Monday, June 28, 2010

POP11: “Kevin and Koreena”



Kevin and Koreena met during a one-day conclave of their firm’s artists in Monopoly City. They worked for a huge conglomerate which employed thousands of artists scattered across the continent, paying them starvation wages, using their art in various promotions for the several hundred products made by the powerful company. The artists never knew when they’d glimpse a snatch of their art. On a passing bus maybe, or in a psychedelic TV ad for hair color, laundry detergent, or a band’s new cd. There’d be a split-second of artistic satisfaction before the image zipped away, the artist saying, “That was me.”

This was the way of life in a land where everything had been commercialized. All goods were produced by super-gigantic companies which the most cynical individuals speculated was really only one company.

Even if it wasn’t the only such giant, the company Kevin worked for was impressive up close. Four blue skyscraper towers rose into the clouds before him. The interior lobby connecting the towers was the size of a football stadium. Everywhere: elevators, glass, cascading fountains. Confusion.

“Take Elevator C to floor 57B,” a guard glancing at Kevin’s Permission Pass told him.

The Young Artists Conclave turned out to be one of a score of such conclaves taking place within the towers this day. No special treatment. The few hundred artists invited were mere cogs in a machine. Morning presentations were to be followed by a ninety minute lunch period, then more lectures. There’d be time for partying after five.

All of the artists except Kevin were healthy, clean and confident; of substantive backgrounds; well-educated and well-groomed, despite their bohemian trappings. Judging by the clothes they wore, Kevin figured many of them supplemented their meager incomes with trust funds.

Kevin was pale and ill-fed, wearing a raggedy checked sportcoat over a faded polyester shirt. He was aware he saw little sunlight, holed up in his little studio. Worst of all, he was from Depressionville, a city that because of its crime and poverty was a national embarrassment.

At lunchtime the Young Artists paired up boy-girl. In some cases, girl-girl and boy-boy. Like the last two chosen in a pickup baseball game, the last pair left were Kevin and Koreena. Kevin looked, perplexed, down at her. “Well, let’s go to lunch,” he finally said.

The other artists dispersed to trendy bistros. Kevin led Koreena to a nearby diner for hot dogs. He didn’t tell her this was all he could afford, or the only kind of place where he’d be comfortable. “Good atmosphere,” Kevin mumbled.

“Oh, I love it!” Koreena said, wide-eyed. “Interesting types for my sketchbook.”

Koreena had the ultra upbeat attitude which all handicapped people seemed to have and which Kevin frankly found irritating. Koreena wore a chic black outfit with a red scarf. She was no beauty, but presentable enough. Her figure was decently proportioned considering her circumstance. Her only drawback was that she was one-foot tall. “Tiny” didn’t quite encapsulate it.

As they sat on round stools at the counter in the diner, the gruff hairy-armed foreign-born counterman at first thought Kevin was ordering for, and talking with, an invisible person. He leaned over to see for sure and saw Koreena.

“Oh,” he said, shrugging as if to say that nothing in this city surprised him.

“Hi!” Koreena called up to the man in her perky manner.

During the afternoon presentation, Kevin felt the chili-covered ‘dogs he’d eaten at the diner coming up on him. He belched, and passed gas. Koreena next to him stared ahead at the speaker, studiously taking notes. Didn’t she realize who she’d paired up with, he wondered?

At five the entire room of artists jammed onto elevators which took them to a huge stainless steel club within the skyscraper complex. Kevin and Koreena blindly followed along. Throbbing music pounded their ears while mosaics of colored lights shot by on all sides.

The other couples made out frantically at other tables. Many vanished to rooms in the complex’s centerpiece hotel, for the purpose of having sex. Kevin and Koreena sat sipping from cold glasses of ginger ale, pretending to enjoy themselves.

