good company here at Sweetzer Court,” Dolph said, rising balletically and gesturing expansively.  “There are artists of every discipline among us and many famed and beloved have come before.”

“Who?”

“Let us go and find a studio where you may ‘pay court’ as you say,” Dolph said, gesturing grandly toward the door.  “Like many buildings in West Hollywood, this one was built by the studios to house the stars when they were here on work visits from New York and the theatrical capitals of the world.  Marlene Dietrich lived in that front unit there.  Nick Nolte burrowed over there under the stairs.  And Faye Dunaway’s best friend lived over there, so she visited here a lot.  There’s even a rumor Greta Garbo may have stayed here briefly, though I’ve yet to prove it.”

Dolph spoke the names of former famous tenants reverently, as though invoking the names of local saints as he led Sans on an expedition.  The apartments around the garden court, as Dolph called it, were as grand as Dolph’s.  The two that were available had hardwood floors and fireplaces, one even had a loft in one of the building’s turrets.

The kitchens had tile counters, black and white floors and swinging doors into their dining rooms.  The bathroom tiles were surprisingly bright and so individual as to seem eccentric.  One big vibrant bathroom was lined with bright yellow tiles and white ceramic trim.  The bath in the second was purple with pink accents.  Both had a tub and a separate shower, something Sans had only ever seen in really fancy houses and hotel rooms.

The units above the motor court were more humble and, Sans hoped, affordable.  He followed Dolph up one of a pair of stairways that flanked the garden court and led to each of the two facing motor court galleries.

“These were the quarters for the star’s servants, back in the day,” Dolph said, breathlessly scaling the steep wooden stairs.  “But we’ve converted them into fetching little bachelors.”

Sans nodded knowingly at the unfamiliar term.

“Bachelors,” it turned out, was the Hollywood word for “studio apartment” and was applied just about as carelessly.  Bachelor apartments, like bachelors themselves, varied widely from building to building.  In the case of Sweetzer Court, a bachelor was one big room with a bath, a dressing area and a little alcove about the size of a closet into which a sink, a dorm fridge and a hot plate were jammed like they were stored there.  More important than the floor plan, the bachelors at Sweetzer Court rented in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Sans settled on a sunny unit with a view of the motor court.  All but the facing bachelor overlooked the street, but Sans thought the courtside unit would be quieter.  It was also larger than the only bachelor above the street.

He moved in a couple of days later, after the place was freshly painted.  Dolph offered to re-carpet but San’s begged him to leave the wood floor bare.  It wasn’t in great shape but it was still hardwood.  Dolph relented easily.

Sans bought a new comforter and pillows and slept on the hardwood floor.  When he wasn’t writing, he used his battered old laptop to look online for work once the phone line was installed.  He waved and nodded to a couple of his neighbors, but had yet to meet anyone other than Dolph by the time his UPS bonanza arrived from Florence.

He unpacked the CD player and put on an old Steve Winwood disc to accompany his work.  A cool breeze blew in through the open door.  The sun shone on the hardwood floor Sans had been hand polishing for want of anything more to do.  He felt a happiness that he hadn’t felt since his school days.  It was the thrill of uncertainty and the promise of the unexpected.  Like the beginning of a new school year, anything was possible.  Maybe his writing could be more than thirty second radio spots and brochures.  Maybe he would get the chance to act again.  Maybe there would be love.

Dancing and singing and unpacking along with the music, he was midway through a box of books and a particularly spirited performance of Higher Love.  He spun to the refrain, gliding across the hardwood in his socks.  As he turned he realized there was someone dancing, spinning, next to him.

The shock and the beauty of his unexpected dance partner took his breath away.  Unable to speak, he could only stare at the unkempt hair and paint spattered clothes of the man with whom he unexpectedly found himself dancing.  The phantom’s eyes were closed and he was oblivious to all but the music that had taken him.  A dictionary, Sans had plucked from the box, fell from his hands and hit the wood floor.  The sound was like a gun shot.

The stranger cried out.  The two were suddenly staring into each other’s eyes.

“Hi,” the intruder shouted over the music, his face lighting up.  “I’m your neighbor, Ric.”

Sans lowered the volume.

“I’m Sans,” he said, extending his hand.

Ric grasped Sans hand firmly, drew him in, embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks.

“Welcome to Sweetzer Court,” Ric said, still holding Sans’ hand.  “I heard your music and thought it sounded like a celebration.  I haven’t heard Winwood in a while.  Then I saw you and realized that it was time to celebrate your arrival.  Come over, have some wine.  Let’s make it a night to remember.”

