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Modern Cosmology

by William Auten

Callbacks and acting gigs went dark about six months ago, and Bryan feels responsible because ever since he arrived in the City of Angels, he’s been highly selective with the roles offered and available to him, and given the current stalemate of no light breaking through this long fabric of nightfall, he’s not sure that strategy is wise anymore, especially when the late bills pile on his kitchen counter or another warning from his landlord beeps on his voicemail. He’s been telling Mark this at the gym during their workouts, a time of respite for him from the loud, snapping assaults of making a good-enough career in order to make big and little ends meet in the middle, a place–other than his Sunday school and mid-week Bible studies–where he feels the twin shadows of guilt and doubt will wait for him, like mangy, hungry dogs, in the over-amped circuitry of the outside world. And so, as much as the joint pains in his hands and arms allow, Bryan scoots a metal plyometric box close to the end of the weight rack in order to step on it and reach the lighter- and medium-sized plates organized at the top. He rolls off a few weights, lugs them across the gym floor, carrying them like heavy tires in his arms, and slides them onto the bar, in the nick of time before his back flares.

“Ready?’ Bryan struggles, standing on his blueberry-sized tiptoes, and rolls the second of the two plates for his friend onto the bar.

“Check her out, B,’ Mark replies, not trying to stare too much at the woman doing Mississippi-count leg levers on a mat close to them.

“Let’s just work out. It’s been a long week.’

“I gots to, B.’ Mark brushes his ginger buzz cut towards Bryan and, biceps flexing into the size of quail eggs, rolls up the sleeves on his t-shirt.

“I know…,’ Bryan mumbles as he watches his friend make himself known.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt your sesh, but I was wondering, when you’re done, would you video my form? It’s leg day for me. Movin’ some big weight around, you know?’ Mark rambles on as the woman’s feet reach the top, her hips hinging, by the end of i-p-p-i.

“Sure,’ the woman puffs, catching her breath, and wipes her forehead. “I just finished.’

“Three by ten?’ Mark asks.

“How’d you know?’ she gleams.

“Oh come on, girl, those abs don’t lie.’

Wink from Mark to Bryan. Head nod from Bryan who closes his eyes as soon as his buddy returns his attention to Abs Woman, and he thinks how many times Mark has sweet-talked all the ladies, all shapes and sizes and colors, in the gym to video or photograph him working out, proving again and again his mechanics thesis while hoping to get their contact info. Mark is a champion pony with the ladies and his request for videoing, but when it comes to getting names and numbers, he’s a donkey hitched to a post in a ghost town.

The muscular ginger rolls the barbell close to his shins. Abs Woman cocks her yoga-pants hip and says, “Ready when you are.’

“No belt!’ Mark yawps, his oath living inside and outside the gym, and shakes his head before chalking his hands and gripping the bar. When he first started doing this, the hulking grunting-and-moaning guys and gals stared at his bark echoing in the salty, metallic, pop-song air, but now when Mark calls out, they ignore him and continue pumping their own iron. Two deep, quick breaths in and Mark holds them as he whips the bar from ground to overhead, squatting as soon as the bar hovers in front of his chest. Five slow, solid reps from the shorn redhead. Panting, sweat dripping, he lets the bar chime on the ground.

Bryan claps his hands at the advance his buddy has made in less than a week. “Good job, man.’

“Nice,’ says the woman. “Looked good to me.’

“Let me see,’ Mark replies and stands as close as he can to the woman to watch the video. “Giiiiiirl…,’ he grins, “you can flat-out film. Thank you. Look at this, B.’ He flips the phone towards Bryan. “Adding weight. Making gains. Simple mechanics,’ he gloats. “I have less real estate to move than beanpole over there.’ Mark nods towards Bryan. “Direct, simple route from floor to head. Osbourne’s razor.’

“Ockham,’ the woman laughs with her correction and looks down at Mark.

“Ockham? Not Ozzy? You sure?’ Mark winks at Abs Woman.

“Be sure to hashtag it so I can find,’ she teases as she picks up her mat.

“Oh, I will. TinyButMighty! SizeDontMatter!’ Mark’s voice raises.

