I never really expected to end up in Famoustown. I had seen myself settling one day in places like Frickso, or Yettering, or Pent, but when I saw the signs advertising their exits, and saw their tiny skylines, just a few lights suspended in complete darkness, I just couldn’t bring myself to take them.
The billboards began advertising the city long before I was even close to it. In fact, I’d barely left the Blandon City Limits when I saw the following question floating in my periphery: WHAT DOES FAMOUSTOWN MEAN TO YOU? Famoustown meant quite a lot to me, actually. Even though I’d never been there, it was a place I had been hearing about all my life. Big events were always taking place in Famoustown; it was a place that other places looked to for information on the current trends. It was also a place where famous people lived, and this had always given me pause. While I liked famous people just as much as the next person, I never wanted to be famous myself. After all, it didn’t take much to see what fame did to people, how it puffed up their pride, and let them speak every word with certainty; and how, over time, it seemed to make them resemble not the pleasant, ordinary people they surely were before fame found them, but rather mentally ill ghouls. And that wasn’t going to be my route, I knew.
The problem was, the billboards just kept coming. Each time I saw one looming in the distance, with the easily identifiable Famoustown font and logo, I would squeeze my eyes shut until I knew I was well past it; and while this did help me avoid them in the short term, miles ahead, when my mind was as blank again, they’d come roaring back, messages I thought I hadn’t seen but in fact had, messages like, “WHERE WERE YOU WHEN YOU FIRST HEARD THE WORD FAMOUSTOWN?” or “IMAGINE A WORLD UNTO ITSELF UTTERLY UNTO ITSELF.” And as I hurtled closer and closer toward the city, not even stopping to use the bathroom anymore but just urinating in the big-mouth bottles I had strewn on the floor of the sedan, they grew harder and harder not to absorb, what with phrases like, “NO SUCH PLACE AS THIS” or “THIS PLACE RADIATES” or “IN PLACE OF THIS PLACE WHAT PLACE,” and in fact these messages were so effective at catching my attention that I didn’t even bother slotting them into my periphery anymore, instead cocking my head to the right and letting them right into the middle of my eyes, messages like, “WHY WAIT FOR THE WORLD WHEN FAMOUS IS ALREADY FAMOUS” or “IF YOU DON’T VISIT IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE TO US WE WILL REMAIN FAMOUS,” and on and on, until I was just outside the city limits, and by that time, instead of dreading them I found that I was actually looking forward to them: I held my breath and gripped the wheel in anticipation.
When I finally entered the city limits, the traffic announced itself all of a sudden, and I had to slam on my brakes to keep from causing an accident. The congestion was unlike anything I’d driven in before: in each lane, on either side of the highway, a line of vehicles stretching as far as my eyes could see, with bumpers that couldn’t stop rubbing up against each other. I threw glances into the other lanes at my fellow travelers, hoping to show them a face that said WE ARE HERE AND WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, but I discovered that all the windows were tinted, and if the people did reach out to me, they did so from behind the black glass—more often than not, I was left looking at my own gaping face. Initially, I felt a little hurt, but then I realized that the sedans might be full of famous people, famous people who wouldn’t want, for any number of reasons, to be bothered by someone like me, and this made me feel a little better, almost excited to be sharing the highway with them.
Just as the morning sun came peeking up behind some mountains on my left, one particular billboard caught my eye. It depicted a very attractive woman, alone with an easel in a spacious room—she wore a fashionable hat and not much else—and she seemed to be deep within the artistic process. While her hand was busy applying paint to the canvas, her eyes, on the other hand, were peering very suggestively out at the viewer: me. In the far corner of the photo were the words, “RENTING NOW,” and just beneath them a phone number that was easily memorized. But because the easel was facing the woman and not the viewer, what she was actually painting was a mystery. But this was where the traffic actually worked to my advantage: I was able to think on it for a minute, and not long after I had the mystery solved. But to do this, I had to place myself in the mind of the advertiser, and ask myself what would most appeal most to a person in a slow moving car. What she was painting, I realized, was the potential tenant: the potential tenant’s face was the one that was slowly emerging on the other side of the sign. I laughed a little, then came up with a better slogan than they had: “I AM PUTTING YOU IN A PAINTING IF ONLY YOU WOULD BE WILLING.”
I tapped the brakes, found my phone, and then I dialed the number. The sun was now pretty high in the sky, and a pleasant, somewhat husky voice answered the phone.
