A Record Year for Rainfall, Chapter 6
A Record Year for Rainfall is my second book, originally published in 2011.
Please note that the subject matter in this novel can be pretty graphic.
Used to be, people like Bret had to mull over hundreds of printed shots in a darkroom. He would have to develop every shot by hand. He would have to stand alone, bathed in red, breathing fumes. He would spend hours and nights, slowly going blind, slowly going insane. Paparazzo work in the old days took time and isolation and the creep stench that never comes off, no matter how many new jackets you bought.
Going digital changed all that. Bret drank a latte in public. His laptop sat open in fullscreen mode. Bret made red-eye changes. Focus changes. He cropped. Converted. Raw to Jpeg. Compressed. Three feet away, a mother fed a plastic-wrapped shortbread cookie to a toddler. On the monitor, John Mayer smiled. Zoomed to 300 percent, you could see the freckles in the loupe.
The freckles would, of course, have to go. Nobody knows that John Mayer has freckles. But the fact is, Bret was doing this dark work out in the open. Much like the suburbs that surround the city, Bret’s work was cleaner than his predecessors. Cleaner, safer, and more productive. White-washed. Bleached. From four-color to full. From newspaper to blog. From dingy motels to custom-built houses. From dank, chemical-filled dark rooms to a cafe with free wifi. Everything moved forward, upward, into an abyss not seen until the next Hollywood interpretation of tomorrow. You don’t know America’s definition of progress until you’ve been to Vegas this century.
John Mayer was a nice guy, Bret could testify to that. Bret had him in the airport. He was hidden in rows of elderly people all waiting for planes back to Florida. He had brought the good camera, the one with the thick lens. For a major airport, the security was incredibly lax on photographers. All the tourists. All the things to take pictures of. That image of rows of people already on slot machines. The idea that seven seconds after landing in the state, you could be gambling. The odd promo girl dressed as a showgirl, handing out discount price-fix ticket/dinner combinations. The slumped brides. The dead-eyed businessmen, hoping to tune all the neon and jingle out of a forced week-long retreat. These things make great pictures.
But Mayer caught Bret early. He’d only got a few shots in before Mayer noticed that Bret wasn’t actually shooting footage of some toddler trying to pull a slot arm.
In the coffee shop, Bret applied contrast to the image. He tried to take away that dark light the airport gave off. People only really wanted pictures of Mayer that could be cropped next to Jennifer Aniston, and people only photographed her in the light.
“Wait,” Bret thought. “Who am I fucking kidding?”
He forgot about the background, knowing Album would either crop it out or write over it in Paint. He fixed the red-eye. He took out the shadow under Mayer’s chin. He rendered, and moved onto the next shot.
Mayer had come closer to Bret. He knew he should have run but he didn’t. Maybe he’d be able to get away with the tourist excuse, that he saw a random celebrity on vacation and thought a picture would be fun to show the family.
“Don’t give me that tourist excuse,” Mayer said, getting close enough to talk. His voice was disarmingly smooth. It bothered Bret. He knew he should run at this point.
Mayer said, “I know who you are.”
Mayer got closer. Bret should have bolted. Whenever a celebrity gets too close, there’s a way higher chance of broken equipment or a broken nose. Bret smiled, and played the odds. Bret knew about Mayer, and his reputation with his kind. Mayer wasn’t going to do anything but be really fucking nice.
Mayer said, “I can pick you guys out a mile away.”
Bret was caught and beat, but instead of the usual grimace, the usual intention of physical confrontation, Mayer was relaxed. He said, “Buy me a coffee and I’ll give you a shot you can actually sell.”
Bret sipped his latte. He cropped the bright background, the useless collateral distractions. Behind Mayer was an arguing family. Behind Mayer were the kind of people Bret’s accidentally embarrassed and ruined. People like Trice’s sister. People like God knows who else.
Bret bought John Mayer a wet cappuccino, then took a picture of him holding it, giving a thumbs up. “That ought to give you at least a tenth-page.” Bret gave Mayer a confused look. He still didn’t say much. It wasn’t the shock of being near a celebrity. It was the terrifying notion that one of them didn’t want to maul him.