Bryan shakes his head.

“Have a good day.’ She waves and walks towards the locker room.

“Making all kinds of gains today.’

Mark bounds around the weight racks like a rabbit on the first day of spring.

“What was her name?’ Bryan smirks as he strips the weights from the bar, tests it, and grabs the lighter-weight trainer bar from the rack.

“It’s too early to make a move, but I could tell she was into me.’ Mark stops in front of a mirror and turns his head before tightening his quads and calves.

But…?’ Bryan asks, massaging his back and then chalking his hands.

“Like the song. ‘Slow and Easy.’’

“Which song is that?’

“My anthem, B. My anthem.’ Mark raises his chin and looks at the doorway to the women’s locker room.

“Maybe your anthem needs to be ‘Start but Can’t Finish.’’

“What’s with that?’ Mark snaps.

“Nothing.’ Bryan shrugs off his friend and latches his powdered hands onto the bar.

“No…no, don’t nothing me. What is it?’

Bryan struggles with his overhead squat, falling lopsided to his left until his leg drags its heel across the padded floor. After three shaky reps, the bar falls from his hands, his gas tank empty. “This past Tuesday.’

“What?’

“I didn’t get it.’

“What? The part?’

“Yeah.’

“Which one was it?’

“The indie flick.’

“Sorry, B.’

“It’s not permanent.’

“Oh, I know. It never is.’ Mark smirks. “We’re always saying we’re gonna get that big break. You say it’s still coming for you.’

“The big breaks are out there. I just don’t have one yet.’

“There are so many in front of you already. Stop wanting that safety net tied under you.’

“I’m not…’

“I know, I know.’ Mark’s flattened palm interrupts Bryan. “What I do, it’s not for you. But, look, I’m happy with my lot. I got mine and then some.’

“What? Comic relief? The accident-prone sidekick? That’s old shtick. Danny Catalano on the cop show?’

“Procedural,’ Mark clarifies.

“There are so many these days.’

“Really, B? Jealous much?’

True Heart,’ Bryan dramatizes in a voice-over, “‘A Native American cop straddles the lines that connect his heritage, his family, and his duty.’’

“Hey,’ Mark snaps, his fingers jabbing the air, “Danny Catalano was one of my finer moments. He ran the police department’s motor pool.’

“And,’ Bryan gasps after he struggles with another set, “how many scenes did you have when, once again, episode after episode, you…I mean, Danny Catalano…couldn’t reach the tools on the top shelf or your feet couldn’t touch the pedals to drive the cars onto the lift. Crazy-funny-comic-relief accidents.’

Mark shrugs his shoulders.

“That’s what I’m talking about.’

“Relax, Hamlet. Yours will come. Everyone will know how serious you are. But look,’ Mark continues as the rusty bar clangs around the ground, “my agent is fielding calls left and right.’

“You’re gonna get a disease.’

Mark rolls his eyes. “I’m not stupid. It’s safer than you think. I’ve got a steady income. I can see a good doctor whenever. Obviously that’s not my only stream of income.’

Bryan shakes his head and sees Mark in his Tiny Elvis and Tiny Vanilla Ice costumes, steady-paying porn gigs that enable him to travel and buy new clothes and new cars and network with industry insiders.

“Webisodes, Web sites,’ his ginger friend continues. “Did you hear about the latest poll?’

Bryan shakes his head and tries another set, the veins in his neck pumping as he pulls the bar.

“What Americans click the most of on those sites? We’re right below ‘Kissing Cousins.’ I can get you in. Let me…’

“Mark, stop.’

“B…’

“Mark, no.’

“Bryan, listen to me. This one…uh, it’s called…the series, it’s…Little People, Big…’

“Mark…,’ Bryan cuts him off. “You know I don’t do that.’

“The director said we’d be hooded. No one’ll know it’s you.’

“Hooded?’ Bryan exclaims. The bar teeters over him, pulling his body to the side.

“Masked. I mean, masked. You’d wear a mask. You can use a fake name, too.’