Kevin was aware of his uselessness. He’d never made out with a one-foot woman before, or had sex with one. He wasn’t sure it could be done. He’d had little enough sex as it was. Unsatisfying encounters with an older woman named Betty back in Depressionville was about it. He sensed that Koreena was a virgin. She had a sheltered air about her. Yet she was well-decked out . Her red scarf gave her a sheen of prettiness. At some point in the afternoon during a visit to a restroom she’d sprayed on nice-smelling perfume. She smelled good, no question. Why? For him??

They ran out of small talk and sat awkwardly. Both studied the times on their cellphones.

“I, er, have to catch my flight,” Kevin said, his mouth drooping. Koreena was traveling by train.

Kevin sweat in embarrassment, more profusely than the cold air conditioning of the club could stop. When the bill came Kevin realized he’d consumed five overpriced ginger ales, while tiny Koreena had downed two. No free refills. He’d be hitchhiking his way to the airport.

“Let me help with that,” Koreena volunteered.

“Oh, no. No!” Kevin insisted, magnanimously placing down all his cash, knocking over his empty ginger ale glass in the process. The glass rolled off the table before he could stop it. A moment later someone stepped on it.

At the massive entrance to the four-towered blue skyscraper, Kevin gave Koreena a crouching half-hug then fled into the mob of people on the populous avenue.


The journey to Monopoly City was hugely disorienting to Kevin. It was the first time he’d ventured out of Depressionville, which wasn’t the kind of city from which to judge the outside world. Depressionville was a wrecked landscape of enormous industrial factories, many of them useless steel hulks sitting closed, a few still belching out products. The city had been built not as somewhere to live, but a place to work. Living—or rather, sleeping in-between 12-or-16 hour shifts—had been considered by the city’s owners to be a necessary inconvenience. If they could’ve kept workers at their machines inside the monster plants 7/24 they would have.

When Kevin was born, the industrial hive still hummed. His father was a highly-placed executive at the most gigantic factory. At the time, the largest industrial complex in the world. His mother was a scrawny blonde white trash waitress at a greasy diner on a dilapidated soot-sky street outside the plant.

The Important Exec took a liking to the waitress at the dump where he’d have acid-tasting coffee every cold morning, the red fires of the factory glaring unromantically through the diner’s gray windows. The Executive was married to someone else and lived in the city’s best barricaded neighborhood, on the other side of town, so that when Kevin was born the man couldn’t fully acknowledge the child, but over the next dozen years he endeavored to slip the waitress a few bucks every now and again for the kid.

Kevin met his father twice. The first time was when the Executive made an impromptu visit to the humble house where Kevin and his mother lived. Kevin was eight.

The man’s bulk and booming voice overfilled the tottering clapboard residence on a muddy road near the diner.

“You, uh, said that sonny liked to draw,” the embarrassed man on the threshold said to Kevin’s mother.

The Exec didn’t look at Kevin directly, but took surreptitious glances at him. He had two teenaged daughters who lived with him in his other world. Kevin was his only son. Curiosity at what the boy looked like had prodded the visit.

The Important Man held a beginning artist’s kit under his arm. He laid it out on the floor—an easel, oil paints, brushes, and an instruction booklet.

The man watched as the dirty kid gazed with wonderment at the colorful entry to a new world. The man scratched his head, with his own wonderment at the fact the child was his. Perhaps trying to determine what part of Kevin was him. What did he recognize in the boy? Was the man’s perplexed expression surprise? Disappointment?

The second time Kevin saw him was four years later upon the Important Man’s death.

His mother received an abrupt phone call one night. Afterward she was silent, then cried a little. Then nothing. A couple days later very early in the morning the largest car Kevin had ever seen pulled up outside their house. Kevin had put on a tie, black trousers, and white shirt, normally worn Easter the one time a year his mother took him to church. A stone-like chauffeur motioned Kevin to the backseat. His mother wasn’t coming along.

The limousine took Kevin out of his neighborhood cross town over bridges down avenues, including a short trip on a freeway, into a gorgeously green tree-filled neighborhood with massively large and stately homes. Gray-stone, tan-brick, pink and beige, with dark purple roofs.

People actually lived like this. It wasn’t a fantasy on television.

