Stories

Dead Los Angeles – Noah Rymer

The lady-of-the-night’s body hung upon the neon crucifixion of a JESUS SAVES sign. I stood back from a distance as to evaluate it as some kind of form of art the same way one observed a Raphael or a Bacon; we framed the scene in its invisible background, the surrounding pitch negating any form of controlled space: Maria and her cross seemed to make all of the night conform to them alone, all dark and light sculpted into their form like some grand Tenebrist statement, swaddled in the folds of cheap fluorescence. Yellow light struck her grand-piano cheekbones like some ethereal makeup, ink-spilt hair bled into obscurity, and a gasping visage leapt wide-eyed and beautiful. I resisted the painful urge to kiss those cold, dead lips in this cold, dead city.

Jo’nathan motioned with the camera, holding enough film-stock to last the night. I nodded and he plotted out the perspective and lighting, making adjustments like a tradesman. The trigger was pulled—Maria on the cross enveloped in white light, and in the split-second flash vanished like a Houdini-girl, leaving not a single trace but her photo. My associate had the perfect touch of a steady builder, not the mindless breeze of an artist.

We hailed a cab, speeding down an infinite amount of white lines like a businessman snorting snow. Gasoline and motor oil were dripping off the cabbie’s brow in sweat’s placebo. Unconsciousness floated breathily in the somnambulist city, our eyes swimming in seas of reds and yellows and greens: from the aged neon of clubs down to the cheap fluorescence of convenience stores; rot and anxiety gasped faintly from the filthy streets like a white-washed sepulcher, like the cloying stench of a lady-of-the-night’s cheap perfume.

With a cassette pressed soft into the flesh of the stereo the lonely squealing of free jazz seeped into the palliative atmosphere like morphine, soundtracking the cold city. It began to rain heavily, steam hissing from the warm pavement and conjuring phantasms in dead air, merging with a dispatch of smoke that ran from the driver’s side as the junked cruiser slid off slowly into eternal night disappearing into naked fog.

You don’t mind, do you? The cabbie asked. No, my friend, I responded, not at all, and he handed us hand-rolled cigarettes of a distinctive Arabian blend; soon we were all lost in a trance in this city that had lost itself in itself, a dry heat that baked us in its hearth.

Collective amnesia; that was our job. Jo’ already had the entirety of Washington, D.C. in a scrapbook and I but a few scraps of Seattle and New York, mementoes more than anything else. I beheld the last nights of cafes and bars ready to be demolished, a monumental club or even a particular night’s autumnal crescent glow. My second hand was tempted to roll out the line of film as we accelerated like a rubber band through narrow streets, erasing them as we rode. But I checked the passion of the man, that ruinous desire of ruin that so afflicts us. The urge to destroy is a creative urge, he spoke gently, and I reminded him softly that such destruction with simple urge is no true destruction at all: we are precise, clean, goal-oriented preservationists. Let us not forget that, let us not forget who we are.

The driver pulled over to a grindhouse showing a triple feature of half-hearted giallo. The reels spooled out slowly, methodically like spider’s webs, weaving in on each other and cocooning us into the high European strangeness. America is a new land, with new worries — we have only faint demons of old. Once the projector stopped illuminating properly the celluloid caught on fire, reels melting into oblivion with us being the last true witnesses of their existence. What a holy and awful experience, I thought, to have to carry this within me.

The loss of great art is tragic in itself, yes, but to lose what may have been the life’s work of a bad artist is the fouler of the two; El Greco would always be El Greco even if his greatest work had been buried by sands of fortune, but what of the artist who failed and now has nothing to be remembered by? A cruel fate, from the cruel mistresses of Time and Chance; at least we came to preserve things from self-destruction instead of recording them before destroying them. We had morals in our work; something to keep us balanced while the unforgettable blinked in the eye of the cosmos, and that which was once seen ceased to exist on this plane. I feel sick, I said to my compatriot, let’s get out of here, and like rats we scurried out into the cauldron of an August’s sweetly sticky night, diasporic this city of immigrants just like us: metaphysical divers defenestrated into intriguing and puzzling unknowns. Jo’nathan pointed at the marquee, then the entire theater as we made our exit, but I waved him off and promised better soon to capture like butterflies pinned with silver.

