I woke up at eight and couldn’t fall back asleep. My neck ached from lying on the living room floor again. Next to me a woman was twitching in her sleep. The blanket was too short and her feet lay bare on the carpet, making kicks. On the couch somebody lay folded into the cushions, their identity concealed beneath a towel draped over their head. Someone else was on the mattress in the corner, mouth ajar. It felt like a waste to be the only one awake. I dragged myself up and made coffee in the kitchen, then returned to the living room and stood drinking it by the window. The blinds were bent and lopsided, sunlight spilling through the gaps. Outside I spotted Julia picking up a photo from the ground and shaking off the dirt. It was a relief to see someone else up and I hurried out the door.
Julia was standing with a pile of her headshots pressed into her chest, looking into the distance. She was wearing a long brown blouse, her rail-thin forearms swallowed in the sleeves. Her hair hung in flattened red curls around her face, like birthday ribbon gone stale. I followed her gaze to the HOLLYWOOD sign perched on the hills above us.
“It’s like staring into the sun,” I said. “Except with your soul.”
“Trite sentiment,” Julia said. “But well phrased.”
“What happened?” I pointed to her headshots.
Julia consulted the stack and pressed it back to her navel. “Let’s get coffee.”
We went to the café two blocks down and sat by the window. There were a handful of people inside whom we had seen before but never talked to. They sat bent over scripts with mugs of tepid coffee, mouths moving silently over their lines. This place would always take us, as long as we had two dollars. It would give us coffee on a day our parents wouldn’t take us in if we were bleeding out.
I blew on my mug and took a sip. “Headshots?”
Julia leaned in. “So I had a pile of them on my dresser, right?”
“This morning — poof,” she fanned her palms out to either side of the table. “I look out the window and they’re scattered all over.”
Steam rose from our mugs and we sipped and squinted in the 8:30 light. Julia asked what I was doing today and I told her about my audition for a Carl’s pizza commercial. I was playing a delivery boy who delivers a pizza late. The customers tie me up inside their house and make a game out of throwing knives at the wall behind me while they eat the pizza. One of the knives hits my shoulder and I start to bleed but it turns out my blood is tomato sauce and the customers spread it on the pizza and eat it. The customers smile in satisfaction and my screaming fades out as a voiceover says: At Carl’s, we bleed good pizza. Order tonight.
Julia shook her head. “Pandering to the cannibal crowd.”
I laughed. “Untapped market.”
Julia said she was going to buy a motorcycle with the money she’d gotten from her guest spot on one of the hospital shows. She liked the idea of riding one, flying filter-less down the highway, free and removed at the same time. I had a fleeting image of riding behind her, arms crossed over her abdomen with my head pressed into her shoulder, everything liquid.
I had some time before my audition so I walked with Julia to the motorcycle dealership. On the way we came across two more of Julia’s headshots lying on the sidewalk, caked with grime from passing shoes. As she picked up the second one we noticed a woman looking at us from across the street. She was smoking a cigarette and making what looked like sign language at us. We kept going. Behind us a throaty voice called out a string of expletives. I put on my sunglasses and almost ran into a pole before Julia took my wrist and tugged me out of the way. A car honked. The throaty shouting continued, words overlapping to create their own angry language. We kept walking. In the distance, the Hollywood sign inched closer.
The motorcycle dealership was a big rectangular lot attached to a small office. Motorcycles were strewn across the concrete at awkward angles, spare parts piled to the top of the surrounding fence. The salesman’s face was doughy and unexpressive and his limbs had a sudden, flail-ish animation to them, as if controlled by a sentient joystick. Julia picked a rusted red motorcycle lying on its side beneath a layer of metallic debris. We waited in the office as the salesman gathered the paperwork. In the corner there was a pot of free coffee for the customers who made it this far. It was shitty but we drank it. The walls were brown and mostly blank but there was one photo hanging above the desk, frame askew. The picture showed the salesman shaking hands with someone who looked like Johnny Depp, but on the wall beside it someone had scrawled (not Johnny Depp). I asked Julia if she believed in the Depp.
