I met Victor through Craigslist. I was planning to stay in L.A. for two or three months over the winter—maybe longer, I wasn’t sure—and I was looking for a furnished room somewhere, something quiet where I could get some writing done, and with a little outdoor space to zone out in the afternoon sun and imagine how cold it had to be back in New York.
When I pulled up to Victor’s place in my rented Taurus, I knew I had found the spot. It was a classic 1950s Silverlake bungalow, perched atop a steeply sloped street, with a vintage Cutlass in the carport. As I got out of the car, a wiry little guy in a sock hat came out on the front patio holding a coffee mug and waved me in.
Right away, I had a good feeling about him. He was intense, you could see that, but a genuine bohemian, it looked like. The bookshelves in the living room were packed with hardcover originals of all the Beat classics, as well as a few tomes of Eastern philosophies, some art books, and the entire, seven-volume, leather-bound set of William Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down. I had the sense Victor might’ve been the one person in the world who’d actually read the thing, too.
“This is just what I was looking for,” I told him, taking in the room.
“Me, too,” he said, regarding me with a thoughtful nod.
I moved in that night, and the two of us stayed up til two or three, drinking and talking about pretty much everything while Victor hopped off the couch every few minutes to throw on something from his impressive vinyl collection: a bit of early Stones, into Pharoah Sanders, and then the Circle Jerks, and so on, into the night.
Soon we were hanging out together quite a bit. I didn’t know many people in L.A., and Victor seemed to have burned a few bridges in the last couple of years. He rented a guesthouse in back to a sweet-natured lump of a guy named Yorin, and I got the idea that he and Victor had been good friends at one time. Now, though, Yorin shared the guesthouse with Helga, a gorgeous young German. According to Victor, she didn’t pay rent; Yorin let her stay there for free because he liked having her around. “And he’s not even fucking her!” Victor told me, sounding disgusted with Yorin about the whole arrangement.
So that left Victor and me to one another. A few nights a week we’d pick up some beers and take his Cutlass for a spin, stopping here and there to play pool with junkie hipster chicks in a Mexican bar in Echo Park, or get cocktails in Chinatown, or just drive up and down Sunset, Victor taking the occasional pull off his flask and drumming the dashboard while I dug the warm night air and the look of the silhouette of palm trees arching above the lights in the hills.
Once, as Victor took a turn off the boulevard at maybe 40 miles an hour, he offered me the flask and yelled over the music, “You should meet my buddy Mongo! You’d like him.”
“He’s not like us, though,” he shouted, grabbing the flask back and flooring it as we tore through an alleyway. “He’s a crazy motherfucker!”
I truly liked Victor, thought he was the real deal—an edge character, for sure, but a seeker, which is a rare things these days. There were, however, increasingly unsettling aspects of living with him. For one, he began to imitate some of my daily routine—on top of which, he would proselytize to me about his new habits, as if he’d stumbled across them on his own.
I would exercise in my room every morning, just to burn off the existential angst I usually wake up feeling, and within a few days I began to hear Victor in his room grunting his way through a workout, doing pushups or skipping rope.
“Nothing like starting the day with intense activity!” he told me, coming out of his room soaked in sweat, with a towel around his neck. “You should try it. Changes your whole perspective.”
I’d also taken to reading in the early evenings on a little settee in the small room off the living room, mostly because Victor spent that time in the living room, watching Kung Fu DVDs. I would bring candles and a TV tray from the kitchen and set myself up with a glass of red wine, then put on classical music, just loud enough to muffle the sounds of the Chop Sockey adventure coming through the wall.
A week or so after I moved in, I came home in the evening to find Victor reclining on the settee with a book in his lap, classical music playing and candles glowing all around, a glass of red wine on the TV tray beside him.
“I used to read on this couch all the time, you know. Then I fell out of the habit. I don’t know why. But I realized I needed to get back to that. So good for your mind.”
As time went on, I was also more reluctant to sit around the house all night and drink with Victor. Not because I had anything to do the next day, but because he got extremely maudlin the more he drank, alternately swigging from a bottle of wine and taking a snort from his flask. Once, around three in the morning, after several hours of booze and talking, he leaned his head back on the couch, stared at the ceiling, and began to sob openly. After a couple of minutes he sat up straight, took another gulp of wine, then gave me a wild look, as if he was entertaining the possibility of cracking the bottle over my head.
