Joyland

Los Angeles |

Market

by Sarah LaBrie

edited by Katya Apekina

I waited for a long time for a voice to tell me not to quit my job, and when no voice came, I quit. If someone had asked me how I felt, I would have said I appreciated the finality of quitting, of having made a decision, finally, that I could not take back. But no one asked and so I had no one to lie to, and after a while I began to forget why I had done what I had done and to wish that I could undo it. 

We’d moved that spring to a neighborhood just south of the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, made up of one-quarter people who looked and sounded and dressed like us and three quarters people who didn’t. For a while, the proportions had been about to shift, recent college graduates and young couples settling in from the north with talk of charter schools and local kale, but then the money dried up and a man set himself on fire in front of a liquor store on Edgemont. The two incidents were unrelated but the proportions rested where they were after that—the gentrifiers held on to make a point and everybody else stayed put. We took advantage of the drastically relowered rents, regarded both sides warily, and spent our days inside.

All that long, hot June, we were children in grown-up bodies, lurching awake every morning in surprise, waiting to be discovered and dragged back to the homes we’d run away from. In the meantime, we passed whole afternoons in the living room, itchy with boredom, driven crazy by the white noise of the rain, streaming cable television Jeremy’s mother paid the bill for. The show we watched most, a drama on TBS called Hunter, was about a single mother named Laura Hunter who worked as a criminal defender by day and a ghost-hunter by night. It should have been terrible but it wasn’t. The President of the United States watched it. He’d once said Laura’s monumental productivity made him feel small. 

“Maybe I should go to law school.” I wasn’t wearing any pants. My butt was nestled in the L-shaped part of the sectional and my legs were draped across Jeremy’s lap. It was 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon. From the house next door we could hear the neighbor cooing at her grandson in the front yard, a dog barking back at thunder, the wind opening a fence and banging it shut over and over again. On TV, the ghost-hunter lawyer helped a poor old woman on an electric mobility scooter move out of her foreclosed home.

“Don’t start.”

“What? I test well. I like school. One of us needs to make us some money.”

“For what?” 

It was true, we’d moved to this neighborhood so we would never have to think about money ever again. The ceiling dripped whenever the upstairs neighbor took a bath. The walls clicked continuously with the busy footsteps of swarming insects. The woman in the yard next door would not shut up. But my half of the rent was so cheap I could pay it out of savings, and his mother spent less on his half than she did on handbags for his little sister up at Bucknell. The truth was, I didn’t want money.  I wanted cream silk blouses. I wanted fitted A-line skirts. I wanted office pants. Blue-tipped headsets and infinite Internet at my desk. I wanted a desk. An extension that began with a star. 

 “We’re grown-ups now. Grown-ups need money.” 

Jeremy  leaned towards me and pecked my forehead with his lips. He drew his head back and looked at me. 

“You’re gorgeous,” he said. “I bet you could charge Japanese businessmen five thousand dollars to let them punch you in the face.”

“Racist.”

“Businessmen in general then. Lucygetspunched.com.”

“Why ‘Lucy?’”

“Fetishists like a redhead.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

The ghost-hunter lay face down in an alley. A hit man from a rival ghost-hunting operation bent to check her pulse. She jumped up, kicked him in the spine, and drove her special ghost-hunting spike through his brain. A clean kill. That was her way. No long and drawn-out speeches for the ghost hunter. She had to be home every morning by six, to get her daughter ready for school. Later she would find herself torn between saving the world from an uprising of the dead and attending the first-grade play. We had seen this two-part episode. We had seen all the episodes. Our project now was watching them back straight through from the beginning, to see if it was possible to predict the series’ season finalic twist. 

“It’s funny, because you think it’s trash, but really this show is an astute commentary on the mechanics of single motherhood,” I said. “The writers are clearly drawing a correlation between what it means to raise a child as a working female, and to constantly be forced to twist yourself into all kinds of impossible contortions just to stay alive.”

“Shhh. We’re not in college anymore. You don’t have to think about everything all the time,” Jeremy said. “Watch.”

I watched. The ghost-hunter lawyer defended an underage prostitute against a crooked cop. Now she was in her office with all the lights off and her head in her hands, worried. Her shiny black hair wove itself down between her fingers. Its edges swept the top of her fancy brown desk, her face in the center of the screen, and our two faces, giant, looming, in the dark behind her.

*

The rain stopped and overnight the empty lot behind our apartment was filled with fruit trees in bloom. Figs and lemons and limes that rotted with a smell like honey. Pomegranates falling and bursting and attracting flies. The landlord came with long strips of tacky yellow paper to hang from all the branches. The strips streamed along in the wind and drifted among the vines and grasses like deflated condoms. It was our job to harvest them whenever they got full. 