Mark, pleeease!‘ Bryan feels all the eyes in the gym land on Mark and him. Having re-appeared on the floor from the locker room, Abs Woman, dressed in a hoodie, wrinkles her nose at the dynamic duo. The bar rattles on the ground. Bryan blushes at his outburst and then cringes, knowing that Mark and the characters that Mark plays could be more: a David in a Goliath world, a piece of the sun broken off and burning brightly on its own. Bryan puts his heel on the chrome trainer bar and stops it from rolling into the weight room’s traffic. “It was a role I wanted. It was a real role, not… Forget it,’ Brian sighs, his mind landing on the color headshot and big-font news regarding another major role for an actor of Bryan and Mark’s stature after he picked up the latest issue of casting news and rumors on his way to the gym. “I went in twice for that, and he got it… Twice, man. I bought the CD and I hit it off. It was mine to lose.’

“Well, you lost it…to one of us.’ Mark bounces the bar on his thighs on his way to the weight rack. “Be happy he got it. Come on, B. Don’t sweat it. Look, you can’t blame him and want him to do so much for the rest of us…open all these doors.’

Before Bryan can answer, a voice behind them says, “Hey, I’m Maggie, by the way.’

The two men turn their heads. Abs Woman has her hand out for a shake, and she has returned with an equally sweaty, toned, and tanned woman standing next to her.

“Mark.’ He quickly grabs the woman’s hand.

“Hi, I’m Bryan.’

“Hey, I’m Alice.’

“You have plans tonight?’ Maggie looks at both of them.

“I do now.’ Mark beams. The ladies giggle.

“Sorry, but I do,’ Bryan smiles.

Mark glowers at him.

“I got my men’s ministry breakfast in the morning.’

B…,’ Mark flicks his eyes at the woman and her friend. He then looks at Bryan.

Bryan shakes his head no.

“Get your mind off all that. Come on.’

“Nah, man. Go. Have a good time.’

“A’ight. Chest day Friday?’ Mark pumps his pecs individually and then slaps five with Bryan.

“Yep. You know it,’ Bryan deadpans with a smile.

The ladies roll their eyes.

The trio leaves, with Mark as the new bud of a red rose bound between two leathery, fluorescent-colored flowers, and Bryan hears one of the women say to Mark, “I’ve seen you around.’

Bryan looks out the large windows on the main floor. It’s quiet again, the kind of quiet he longs for, quiet out there where the clouds have burned off and the sky is bright blue, the little light expanding with the prism effect of the glass, behind him the commotion of larger bodies moving and colliding with machines, gears grinding, chiming like bells.

Deacon Dan’s wife answers the front door. “Well, hello there,’ Judy says, her bright smile broadening. “Come on in. So glad to see you, Bryan.’ She kneels and gives him a big hug, which she always does at church on Sundays and which he always welcomes because she smells like cinnamon sprinkled on sugar cookies.

He follows her to the brightest part of the house, her silver and faded-brown poof of hair bobbing as she shuffles in her sandals. Books and color samples and anatomy references fill the shelves of the studio that branches off from the living room. Sunlight drenches the many windows. A forest top of easels in one of the corners. Paper, rolls of canvas, paints, brushes, frames, and stretcher bars in another corner. The heavy aromas of apple juice and frail, small bodies.

“Hey, everyone, look,’ Judy beams, coffee cup in hand, “Bryan’s here.’

The crowd of blue-tinged, smoky, and all-white hair slowly breaks apart, and one by one, wrinkled necks and a few oxygen tubes in noses drift down past the midway point of the doorway. Bryan, the youngest in the room at thirty-two, and the shortest, waves to them. They all nod, clap, and cheer. Most of them smile, some rows of natural teeth still in place, some off-white dentures making an appearance. Arthritic knuckles and papery skin wave in the morning light. They all know Bryan. He sees Gladys and Charlotte and Russell and Homer Sr. and Jessie, some of them leaning on the plastic tables Judy has set up, some of them still in their wheelchairs, some with their walkers and canes close by. Omaha Beach Bill’s breathing machine hisses when his finger-gun pops two rounds of hellos at Bryan. Gladys adjusts her glasses and winks at him. When Bryan first met her, she thought that he had escaped from the children’s service and was wandering unattended about the church. “It happens,’ he had told her. “No worries. You were behind me. You couldn’t see my face.’ He had a wispy, juvenile-delinquent mustache at the time and rubbed it on purpose when he told her this.

