Brandon and Kara went hiking but were unprepared for the physical challenge. “Hiking is hard work,” said Kara. She cupped her hands and drank from a limpid mountain stream.
“But it’s awesome,” she said.
“Nature rocks,” said Brandon.
They were in the San Gabriel Mountains and from their elevation could see Los Angeles and the smog in the distance. In Los Angeles city people lived in tiny apartments. The tiny apartments had tiny windows and the tiny windows had tiny curtains which blocked the prying eyes of neighbors. The curtains, sometimes, needed to be ironed.
Brandon didn’t own an iron.
He thought about this.
Nature, he thought, is good because it’s simple and expansive.
Brandon came to the mountains to find enlightenment. Enlightenment, he learned from his yoga teacher, could be found in nature.
Kara thought Brandon needed stimulation. She liked him, she said, but was tired of his moodiness and constant napping.
Kara took off her overshirt and sat on a rock in the sun. Underneath she wore a tank top that Brandon admired on account of her breasts.
Kara has nice breasts, he thought, even if we are just friends.
A cloud moved away from the sun and a yellow sunbeam shined on a nearby tree.
“Look at that tree,” said Kara.
She pointed to the tall luminous pine.
“There’s so much meaning in that tree.”
The next day Kara was sick with dysentery.
Brandon visited her at the hospital.
He gave her a bouquet of flowers and asked how it was going.
“I have dysentery,” said Kara, “because microorganisms have invaded my intestines via my stomach.”
“Montezuma’s Revenge,” said Charles.
“The lesson,” said Charles, “is never to drink from a limpid mountain stream.”
Great, thought Brandon, Charles is here.
A few weeks later Brandon met Kara and Charles for dinner at a macrobiotic restaurant on La Brea.
They sat at a small round table and looked at their menus.
“I love macrobiotic food,” said Kara.
Charles said: “Macrobiotic food is my favorite.”
Brandon didn’t know about macrobiotic food.
He looked at his menu.
What’s seitan? he thought.
“I’m thinking of ordering the tempeh with miso-cured tofu cheese,” said Kara.
“On the ciabatta?” said Charles.
“It’s a carb,” he said.
Charles was a personal trainer.
Not so long ago he moved to Los Angeles from Orange County to expand his client base. This is how he met Kara.
First she was his client.
Then his girlfriend.
Soon they’d be moving in together.
“But I’ve lost five pounds,” said Kara.
“Because of the dysentery,” she said.
“In fluids,” said Charles.
Charles said: “Fluids don’t count.”
Kara pulled her hair away from her neck. Her neck was slender and featured an array of beauty marks.
“Then I’ll get the seitan wrap,” she said.
Charles ordered the chopped salad.
When it was Brandon’s turn he couldn’t decide.
In a panic he ordered the tuna roll.
But I hate sushi, he thought when the meals came out.
Charles said something about politics.
“I dislike the president,” he said.
“Garfield was my favorite president,” said Brandon.
“James A. Garfield?” said Kara. “President from March to July of 1881?”
“From Ohio?” she said.
“That’s the one,” said Brandon.
He said: “I think he would have proven to be an effective leader if he’d been given the chance.”
Charles put his hand on Kara’s knee.
“That’s funny,” said Charles. “Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, is my favorite presidential assassin, and it’s not just because we share a name.”
He said: “Did you know that Guiteau killed the president because he was sexually frustrated?”
“How awful,” said Kara.
Brandon poked his tuna roll.
“Don’t you agree, Brandon?” said Charles.
“That sexual frustration is awful.”
“I thought Guiteau killed Garfield because he wanted to be ambassador to France,” said Brandon.
“Please,” said Charles.
He said: “Everyone wants to be ambassador to France.”
The next day Brandon woke up to the bright morning sun shining through his bedroom window.
He walked to his couch and napped until lunch.
After lunch Brandon looked for jobs on the Internet.
He read: Financial Analyst, Portfolio Associate, Dental Receptionist, Detention Services Officer, Helicopter Repair.
Just like the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that, etc., there were no listings for Ethnomusicologist.
Ethnomusicology is all I am passionate about, thought Brandon.
Brandon had recently finished his Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology. Often he wondered why it seemed like no one besides himself realized how important it was to study music in conjunction with certain ethnographic and social phenomena.
He thought about all his Ethnomusicologist heroes.
Why would the world not want more Ethnomusicologists?
Soon he found himself looking at pornography.
To cheer himself up he went to the movies.
There were explosions.
When he walked out of the theater he felt even more depressed.
Film could have been a viable artistic medium, he thought, but it had shed all its loftier aspirations for pure financial gain.
I was entertained, he thought, but I wasn’t moved.
Brandon went to Kara and Charles’s housewarming.
Local business entrepreneurs and minor celebrities loitered in the living room and on the patio.
Since when, thought Brandon, did Kara befriend so many minor celebrities?
