At age 15, he complained of a pain in his left leg. He complained to his parents, to the school nurse, to his doctor. There was nothing wrong with his legs. There remains nothing wrong with his legs. The complaints ended and he began to shuffle and limp.
He started to walk like jazz, uncontrollably on beat, in opposition and repetition, like a song dangled rich tunes over his head, forcing him to pop up, to drag the sadder limb, to hop over syncopation.
Stewart had been a child star. He spent most of his life on film sets, on planes, in hotels. He bored Joyce with stories of massive sequences modeled after long, arduous combat or quiet awkward interviews that cumulated in retractions and a miserable career. What Stewart wanted, what he asked the most about, was Joyce’s life in Idaho. He called Joyce a potato farmer because Idaho reminded him of potatoes and Joyce reminded him of a farmer. It was the quiet, hardness of his personality. The way he stared and stared, then answered quietly with a voice too harsh for his softness. Stewart sat at the edge of the bed, always cross-legged, always with his face in his hands as if something dire had taken place, or as if he was shocked, appalled at his own life. Embarrassed. He was the most embarrassed person Joyce knew. No one believed him when he said he was rooming with a former child star. Or that his neighbor was a beautiful female pianist whose hair (the color, the length, the texture) was as mercurial as her mood. They did not believe him because it was unbelievable. Because falling sleep to Bach and waking up to Chopin sounded untrue.
And it was, in a way.
Just not in his way.
Stewart sat on Joyce’s bed when he arrived home. He sat on the very end, and was still in uniform. He was a waiter at a café downtown that Joyce could not afford – or rather, was too frugal to visit and squander his pocket money for. The uniform was black and white and red and seemed as regal and wonderful as any costume he had glanced over in the studio. He stared at him for a moment and waited. Stewart ignored him. He flipped through the pages of the small magazine: The Amateur. He flipped them one by one, one after the other, until he met the classified ends and smiled.
Smiles appeared disingenuous on the face of a man like Stewart. All expressions did. His hair flopped in thick chestnut curls around his long face. His skin was clear, his eyes an average and expressive brown, but his facial expressions were as wooden and fraudulent as stage masks. That was the truth behind his failure as an adult actor. He was hardened to a thick wooden board of carved lines. At least he peaked, Joyce thought.
“Excuse me, Stewart.”
Stewart ignored him. “Casting call for tall, Caucasian male. At least 5 ft 10. Mid twenties. Charming but mysterious. New York City vibe.” His voice faltered at the end as he twisted his thin lips into an ugly grimace. He groaned long and slow then returned his face into the warm, softness of his hand. “What does that mean?”
“They’re not for the sort of films you’re interested in, Stu. Indie movies. And not truly… not truly independent as much as they’re made by kids, small groups, idiots.” He said as he loosened the stiff restraints of his tie. “Do you think any of that will be any good?“ He continued, “It’s probably for a web series.” He reasoned.
“It is.” Stewart glared.
“Is there nothing you would rather do than to gawk at these stupid listings?” Joyce lifted his bag over the man’s legs and rested it on the bed, using it as a partition between them before he settled next to him on the other side, on the opposite edge.
“I think you should do it.” Stewart laughed. His eyes lowered.
“Do what? ”
“For what? ” Joyce asked.
“You should be an actor”
“I’m not. ”
“You’d be very good at it.”
“Because…” Stewart said. He smiled. “You’re the most unreal person I know.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
His blue eyes turned to Stewart; small, narrow, cold. “No. I don’t.”
“Don’t be coy.”
“I’m not being coy.” Joyce said.
“It’s not an insult.”
“You should listen to yourself sometimes.” Stewart said.
“Yet, despite his appearance, he was really a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes.”
―Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
“Please don’t touch my things. It’s a matter of privacy, Stewart. I share what I want to share. That is it. — No. — This is my personal manuscript. It isn’t any of your business — I don’t care for your opinion, either. It isn’t for others to read — You should leave — You haven’t paid your half in weeks, so what’s the point of it then? — I’m angry because you’ve violated my privacy. You’ve read my letters. You’ve read my manuscripts. You’ve been in my things. I don’t fiddle with your affairs. I don’t so much as go to your place of work — No, we aren’t friends. We were never friends. We share a room and that is all, and even that — It’s none of your business — No. I’m not leaving. I have no plans on leaving. I am not going back home. So you can stop — I said STOP — Get out — This is my personal issue. Not yours. It’s private. What don’t you understand about privacy?! — I’m not explaining this to you — It’s none of your business, Stewart. You don’t know them. You know nothing about me, all you know is what I’ve told you and I’ve told you nothing. Don’t presume to know. You haven’t a faintest clue — No. I refuse— Shut up already — I’m not going. There’s no point — He’s already dead — No, there’s no reason for it. Not one — No — No I don’t want to see them. If I wanted to see them I would see them. I would write to them. You have no clue, do you? You have this vision of me, this weird little illusion and for what? Because your life is so fucking bland, Stewart? You shitty little child star. You and your fucking stories. Your bloody ridiculous stories that no one believes. I don’t believe it. Only you believe it. Only you. You want to know why you’re not getting any work? Why you’re dwindling all your savings away? Do you — No. No I should tell you — You should know — You’re leaving now? — It’s because your life has peaked, Stewart! You’ve peaked! That angel little version of you, wide eyed and smiling, with rosy plump cheeks and a girlish voice, that girly little voice… that was you at your fucking best and you’re chasing it like a lump of rocks chasing a land slide looking for its mountainous glory. That’s already broken up. You’re a broken up pile of shit, a sack of bones, a — [silence] — You — You hit me — Feel better? — Feel whole? — You son of a bitch. I’m no colder than you are. Warmer, that’s a fact. At least I’ve got life. I’ve got attainable goals. No stupid dream to chase around — I did nothing. Don’t ever touch my things — I am not — I am not — How can I be lonely if I’m stuck with you here? How can I be alone if you keep taunting me, day in and day out, all fucking day. Joyce this, Joyce that, you read the casting calls, you complain about your day, about your scripts, about that pervert producer or those actors who snatched away roles from you — Hah. Snatched away. You aren’t any good. You aren’t worth a damn. So leave. Leave me in peace — It’s ridiculous. You’re pathetic — I am? — That isn’t true —I have reason enough —I have enough — It isn’t any of your business whether I go or not. The bastard is dead. They’ll all die off eventually — Cold? Cold? I’m cold? — You’re a frigid iceberg if you think I’m cold — Because he doesn’t deserve it and neither do I — You don’t know what it was like — Oh, what rough childhood, What rough childhood, Stewart? What the fuck have you seen besides makeup and hollywood parties, and… and — I said it’s none of your business — Go ahead — What are you doing? — Stewart — Don’t touch my manuscript — I never said that — I never said that — It’s a story in a goddamn manuscript and you’re using it, a play, you’re using a play — I said leave it! Stop it! — You want to know what they did? — [silence] — [silence] — You think we’re friends but we’re not, Stewart. But fine. They locked me up. Three times. They had me locked up three times — It isn’t any of your business for what — It isn’t any of your business — If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you Stewart, I’ll kill you dead and you can talk all your talk about movies and … and sets and special effects but this will be real alright. This will be real. This is my life here — I don’t want to see you any more. I don’t want to see you anyMORE — Never — I said Never. I never want to see you again.”
Lazarus came to California to be closer to the gold allure of old hollywood. He wanted to work in films but fell into place in the theatre. An older woman, 65 year old Gladys Treadway, took a fondness to him and swore, promised on her pearls and former life as a showgirl that he would design the set of her late husbands biographical movie.
She saw every play he designed and though she knows nothing of his manuscripts, she finds him brilliant. She holds him close to her breasts, to her tight, plastic skin and whispers to him that he’s one of the greats. Joyce only believes her because he thinks she’s like Stewart and Doty the pianist. He believes her because he thinks nothing good or bad will ever happen so long as she kisses him with her cherry red lips and tickles his neck with the fur lining of her coats.