Bryan grabs his gear and supplies from the cubby at the front of the room and flops in his usual seat by Charlotte, who reaches over and grips Bryan’s wrist with her quivering hand. “Hey there, buddy,’ she says, her hazel eyes less milky in the studio light at this time of day.

Judy has them warm up with some rapid drawing, doodling, shading, free-for-all, whatever comes to their minds. “Loosen up those hands and imaginations,’ the sinewy sixty-something sings as she glides around the studio, the drawstrings on her white capris swinging, and she stops every now and then by the long desk flanking the shelves in order to prep the day’s exercise. “We’re all doing so good with what we’ve been given.’

After about ten minutes, Judy has them pick up from last week, returning to their landscapes. Bryan has made strong progress on his, the swirling cylinders of green and speckled brown mountains, a golden path cutting through the foothills, but the acid-wash blue sky, scratched off and reworked over and over, remains unfinished. He’s been putting it off for days because he’s not sure if it should be day or night; it’s vital to him to understand if this is a beginning or an end. He’s had other things on his mind, too, hefty demands, distractions, switch-a-roos. Jessie’s and Bryan’s works are the more advanced pieces in the class. Not that Bryan is keeping tabs, but part of him is and, he’s admitted to himself, needs to, because that part wants to be recognized for what he can do, his hard work, not who he is, not turning his nose up at anyone because most people have turned their heads away from him after gawking for so long at him, which has propelled him through life. And he feels guilty, his pride pressing his chest from the inside, when he sees how much he’s improved his artistic skills in a church-sponsored class for the people who could be, and in many ways are, his grandparents. Bryan can paint, and it’s starting to matter; it unfastens him from the days that have become heavier with obscurity, the endless-feeling days that loom over him with all their shadows and fuzzy surprises.

As a kid, his drawings were doodles, broken, incoherent things, his body depicted as no different than the stick-figure and caped avengers scribbled next to him, baseball players with huge forearms and bats, his own felt-tip-marker body never disproportionate to his peers’ bodies, typical taped-to-the-refrigerator expressions and collages, work which Judy encourages with all her students, but she has quietly guided Bryan to transform that energy into “serious art.’ Since working part-time at the church, office tasks and odd jobs here and there for the church’s departments and staff, some help with the landscaping, all thanks to Deacon Dan, Bryan has discovered not only Judy’s painting and drawing classes but also that he has a real knack, in ways that he never found in acting, for blocks of colors, moving around shapes, filling in a blank space, and weighing the options of light and shadow, the private joy of counteracting a grey world with its bait-and-switches that seem planted closer and larger than yesterday. He doesn’t have to memorize any script lines. He doesn’t have to work on motivations. He doesn’t feel pressured to say yes to things that he knows he should say no to. This skill unfurls from inside him, and his love of painting has been slowly taking over as the comet tail of acting that passed over him years ago burns out and accumulates like dust in a corner. The first time he picked up the brush it was like magic, and the first time he painted something from memory and then from his imagination stunned him, but he thought that painting and drawing would be like music overheard in a waiting room, something to fill in the gaps while the thing he truly wanted remained dangling in front of him. But after months of being around Judy and, as she calls them, her Golden Years Gaugins–which Omaha Beach Bill hates because it’s too wordy and “makes no sense to him or anyone,’ even though Gladys loves it and tells her seven grandchildren and three great-grands about it–Bryan has often wondered if painting, rather than acting, rather than Paperboy, Stoner #2, Skater in Mall, Gorilla-Girl Assistant, points to the future.

“Waiting…always waiting,’ he’s told Deacon Dan when they talk over coffee and a stack of stiff, uniform pancakes, a globe of butter melting.