Sans wondered if this was love already.  If Ric had proposed marriage,  Sans would have accepted.  He nodded dumbly in answer to the invitation, unable to speak or to look away from Ric’s eyes.

Ric took his hand and led him down the gallery and into the garden.

Sans allowed himself to be led along the upper gallery overlooking the koi pond and the garden.  He memorized the angle of the sun and the sound of the softly plashing water below as he breathed in the smell of the eucalyptus trees.  Would this be the moment that his life changed? Had destiny literally taken him by the hand?

Stumbling along on the painted wooden floorboards of the gallery, Sans made his way behind Ric to the apartment above Dolph’s.  The door stood open as they arrived.

“I’ll get the wine,” Ric said, releasing Sans’ hand as they stepped inside.

The room was as magical as its occupant.  The hardwood floor gleamed in the afternoon sun pouring in through the many windows.  An old green sofa, heaped with pillows and throws offered a silent invitation to sit there, by the fireplace, and take up one of the many, many books littering the floor.  Canvases were heaped around the room.  Some were on easels, some hung crooked on the walls and some leaned in thick phalanx against the walls.  Nudes mostly, men and women draped themselves languorously and seductively across most of the painted surfaces.

The dining room was through an arch on one side of the room.  An arch opposite opened into a turret room that had been turned into a painter’s studio.  A woman sprawled prettily across the green sofa looked out at Sans from the canvas displayed prominently on the studio’s lone easel.

Sans began mentally putting his things into this wonderful apartment that he and Ric would share even after Sans became a famous novelist and Ric’s canvases began selling for tens of thousands – and that just for the smallest ones.  They would buy the building from the crazy French owner and become colorful, eccentric and noted members of the community, hosting Sunday brunches peopled with a coterie of famous and infamous guests in the garden court each month.

“Here we are,” Ric said, startling Sans from his fantasy.

Sans turned and found himself looking into the face of the man for whom he was destined.  Ric had with him a bottle of wine, glasses and the woman Sans had only just seen naked on canvas in the studio.

He couldn’t help but blush.

“This is my girlfriend, Cat,” Ric said, brushing the books, magazines, papers and drawing pencils off a nearby table and setting out three mismatched wine glasses.  “Cat, this is our new neighbor, Sam.”

To be continued . . .

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His name wasn’t Gianni, but that’s what everyone called him.

His real name was Polish and hard to pronounce.  He’d picked Gianni from the label of a jacket a client had loaned him.  The jacket and the client were both long lost.

The girls called him “Hollywood” when he worked Highland with them, at the corner by the Donut Time.  Computers were taking all the work off the streets but Highland was a show that had to be seen live.  The trans on that corner competed for the attention of the traffic orbiting the block.  You couldn’t get that on computer.

Gianni didn’t much care for computers and all their English and reading.  He was all about the show.  Gianni was a hard worker with a strong back.  He was quick enough to get out of Poland and evade immigration in America.  But in Hollywood, no one cared about his mind or his work ethic.

He lived in Florida when he first arrived in the states.  It was a place that was easier to be for people who weren’t supposed to be here.  He’d been Derek then — not his name, but closer to the truth.  He got a job making plastic milk jugs.  He laughed every time the little pellets blew into identical gallon bubbles, until the sameness dulled his wonder.  He learned English from the dozen Cuban refugees he shared a motel room with, sleeping in shifts.

In Florida, Gianni met his true love.

Theirs was an enduring romance.  It weathered jail and flight and life on the streets.  It made Gianni’s life worth living and a living hell.  It was the reason he got up in the morning and stayed up all night.  It was what he lived for and it made him long for death.

He’d never had much of a taste for wine.  He’d take a beer every now and then, when it was hot and he was thirsty.  He sniffed cocaine – it was Florida, after all – but he found more fun and comfort in a shot of vodka.  But the first time he smoked the little cocaine rocks, he knew it was love.

His love was deep but cocaine was a harsh and constant mistress.  The job at the bottle plant didn’t pay enough to keep the romance alive and the hours kept them apart too long.  He tried selling it, but couldn’t bear to part with the rocks once he had them in hand.  He tried stealing to repay those he owed for all he’d smoke before he could sell it.  But when he got money, he just bought more rock and smoked that, too.  That’s how love works.  You just want more.

Jail saved him from the people who were trying to collect.  After a third visit to prison threatened to become permanent, Derek changed his address and then his name.  The stolen car got him to the one place in America everyone in the world knows, Hollywood.

It was there that Gianni discovered his true talent.

