Something Different

By Justice McPherson

My eyes scanned the small studio apartment, making sure the power was off and that I wasn’t just imagining things. The laptop sat on the ground by my feet with a blank screen. It was blank before, but now the screen was black instead of white. The man on the phone hummed a melody to himself while we waited to see if my late payment had cut the power. I pushed my left headphone deeper into my ear to listen. The sunlight creeping through the polyvinyl blinds flashed in and out. A warm breeze picked up the blinds and pushed them aside, revealing palm trees swaying outside. It all came together like music, and I always appreciated the ease of music, like the way wind pushed things along.

“I’m sorry, did you say something, sir?”

“No, I was only thinking,” I said.

“Oh.” He pulled away from the phone and sighed, trying to remember the tune he was humming. “You managing the heat?” he asked after some silence.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve never been in a drought before.”

“Well, welcome to California; it’s not always sunshine and pretty ladies.”

“I’m starting to see that.”

Outside, a woman sang her own tune in Spanish, in spite of her cracking voice. I hadn’t heard it until my A/C unit sputtered out and died, and that was when I knew something was wrong. I stood up and paced around the window where there was still fresh air to keep the sweat off of my body, and still light. A night without the purr of my giant metal box worried me; I might drown in the heat. Between our two buildings, the woman’s song echoed in the shade of the trash-filled alleyway, and when she went back inside with her laundry, it stopped.

“Well,” the man huffed, “I’m still waiting for my boss to message me back. Sorry to keep you on the line like this, but we’re pretty busy today.”

“It’s fine. I don’t have anything going on,” I said.

“I was actually supposed to be getting off early today. Me and the wife got a new place, and we were hoping to start the move this weekend.”

“Is that right?”

“Yup, used to live way out in the sticks, but now we’re closer to … well, to town.”

The man was a stalled engine; each time I got close to his personal life, he sputtered out. Most of us living in LA were transplants from somewhere else, but he hid his story like a family curse. His accent was laced with southern twang; I recognized it the same way I recognized a can of Pepsi. It was a brand, but I’d never heard the real accent for myself. In the long silences between our words, I pictured him in a trailer surrounded by wild grass, watching reruns while moths flapped back and forth across the television screen. I got out my notebook and wrote the image down, but all I got was “Southern Accent.”

“Congratulations on the move,” I said, then asked, “Any kids in that house?” pulling the headphone speaker up closer to my mouth. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Just the two from another marriage. My son is graduating from Northridge this year and my daughter’s fixin’ to be thirteen in July.”

“That’s great.” I wasn’t sure. “Cal State Northridge? Do they have any kind of sports teams?”

“Well, his daddy’s a Florida State fan,” he said, perking up. “Has been ever since Bryant left Alabama. Now, he was originally an art history major, but he came around and switched to sports journalism. He’ll be covering the Seminoles one day, we’re hoping.”

“What made him change his mind?” I asked, because covering a college football team seemed like such an odd thing to hope for.

He cut me off, “Okay, I’m getting a message back from my boss. She says there’s rolling blackouts in your area. This is pretty standard procedure when the heat puts a strain on our system.”

“So it has nothing to do with my late payment?” I fanned my face with my hand to keep the sweat off of my skin.

“No, sir.”

“How long do these blackouts usually last?”

“You’ll probably get your power back sometime within the next few hours or so.”

I had a bad case of writer’s block and the apartment was like an oven, so I thought a walk might kill some time, change things up. It might even spark some inspiration. I picked up my shoes and sat down in my camping chair, the only other piece of furniture I had in the apartment besides the air mattress. Every night before bed, I had to blow the air mattress up because of a small hole growing at the bottom. I wanted to throw it away before the weekend, but then I’d be sleeping on the floor.

“I think I’m just going to go for a walk. Wait it out.”

“Sounds like a good idea, sir,” he said.

