TARZANA DINGBAT
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 11, Number 2
(Fall 2016)

Copyright © 2016
by Leah Browning, Editor.

All future rights to
material published
in the
Apple Valley
Review
are retained by
the individual authors
and artists.

www.applevalleyreview.com
Fiction by Robert Radin

      In the summer of 1987 I was still living with Sakura in a Tarzana
dingbat next to the Ventura freeway.  From my bedroom window I
could practically touch the southbound cars.  At night I listened to them
whizzing by, shaking the leaves of the eucalyptus trees.
      Our apartment faced the afternoon sun.  The previous tenant put a
mirror tint on the front window to cut down on the glare, but I didn’t
like it because it reminded me of the sunglasses the LAPD wore.  I
wanted to take it down.
      “You’ll scratch up the glass,” Sakura said.  “Besides, it keeps the
place cooler.”
      If I hadn’t come home from work early that day and seen him
standing there, fixing his collar, I never would have realized what was
going on.
      “What are you doing?” I said.
      “Not now.”
      I could hear Nicole coming down the landing.  She stopped at our
window and ran her hands through her hair, then stepped back and
turned to see herself in profile.  She was wearing her Mexican waitress
outfit, and though it wasn’t authentic, it didn’t matter: In her circle skirt
and her peasant blouse she made me think of Mexico.

                                                   •

      The next morning Sakura and I went down to the swimming pool
and pulled our lounge chairs into the sun.  The sky was almost blue.
      “I’m supposed to show them my portfolio again in a few weeks,”
he said.
      He’d been trying to get a job at Disney for years.  He was taking
art classes to keep up his technique while working at a frame shop to
pay the rent.  Every day he brought home a defective frame the shop
wasn’t allowed to sell.  He wanted to cover our walls with his paintings,
the way they used to in the European salons, but so far the frames were
just stacking up in the hall closet.
      “They keep saying my stuff is too tight,” he said.  “But then I do
something looser and they say it’s not tight enough.”
      When he wasn’t at the frame shop or standing at the window he
was sitting at the kitchen table, drawing quick studies of comic-book
heroes on scraps of paper.  We kept a glazed ceramic bowl in the
middle of the table and when he was done with a drawing he would
fold it up and toss it in, with the understanding that, at some point, I
would look at it and tell him what I thought.
      Sometimes he did self-portraits, and though these should have
been more compelling to me—given that I didn’t care about comic
books—they were actually harder to appreciate, troubled as I was by
the way he anglicized his features, making his eyes bigger, his nose
more prominent.
      Both his parents had been interned at Manzanar.  His mother had
only unhappy memories, but his father, who had become something of
a surrogate to me after my own father died, remembered it as an
adventure.  He would tell me stories about his underage driving,
speeding down desert roads in Model Ts and Model As—even as a
boy he was a Ford man—because Manzanar was a nation unto itself,
because as long as they kept out of sight no one gave a shit about what
they did.  In a perverse way being imprisoned had allowed his parents
to preserve their ethnic identity, but made it harder for them to pass it
on to Sakura.
      “What happens if they like your portfolio?” I said.
      “They give me two key frames, like from the sorcerer’s apprentice
scene in Fantasia, where Mickey’s summoning the planets and the stars.  
In one frame his arms are lowered and in the other his arms are raised,
and I have to draw all the smaller movements in between.  That’s what
they call it—rough in-betweening.”
      
Rough in-betweening.  I thought he was making it up.  It sounded
like the name of a TV movie about two Texas roustabouts and the
woman who loves them.
      Sakura nudged me.  Nicole was coming down the stairs, dressed
in crimson gym shorts and a gray T-shirt, carrying an empty laundry
basket.  She set it down on the deck when she saw us.
      “I was looking for you last night,” she said.
      She had invited me to the happy hour at Cisco’s, the restaurant
where she worked, promising me all the tiny hard-shell tacos I could eat
and all the margaritas I could drink.  I didn’t like hard-shell tacos and
didn’t drink alcohol, but I told her I’d go because I thought if I finally
saw all the bizarre decorations she’d been telling me about—the
mechanical gamecocks that said Olé, the bottles of beer dressed in
miniature serapes, the maracas with Pancho Villa moustaches—it might
bring us closer, maybe separate her from her boyfriend, a guy named
Kirk who ran a nudist colony in Topanga Canyon.
      “I had to deal with something,” I said.
      “George can come too,” she said.
      Sakura sat up.  He always swooned when a woman called him by
his first name.