The car pulled into a back driveway at a pillared funeral home as an orange band of morning burnished the edge of the dark sky. The boy was ushered inside, into an eerily silent room enveloped in cool air, velvet walls, and silence.

In front of him too close to escape lay his father in a gold casket. The man’s face looked strangely fake, daubs of red makeup on it. He’d been painted. The face remained impressive nevertheless. A work of art. Kevin tried to see in the chiseled features and granite expression a trace of himself. How inadequate he felt!

To the side observing with hazel eyes stood the two most beautiful women he’d ever seen. The taller had brown hair. The younger was blond. They wore black dresses. They were impossibly tall.

The two stared at Kevin in the same way his father once had. The younger, more impulsive sister gave Kevin a hug. The other followed her example.

“We’ll remain in contact,” the two imperial young women promised him.

The large hand of the chauffeur, unobtrusive but with great strength, touched Kevin’s arm. The hand communicated to Kevin the power of this world. Kevin was guided out of the room.

Kevin’s mother died two years afterward. One night she came home with a cough which didn’t go away. Three weeks later she was in bed. A month after that she was gone—an experience Kevin put permanently out of his head.

By this time Kevin was gaining glimmers of understanding of how the world worked. He wondered if the neighborhood’s everpresent pollution had caused his mother’s illness. The huge plant and its neighborhood were bounded by a stream so filled with iron pollution it’d been named the Red River, in celebration of its color. Animals that drank from it, from cats to pigeons to pheasants to rats, developed tumors over their bodies. As did a few people in the area.

Kevin painted the scarlet river, with the towering black industrial plant next to it.

Kevin’s Uncle Joe moved him, his artist’s materials, and his few clothes to a room on the other side of the Red River. The room was above a garage where Joe stored two junk cars, next to the large scrap auto parts yard where Joe worked.

Uncle Joe was his mom’s youngest brother. Joe wasn’t all that much older than Kevin, but to Kevin seemed an alien creature, all tendons, knotty muscles, grimy blue work trousers, yellowed t-shirts and protruding yellow hair and whiskers over every inch of his face and body. Kevin looked for a hint of resemblance to himself in the antedeluvian man, finding his mother’s blue eyes, which—like hers, and maybe his own—appeared curiously vulnerable.

The small garage was surrounded by an eight-foot high cinder block wall with a nine-foot tall iron fence around that. To get in and out Kevin had to scale the fence, crawl along the top of the wall, and jump to a window ledge, the window his entrance to the room.

As the shack garage was backed up to the Red River—only a narrow dirt path separating the building from the glowing stream—Kevin wasn’t sure how Joe had got the damaged cars into the garage, or how he’d get them out.

This was Kevin’s new home, where he’d lived since.

An orange cat lived in the garage and became Kevin’s buddy. After a hard day chasing mice and rats in the garage and in the yard next door, when Kevin returned from school the cat would appear from a secret entrance, some structural crack in the wall, to share Kevin’s food—a baloney or tuna fish sandwich or such. At night Kevin and the cat stared out the window at the large junkyard next door, where after hours large killer guard dogs roamed.

In wintertime, covered by snow, the yard and the city sprawling beyond took on a pacifist glow, the city’s ever-raging fire subdued by the cold.

Joe dropped in on occasion without warning, after an argument with his girlfriend, or to sleep off a drunk, plopping down on the hard floor next to where Kevin and the cat slept on a narrow bed. In the early morning Joe’d cook over Sterno a breakfast of fried baloney and onions for them before leaving for his job in the yard, while Kevin went to school.

Kevin had few friends at school. School activities which motivated normal students were to him meaningless noise. All he cared about were his sketches and paintings; his art. Prom night he spent home with the cat.

At graduation after the ceremony his two mysterious half-sisters appeared, as tall as he’d remembered. The oldest was strikingly impressive; the younger moreso, not quite as tall but even more beautiful. Kevin was struck dumb in their presence. They handed him an envelope with a letter inside signifying his acceptance at a prestigious local art school. Tuition was paid for.