“Thanks for being so friendly; I wasn’t expecting that, but it was nice.” I tied my shoe laces in a double knot, then wiped the sweat away from my forehead and rubbed it on my shorts.

“You know, about California. The movie studios used to shoot all over the state, but they’d use certain places as stand-ins for others. You know, say it was one place, but really it was something else.”

“Really? I never knew that.”

“Mhmm. Take Lake Tahoe, for example. They might call that Switzerland, or the French Alps. And down by the border, they called that the Sahara, but it’s all just California. Interesting, ain’t it?”

“Very,” I said, crossing out “Southern Accent” from my notebook. The image had left me.

I stepped out into the baking afternoon, still unsure as to where my walk would take me. Son mexicano music rose up through the neighborhood, carried by the crowds and the smell of smoked meats. It was the music that accompanied a hot day in my neighborhood. Heat like this lasted all night and into the morning, but for now it was weak and crowds gathered to celebrate, even with the power out. The sun was just a sliver on the horizon. It ran from the darkness in the east, so I decided to follow it.

The sidewalks in my neighborhood were broken and irregular. I stumbled over a slab of concrete jutting out of the ground, pushed up by tree roots, and caught myself before I fell. Heading west on the smaller, less traveled roads running parallel to Santa Monica Boulevard, I passed by corners filled with supermarkets and fast food chains. The lawns outside of the apartment complexes were withered and brown from the drought. Behind old, iron-gated fences, men sat under the shade of their porches and listened to battery-powered radios. Their eyes followed me as if they could tell that I wasn’t supposed to be there, a feeling I’d grown accustomed to.

Past the forgotten neighborhoods, where there was still sun, trees grew in dense canopies and fought each other for space. It used to be the rows of palm trees that excited me, the ones I’d seen in post cards, but they looked like weeds next to the bay figs and sycamores. If I followed the sun long enough, there would be no more trees, just the ocean breeze along the piers. And if I walked over the water, then it would be just me and the sun on the horizon.

The farther from my apartment building I went, the smoother the sidewalks were; the neighborhoods were more refined. Streets curved around the oldest buildings, built in the shadow of their histories. Roofs were scaled with Spanish tiles and the names of the complexes were written in pastel colors and curved fonts. I got lost as the organized grids crumbled into twists and circles. I walked at the edge of the hills, far above the concrete jungle below. The sun was gone now and only the soft, blue glow of dusk remained.

“Hey you,” a woman yelled. She called to me from the highest balcony of the Palo Alto Apartments, one hand clutching the red fire escape, the other waving at me. I saw her standing far above me, but I ignored her and kept walking. She had thick white legs and pale freckles climbing up her jean shorts. Her sunglasses were expensive dark circles too big for her face, and she frowned when I didn’t respond. “Yeah you, the guy walking around down there. I see you,” she called again.

I looked around and pointed to myself. She leaned over the timid railing, her stomach wrapping around the bar, and her breasts falling unsupported beneath a sleeveless shirt. The Palo Alto Apartments were a courtyard complex, hidden behind lemon-scented gums and the orange tint of South African corals. Its exterior drowned in thick, ivy-covered walls shrouded in memories recalled only by the oldest stars. Its beauty, I think, came from its defiance, the way it refused to change with the rest of the world and stood like a picture untouched by time. It was built exactly the way it wanted to be, and I could admire that. The woman smiled from one side of her face, her freckles wrinkling. I stood on the corner looking up to where I thought her wings should be. Together we stood in the confusion of dusk, where there was no light and no darkness.

“Don’t you want to come up and have a drink with me?”