Mayer shook his hand. “Have a good one.” He trundled off. Bret didn’t follow, didn’t say anything.
Bret stood in the airport wearing the same face he wore in the coffee shop, cropping and brightening and red-eye eliminating. Bret had been bowled over by a crooner, and he had no idea how to react.
It was a similar look that he had given to Tess the previous July. Originally, the plan had been to stay-cation Vegas for maybe a month, but they were encroaching on the end of their third. In Tess’ apartment, which used to be their apartment, Bret stood in the living room. There were fewer useless giveaway leftovers. She had begun collecting them after Bret moved out, to fill the spots where his things once were.
“When are we getting out of here?” Bret asked.
Tess, balled-up on the couch in a tiny skirt and black tank top, retracted. “I’m not the one who wanted to come down here. You did. You thought it’d be good for us. We never see one another, Bret. We don’t see one another and you’re really not happy.”
“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “So when do we get out of here?”
“You’re not happy,” she said. “But I am.”
Bret pulled his hands through his hair. He breathed deep, he locked on. This argument had been brewing ever since she’d told him they were staying a little longer.
“So what am I supposed to do?” Bret asked, never bothering to stop asking exactly what about this horrendous environment was keeping his girlfriend satiated.
Tess got up and tried to hold him, but he wasn’t having any of it.
“I’m serious, Tess,” He said. “I’m sick of this place. I’m sick of Album and his fucking website and the damn work.”
Tess removed any play from her voice. “I came here for you. Do you understand that? I left everything in my life to follow you. I got a job doing something I thought was demeaning, something that’ll never go on a resume, and I did it so I could afford to be here with you.”
“I never asked you to become a promo girl,” he said.
“What was I supposed to do? Leech off you like some trophy girlfriend? Fuck that. You know that’s not who I am. But my point was, I sacrificed my home for you. Don’t walk out on this just because you’re having a rough time.”
“So what should I do, Tess?” He asked. “Please, help me out on this.”
“You asked me to come down here, so I did,” she began. “I’m asking you to stay. I don’t know for how much longer, but to stay. Be with me. Do whatever you can. Find something that makes dealing with everything else easy.”
Bret had failed miserably at this.
Bret looked down at the thumbnails of John Mayer’s shining nice-guy mug. Bret sipped the last of the latte. He closed his computer. He’d emailed the files to Album. They’d be on the site in a few minutes, this time with a cute story about Coffee. Irony of ironies, Bret had found someone that kept him in Vegas. A few days after their big argument, Bret ran into Jenny at a bar. He was staking out a location for later that night, when he noticed her drinking alone. Tess had been right. It only took one person to make it easy.
# # #
Trice and Tess were eating yogurt on Tess’ balcony.
“You think we eat this stuff because TV tells us to?” Tess asked.
“What do you mean?”
Tess, scooping out peach and strawberry pieces from the goop, said “There’s, like, a thousand commercials with women eating yogurt. It’s all women on TV eat.”
“Some of them eat penis,” Trice said.
“I think you and I have different cable packages.”
It was midday. They both had a job to do that night, and neither thought anything about either. Fingers at ease, Tess and Trice daydreamed in open conversation, drinking corner store beer, breathing cheap Nevada air.
“You would not believe the rent I had to pay for a place half this size where I’m from.” Tess said. She extolled the horrors of British Columbia rent prices.
“I don’t get why you can’t come work with me in LA,” Trice said.
“It has to do with that thing I was telling you before,” Tess said. “Remember when I told you I was from Vancouver?”
“Well, it means I don’t actually belong in this country.”
“I don’t get what you mean. There’s tons of Canadians down here.”
“Yes, but most of them have work VISAs or their kids were born here or something. According to border patrol, I’m on vacation. I’ve been here way longer than I should have been.”
“But we work together. You work for the promo company,” Trice said.
“Yeah, but they don’t care where you’re from. Hell, you know Katrina? She’s from Russia. Doesn’t speak any English. They let her work. It’s because they pay in cash, Trice. It’s one of the reasons I took the job.”
“It’s no problem,” Trice said. “We can pay you in cash, too.”
“We?” Tess asked.