                                                   •

      I worked in the adolescent unit at a psych hospital in Van Nuys.  
When I first started they put me with the adults, but I couldn’t take it.  
Seeing a grown man in a straitjacket was more than I could bear.
      Some of the kids had personality disorders, but most of them were
classified as “emotionally disturbed,” which meant they came from
screwed-up families.  This was in the days before Prozac, so they took
medications like Elavil and Depakote.  Every week I would sit in
treatment meetings and listen to the psychiatrists and the nurses discuss
pills and dosages, mixing and matching until they got the desired effect.  
The whole thing was an insurance game.  Most of the kids had only
thirty days’ coverage, some even less than that.
      My official title was recreational therapy assistant.  I took the kids
on outings and did activities with them in the hospital.  I taught them how
to make lasagna and French toast.  We also had a crafts room with a
kiln, so we made a lot of pinch pots.
      On Sunday afternoons I took them to the movies.  The movies had
to be PG and the content had to be appropriate—nothing that would
stir the kids up or get them acting out back on the unit.  This limited us
to crap like
Short Circuit and Adventures in Babysitting.
      Sometimes I took them to Griffith Park.  We’d play capture the
flag and have lunch in Traveltown, an old railroad yard with a bunch of
vintage trains.  We’d sit on the grass between two Union Pacific lines
and have a picnic, and afterwards I’d let them climb all over the
locomotives and cabooses.  Even the oldest ones got into it. They’d yell
to each other, jumping from the cars and rolling on the ground like they
were outlaws in the Old West.
      Admissions tended to go in cycles.  A lot of kids would come in all
at once and then it would quiet down for a while.  It was during one of
these quiet periods that they admitted Josh.
      I met him on a Sunday when I went to get the kids for a movie.  
He was standing in the middle of the unit, wearing a blue bandanna and
a white T-shirt and a pair of Dickies cut off at the knees.  He was as tall
as I was, but was easily pushing three hundred pounds.
      “Yo, activity man,” he said.  “Let’s take a trip down to my crib.  
Lankershim and Victory.”
      “We don’t do those kinds of activities,” I said.
      “Then what do we do?”
      “Cooking.  Ceramics.  Stuff like that.”
      “I thought we were going to the movies?”
      “We are.  But you’ve got to take off the bandanna.”
      “For real?”
      “No colors.”
      He took it off and we introduced ourselves, then he helped me
round up the rest of the kids.  As we waited for the elevator they
started bugging me about what we were going to see.  I said I wouldn’t
tell them until they were all on the bus and had their seatbelts buckled,
but they wouldn’t relent.
      “
Ernest Goes to Camp,” I said.
      There was a collective groan.
      Josh started horsing around on the way to the theater.  He was
sitting in the back of the bus, playing red hands with one of the girls, and
he slapped her too hard.
      “Booyah!” he said.
      “You better cool it, Josh,” I said, “or we’re going back to the unit.”
      The other kids knew I would do it because I’d done it before, so
I was counting on them to settle Josh down.  They didn’t have to: As
soon as I raised my voice he sat up and pulled his seatbelt tight.
      “Sorry about that, Robert,” he said.
      It was quiet for a couple of minutes.  Then he broke the silence.
      “Yo, Robert,” he said, “why’d the monkey fall outta the tree?”
      “I don’t know,” I said.  “Why?”
      “Cos he was dead.”