Though I’d never seen them until that day, I’d always dreamed about living in the Palo Alto Apartments. I hoped to discover them on one of my walks, inquire about availability, and sign the lease, but I hadn’t had a paycheck in weeks. If it wasn’t for that woman’s invitation, I might have never seen the inside of that place, and yet it didn’t feel the same as I thought it would. The inside of her apartment was stucco-white with dark wooden beams holding the roof up. The Mission Revival compound had archways leading into each room with glossy tiles embedded into the walls. Her living room had a dark molasses floor with velvet furniture and exotic plants hanging from pots in the corners. She swayed, like a former dancer, past the couches, shifting her weight from one foot to the other towards the back balcony. I followed her in, but stopped before the first couch to run my finger along its velvet edge. She stretched her arms, twisted her wrists around each other, and intertwined her fingers up towards the ceiling.

“It’s miserably hot, isn’t it? You looked like you could have used a drink when I saw you.” She lowered her face so that her glasses slid down to her nose.

“Yeah, a drink sounds nice,” I said. My eyes scanned the room.

“What were you doing out there?”

“The power’s out in my apartment, so I thought I’d follow the sun for a while until it came back on.”

“That’s one way to do it,” she said with a chuckle. “We have power here though, so you’re more than welcome to hang around until yours comes back.”

“I think I could stay a while.”

“You know,” she said, studying me, “I’m throwing a party tonight. If you hang around long enough, you might get to see it.”

I looked down at my shorts and tennis shoes, and felt underdressed, but she didn’t seem to mind. My eyes wandered around the room. She followed my gaze to the coffee table between the two couches where, in the middle, a mahogany record player sat. It caught my eye because it didn’t look like it belonged in the Palo Alto.

“You like it?” She raised her eyebrows.

“It’s a funny thing.” I took two steps towards it and thought it didn’t look too heavy.

“Mhmm, it’s a Victrola Classic. When I moved here, I was digging the vintage vibe, so I bought this. Fits right in, doesn’t it?”

“Does it work?” I asked.

The woman reached into her pocket and took out a cigarette. She leaned against the open door, half inside, half outside, where the first crickets were starting to chirp. The orange flame brightened her sunglasses and darkened the lines in her face.

“They say vinyl is the best way to listen to music, so I guess you could say it works.” She shrugged. “What kind of music are you into?” she asked, exhaling. The smoke drifted outside in thin streaks.

I thought about it for an honest moment. “I like listening to jazz,” I said, then shifted my weight to my other foot and buried my hands into my pockets waiting for her to respond. She only laughed.

“Jazz, huh? You just keep getting stranger, don’t you?” The ember of her cigarette glowed, and she blew another trail of smoke from the side of her mouth. “So then, who do you listen to?”

“I don’t really listen to anyone in particular. I just like to put it on sometimes at night and look at the lights downtown.”

She went around the room turning on lamps, the cigarette tucked neatly between her pointer and middle finger. The bulbs burst into light, yellow streaks that washed the walls of the room. The fabrics on the lampshades were red and green, but thin, which made it look like stars pushing through blood and leaves. The woman hung her head over the last lamp, and when she turned it on, it drew shadows up her face.

“What about Duke Ellington? Artie Shaw? Not even Coltrane?”

“I’ve probably heard some of their stuff, but I don’t know. I just listen to it, that’s all.”

Not knowing what else to do, she furrowed her brows and took another drag from her cigarette. I sensed disappointment in the thickening air. She yawned and sank back onto the couch facing me. Her sunglasses had fallen off somewhere and she didn’t seem to notice, like there were a dozen more in the back room she could get. I wiped away the sweat on my forehead. The room had sunken into a lazy, golden haze.

“You say you like jazz, but you don’t know any of the guys who play it? Seems like something a jazz guy should know, doesn’t it?” She shook her head and snapped her tongue against her teeth a few times. Then, sighing, she said, “What does a guy like that do? One who’s not really into the stuff he says he’s into?”

“Well,” I said, trying to be honest again, “I’m a writer.”

The woman’s head fell back as she laughed. She sat up and pressed her unfinished cigarette into the ashtray with traces of lipstick stuck to the filter.