“Hello,” it said. “What can I help you with?”
“Hello,” I said. “I’m calling about the lofts.”
“We have one left. Would you like it?”
“It depends. What is it like?”
“You saw the billboard, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but they say that the real thing is never like the billboard.”
“In this case, it is,” she said.
“So the loft is spacious?”
“Very. It also includes a balcony, which we couldn’t fit onto the billboard.”
“It sounds too good to be true.”
“I should also tell you that it also has a full kitchen, a nice shower, and central air.”
“All of those are good things, too,” I said. “How much does it cost?”
I could hear her sigh a little. “Had you asked me when we first began leasing, you would have cried tears of joy. We were practically giving them away, then.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t move to Famoustown sooner.”
“It’s for the best,” she said. “The neighborhood has changed a lot.”
“Back then, we couldn’t keep our tenants long enough to fulfill their leases.”
“How did they die?” I said, suddenly feeling less confident about this loft.
“Our first wave was mostly artists, and they were targeted. You aren’t an artist, are you?”
“Not at all,” I said, and for the first time in my life I was thankful for the genes I’d been given. “I’m trying to get something started with my life.”
“Good. You’ll fit right in.”
Then I looked up again at the billboard, and something truly did not add up. “If you don’t want any artists living in your lofts, why would you feature a beautiful painter doing her thing on your billboard?”
Then I could hear her laugh, though in a faint, reticent way. “That’s an old billboard. Initially, we did want the artists renting here, knowing they’d pave the way for more sensible tenants. But times have changed. So, you like the woman on the billboard?”
“Very much,” I said. “I like how ambitious she seems, but also how sensitive.”
“That’s very kind. The loft is yours if you want it.”
“How much did you say it was?”
“Are you financially secure? I can’t have you breaking your lease on me.”
I pulled out the envelope from my pants, which had become a little damp on the long drive. I flipped through the large bills, counting them as I went, and found that it was quite a lot, almost too much for one person, I thought. My mother must have saved for years, I realized, shaving off a little here and there and maybe even missing a few meals. “I’m pretty secure,” I said.
“Where are you right now?”
“On the highway,” I said. “Staring at your billboard.”
“Well, then. Take the Downtown Famoustown exit. Make a right onto Lumbar, and you’ll run right into us. I’ll be in my office.”
“I look forward to meeting you. What kind of building am I looking for?”
“An old hotel. You’ll see the LOFTS AVAILABLE banner if you squint.”
I hung up, but rather than squish the phone back into my pants, I just stuck it between my legs. I was almost to my destination, anyway, and there wasn’t any danger of anyone calling. I took my eyes off the billboard, and then slowly nosed my way into the other lane—no easy task, because of how intent on rubbing bumpers the other drivers were. But soon enough I made it to the exit, and finally down the ramp and onto Lumbar. I spied what looked to be an old hotel, and was able to nab a spot right in front of it. After checking myself out in the mirror, just to make sure I didn’t have anything foreign on my face, I stepped out of the sedan.
On the sidewalk, young professionals of all shapes, sizes, and genders walked to work, dressed in handsome suits and carrying slender briefcases. I joined the throng on the sidewalk, chuckling a little, because there I was, a young man in a brand new place with all the time in the world, walking alongside professionals headed to their jobs—jobs they’d work, without break, for the rest of their lives. And I fit in so well with them, I knew, that they would have never guessed that I was nothing like them, nothing at all, going not to my job but to my loft, about to sign a new lease on life.
The hotel was a little weather-beaten, and the facade could have used a few splashes of paint, here and there—but I wasn’t paying for any kind of exterior, I knew: it was the inside that mattered most to me. By counting the small but cozy balconies stacked on top of one another, I was able to determine that the building was about one hundred stories high. I decided to ask, if given the choice, for a room about halfway up: I didn’t want to be so high that I lost touch with what was happening on the ground—nor did I want to be so close to the ground that street noises were able to enter my dreams. I went right in through the double doors and found myself in a long somewhat dark lobby, with adjoining hallways that went this way and that. The air was very fragrant, but also full of allergens: I spent the first few minutes sneezing, coughing, and rubbing my eyes until they were red. The office was not labeled clearly, so it took me several tries; but I knew I had opened the right door when I saw an attractive older woman, decked out in stylish, somewhat funky clothes, seated behind a small desk. She smiled at me, and I smiled right back, and I could tell right away that we were interested in each other. “You called about the room,” she said.