The task, it turned out, was Sisyphean. No sooner had we collected one strip than the next one bumped up with flies. Three times a day, in the morning, after lunch, and before dinner I collected the dead with a brown plastic Von’s bag around my hand. Stuck there, the insects gleamed like clusters of black berries. I thought about what the flies would look like baked into a pie. I thought about the soft whispering sound their wings and exoskeletons made as I crunched their bodies together. I thought and thought until my thoughts stopped meaning anything, and then I watched my meaningless thoughts move back and forth like windshield wipers on a windshield. It was my favorite part of each day.

Jeremy was standing behind me, pretending to help, kneading one of our newly ripened avocadoes like a breast when he said, “You know, we could probably sell these.” I turned to look. “All this fruit and stuff. It’s organic, technically, right? People love that shit.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure.” I was too embarrassed to tell him I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that you could just eat fruit of the trees like that. 

So all that week we harvested crates of avocadoes and Valencia oranges, soft green figs that tasted a little bit like candy and a little bit obscene, lemons and grapefruits and squash monsters we found sneaking through the back yard on a vine as thick as an arm. On Sunday morning when the sky was still dark, we filled his mom’s old station wagon with fat trash bags and old boxes. We drove the few blocks north of the hospital to where our neighborhood stopped being our neighborhood and became the kind of place small, upwardly mobile families aspired to live. We set up four poles in the repurposed post office parking lot, threw a white plastic tarp over the top, and waited.

Babies loved Jeremy, it turned out, and so did the young mothers with sun-damaged skin peeking out from under expensive wide-brimmed hats. Writer dads shopping alone in old band tee-shirts washed to ribs stood too close, ate all the bits of plum we’d stuck on toothpicks for tasting, talked about how terrible all the summer movies were, about the studio executives with whom they were at war, about the college girlfriends they were planning to return to someday, after their pilots got picked up to series and the baby learned to sleep through the night. Wives without husbands lingered in sheer yoga shirts and visors. I collected money in hundreds and always had change. 

It was true, our tent was beautiful: Pluots spilled out of wicker picnic baskets, a cluster of oranges balanced over an antique typewriter, clumps of apricots fell artfully over an orange tablecloth whose hue matched the skin of the fruit exactly. Jeremy hovered over the display like a proud rooster. I scratched at the cross-hatching fibers of the tablecloth and thought about high school, about my mother, about a home that didn’t really exist anymore, in another state. My senior year, I’d gotten such a high score on the math portion of my SATs that my mother had telephoned my 9th grade algebra teacher—the only teacher who had ever failed me in anything—and told her she was an asshole. I had almost had to transfer. Now I sold fruit in a gravel parking lot. I would never need my SAT scores for anything ever again. 

“What are you thinking about?” he whispered to me in a voice that meant, why are you making that face? 

“My SAT scores,” I told him. “How I’ll never need to be smart for anything ever again.”

A middle-aged man with spiked, gelled gray hair and a waist as narrow as a girl’s lurked nearby, hoping for a wave from Jeremy. Pretty young mothers with their hair tied back, babies on hips, in purses, in strollers, circled the booth like hungry sharks, touching up their lipstick and preparing fresh smiles. All the other booths in the market were bare of customers, but the other vendors, the hummus man and the flower guy and the woman who sold tamales out of an enormous repurposed garbage can, watched us with kind eyes.

“Why are you such a black hole?” Jeremy whispered. He was still smiling. The question had grown up invisibly from behind his teeth like a flower. 

The night before, we’d watched a show about black holes on the Science channel. At the center of black holes was a place where math bottomed out and the logic of physics no longer applied. Anything that got too close—that crossed a line called the event horizon—got sucked down into this impossible space like a log falling down into a waterfall. After that the log didn’t cease to exist, exactly, but it became something else, something nobody could define. 

“I’m just kidding,” he said and gave my shoulder a squeeze. He kissed my bare skin where he’d touched it, and five minutes later, we sold entirely out of tangerines. 

*

After four weeks, we’d taken enough home to pay the rent for fall. A handwritten flyer slipped under our door offered us a prime spot at the Hollywood Farmers Market on Sunset and Cahuenga. Our photo showed up on the splash page of LA Observed. I looked suspicious and distant, searching sneeringly for something outside the edge of the frame. He had grown his hair out and started losing weight. He glowed all the time now, picked fruit in his sleep while I watched and tried to still his hand.