“Charles just opened his own athletic club,” said Kara.
“We’re considering a franchise,” she said.
They had just moved into a penthouse apartment in Silver Lake.
To celebrate they bought a Pekinese and named it Chu Chu.
Miranda July lived a floor above.
The apartment was decorated with modern furniture. Brandon wandered over to a sleek-looking bookshelf and looked at the bright and varicolored books.
Above the bookshelf was a painting.
Yellow, orange, a blur of red.
“Rothko,” said Kara.
“It’s just a print,” she said.
Miranda July stood alone at the drinks table.
She looked distractedly into her cup.
“That’s Miranda July,” said Kara.
“I liked her movies,” said Brandon, “and her book.”
“Thank you,” said Miranda July.
“They all occurred to me naturally,” she said, “as when a plant springs from the soil or when an animal gives birth to a litter of baby animals.”
Charles walked through the living room with a platter of cocktail shrimp.
Chu Chu trailed behind.
“Oh no!” said Kara. She said that Charles wasn’t supposed to serve the shrimp until after the crudités.
She chased Charles and Chu Chu back into the kitchen.
Miranda July asked Brandon what he did for a living.
“Ethnomusicologist,” he said.
“Unemployed,” he said.
“Of course,” said Miranda July.
She told Brandon that people in all worthwhile professions were practically unemployable. Then she told him about an uncle who was an analytic philosopher. He lived in squalor until he died.
“Pneumonia,” she said.
“It was probably very treatable,” she said.
A hired pianist began playing Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”
Brandon told Miranda July that the piece had been a favorite of his favorite Ethnomusicologist, the great Carl Stumpf.
Miranda July nodded.
“Music is the world-language of feeling,” she said.
Later that week the phone rang.
It was Miranda July.
“Of course,” said Brandon.
“I love lunch,” he said.
He stood in front of his closet and looked at his clothing. He thought about calling Kara then remembered that she and Charles had gone to Puerto Vallarta for the long weekend.
What does one wear? he thought.
Eventually he chose a dark shirt and thought about Miranda July.
“Hello, Miranda July,” said Brandon.
“Hello, Brandon,” said Miranda July.
Miranda July had chosen an outdoor table at the café and looked especially pale and elegant beneath the bright and cloudless sky.
Brandon said something about the weather.
“Seventy degrees and sunny,” said Miranda July.
“It was overcast this morning,” said Brandon.
“The marine layer,” said Miranda July.
Miranda July wore a black scarf which she took off and folded in her lap.
Brandon twisted his napkin.
Miranda July checked her phone.
She sent a text message.
A white van pulled to the curb and several paparazzi jumped out.
“Look!” said one. “Miranda July is eating lunch!”
They began assaulting Miranda July with bewildering flashes.
“With whom is Miranda July eating lunch?” said another.
The cameras flashed on Brandon.
“Look at the shabbiness of his clothing,” said a paparazzo. “The collar of his shirt is fraying. His jeans are ill-fitting. His shoes are nearly worn to the sole.”
“He must be a blossoming actor,” said another.
“A struggling artist.”
“An independent musician.”
When their lunch came out Miranda July squeezed ketchup onto her French fries. “These French fries are horrible,” she said.
“Taste them,” she said. “They’re limp and tasteless.”
Brandon thought the fries tasted okay but told Miranda July that she should send them back if she disliked them.
“One must not settle,” he said.
“I disagree,” said Miranda July.
She squirted more ketchup on the fries and continued eating.
She said: “An inability to settle can be the source of great unhappiness.”
“Puerto Vallarta is amazing,” said Kara.
As she walked her hair clacked in tight beaded braids.
“There are breathtaking sunsets and jungle-covered mountains,” she said.
Kara and Brandon were walking Chu Chu to the dog park near her new apartment.
Her new engagement ring burst into light in the sun.
Brandon told her that he’d had lunch with Miranda July.
“How’d it go?” asked Kara.
“She paid,” he said.
Kara scooped Chu Chu’s poop into a plastic bag.
Back at his apartment Brandon watched a news report about gray whales. The gray whales were dead and kept washing up on a nearby beach. Their smell menaced the surrounding beach communities.
The TV showed pictures of volunteers rolling the whales back to sea.
On the news a reporter explained that each time the volunteers rolled the whales out to sea they were washed up again somewhere else along the coast.
She interviewed a volunteer.
“This time,” said the volunteer, “we’re going to roll the whales out to sea and attach them to boats via meat hooks. The boats will drag the whales even further out into the ocean. With luck they’ll be eaten by sharks and other sea animals.”
They stood on a beach where the whale corpses moldered in the background.
The reporter blinked into the camera. Her nose and mouth were hidden behind a carbon mask but her eyes were brown.
Kara has brown eyes, Brandon observed.
He remembered the last time he and Kara had gone to the beach.
