Al Friedman and his mentally-ill cousin painted a decommissioned school bus to say HOLLYWOOD TOURS. They charged tourists $10.00 or ¥1,186.24 or £7.64 and drove them on a 3.5-mile loop of the hills. The price was well under market rate for the industry, said Al. He spoke to the tourists through a headset. “Kurt Cobain used to live there,” said Al, and so on. Al had been dishonorably discharged from the military. I don’t know why. He started teaching English at a charter high school in the Valley where he fell in love with an exchange student from Dubrovnik who broke his heart. Then he started doing Hollywood Tours. Al was my teacher when I met him. I called him Mr. Friedman then but now I call him Al.
“There isn’t a moment I don’t think about her,” said Al.
“Think about who,” I said.
“Katja,” said Al.
I had to respect Al’s passion for eleventh-grade literature. Year after year he was newly grief-stricken to find Gatsby dead in the pool. There’d be tears in his eyes. He was emotionally in tune. I don’t know why I hung around Al after high school. I guess I thought he was going to do something great. Mostly because he was always saying he was going to do something great. When people called Al a loser he said just wait and see. When people called Al a pedophile he said the age of consent was different in Croatia. Al touched me with his resilience. “One day,” he said, “you’re going to turn on the news and say, That’s Al Friedman! He taught me English.”
Every morning smelled like rotting Thai food in our neighborhood. The dumpsters baked with yesterday’s pad kee mao. Our apartment was small. That stretch of Hollywood Boulevard was populated almost exclusively by members of the Thai diaspora. The Thai men loved my girlfriend. She wore sheer nightgowns to the laundromat and they tipped their newsboy caps to her, when they had them on. She liked their golden shrines piled with fruit offerings.
My girlfriend wrote storylines for video games. Her job was coming up with war crimes. Every day she thought of ways to desecrate the digital Middle East. In her nightgown she was a demolitions expert, a sniper, an instrument of torture. She paid our cheap rent by plotting air strikes.
I paid our rent by giving Hollywood Tours with Al and his cousin. Al wore his U.S. ARMY hat and khaki pants and Dockers. Sometimes we stood on the street holding a sign that read HOLLYWOOD TOURS $10.00 or ¥1,186.24 or £7.64. Sometimes a former student of Al’s would recognize him and say, “Mr. Friedman?” and Al would say, “you must have me mistaken — ” and they would say, “no, it’s definitely you. Hey guys, look this guy taught me English damn didn’t you get fired for sleeping with an underaged — ” and then Al’s cousin would shoo them away and Al would pull his hat down over his eyes.
Al crossed himself when we drove past a church. He was brought up Catholic. He was God-fearing. He told me it never hurts to say a prayer. I asked Al when he prayed.
“Whenever I’m on my knees,” said Al.
Al used his cousin’s disability money to rent a warehouse in Chinatown. I spent evenings there while my girlfriend was droning maternity wards. Al said the warehouse was a condemned sweatshop. He said we could forgive its sinister history and give it new life. It didn’t have air conditioning and the water ran brown. A feral cat wandered in and gave birth. Our friend Lucien moved in. He told us the big one was coming. We should all migrate inland. The parts of the city that weren’t underwater would be on fire. He was buying land in Montana. Runaway high school girls moved in and slept on single mattresses like in an orphanage. They showed little interest in Al. He loved them. To him, they were each Katja.
“This is where they shot Rush Hour,” Al told the girls.
“Okay,” they said. “So what?”
“Sorry,” said Al. “Force of habit.”
A psychic moved into the warehouse for a couple of weeks. She told us who we had been in past lives. A macaw. A Turkish peasant. An oak tree. “This is your last life,” the psychic told Al. He nodded as though she had confirmed something he already knew.
Al befriended the twin sisters. Their dad owned oil in Kuwait. He lived in the Hamptons and evaded taxes. The girls had come out West for the summer. They seemed delicate, like Fabergé eggs. Frail. Flat-chested. They didn’t wear makeup. When it rained, which it rarely did, Al said the water pooled in their collarbones. It was all novelty to them: the warehouse, the school bus, the feral kittens. My girlfriend called them misery tourists. Their collective eyes lit up when they saw a rat returning from the dumpster.
The summer belonged to Al. In the warehouse, Al was not a loser. He was a landlord. He worked out daily. He did pull-ups on low-hanging pipes. He kept a miniature refrigerator stocked with unpasteurized milk that he drank from the carton. He said he was training for the L.A. marathon. He would win and spend the prize money on an Alaskan cruise. He would be on the receiving end of a tour.
“You ever been up to Alaska?” he asked me.
“Never,” I said.
“The light,” said Al. “It’s different up there.”
The twins threw parties in Al’s warehouse. Funded by oil. This was their first life. They wore ballet slippers. They wore dresses made of crinoline and chiffon that laced up their backs. In the latticed light of the warehouse, they were interchangeable. Nondescript angels of the Chinatown sweatshop.
