City of Angels

Photo: © S.V. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

Fran and Morris went to Los Angeles for their honeymoon. Fran thought she could be an actress. Everybody where they were from in Oklahoma said she was pretty enough to be an actress. The whole time they were in Los Angeles, Fran kept saying, “We should live here,” and Morris thought it wasn’t such a bad idea. He enjoyed looking at all the different kinds of people, like the man in a giant avocado suit on the street corner, yelling, “I’m a fruit!” and there were a number of taco stands that Morris could see himself frequenting. They saw flyers for acting classes stapled to telephone poles. Fran said, “What is Stanislavsky?” and Morris said, “A delicacy?”

One of their wedding presents was tickets to The Price is Right! They went to CBS Television City and waited in line for the one o’clock taping. There was plenty of time for the newlyweds to think about the future and what they wanted their lives to be like. Fran wanted to wear sunglasses and headscarves in convertibles. She wanted to run lines with Morris in the evenings. That would have been a hell of a lot better than living in a trailer on Fran’s parents’ property and working in the office of her father’s used car lot and having to watch Morris come home exhausted every day from pipefitting. She made $8 per hour and he made $16 per hour.

Fran wanted to wear sunglasses and headscarves in convertibles. She wanted to run lines with Morris in the evenings.

When Morris thought of the future, he thought of children in a swimming pool. He would throw silver dollars for them to dive for. He would get a big safe and keep important things in there, such as birth certificates and a revolver and Fran’s best jewelry. He didn’t see himself doing hard labor, not anymore, because he had been a pipefitter since he’d dropped out of high school at seventeen and he was pretty sick of waking up at the ass-crack of dawn to get to a job site. He thought he would like to cook pancakes at a reasonable hour and send the children to school with a car service. He could sit back and enjoy the Santa Ana winds blowing the curtains into heavenly shapes.

~

Outside of CBS Television City, Morris said, “What are you thinking of?” and Fran said, “Daydreaming,” and he said, “Me, too.” It would be impossible to say if the shimmer of rising heat was beautiful or not, but the sidewalk shimmered regardless. It was 2016. The planet was heating up. An artist was pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk. He looked homeless at first but then Morris saw that the contents of his cart were carefully organized and the man was dressed in a tunic and drawstring linen pants. He made dioramas in glass bottles. Some people built ships in bottles with tweezers and magnifying glasses, but this artist made anything that a paying customer wanted. Fran could not resist. The artist said, “What would you like to remember forever?” and Fran thought about seeing the ocean for the first time with Morris at Venice Beach. She said, “The beach.”

They had gone to the beach on the first official day of their honeymoon, not including the day and a half spent driving to California. People had been playing volleyball and flying intricate kites with dragon whiskers. Morris’s eyes glittered as he remembered how the oil rigs had glittered way out in the Pacific as it got dark. Fran saw the oil rigs glittering in his eyes and could not imagine that their life together would be anything but perfect.

The shopping cart held craft materials and a folding camp chair and a little Igloo cooler filled with green bananas and Perrier on ice. The artist sat on the folding camp chair and worked on the diorama and ate a chilled banana. His teeth were the color of the sidewalk. He sipped Perrier. Some time passed and then he said, “I am a visionary,” and belched.

The fee was $25. The artist handed Fran the glass bottle. She held the vessel, felt the coolness of the glass, and looked inside. It was not exactly what Fran had expected. There was a miniature Pacific Ocean lapping a miniature Venice Beach. There was nobody on the beach except for miniature versions of Fran and Morris kissing and rolling around in the surf. It was like that famous kissing scene in From Here to Eternity with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Miniature seagulls dotted the beach. Waves fell again and again. To listen very carefully was to hear the powerful swell of the ocean and lost within that powerful swell was the tiny sound of their sucking. Fran said, “Won’t they get tired of it?” and even as she spoke she knew it was not “they” but “we.”

To listen very carefully was to hear the powerful swell of the ocean and lost within that powerful swell was the tiny sound of their sucking.