Brandon had rubbed suntan lotion onto Kara’s shoulders.
Kara had rubbed suntan lotion onto his.
But now, he thought, now Charles will be the only one to rub suntan lotion onto Kara’s shoulders.
Brandon, Kara, Charles, and Miranda July all went to the horseracing track in Hollywood.
They all sat in the box seats.
Chu Chu sat in Kara’s lap.
“Horseracing is the sport of kings,” said Charles. He flagged down a waiter and ordered more ice for their juleps.
“But it’s dangerous,” he said.
“Per one hundred thousand participants,” said Kara, “it has the highest number of deaths.”
“A blood sport,” said Charles.
Miranda July sat next to Brandon. Her hands were folded in her lap.
There are Miranda July’s hands, thought Brandon. I would offer to hold them but I don’t know her intentions.
He pondered the artist’s inscrutable self.
Charles talked about his athletic club.
“I’ve just hired an assistant,” he said. “His name is Javier and he has long golden hair and the most perfect biceps I’ve ever seen.”
The gates opened and the horses charged out.
“Which one did you bet on?” asked Kara.
“Blaze of Enchantment,” said Miranda July. “He’s currently running neck-and-neck with Apache Sunrise.”
“Apache Sunrise is a shoo-in,” said Charles.
He said: “He was sired by Sierra’s Sweet Rain.”
The horses rounded the far corner and thundered towards the grandstand.
As they came nearer Chu Chu leaped from Kara’s lap.
He bounded onto the track and was trampled by the thoroughbreds.
“Chu Chu!” said Kara.
“Blaze of Enchantment!”
The lead horses collapsed in a pile on top of the Pekinese.
Enraged, the other spectators began pelting Brandon, Kara, Charles, and Miranda July with their losing betting slips.
On the racetrack a team of stablehands began untangling the scrum of jockeys and horses.
“Chu Chu,” said Kara.
Charles wrapped her in his commiserative embrace.
“Poor Chu Chu,” said Charles. “My only consolation is that Blaze of Enchantment and Apache Sunrise will never race again.”
“Nor will Moonshadow,” said Miranda July.
“Nor Lady Boots,” said Brandon.
“Nor Peach Blossom,” said Charles.
“Nor Afternoon Delight,” said Miranda July.
After the ceremony Kara stood alone by the punch and crackers table and stroked her jar of ashes.
The principal looked at Brandon’s resumé.
“It says here,” said the principal, “that you’re an Ethnomusicologist.”
“I am,” said Brandon.
“Do you care to explain?”
“Yes,” said the principal.
On the wall behind the principal were portraits of the school’s previous principals. They gazed sternly at Brandon.
“And you propose to teach Ethnomusicology to elementary school children?”
“Yes,” said Brandon.
“Maybe,” he said.
The principal wrote something in his notebook.
“And what about the recorder?” said the principal.
He said: “Can you teach the recorder?”
“I can play the recorder,” said Brandon, “or the sweet flute as it was called in the eighteenth century.”
The principal reached into his desk and pulled out a recorder.
Brandon took the beige Bakelite instrument and blew into the fipple.
Out came a cascade of sweetly sour notes.
“Miranda July?” said Brandon.
“Yes, Brandon,” said Miranda July.
“Is it true what they say about us in the tabloids?”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am.”
“It’s not even a little bit true?”
“How could something be a little bit true?”
“Well—” said Brandon.
He said: “We do spend a lot of time together.”
After Miranda July left his apartment, Brandon continued lying on his couch and continued thinking about it.
But we really do spend a lot of time together, is what he thought.
Brandon phoned his mother in Cleveland.
“I don’t feel special,” he said.
His mother told him that he was special.
But she was his mother.
Another week passed and he heard nothing from the job search, nor did he hear anything from Miranda July.
Kara told Brandon that she didn’t know what to tell him about Miranda July. “But when it comes to the job search,” she said, “maybe you should expand your horizons.”
They were at Charles’s athletic club.
Kara wore a black unitard and was on the step machine.
Her face was red from stepping.
“Ethnomusicology is diverse,” said Brandon.
“It’s multidisciplinary,” he said.
On the other side of the gym Miranda July was doing dumbbell squats in front of the long mirror. Brandon thought she was watching him.
“But maybe you should apply for other types of jobs?” said Kara.
“Charles could help you,” she said.
Brandon told her that he refused to work for The Man.
“The Man?” said Kara.
“The establishment culture,” said Brandon.
Kara told Brandon that she knew what The Man was.
“What year do you live in?” she said. She told Brandon that history had long proven the institution to be ubiquitous.
Meanwhile, Charles’s new assistant, Javier, approached Miranda July.
He placed the hand of his well-muscled arm above her buttocks and demonstrated a more efficient squat.
“Bend at the hips,” he said.
“The hips?” said Miranda July.