“My sister and I.”
“Ooh,” Tess said. “That’s why LA.”
“Exactly,” Trice said. “She’s really serious about this business, and I’m going to do everything I can to help her. Especially after what happened.”
“Because you feel responsible for what happened?”
“Responsible? Why would I feel responsible?”
“Well,” Tess said. “You did get her the gig. You were there too.”
“But I didn’t take the picture,” Trice replied. “And I didn’t put it online for our parents to find. It’s not my fault at all what happened. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love her and want her to be happy, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”
Tess thought about how Trice felt absolutely no guilt over her sister, how she was wrong but believed her own story so much she couldn’t see it any other way.
Trice and Tess made their way back into Tess’ kitchen. “Do you want a top up?” Tess asked.
“Do you have anything besides Ceasar’s? I have to say, I don’t at all understand this crazy drink you people have.”
Tess laughed. “I have some orange juice. I’ll use it instead.”
“What did you say was in there? Clam juice?”
“Clammato,” Tess said. “It’s a combination of Clam and Tommato juice.”
“It’s disgusting, is what it is,” Trice said.
“Maybe you have to be a Canuck to get it,” Tess said, handing Trice the vodka-orange.
“Look, it’ll be great,” Trice said, getting back on track. “You’ll see. Please come?” Trice elongated the please as far as she could.
Tess paused. “That’s not entirely it,” she said.
Trice took no time to clue in. “It’s him, isn’t it?” Tess stood still. “You’re still in love with that scumbag paparazzi, aren’t you?”
“He’s not a scumbag paparazzi,” Tess said, then retracted. “Okay, well, he didn’t use to be a scumbag paparazzi. He used to be my…”
“It’s stupid,” Tess said. “Forget it.”
“Tell me, bitch,” Trice said. “So I can talk you out of it.”
Tess remembered back to the first time she had said it to him. It was so long ago she had forgotten the details, but had remembered the little things.
Tess said, “He was my happily ever over.”
Trice stood in disbelief, as if Tess had spoken a long-dead romance language only understood by long-dead scholars. “You want to run that bullshit by me again?”
Tess leaned against the counter, sipping the drink of her homeland. “Romance, love, that whole chase, you know? It’s exciting. I had a hell of a run. I didn’t have a ton of boyfriends but dammit they were good ones. Even the shitty ones were good in their own ways. Barry, the hockey player with mommy issues? He was better at driving around aimlessly than anyone, and sometimes that’s really nice. Jerome, the law student who once slapped me for flirting? That asshole could massage like nobody’s business. Jake? Jake was the kind of guy who needed MTV-level drama on a weekly basis or he thought his life was meaningless. But that son of a bitch romanced the shit out of me, and there are still some nights I fantasize about that around the world cruise he wanted to take me on.
“Bret isn’t the best at a whole lot,” Tess said, calming down. “He makes his mistakes, and he creates situations that only ruin the parts of him I loved. Like, this paparazzi shit he got himself into? I hate that part of him. The worst part is that he hates it, too. He owns his own self-sabotage, but he’s never been strong enough to stop it. The problem is, there was a long time there where I thought I was done with chasing love and being part of that entire spectacle and chaos. I thought I was finished. Bret wasn’t my happily ever after, but he was more than enough to call it a day.”
Trice sipped her Vodka Orange and nodded. “I know that. It goes by different names but I’ve seen it. This guy really had it, huh?”
“Yeah,” Tess said.
“You think there’s still any of that in him?”
“That all depends,” Tess said, finishing off her Ceasar. “It all depends on how he leaves.”
# # #
Jenny lay down on her bed and remembered the last time she and Bret made love. They’d fallen asleep together. It had been nice, and the memory cast a kind light on Bret. She could never look back in anger on the way they had made love. She nuzzled against the pillow, pressed in, pushing only slightly, the way a cat sneaks into your awaiting, scratch-wanting fingernails. She was still wearing her work clothes, even though she didn’t go to work anymore. Her beige skirt was worn-in, maybe a year too old to still be considered on the best selection in a wardrobe. There were a few too many creases, and there was a stitch coming loose on the bottom. Her feet bare, her legs a little cold, Jenny curled inward, squinting, holding nothing tight but herself.
