Painting by John Paul Kesling
by Jacob Silverman
I drive over to Ivan's house, where he tells me about a feature he discovered on the Los Angeles Times' website. It's called the Homicide Report, he says, and it catalogs every killing in the city and offers the exact location, using Google Maps, the type of weapon used, the name of the victim, and other information. It's amazing, he tells me.
That sounds awful, I say.
Why would you want to track murders in the city? Isn't that a police thing?
I can search by fucking gender.
Issue #35 soundtrack: Yes Know "In Balance"
He clicks on a rectangular graphic advertising an "interactive map."
See these dots?
He waves his hand at the map on his screen, which is strewn with red circles.
Yeah. Why are some of them bigger than others?
That means that more than one person was murdered in that area.
He hovers over one of the large circles and a column on the right highlights several rows listing murder victims' names, ages, and dates of death.
Yup, four murders there this year.
This is brutal stuff, Ivan.
It's incredible. I can go back to 2007. More than 2,730 murders to sort through. Spectacular. It's like a yearbook of murder. An anthology of murder.
Why do you keep saying that word?
It's sort of a self-actualizing, Buddhist thing. The Homicide Report, the map, saying the word -- murder; murder; murder -- makes it more real to me. There are linkages, connections.
Makes no sense to me.
I mean, look at this. All these people connected by this. People dead, murdered [the word comes from deep in his throat] all around us. They should put up plaques. Or make marks in the street, like in Sarajevo.
Yeah. They call 'em Sarajevo Roses. People filled in small mortar craters with red resin. After the war there. Looks like a rose -- or a waxy blood splatter.
Suddenly a photo of one of these is on his screen. It looks as he said.
I lean back from the rose on the screen, taking him in. His black hair is oily and matted on his head, revealing slivers of white scalp. Small dark red lines run across his lips where they've dried and cracked and bled.
He swings a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue out of somewhere beneath his desk and takes a pull. He gestures toward me with it, his eyes wide and questioning.
I shake my head. It's eleven in the morning.
On my way out I stumble into Ivan's mom, Cecelia.
And how's Ivan? she asks.
How is he?
Yes, she says. Her murky grey eyes blink at an unreasonable speed. They bulge gruesomely, as if she recently upgraded to a larger model and has shoehorned them into her sockets.
He's obsessing over a website that tracks murders in the city. He talks about Sarajevo.
Yes, well, we think he may turn out to be a journalist after all.
Ivan's twenty-five and has had an equal number of jobs. I don't think he'll turn out to be anything, but I don't tell her that.
She's probably had a facelift (not her first). Her skin looks stretched like an elastic mask; the tension emerges near her cheekbones, below those massive eyes, and I begin to think that one day her skin will split open, perforated by the same cheekbones asked to buttress it.
Yes, well, I have to be going, I say.
So do we, she says, and I realize that her husband, Morris, has appeared next to her, as if a phantom. We have a party to attend!
The theme's In the Jungle! Morris shouts, offering a stiff-waisted shimmying dance before exhaling with a chesty huff.
Morris wears a leopard-spotted shirt that's an affront to jungle camouflage. In one hand he grips a shofar, a prop somehow chosen for the evening. He toots lamely on it, covering up his sound with exaggerated coughs and rubbing a hand over his head, which, save an encircling crown of spiky grey-black hair, is bald and liver-spotted -- the result of long days spent golfing his way through an early, lucrative retirement. (His mantra: Dotcom boom: got out when a lot of nothing was worth a lot of something.) He looks like a sick man trying to put on a brave face. To steel himself and his family he summons an overabundance of enthusiasm for every activity, which only reminds them that something is wrong.
Onward, my African Queen! Morris says, latching a hand around Cecelia's waist. She waves goodbye. As he tugs her out the door, her eyebrows perk up into faceless birds -- or perhaps that's how they always are, ever signaling a surprise that may never come.
After receiving a couple feverish e-mails, I drop by Ivan's house later in the week, but he's still in his room, parsing the Homicide Report.
We've had eight murders in the last ten days, he says. A major spike!
What's causing it?