He sold the car, got a room in a motel on Sunset Boulevard and went in search of Hollywood.  Gianni couldn’t find it.  There was a big sign on a hillside and stars on the sidewalk for a couple of blocks but that was about it.  There were no movie stars or studios; no such thing as Hollywood.  But there was lots of rock.  His money and his motel room were soon gone.

Walking the sleepy streets to keep warm late at night, he chanced upon the activity at the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.  The girls there weren’t the prettiest he’d seen but they seemed willing.

“Hey bonitaful,” he said, dragging his toes and giving it his best walk.  “Soy Derek.”

“Mmm, mm, mijo,” the raven haired beauty said, arching a painted brow at him.  “I’m Ruby.  You workin’ or playin’?”

“Always ready to play,” Gianni answered in his thick accent, cocking his head to the side and grabbing himself.  “You got game?”

“You are a mess,” Ruby answered laughing and folding her arms.  “You got cash?”

“I don’t pay to play,” Gianni said, raising his hands.

“Then you on the wrong corner,” a nearby dark skinned beauty snorted.

All the girls within hearing laughed, Gianni knew, at him.

In need of courage, he ducked down the dark street that ran behind the check cashing place and the sandwich shop in the corner strip center.  The center’s parking lot, like a little street, opened onto both Highland and Santa Monica.  It was repurposed after closing and almost as busy as both of the major thoroughfares it adjoined.  Donut Time lit up the corner like a beacon, brightly lit and open all night.  It was part of the center but free standing.  The lights, the sugar and the coffee kept the corner’s nighttime traffic lively in the parking lot that surrounded the shop.

Behind Chex4Cash, Gianni found an alley doorway where he could smoke up the nerve to go back and talk to Ruby.  He was more in need of sleep than bravery and nodded out with the glass pipe still in his lips.

He awoke to see his Latin love talking to a man in a deep blue BMW sedan.  Hidden in the shadows, Gianni watched as the business transaction played out.

“Ohhh, Papi, I make you feel so good,” Ruby cooed, pressing her breasts against the car’s partly rolled down window.

“Let me see,” the beamer’s lone passenger asked, hoarsely.

“Bad boy,” Ruby said, wagging a finger.   With a deft tug at the front of the sequined top, a generous brown breast spilled out, its nipple like dark chocolate.  “You like?”

“Not that,” the driver said, gesturing lower.

“Oh, very bad boy,” Ruby laughed, her voice deep and rich.

Gianni pressed the heel of his hand against the front of his jeans.  He watched from the darkness as Ruby raised the front of her short skirt.

The guy in the car reached out to touch the front of Ruby’s panties.

“Unh, uh, uh,” Ruby teased, stepping back.  “No touching, Papi.  Not yet.”

“Then let me see it.”

“Twenty.”

“To see it?” the man demanded with a short curt laugh.  “Forget it.”

The sound of the electric motor whirring filled the alley as the car window slowly rose.

“Okay, okay, Papi,” Ruby said with a wave.  “A little preview.”

The motor’s whine fell silent.

Gianni could no longer feel the chill of the night that enveloped him.

A thumb in the waistband, the panties came down and Ruby’s secret was out.  So was her cock.

Gianni’s laughter broke up the little scene.  The car sped away as Ruby tucked herself away.

“Quien? Who’s there?” Ruby demanded.  The glare from the street light flashed off the blade she wielded.

“Lo siento, chico,” Gianni said, hands raised, emerging into the light.

The other girls came running in answer to Ruby’s shouts.

“They pay for that?” Gianni asked, still laughing.

“Plenty,” Ruby said, emboldened by the little mob behind her.

“How much for this?”  His pants puddled around his ankles.

“Ay, dios mio!” Ruby screamed, dropping her razor.  “Que bonito!”

“We could all retire if you charge by the inch for that thing,” Ruby’s friend shrieked.

They shared a laugh.  The girls treated Gianni to donuts and coffee.  He learned his new trade from them quickly and soon found that there were more and better customers a few blocks west.  He hadn’t retired, but he’d made enough to keep his romance alive.

Time passed.  He couldn’t say how much.  Get some money, buy some rock, smoke the rock, get some more money.  It was hard to count the days when they were all the same.  Internet changed Gianni’s business but not much else.  Each rock seemed harder to come by than the last.  His street corner show was available on line.  People could order in what they used to cruise the streets to find.

His pockets were empty but there was a rock under his tongue.  He stood in the car port at Sweetzer Court, watching through the gate.  The manager, Rudolph, took the kid into his apartment.  Gianni snickered at the old man fluttering around the kid like a woman, he thought.  He’d seen those tea party manners gone like smoke in the wind when he’d crossed the building manager in the past.