The phone rang, and she wished it was someone with news. She hated knowing nothing about the next day. Her schedule was empty, and her stomach had a pang. It rang a second time, and almost gave into the machine. Her cold hand grabbed and flipped open her cell, and she held it to her ear.
“It’s your sister, spinster.”
Jenny felt urges to loudly cough.
“You haven’t called in like a week.”
“It’s been kind of a bad week,” Jenny said, compulsions to bitch further be damned.
“Please tell me you’re not thinking about Tony.”
“I’m sorry?” Jenny didn’t know what she was talking about. The phone felt like wet plastic in her hand, slippery and unnatural and better off untouched.
“You know. You can’t help it. Thinking about Tony. Wondering where he is, what he’s doing, what he’s thinking about, is he thinking about you, and if he’ll ever return.”
Confused and tired, Jenny just said “What?”
“You know, the sad French girls from Kids in the Hall?”
“Is that a thing? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t watch enough Canadian television. You’d think with that ex boyfriend of yours he would have forced you into some of it.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. He made me watch that stupid gas station show from Saskatchewan. He had them downloaded on his computer.”
“Yeah, I love that one.”
“I seriously do not get your fascination with Canadian television. But, whatever. Why don’t you date him?”
“Because he’s yours,” she said. “Bret belongs to you.”
“Yeah, well, look Haley,” Jenny said, sitting up, tensing her jaw and cracking her neck to the right. “He’s not anybody’s but his own now. I’ve made up my mind about the whole thing.”
Haley sighed loud enough for Jenny to get the message. “You can’t be angry at him forever. He only did what just about anyone else in the world would do. It’s what I would have done.”
“Haley, don’t be ridiculous.”
“I don’t like the methods, either,” she said. “But you can’t argue with the intent. He was revealing the truth. Isn’t that what we all want out of life?”
“Justice,” Haley said.
“I lost my job, sis,” Jenny stated. “I lost it because of him, because of his particular brand of this justice you’re talking about. Reggie wasn’t a bad guy, Haley. He was a politician. He had to keep certain things secret.”
“I don’t get why he had to keep being gay secret,” Haley said. “I don’t get people who marry people they don’t love. Hell, have kids with people they don’t love. What’s the big deal? Just be a gay politician.”
“Yeah, it’s really not as simple as all that.”
“But don’t you at least wish it was?”
“Don’t you wish it was as easy as just saying it, and having that be okay, having a guy get elected just as easily as if he was straight?”
“Yeah, I guess so. But that’s not really the point, was it?”
“Isn’t it, though? I mean, if your boss was openly gay the whole time, then he wouldn’t have been having this affair, and Bret wouldn’t have taken any pictures, and you wouldn’t be out of a job, and you two would still be together.”
Jenny wiped her eyes and looked at shadows out the window. The slow creep of building reflections on other buildings, reflections of house windows on other houses. In Jenny’s mind swirled fantasies.
“If he were openly gay,” Jenny said. “He’d never have got elected in the first place.”
“Well,” Haley said. “That’s the saddest hand dealt, not Bret’s.”
Jenny exhaled. “Okay. I give up. He’s the greatest guy ever and I love him twice over and everything will be all right now. Thanks so much Sis.”
“Bret was just doing what he thought was right.”
“Really, sis, put yourself in that position. And I’m serious. What would you have done?”
“Haley.” Jenny stamped the name.
“I mean, did you know Reggie was gay before the news hit?”
Jenny let a beat go. “Yes, of course I knew.”
“But you didn’t feel the public deserved to know.”
“It’s none of the public’s business. Haley, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“All I’m saying…”
“Haley, I know exactly what you’re saying. You said the same thing to me last week.”
“Whatevs,” she said.
“Don’t say whatevs,” Jenny replied. “It’s really unbecoming.”
“You oughta talk about unbecoming.”
“I’m so glad I don’t live with you anymore,” Jenny had enough of this, of her sisters’ berating to take Bret back.
“Look, just promise me you won’t completely close the book. Bret was the best thing that happened to you in a long time. He made you so happy.”