“Your fine curvaceous hips.”
Well, thought Brandon.
Back at his apartment he continued searching for jobs on the Internet.
Soon he was looking at pictures of naked girls.
The naked girls touched themselves. The naked girls touched each other.
Sometimes the naked girls touched each other with ice cubes.
The owners of the lamed horses were suing Charles and Kara.
“It’s outrageous,” said Charles.
“They want eleven million,” he said.
Charles chopped vegetables in his kitchen. He was making a salad to go with his steak. He chopped tomatoes and onions, zucchinis and bell peppers.
He chopped with zeal.
“But we’re going to file a counterclaim,” said Kara.
Her knife wavered over an avocado.
She said: “The racetrack was not properly barricaded.”
“The lawyers agree,” said Charles. “A post-and-rail fence is not an adequate barrier.”
“Lawyers?” said Brandon.
Said Charles: “My team of expensive lawyers.”
Brandon’s father had been a lawyer. He’d practiced corporate law until he was disbarred for tax evasion. Currently he was serving time in the penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio, which had once been prison to Charles Manson.
Brandon liked to point out that Charles Manson was a very important figure in North American Ethnomusicology.
“Charles Manson had close ties to the Beach Boys,” said Brandon.
He said: “He contributed lyrics to the song ‘Never Learn Not to Love.’”
“Everyone knows that,” said Charles. “His contribution was uncredited. The song was originally entitled ‘Cease to Exist.’”
Kara changed the subject.
“Let’s change the subject,” she said.
She asked if anyone had heard about the gray whales.
“Back again,” said Brandon.
“Those poor people,” said Kara. “But I suppose everyone must suffer. After all, suffering is the counterpoint to happiness.”
Everyone agreed and Kara served dinner.
After dinner she announced that she was joining the job search.
“Lawyers are expensive,” she said.
“As are weddings,” said Charles.
He said: “Lawyers and weddings.”
He proposed a toast.
Brandon went to the grocery store.
He pushed his cart down the frozen food aisle and selected frozen pizza, frozen pot pie, frozen lasagna, frozen buffalo wings, frozen mixed vegetables, frozen Hot Pockets.
Then he steered his cart into the condiments aisle and reached for a bottle of ketchup.
On the other end of the aisle Miranda July was reaching for a bottle of mustard.
“Miranda July,” said Brandon.
“Brandon,” said Miranda July.
They pushed their carts towards each other and met in the center of the aisle in front of the salsa and mayonnaise.
Miranda July’s cart was filled with cans of tuna fish.
She wore a white T-shirt and her breasts were two small cones that pointed at Brandon’s chest.
He tried to imagine them naked.
Miranda July’s breasts, he thought.
Veil of cotton, he thought.
“Brandon?” said Miranda July.
“Um,” said Brandon.
“It’s good to see you,” he said.
He asked Miranda July about the tuna fish.
She explained that it was for a performance piece.
She said: “I’m going to cover myself in tuna fish and molder on an expensive beach.”
“Like the whales,” she said.
“What beach?” asked Brandon.
Said Miranda July: “Art doesn’t ask why.”
Brandon paid for his groceries and went back to his apartment. His landlord was waiting for him on the front steps.
“Your rent is due,” said the landlord.
She sat with her walking cane across her knees and a cigarette burning between two fingers.
“It was due last week,” she said.
Brandon shifted his groceries from one arm to the other.
He shifted them back.
“I don’t have enough money,” he said.
The landlord grinned.
Her teeth glinted under the blank gray sky.
“How much did those cost you?”
“My groceries?” said Brandon.
“Your groceries,” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I guess about one hundred dollars,” he said.
The smoke rose off her cigarette.
“I want them,” said the landlord.
“Yes,” she said.
“Give me your groceries,” she said.
“Be an empty rice bowl,” said the yoga instructor.
Brandon bent himself into the position.
He pressed his hands and feet to the mat and pushed upwards.
What he liked most about yoga was the mat. When he stood on it he felt as if he were on his own private rubberized island.
I am an empty bowl of rice, he thought.
His hips and buttocks strained towards the ceiling.
Next to him Kara did the same.
The yoga instructor strolled by and stopped to comment on Kara’s form.
“Good,” said the yoga instructor.
“Feel the fireflies in your stomach,” he said.
The yoga instructor’s bare foot was planted on Brandon’s mat. His big toe was leveled directly below Brandon’s nose.
Empty bowl of rice, thought Brandon.
Empty bowl of rice, he thought.
Private island, he thought.
“Brandon?” said the yoga instructor, “what’s wrong?”
After the class Brandon arranged his face into a smile.
He pulled his lips towards his cheeks, his cheeks towards his forehead, and his forehead towards his occipital bone.
“What are you doing?” said Kara.
“Smiling,” he said.
“It looks painful.”
Kara tied her shoes and continued telling Brandon about her new job.