Gianni wasn’t taking any chances.  He waited until they were out of sight, then darted across the courtyard.  He hugged the walls.  Careful not to be seen, Gianni made his way along the gallery to the windows of one of the ground level apartments.  Pressing his talent against the glass like he’d seen Ruby do that long ago night, he lowered the front of his trousers.

“Hey,” he hissed.  “Look what I brought you.”

To be continued . . .

 

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WeHome

Twenty years ago this August,  I moved to West Hollywood.

I came for a lot of reasons, mostly because I’d lost the life I’d spent years making for myself.  What I found here was life as I’d never imagined living it.  Life here is still hard sometimes.  They still charge rent – too much, if you ask me.  There are lines at the grocery store.   The traffic gets snarled and parking is a pain here, same as everywhere else.  But West Hollywood offers me something I didn’t come looking for because I didn’t know it was on offer.

In West Hollywood, I’m nothing special.

Oh, I’m still my special unique self.  As you might expect from our storied geography, special is the norm here.  There’s tons of movie and TV stars, singers, musicians, directors, writers, poets, rappers.  You name it, we’re all right here.  I love living in the midst of dreams and creativity.  Hollywood’s on one side, Beverly Hills is to the west.  My next door neighbor is Johnny Depp.  The Vanity Fair Oscar party takes place across the street.  When the helicopters were over Paris Hilton’s house, they were over mine.

But more than any of that, you can’t sling a dead cat in this town without hitting gay.  I don’t know if gay people are even the majority in West Hollywood, but there are so many of us here, it’s impossible to stand out just for being gay.  I didn’t get to grow up in a gay home.  I didn’t go to a gay school.  God knows, there’s no gay church.  There was no place where I ever felt like I really belonged.  And, as you may have noticed, there’s been considerable effort over the years to make gay people feel even less welcome pretty much everywhere.

Here, not so.

Here I get to shine for being who I am.  Being gay isn’t really an important or interesting fact about me in West Hollywood.  It’s like being a southerner in Atlanta – still charming but just not that remarkable.  I love it.

West Hollywood has changed my life.  Here, I get to forget about this one relatively minor aspect of who I am that gets made such a big deal of in so many other places.  In West Hollywood, I get to be me.  If people take note or ignore me here, it’s for who I am or am not, for what I do or don’t do, for the choices I make.  Not because of something I had no control over.

With the changes that are happening in the world today, I hope that West Hollywood will spread and that gay people will get to be not special where ever we go and live.

In tribute to this place that has come to feel like home for me in a way that I didn’t even know was possible, I’m starting a series of interrelated short stories based the city, its residents and my time here.  As with the rest of this blog thing, we’ll see how it goes.

I’d thought of calling it 90069, our unintentionally obvious zip code.  But I’ve settled on a different name.  It’s based on my first address here.  Let me know what you think of the name and the stories.  It’s fiction.  But, I hope, it will be an accurate portrait of this city that beckoned me home to a place I’d never been a minute before I arrived.

Welcome to:                        Sweetzer Court

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1 ~ Sans

Los Angeles was everything he’d hoped and less.

It felt like he could breathe for the first time.  The light seemed different somehow.  Perhaps it was the angle.  Maybe it was just not filtered through the haze of bigotry and hypocrisy at the other end of the highway he’d followed there.

I-20 begins in Florence, South Carolina, his home town.  It merges with the 10 in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas and comes to an end in the tawny enclave of Santa Monica on the west side of Los Angeles.

Sanders Aiken Nicholson Santee — Sans to his friends — got on the 20 when there was nothing left for him at home but bad memories.  The journey had been as liberating as it was unplanned.

His life had exploded.  Everything he’d worked for since graduating from college was ripped from his hands.  There was nothing to do but run away.   Although, in truth, he’d been forced to leave.

Los Angeles was the end of the road.  Literally.  He got off the freeway, had a look at Venice, drove east on Santa Monica Boulevard back through Westwood and Beverly Hills.  He stopped for lunch in West Hollywood at a restaurant called The Silver Spoon.

The thing that struck Sans most as he drove into the city was the lack of a city.  There was no there, there.  As he crossed the country he saw city after city, each unique but all the same.  Each sprouted like a nipple, peaked at the center and radiated out to identical edges.  All had the same stores, fast food polyps and housing blemishes.  All were laid out from greatest concentration to least.  Traversing each was the same.  There was more and more and then there was less and less until there was no more, over and over.