“It wasn’t like that,” Morris said. “There were lots of people. We weren’t…”

The artist said, “Would you like to see my creative license?” and produced a slip of paper from his pocket. “A joke,” he said. “That’s only a receipt.” It showed that he had bought two grams of Bubba Kush and one lollipop from a dispensary in Long Beach.

The artist said, “Be advised: If they die, you die.”

“Wait,” Fran said. “They’re alive in there?”

“Yes.”

Then he left. The line started to move. Fran held the bottle with both hands. She said, “What was that about?” and Morris said, “Bohemian talk.” He pulled the tickets out of his wallet and handed them to the attendant at the front gate. The attendant said, “No firearms, no explosives, no outside containers.” They tried to explain that the bottle was only a piece of art. The attendant said, “I will be forced to call security.” Fran didn’t feel comfortable throwing it away or hiding it outside and coming back to claim it later, because she was deeply concerned about the artist’s warning. But Morris didn’t want to miss the taping. She said, “If you want to go so bad, then just go.”

A producer told the audience how and when to clap. He said clapping was an affirmation of life. The contestant, an older woman in safari garb, guessed the closest value of a wicker bedroom set but Morris didn’t think it was worth $13,000. A producer wearing all black made notes of who clapped and who didn’t. One benefit of working in the shadows of the sound stage was that it was easy to hide a boner.

When the show ended, Morris found Fran sitting on the curb. They walked a few blocks east and slipped into a dark cantina where Morris ordered two margaritas and two tacos that had fried eggs on top. The bottle rested on Fran’s lap like how a baby would have rested if she was playing coochie coochie coo. Silence was her weapon. She didn’t talk to Morris the whole time. The truth was that both options, skipping the taping of the show and going to the taping alone, would have made him unhappy. Marriage was full of choices that didn’t have a clear right and wrong. Participants felt that if only they had made the other decision, things would have turned out better. The yolk broke in Morris’s mouth and dripped down his chin.

The waiter brought the bill for $87.20. His skin was the color of a chocolate bar in the sun. He saw the bottle in Fran’s lap and said, “My cousin had one of those things. It rolled off the shelf during an earthquake.”

Fran forgot that she wasn’t talking and said, “What happened?”

“It broke.”

“To your cousin, I mean.”

“Muertè.”

~

They could not live in California because of the earthquakes. They could not go back home to Oklahoma because of the tornadoes. From then on, every decision was for the good of the bottle. They decided on eastern Montana. Fran’s father was outraged more because he did not want to lose the only decent employee at his used car dealership and less because he loved his daughter. His love for Fran was maybe the size of a watermelon. On the drive to Montana, Fran winced whenever there was bump or a pothole or something like a garbage bag full of stuffed animals in the road that Morris had to swerve around. The country was beautiful and boring in equal parts.

They moved into a house just outside of Glendive and slept in sleeping bags until they could buy furniture. Rent was $725 a month. They put the bottle in a shoebox filled with shredded newspaper. They put the box in their bedroom closet. In the closet hung a bare light bulb. Fran said, “Is it safe?” and then corrected herself, saying, “Are they safe?” Morris said, “I hope so.”

Fran got a job at the Albertsons in town. She was assigned to the bakery department. The other bakers were friendly because Fran was from the Great Plains, too, and that seemed to mean something to those people. The Great Plains covered the middle of the country, including, from south to north, either in whole or in part, the following states: Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana. The bakers said, “You could be an actress with a face like that,” and Fran said, “Thank you.”

Morris found work as a hand on a cattle ranch. He wrestled calves and branded their flanks and began to put whiskey in his coffee. The other men called him “Okie.” Sometimes if nobody was looking he would pick up a rock and sling it at a heifer as hard as he could and most of the time the heifer didn’t even notice the rock hitting its side. It made him mad. He wanted the heifer to feel something, to hurt. When he drove to work at the ass-crack of dawn, Morris muttered, “Fuck you,” and by “you” he meant the world. Fran also woke up early because she had to put on a hairnet and bake bread. They wanted to protect the bottle so that they could continue living but by protecting the bottle they could not really live.