Submerging ourselves into the metro station we navigated the labyrinthine pathways like some concrete nervous system, emanations of anxiety sparking about the people around us. White lights in the tunnel illuminated the darkened car every now and then, flashing like disposable bulbs documenting the grisly details of a crime. Some people held themselves, others held onto the handrails; a sacred few buried themselves into someone else, a lover or a stranger, both one and the same. My partner’s eyes looked as blank as the fluorescents carving the rails, sparking faint with a minimum energy. Fingers twitching, ready to pull the trigger. But wait, just wait.

The museum loomed monolithic over us, life made absurd in sheer scale of the manufactured. I shuddered to think what Earth looked like compared to the rest of the universe, but I paid and together we went in to surreptitiously glance at the disconcerting melange of disconnected display in order to pinch a few Moderns for our collection. The first thing to capture me was the reproduction of the original photograph taken of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a piece made famous both by actuality and presentation: the prank, the novelty, the blasphemy struck onto the name of high art like Lucifer gaining his infernal crown. I had to have it, reproduce it, sublimate it semiotically into the multitude of signifiers present. Seize it! I whispered, greed throttling me with sticky fingers.

With a junkie’s eager hands my co-conspirator wrapped his dexterous digits around the hunk of plastic and metal in obedience to my command, the glass case disappearing with the aforementioned photograph and shot from a safe distance away like a sniper nestled in brush; these white walls held us safe. Confusion arose as simple as a back look, then security brought around, and we (now thieves) were never caught. I kept the stolen issue close to my heart, in a breast pocket: instant development, instantaneous theft. Nonchalantly we rambled our way to the exit and successfully deterred any form of suspicion, a rare pleasure captured within us like some golden bird weeping in her cage. We cackled like witches, the crescent moon shining down sharply upon us. Vice, vice, oh sweet vice, the Devil himself had us in our hold. We felt vicious, but a feeling fleeting as dusk’s dust settled over us like statues of bone and skin so we, too, would come to be buried underneath the distinctive apathy of the city; a fate worse than death, to be forgotten completely.

We walked on, letting the flickering neon guide us in this spiritual exorcism in psychogeography, going only where the light damned our paths shining brazenly before us like tongues electric of Pentecostal fire. Palm-trees grew rubberized and possessed by desperate yearnings; the sandy yawn of nightlife stretched into infinity horizons; In-And-Out Burgers were strewn across the desert facade like pillboxes in the war-torn and desolate beaches of Normandy. Jo’ and I were hungry, and we stopped inside.

Over ketchup packets and specialty menu items we witnessed the grand heat-death of the universe, occasionally pausing to sip our sodas out of a deathly thirst. Lonesome waves curled where phantoms crested the tops, hallucinations of legends after rubbing eyes too much in stimulant-deprived states. Molded seating, the red-and- white scheme, the burnout inherent, the sign blinking wearily as if it too needed sleep like the rest of us, and casino rollers running down-and-out of the strip. The plastic abandon…In-And-Out was the 2 a.m. despair, the screaming and wailing, the red-eyed wake-up to get the hell out of town: to sink into that molded seating, to consume, to feed a different impulse of your animal nature. Here lies the city limits, the limits of existence, that disparate stretch that extended into a celestial highway, where I was to ride out on once my mission on this perishable, temporal plane was over. Far-out trip, man, a local teahead caught my inner monologue turned outer, and I gave him a knowing signal to approve of his approval. I gestured vaguely to my associate, Let’s ride and so we journeyed on.