The set for The Cobbler was half done. The window needed to be switched to something with more glaze and obscurity. It needed more crops, realistic ones, and after weeks of research – long, boring research, Joyce had planned a visit to the oldest antique and novelty shops in West Hollywood. In the meantime, the other members of the production crew took offense to his lack of order.
“Have you seen his office? It’s a complete mess. I mean, a complete mess. And when I ask him about it, when I tell him, you know, about being… about being a little tidy, he gets this look on his face like I’m… I don’t know, like I’m stealing from him or something or accusing him of some offense, and he gets all wound up and… and… ya know what else he says? He says it’d be a lot tidier if he was left alone.” Levi shook his head, then pushed away from the brick wall with enough anxious energy that he had to shift and balance to avoid collision with the catering crew. He apologized quietly, then repeated his last line “He says it’d be tidier if he was left alone. Alone.” His straw blonde hair flopped as he shook his head incredulously.
“Yeah?” Mr. Matthews, the older gentleman (with stockier build and a broad set of muscular shoulders that would have indicated a long athletic history if it weren’t for his short stature) nodded passively. He didn’t look up at Levi. Instead he flipped through a magazine without stopping at any particular page for longer than five seconds. Every few seconds however, he would pause to rub his shining baldness or scratch at his bushy goatee before returning apathetically to the pages of the raunchy tabloid.
“Yeah, that’s what the guy says. Alone. Like fuck, he’s only alone all goddamn day. Alone until I drop off the slips. I get it, I get it, these guys are eccentric, these set designers are all loose in the head. The last one was a woman from New York. God a pretentious little one. So I definitely don’t miss the conversation but for christ’s sake, this Lazarus fellow is straight peculiar.” Levi said in a rushed huff, losing his breath as his arms flailed and gestured to some far off, odd realm of set-designer-city of crazies.
“He’s a talker.” Matthews offered with a shrug, “I mean he talks to himself. Not everyone needs a sounding board, Levi. Some folks are just fine in silence. Take me for instance.” Mr. Matthews looked up with a gleaning, shit eating grin. “I’d love for you to shut the fuck up.”
“Real nice.” Levi said.
Mr. Matthews returned to the trashy magazine and began to hum before Levi started up again.
“It’s just that I asked him out drinking the other night. He’s just some shmuck from Idaho. Well, he refuses me. He downright refuses me and it’s not any ordinary type of rejection. I mean he walks up to me. Limps over, you know that way he walks. I even asked him about it. I asked real nicely too and the guy just ignored me. He limps over, right, then takes his coat and bag and says he doesn’t drink. I say what about some food, and he shakes his head and I’m like ‘you don’t eat either?’ ya know, joking around. And this guy… this guy. He looks me right in the eye and says “No, not with other people.” Now what sorta shit is that?”
“You ever think that maybe you’re just too friendly of a guy?”
“Bullshit.” Levi said.
“I mean, you’re so fucking friendly you studied theatre and communications.” Matthews chuckled.
“Almost everyone in the business does.”
“I dunno. I’ve never had a good experience with someone who studied communications. Theatre, maybe. Once or twice. But communications? And in theatre? Nah. PR agency maybe but that’s all faked bullshit. You’re just 150% too much.” Mr. Matthews shrugged. He went back a couple pages in the magazine before finally closing it. He tossed it aside to the pile of magazines on the wooden table.
“Eating with people is a social thing. Animals do it. I mean it’s the one thing we all do together right? Restaurants, cafes, you think they’d be popular without that social part of feeding?”
“You make it sound like we’re birds gathering to bird feeders or something.”
“Same thing though. And this guy, he what? He gathers his little sandwiches and nibbles them in a dark corner? I swear the guy’s off.”