Unknown. Must be something out there, he says, almost mystically. Here's a four-year-old bludgeoned to death by a relative, a brother-in-law who argued with the father. The rest are gunshots. A few gangbangers, some stray bullets, a guy at an ATM. Looks like typical stuff.
Ivan, want to go out?
He's printed out a half-dozen photos of Sarajevo Roses and taped them to the wall behind his desk.
Nice photos, I say.
Where'd you get them?
He's quiet for a minute, then says, Uhh, Wikipedia. Also found a dude in Bosnia and e-mailed him. Named Alec. Nice guy. Turned me on to a geotagged set of photos online. Maps and photos together. Can see where they all are. Precise shit.
I run into his parents again as I'm leaving. They're lugging bags out the door, two to a hand.
Where are you going?
Oh yes, hi, Sam, his mother says. We're going on a little vacation. Australia. Did you know the seasons are reversed there?
The grey eyes blink at humming-bird speed.
I have heard.
But not the water in the toilet, Morris says. That's a myth!
She looks at him as if this is a family secret he's spilled. His face collapses into a confused expression that seems to predate this conversation.
Well, we're off, she says. Please check on Ivan if you don't mind. Thanks, you're a doll. She leans forward and kisses my cheek, leaving a slick trail running close to my mouth. She smells pungent, some citrus-vanilla perfume. For a moment a gossamer filament of saliva hangs in the air, connecting us.
I don't visit Ivan for two weeks. I've taken on a few more shifts at the restaurant, trying to make some more money, and I don't have the stomach for the Homicide Report, which is all he wants to talk about when I call.
Three murders last week, Sam. All blacks, all gunshots: what do you make of that?
Why're you asking me this? Why do you talk like that?
What, it's not racist. That's who they are. Were.
He sends me e-mails, mostly about the Homicide Report. Some drift into talk of the Sarajevo Roses, which he sees as connected, if only through ceremony, like sister cities. He's been corresponding more with Alec, the Bosnian. Alec is a photographer, Ivan says. He's also trying to get to America. Thinks he can do some good work here, photographing ruined American industrial sites. It'd be an interesting change, he said. Or some kind of counterpoint. I don't fully understand it yet.
Not wanting to indulge him too much, I e-mail back, asking how Ivan can help an amateur Bosnian photographer get to the United States. Ivan responds indignantly, thinking I've challenged him somehow.
We've already started the process, he writes. Alec is shipping me boxes now. Stuff he wants me to hold onto before he gets here.
This seems like an awful idea, but I don't want to take it any further. I Google images of Sarajevo Roses. One website calls them concrete scars, a phrase that seems to gesture at something bigger, like all good euphemisms. I lie in bed and think about potholes, our concrete scars, and what color resin they deserve.
A few days later, another Ivan e-mail arrives: Alec will be here in a month. I hope you'll make room for him in our circle.
After a time, I give in, maybe to some sense of guilt, and visit Ivan. He buzzes me through the front gate and I enter through a side door that he's left unlocked while his parents are gone. Lets the deliverymen come straight to me, he said.
He looks thin and a bit dirty -- a few whiteheads on his neck beg to be popped -- though some light stubble and an electric razor plugged in near his desk tell me that he hasn't forsaken shaving. On the right side of his face is a candy-bar-sized white bandage stretching from temple to mid-cheek.
What happened to your face?
Ach, well, -- he taps his temple with a finger; the gesture resembles someone pointing a gun -- a spider laid eggs in my face. Can you believe that? Little baby spiders -- in my fucking face. Or at least, that was the fear. Doctor said that the bite and swelling were suspicious, alarming. Guy had to make a cut, drain, clean, sew it up. That kind of thing. But he says that all shall be well now. It'll heal up in a week or so. All shall be well, Sammy.
I shake my head. No longer retreating towards disbelief, only wonderment.
Doctor's appointment aside, there's no sign that he's left his room in days. His hair has grown shaggy and tangled, wavy strands looping over his ears like a religious man's side locks. A few more Sarajevo Roses cover the wall in front of him.
Sitting in a chair next to him, amidst the refuse of takeout food and used tissues, the rest of the house begins to feel like a continent that we've broken off from. We're now marooned on the landmass known as the Isle of Ivan. Looking toward the open door, the place begins expanding, the house floating away from us, becoming more remote. Soon we'll pass on stories about a lawless place only our ancestors truly remember.