But Los Angeles wasn’t like that.  It was all less and then more less.  There was no center.

Sans felt lost and free.  The city seemed to dismiss expectations by not meeting them.

He’d heard of West Hollywood all his life — well, he paid attention since puberty arrived with a surprise package.  Body hair, wet dreams and you’re in love with your best friend, Roy – Surprise! He’d never denied his sexuality; he just never mentioned it.  California in general and West Hollywood in particular loomed like legends.  It was a magical land where people didn’t hate almost everyone and everything in the name of their god of love.

Sans hoped the legends were true.

As he sat alone at this table at The Silver Spoon, he looked around at the other diners.  An old movie star he’d thought was dead, a mom and dad with their kids, two women kissing, two men holding hands waiting to be seated – all were of equal value.  There was no shock.  There were no stares.  Well, other than Sans’.

He peered at the marvelous alien landscape around him over the top of the newspaper he’d bought out front.

“What are you looking for?” the waiter asked, stopping by to refill Sans’ iced tea.

“I’m sorry?” Sans answered, reddening, caught.

“The classifieds?” the waiter said, giving the paper a thump.

“Oh, that,” Sans laughed.  “I’m looking for an apartment.  I’m new to town.”

“Really?” the waiter said with a meaningful grin that Sans missed.  “Well, that’s not how you find an apartment in LA.”

“Oh?”

“The best way is to go to the neighborhood you like and walk around,” the waiter explained.  “Write down the phone numbers from the For Rent signs and call them.”

“What neighborhoods do you like?” Sans asked, looking for the code.

“This one’s great,” the waiter answered with a sly smile.

Could he be? Sans wondered of the waiter.  It was hard to be a part of an invisible minority.

After lunch, Sans tossed the paper into his car.  He set out into the neighborhood in the landscape that rose behind the restaurant.

The Hollywood Hills begin their steep incline just north of Santa Monica Boulevard, the Main Street of West Hollywood.  Sans wandered up the gentle grade for a bit of sightseeing.  He could hardly believe the waiter’s notion.  Ads and rental services seemed a much more sensible way to go about finding a place in a new and unfamiliar city.

It took West Hollywood a little more than two blocks to change his mind.  Up one block, over one and up a little farther, there it was.  The sign out front said “Sweetzer Court, bachelor and 1 br for rent.”

It was a strange building, a little out of place on the block.  It was surrounded by huge glassy modern structures, pocked with balconies.  The one immediately next door was an embarrassing leftover from the pastel and glass block architecture of the Miami Vice era that would have been more at home in South Beach.

Sweetzer Court was a cross between the familiar Victorian architecture Sans remembered from back home in the South and the pictures he’d seen of the Alhambra in Spain.  The asymmetrical profile of the building seemed almost whimsical.  Tile roofed turrets protruded from walls and corners and sprouted on the roof like a fairy ring of mushrooms.   The walls were scored with mismatched windows and sculpted from stucco, not the clapboard he knew from home.

As he stood on the street out front, the building gave Sans the feeling of back lot facade or stage set more than a real place.  The archway that opened onto the street led into a motor court that reminded him of the movie Sabrina.  The circle of narrow ports opened onto a jigsaw of terracotta tile and cement medallions grouted with wide bands of grass.  Above, a gallery lined with windows and numbered doors looked down through clouds of magenta bougainvillea blossoms onto the fanciful car park.

The sound of splashing water beckoned Sans through the second barrel archway.  Flanked with brass mailboxes, set into cracked and gap-toothed blue and white mosaic tiles, the little passage opened onto a second courtyard.  The forbidding iron gate stood open, like a hand extended.  Sans could not resist.

He stepped through into a secret garden, at once frowsy and grand.

Old roses, unkempt and heavy with white blossoms tangled around the pilasters and railings of the double galleries that bounded the plaza on three sides.  The same grass grouted medallions radiated out from a moldy looking tile fountain at center court.  Two cherubs, on the backs of entwined dolphins, spit water onto the tile and lilies below them.  The water drained lazily through notches in the four sides of the central square pool below the angelic pair.  The water collected in a cross shaped pond surrounding the angels set even with the ground.  Gold and white koi flashed against the blue and white tile at Sans feet.

It was a place of magic and it held its new visitor in its thrall.

“Hello.”

Sans cried out.

The cough tinged laughter was deeper and more elegant than the voice that had given Sans such fright.