“I did,” I said. “Was it you that I talked to?”
“It was,” she said. “Do I look anything like her?”
“Like who?” I said.
“The billboard girl,” she said. “The woman painting the picture.”
I had to catch myself from crying out, because they were one and the same person. “Yes, you do!” I said.
“But I look older, don’t I?” she said. “You can tell me the truth.”
“Only a little,” I said, which was a lie—she looked quite a lot older. “But you’re still attractive.”
“Stop,” she said.
“No, really,” I said. “I know I’ve been driving all night, but you look really good to me.”
“It takes work, you know.”
“I’ve heard,” I said. “Thankfully, I’m still young, and don’t have to worry yet.”
“You could be more attractive, if you wanted to work at it.”
“I don’t want to work at it,” I said.
“That’s OK,” she said. “You’re still attractive.”
“I was a beautiful child,” I said, though I’m not sure why I felt the need to tell her this.
“Your mother is deceased, isn’t she?”
“She is,” I said. “Very recently.”
She stood up suddenly. “Would you like to see your room?”
“Yes I would,” I said.
I watched as she—a little seductively, I thought—removed a long key from one of her desk drawers. She stood up suddenly. “Follow me,” she said.
We went into the lobby, and I had the urge to compliment her on the plants, but thought better of it because she was so ruthless about my looks. Inside the elevator, she pressed the button for the twenty-fifth floor, looked at me, and, after the doors had closed, began to cry. She didn’t even try to be secretive about her tears; she just stood there and stared at me and cried. And because I was worn out from my drive, and the day that preceded it, and because I’d never been able to contain my emotions around people that couldn’t contain theirs, I started crying, just standing there and staring at her and crying, until about the fourteenth floor or so, when a young man and a young woman—both in suits—boarded the elevator together, and though their backs were turned toward us I could tell by the way their shoulders shook that they too were crying. If you found yourself in that elevator alongside us, and managed to keep your eyes dry enough to see the scene objectively, you might have mistaken the four of us for a family, a family that has just received the tragic news that the fifth member has died, and are on their way to view a body that they’re almost certain to identify.
When the elevator stopped at the twenty-fifth floor, the older woman and I both turned off our tears, then squeezed past the couple and stepped out. We found ourselves in a long, oblong hallway, where photographs of dead famous people adorned the walls. “Why were you crying in there?” I said.
“On the ground floor,” she said, “I was thinking about your dead mother, and how it must be difficult for a person so young to lose his mother.”
“It’s not too big a deal,” I said. “And besides, it hasn’t really hit me yet.”
“And I was just about to stop, but then those two young professionals came aboard.”
“Yeah, they made it tough.”
“Oh, that wasn’t it. Before those two, had you ever seen a young professional cry?”
I thought for a moment. “I don’t think so.”
“Young professionals never cry,” she said, “because they’re young, and they have their entire moneymaking lives before them.”
“That makes sense.”
“Their tears today can only mean one thing: the slump has finally reached Famoustown, and young professionals everywhere are going to have to bear the brunt.”
“Are there a lot of young professionals in this building?”
“All my tenants are young professionals,” she said. “Except you, of course. We don’t know what you are yet.”
We walked down the hallway, which zig-zagged past many other lofts, lofts I would probably never see inside. As I caught myself staring longingly at one of the pictures on the wall, I said, “Do you think any of the famous people are going to have to bear some of the slump’s brunt?”
“I certainly hope not.”
“But fair is fair,” I said. “The famous should share the load as much as the young professionals, I think.”
“If the famous are forced to bear much of anything,” she said, “this town will have to change its name. Is that what you want?”
“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying,” I said, but in my heart I was secretly wishing that every famous person was forced to bear a brunt so heavy that it shattered his or her ankles.
“Here we are,” she said, inserting the key into a door.
The loft was just a barren white room, though it did feature all the amenities she mentioned. Seeing that the interior was up to my expectations, I hopped over to the sliding door. Finding it unlocked, I stepped onto the balcony, which was quite tiny—there was only room enough for my two feet, so long as I kept them close together—but there was plenty of vertical room, so I was able to stretch out my arms high above my head and feel the breeze on my hands. I had to be careful not to lean forward, because of the low height of the railing, but I grinned just the same—now wasn’t the time to start finding fault with a room I clearly loved.