Come on, Ivan. Let's go out. Burgers, beers, baseball game on a big screen: the whole deal. My treat.
Nope. No can do. See, I just discovered The Homicide Report's reader comments. For some of these murders, on the blog posts you know, people submit comments. Insane, crazy things, Sam. Like bleeding heart shit. Remembrances, angry letters, vows of revenge, silly half-assed philosophies about the meaning of life and death. Some people even post the names of who they think the killers are! It's like the virtual equivalent of one of those makeshift memorials -- except the flowers never wilt and no one steals the football that someone left there because the dead guy loved to watch the Redskins on Sunday.
Speaking of which: some big games tonight. Twins-Yankees. Dodgers-Giants. What'd'ya say?
I stand up and touch his shoulder. It feels bizarrely soft underneath his shirt, as if I could compress it like a chunk of foam. Ivan snaps around and slaps my hand away.
Enough, man! His chest heaves. His eyes, dark beads of wood, stare at me. I don't feel like going out, Sam.
I look away, towards the screen. He follows my gaze and somehow he relaxes, settling deeper into the chair.
I'm busy, he says. He waves at a stack of several boxes in the corner. Preparing for Alec.
What's in those?
The boxes are jeweled with various stamps and labels of international commerce.
Are you nuts? I can't open them. Wouldn't be right. He's trusting me.
I leave without saying anything more, picking up a few grease-stained bags on my way out.
I decide to take the next month off from visiting Ivan. I don't call or text. The e-mails continue, but they're all blank: maybe Ivan's idea of a joke. I try to highlight swathes of the messages' vast whiteness, thinking that he might have written notes in corresponding white font, but there's nothing, no invisible messages.
I work at the restaurant, a decent Caribbean chicken place where half the customers come in high and speak in bad Jamaican accents, and I try not to think about the Homicide Report, about children stabbed by their fathers or Ivan saying, I know there's a triple murder here somewhere. I wanted to show it to you. One of the vics [he's picked up some slang] is named Ivan. But the dude was Hispanic, if you'd believe it. Give me a second to find it.
One night after work I meet for drinks a girl who left her number on her receipt. Her name's Mandy (don't know the last name; she paid in cash). She likes tequila shots and we end up in her bed. The sex is perfunctory, and the next morning, a Wednesday, we make plans to see each other that Saturday. The day comes, I call her a couple times and she doesn't call back. I throw away the number and make an appointment to get tested.
I add more shifts and smoke joints in the alley with one of the other waiters, Emilio, who's trying to get his papers in order. He tells me stories about hiding from militias in El Salvador's jungles, and I look over his medical bills (nerve problem in his back), as if I'm equipped to advise him. We sneak pitchers of mint lemonade, fresh and delicious and cold, spiked with rum. We take turns spitting out the lemon seeds, seeing who is the distance king. Each night I go home to my apartment and fist a bundle of damp bills onto the dresser. Usually from the other room I hear my roommate, Lewis, a financial analyst but a nice guy, fucking his girlfriend, Jess, a lean, over-tanned brunette, with freckles arranged like galaxies colliding across the nebula of her nose, who cries out, shouting, "Lewis, oh God oh God oh God oh Gaaawwwddd," and I find myself lying in bed and jerking off to them, but once, instead of Jess, Mandy, or ghosts of conquests past, Ivan's mom, Cecelia, comes to mind, with those huge dark owl eyes blinking in time to my stroke, and before I can figure out how to feel about this, to what degree to hate myself, I've come and am thinking about Ivan again as I clean up my mess.
The next day I call him and no one answers; no response from the house phone either. I decide to go over there. Walking to my car, parked at the curb, I see something in the street. Moving closer, it becomes a squirrel, gently laid out in the road, its fur a faint tortoiseshell pattern and appearing varnished in the afternoon light. Around its head is a puddle of rich pink blood, like melted lipstick, and the squirrel's small tongue extends out of its mouth as if reaching for a taste. The creature doesn't have the flattened aspect of roadkill; it looks like the victim of something precise: a miniature person has taken his bat to the animal's head, mugged it and run off with its wallet. It's some kind of crime, and I stand there for a few minutes, swaying, daydreaming about calling 911 and waiting for the sirens, for people to leave their houses and come into the streets to leer and gossip.
