Friday, I saw an army of amputees in Pershing Square.
They were coming my way while I was drinking coffee. The only thing I could think of was that I had signed up to be an extra for some horror movie, and I’d forgotten. I forget things sometimes. Ask my locksmith.
“I should run,” my left brain said.
“I should see what happens when they get here,” my right brain said.
Fatal fascination, you win this time. I stayed there, sipping coffee, watching the amputees get closer. They were all ages and ethnicities, but the one thing uniting them was their missing forearms and their heads that bowed forward.
As the sun turned up its “fuck you” dial, my skin started cooking, and as the army got nearer, I started seeing the army was not made of amputees but ordinary Angelenos with full-length arms—all folded in half and raising a cell phone. I had perceived their focus on their phones as bowing, and that might have been just as true, for their devotion to their devices.
“Thank you for being here on time,” said a woman sitting next to me.
My heart skipped a beat but I contained my surprise. She wasn’t there a second ago.
“I’m not sure why we couldn’t do this over email,” I said.
“Did Rasputin use email?” Disappointment colored her tone.
“Well, I don’t really like it here.”
“Hmmm,” she said and glanced at everyone and then at me. I took more than a few glances at her legs that were more slender than mine and her skin that was ivory. I had once wanted straight blond hair like hers decades ago when none of the princesses I saw in books had my afro.
“We don’t want his name mentioned in emails. That’s why we’re meeting,” the woman said and opened up William Butler Yeats’s Mythologies. Letters were circled all over the two-page spread—letters that spelled a city councilman’s name.
“Got it. Look. Is there any way we can move the assignment to another night?”
She gazed at me for a minute and smirked. “You want to make it to your art show.”
“That would be nice.”
“Funny. That’s not the business you’re in. Being nice. I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear your question. You’ll do what we agreed on—on the night we agreed on.” She snapped the book shut. “And we’ll quadruple your pay if he jumps off the Biltmore.”
The coffee in my stomach started chewing into my spine.
No, Lady, Liar, that’s why we’re meeting—you didn’t want to say this over email.
“You don’t have to decide just yet,” Lady Liar said sweetly as a policeman walked by. “Just think about not hustling for a while, and having more time for your art. It’s why you’re in LA, isn’t it?”
The night of my assignment, the Colony on Spring Street was exhibiting my work in a group show and featuring my piece, “I Don’t Drink Johnny Walk Her,” in the main exhibition hall, on the poster, on social media, and on their weekly email. This was new for me—people paying this much attention to my art. Venus, the gallery manager, texted me that I should at least stop by and mingle for an hour.
I didn’t respond to Venus.
I showed up where I was paid to: a fundraiser at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
My name was on the list at the door (as I was told it would happen), and I had no trouble accessing the rooftop (as I was told it would happen) and the councilman met me up there (as I was told it would happen).
He smiled for a moment and then his smile fell away as he took cautious steps to meet me. His hair whipped this way and that and looked onfire, as the wind assailed us, and his jacket fluttered as he gripped the bottom edges.
“I was told you have something for me,” he said.
I nodded and opened a mini wine bottle I’d brought with me in my purse. As I spilled merlot on the roof, I whispered:
brother Coyote, have a drink
prepare the man to carefully think
“Pardon me?” the councilman asked.
I leaned right and looked past his leg and he followed my eyeline until it reached Coyote a few feet behind him. Coyote stared into the man’s eyes. “I don’t understand,” his voice drifted.
“They say if a coyote crosses your path, it’s probably because you’re taking life too seriously, like that ballot measure you’re asking people to support,” I said and glanced at Coyote who hypnotized the councilman.
I walked closer to the edge of rooftop. Below on Olive Street, I saw couples hand in hand, groups of girls who had used too much hairspray, solo wanderers, businessmen with fast feet, and I saw my financial freedom—a broken body on the pavement—the price of coasting comfortably without working, years of just making art, no more dumpster diving and going to the LA food bank. It would just be another sentence to say out loud to this politician, catalyzed by the persuasion of Coyote.
I retreated from the edge and returned to the councilman and said, “And after you put some distance between yourself and the ballot measure…”
I looked at the edge.
I looked at Coyote.
I felt my heart knocking, looking for any way out except this one.
“…you’ll live longer if you leave this city.” The words I really meant to say came out, because they were the words I’d been wanting to say to myself.
The councilman took out his phone, called the LA Times reporter who had interviewed him last week, and rescinded his support of the ballot measure and even invented some reasons why.
“Thank you, Coyote. That will be all,” I said.
The animal stared at me and backpedaled into the shadows until I could no longer see his amber eyes.
The following week, the news confirmed the councilman denouncing the ballot measure, Venus also asked me to leave the Colony. She only exhibited artists willing to show up for their career and that included connecting to the people who believed in them. She said I was absent in that relationship, that art was more than a solitary pursuit, that it was channeling something beyond the five senses of a person.
Friday, I returned to the same bench in Pershing Square. The Angelenos roamed again, their lives remote-controlled by the phones in their hands. Once more, Lady Liar materialized without a sound. Her nails had been recently done and were crimson candy shells in daylight.
“My employer is willing to pay ten times what you earned last week,” she said.
“I won’t go that far.”
“You haven’t even heard the offer.” She smiled. “He wants you to teach him the thing you do. That’s all.”
“But that’s not really for sale,” said a man sitting next to us.
He too had somehow arrived here without being noticed.
Lady Liar’s eyes bloomed and she grabbed her high heel pumps and dashed barefoot out of the square.
I turned to her source of fright and only saw a thirtysomething Asian guy with messy hair, his hands patiently clasped in his lap. He watched her run without pleasure or astonishment. A pigeon landed nearby and he gave it the same regards.
“Should I be scared of you?” I asked dully.
“Never,” he said.
“Then why is she?”
“I’m a friend of Coyote.”
“He has friends?” I asked.
“Not many. Probably because he eats kittens. Anyway he told me about you, said I should check out your art.”
“My art? Why?”
“I know what an artist can do when I see their art.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not in a gallery anymore.”
“And you think that means you’re not an artist?” He looked worried for the first time. “All right then. Join the rest of these robots.” He gestured to the people around us with his palm. “Start believing that the only thing you are is what people tell you.”
“The hell do you want?” I stood up.
“For you to make art,” he said softly. “For you to explore your other abilities, not sell them to just anyone.”
“You’re asking for a lot.” Clouds parted and the sun stabbed my eyes. I put up my hand to block it and the man was gone, but in the palm of my hand was a date, a time, a location, and a name—Galen Gorry—all written in black ink. I didn’t know exactly where this place was but knew it was somewhere in the Arts District. I made my way out of Pershing Square, thumbing the details into my phone, blending in with the rest of amputees.
— W.R. from West Adams, Los Angeles
Art and magic are no different. But we are.