Saturday Morning Post #91: Prelude to an Obsession

In the original prologue to “24 Exposures,” find out how a photographer will wind up weaving himself through all of the stories even when we don’t know he’s there.

This is the first story from the collection that served as the prologue which I left out when I first posted here. However, it’s also the shortest piece in the book and would fit into one installment, so it made sense to run it now. That’s because starting next Friday will be my annual Holiday Countdown, featuring a different video on a different theme each day of the week from the day after Thanksgiving (which takes place on November 25 this year) through to New Year’s Day.

Yes, it may way of arranging a little vacation that time of year since I can curate it and let it run on its own — but can you blame me?

He learned an enormous lesson from an abandoned moldy bag of bread. He hadn’t been looking to learn anything when he’d picked it up. The best lessons were always like that.

It was that long, underused stretch of beach off Playa del Rey, bounded on the east by LAX’s runways, the north by embattled wetlands and the south by the main sewage plant for all of Los Angeles county, which was improbably called Hyperion, the mythological Titan who was father of the sun, the moon and the dawn.

Then again, his father was Uranus, making the name imminently appropriate.

And all that shit flowed out to the sea, the endless western boundary, the final roadblock to manifest destiny. It was an inspiration to everyone who lived here, but also the reason they were all a little mad, trapping them as it were in the edges of the west coast, pockets of innovation that could just not escape.

To go east was to go backwards, into the past, back to whence most of them had come. It was unthinkable, an admission of defeat. And that was the delusion of Los Angeles. So many dreams were promised here that no one could conceive of not succeeding.

But so few did, and those fifteen minutes dangled ever ahead, a golden carrot. To be here was to be a success in itself, and yet not. It was Valhalla’s waiting room, but it was also a perpetual Ragnarok, the destruction taking years.

Perhaps it was really Purgatory, a room to be endlessly circled but never left, with no point to it at all. But there had to be people in this city who expected… less. The ones who were content just living here, working some anonymous and uncreative job for someone else, cashing their checks, having their families. Were they the real gods, or just Loki’s footstools?

Is it “hell is what you make it” or “it’s hell until you make it?” He didn’t know, least of all right now, on a winter’s day as he wandered the empty beach, the sky clear but cold. His camera bag was slung over his shoulder, one hand hooked firmly around the strap, thing trapped under his arm. It was an old habit, one he’d developed when he was sixteen. There was that one, and the hand on the lens move when the camera was hanging unused around his neck, and…

Goddammit.

He shook his head, realizing that all of his odd photographic habits weren’t his at all. Every last one of them he’d learned from his father. Just like that right arm across, left elbow on right hand, left thumb on chin thinking pose he always did when feeling dubious about a sales pitch. But his father had never been a professional photographer — Air Force didn’t count — and he, the son, was. That was different.

He was a pro up until a few weeks ago. He’d been doing full-time work for a local weekly, doing really good work, and then his editor suddenly let him go. There were feigned excuses, all of them horseshit, and absolutely no warning, but he’d actually felt relived to be rid of the place. The editor, Brendan Montauk, was a first class hypocrite who adopted children like he was collecting postage stamps and invented paranoias and conspiracies to convince himself of his own importance. Sure, Brendan had run a feature article about his star photographer once. But, ultimately, it all meant nothing.

It was a bizarre place to be, really. He’d been that close to moving up to something bigger. He’d been that close a lot of times, experiences that had all come to nothing. His work had been on the cover of Time once, with a feature, about a group of Civil War re-enactors. That had gotten a lot of attention and some studio work, but it was only directing photography for in-house training films that no one would ever see. He burned through a string of small newspapers and limited circulation journals, then landed at Melrose magazine, went over to Seventh Street when that had folded, and wound up on the beach today.

The building to his left said “Deauville.” That must have been code, so the lifeguards could direct each other to trouble spots. But the word was just too weird, because Deauville was the name of the country club to which his father had belonged forever. Still belonged to, although the name had long since been changed to the too cutesy faux Scottish Braemar.