“Thank you,” he mumbled with intense gratitude, before his half-sisters vanished as suddenly as they’d appeared.

After art school Kevin got the job creating art for the monopolistic corporate firm. It didn’t pay much, enough for his food, and a token rent payment to Joe every month, which Joe spent on beer and prostitutes. Kevin could survive. That was all he’d hoped for. Life was good—except one day the cat wandered off and never came back. Likely eaten by the killer dogs in the yard next door. The cat’s disappearance emphasized Kevin’s loneliness.


Koreena lived with her elderly grandparents in a modest but comfortable house in an unremarkable but long established community 100 miles from Monopoly City. Her grandparents watched her with care and worry. Also with humility. They’d given Koreena’s mother too long a leash—all of the leash, in fact—so that if they erred with Koreena it was on the side of safety.

In the raising of Koreena’s mother they’d failed spectacularly. She’d been a mercurial personality, had grown up believing she was the center of everything. First she’d wanted to be a star ballerina. Then, after an ankle injury, a rock singer.

She left home at eighteen, becoming pregnant via an anonymous guitar player. During her pregnancy she continued what she saw as the rock star lifestyle—copious amounts of pot and LSD washed down with Jim Beam.

After Koreena was born, the child was left with the mother’s parents. At this time in the mad society (despite the energy spent selling them things) children were a low priority. An afterthought in the pursuit of ME.

The prodigal mother would visit once a season. “She’s so tiny!” she’d marvel about the baby. “Like a doll.” Then she’d drop into a spare bedroom to sleep twenty hours straight, before going back on the road, leaving in the middle of night.

She died of a heroin overdose when Koreena was three.

All the little girl had of her mother after that was a promotional photo that remained forever larger than Koreena. She would stare at the large photo for thirty minutes at a time, before she returned to her playing. Koreena’s dolls were larger than she was.

Koreena was raised to believe she was as good as anybody. When allowed outside to play, she’d be there with the other kids rushing at a soccer ball, though the ball was her own size.

Growing up, she never did grow up. Her grandparents worried. They took her to specialist after specialist, all who pronounced the girl healthy. “She actually is growing,” they’d say. “You just can’t see it.”

That she was healthy was her grandparents story. Koreena had the memory of medical operations when she was very young. The memory of a high-up hospital room at Christmastime, meeting other hospitalized children down the hall in a room with a green-and-red Christmas tree in it. She knew she’d not been expected to live. Everything that happened to her afterward, then, was extra.

A lady in the neighborhood owned a miniature dog—a Yorkie. Koreena identified with the animal. That was her. She was like anyone else, only smaller.

Throughout her student days other kids went out of their way to make Koreena part of their activities. They did so conspicuously, the tiny girl placed at the forefront of events, so that the message sent by her peers was, “Aren’t we good people?” Whether at dances, banquets, or student meetings, the efforts were stagey.

Koreena didn’t mind. She wanted to be part of everything. That she endured being the “Poor little girl,” “Little Koreena,” showed her desperation.

Still, as with Kevin in his very different city, when she graduated high school her dominant emotion was relief.

College was for real. Less role playing. Koreena was one hungry student of many. She worked hard at becoming an artist. She had a unique perspective to offer. She wanted to give that perspective through art.

Yes, the corporate job she ended up with was creatively unfulfilling. Neither did it pay enough for her to live on her own. Yet, it was a job. She was an artist. She was employed. She had pride. That was something.

Despite her size, Koreena was as mature and capable as anybody and wanted to be taken seriously.

After the work conclave, Koreena’s worried grandparents questioned her in the expansive living room of their comfortable house, Koreena parked on a square rug in front of two vases and a fake fireplace. The grandparents cleared their throats. They worried about whether Koreena’d find happiness in every aspect of her life. They’d done everything they could for her. But after all, she was only one-foot tall.

“Did you enjoy herself?” the well-intentioned couple carefully asked. “Did you meet anybody?”

“Oh, a lot of people.”

“Anyone in particular?”

“Well, one nice young man had lunch with me.”