“Which is why yoga is good,” she said, “because work puts so much strain on the body. After work my neck is strained. My upper back is strained. My lower back is strained.”
“But you must be happy to have found a job so quickly.”
“Not happy,” said Kara.
She crossed her legs and began tying the other shoe.
“What I feel is more like relief,” she said.
She said: “Charles and I are relieved to have the extra money. Our legal costs are mounting and so are our wedding costs. The wedding decorator wants to know what we want for centerpieces. Charles wants floating tea candles. I want fresh flowers. Obviously we can’t have both.”
“Obviously,” said Brandon.
But the distinction bothered him long after he returned home.
Why couldn’t one have both floating tea candles and fresh flowers?
He stood in front of his empty refrigerator and gazed into its darkest depths.
What a cruel world this is, he thought, where one must constantly be forced to choose between two equally attractive but competing desires.
I can continue being an Ethnomusicologist, he thought.
Or I can eat.
Brandon stood at the tee box and gazed out onto the fairway.
The hole was a long dogleg.
Sand traps pooled in the distance.
“What do you think?” said Charles. He pondered his shot and consulted with Javier. “Which club should I use?”
Javier crossed his muscular arms, cupped his chin, and brooded.
“Three wood,” he said.
“My thoughts exactly,” said Charles.
He said: “The three wood has a long flexible shaft, a nicely shaped head, and a thick sturdy hosel.”
Charles swung the club and the ball disappeared.
It was Brandon’s turn.
He swung his club at the ball and missed.
He swung and missed again.
“Two strokes,” said Charles.
“The trick,” said Charles, “is to keep your head down and follow through with your swing.”
Brandon swung again and this time the club connected.
The ball bounced a few yards before settling in the grass.
“Good,” said Charles.
“Well, not good,” he said, “but you know what I mean.”
Charles and Javier mounted the cart and drove ahead to look for their shots.
Meanwhile, Brandon continued hitting his ball up the dogleg. When he finally came around to the other side of the trees he saw the cart parked in a secluded grove behind the green.
Charles and Javier were in the cart and from a distance they seemed to be embracing.
Charles seemed to be embracing Javier.
Javier seemed to be embracing Charles.
And it seemed as if they were doing something with their mouths, as if their mouths were also embracing.
Shocking, thought Brandon.
He thought: I am absolutely shocked.
But when he thought about it later he was somehow not surprised. I was shocked, he thought, but I’m not surprised.
Brandon met Kara for lunch the next day.
They sat on a bench in front of Kara’s office building and watched the reflections of clouds drift across the big mirrored windows.
“How’d it go?” said Kara.
She’d packed sandwiches for both of them, peanut butter and jelly for herself and just peanut butter for Brandon because he didn’t like jelly.
“Fine,” said Brandon.
“Charles is going to help you with the job search?”
“Excellent,” said Kara.
“Charles is so generous,” she said.
She bit into her sandwich and a large gob of jelly slipped out. Brandon picked up his napkin and pressed it to her blouse.
“Kara,” he said.
He said: “There’s something I need to tell you about Charles.”
As the purple stain spread across her breast Brandon told her everything he’d seen out on the golf course.
“Do you solemnly swear to the tell the truth? The whole truth? And nothing but the truth? So help you God.”
After Miranda July testified about Chu Chu and the racehorses it was Brandon’s turn.
He sat on the hard wooden bench and felt the judge’s eyes upon him.
He felt the jury’s eyes, the lawyers’ eyes, the bailiff’s eyes, the court reporter’s eyes, the horse owners’ eyes, Miranda July’s eyes, Javier’s eyes, Charles’s eyes, and Kara’s eyes.
He felt Kara’s eyes most of all.
Kara held Charles’s hand and glared at Brandon.
The interrogation began.
Brandon described the scene the best he could.
There was the noise, the stink, the heat, and the thick cloud of dust settling over the grandstand after Chu Chu had been trampled.
There were horses splayed on the beaten dirt track.
And from underneath it all, there was the handle end of Chu Chu’s leash.
The lawyer for the horse owners paced in front of the jury box.
Twelve representative heads swung back and forth.
“And your father?” she said.
“Would you please tell us about your father?” she said.
“My father?” said Brandon. “He wasn’t at the racetrack.”
“Why not?” said the lawyer.
“Because he lives in Ohio.”
“You mean in prison,” said the lawyer.
She said: “He lives in prison in Ohio.”
She stopped pacing and cracked open the red slash of lipstick on her face, revealing two rows of very white teeth.
“Let the record show,” she said, “that Brandon’s father is a criminal.”
She said: “Let the record further show that his mother’s been calling him but that he hasn’t returned her calls.”
Charles’s lawyer tried to object but his objection was overruled.
“Your soul is narrow,” the horse owners’ lawyer told Brandon.
She said: “Your character is flawed.”