It was weirder, because the first restroom building he’d passed had said “Kilgore,” which he most associated with World War II, his father’s war. His father was hiding everywhere out here, and was probably waiting on the bottom of the sea, should he chose that westward exit to his current state of mind.

But he wouldn’t. He was too afraid of death, that lurking nothing on the other side. No, he’d go on, survive, continue the struggle somehow. He always did. Just like his father.

Then he saw the flock of birds. They were a mix of pigeons and seagulls, taking turns at dashing up to a plastic bag quickly and pecking at it, then jumping away. The whole thing seemed arbitrary and pointless. The birds looked confused and helpless.

He waded into the crowd and it fluttered away in a feather shockwave as he picked up the bag. It felt nearly full and, when he opened it, it was — almost an entire loaf of sandwich bread, a little bit moldy, but otherwise intact.

He shoved his hand into the bag and grabbed. The bread crumbled in his hand, but he got hold of a big piece, pulled it out and tossed it to the birds. Some of them got it and darted over. Others were slower to catch on, but soon they all did, and he was flinging bits of bread left and right, conducting the flock like an orchestra.

Then he looked up and had the nearest thing to a beatific vision that was possible for an atheist without a good dose of LSD in him. Above and in front of him, against a deep blue sky, half a dozen gulls were just hovering, tail feathers fanned down to grab the breeze and keep them in place. It was an amazing sight, and he was standing in the middle of it all, part of this flock of wild creatures, the center of their attention, their random benefactor.

He moved slowly to a low bench nearby and sat, continuing to dole out the bread as he reached into his bag and pulled out the camera, flipping the lens cap off with a thumb to let it dangle on its keeper as he turned the light meter on and brought it up to his eye. And there was nothing but sky. As if on cue, the birds had descended, and the moment was gone. In trying to save it, maybe he’d been the one to destroy it. But at least he’d seen it so, in that sense, it was preserved, for a while.

Input visual, output verbal. That’s how he’d scored once on some personality quiz in one of the magazines that had published his work. The first part, yes, definitely true. But the second? He was the least talkative person he knew, at least to the world outside. Oh, the running monologue in his head never stopped, sometimes not even when he was asleep, but he assumed that was the way it was for everyone. Wasn’t everyone pretty much the same?

He continued throwing bread, watching the birds, singling out a couple of the more solitary seagulls for special tosses of particularly large chunks. In his personal hierarchy of common birds that were cool, seagulls were number two, right after crows.

Ducks were next and pigeons were somewhere way down the list. But they were not last. Last place for worst bird of all time were geese. Combine the stupidity of a turkey with the attitude of a pit bull with jock itch, you get a goose. Fail to pay attention around a goose, you get a goose with a beak, or worse, and always hissed at.

He hadn’t made up his mind about owls. They were huge and looked really amazing the few times he’d seen them soaring from one apartment rooftop to another. But the one time an owl had soared at him, landing on a tree branch not three feet from where he was standing on his apartment balcony, it had startled the hell out of him. And owl faces were just so flat and pale, anyway.

His other list was dogs, horses, deer, goats and sheep, the last item only referring to the four-legged kind. He hated two-legged sheep, and yet knew so many of them.

As he was noticing with the birds now. The pigeons were walking right up and pecking at the crumbs at his feet, oblivious to his presence. The seagulls, however, were keeping their distance, always keeping one eye on him, hopping into the air when he made the slightest move. If he’d wanted to, he could have reached out and gotten a handful of pigeon, but he’d never get near the gulls.

The pigeon were sheep, deluded into complacency by a pile of crumbs, not knowing whether the creature dropping them was benign or a predator. It was pure stupid luck which ones survived and which ones didn’t, and yet there were so many of them. There wasn’t a place you could go in the entire county and not see a pigeon. But seagulls only showed up inland to presage a coming storm.

Finally, the bag was empty. He dumped out the rest of the crumbs, then wadded the plastic and stuffed it into the nearest garbage can. The gulls departed as he stood, but the pigeons were still scavenging and fighting over crumbs as he left. Scavenging and fighting over crumbs. He’d seen a lot of that, and had had enough of it. He wanted to be a gull, spread his wings and catch the ample breeze, hover over the heads and out of reach of the others.