“Why are you such a black hole?” I whispered to the disposal, watching as it flushed lemon insides and leftover pomegranate starch down in through its bladey mouth. Fruit settled in hills and mountains over the kitchen counters. The crates stacked up to the hallway ceiling held twice as many avocadoes as they had in June. At least twice as many. I made pies and puddings, shakes and juice. The house reeked with the vanilla smell of broiled figs. Dried peaches hung on ropes across the window like brown shrunken heads. 

The more we harvested, the more the fruit grew. The fertilizer we made from the peels and cores and skins and rinds made the fruit trees grow taller, the branches windier, their bark hardier. Shiny new limes grew fat on the entrails of their fallen brothers. The across-the-hall neighbors refused to accept any more guacamole. The flies tapped lazily against the window above the kitchen sink, threatening something unspecific. I thought, but didn’t say, that the chitin-rich carpet their dead bodies created had something to do with the luminous skin of our oranges.

“Yes?” I heard Jeremy  ask from behind me in the living room. He’d been separating tangerines from their stalks with a tiny pair of scissors. 

“You.” The landlord opened the door but did not come in. He brought with him a waft of flies. “You guys.” He carried a box of new fly strips and looked at us, dismayed. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing?”

The landlord had a head like a wizened watermelon and eyes the gray blue color of fresh milk. 

“What seems to be the trouble?” Jeremy clapped him on the back. He smiled at the landlord. The landlord smiled back, involuntarily, but didn’t step inside. He looked at me, and back at his hands.

“Come outside with me,” he said to Jeremy. “Around the back.” 

Of course. The land was his. The fruit was his. Our profits belonged to him. 

The front door shut with an alarming softness. I moved out of the kitchen and into the living room to see, but they’d stopped off the porch and into the backyard somewhere, and I was all alone. I stretched out on the couch and turned on the television. The ghost-hunter lawyer was still there, right where we’d left her, head still bent above her expensive lawyer desk. 

If I pressed the pause button again she would come alive, would say, “Screw it, Larry,” to the partner walking past the open door of her office. Larry had just asked her if it was her time of the month. 

But Laura wasn’t PMSing. She was thinking. Was ghost-hunting even worth it? All those child rapists and old-lady manglers and dishonest bankers who passed through her office waiting room every day. Who would miss them if the ghosts took over? What was all her hard work even for? She studied a photograph of her daughter, Lisa, framed in gold. Wouldn’t death, ultimately, offer the kindest freedom? Soon she would have to decide whether to train Lisa in the ghost-killing arts. The thought was unbearable. What could she do?

“That’s what you would be thinking,” Laura Hunter said back in my head. “If you were in my position. But I’m not like you. I’m not a black hole. I fight to kill.” She smoothed her camel skirt over her nude hose. “You’ve squandered every opportunity you’ve gotten. You give up at the first sign of trouble. Don’t compare yourself to me.”

In the corner of the screen, Larry formed his fingers into little claws and made a sound like an angry cat. “Rowrrr,” he said, apologetic. “Somebody’s in a mood.”

“In my left palm, I still held half a persimmon. Cut-side up, it looked like a miniature sun. I let it balance in my open hand and made my way out into the day. 



The baby next door, our neighbor's grandson, slept in his stroller. On his fat face, he wore an unchanging expression of consternation, a tiny businessman late for a board meeting in a far away place.

Behind him, his grandmother cooed in her made up language. She pointed to the sky and the bushes and the trees, but quietly, as if she were trying to lull herself to sleep too. The persimmon trembled in my hand as I held it out for her. 

“Here. This is for your baby.”

Her smile was bulbous and painted pink under a white-streaked astronaut’s helmet of hair. This close she smelled like cigarettes and softly rotting apples. She took my offering in one sand-colored palm. She held it out to the baby who angled his glare past both of us and past the house and up into the atmosphere like a weary old king.

“Javier,” said the old woman. She pressed the edge of the persimmon against his lips and tried to force it through to his gums, but Javier fixed his mouth muscles shut. The old woman pulled the slightly dented fruit away and smiled at me. “He don’t want it,” she said. “Here.”

She  smiled her bubblegum smile again and nodded in a way that said it was okay for me to leave now, if I wanted. I didn't move. When she rose, finally, to politely push the baby back up onto the tiny porch away from me, I followed her, just as politely, back into her house.

“Yes?” She said, still smiling. “Would you like to come inside?” We were already inside, standing in the entry hall of her shadowy overstuffed apartment with ceilings that felt far too low.

“I would love to, thank you.” 