After dinner every night, Morris ran a hot bath. His stomach hardened. Fran on the other hand was getting softer from all of the rolls and cakes and doughnuts. In the unbelievable cold of a plains winter she found pleasure in Swiss Miss with marshmallows on top. She got in the bathtub with Morris once or twice. Then he told her that it was just better if he took baths alone because he was tired and wanted to rest his muscles and it displaced a lot of water when she got in the tub. Fran saw it happening, their drifting apart, but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. She made the recipes on the Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom cans during the week. On Sundays, they ate sandwiches and potato chips.

~

Morris had a recurring dream in which the house began to shake. In the dream, he and Fran would look out the window and see a herd of bison gushing like mad over the land. A group of Sioux Indians would be riding paints and shooting arrows and the feathers in their hair would be bouncing with the hoof-roll of the hunt. Morris would hold the bottle and look through the window, knowing that it would all be over at any second. Then the ground would shake so bad that the bottle would jump out of his hands and break on the floor. It always ended when the bottle broke.

~

Their first wedding anniversary was on a Friday. Morris opened the windows and let the cool air blow into the house. Across the Yellowstone River, in the dark, dinosaur bones slept in the badlands. The badlands were once a sea. The mud at the bottom of the sea became petrified rock. When the sea evaporated and homo sapiens sapiens evolved and the State Highway Commission put up a “State Park” sign in 1953, people came from near and far to see the mesas and buttes, flutes and hoodoos. If they’d had a dog the dog would have sniffed the juniper-scented air and howled to go outside. They didn’t have a dog. They were afraid a dog might root around the closet and break the bottle between its jaws. Fran put on a nightgown and rubbed lotion in circles over her legs. Morris got the shoebox out of the closet and took out the bottle. This was the only time they ever took out the bottle. They were not sure if it was technically a “diorama” if the miniature scene was alive, because a diorama seemed to constitute a still-life or, rather, a paused scene. This was not something they discussed.

Morris said, “Do you think about children?”

Fran said, “It’s too risky.”

“I know.”

“Children get into everything.”

Morris said, “I see the calves with their mothers,” and he felt for her calf under the covers.

Fran said, “We can do it if you want, Morris, but you can’t say a word. I won’t be able to come if you say a word.”

~

In 2050, Morris was kicked in the chest by a bull and his heart exploded. When Fran received the phone call from the ranch manager, she went straight over there to look at his body before it was taken away to a cold table. A dinner of chicken and hash brown casserole was left on the warming rack in the oven. The manager said, “It was full of blood,” and through tears Fran said, “What?” and the manager said, “That bull had a raging hard-on.” She wished that they’d had a child so that a piece of Morris would still exist, that eyes like his would still be open to the world, eyes that she could look into and see something of the man she had spent her life with. It was her deepest regret and the regret made knots in her back. The doctor said, “You have terrible knots,” and she thought of twisting dough into garlic knots on a floured steel countertop.

She wished that they’d had a child so that a piece of Morris would still exist, that eyes like his would still be open to the world, eyes that she could look into and see something of the man she had spent her life with.

Theirs was a marriage that turned mostly silent in the final years, hardened into formation. Although the formation was not pretty, it was structurally sound. Fran looked at the bottle the night that Morris died and it felt wrong to bring it out in the open and without him beside her. She glanced at the laundry basket. One of his socks was draped over the side. Everything in the bottle was exactly as it had been for so many years, except that the miniature Morris was dead. The miniature Fran was kissing his dead body.

She said, “This can’t be right.”