Across the courtroom Kara continued to glare.
Brandon pulled his couch onto the sidewalk.
He wrote $100 on a piece of cardboard and leaned it against the couch’s cushions.
Then he went back into his apartment and brought out his mattress, his bed frame, his table, his chairs, his television stand, and his bookshelf.
He priced everything to sell and sat on the steps waiting for buyers to come.
Soon two teenaged boys appeared.
Each was pushing a bike that appeared to have been stolen. The bikes were girls’ bikes with pink flower decals and silver streamers streaming from the handlebars.
The teenagers dropped the bikes in the grass and flopped down on Brandon’s couch.
“How much?” said one.
Brandon told him.
“How about fifty?” said the other.
“Fine,” said Brandon.
Then the teenagers assaulted Brandon.
One punched him in the stomach and brought him to the ground. The other kicked him in the face.
While Brandon writhed on the ground the teenagers picked up his couch and walked away with it.
They left their bikes in the grass.
Soon Brandon picked himself up off the sidewalk.
He picked up the bikes and priced them $10 each.
“Your couch?” said Miranda July.
“Yes,” said Brandon.
“The teenagers,” he said.
They were sitting on the floor of Brandon’s apartment. Brandon pressed a beer bottle to his swollen nose.
On the TV on the floor across from them a news reporter was standing in front of the courthouse.
A picture of Chu Chu flashed on the screen.
“How’s your nose?” said Miranda July.
“I think it’s broken,” said Brandon.
Miranda July stared at his bruise. Her irises were two black disks that scanned back and forth across Brandon’s face.
She asked Brandon if she could touch it.
She said: “I’ve never touched a broken nose.”
She cupped her hands over his nose.
“It’s warm,” said Miranda July.
“Warmer than a normal nose,” she said, “and firmer than I expected for something that’s broken.”
A tear ran down Brandon’s cheek.
Charles and Kara stepped out of the courthouse and were greeted by a clutch of reporters.
The reporters pushed towards them and asked them how they felt about the verdict.
“Victorious,” said Charles.
He said: “This is a victory for dog owners everywhere. It proves that post-and-rail fences are not adequate barriers for horseracing tracks. We hope that horseracing track owners everywhere see the message that has been sent today and replace their post-and-rail fences with more substantial fencing.”
Kara reached into her purse and removed a framed picture of Chu Chu.
“Imagine,” she said, “if it had not been our little dog that had wandered onto the racetrack but that it had been somebody’s child who had been crushed to death under the hooves of so many horses.”
Kara gazed intently into the cameras and continued fondling the picture of Chu Chu.
“Kara looks fat,” said Miranda July.
“It’s the TV,” said Brandon.
“I agree,” said Miranda July.
She said: “TV makes everyone fat.”
That night Brandon had a nightmare.
It began, as so many dreams do, as a dream of naked girls.
The naked girls were washing cars. Some washed the cars with hoses. Others washed the cars with sponges.
Eventually a school bus appeared for the naked girls to wash.
They lathered and sprayed the school bus and when it emerged from the cloud of soap one of the naked girls told Brandon to get in.
“In the bus?” said Brandon.
“Get in,” she said.
Brandon got in the bus and said hello to Miranda July who was driving it.
“Where are we going?”
“Home,” said Miranda July.
But as the bus began traveling it became clear that Miranda July wasn’t taking Brandon back to Ohio.
There was rainforest out the bus’s windows.
Ocean on the other side.
“Where are we?” said Brandon.
“Puerto Vallarta,” said Miranda July.
“It’s beautiful,” said Brandon.
“Indeed,” said Miranda July.
“But it’s also dangerous,” she said.
As soon as she said this three people stepped out onto the road in front of the bus. Each wore a red balaclava and carried an ak-47.
“See,” said Miranda July.
She brought the bus to a stop.
The guerillas boarded the bus and pointed their guns at Brandon’s face.
“Give us your nose,” said one.
This one was well-muscled and had a familiar voice.
“Charles?” said Brandon.
Charles took off his balaclava.
“Give us your nose,” he said.
Kara took off her balaclava.
“Your lying nose,” she said.
Then the third person stepped forward and swiped the nose off Brandon’s face.
“Brandon,” said his landlord.
“I’ve got your nose,” she said.
When Brandon woke up his nose was throbbing.
He found a note taped to his door.
The teenagers wanted their bikes back. If the bicycles weren’t returned, the teenagers said, they were going to mess Brandon up.
They made a short list of the things that they’d do to him.
We’ll slice off your ears.
We’ll feed your ears to birds.
We’ll invert your knees.
Below the list was a picture of an earless stickman with inverted knees.
There were stickbirds on the ground eating the stickman’s ears.
Though the drawing was crude, the teenagers had been able to render the stickman’s obvious pain.
Brandon decided not to be home when the teenagers came back.