“I’m so sorry,” Sans apologized, ever the southerner.  “I didn’t mean to intrude.  I just couldn’t resist.  Such a perfect place.  ”

“You must be the new tenant,” the man said drawing nearer.  The panama hat he wore cast a shadow over his face that made it hard to make out his features.  There was a grandeur to his manner that put Sans at ease in the way that knowing the words to a prayer gave him a sense of his place in the universe.

“I’d love to be,” Sans said, taking the hand that was offered.  “I’ve only just gotten here.  I saw the sign and, well, here I am.”

“Georgia?”

“South Carolina,” Sans blushed.  “Mouth full of grits?”

“I love southern boys,” the man smiled.  He looked past Sans though he still held his hand.  “That accent.  I had a beau from Savannah, a sailor.  Drove up from San Diego so he could come out without getting found out.  But that was more than your lifetime ago.  I’m Randolph, welcome to the Sweetzer Court.  I’m sure you’ll be very happy here.”  He gave Sans’ hand another little shake, more an embrace, with both of his.

“No, I’m not the new tenant,” Sans said.  He laughed nervously.

“Dear boy, I’ll decide that,” Randolph said, releasing Sans’ hand.  “You’re looking aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Sans nodded.

“Sir,” Randolph laughed.  “You’ll make me feel old.”

“Sorry, sir, I mean . . .”

“And you like it here don’t you?” Randolph spread his hands to include their exotic and homely surroundings.

“I love it,” Sans grinned, nodding.

“Then welcome home,” Randolph said, lacing his arm into Sans.  “I’ll make us some tea and you can tell me what you can afford.  I’m sure that we’ve got something in this rambling old heap that will suit.  I’ve got a sense about these things.”

 

To be continued . . .

 

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People are especially considerate in traffic when you have a tree tied to your car, Rose observed.

She’d never had a tree, so she’d never had the experience.  It was a challenge.  The windows were open to accommodate the rope.  She was freezing.  She was afraid it was going to start raining.  She was afraid to drive too fast for fear the bloody thing would fly off the roof.  She imagined the updraft in the branches lifting the car off the road.  She saw herself flying.

She smiled as she sat at the stoplight.  She turned idly and found herself looking into the smiling face of the passenger in the car beside her.  It startled her.  The woman gave Rose a wink and a thumbs up.  Rose looked a bit confused, until the woman pointed at the tree on top of her car.

“Oh,” Rose said aloud.  She grinned and gave the woman the thumbs up as the light changed and the two went their separate ways.  After the chance encounter at the light, Rose began to notice that people went out of their way to let her over when she needed and that no one blew the horn despite the fact that she was driving below the speed limit.  Instead, she got nothing but smiles and waves.

“I should drive around with a tree tied to my car all the time,” Rose said out loud alone in her car, though she didn’t realized she’d spoken.

Getting the tree home was a bit more of a challenge.  She tore off a couple of branches pulling into her parking garage.  Then there was the matter of the ropes.  Ray had tied them with slip knots, but Rose didn’t know it and, having never encountered a slip knot before, would not have benefited from the information.  She tugged on the rope and the knots released.  The rope slipped free.  The tree slid across her roof and fell at her feet.

“Well, that happened,” Rose said.  Her voice echoed off the hard surfaces of the garage, all wrought iron, concrete and cinderblock.  It made Rose aware that she’d spoken her thoughts again.

She made an effort to keep her curses confined to the running dialog in her head as she struggled to get the tree into the elevator and up to her apartment.

One of her neighbors, a twenty-something young man who’d never spoken to Rose or looked directly at her, actually took time to hold the elevator door for her and help shove the tree inside.

“Thanks,” Rose said, beaming at the young man.

“No worries,” the young man said with a salute.  “It’s Christmas, right?”

“Right?” Rose agreed.  “Gotta keep on Santa’s good side.”

“Sure.”

The young man turned toward the garage where he had been headed when he’d arrived in the elevator.

“Here,” Rose said, remembering the invitations in her purse.  “I’m having a drop-in tomorrow, if you don’t have plans, come by.”

The young man turned and looked uncomfortable.  He took the envelope tentatively.

“No, worries,” Rose said to put him at his ease.  “It’s Christmas, right?”

“Right,” the young man said with a smile.

He turned to walk away.  As she watched him go, Rose realized that there was a substantial path of tree needles leading from the elevator to her car.

The elevator doors closed.

The young man pitched the invite into the recycling bin as he passed.

Rose hadn’t been as lucky when she got to her floor.  There was no sign of anyone.  She managed to get the tree down the hall and into her apartment.  Several of her neighbors watched through their peepholes, attracted by the disturbance.