The funeral was attended by grocery clerks, ranch hands, the dentist, the doctor, and the barber. The postman would have come but he had to deliver the post. Morris was buried in a red plaid shirt. People asked, “What are you going to do without him?” and she said, “I am going to Los Angeles.” She used a road atlas to find her way and stopped many times to use the restroom on the drive. Her legs and back and neck cried out in pain. She said, “Damn you,” and by “you” she meant sciatica. The city was not what she remembered. It was overcrowded because people living along the coast had been displaced from sea level rise. An estimated 5,018 homes were underwater and 20,851 individuals were forced to move inland. She was looking for the artist.

Fran left her car when she couldn’t drive any further. A Red Cross worker said, “Are you prepared for the future?” but Fran didn’t know how to answer that question. The aid worker said, “Do you have a raft?” There was an Army Navy store selling rafts for $300. For an extra fee of $50 they would inflate the raft with a pump. The pump ran on a generator. Instead, Fran bought a plastic inner tube from a street peddler for $1.99. She said, “Do you have a pump?” and the peddler said, “You got a pump, it’s called your mouth.”

Fran walked to the Fairfax District and saw that CBS Television City was abandoned. Vagabonds lived in tents and school buses. On the side of Sound Stage #1, the artist’s face was spray-painted in white. Below his face it said: “Visit Visionary Waxworks at 9999 Beverly Boulevard.” The spray-painted portrait was not very detailed. It was in the impressionistic mode but still she could tell it was him. She found the warehouse and banged on the shipping & receiving door with a paddle she had purchased from the street peddler for an additional 50¢. A voice called to her from the roof: “Is that the newlywed from so many years ago?” She said, “Yes,” and he lowered a ladder.

She climbed up with one hand. It was slow and difficult work. The other hand clutched the glass bottle. There were lounge chairs on the roof and also a tiki bar tended by a waxen Renoir. Little groups of seagulls were taking naps and Persian rugs had been spray painted on the concrete. The artist looked exactly as he had thirty-four years earlier, although he must have been an old man. There were few wrinkles on his face. His urine was clear. He maintained clarity of mind through Tai Chi. From the roof, he could watch the water advancing.

Fran showed him the diorama. He said, “These birds have been cooped up for a long time,” and then he uncorked the bottle, releasing the miniature seagulls into the wind, and corked it again.

Fran’s eyes softened as she slipped into memory. She remembered how on the first real day of their honeymoon she and Morris had weaved in and out of sunbathing groups on Venice Beach. He’d carried his shirt in his hand. Hundreds of radios sat on the beach and they had all been tuned to the same pop station. The same song came from all directions. Then she’d told Morris that she would never wash his shirt, the one he carried in his hand, because she didn’t want to lose the beach smell. They’d stayed until dark and watched the oil rigs glitter way out in the water. Fran began to cry. The shirt was gone and so was the smell.

She said, “I worried for years about protecting this horrible bottle. I was afraid it would break and we, the real ‘we,’ would die. I never thought about what would happen to the bottle if one of us, the real ‘us,’ died.”

He said, “It’s a two-way street, so to speak. I probably could have been more clear on that.”

“Could you pull him out of the bottle and shock him back to life?”

“That has never worked before.”

“Could you make another Morris? A little Morris?”

It began to rain. The oceans raged. Rivers evaporated in the heartland and reunited as clouds. Somewhere in the city an alarm sounded. The artist lit a joint and passed it to Fran, keeping his eyes away from hers so she wouldn’t be able to see the guilt that lived there. The answer was no. He knew it. She knew it. She had to try, though. Fran didn’t bother to wipe her face as it rained, but she protected the joint. Smoke rose around her fingers. Her muscles relaxed. Her body was at ease. How long would it take to inflate the inner tube with her own breath? How long would it take to reach higher ground? Is that what she even wanted? Some of the miniature seagulls flew above the city, decided they didn’t like it, and then flew back to the roof to nest in Fran’s hair.

Fran asked, “Why do you stay here?” and the artist took the roach, swallowed it, and said, “The angels will come when the time is right.”

Wynne Hungerford’s work has appeared in Epoch, Blackbird, American Literary Review, The Boiler, The Normal School, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She received her MFA from the University of Florida.

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