“Now how about that? A black kid in Hollywood, trying to be a writer.” She smirked. “And he thinks he likes jazz.” She frowned. “Shame, isn’t it? Maybe ten or twenty years ago, you might have been something different, but now you’re just a drop in the ocean.” She dragged her bottom lip down with her finger.

I didn’t know if was supposed to be offended or not, and the confusion bothered me. The sweat along my hairline thickened into beads and ran down the sides of my face. I forced myself to laugh, but she shook her head, unamused. Ignoring me, she looked back towards the open balcony door, past the black trees and sticky air to where the street lights hung like fireflies. The crickets chirped, and it was the first time I considered them. I’d spent my whole life thinking that noise was just the way nights sounded, but now I understood there were bugs out in the grass rubbing their wings together.

“Sure is hot, though,” the woman said, still looking outside. She pulled the hair back from her face and tucked it behind her ear. I might have found her more attractive and less angelic if we ever got around to those drinks, but not as she was. My body stiffened. I thought she could hear what I was thinking because she turned to me, slyly. “But I like the heat out here, brings people out into the open.” She ran a finger in circles over her bare thigh. “Everyone opens up their windows and doors to the world like it’s all one big party. That’s what I love about this place.”

My heart sank. Too many people had fallen in love with this place, all for different reasons, and none of us could have it to ourselves. I don’t know what brought her here, but she was chasing the sun just like I was. The room grew around us as we shrank.

“Hey,” she said, nodding, “wanna take a bath?”

I felt the blood under my cheeks flush. “What do you mean?”

“Not together.” She smiled. “I only meant, well, because you’re so sweaty and you were saying how you wanted to cool off. Maybe you should take a bath.” She held her hair in the back like a ponytail. Inside of the Palo Alto Apartments, the lights were still on, there was still power here. I don’t know why it surprised me. Angels couldn’t be bothered by blackouts and droughts.

“I could use a wash,” I said.

“I’ll make us some drinks.”

I sank my body down into the lukewarm water and lifted my legs up and out of the tub to fit. The front door opened and closed. Voices murmured in the living room. From time to time, one rose above the others in a delighted shriek, but what I heard loudest was the sound of jazz playing on her Victrola Classic. She must have put it on just for me, so that I wouldn’t be forgotten.

I sank down a little lower until only my face stuck out. The tub was mint green and the shower curtain had a mismatched floral pattern that splintered under the bathroom lights. I kept the curtain drawn to darken the room and create the illusion that I was soaking under candlelight and jazz. Before the drought, I used to sink into my own bathtub and imagine I was living in the Palo Alto Apartments, but the dried water and grime were always there when I opened my eyes. I could barely hear the jazz over the woman singing in Spanish. I took a deep breath. My stomach rose in and out of the water and made ripples in the tub.

The door handle shook.

“Is someone in there?” a girl said.

“Must be. See the door’s locked,” said another.

“But I want to get in there.”

“The door’s closed. You can’t go in.”

I sighed and wondered why I told that freckled woman that I wanted to be a writer. It was like a sad jazz song, except I couldn’t say why because I didn’t know anything about music. I only wanted to listen to it, to soak it up. There were people who spent their entire lives mastering jazz, the sound, the execution, the history. All I wanted was for it to push me along like the wind did to the trees. I didn’t know where I fit in this town. I’d come to a place built on fantasies, but only up close could I see the ones that were cracked and forgotten. Each one grew like an Indian laurel fig, the pests of this town. As they grew, they broke up the sidewalks and tripped me as I went. My own dreams were probably just the same, growing across the street, only able to peek over the fence at where it wanted to be. I closed my eyes and submerged myself under the water. I held on trying not to drift off.