                                                   •

      When I got home that night Sakura was standing at the window,
holding a pair of underwear.  They were purple, the same color as the
skirt Nicole wore to work.
      “The dryer was full of her stuff,” he said.
      I sat down on the couch and picked up one of the clothing
catalogues that were on the coffee table.  They were addressed to the
previous tenant
or current resident, so I’d felt entitled to keep them.  
I liked looking at the models, studying their hairstyles, their outfits, the
way they posed for the camera, or made it seem like they weren’t
posing, like they’d been caught in the middle of something, a genuine,
natural moment: raking the leaves, sitting in an Adirondack chair and
sipping a cup of tea, hailing a cab on a city street.  It made me wish I
lived back East.
      “Do you want oily pasta?” Sakura said.
      Oily pasta was Sakura’s variation on
Pasta Aglio e Olio.  The
first time he made it he didn’t time things right—he cooked the spaghetti
too early and it was cold by the time he’d sautéed the garlic, so he put it
in the pan to heat it up and wound up leaving it on the stove too long.  It
turned golden brown and crunchy on the bottom and tasted fantastic, so
he started making it that way all the time, except that recently he’d
switched to rigatoni.  It came out crisp as a potato chip on the outside
and soft and garlicky on the inside.
      “You need to give her back her underwear,” I said.
      “That’s only going to make things worse,” he said.

                                                   •

      Women had never come easy for him.  When we were in high
school he used to hit on my ex-girlfriends, and though it bothered me
I put up with it, probably because none of them were interested in him.  
It wasn’t until many years later that things got weird.  I was dating a
woman named Tori who never felt I loved her enough, and sometimes
we would go to a club with Sakura, and then, in the early hours of
morning, to a coffee shop, and over pancakes she would laugh at his
jokes and he got the wrong idea.
      It was a Saturday night and he and I were supposed to see a
movie.  I’d cleared it with Tori earlier in the week and called her that
afternoon to confirm I would come over to her place after Sakura and
I parted ways, but she was angry now, very angry, saying I never
should have made plans with him, that Saturday nights were reserved
for us.  We fought and afterwards I felt guilty, so I called Sakura and
canceled and got in my car and drove to Tori’s apartment in Glendale,
but she wasn’t there, so I sat in my car in front of her building, waiting
for her to get home, not suspecting that she had gone to my apartment
and was in the process of trashing the place.
      When I got home later that night the front door was open.  I went
inside and saw my turntable on the living room floor, the cover smashed
to pieces, the platter bent, the tone-arm snapped in half.  Lying next to
the turntable was my
Sunset Boulevard poster, with Gloria Swanson’s
face carved out.  I went to my bedroom and it was the same thing:
There was a big hole in the center of my futon, and cotton batting
everywhere, and everything was covered in red wine, and for a moment
I thought it was blood.
      I could hear the hiss of a cassette tape and the sound of things
breaking, and I went to the kitchen.  The cold-water tap was running,
and my boom box was on the counter, and it took me a minute to
realize I was listening to a recording of Tori destroying my apartment.  
I looked in the silverware drawer and couldn’t find the carving knife,
and I started shaking, and then I saw the note she had left me:
This is
how you make me feel.
      I broke up with her the next day, and that’s when Sakura made
his move.  He started going to her place for dinner, then they started
going to restaurants together, sampling the various Southeast Asian
cuisines of the greater San Bernardino Valley.  I couldn’t understand
how he could hang out with her after what she’d done, and when I tried
to talk to him about it he got defensive, saying he didn’t see why he
should have to stop being friends with her any more than he should
have to stop being friends with me.  I wondered whether I was being
unreasonable, until Tori called to tell me she’d gone out to dinner with
him and it was late when they got back to her apartment so she said he
could spend the night and he slept on the couch and the next morning
after he left she noticed stains all over the cushions, and she wanted to
know if I thought he’d jerked off, and if that meant he liked her, and
what she should do.  I told her they deserved each other and hung up
the phone.
      I didn’t talk to him for almost a year.  Then I happened to run into
him in the supermarket checkout and as we were walking out to our
cars he apologized for the way he’d acted.  We got together for a beer
and he apologized some more, telling me he only did it because he’d
been worried about Tori, because she was threatening to hurt herself,
and I said while I knew this was true because she’d done the same thing
with me—it was, in part, why I’d stayed with her as long as I had—I
also knew he wanted to get in her pants, and he admitted it, and said
he’d never do it again.  And so we resumed our friendship, and when he
told me he’d found a dingbat in Tarzana but needed a roommate to
make the rent I said I’d do it.  I just hadn’t anticipated Nicole.