“I know…,’ the thin-haired deacon said, wiping his wrinkled mouth, his long legs stretching out, “hope lies within limitations,’ before lighting his pipe in the Garden of Mercy where a statue of the Holy Mother stands no taller than Bryan. Tobacco leaves crackling, little fire in a corn-cob pipe glowing among the wood and the stone and the humus of the church, the landscape of flashing neon lights, beeps on computer screens, and incessant buzzing so far away.

“OK, gang, see you next week,’ Judy says, after she and Bryan pack up the supplies, clean up, and put away the tables.

“You coming back with us?’ the group asks as they shuffle towards the white church van idling in the driveway.

“I sure am,’ Bryan replies. “I have some emails to finish for the youth group.’ He helps everyone in, closes the doors, and before getting in the passenger seat, he realizes that his jacket remains in the studio. He walks back in, grabs his jacket off the chair, and on his way out, an artist catalogue on the shelf next to the door catches his eye. In all the times here, passing the shelf, rummaging it for ideas or inspirations or scouring the how-to’s, he has never seen it before. He pulls it out. Its sheen, black-and-tan spine jumps in his hands. He flips through it, the brightly colored lithographs and the tones of the paintings warming him, pulling him into the cobbled streets of Paris and lamp-lit halls, absinthe-drenched pubs, and crowded rooms of the end of a century. And when he sees the artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the metallic-tan smudge of a man standing in the sepia-soaked tintype, the painter’s beady eyes, a round face with a slight smug smile blurring what it has seen and what it hides with what it wants to throw back, Bryan does a double take. He feels close to the photo of the artist and to Toulouse-Lautrec’s works, a distance shortened, a hand extending from the soot and grime as the nineteenth century closed, a hand of today, with its hot-keyed and rapid-fire highways, extending in return. It was a twin he never knew he had.

What are the odds? he thinks to himself as something inside him like a shutter flicks open, a rope from the sky dropping in. An idea swings over him, an idea tethering time, money, and his natural abilities. He shakes his head because he immediately sees Mark. The idea generates more heat and light, little ripples riding other ripples, big waves headed in. He’s determined to get his hands on everything and anything–the clothes, the accouterments. He’ll even call up an ex who works in the costume department at a major studio.

“Did you get lost?’ Judy teases, stepping into the studio, nearly losing her footing on a rag dropped on the floor.

“On my way,’ he replies and shows the book to her. “May I borrow this?’

“Of course,’ she answers, humming, not paying any attention to him.

Bryan shows up at one end of Hollywood Boulevard, inside the popular blocks of the street, near the turf wars and territorial markings of celebrity impersonators and sidewalk performers and characters vivified off-screen, where the crowds swell and crest, the clicking of cameras and phones quickens, the talking and shrilling cries and finger-pointing ramp up, past a few pawn and gift stores, in the midst of coffee and frozen yogurt shops, and movie-goers spilling out of an early show at the Chinese Theatre, and he’s ready, been ready for the past several weeks, to pull the star-spangled plan in his head and illuminate everything and everyone around him; but he sees that he’s not alone, not even close, and that plan is starting to lose its sizzle. He knew the competition would be fierce going in, but he had no clue, no first-hand experience. His four-eleven frame dawdles back and forth, in between very little traffic honking or blaring music on his side of the street for this time of day, soon to change, he hopes and hopes, the cuffs of his wool pants dragging, his polished dress shoes clapping on the blacktop; he remains certain that he’ll not only get his guiding light back but will ignite it some more as anticipated.

So with one eye on the commotion growing across the street and one eye on his task at hand, he goes about his day, waiting for a chance to make himself known among all of God’s creatures, factual and fictional, at half past one in the afternoon, biding more time as he has the past few months, but this time, he’s sworn, things will change. Under an awning stretched in front of a gold and silver dealer, a record shop with album covers plastering its windows, and the blinking traffic-light sign for Candice’s Candy Stop, Where the Sweet Life Is Always Green, he aligns the legs of his easel so that the crack in the sidewalk, where two halves meet, lock the legs in place. He drops two small sandbags at the back, just in case. The Santa Ana winds have picked up and are stronger than they were last week. A battery of large paper clips gleam in the afternoon sun along the edge of the easel.