“Everyone who ever worked here is off, that’s why they work here. Half the productions we work on are about off people, so he fits in. You fit in. We all fucking fit in. God, you find anything to complain about.” Matthews said, before giving a declarative grunt. He stood and exited the set, leaving Levi to stand in silence.
Meanwhile Joyce appeared on the other side of the prop, in front of the window with his hand on the outside sill, peering in as Levi walked off stage.
“Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”
― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
His fingers tapped hard against the metal cabinet. It hurt but he continued. When they turned to look at him, Joyce blinked quickly, mumbled his apologies and shrank into his seat. His arms curved up around his chest and he closed his eyes.
She was right
“Not feeling well.” He mumbled. Still, he stayed there. Frozen.
The room becomes darker. Their faces look scratched. Skin peels off. Dark splotches, infested wounds. Their mouths are open, their tongue black, their teeth yellow.
Everyone around us is dying. Or dead. Don’t look into his eyes.
Black eyes. Red pupils. Yellow, veiny blood-shot. Glaring.
“Nothing.” He shifted in his seat again and avoided eye contact.
Don’t look into his eyes. They can kill you. She was right. She was right. They set you up.
“What is it?”
Red blinking lights. Sounds. Alarms. The Alarms are ringing. Sounds like radiation warning, blasting.
His hands flew to his mouth. His fingertips clawed against his cheeks as he tried to stifle his own sounds.
If they hear you cry, they’ll tie you up again. Do you want to be tied up again, Lazarus? Do you want them to strap you down again? Say Ahh. Swallow. Swallow, Lazarus. Lift your tongue. Do you want them to poke and prod you? Don’t open your mouth. Don’t say anything. Don’t.
She’s right. She was right all along. They look nothing like people.
“The audience…” He said, through the reach of his cold fingers. “They’ll see … I had to cut it differently, the cloth – to fit it in.”
Your leg is rotting off. You should have cut it off.
The set is wrong. It’s terribly wrong. You should burn it down. No one should see it again.
“It’s not. It’s –” He pointed. “Look, it’s-”
They can’t see it like you can. You’re the only one who can see it.
“No one will care.”
No one is here. There’s no one here. Open your eyes.
Don’t take your pills, Lazarus. You won’t be able to see them.
“You’re a perfectionist. We’re all over the moon about that and all but we’d rather be on time and underbudget than late and over budget.”
She’s right. You are alone. You are dead. Look at yourself.
He rubbed his temple and stared at his feet.
If they can get someone else, anyone else, to replace you…
He left home to prove that he could live with his illness and take care of himself, and to complete his magnum opus. His life has been spent on the fragile fringes of the mind, tipy toeing around the expectations and worries of family and of self, of countering the effects of perfectionism while desperately clinging onto concrete reality without becoming dull and stale by its effects.
Lazarus A. Joyce is a man convinced that he does not suffer for little reason. He stares with his light sharp eyes and he reads the world around him with full knowledge and awareness that his perception is not like others, that his reality is not like others, that no reality is the same. He’s living with himself in ways that few people can, and in doing so, he sees himself in ways others are afraid to. The only question is, how long can he keep this up?
About Joyce? Well, “At age 18, Joyce was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Like his father. Like his grandmother. It was not surprising. They saw the symptoms. They knew the symptoms. He spent most of his childhood behind books and films. He had no real friends. He had old childhood friends who pitied him enough to smile and start a short chat at the bus stop but his eccentricity only increased, shifting from an odd outlook to a disability that would progress and damage his independence. At age 19, Joyce started college. He majored in art history and history. He wanted to become a historian because he was obsessed with human creativity and destruction. He felt at home in the past. His finest talents were his playwrighting, his acting and his painting. He realized early that acting was impossible. He refused to share his plays or his paintings. He compromised at some point and joined the theatre club with his focus being on set design.