Pigeons do not hover.

* * *

Los Angeles was an odd duck, cobbled together from thousands of little pieces, neighborhoods whose physical separation was negligible but whose psychological distances were enormous. A few miles north of him now, up the coast, was Santa Monica, beach resort turned liberal haven and shopping magnet. If you went directly north a few miles, you’d land in the West Valley, land of old, white conservatives. Another mile or two north of that was purely Spanish speaking, sandwiched between the rich conservatives in the south and the richer conservatives in the north. That whole area was really more of a province than a part of the greater city, and provincial was the perfect word for it.

The photographer had grown up out there and had fled it at the first opportunity, never to return. The closest he’d ever come back again was eleven miles east, in a cosmopolitan mixed Hispanic-Anglo neighborhood thriving with the sounds of Banda and rap, both of which were definitely frowned upon back in Woodland Hills.

That was a name that had become a misnomer over time. The one real hill in the area, the one that had hovered protectively over his high school, had long since been removed to make room for endless rows of anonymous and overpriced condos, locked behind security gates and guards, a bastion of the most scared of the scared, the people who had fled there to get away from anyone whose skin was darker than a glass of milk or whose native tongue was not English.

But that wasn’t the only pocksolation of the city. Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Hollywood all ran together in a line, and the three places couldn’t be more different. Liberal money and haughty attitude on the west; trendy bohemian, gay, Russian, ultra left in the middle; poor, young, struggling musicians and artists on the east.

A circle with no center is, by definition, not a circle, but when the center is everywhere, the edge is nowhere. There were physical edges to this city-state plopped between sea and mountains, there were psychological edges within it, but it was amorphous, indefinable.

Los Angeles County alone was bigger than, and richer than, a lot of countries. You could drive for miles to the north or east and still be in the county, although there’d be nothing around you but desert or mountains, until you came upon yet another sprawling city that was Los Angeles and yet wasn’t.

You could walk the streets for hours and not see another pedestrian, or pull onto the freeway and be surrounded by thousands of anonymous car-armored motorists. You could walk the beach on a winter weekday for miles and not see another person, and then suddenly come upon a group.

Which is what happened when he finally got back to the building named Kilgore. Of course this would be one of the hotspots. It was at the bottom of the steep walkway that granted admission down the sheer cliff from the road above. Path of least resistance and all that, as the crow flies.

Today, incidentally, gulls had moved up a notch, dropping crows to the number two position.

He paused by the building, pondering what to do next. There was a sign nearby that warned, “Law Enforcement Monitors This Area. Lewd Conduct Will Not Be Tolerated.” Jesus, he hated passive voice, that blameless tense that said nobody is responsible. Why not, “We will arrest you?” But, as with most scarecrows, a little looking around revealed no apparent enforcement behind the words — no video cameras, no obvious police cars, just this green and white shibboleth of authority, which was hanging in the wrong place anyway. It was on the back wall of an outdoor shower area, but that wall faced the cliff. Anybody wandering up to get rid of sand would never see it.

He wandered on, around the corner of the building. A couple of surfers were under those showers, one of them with his wetsuit unzipped and pulled down to expose half his ass. Was that considered lewd? Or just necessary if one didn’t want to drive home with sand up the crack?

No sirens blared, no cops arrived. Something about the ocean was — or should have been — light years away from the Puritanical fear inland. Nature’s greatest power was thudding onshore a few dozen yards away. The rules of civilization should not apply here, at least not the artificial ones.

He walked on, past the picnic tables and onto the sand, toward the water. Offshore, a few surfers maneuvered the waves. On land, people wandered in ones and twos and threes, looking for seashells or watching the surfers or staring off to sea. The roar of the ocean was constant but muted, a reminder of what really controlled the world.