He rolled up his yoga mat and went to the yoga studio. But when he arrived there the woman at the counter told him that he couldn’t take the class.
“Your nose,” she said.
“It’s bleeding,” she said.
Brandon touched his nose and saw that it was indeed bleeding. He also realized that he couldn’t feel it. His nose was numb.
“May I have a tissue?” he said.
The woman gave him the box.
Brandon sat on the bench outside the yoga studio and rolled tissues into his nose. He thought about going home.
But then he thought about the frowning stickman.
Later Kara came out of the yoga studio and found Brandon sitting on the bench. Her skin shone with a lucent halo of sweat.
“Brandon?” she said.
She asked what he was doing there.
Then she asked what had happened to his face.
“Teenagers,” said Brandon.
“How horrible,” said Kara.
“But,” she said, “I suppose you deserve it. After all it’s like they say: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, etc.”
“They?” said Brandon.
“Yes,” said Kara.
She said: “That’s what they say.”
“And Charles?” said Brandon.
“Charles and they,” said Kara.
Then she told Brandon that the teenagers must have been the agents of karmic justice, doling out punishment for the lies that Brandon had been spreading about Charles.
She also told Brandon that he was mostly forgiven.
“After all,” she said, “forgiveness is the better part of valor.”
“Not discretion?” said Brandon.
He took out a tissue to see if his nose was still bleeding.
“Forgiveness,” said Kara.
She told Brandon that she forgave him because his jealousy of Charles was understandable. Charles was successful. He was a small business owner. Brandon, on the other hand, was something else entirely. He was like an artist, she said, but without the skills and ambition.
To show how forgiven he was, she invited him to the launching of their new boat.
“We bought it with a small part of the settlement,” she said.
“The Chu Chu Too,” she said.
When Brandon arrived back at his apartment he saw that the door was ajar. He stood at the threshold and peered down the hallway.
At the end of the hallway he saw the kitchen.
Inside the kitchen he saw his refrigerator.
The refrigerator was sideways; it was tipped on its side.
Brandon went to Miranda July’s.
He went to Kara’s.
He called his mother.
No one was home.
Brandon called the prison in Ohio. He was transferred from the switchboard operator to a prison guard and was then put on hold.
Eventually his father came on the phone.
“Brandon?” said Brandon’s father.
“Yes,” said Brandon.
He asked his father about prison life.
“Fine,” said his father.
He said the food was fine. His bed was fine. His roommate was fine. He liked the rigid schedule. He had lots of time to read.
“The library is very impressive,” he said.
He said: “I’ve read Bentham, Kierkegaard, and Foucault.”
Brandon told his father that he was happy to hear that he was enjoying his imprisonment.
He said: “After all, the system is designed to do more than punish.”
“Indeed,” said Brandon’s father. “The system is meant to lead to a reconciliation with reality. Crime is the refusal to accept the basic facts of existence. In most rational societies that which is abhorrent to nature is also against the law.”
He asked Brandon if he’d heard about the gray whales.
“Take those gray whales for example,” his father said. “Their refusal to decay in the ocean is criminal. It goes against their very function in nature. The function of gray whales is to live and decay in the ocean. If they refuse to do the latter who will feed the bottom feeders?”
“Anarchy,” said Brandon.
“Exactly,” his father said.
“You look terrible,” said Kara.
“The teenagers,” said Brandon.
“I’m afraid to go home.”
Brandon explained about his refrigerator.
Kara closed the door and stepped outside her apartment.
She asked where he’d been staying.
“The Saharan Motel,” said Brandon. He told her that his room looked out onto the pool. It had a bed, an air conditioner, and a minibar, which technically was more than he had in his own apartment.
He told her that whenever he tried to fall asleep he’d hear the minibar and be reminded of his own refrigerator.
He hadn’t slept in a week.
“Can’t you unplug it?” said Kara.
“I tried that,” said Brandon.
He told Kara that the maid had found the cord and told the management about it. The management had threatened to kick him out.
“But I have worse problems,” said Brandon.
He told Kara that his nose had turned from numb to cold.
“Can you lose a nose?” said Kara.
Brandon didn’t know for sure but he thought that you could.
“Oh yes,” he said.
He said: “You can definitely lose a nose.”
After they went to the doctor’s Kara drove Brandon back to his motel.
“Now we know,” said Kara.
They sat on Brandon’s bed and listened to the sound of his minibar’s engine. There was a vacuum cleaner in the distance. On the wall a picture of a slow camel moving towards an oasis.
“Yes,” said Brandon.
“I’m relieved,” said Kara.
She said: “I’m happy that your nose is fine.”
“It’s not fine,” said Brandon.
“It’s broken,” he said.
“But you’re not going to lose it,” said Kara.
“That’s true,” said Brandon.
She said: “The only type of nose you can lose is a syphilitic nose.”