                                                   •
       
      The following Sunday all of the kids except Josh had lost their
movie privileges.  He wanted to shoot pool instead so I went to the
nursing station and asked the head nurse and she balked, saying she
didn’t think a pool hall was a wholesome environment for a child,
reminding me that that was what Josh still was.  I told her I knew a
small, clean place that didn’t allow smoking or alcohol and she relented.
      When we got on the bus Josh asked me if he could close the front
door—it was pneumatic and he liked the sound of the air compressing.  
I let him do it three times, then he sat down behind me and buckled
himself in.
      “This bus is dope,” he said.  “Do you need a special license to
drive it?”
      “Class two,” I said.  “It’s not hard to get.”
      “So do you want to do this for the rest of your life?”
      I wasn’t sure what to say.  I wanted him to know that I was
happy being there with him.  I wanted him to believe this was all by
design, that I’d always wanted this kind of job, that I wasn’t driving
him to a pool hall on a Sunday afternoon by accident.
      “I think I’d like to go back to college,” I said.
      He looked at me in the rear-view mirror.
      “Yo, Robert,” he said.
      It had reached the point where he didn’t have to say anything else;
all he had to do was say my name in a certain way and I knew the joke
was coming.  Maybe it was the way he delivered the punchline—
drawing out the word
dead—or maybe it was just the absurdity of a
monkey falling out of a tree, but I laughed every time.
      At the pool hall I racked and Josh broke.  My plan was to keep
the game close and then let him win, but he was good.  He called
everything, making bank shots, putting English on the cue, and before
I knew it I was down five and hadn’t even taken my first shot.  I had to
play hard to split four games.
      “One more,” Josh said.  “For the world championship.”
      “For the world championship,” I said.
      I racked again and for the first time all afternoon Josh didn’t drop
anything off the break.  Now I had the advantage and could shoot for
stripes, which were good luck for me.  I went up on him six zip, but
then he started a run, shooting at will until we were even.  All he had left
was the seven in the corner, but the eight was in the way.
      “No combinations with the eight ball,” I said.
      “I know,” he said.
      He took his time setting up the shot.  I thought he was going to use
the cushion, try to glance the seven, but instead he struck the cue ball
low and it jumped the eight, tapped the seven into the corner, then spun
back and knocked the eight to the edge of the opposite side pocket.  
That’s when I realized he’d been hustling me the whole time.
      “Booyah!” he said.