Bryan takes off his bowler hat, sets it on the cloth bag next to him, slicks down any shiny black hairs raising their necks from his tar pit of pomade, and adjusts his vintage tie and its mother-of-pearl clip. Out comes the painter’s smock from the cloth bag. Out come a few brushes. Out come the charcoal, pastels, and oil sticks. He pauses for a minute. The crowds still aren’t headed his way like they had in his daydreams. Most of the people are on the other side of the street, and thickening, heading towards more familiar characters. But onward he goes with his plan of attack. Back and forth, back and forth, he scribbles an urban landscape, streets, nook and crannies, adding navy and ochre and burnt sierra, saving room on the canvas for signs and billboards and the sky.

A few people eventually dribble by, stop, and look. A slight smile on his face, Bryan dips his rag in turpentine and erases parts of the horizon above the quickly drawn row of buildings filling the canvas board. He rubs the board, cocks his head. The paint lifts off like paper towels cleaning up a spill on a countertop. He starts to paint, dipping his brush in a glob of paint, dragging the brush across his palette until it’s diluted; he measures the canvas again. Marbled sky, blue breaking into blank. He leaves it alone. People move on. A few kids scrabble around him, watch him insert long, thinned blocks of dirt red for a façade. They giggle when he glances at them, black smudges on his nose and fingertips, his brown eyes swiveling towards them. Of course, he thinks. The kids are most fascinated by Bryan. They stand close to him for so long in silence, at the same height, his stubby arms and legs making miracles happen with shapes and lines and colors, as one of their own, the kids squeal, spinning the carousel of wonder, except that he has a bushy beard spirit-gummed to his otherwise smooth face, wears round glasses with a chain attached to them, draws Heaven and Earth and the things created in between, and draws them like an angel. He overhears one of the dads say that the Shrek, standing by the cold-pressed juice joint, manhandled the kids too roughly during photo ops. Very few tips for the green ogre with a layer of mold on his felt costume. Bryan lets the kids come and go like an empty swing at a playground.

But the kids don’t know who he is, and the owners tethered to their dogs don’t care. One cockapoo gnaws on a colored pencil before dropping it. A few, mainly Europeans, know who Bryan is, and the few teens and adults who stop and have heard of him and chuckle or congratulate him are usually intellectual-looking types, dressed in all-black, occasionally wearing glasses, a book or a cup of coffee in hand, visitors or locals keeping distance from Hollywood’s shoreline and songs sung from the countless faces rolling across its countless neon-charged seas. Bryan is keeping count of these people on one of his delicate, knobby hands; it’s taken several hours of being out here to reach that count, and it’s taken nearly half a year to regain a feeling of recognition, small as it is, and it feels earned to him, that it’s his to lose if he doesn’t take care of it. As for the others, the bystanders struggling and needing him to throw them a lifeline the size of an encyclopedia, he tells them who he is. The responses vary.

“So talented and, oh my gosh, you are sooo cute. I could just take you home and snuggle you all day. Bye.’

“Would you marry me?’

“So…he, I mean, you…you’re a painter?’

“Oh…you just dress like him.’

“But you’re playing him.’

“Huh…OK. Never heard of him.’

“Why him? Why not be the guy from Game of Thrones? You’re perfect for that.’

Lots of shoulder shrugs and good lucks from those who stop and chat before drifting on. And when they hear who he is, nine times out of ten they squish their noses and wrinkle their foreheads.

“Ann-ri? Like, Henry?’

“Say it again for me.’

Bryan does, repeats the name of the person he’s supposed to be, with a good-enough accent salvaged from his high-school French class and blended with Dialect Nights at his acting workshops. “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The h is silent,’ he says, politely smiling but never breaking concentration on his drawing or painting. If he realizes that the person across from him sends more white flags up the bewilderment pole, he tacks on, “Moulin Rouge…the movie.’

“Oh, OK!’ Eyes brighten. Pupils expand. Fingers snap. “Moulin Rouge the movie.’ Heads bob. Floodgates of memory spill open.

“Xtina!’