At age 20, Joyce was on academic probation. As it turned out spending all day every day reading instead of attending class could drop your grade and ruin your attendence. He was also fired from his bookstore job. He was convinced that he was the reincarnated Anton Chekhov and that he would one day create a great American play. He spent all his savings for a trip to Russia. He was retrieved months later and admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment. He returned to school later that year, with a dull mind and a fear of mediocrity.
At age 21, he was suspended. He struggled with his new meds. They rotted his brain, he said. He stopped taking them. He swapped them out for hard liquor, cigarettes, hookah, and your garden variety of party drugs. He was sent to rehab by his embarassed mother, then admitted once again, but proved prone to violence. This stay was a bit longer and ended before his 23rd birthday. At age 23, Joyce returned to school. He restarted his interest in playwriting but found his creativity to be difficult to tap into. He blamed the drugs. Still, he remained faithful to his regiment.
At age 24, he had his 3rd admittance. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He was on his meds religiously. They were switched. His stay was not long. They were mostly monitoring him closely. He showed improvement when he was released, so he set out to Hollywood to work in theatres. He stopped his medication the day he set foot on California soil and has been weaving in and out of reality. Today, he is revising his great 4 hour play. It’s called Schizo.”
“This was the final dumping ground. He thought of Janvier’s “Sargasso Sea.” Just as that imaginary body of water was a history of civilization in the form of a marine junkyard, the studio lot was one in the form of a dream dump. A Sargasso of the imagination!”
― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
Levi’s straw blonde hair got in the way when he spoke so that when Joyce turned towards him for a brief glimpse or a look of recognition, he was forced to watch the man fuss over the unkempt mess like a cat licking its paw and swiping it behind its ears. One lick. Two lick. One flick. A tuck behind his ears.
Levi spat a wad of pale yellow, nearly onto Joyce’s brown shoes. Joyce didn’t blink. He waited. And so did Levi.
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing.” Joyce muttered. He retrieved a folded message from his pocket and began unfolding it.
“You have all you need, don’t you?”
“I do.” Joyce said. He adjusted his charcoal trilby hat then tugged at the panels of his wool coat.
“What are we doing now? Back to Cur?” Levi asked.
Joyce observed the man. Levi wasn’t a scarecrow. Unless that scarecrow had more meat on his straw frame. His shoulders were narrow, his form slender but he was like a small swimmer, tall and elegant despite his awkward missteps. He had meat on his body, maybe even a pouch beneath his usual floral shirt. Joyce wanted to ask what the man ate, what he did, to keep his unreal form, but he remembered that he hadn’t eaten since morning. Since before work. He didn’t want to think about food.
Bones and meat on a scarecrow.
You’re just a sack of bones. Why bother ask?
“Lazarus?” Levi barked.
“You’re shit at paying attention aren’t you?”
“Were you saying something?” Joyce asked.
“Yeah, I was asking someth-”
“What.” Joyce looked up. His expression was blank.
“About…” He hesitated. “About what we’re doing.”
“We’re done.” Joyce answered.
“Is that it?” Joyce folded the paper and returned it to his pockets.
Levi hesitated again, then sighed and nodded his head. He stuffed his large hands into the pockets of his washed out jeans and sighed more audibly. “Yeah yeah… whatever. So long as you’ve got the details.”
“You can go.”
“Aren’t we heading back?”
“You don’t need to wait on me.”
“Oh it’s not any sort of troub-”
“I would rather you go.” Joyce said in a low voice. It sounded like a gritty grumble to Levi, so he watched him for a moment and weighed the options, particularly the gains. No extra moment seemed worth it when it came to Lazarus. It wasn’t like he’d learn anything. There was nothing to learn. “I have errands to run.” Joyce added.
Levi adjusted his floppy collar and then fussed with his hair again. “Sure.” He said with an animated shrug and a flail of his limbs. He turned to the curb. “I already called an uber with the company travel card, so -”
“It’s not a problem.” Joyce said, without forcing a smile or wave. He turned and walked down the path towards the rest of Museum Row. The Petersen Automotive Museum was not too far from the Architecture & Design Museum and that’s where he was heading to.