“I do,” She said. “But not for a higher price than doubting the Depp.”
The salesman came into the office and handed Julia the paperwork. He sat behind the desk and put his head in his hand. Julia signed the forms and slid them over. The salesman squinted up at her.
“I’ve seen you,” he said. “You were on that show.”
Julia nodded and smiled. “Yes, thank you.”
The salesman sighed. “I was only stating a fact.”
Outside, the boulevard was static and thick with golden fog. My audition was in twenty minutes. Julia said she had a meeting with her agent or else she would give me a ride. I shrugged and said it was just a few blocks. It was actually seventeen but I liked to appear as someone for whom life was a breeze. We hugged and Julia got onto her new motorcycle. The road before us lay barren and course, a shed snakeskin waiting to be worn. A gust of wind came through and another one of her headshots fluttered past us. Julia started the engine and took off behind it.
I was late to my audition. They gave me a shot of espresso and then hurried me into a pizza delivery outfit and handed me a box containing a plastic pizza. They told me to keep the box closed and I wondered if the fake pizza was pointless or if I was just forgetting why it mattered. The psychopathic customers stood by, real slices on a plate next to them. We ran through the scene. By the end of two takes my shirt was streaked with tomato sauce and the customers had eaten six slices. They sat on the floor and rubbed their stomachs. The director thanked me for coming in and said they’d let me know, but my screaming needed work. I tried another quick howl on my way to the door, putting some rasp into it, but they were busy fixing something with the lighting. One of the assistants dumped the fake pizza in the trash.
I ate a pack of raisins on the way to work and got coffee from the day-old pot in the office. I didn’t know where I worked exactly; the letters on the sign had weathered until they were no longer readable and the owner had died several years ago. Everyone just called it the motel next to the jiffy lube. That afternoon I was tasked with cleaning up the parking lot. I put latex gloves on and went around tossing cigarette butts and used condoms into a black bag. The sun beat down on the concrete. In the corner of the lot there was a priest sitting and drinking bourbon. A vacuum cleaner stood next to him. Upon getting closer I saw that the prongs attached to the vacuum cord had been pressed into the priest’s arm, faded blood framing the spots of their insertion. I knelt down beside him.
“Shit, you okay?”
The priest nodded wanly. “Just fine.” His eyes were bits of coal that sat deep within a pair of crater-like sockets. He took a swig of bourbon, cord lifting with his arm. “I see you’re cleaning up,” he patted the bulging bag of his vacuum. “Mind if I dispose of myself?” He unlatched the canvas bag and shook it out over the pavement. We sat and watched as a thick cloud of dust rose from the ground and enveloped the lot. I was reminded of what I saw when I closed my eyes, before something more concrete entered my head. After a moment the priest stood and slunk away down the sidewalk, vacuum rattling behind him.
During my break I went behind the motel and leaned against the sepia siding. Before me a small desert of gravel separated the motel from the highway, silver sedans passing into metallic specks on the horizon. I opened another pack of raisins. Suddenly a figure approached from my left, emerging from a cloud of copper smoke. Annie. She sidled up to me and nodded. Her sunglasses were dust-coated and cracked, cheeks hollow and tired. She had a line on her forehead from the time her brother had gotten drunk on Halloween and pretended her head was a pumpkin. We’d both started working at the motel around the same time, though it had become difficult to remember when that was.
Annie lit a cigarette. “A guest died in their room today.” Her voice trembled at the edges.
“Fuck,” I said. “How?”
Annie laughed nervously. “When I found them, it looked like they’d sunk halfway into the floor,” she said. “Then I turned them over.” She tried to take a drag but her hand was shaking too much and she dropped the cigarette and buried it in the gravel with her shoe.
“Jesus,” I put my hand on her arm. “Are you okay?”