I stepped behind her into the living room. We sat together on a gold and white paisley sofa crowded with organdy cushions shaped like seashells. The walls were layered with framed bits of poetry, birthday cards, photographs with curled-up edges. She offered me figs in a plastic Tupperware. “I put them with ice,” she said, and mimed turning a hand crank, making ice cream. Through the window into her backyard, I could see a fig tree that looked just like ours. Next to it, a loquat tree. Rows of heavy greens.  The baby shifted in sleep. We sat there for a long time, the three of us, waiting for something to happen. I ate all the figs. Eventually she fell asleep. 

*

“It’s time we started a website,” Jeremy said when I walked in the door half an hour later. “Fruit baskets, special deliveries. The farmer’s market is a sucker’s game anyway. It’s time for the big leagues.” I could tell by how high-pitched his voice was that he had been defeated, that the landlord had won, that we were no longer in the organic fruit business. “First we have to come up with a name.”

“Lucygetspunched.com is still free,” I said. “Probably.”

“Ha. Ha. Wait, that’s a good idea actually. If we pretend your name is Lucy, and we sell fruit juices. Clever.”

He kissed me and a light went on behind my eyes. It was the first time he’d done it in a while, and it made me sure, for once, that I had done the right thing. 

 “What are you smiling about? Where did you just go?”

“Next door. To visit that lady who always talks in gibberish to her baby. I brought her a nectarine.”

“Not gibberish. Tagalog. Everybody in this neighborhood is directly from the Philippines. How could you live here for this long and not know that?”

I sighed and shifted the bag I was carrying from my right hand to my shoulder. “Listen. We can’t give up on this. That backyard next door is full of fruit. They wouldn’t even know. I saw heaps of fat avocadoes just rotting in the grass. For all we know, that stuff is ours. Maybe our seeds blew over the fence in the wind. They have all the same stuff we do.”

“What’s in the bag?” 

On the short walk home, I’d been thinking about words. All the words there were and all the things we tried to twist them into. Words that billowed out and bubbled up like tumors and wrapped themselves around two people and held them up against one another like duct tape. Words that existed, like money, so we could turn them into something else, something like a vague near understanding. 

“Language is futile,” I said. “See for yourself.”

I handed him the sack. Inside, the baby slept peacefully, his wrinkled brow all smoothed out now. He woke up when Jeremy looked at him and laughed without really smiling. 

Jeremy said my name.

“What?” I said. “His grandmother fell asleep watching him. He's a baby. What else was I supposed to do?” I paused, took a breath, lumbered on. “But look, that yard over there? It's full of fruit. What if we held on to him until she gave us some? You get your produce. She gets her grandson back. Everybody wins.”

Outside it was still summer, but even now, through the window, I could feel the cold air brushing in over the land from the ocean, hitting up against the sun and pushing it, hard, away. Jeremy was talking, but I was watching his eyes. I watched them until they stopped being eyes and became large brownish circles with smaller black circles in the center. Not pieces of his face at all. 

“If you don’t think it’s a good idea, I can take him back. I’m going to take him back actually. Right now. Don’t be mad at me,” I said. “I just didn’t want you to have to give up your dream.” 

“My dream?” he said. “I did this for you. You wanted us to make money. You wanted a job.”

“Right,” I said. “Our dream. Now we don’t have to give it up.” 

But Jeremy wasn’t anywhere when I stopped talking. It was just me and the baby and the television and the couch and the front door open with the flies buzzing through and whirring, puckering sound, as if the whole day were tightening itself up into a fist. A fly had flown into the blinds and gotten stuck. I swatted at it with a cardboard paper towel tube, holding the baby on my hip. 

“And you,” I said to the baby. “What are we going to do with you?” I lifted him up so his forehead touched mine. This close, Javier was an infinite blur. He’d begun to cry the second Jeremy walked out of the room and now the cries came out muffled, squished, as they were, into my face. His breath against my hands came in staggered little pumps. I felt his heart beat inside my chest.

“We can stay like this forever, you and I. You can take me with you wherever you go. I’ll be the only thing you ever see. When you learn to speak, you’ll speak only to me. I’ll be the only person you ever touch.”  I made the words into a little song. “We’ll herald the invention of a new kind of human. Four arms instead of two. Four legs instead of two. Two hearts instead of one. You’ll be the only baby in the whole wide world who can’t ever get left.”

“Hush,” I said. “Look at me.” Javier looked. I watched his pupil pulse in time to the rhythm of his heart. The spot was black and infinitely deep, like somebody had taken a scoop to his eyeball and filled the empty space with ink. I looked and looked until that black space was all he was, and I was there inside it, searching for a light.