If they’d seen Kevin, the worried couple would’ve become more worried.


It was a sign of how fucked-up Kevin was that after the conclave he’d been eager to get back to his Depressionville shack. It was a grimy rathole, but he was used to it. It was his.

One afternoon two months later Kevin’s cellphone rang. A call from a number he didn’t recognize.


“Hi!” came a tiny voice. “This is Koreena. How are you?”

Oh yeah, he remembered. They’d exchanged phone numbers. He’d meant to call her, but had lost the napkin he’d scribbled the number on.

“I’m in town,” she explained. “Right here in Depressionville!”

She’d flown into the city for a job opportunity with one of the city’s dinosaur industries. The interview over, she thought she must give Kevin a call.

“I’m practically in your neighborhood!” Koreena gushed.

Koreena suggested they meet at a trendy bar bq restaurant she’d been told about. Kevin knew the place—had been dragged there once for a drink by his friend Betty. It was the city’s only trendy restaurant.

“I’m in a coffeeshop across the street from it now,” Koreena said.

Sounds of a talking, clattery room could be heard behind her.

“Yeah, I know the coffeeshop,” Kevin shouted, as if to make up for Koreena’s small voice by amplifying his own. “Stay there! I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

He hung up.

He had no time to wash up, but decided to at least change his shirt. He’d bought a new shirt a couple months ago, on sale at a chain big box store, in case he might someday need it. The shirt was blue. No paint, food, or coffee stains on it, unlike his other shirts. He put on the new shirt and squinted at his image in a handheld mirror.

Kevin didn’t know why he’d told her twenty minutes. It’d sounded assertive. Twenty minutes had passed by the time he climbed out of his room to the wall and down the fence. He’d have to hurry. No telling what could happen to the little visitor.

Kevin hustled to a nearby avenue. Their meeting spot was two-or-so miles up. All he’d do is catch a bus and he’d be right there.

After fifteen minutes standing on a streetcorner in the hot sun, Kevin recalled that the buses in Depressionville were notoriously slow, when they ran at all. Kevin began to run. She’d think he’d stood her up. Granted that a part of him wanted to stand her up. (He felt shame at the thought.) Kevin disliked change from his narrow comfort zone. But, anything might happen to Koreena in this unruly town. There was no mercy here, no safety zones. In person he’d clue her in that he was a loser and anything between them wouldn’t work.

Kevin ran two miles through the heart of a chaotic city over and past endless decrepit landmarks, of closed soot-yellow churches and aged, crumbling gray expressway bridges, white-painted iron-barred groceries amid red-frame dilapidated houses, the expanding mess of it punctuated by huge green weeds and wild packs of mangy dogs. In the near distance, a downtown where half of the glass-gleaming towers sat vacant.

Kevin sweat heavily. Blue circles of wetness appeared under his arms. He looked at his cellphone as he ran. Oh Christ! Over an hour had gone by. He was way late. He imagined Koreena sitting in the place waiting, object of stares.

At last he noticed the coffeeshop in front of the town’s long-closed ruined eyesore of a railroad station. Kevin ran into the coffeeshop out of breath. Customers stared at him. He didn’t see Koreena.

“Over here!” a voice called.

Koreena sat alone at a back table against the window, barely noticeable.

“I saw you run up,” she laughed.

“Yeah, I’m a mess,” he acknowledged.

Through the window he saw the growing line at the bar b-q place. It’d be a long wait for a table.

“We better get over there,” he said.

She hurried across the avenue with him, through a gap in cars, endeavoring to keep up.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “But I know how this place is. I’ve been here once.”

The chaos in his head momentarily slowed as they waited in line. The racing world stopped. The line inched forward. Kevin put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the sidewalk. He scrunched up his forehead, fumbling for small talk.

“Er, ah, how’d the interview go?”

He considered Koreena’s well-groomed, perky persona. She wore an orange-and-white striped dress, her lightly tanned face delicately made up to highlight her green eyes, framed by pert reddish-brown hair, the result attractive if doll-like. Kevin felt himself crude and ungainly by contrast, a too-perfect representative of his city.