After that, I began going to bed earlier.
One morning I woke up to a light rain and saw Victor out my bedroom window, pacing around the front yard, hands on hips, eyeing the base of the house. It turned out the foundation was sketchy and whenever it rained the house was in danger of sliding down the street. (The guesthouse was slowly sinking into the ground.) Apparently, Victor didn’t have the money to remedy the problem—which would’ve required hoisting the entire house and laying a new foundation—so all he could do was pace around, nervously monitoring things and cursing the rain.
Money was a major issue for Victor, in that he didn’t seem to have any. That’s why he was renting out the room in the first place. He was an out-of-work grip trying to bang his way into the union, where all the sweet gigs were. In between his surveys of the foundation of the house, he was on the phone in his bedroom calling his grip buddies for leads on jobs.
That morning, after the rain had stopped, he came bouncing into my room with a manic grin, telling me about a job someone had turned him onto.
“Here’s the thing,” he told me. “I need some clean urine, because these fuckers are going to test me. You mind if I borrow some of yours?”
The request kind of caught me off guard. I think I mumbled something like, “Okay,” before I realized what he was asking. Then, before I could clarify the situation, he gave my shoulder a solid squeeze, said, “Thanks, brother,” and bounded back to his room. I thought of following after him and telling him that, in fact, I was a little uncomfortable with the idea, but I could hear him on the phone by then, all hopped up, telling his buddy he was going to take the job.
Later in the day, after Victor had left, packing an airline-size Chivas bottle filled with my urine, I was sitting alone on the back steps of the house wondering whether this scenario might blow back on me somehow. At that moment, I looked up and saw Helga, the beautiful young German, step out of the guesthouse in a terri cloth robe and heels and wave in my direction. I’d never spoken to her before, only nodded and smiled as I came and went from the house, so I wasn’t sure she was signaling to me. Then she tottered across the lawn on her heels and stood at the bottom of the steps. Would I mind photographing her, she asked in a heavy German accent. She had a little digital camera, nothing special, it looked like, and she handed it to me as she talked: something about a foot model job, the Internet, I wasn’t sure what. It was hard to concentrate because she had ditched the robe and was standing in front of me now in a black lace thong and bra, asking for suggestions on a good spot to shoot.
“Something that shows off my body,” she said, in a clinical, Teutonic tone.
Soon I was clicking pictures of her stretched out on a lawn chair, leaning over the picnic table, and spread-eagled against the garage door. At one point she ducked into the guesthouse and came out in an ensemble of white lace underwear and matching heels.
I did my best to invest in the scenario, suggesting poses and saying things like, “Yes,” “Nice,” “Fantastic,” like we were shooting somewhere on Ibiza. I thought that might help me convert the Dear Penthouse setup into an actual tryst.
Eventually I became more daring in the poses I suggested, but she simply struck them dutifully, ignoring any entreaties to playfulness. Then, when she stood next to me, examining the pictures I had taken so far, I tentatively reached out and traced my finger along her thigh, telling her how beautiful she was. She looked at me and smiled, to acknowledge this obvious truth, then studied the pictures more closely to see if they had captured it.
No matter what I tried, I wasn’t able to change the dynamic. Her matter-of-fact, European manner about cavorting around in her underwear in the back yard in the middle of the day, coupled with the bright, flat afternoon light, seemed to take the idea of an overtly sexual encounter off the table.
The only whiff of that I got from her was when we were done, and she was putting on her robe and thanking me for my help.
“Now you haff something to think about when you write today,” she said, giving me a wink and a broad, flirtatious smile. Then she turned and tottered into the guesthouse.
Within seconds, I was back in my room jerking off furiously.
That night, Victor came back late. I was on my bed reading one of his Isherwood diaries, with a story from the ’40s about a picnic in Topanga Canyon with Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, and Krishnamurti, when I heard the front door slam.
“Fuuuuuck!” he yelled, as he stomped past my room into the kitchen.