The desert highway was as cold as the rays of death, carrion strewn about and the bones of ancient deities just as well poking around, waiting for someone to come too close. Then the eye of eternity would be shown through the hollow skull of an animal’s carcass while imbibing peyote, the flower of understanding and connection; a bouquet for the divine where the yawn of the blacktop ran ad infinitum/ad absurdum/ad nauseam. Before too long hinted beacons of pink murmured through funeral smog, a peek through ethereality into true eternity. Brushing back the curtain-like smoke revealed the urban ache of a construction site, pillars of disoriented steel like altars to a god of the forge reaching toward a disinterested sky and arranged almost like Stonehenge. The light-cherry blush came from the warning lights strewn about and the site peered out into the river, slicing the city in half, shimmering hollow and enigmatic like a monstrous tub of gelatin; the smell of oil and gasoline mixed with the salty breath of the sea, heavy with the weight of a thousand corpses.

The neon gasps couldn’t touch this site, neither could those plastic hearts and Day-Glo wedding chapels. We were far from the empty, perfumed seduction of faux-Playboy models stripping their skin and peeling themselves bare across gilded avenues paved with excrement and with daiquiris in Barbie-doll hand; this existed on its own, distanced from artifice and shrouded in its own cold beauty. Jo’nathan hesitated, fingers shy in the wake of industrial beauty. Are some things to be left to themselves? Monuments to others like us, believers of the Real and of the Concrete? Does their absence signify their existence? I was not a philosopher; neither of us were. So we left, disappointed by a beauty we couldn’t capture, ourselves impotent in the face of an earthy sort of divinity, such that was manmade yet bestowed upon us by some higher power. We went back into the bleeding heart of the city, lost angels in the wake of some unknown funeral wishing to expire like burnt pyres.

Caskets surrounded us everywhere: dead arms pulling metal ones, fish-eyes staring at bluffing hand while another held free martinis, cigarette-stubs wrinkled and the visors teeming with curled white hairs like rancid milk. Those elusive visions of jackpot like the ecstasy of a saint, and flagellation as much as maxing out your credit card. But St. Anthony dared not throw himself into surrounding skyscraper cacti in this absinthe swelter in penitent-hermetic fixes, readymade and rubber-made.

Organicity substituted for orgasmicity, false positives filling the negatives of our fotoscrap as we picked our ephemera carefully, blessing it with an existence far beyond the grave. We looked not for dead souls but dead objects. Daybreak was soon approaching, and like vampires the patient light stung us, reverted us to retain ourselves within deep crypts in the spiraling intestines of crumbling castles. But I resisted, and so my partner did as well.

Our roll was very nearly out, the purple-orange sores infecting the open air as the sun gouged the atmosphere with its light. But we had to finish, to win those last few shots so precious and brilliant in the lustful madness of rosy-teared dawn. Our chance was serendipitously bestowed upon us in the form of a drifting advertisement, like a sheet-ghost, for some warehouse rave-club in the outskirts— the wild-west temporal that existed only in the sandy throes desiccated and separated from beach proper.

The doors pulsated, metal framework writhing like a violent lover, and the whole skeleton of the building shook with a particular psychic energy as the hi-hat pulsation and bass throb lured us into throwing those barn-doors back and casketing ourselves into the Rave Of Amontillado surrounding us with practitioners of such basic alchemy, the transformation of acid into hallucinations of limitless craft. Red and blue lights pumped hard and fast like amphetamines through visual bloodstreams, wisps of samples reverberated ghostlike throughout the club while every single patron was experiencing some form or another of manufactured gnosis.