“No doubt you nailed the interview,” he guessed.

“I don’t know,” she frowned. “When I talked with them over the phone the other day, they sounded like I’d been hired. The in-person interview was a formality. Today they were hedging, making excuses. Telling me it wouldn’t be the best fit for me. That kind of thing.”

Kevin shifted awkwardly. He wanted to explain to her the nature of this world, but hesitated.

“Koreena,” he said. “The world is a nasty place. You can’t go through it with rose-colored glasses, ya know.”

“Oh, I know very well,” she insisted.

“I sense you’re a very optimistic person. I wish I had one-tenth your optimism. But Koreena, you’re too trusting. I mean, even with me. What do you know about me? For all you know I could be a serial killer.”

“You’re no serial killer,” she told him.

“Well, you’re right. In this instance you’re right. But you know, you never know.”

The line moved ahead. Soon they were inside the door. A hostess approached with an armful of menus.

“How many in your party, sir?” she asked.

“Er, ah.” He looked down so the hostess would look down also. “Two.”

Koreena dominated the conversation while Kevin made a mess of his barbecued ribs. Red sauce went on his hands, face, and blue shirt: everyplace. Koreena pretended not to notice.

“There must be a trick to this,” he said.

The hostess had seated them at the back near the kitchen so they wouldn’t be conspicuous. They were conspicuous regardless, object of stares, to which Koreena was oblivious.

“My whole life,” Kevin admitted, “I’ve felt part of a geek show. I don’t like people. I don’t know how you deal with it.”

“You get used to it,” she said. “Even humiliation gets old. You just plunge in and expect the worst.”

He didn’t tell her he wanted this social thing over with. Though, now that he had the ribs finished—handled disastrously, but finished—he felt a trifle relaxed. He even touched his water glass and took a few quick gulps, then carefully set it down before it toppled over. He visualized ice cubes and water everywhere, The waitress was horrified at them as it was.

The air conditioning, anyway, felt good.

The restaurant: the nightmare city’s only refuge. Even here the tension intruded into the crowded room, among the narrow walls.

“Where’s your hotel room?” Kevin asked.

“I don’t have one,” Koreena said. “I was hoping I could crash with you.”

Kevin knocked over the half-empty water glass. His panic level went up several steps.

“I, er, don’t know, yeah, I guess, my place, you see. . . .”

He needed to rush home and tidy up the place, but realized it’d take a week to tidy it, and it still wouldn’t be presentable.

“Face it, you’re stuck with me,” she told him.

At this moment loud dyed-hair Betty and several of her girlfriends barged into the restaurant. Oh oh! More panic. Betty would be savage with a girl like Koreena. Kevin heard Betty’s boisterous low-class laugh. Betty operated on a basic level and could be merciless. On the other side of things, Koreena would wonder how Kevin could ever know such a person.

“I, er, think I dropped a rib on the floor!” he said, ducking his head under the table. Koreena laughed at this.

“Just leave it!” she said. “They’ll clean it up. You’re sometimes comical, you know.”

On her level for the first time, Kevin’s eyes were inches away from hers. He sat up. Betty’s back was turned, safely at the bar on the other side of the room.

“We’d better get going,” Kevin said.

The waitress hurried with their bill. Then they faced at the entrance to the room the waiting crowd.

“Kevin,” a voice among those waiting said.

In line stood his oldest half-sister, as tall and elegant as ever, wearing a chic black-and-gold dress. A distinguished man stood beside her.

“Imagine seeing you here,” she said as she gave him a hug. “Good to see you’re okay. Who are you with? I thought I saw. . . .”

“She was here a minute ago,” Kevin said, scanning about. “Might’ve ducked into the restroom.”

“Be well,” his imperial sibling said as she moved away.

Koreena waited for him outside. She’d ducked under the line to escape. Her small size had advantages.

“A confusing night!” Kevin said.