I gingerly stuck my head into the hall, wondering if there was any way to avoid dealing with him at that particular moment, when he stomped back my way, chugging from a bottle of wine.
“Fucking New York bitch!” he said, pushing the door open.
“That whole job was ruined by some fucking New York bitch.”
He started pacing the room.
“Fucking miserable hag wanted me to work til midnight on some goddamn Vanity Fair photo shoot. I spent the whole day taping up 9 by 12’s—using my own money on tape!—so they can shoot some television bitch at Mickey Rooney’s fucking ranch. Can you believe that? I told her I was done for the day—I wasn’t gonna stay there all night—and she starts balking about my money, saying the job wasn’t done, and she wouldn’t ever work with me again, and how I’d been difficult the whole time. When I slaved for that bitch. She better send my check, too, or I’ll follow her back to New York and cut her fucking throat.”
“Meanwhile, check this out,” he said, pulling a large telephoto lens from his parka.
“You took that?”
“Yeah, they’re not gonna know; they have so much shit. So what did you do all day, besides sit around in your sweatpants?”
“Well, I had a little photo shoot of my own. With Helga.”
“Helga in the guesthouse?”
“Yeah, I spent the whole afternoon taking pictures of her in her underwear in the backyard. She said she wanted them for some modeling job, I don’t know.”
“Why you?” he said, sounding pissed.
“I don’t know. I was here.”
“I knew that bitch was hot. Did you fuck her?”
“Did you fuck her?”
“You didn’t fuck her?”
“No. It wasn’t that kind of vibe.”
“It wasn’t that kind of vibe?! What does that mean?!”
“It just wasn’t that kind of energy.”
“She’s walking around in her panties in the backyard!”
“I’m telling you, it wasn’t that kind of thing. If you’d have been there, you would’ve seen.”
“If I’da been there I would’ve fucked her on the picnic table!”
“Trust me, it wasn’t like that. I know women—”
“I fucking know women!” he said, stomping out of the room and slamming my door behind him.
“I know ‘em enough to fuck them when they’re asking for it!” he called out, marching down the hallway.
The next thing I heard was the Cutlass engine revving in the carport, then tires squealing down the driveway. After Victor left I realized I hadn’t had a chance to ask him about the urine sample. I began to wonder if there was some way they could use it to trace the stolen lens back to me. Would they DNA test for a telephoto lens? And who knows what else he did…
That’s when the phone rang in Victor’s room and his machine picked up.
“Victor, this is Marcia Temple,” an angry, piercing voice announced. “You cost a lot of people a lot of money today, and let me tell you, they are not happy about it. My advice to you is to do what you can to rectify the situation, and you know what I mean.”
She called back two or three times over the next couple of hours, leaving even more heated messages. But I couldn’t tell if she knew about the missing lens.
When I went to bed, around two, Victor still hadn’t come home. Meanwhile, I had decided that maybe it was time to get back to New York.
The next morning I waited until Victor had had his coffee, then told him I didn’t think I’d be staying past the end of the month.
“Whatever,” he said, not lifting his head from the newspaper.
We didn’t talk much for the couple of weeks before I left. The calls from Marcia Temple eventually tapered off, so I didn’t feel the need to pursue that. Victor told me he’d have to inspect my room from top to bottom before I’d get my security deposit, and that it’d probably be a while, anyway, since I was leaving on short notice. I didn’t bother to make an issue of it; I had the feeling that when all was said and done, he’d do the stand-up thing.
When the van to the airport rolled up in front of the house on my last morning there, I went to look for Victor. I wanted to say my goodbyes and maybe put a positive cap on the whole experience. I found him on the back steps, hunched over the phone, dialing around for other jobs. I thought of tapping him on the shoulder and giving him a wave, then noticed how tensely contorted his body looked, and thought better of it. Instead, I went back inside, grabbed my things, and left.
A light rain had started by the time I loaded my stuff into the van. As we pulled away, I looked out the rear window to see Victor in the front yard, pacing around, hands on hips, eyeing the foundation of the house.
DOUG CORDELL is a writer now based in the Bay Area.