A honking noise indicates that the police might be here, and I turn around to find a black Pontiac growling at me. Its driver waves at me to get out of the road. I oblige him and move, shouting for him to watch out for the squirrel. A middle finger juts out of the driver's side window as the car passes.
At Ivan's house, I ring the doorbell, but there's no answer. The sun is still out, but I can see some lights on in the house and the two cars, caked with dust and grime, in the driveway. On the cars' rear windshields, someone's finger has traced CREATE GOD on one, WASH ME! on the other. I hop the metal fence, catching one pant leg on the way down, slashing the denim open, up to mid-calf. My groin begins to ache. I may have pulled a muscle.
The side door is unlocked, as usual, but the handle is loose and jittery, barely able to make a full turn in my grip. No one answers when I call out. It's been at least six weeks, maybe far longer, since his parents left, but there's no sign of them. I sneeze; the air is stagnant, heavy with dust and a light smell of something rotten. I stick out my tongue and can taste it, bitter as old lettuce. I can't remember how long exactly it's been since I saw Ivan, and I wonder if we've become old in the way we once feared, and if our relationship will always follow the same pattern, sealed in this form. Everyone must have an Ivan.
Walking into his room, the smell becomes rank as I see the floor covered with paper and plastic bags, styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery, a few t-shirts and foreign-language movie posters that once hung on the room's walls. From underneath an Italian "Chinatown" comes a faint scratching noise, a shifting, like insects are scuttling around beneath, engaging in their own kind of commerce. The walls are covered with Sarajevo Roses. They've faded to a pink-brown, the paper yellowed and curling away from the blue putty he used to post them. I tramp through the mess to Ivan's chair, which I briefly think is empty, only to find sitting there, as if holding court, an ovular black bug, maybe a small beetle. I lean forward and look for its eyes and ask, Ivan? -- but my breath disturbs it and the creature produces wings and flies away, buzzing my ear as it flees.
Ivan had once pleaded to me that insects, in all their thousands of trillions, their presence in every pocket of Earth's air and land, even its waters, were the world's most dominant animal. Forget humans, he said. We're just interlopers, false kings and falser prophets. It's the bugs, man. They're the ones who'll be here long after we're gone. I asked, What about bacteria? Aren't they even more abundant, more invisible? He sat there in a stupor, until he shook his head resignedly, his gesture saying, You win. He was wrong, somehow he always is, but this conversation comes back to me, ringing in my head, because here they are, marshaling on his floor, planting flags in his wake.
On the computer monitor I expect to see the Homicide Report. I find myself wanting, needing to read it, but there is nothing -- just a gaping hole where someone or something has punched through it, leaving a jagged black gap in the glass, the inverse of a snowflake.
Looking toward the floor, I notice that the computer tower is gone. A few cables lie there, massive worms baked in the sun. Alec's boxes are also gone.
The printer sits on the desk. I slide open the paper tray. The plastic pieces throw up dust and squeal against each other, making me shiver.
I fish my phone out and dial him. The line rings a dozen times before someone answers -- a child, her voice a burst of tinny laughter.
Who is this?
She hangs up.
Sitting in his chair, in the shadow of the Sarajevo Roses, a low buzzing rising from the mess beneath me, I decide to wait until he comes home.
Jacob Silverman is a freelance writer, book critic, and contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The National, Tablet, and many other publications. His website is jacobsilverman.com and he tweets as @silvermanjacob. "Rose Garden" is his first published short story.
John Paul Kesling was born and raised in Northeast Kentucky. He received his BA in Art (emphasis in painting) from Morehead State University, and is an MFA Painting candidate at Savannah College of Art and Design. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Visit John's online portfolio at johnpaulkesling.com.
Yes Know is the project of L.A. bedroom musician Sandy Gilfillan. His debut album, "Place," was self-released in June. Visit Yes Know on Bandcamp or Facebook for more.