Annie turned into me and buried her face in my shoulder. She screamed, the sound muffled in my shirt, and then screamed again. I couldn’t help but think how good a scream it was, how raw and guttural. I could feel her teeth vibrating against my skin.
After my break I went to the office and got more coffee from the day-old pot. I stood drinking it while I listened to the ticking of the clock, the cushioned footsteps of the manager as he stepped around my form. My heart felt like it was beating in every part of me. I felt a sickness sink down from my head and spread over my body and I became vaguely aware that I was swaying from side to side. I fell into the wall and steadied myself, coffee swishing out of the mug and onto my shoes. The manager blinked at me, then went back to stocking the stevia.
The rest of my shift was a pastiche of callous bed-sheets and stained bathroom tile. It was nearly dark when I left. I headed to the bar Julia worked at in our neighborhood, stopping at a coffee stand on the way. The remaining light illuminated the barista’s hand faintly as it reached out from the dark with my 20-ounce drip. I drank it quickly and opened my last pack of raisins. My agent sent me a text telling me I didn’t get the pizza commercial. I felt nothing. It had been three months since I booked a role. I only wanted to be a part of certain lives that played in my head, certain textures of existence that wrapped me in a tiny world of love and simplicity. I drifted through everything else like a passenger waiting to land.
A motorcycle that looked like Julia’s was parked in front of the bar when I arrived across the street. The sight of it relaxed my senses and I almost got hit by a car after neglecting to look both ways. I went inside and sat at the bar. It was already crowded and everywhere people were talking to each other, exchanging ideas and phone numbers. One of the bartenders poured me a bourbon and I asked where Julia was. They looked as if they were thinking for a moment and then they shook their head and walked away. I drank my bourbon and looked around the bar. I didn’t recognize anyone. I tried calling Julia but my phone died after the third ring. I closed my eyes and saw the motel room, blinds drawn and a layer of shadow over everything. On the floor there was the body, facedown, half-below the carpet. I saw my hands reach out and grasp half their arm. I turned them over slowly, and then all at once. The front of their head was like a portal.
The bartender poured me another bourbon, and then another. I went to the bathroom and spent a long time looking at myself in the mirror. The circles under my eyes were enunciated and my complexion was sickly-pale. It looked as if I was halfway through preparing for a haunted house performance. Back at the bar, my glass had been refilled. My vision began to blur at the edges as I drank. I finished the glass and stood, then took slow steps towards the door. The room grew quiet as people turned to look at me. I could see them in my peripheral vision, their eyes muddled and black. I felt the weight of their watching, their silence, their recognition of me as something worthy of anonymous attention. My vision blurred further and I had to stop just before I reached the door. Everyone waiting. Finally my legs gave out and the world went dark. There was nothing to catch me.
I woke up in a hospital room. The silence was broken only by an intermittent beeping. An old television mounted in the corner was playing live footage of a dive bar. Nothing was happening. The door creaked open and a shadowy head looked in on me.
I sat up, wrapped in thin green sheets. “Hello?”
Julia entered the room in a white coat, stethoscope looped around her neck. Her skin looked vibrant, hair freshly dyed.
She sat on the edge of the bed and smiled at me. “How are you feeling?” Her mouth had hardly moved.
“Where am I?”
“The hospital. You fainted.” It was as if the words were passing through her independently, requiring no participation of the lips. She leaned into my ear. “Say, I’m scared Julia.”
I paused. Julia’s gaze was gleaming hazel. “I’m scared Julia.”
Julia put her hand to her chest. “I know,” she said. “But we’re going to be okay Travis.” I heard a sound like clapping from below the floor. Julia lay down beside me and closed her eyes. On TV, someone who looked like me entered the shot and sat at the bar. I felt like screaming.
TIMOTHY DAY poses as an adult in Portland, Oregon, where he is pursing an MFA in fiction at Portland State University. You can find links to his other stories here: https://frogsmirkles.wordpress.com/published-stories/