The windows rattled every evening in Jenny’s apartment. Old and loose, the window panes were seemingly held together by oil and string. They shook with the desert gush, and they, and not the thoughts of Bret and their multitude of mistakes that were keeping her from sleeping all week.
Jenny said, “I need a few small miracles to happen first.”
# # #
# # #
Foot on the pedal and wind from above, Bret drove around, circling nothing, hunting nothing. He had a night off. Album hadn’t called him, hadn’t procured his particular talents for the night. There was nobody to steal from, nobody to lie to. Album did this from time to time. He would forget he had Bret in his pocket. He would forget he ran an incredibly popular dish rag site. Album, from time to time, would forget that he was Album and would answer his phone with his real name. On nights like this, Bret took a meager satisfaction in the easiness of his life. He would try his hardest to shelve the drama between him and Jenny, his past life with Tess, and all the lowlife decisions he made. He would stare forward, eyes seeing road seeing cars seeing other people who drove. This American past time of just driving for the sake of fucking driving was something Bret could take home.
His cell rang. It wasn’t Album, but it was about Album.
Tess talked like a Gatling gun on the phone to the annoyance of everyone who knew her. The times she talked about something that genuinely excited her were so excruciatingly difficult to understand it had been the culprit for several severed friendships. Bret had long taken the practice of holding his phone several inches away from his ear, just in case it was her on the other end. “You are not going to oh my fucking god believe this Bret. Come the fuck over right now. Your buddy has been up to some major shit.”
She didn’t try to come off as a brainless valley girl, but phones being what they are had that affect on the poor girl. Bret moved the phone closer to his mouth while keeping the audio end at a safe distance. He looked like a fool.
“I’m in the area,” he said. “I’ll be right over.”
Bret was enjoying his drive. He had no direction, just forward momentum for the sake of forward momentum. He got a little high off the wind, a little sleepy, but not dangerously. Just sleepy enough to calm the voice in his head that his life had as much direction as his ride, that he’d done so much more bad in the world than good, that he’d be doing everyone a favor if he moved to a struggling country to build houses for the disparaged and never come home again.
The voice had been around more as of late. He heard it ping around the back of his head, and was bothered by his ability to place it.
The voice, in not so many ways, said go.
The son of a bitch of the thing was Bret really didn’t want anything to happen to him, and yet he was compelled to let himself get sucker punched every time. It was never a strong suit of his to stay Swiss about something; to say no. The voice was persuasive, as was his surroundings. The neon, specifically, called from around corners. The annoying, wasteful tubes gave Bret headaches, which is why he avoided the strip as much as possible. Which, when he thought about it, pronounced him a resident of the city more than anything else.
Bret parked and entered Tess’ apartment, immediately noticing the new bags of useless crap and trinkets left from the end of nights. One small bag full of lip gloss; another full of disposable razors, another with four copies of a CD by The Kills. One had been opened, left open, emptied. It surprised Bret to see something she’d taken home actually get used. Most of the leftovers were just strewn around like some art project waiting for an audience that got it.
He climbed the stairs and was greeted by sleepy, excited eyes.
“I’ve seen that look on you,” Bret said.
“What look?” Tess asked.
“The one where you could fall asleep at any moment, but you’re still more alert than anyone else.”
Tess smiled. It was a professional hazard, one she took, as with most of her flaws, as a badge of success.
“So I can’t believe he hasn’t told you himself,” Tess said.
“Tell me what?” Bret sat down on the couch. Tess pulled her laptop off the cluttered desk and sat down next to him.
Bret saw the page, the familiar banner ads and background colors. Albums’ site was nothing special in terms of looks. But people loved it.
Tess scrolled. Bret saw the photo of the governor. It was Bret’s photo.
“Did something new happen? I don’t understand.” Bret asked.
“Read the article, honey.”
So Bret read the article about the governor he singlehandedly brought down. Apparently, Fane had visited Album in his home. Apparently he’d asked for advice, now that his life was in tatters. Apparently he was friendly, and humbled.
“I don’t believe any of this,” Bret muttered, but kept reading.