                                                   •

      It had been several weeks since I’d seen Nicole.  I was trying to
avoid her until I could figure out what to do about Sakura, but then I
ran into her in the laundry room.
      “Come over for dinner tomorrow,” she said.  “I’ll bring some food
home from the restaurant.”
      I showed up at her place the next night holding a bouquet of
Gerbera daisies from Trader Joe’s, composing myself before I rang the
doorbell.  I wanted to seem nonchalant in case things didn’t turn out the
way I hoped.
      I had never been inside her apartment.  Her living room was filled
with Indian artwork from the American Southwest: a Hopi kachina, a
Chumash basket, a Navajo rug.  There were photos of Kirk on a shelf
above the couch and milk crates with his records stacked against one
wall.
      “He doesn’t have enough space for his stuff at the colony,” she
said.
      We sat down on the rug.  She pointed to a fuzzy orange figure.
      “This is a Yei,” she said.  “One of the Navajo holy people.”
      The Yei had a square head and flat eyes.  He was holding a corn
stalk in each hand.  He looked like he was going to float away.
      “It makes me feel connected to the earth,” she said.
      I told her I knew what she meant even though I didn’t.  The only
time I felt connected to the earth was when I hiked in the mountains
around Los Angeles and reached a summit and could look out over
the world.  But that was more a sense of accomplishment; I still felt
separate from it all.
      We went to the kitchen.  She had set the table with fine china
and heavy silverware and we sat down opposite each other, three
Styrofoam takeout boxes between us.
      “I got burritos, enchiladas, and a tostada salad,” she said.
      I liked Mexican food, but I didn’t like the American versions of it
that places like Cisco’s made.  Too much cheese and too much sour
cream.  But I was hungry, and I was polite.
      “I used to think it would be so great to work at a restaurant,” she
said.  “Now I can’t even look at the food without feeling like I’m going
to throw up.”
      “Perhaps not the time to tell me this,” I said.
      When we were done with dinner she told me about a friend of
hers who worked at one of the strip clubs by the airport.
      “She makes about a thousand a week,” she said.  “She thinks I
should try it.”
      I didn’t want to seem like a prude, so I kept a poker face.  But I
could feel a knot in my stomach: I didn’t want other men looking at her
that way, even if they already did.
      “You think it’s a bad idea,” she said.
      “I’m just surprised,” I said.
      She stood up and took my hand and led me back to the living
room.
      “I’ll be right back,” she said, and she disappeared down the hall.
      I flipped through the crates of records.  I hated to admit it, but
Kirk had good taste.  Brian Eno.  Scott Walker.  David Bowie.  
Maybe, in a parallel universe, we might have been friends.  Maybe he
wasn’t so high on the idea of his girlfriend stripping either.
      Nicole came back with a guitar.  We sat down on the rug and she
started singing “Sun Showers,” strumming the chords on the downbeat.  
I think she was trying to sound like Nina Simone, though she kept going
off key.  I was afraid that when she finished I wouldn’t be able to lie
convincingly, but when I told her she had a beautiful voice she seemed
touched.
      “You’ve been stealing my underwear, haven’t you?” she said.
      I remembered the last time she’d stopped by our window.  
Sakura had traced her face in the glass.  He did it quickly, smearing the
windowpane with his fingers, but when he was finished he had created
a likeness, captured an essence, whatever it was that distinguished her
from everyone else.
      She put down her guitar and straddled me.
      “Tell me what you’re going to do to me,” she said.
      I was struggling to think of the right words when there was a
banging on the door.  She got up to answer it and Sakura was standing
there, clutching his chest.  I didn’t know how he could have found me;
I hadn’t told him where I was going.
      “I’m not feeling good,” he said.
      “Come in,” Nicole said.
      “I need to talk to Robert.”
      Nicole motioned for me to go outside.
      “The pain is radiating down my arms,” he said.  “I think I’m having
a heart attack.”
      I apologized to Nicole, telling her that even though it was probably
nothing I felt I should take him to the emergency room just to be safe.  
When we got there they checked him in so fast I assumed I would have
some information—if not a diagnosis—within the hour, but it never
came.  Instead I sat in the waiting room all night, watching reruns of
Barnaby Jones on a TV mounted over the admissions desk, thinking
about the last time I’d been there.  Sakura and I had gone to Sizzler for
the all-you-can-eat buffet and I’d started with a fruit salad.  A few
minutes later my tongue swelled up and I was having trouble breathing.  
Sakura followed me to the bathroom and I went into a stall and stuck
my fingers down my throat, thinking if I could bring up all the food I’d
just eaten I’d be okay, but I couldn’t get myself to vomit.  I remember
wondering how bulimics did it, and I probably would have stood there
trying to figure it out until I collapsed if Sakura hadn’t kicked in the door
and hauled me to his car and taken me to the emergency room.  They
gave me an injection of epinephrine, but they never figured out what I
was reacting to.
      When Sakura finally emerged the next morning he said they told
him he’d had a panic attack and gave him a prescription for Xanax and
a referral to a psychiatrist.  I took him home and he went straight to bed,
then I went back to Nicole’s.  I was hoping she would invite me in, but
she kept me at her door.
      “I’m glad he’s okay,” she said.  “And thank you for stopping by.”
      “We should go on a proper date,” I said.
      Her expression changed just then.  She had always looked at me
with a kind of curiosity that was unnerving in its own way, but now, for
the first time, she seemed annoyed.
      “I talked to Kirk last night,” she said.
      I panicked at the thought that she’d told him about us, that he was
on his way over right now, preparing to kill me.  And maybe I deserved
to die, because, after all, he loved David Bowie, and so did I.
      “We’re moving in together,” she said.  “Kirk’s found a place in
Beverly Glen.”
      I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve stood at the
threshold of a woman’s apartment, saying stupid things in an effort to
delay the inevitable.  This time was no exception.
      “But you wanted to know what I was going to do to you,” I said.
      “I’m sorry,” she said, and she closed the door.