Outside the sun quivered in the swimming pool.
A child sat in the sandbox and built a shapeless lump.
“I don’t have syphilis,” said Brandon.
He said: “Because I haven’t been having sex.”
“Promiscuous sex,” said Kara.
She said: “You can only get syphilis from having promiscuous sex.”
Brandon thought about Charles.
Charles has promiscuous sex, is what he thought.
Everyone gathered at the marina for the launch of the Chu Chu Too.
Brandon was gathered with a fresh bandage across his nose. Kara was gathered. Charles was gathered. Javier was gathered. Miranda July was gathered.
Charles wielded a bottle of champagne.
He held it by its neck, ready to smash it against his brand new yacht.
But before he smashed his champagne he made a speech.
Said Charles: “Back in the Viking times the Vikings marked the launch of a new boat with a human sacrifice. They sacrificed a human and spilled his blood into the sea to satisfy the sea gods.”
He went on: “Like Vikings we are gathered here today to launch a new boat. But unlike Vikings we are not allowed to sacrifice human beings. Instead we are going to sacrifice a very expensive bottle of champagne. May this bottle of champagne satisfy the sea gods so that they protect us on this voyage and on many voyages to come.”
He broke the bottle and everyone applauded.
Kara handed out yachting caps.
Everyone boarded the boat.
“How do you like it?” said Miranda July.
“Fun,” said Brandon.
“My first time on a boat,” he said.
Brandon and Miranda July stood alone at the rear of the boat. Everyone else was at the front of the boat eating shrimp on toothpicks and laughing.
The laughter flew back like spray from the waves.
Brandon’s nose was bleeding.
He was cold and nauseous.
Every time the boat bumped over a wave he grabbed the rails and choked down a tide of vomit.
The boat hit a wave and Brandon grabbed the rail.
“I hate boat rides,” said Miranda July.
She said: “Boat rides always go on too long. The sun is always too hot. The boats are always too confining. But every time I’m invited I accept. I think maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time it will be a fun boat ride. But at the same time I know exactly what’s going to happen.”
“What’s going to happen?” said Brandon.
“Reality,” said Miranda July.
After they had sailed past Venice Beach and Santa Monica Beach and had begun the long curve up the coast towards Malibu, Charles called everyone to the front of the boat.
He and Javier had brought along golf clubs and wanted everyone to hit golf balls into the sea.
He offered Kara the chance to go first.
“What about the fish?” said Kara.
“What fish?” said Charles.
Kara said: “I don’t want to hit a fish.”
“You won’t hit a fish,” said Charles.
He handed a club to Javier and Javier swung it.
The ball landed far away in the water.
There was a tiny white splash.
“See,” said Charles.
“The ocean is vast but mostly fishless,” he said.
He gave a club to Miranda July and she dutifully knocked a ball into the water.
Then he gave one to Brandon.
“Let’s see if you remember how it goes,” said Charles.
Brandon looked out at the ocean.
Then he looked at Kara.
Her brown eyes.
But not her breasts, thought Brandon.
Not her breasts, he thought.
“I can’t,” said Brandon.
“The fish,” he said.
Charles hit two more balls into the water.
“No fish,” he said.
“Oh it does look like fun,” said Kara.
She stood at the front of the boat and raised the club above her head.
But before the club connected with the ball the boat bumped over a wave and everyone lunged forward.
When Brandon stood up again he looked to the spot where Kara had been standing.
Kara was gone.
Everyone stood at the rail and called into the water.
But there was no Kara.
There was just blue-black sea.
Charles climbed over the rail and dived into the ocean.
Javier peeled off his shirt and jumped in as well.
Miranda July clutched a lifesaver.
“Look,” she said.
She pointed at a floating whale corpse that had surfaced alongside the ship. There was a whole rotten pod of them.
“It’s the whales,” said Miranda July. “That’s what we hit.”
Brandon could smell them.
“The stench,” he said.
“Truly horrible,” said Miranda July.
Then Brandon saw Kara. She was clinging to a whale corpse and drifting further away from the boat.
“There she is,” said Brandon.
He climbed up the rail and pointed.
“Kara,” he said.
“I’m coming,” he said.
But Charles and Javier had also seen her.
They began swimming towards her, their muscular arms pulling them through the water with ease.
By the time Brandon had removed his shirt they had already reached her. The three were hugging together and paddling back towards the boat.
The rescue was already over.
It’s too late, he thought.
But Brandon jumped in anyway.
He mounted the rail and plunged into the water.
He was a poor swimmer and was dunked by the waves. But when he got his head above the water he could see Kara and Charles moving together in the distance.
The whales rose and sank around him.
There was music in the water, the sound of waves slapping on the whales’ bodies.
“Wait for me,” he said.
He was moving farther away from the Chu Chu Too but didn’t seem to be getting any closer to Kara and Charles.
“I’m coming,” he said.