A loud crash woke me, and I pushed myself up in the bathtub, still half asleep. Water crashed against the tub as heavy footsteps thundered down the hallways outside the door. Tables flipped and glass broke. I pulled my legs up to my chest and listened for the crowds and laughter, but only heard jazz playing in the emptiness. The steps got closer, then passed me by. A door cracked open. The steps passed me again, and deep voices argued back and forth under the boogie-woogie coming from the record player. Piano keys rang out down the halls. The footsteps stopped outside the bathroom door. The knob rattled and then the door kicked in. A thick set of fingers grabbed the curtains and ripped them back. The man standing over me pursed his thick lips as I pushed myself back up against the tiled wall. He laughed and sat down on the toilet seat.

“Ey, there’s still somebody here! Taking a bath, too,” he called out into the darkened hall. Dresser drawers ripped out and fell to the ground, but there was no response except for the jazz. The man looked back to me. “Say, what are you doing in here anyway, kid?”

“I was taking a bath.”

“It’s hot as hell though.” He rubbed his chin.

“I ran cool water. A little warm and a little cold also,” I said. He considered me for a moment, then stuck his finger into the water by my feet and wiped it away across his brow.

“I guess it’s not so bad.”

“What happened to the party?” I asked. He was looking up at the window with ornamental ironwork over it. His eyes opened wide.

“I thought that’s what was going on up here. Looked like a good one. They’re all gone now, except for you.”

“What about the woman?”

“Woman?” he asked.

“This place belongs to her, a white woman,” I added. He grinned wide with big teeth. Any one of his was as big as my front two.

“Nope, I didn’t see no white woman when I came in here. But there is some booze in the kitchen, that yours?”

“She said she was making drinks.”

“Well I had a little taste, if you don’t mind.”

I shook my head and tried to sit up more in the tub. He watched me.

“This the kind of music you folks listen to?”

“I think she put it on because I said I liked jazz.”

“You like jazz?” he asked.

I nodded and reached my arm across my chest to rub my shoulder. He slapped his knee and howled with laughter, spit flying from his mouth. His teeth looked like they might jump out and fall into the water with me. It was getting colder and I felt goose pimples on my arms, something I’d never experienced in June heat.

“Hey,” he called out again to the darkness, “this nigga in here’s the one that put the jazz on! Can you believe it?” Then to me, “That’s classy stuff, kid, really it is.” He rubbed his chin and nodded in approval. He looked around, followed the line where the walls met and became a corner, then tilted his head up at the roof. His mouth pulled open as his head went back. “Jazz. What kind of jazz you like?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, I mean, who you like listening to, huh?” There was a bulge in his throat.

“No one, really.”

“How are you gonna like jazz if you don’t know anybody who plays it?” He frowned.

“I just like the way it sounds, you know?”

“A man can’t like jazz if he isn’t trying to know something about it.”

I didn’t say anything.

He leaned back to study me, then picked up the soap dispenser by the sink. “So what do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” I said.

He picked up my shorts from the ground and dropped them. “Quite a set-up you got going.” He shook his head. “Living up here, listening to jazz, and having drinks with some white woman.” He thought about that for a second, looked at me again, and smirked. “This is a nice place, isn’t it? Like it came right out of a black-and-white movie.”

“You know,” I said, “they used to film all over California, but then they’d say it was somewhere else. Like Europe or something.”

“I’ve heard that,” he said.

“I wonder what they said Los Angeles was.”

“Oh, all kinds of places, believe me.” He paused. “What kind of stuff you write about, anyway?” he asked.

“Nothing, really. I haven’t had much to write about since I moved out here.”

He didn’t respond.

“Listen,” the man finally said. “There isn’t much around here worth taking, maybe just that record player, so we’re going to take that and be on our way. No trouble, huh?”

“That’s it?”

“Well, I could tie your ass up. That’s what happens, sometimes.”

“No, take the music player. I don’t think she even uses it.”