The DJ sprawled out on the stage with a tab accustomed to each eye was peering into dimensions previously unknown and screaming out of the agony of having the juice dissolved on his retinas, or of the great and terrible, pure and unadulterated stream of knowledge that poured into his mind, opened like a funnel. The phosphorescent convergence sometimes ran cautious shades of purple, a reminder of the lamplights seen in the abyss of suburban carparks and lost highways, that also reminded one of bacterial cleansers, blacklight exhibitionism, or what the color of libidinal energy might be. But orgonic expression was not the happening tonight; not the orgy of the flesh but an orgy of the mind, tangential thoughts trespassing into the grid-patterns of the square ceiling-tiles trepanning naked skulls over dance-flooring. Some wild-eyed seer was carting supply up and down the aisles like a mountebank, offering spreadsheets of snow, pills, snortables and sniffables and smokeables, and readymade injections; all that was sugar and light to the most mind-crushing of malleus maleficarum, flashing the goods to psychic love-children in his velour trench-coat fashioned from the very color of orange.

Referring to himself as the Milkman we pilfered through his storied wares, himself grinning as if he earned a contact high from the experience. I whispered to him, a whisper turned to a shout turned to a yelling match, and bright-eyes looked at me and mixed a drug cocktail like a crack physician, brewing us something that no proper script could buy and no proper pill-popper would take on their life. I CALL THIS ONE FLASH, he yowled into eager ears, ourselves drinking up every syllable in uncut curiosities. We turned to the bathroom stalls for refuge, a veritable free-for-all of all sexes and genders.

Around us interested parties formed; perhaps more clientele for the Milkman. He collected empty bottles in the form of used syringes and gave us the first-time user’s courtesy of clean needles and cleaned shells, and as we slapped our veins to bulge the sharp slid in like a metal thorn. Gaspingly we began to feel the warmth of sunshine in our veins; but this wasn’t heroin, or at least was too cheap for decent smack, and as the curious mix worked within our systems exiting back onto the dance-floor our ocular sense began to strain and tremble, anticipating the deluge of new visions yet to come like the pause before a dam bursts.

First Jo’nathan began to go at the St. Vitus Dance, a controlled flagellant’s flail and then I started to move around, a movement on the cellular level that was Cartesian in essence: a true separation of body and mind. Our heads became disembodied appendages floating like balloons around the club, true receptors of all things in this universe. Pure colors and pure schemas and pure persons and pure souls became apparitions unto us, a million little carnivals of Platonic form. I saw Jo’s body move atavistically to the liquid, sterile groove, both mechanic in its grace yet animalistic in being; my own corpus reverted to mating rituals like cave-paintings, tribal movements buried deep inside a shared genetic lineage that went back to Genghis Khan and even further to the settler natives of original homelands previously uninhabited. Our mouths moved wordlessly, grunting in odd, clandestine communication that it seemed only the other could properly understand. I saw Jo’s energy, his ‘floating head’ manifest as pure light and I signaled to him telepathically, to observe our primordial natures.

We were bemused, like tourists at a zoo watching the monkeys engage in interpersonal social activities, wondering if there was truly something beyond instinct that drove them to mate, talk, eat and fight. But the more we watched them, the more they seemed to be able to perceive us, as if their physical nature somehow allowed them to feel some sensation of the supernatural; in some anthropological studies, in fact, there were research papers devoted solely to the instances where the human of pre-lingual civilizations recorded pictorially the instances of seeing “ghosts” or recognizing spirits. Jo’nathan’s body’s hands now rendered to the crude imitation of a caveman’s tinkered with the complex technological advancement of photo-taking and curious digits pressed the buttons and fiddled with dials. Then, without warning and as if with premonition from the conduct of a future society, he caught us in our very gaze with that blinding white flash that we so utilized on our adventures, and before we knew it we became the memories we so earnestly sought to hoard on occasion when greed took the best of us.

We became enveloped within a colorless void, no hint of frame nor boundary that could stop us from wandering in this white-sanded desert; boundaries gained a true infinitessence and all that was physical and concrete in this world was snatched away, leaving Jo’nathan and I only our own company as spirits lifeless within a new eternity while the physicality and likeness of our dissociated consciousness rested like the unchanging posture of wax corpses in a singular photograph.