The sun headed down. The air smelled of fire—a latter-day Rome that was always burning. A huge truck bounced down the upheaved avenue with clangorous noise, leaving a cloud of diesel smoke behind.

“Did your friend see me?” Koreena asked.

“My half-sister,” Kevin said, toying ineptly with a toothpick. “I’ve noticed that many in this country are invisible. It’s when people look beyond you to the next person in line, and you have to hold up your hand to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Here I am! What about me?’ That must be your plight, Koreena.”

“For me, that’s life,” she said. “If I wasn’t aggressive sometimes, I wouldn’t get anyplace. I mean, look at me. That’s obvious!”

She laughed, while Kevin puzzled.

Before them stretched the remains of a city—a city that’d been turned over to industry. Built for industry. When industry failed, no provision was made for those who remained. They’d received no notice stating, “It’s time to leave.”

Evening shadows turned the hulking ruin of the train station into a scary monster. Chunks of fallen concrete lay at its feet. Kevin had lived in Depressionville his entire life and still found it ominous.

Many had left. For decades this had been the most violent city in North America. Of late it’d lost even that distinction, simply because the population dropped so spectacularly. There was little left to steal, few left to kill. Half the city consisted of abandoned streets.

A two-mile walk awaited the couple. Kevin stood with anxiety, considering his date’s limitations. She faced ahead as stoically as always.

At this moment a bus pulled alongside, possibly the only one this evening. They climbed aboard.

From where they stepped off the bus to Kevin’s place was a short walk through an empty field. He hoisted Koreena onto his shoulder so her fine clothes wouldn’t become tangled in weeds. Ahead sat the scrap yard. Down a dirt road next to it, the Kevin residence waited.

Walking along the road, they noticed a jet of red flame from a black smokestack, across the glowing red stream. The huge old plant yet operated, despite diminished capacity. To the left, a line of long trucks backed up from an iron bridge crossing the stream—trucks feeding parts into the simmering Monster, or come to take manufactured goods away.

Kevin put Koreena atop the garage’s surrounding fence. “Wait for me on the wall,” he instructed.

When he’d climbed up they crouched along the top of the wall to the garage. To the right, in the scrap yard, roamed great growling dogs with fiery eyes, searching for enemies.

“Koreena!” Kevin said. “Grab onto my neck. Don’t let go!”

“Okay,” she said.

A leap to the windowsill and they were quickly inside.

Kevin saw his room through the eyes of an outsider. It was a hovel. No way around it. The naked lightbulb when turned on showed yellow walls, a single flat mattress surrounded by a plastic bag of empty food cans-- “I should’ve taken the trash out!”—and various paint-covered canvases revealing scenes as grotesque as the room and the environment outside. Attached, a closet-sized space with no bath or toilet, but a spout and a sewage drain. The place smelled of paint, mildew, urine, and mothcake. He hoped she didn’t notice the smell, but realized this was impossible.

Kevin stood in total embarrassment. How could anyone live like this? How could he expect her to spend the night? He’d become comfortable in squalor, was worse than an animal. Whatever illusions about him this intelligently adult creature had created were destroyed. He peered in every corner. At least his Uncle Joe wasn’t here drunkenly sleeping. Be grateful for small favors.

“It’s cool,” Koreena remarked with crossed arms. “An artist’s loft.”

“You’re impossible!” he told her.

Her composure was unfathomable.

“Have you ever been in a place like this before, Koreena?” he asked her. “In a neighborhood like this?”

“Never!” she exclaimed. “I love new experiences.”

Kevin climbed down to the garage below the room and returned with a can of beer of Joe’s plucked from a hiding place. With two plastic cups they shared the beverage, sitting back on the mattress.

“I’m done in,” he admitted.

When they finished the beer he pulled on a long string to turn off the lightbulb. From the window, scattered light of the forgotten city fell across them. Koreena moved next to him. The raging dogs quieted, gone to sleep. Nearby trucks went silent.

“Ya know,” Kevin said. “I’m a clown, Koreena. I hate to inform you of that. But that’s all I really am.”

“We’re all clowns,” she told him.