A slower song came on the record player, a relaxed ballad that made me want to lie out and have a smoke. The saxophone was sad, but strong. It carried itself around the room and brought texture to the vacant spaces where nothing else was. When the song finished, the silence rang in my ears. The man nodded his head with a small grin. He tapped on the sink counter twice and got up to leave. I was alone after that. I sank my head down into the water and closed my eyes to collect myself. I could hear a thunderstorm cracking and churning over the horizon, but when I rose back up I remembered that it was just the sound of being underwater.

My skin was soft and soaked. I felt cooler, more comforted by the careless embrace of an angel’s warmth. That man and whatever darkness he spoke to had turned the apartment upside down and broken most of the furniture. The red lamp was shattered on the floor and the coffee table was flipped over. Ashes and half-finished cigarettes littered the floor. Among the beer cans and empty wine bottles were two glasses sitting on the kitchen counter, one with brown liquid sitting in melted ice, and the other empty.

I put my clothes on and laid the damp towel over the couch. She’d come home and think this was the greatest party that the Palo Alto Apartments had ever seen, but it was just another night in Hollywood. Outside, streetlights flickered with memories before dying out, and people flooded the darkness in confusion. Back towards the east, the power was back on and the horizon glowed under the midnight sun. Meats smoked on grills in front yards and children ran around them with water guns and balloons. Someone had turned up the son mexicano so that it reached every house and street, and made me think it was coming from all around. Women brought out trays of chicken and tamales, diced watermelon, and beans. My skin glowed bronze beside the porch fires and the ground shone golden against the black, starless sky.

I walked past that golden horizon, away from the shores, and hills, and dreams, away from the chaos, and into the quieter streets. The blue flourescence of Taco Bell and Burger King signs hummed in discord with the crickets. I stepped over plastic bags caught on dry weeds growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. Graffiti on the apartment buildings made claims that wouldn’t last the night. I couldn’t help being in love with it. Whether I was a laurel fig uprooting the dreamers, or another drop in the ocean, I was living and I was breathing the world in. 

Pale green light illuminated the walkway to my apartment. The floor shook under my footsteps, ready to fall at any moment. I ran my hand along the leafy railing and picked up the peeling chips of paint as they dropped down into the darkness below. My front door had an iron star hanging in the middle. Its gold paint, like the railing, was chipping away. I opened the door and saw my breath in the cold dimness of my small apartment. The air conditioning unit growled like a neglected dog. My laptop was back on and still blank. The cursor flashed on and off with nagging intensity. I closed the empty Word document and pulled up some music. What had that woman said? Coltrane? I typed it in and put the first song on. It was nice. I bobbed my head to the tune. It sounded like what I’d always been listening to.

I took my notebook out again and wrote down the first few ideas that came to mind: “An Angel in the Bath,” “Blackout Robbery,” “Something Different.” Pulling back to read it, it still didn’t look right, so I crossed it all out. The image was still there, barely, but there. I was onto something.

“Hey writer boy,” came an angelic voice from behind my blinds. Her voice picked up the polyvinyl strips like a breeze. “Why are you in there all by yourself, listening to something like jazz? Don’t you want to come get a drink with me?”

“This is John Coltrane,” I told her.

“Yeah, he’s good,” she said. “But what about all of the others?”

My smile stretched into a grin and my mouth watered. I wiped the sweat from my forehead. I didn’t know who she was; the tune of her voice was hard to pin down, but I didn’t care. We were the light in the darkness, swaying around like palm trees to the music. I looked around my empty apartment and I knew that there was no power in there.

“Sure, I’ll get a drink with you,” I said. “It’s too cold in here, anyway.”

Justice McPherson studied creative writing at Syracuse University. He holds an AA in Psychology from the College of San Mateo where he gave an Honors Symposium lecture on interstellar travel and the limitations of rocket propulsion. While living in Hawai’i, he co-authored an abstract detailing the neurological effects of marijuana on brain maturation. He’s previously worked on the FX team for the film Radioflash, and scripted development in Hollywood. A Stephen F Crane fiction prize finalist, his works have appeared in The Labyrinth, HCE Review, and elsewhere.