“Oh yeah, I know that. Pink, Lil’ Kim.’

“It’s like Chicago the musical.’

“Ewan McGregor was in it, too.’

“Obi Wan? Speaking of, did you see Darth up there?’

“Which one?’

“The one by Chipotle…other side of the street. He had a green lightsaber. Green.’

“Tom Cruise’s ex was in it too before she got out of crazy-town Scientology.’

“TomKat?’

“No, this was before Baby Suri.’

“Can’t blame her.’

“Same director who did Gatsby.’

“Leo?’

“Totally.’

“I’m king of the world, babe!’ Dude screams, his arms held wide in the light cutting through the alleys. Dude looks at Bryan’s canvas. No ocean, no icebergs, no Titanic snapping in two under the drying bristles of the HT-L. “Where’s the ocean, bro? This is California,’ which is what everyone told Bryan when he stepped off the plane four years ago, the beaches and the surf and sand and the beach-ready bodies, but the sky was the first thing that hit him. Bryan rubs the side of his temple before laying a wash of transparent black over the buildings, a unified shadow falling. Babe squeezes her Dude’s arm, and she drops a few coins and dollars into the bowler upturned at Bryan’s feet. And off they walk, hand in hand, towards the superheroes cruising up and down the busy sidewalks, capes billowing in the wind, one of them bouncing on a pogo stick and nearly taking out one of the Marilyn Monroes, Captains Jack Sparrow #1 and #4, the other three captains wandering rudderless in the crowds, and Thriller-era Michael Jackson who, waving his sparkled glove, stops moonwalking to pose for photos with tourists that have meandered from the hearse parked near the curb, the black signs with neon-pink letters stuck to its doors and trunk advertising The Hollywood Tour of Celebrity Deaths.

Bryan shrugs off Mark’s advice when he mentioned doing this to him, “a better gimmick,’ he suggested, a hot chick on his arm wearing something low-cut or high-cut, depending on her figure, but something and someone eye-catching and unavoidable to the crowds, Mark also advising him to work more with the others around him, don’t be so isolated, two-for-one photos with another character, which everybody would know, that it could take a while to be a regular, to become familiar and successful.

Stepping back, Bryan looks at his painting, can’t help but hear noise bustling across the street, and will do no more until he’s back next Saturday, capturing the same scene but with different angles, moving around what he’s seeing, the chiaroscuro of the day, the time, where he’s standing, snapshot of the now, part real, part imagined, located near the constellations of crowds, the sky he can’t yet finish. He looks at the top of his canvas and, paint still fresh, removes a little more from the sky. He cleans his brushes, caps off his tubes, and wipes his hands. Odor of turpentine and oil paints. Odor of pavement cooking in the sunlight. Odor of kabobs and hot dogs and plastic sitting in the sun. He steps back from the easel and drops his jaw into his neck, his eyes peering over his glasses, everything on his face swelling like a bleating frog. He has set the hard blocks of buildings off to the right, so that the right lane of the buildings has a sharp but short depth, the left side pulled more than halfway across the canvas, the two lanes of blacks and browns and earth tones vanishing at their common point. Bryan scrapes off the gummy residue on a bottle of quick-drying linseed oil. He touches the unfinished sky and–leaving behind a faint fingerprint, unsatisfied with the earlier edit–pulls off more blue. Three days max, he thinks and surveys the loose sketch of the day’s work, this self-closing ritual of his.

And so it’s late, and Bryan knows this; the sun is setting behind the buildings, and behind the buildings, the sun will eventually settle into the ocean. His bowler is half full with business cards and scribbled Call Me promises, which he’ll discard, the other half with dollar bills and coins, which he’ll seal in an anonymous envelope and place in a tray passed around the congregation midway through the second morning service, after the invocation and doxology. Tomorrow is Offering Sunday, when his church will have a cookout and games, a raffle, and traditional tithing to meet or beat its donation goals. Everyone will know each other; everyone will have something to do. All the noise from the other streets along the boulevard orbits around him. There are stars that are seen and unseen, bodies sliding in and out of celestial frameworks bound to the ground. Tomorrow is a day of rest.