Once she got the tree in her door a thought struck her.  How silly that she didn’t know any of her neighbors well enough to ask them for help.

She went down the hall and tucked an invitation under each door.

“Why not?” she said aloud as she returned to her own door.

Tree placement was a bit of a challenge.  She’d never had a tree, so she’d never considered it.  Eventually she chose a spot in a corner of the living room because she could move the small table that was there by herself.  Getting the tree there was the ordeal.  She broke a lamp and completely covered the room in pine needles by the time she got the balding little tree into place.

“You just needle little love, don’t you,” Rose said.  She laughed as she filled the carafe from the coffee maker with water for the tree.

 

It surprised Rose how much was actually open in the middle of the night.

Decorating time was at a premium and she’d decided to get started right away.

The gas station had Christmas CD’s and she bought several – a collection of Elvis, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack and a special Exxon/Mobil holiday edition.

“That should do it,” she thought, tossing them onto the counter.

“Okay, then,” the clerk answered, startling her.

She’d done it again.  Maybe she was losing her mind.  She smiled at the clerk, an Indian man wearing a cheap Santa hat on his shaved head.  He gave her a quick grin in reply as he rang up her purchases cheerfully.  She looked around at the Christmas decorations in the little gas station store.  She liked the use of lights in the garlands, she thought.  Her favorite, though, was the tiny Santa hat on the diminutive Vishnu behind the bullet proof glass with the clerk.

“Vishnu a Merry Christmas,” she thought, laughing in spite of herself.

“That’s what I thought,” the clerk said, beaming.  He patted the handsy little god affectionately.

Rose was horrified that she’d said it out loud, but figured she’d have looked crazier if she had just burst out laughing for no reason.

The clerk, far from bothered, was delighted that Rose was in such a talkative mood.  She came in often and he’d tried to engage her in conversation many times before.  Try though he might, she’d never spoken more than a cursory “Pump 9” or “Credit please” on previous visits.  The clerk thought Rose was a fine looking woman.  Her smile and laughter over the shared joke filled his heart with joy.

“Sixty-two, fifty,” he said seductively.

“Here you go,” she said slipping her card and an invitation under the glass.

“What’s this?”

“I’m having a Christmas drop-in, tomorrow evening at my house,” she said, smiling at him in a way that made him screw up the charge and have to redo it, twice.  She worried that she might have offended his religious beliefs.  “Holiday really, in case you don’t . . . anyway, if you don’t have plans, you’re welcome to come.”

“Thank you very much,” he said fingering the invitation.  “That is most kind.”

“Tis the season,” she said signing her charge slip.

“Vishnu a Merry Christmas,” they both said at the same time.

She left laughing.

He loved her laugh.  He slipped the invitation into his breast pocket and patted it.  He would have to get his brother to work for him the next night.  He thought himself the luckiest man in the world.  His wife didn’t observe Christmas so she’d think nothing of it if he “worked” through the night on Christmas eve.

 

 

The CVS was open when Rose drove by.

She made real headway there.  Lights, decorations and sweets.  All the Christmas stuff was marked down so she was able to decorate for half-price.  She’d accidentally said it out loud but again got a laugh from one of the other people on the aisle with her.

Two things occurred to her.  It hit her that maybe most people just said what they were thinking and she was just out of the habit and not crazy after all.  And maybe, just maybe, she really was funny.

So far, so good anyway.

She was able to find plastic pine garlands with lights already woven into them.  The tree lights were a little picked over so she’d had to settle for mostly novelty strands of stars, angels and chili peppers.  Pepper are red, she though as she tossed them into her cart with the random collection of shiny plastic beads and balls she’d collected.

“In a way,” she said, no longer even trying to keep her thoughts to herself.  “Decorating is easier like this.  I don’t have to think about it.  If they match, it’s a bonus but I’m really only looking for ornaments that aren’t broken.”

“I know that’s right,” a nearby store clerk said, looking up from the wrapping paper she was listlessly marking down.  She smiled at Rose for speaking to her.  Most people only regarded her as a store fixture.

Rose smiled back.  “Did you get that Santa hat here?”

She left with a Santa hat on her head and no more invitations in her purse.

It was after one in the morning when Rose got to Pavilions.  She stood just inside the doors a moment, looking at the store expectantly.  She hesitated, uncertain of what to do.  She usually came with a list, but she hadn’t really thought about what to serve a minute before she’d gotten there.

Flattened Christmas music squeezed out of the speakers concealed somewhere in the ceiling.  It was just enough to suggest the holidays.  It was only a pale suggestion of music, for that matter.  There were a few shoppers, but mostly just employees, all in Santa hats, stocking the shelves in anticipation of a rush the following day.