Fane was disappointed in how he acted after being caught. He was having trouble sleeping. He felt his apology to the state three days after the photo went viral was ham-fisted. Apparently, the speech had been prepared by a cabinet member. It read eerily similar to the one used by the governor of Minnesota from three years ago. His wife stood next to him on the podium, too. Her head was down, too.
Apology theater, Fane called it.
At the end of the article, Album explained that Fane was going to organize a press conference tomorrow. That it was going to be by himself. No telepromptors. No party support.
“I don’t believe it,” Bret said again.
“I didn’t see it either. But, you know, your friend gets read by lots of people.”
Tess moved the page over to CNN. It showed the picture, with all the limbs, the flash bulb red-eyes, the looks of shame and the beginnings of rage. All those limbs, Bret thought. Fuck, all those limbs. The story under the photo confirmed what Album said on the blog.
Tess switched it over to FOX. To the Huffington Post. Yahoo and Google and the AP all said the same thing.
“Well,” Bret said, unable to really piece together an opinion.
“I know, right? Isn’t it fucked up that he’d go and find Album?”
“That’s for sure.” Bret chewed nothing.
After a moment of staring at the end of the article, Tess asked, “Bret? What are you thinking?”
“I can tell you’re worried, or confused, or something. But this is big, right?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s pretty big.”
“Bret, come on.”
Bret looked at Tess in the same tired, excited way. He learned it from her. “Honestly, who knows what this means. It could be some new political ploy. Maybe a desperate attempt to get his job back? I don’t know. I’m not into this stuff.”
“Whatever, Bret. The only reason this is happening is because of you. You broke this whole shit wide the fuck open.”
“I think I need to lie down,” Bret said, getting up, moving to the bedroom. Tess followed after him. He crumpled down on her bed, the only clean surface in the house. Tess lay down beside him. He looked up at her constellation-looking crackle ceiling, the egg-white getting stained with age and light. Tess looked at Bret looking up.
“I ruined the man’s life, Tess,” Bret said. “I’m not saying he didn’t deserve to be caught, and that his stupid hammed-up apology didn’t reek of political garbage. But he’s a man, and I ran that man’s face through the mud.”
Tess grabbed hold of his hand. She squeezed.
“The worst part is,” he said. “This is what I do. I help ruin people for a living.”
“I’m not sure it’s really that different from what you were doing before,” Tess said.
Bret turned over, looked Tess in the eyes. “What the hell am I doing with my life?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. I guess I threw you for a loop, huh?”
“Don’t blame yourself. It was my fault we didn’t work out.”
“No,” Tess said. “I started it. You wanted to leave. You wanted to get out of this city before it ate you up. Before it did to you what it’s obviously done to you.”
Tess said, “I’m so, so sorry.”
Bret said seven things in his head but all he did with his mouth was kiss her.
He stopped. She kissed him. They met halfway the third time. They stopped talking altogether. Bret’s hand went through Tess’ hair. Tess’ hand pressed against Bret’s chest, her other hand reaching down.
He opened his eyes once, and just for a split second, just to make sure this was really happening.
Belts loosened by force. Shirts pulled over heads. Bret lost track of a little time.
Tess laid next to Bret after she’d come. “Do you want me to finish you?” She asked.
“In a minute,” Bret said. “Breath catching and all.”
Both wanted the air to be colder outside, for northwestern ocean winds to shatter the desert and create a Record Year for Rainfall. Tess and Bret felt home, and then they felt less.
“Okay,” Bret said. They went to work on the issue at hand.
She kissed him. At last, they’d touched again. It had been too long a year. The senses had dulled too much. And yet.
“You need to get out of here,” Tess said.
“I’m serious,” she said. “This isn’t a good idea. I came to my senses.”
“You came to your senses quick,” Bret said.
“Look, I love you, but this isn’t going to work.” Tess held her hair back, and cracked her neck.
“Do I even need to ask why?” Bret said, sitting up.
“Because you don’t know what you want, or who you are. You’ve been damaged, and some of that is my fault, but you need to fix yourself a little before we can even have this conversation.”
“But,” Bret began.
“Go,” Tess slammed. “Just get out of here before I never want to see you again.”