While Al trained, his cousin put morbid Scandinavian pornography on an old, boxy television. His cousin didn’t show much libidinal interest in the video. It played on repeat like a program in the background of a doctor’s office. Al’s uniform slowly changed. He shed the U.S. ARMY hat. He wore a partially unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and open-toed sandals despite the broken glass that had accumulated on the floor. He let some kids paint a mural on the wall. It read HOLLYWOOD TOURS and Al welled up at the gesture. He was emotionally in tune. My girlfriend came to the warehouse one night. He hugged her hello and her body stiffened in his arms. She left quickly, she said, to avoid contracting dysentery.
The summer was ending. I closed our window to keep the smell of rancid noodles at bay. My girlfriend had her rangefinder focused on an enemy camp. She said I needed to stop hanging out with Al. I needed to stop giving Hollywood Tours. She said Al was a loser and a pedophile and I said that the age of consent was different in — and she said, “seriously, it’s time.” She said Al was on a perennial tour. But there was more out there for me. There was not more out there for the soldiers in her viewfinder. She pulled the trigger.
Al was benching 250. His arms bulged under his Hawaiian shirt. He grew irritable. He didn’t check the mail and the warehouse lost power. Al’s cousin’s television went dark. Without the porn to validate its existence, the television became obsolete. Became a table. An ashtray. The warehouse reeked of spoiled milk. Al himself smelled like he was rotting internally. His eyes were glassy. His tours were decreasing in popularity. The bus amassed parking tickets. A patented tour company sent Al a cease and desist. My girlfriend said, “get a job, get a job, get a job.”
I sat with Al and his cousin and eleven to fifteen tourists in the decommissioned school bus. “Keith Richards used to live there,” said Al, and so on. I told Al that we needed to stop. I told Al that we were stuck on a loop. He said he knew we were on a loop — a 3.5-mile loop of the hills. I shook my head. I gave my resignation. He said he understood.
“You and me had a good run,” I said.
“You and I,” said Al.
“Sorry,” said Al.
His cousin glared at me from the driver’s seat.
I got a job in an office. I bought some nicer clothes. My health was insured, as were my teeth. I called my parents. My girlfriend was happy. Our combined salaries allowed us to move into a bigger place. We left fruit offerings outside the old apartment. As we drove away I said, “we used to live there.”
Al gave up the lease to the warehouse. The twins checked into a charmless hotel by the water. Lucien moved to Montana. The runaway girls went home, went to college, became feminists, started podcasts. Al got a DUI and the tour bus was impounded. I went with him to pick it up and it was clear that he had been living inside it. A sleeping bag. Empty milk cartons on the floor. Tin foil and translucent lighters which suggested drug use. Baggies of meth which suggested drug use. I paid the towing fee and Al told me he would pay me back when he won the L.A. marathon. We didn’t speak after that. I heard he was tutoring in English. I heard he was working at a Halloween superstore. I heard he and his cousin were busking on the Venice Boardwalk. Then I heard nothing for a long time.
Our new neighborhood didn’t smell like anything. I talked to my girlfriend’s stomach. “Your mom drops napalm on civilians for a living,” I told her stomach. We went to the market together. We avoided seed oils together. We went to a psychic in the Valley who read the lines in our palms. Money, love, and life. Her palm suggested motherhood. Mine vitamin deficiency. We drove home palm in palm down the 101.
I was on my knees making a mobile when my girlfriend said, “oh my God,” to the news. I stopped making the mobile. The news said that the daughter of a wealthy oil tycoon had been kidnapped. Surveillance cameras caught her being hoisted into a makeshift sightseeing van. Her family found a note. She was being held for ransom: $1,000,000.00 or ¥118,607,000.00 or £761,235.00. Well under market rate as far as kidnappings go. The news asked that anyone with any information on her whereabouts report to the precinct immediately. The victim’s twin, through teary eyes, pleaded for her sister’s safe return.
“Oh my God,” repeated my girlfriend.
I felt a wave of carsickness.
“What are you doing?” said my girlfriend.
Since I was already on my knees, I said a prayer. I said a prayer for Mr. Friedman and his cousin and the beautiful, young oligarch. I said a prayer for my girlfriend and her stomach and Lucien and Katja. I thought about what it must have been like, year after year, to find Gatsby dead in the pool. “Oh my God,” I repeated. Then I told my girlfriend that I loved her and was lucky to have her. I apologized for my shortcomings and told her I was going to take her to Alaska where the light was different. She said that that was a lovely sentiment but we needed to go down to the precinct now.
“Have you seen this man?” said the news.
“That’s Al Friedman,” I said aloud. “He taught me English.”
As we pulled out of the driveway, we passed a man flipping a sign on the street outside of a cell phone store. We turned on the radio for updates on Al but there was only mariachi music. Stock updates. Then static, static, static.
Madeline Cash is the editor of Forever Magazine. She has a collection of stories forthcoming from CLASH Books.