“My favorites,” Rose decided aloud, in accordance with her new policy.  She would get all of her favorite things and serve that.  It was her party after all.  She’d be there longer than anyone else.

She bought cream cheese and pepper jelly.  She got caviar and smoked salmon.  She bought eggs to boil and red onions to chop up and sprinkler on water crackers with the caviar and the smoked fish.  She got chocolate covered cherries and two Whitman samplers.   She splurged on good champagne and got a lot – just in case – as well as good brands of scotch, bourbon, vodka and gin.  She got rum and eggnog to put it in.  To round out the spread she got a lot of little frozen, bakable treats – whatever taquitos were, pizza rolls, bagel bites, and those weird tiny quiches that are mostly crust.  She liked crust better than quiche so it seemed the perfect choice.

When she woke up on her living room sofa the following afternoon, two things were true.

First, she had a champagne hangover and second, her house was totally decorated for Christmas.  What the decorations lacked in quality or coherence they made up for in exuberance and quantity.

She made a Bloody Mary with the Grey Goose and some V-8 she’d had in the pantry since her last diet.  She sat, and marveled at the decorations flashing all around her.

“To half-price Christmas,” Rose said, toasting the room.

She spent the afternoon watching old Christmas movies on cable and sneaking hors d’oeuvre.  She switched back to Champagne when the V-8 ran out during It’s a Wonderful Life.  She avoided temptation and did not even so much as check her email, knowing that she’d get sucked back into work.  Rose was determined to enjoy her day.

By seven she was showered and dressed in all the red clothes she owned.  The Exxon/Mobil Christmas Singers were belting out the carols, the hors d’oeuvre were hot or cold, as was their want, and the Santa hat was perched jauntily on Rose’s head.

By eight the hors d’oeuvre were all pretty much the same temperature and Rose switched to spiked eggnog.  By nine, the Santa hat was off and Rose was eating caviar out of the jar and watching a Die Hard marathon that was scheduled to go on through the long winter’s night.

“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” she shouted at the screen leaping to her feet and then falling back on the sofa.

At first she’d been hurt when everyone dropped out of her drop-in.  She knew it was last minute and she hadn’t counted on a big crowd.  She had enough food and drink but not nearly enough space.  But no one?

She started to get a little weepy around eleven so she switched to Diet Coke.

“No one likes a crying drunk,” she said laughing at her own joke.  “I really am funny.”

Just after midnight, Bruce Willis’ wife punched out the reporter.  Rose cheered.  The credits rolled.  She started to clean up a bit, putting things in the fridge that should probably already have been there.  She would definitely eat well while she worked on the end of the year accounts the next day in the quiet of the empty office.

The text of the invitation was still on the screen of her computer when she got to the office the next day.  Her first reaction was to erase it and drag the document into her trash can.  For some reason she read the words of the invitation to her ill-fated party out loud.

Rose’s First Annual Christmas Drop-In

Festive Food and Christmas Cocktails

Come by for a little holiday cheer and cheering up

At Rose’s Ho-Ho-Happening

7ish on Christmas Eve

She stared at the screen.  She re-read it again.  She laughed.  Every time she read it she laughed harder.  The clip art poinsettias and holiday flourishes were beautiful.  The font was tasteful and the burgundy gave the letters a richness and sophistication.  Her address and phone number, however, appeared nowhere on the invitation.

A quick check of her email revealed dozens of emails from co-workers trying to find out where the party was.  Her office voicemail was the same.

As the years past, and Rose’s Ho-Ho-Happening became an annual tradition, the joke about the first one grew and grew.

Sami was convinced Rose had never intended to have the party, that the invitations were just another of Rose’s weird jokes, and was disabused of the notion only by attending the drop-in the following year with the other guests excluded from the first observance.  She was more than a little disappointed for the loss.

“It was soo exclusive, no one was invited at all,” Rose always said when she told the story.  It always got a laugh.

But as she sat at her desk that Christmas morning, laughing at herself, she realized something that she never mentioned when she re-told the story.

It was the best Christmas she ever had.

Not because there was a crowd at her party or because the party was a hit or for any of the other reasons that had convinced her she’d been cheated out of the perfect Christmas for so many Christmases before.  It was the best because she decorated her house and filled it with her favorite food and drink.  It was the best because she’d been willing to share her holiday, her food and her drink with friends and strangers alike.  Everything seemed different, even though nothing really was.

The only thing that changed that Christmas was Rose.

 

 

 

 

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