                                                   •

      For the second week running Josh was the only one who had his
privileges.  As soon as I got to the unit he was in my face with it.
      “Let’s shoot some pool again,” he said.  “I got you three games to
two.”
      When I went to the nurses’ station to tell them we were leaving
the head nurse took me aside.
      “The insurance company is terminating coverage,” she said.  
“We’re discharging him tomorrow.”
      “Did you tell him?” I said.
      “This morning,” she said.
      As we drove to the pool hall I noticed Josh was more wired than
usual.  He kept peppering me with questions, at one point asking me if
I had a girlfriend, or a “woman,” as he put it.
      “I’m not seeing anyone right now,” I said.
      “Dang,” he said.  “That’s busted.  When I get outta here I’m goin’
straight to my lady and get me some.”
      “Don’t talk like that,” I said.
      When we got to the pool hall Josh asked me if he could go to the
bathroom and I told him it was okay.  I racked the balls while I waited.  
Five minutes passed, then ten, and there was still no sign of him, so I
went to the bathroom to see what was going on.  He wasn’t there.
      I felt like such a rube.  I thought I knew these kids by now, could
size them up just by looking at them: the ones who would run and the
ones who wouldn’t, the ones I had to set hard limits with and the ones
I could ease up on.  I thought I knew.
      When I got back to the table Josh was standing there, eating a
Twinkie, acting as if nothing had happened.
      “Where were you?” I said.
      “I went across the street to get a Twinkie.”
      “You know you’re not supposed to do that.  You know that’s
considered AWOL.”
      “It took me two minutes.”
      “It didn’t take you two minutes.  It took you ten.  And that’s not
the point.  The point is I’m sitting here wondering where you are and
you’re sneaking out the back door to go to the liquor store.  Why
didn’t you ask me if you could go?”
      It was only then that I realized he was hustling me again.  He’d
gone to the liquor store because he knew I wouldn’t let him get away
with it, because he knew I would take him back to the hospital and
make him pay the consequences.  Only there wouldn’t be any
consequences—that was the part he didn’t get—because his time was
up, because there was nothing anyone could do to keep him there.
      He was waiting for me.  He was counting on me, and I didn’t
want to be the one to let him down.  I had to go along with it and hope
that bringing him back to the unit would be enough, though I knew it
wouldn’t.  We’d get back and the staff would go through the motions
and send him to his room, and he would stand there in the middle of the
unit, waiting for something more, shaking his head, saying no way no
way no way, because he was right, he shouldn’t be released, he should
be kept in the hospital until he was eighteen, until he was twenty-one,
until as long as it took.  I’d watch the fear rising inside him as we gave
him a second chance, and then a third, the whole thing unfolding in slow
motion, until he picked up a chair and threw it across the room.  It
would take eight of us to jacket him, because he was that big, because
he was that strong.
      He looked at me and started to laugh.
      “Yo, Robert,” he said.

                                                   •

      Nicole moved out that fall.  The last time I saw her she was
standing at our window, wearing sweats and sneakers instead of her
waitress outfit.  She looked at her reflection for a minute, then seemed
to look past it, or through it, and even though I knew she couldn’t see
me I had to look away.
      Sakura had lost interest in her by that point.  He was in the kitchen,
banging pots and pans in preparation for oily pasta.  I watched her turn
and disappear down the stairs, and when it was clear she wasn’t coming
back I sat down at the table and took a piece of scrap paper out of the
bowl and unfolded it.  It was a drawing of Mickey Mouse, dressed in a
robe and a wizard’s hat.  His arms were raised above his head.  He was
summoning the planets and the stars.           





_________________________________________________________


Robert Radin’s work has appeared in Salon, Marie Claire, and The
Morning News
, among other publications.    


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