And then he saw her, walking up from the sea like Venus, a girl, probably not more than twenty, with long, brown legs, narrow waist, large breasts, dressed in the smallest of fluorescent off-orange two pieces, which was wet. She might as well have been naked, although the entire effect was tasteful, not lewd. Despite the sheer material, she wasn’t sporting a cameltoe. Maybe a toenail, but it wouldn’t have frightened the horses.

And her head, from the neck up, was wrapped in a sort of hood, like a mutant turban, which hid her face, except for her eyes, which were kept behind dark glasses. It was a very Lana Turner effect, except that even Lana never had a body like that.

The girl went to her spot on the beach, picked up her towel to dry herself off. He watched her, contemplating asking if he could take her picture. But what fascinated him wasn’t everything that was showing. It was what wasn’t showing. Why the hidden face? He would have assumed she was a Muslim or something, except that the outfit probably violated almost every religious code. And when she re-placed her towel to lie down on it, she took off her top and set it aside. There were no tanlines on her breasts, nor was there any silicon in them, as proven by their actions when she lay on her back.

He took his camera out of the bag as he moved away toward a lifeguard station. Maybe he could get a shot with his telephoto, not even have to ask. After all, her face was concealed. There were no rights issues there. He had just sat down, camera in his lap, using the heads-up viewfinder so he wouldn’t have to hold the thing to his face, when the girl suddenly sat up, twiddling at the hood, trying to knock sand from it. Finding that to not work, she knelt, unwinding the contraption, finally pulling it off to shake the sand from it.

The photographer gasped. This girl, who was so perfect from the neck down, had been hideously disfigured from the neck up, an obvious burn victim with barely a face to speak of, mottled skin, slits for eyes and a misshapen bump for a nose. She’d obviously started some sort of reconstructive work on one ear and her hair was coming back in sporadically, but otherwise the face and the body did not belong together.

He pushed the shutter release on the camera and heard a single, lackadaisical “thuk.” That was the mirror swinging out of the way for the shutter to capture the image, but the shutter didn’t open and the film advance didn’t wind. Instead, the “Battery Out” light flashed in the viewfinder, slowly dimming, then going out.

“Shit,” he muttered to himself, reaching into his bag and then realizing he’d committed the cardinal photographer’s sin. He’d forgotten to bring the extra battery packs today. All of them were recharging on his kitchen counter. He had mis-estimated the juice left in this one, and now the shot was gone, the moment over and the girl was re-wrapping her head.

His father would have checked and double-checked that he’d had at least one extra battery. His father wouldn’t have forgotten something like that. The photographer felt so stupid as he shoved the camera back in the bag. His father wouldn’t have forgotten because his father had never done anything spur of the moment or spontaneously. Everything was planned, deliberated, thought out in advance. Carefully orchestrated for safety, and all so utterly fucking boring.

His father had been an architect before he’d retired, not a designer but an engineer. Someone else created the fanciful concrete dreams, but his father was the one who figured out how to make them stand up under their own weight. His work was never seen, and it was regulated by a thousand rules and requirements. Straight lines, physics, geometry. Limits.

The photographer couldn’t drive for more than ten miles without seeing a building his father had worked on. And yet, they were works that bore someone else’s signature.

A seagull, maybe one of them from before, veered toward him and he watched as its tail feathers flicked down, stopping it dead in mid-air over his head. He wanted to reach up and just pet it, but knew that any movement would send it on its way. He just watched, seeing this holy creature float above this profane world.

Thinking about that profaned face floating above that angelic body, and realizing his father would have looked away.

Limits.

That was the difference, that was how he was not like his father. The old man lived in a limited world, out among the frightened Republicans of the West Valley. He’d been out there for forty years. But the photographer had no limits, had tried almost everything at least twice, and had come close to capturing an image that would have made his father turn away in horror.

The seagull let out a single call, then flew away and now he knew what he was going to do, how he was going to create his own, signed work.

He stood and walked back to the car. Time to go home, load up the batteries and set off on a mission. There was beauty in the world, and there was ugliness. The two together became grotesque.

He was going to traverse this giant freak of a county called Los Angeles, and his lens was going to capture the most grotesque thing he could find and, at last, he would be someone else no more. He would find himself…

* * *