Although I had only lived in Hancock Park a few months, I came to feel as if I had lived there my entire life. I enjoyed walking through the neighborhood at night because I could see inside the well-lit mansions and imagine myself living in grandeur. I had imagined a life without poverty before, but this was different. Besides I wasn’t quite as poor as I used to be. After four years of being a personal assistant to a Hollywood producer, I had amassed a savings that, modest though it was, made me feel powerful. Instead of the old nightmares that used to paralyze me in my sleep, I started to have dreams, or perhaps delusions of great wealth and prestige. I can’t place where I was in these dreams. Actually, it wasn’t a particular place I was in but rather a state of being. It was a new kind of hunger that replaced the old hunger I used to have for food. I never forgot the times when I hadn’t had enough to eat. I would go to work in the morning with hunger pangs and by noon be light headed with the familiar gnawing and growling in my stomach. I’d have a peanut butter sandwich and an apple for lunch, and by five be ravenous again. That was the old hunger, but what surprised me about the new hunger was that it seemed to originate from the same place the old hunger did: my gut. It came directly from my gut, and it drove me like an animal.
On my nightly constitutionals I studied the people who lived in the splendid old mansions of Hancock Park. Sometimes I would stop in front of someone’s living room window and watch them while they argued with their spouse, or sat in their easy chair, watching television alone in the dark with a glass of bourbon in their hand. Sometimes I would get so close to the open window that I could hear the ice clinking in their drink, and smell the pot roast wafting through the air. I would often have to position myself behind trees or hedges so as not to be detected. One night I heard a woman crying in the shower. From the sidewalk I could smell her soap. It was pure castile with a hint of peppermint. I looked up at her bathroom window, listening to her sob and curse. She let out a low guttural moan that had a rhythm and cadence all its own. She was still moaning after she turned off the water. Then I heard a great crash and shattering of glass. She must have smashed the bathroom mirror, which made her cry even louder. Another family I studied were perpetually on their iPhones and other electronic devices. I watched them with binoculars from behind the Jacaranda in their front yard. They were served dinner by hired help in their dinning room every night. They ate from china and drank from crystal, but they were each trapped in their own cyber world. They laughed at what they saw on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and chatted using Bluetooth, but I never saw them speak to or even look at one another.
There was a young man, a little older than me, twenty-five or twenty-six, whose cat would sit on top of his Steinway while he played concertos. The way he played Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven made the cravings in my belly grow stronger. One night he caught me listening to him playing Bach but luckily he had a sense of humor. He stood up from his piano, stuck his head out the window and said, “You are either a criminal and I should call the police, or you’re a secret admirer and I should invite you in for tea.” I stepped away from the hedge I was hiding behind, “I’m sorry,” I said, tripping as I walked out into the flood of light in front of his living room window, “I’m not a criminal. I was just enjoying your playing. I’m going now.” I heard him laugh as I walked away, “Do you live in the neighborhood?” he called out. I just kept walking. “I’ll see you around, neighbor!” He waved at me, smiling, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to find a peeping Tom on his lawn.
Not all my neighbors lived in mansions. I lived in a one-room apartment on Mansfield. There were several places like mine on my street. They were built in the 1920’s. My apartment had been in my landlady’s family for seventy-five years. So had the apartment next to me which she had been living in most of her life. One night I was arranging my belongings in the closet. Struggling to get the bottom cedar drawer to close, I pulled it out and put it back on its tracks. But it still refused to close all the way. So I took the drawer out again, got down on the floor, reached my arm all the way back in, and felt what I thought was a paperback book. I grabbed it and saw that it was really a stack of photographs tied together with string. I untied the string and laid the photos out on my kitchen table, brushing the dust off of them with a dish towel. There were about a hundred photographs of people from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s taken all over Hancock Park. One of the pictures was of a pensive young woman in a black dress and black gloves, holding a bouquet of lilies, looking out the living room window of my apartment. I turned the photo over and in ballpoint pen it said, “ April 4th, 1942.” I could see a resemblance to that of my landlady. They were her family photographs.
As I looked at the photos I wondered what it was like to be a part of a family. What was it like to look like someone else, to have the same nose, eyes, and hair? Was it comforting to share their history or was it a trap? I wondered if their roots bound them together in family unity or if they constricted the flow of blood to their veins until they were lifeless. I took several of the photographs and propped them up around my apartment so that their faces were watching me as I sat in the middle of my living room. As I looked into their eyes it seemed that some of them started to look at me accusingly, bitterly. They blamed me for their half-lived, disappointed lives. Others were laughing at me and making remarks about my “nighttime shenanigans and tomfoolery,” as they put it. They were telling me to grow up and face “the way life really is.”
I fell asleep that night dreaming that I was lying in a dirt pit looking up at the moon and the stars. I could see the walls of the pit and I could hear people moaning. They were moaning and crying, and I could feel them writhing underneath me. I was in a mass grave of wounded and dead people. In the moonlight I could see my dress drenched in their blood. My only thought was to get out alive. I got up and walked over their bodies to the side of the pit. I stacked some of the dead in a mound, hoisted myself up by grabbing onto their limbs, and climbed out of the mouth of the pit. I ran toward the music I heard in the distance. It led me to a place that rose above the Hollywood Freeway. I was blinded by flood lights until the young man from Hancock Park who played the piano emerged from behind a tree into a grassy clearing. He took his place at his Steinway. His cat rolled over and lapped at the fur on his paws while he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto Number 20 in D Minor. “I’m glad you figured it out, neighbor,” he said. “Figured what out?” I asked. He smiled at me and continued to play.
Wendy Rainey's first book, Hollywood Church: Short Stories and Poems, was published by Vainglory Press, 2015. A selection of her short stories is featured in Hiram Sims’ textbook, These Pages Speak(World Stage Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Rusty Truck, Silver Birch Press, and Dryland Literary Journal among other places. She is a contributing poetry editor with Chiron Review.