All of Famoustown stretched out below me, and beyond that, the blue ocean, and beyond that, though too far to see—though I could feel it pulsing out here there—lay abroad. Of course, there were lots of sights to see below, all the brilliant architecture and technological marvels, but something seemed so brittle and chintzy about it all that I couldn’t bear to look for long; I was even tempted, for a moment, to spit on it. But then I remembered that I’d only been in town a short while, and hadn’t really given Famoustown a fair chance to impress me, so I decided that before I made any more snap judgments about the place I would first do my best to investigate it.
Feeling comfortable with myself, even a little proud at how balanced I was being, I brought my hands down to my sides, leaned back against the sliding door, and closed my eyes. I daydreamed of two people making love in the blue ocean, deep beneath the waves. Neither had any eyes in their sockets, but that didn’t seem to stop them from enjoying each other’s company and private parts. It was a perverty little dream, I admit, but I knew it was nothing to be ashamed of—what lived inside the mind does so without our consent, and even with full consent the content can’t always be fully controlled, I knew. I only felt bad about it when I discovered, after opening my eyes and gazing down, twenty-five stories below, that there’d been an accident while I was out—someone had fallen from one of the balconies above me and met their death on the street below. Given the position of the sun at that moment, I knew that the dead person’s shadow must have passed over me, on its way down, and was surprised that I didn’t perceive the sudden change in light.
I returned inside, and found, much to my surprise, that the room wasn’t barren anymore. Instead, it was all set up for painting. My landlord stood at her easel in the center of the room, applying her brush to the canvas, and though I was only gone for a moment she was already deep within the artistic process.
“You’re an artist?” I said, genuinely surprised.
“Aspiring. This space doubles as my studio.”
“I thought this loft was available.”
“Do you ever think about suicide?” she said suddenly.
“Not too much,” I said. “I try and stay positive.”
“Do I inspire you?” I said. I was fishing for a compliment, and really feeling the after-effects of that sexy dream.
“Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe it’s the sudden slump that’s fired my imagination.”
“What do you find inspiring about me?”
“There’s something barely there about you. I like that. I can work with that.”
Just to be flirtatious, I picked up my suitcase and put on a leave-taking face. “I don’t want to take your studio away from you,” I said.
“Maybe we can find a compromise,” she said. “Do you plan on spending much time in the loft?”
“Yes, I guess.”
“I mean inside the loft, as opposed to out on the balcony.”
“Oh. No. I imagine I’ll be out on the balcony quite a lot, except of course when I need to lie down.”
“So it wouldn’t bother you if I painted in here sometimes?”
“How often are we talking?” I said.
“Whenever inspiration struck.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” I said, unsure whether I meant it or not. “But I’m sure there’ll be plenty times when I’ll need my privacy.” Then I took a big risk, but she seemed to be warming to me, so I very silently took off my fancy shoes and my jacket, my pants and my underwear, and stood before her in nothing but my skin. But instead of focusing on my nubile body, she kept her eyes focused on the canvas.
“You don’t strike me as a very private person,” she said.
“I am,” I said. “I’m actually quite private when I need to be.” I started clapping my hands together, in the hopes of getting her attention. Finally, I watched one of her eyes roll away from the canvas and fall on me, but it quickly rolled back. But she saw me—all of me—I was sure of it.
“I can respect your privacy,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said.
Then I lay myself down on the floor, and started writhing back and forth. “I’m being pretty private right now,” I said. “In case you hadn’t noticed.”
“We are not going to lie down together,” she said. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“Please? I would really appreciate it.”
“I’m a married woman,” she said, showing me her ring.
“I’m sorry,” I said, half-meaning it, getting up from the floor and dusting myself off. “Why didn’t you tell me you were married?” I stepped back into my clammy pants. I didn’t even bother with the underwear because they were so clammy that I couldn’t even pull them over my legs.
“I forget sometimes,” she said. “My husband is so often away.”
“What does he do?”
“Oh, wow,” I said. I felt my heart begin to race.
“Wow is right—I’m a lucky woman. I only wish he made more time for me.”
“So he’s neglectful?”
“More distant than neglectful.”
Then, right before putting my jacket back on, I decided to give it one more go. “Are you sure you don’t want to lie down with me, even for a minute?”
“No thank you,” she said. “Besides, I’m almost done with my painting.”
Realizing that there was no chance at intimacy with her, I seized the opportunity to ensure my financial well-being. “Seeing as we’re about to share a space together,” I said, “how would you feel about giving me a discount on the rent?”
“That sounds fair. But I do need it now, of course.”
I reached into my pocket for the envelope, but as soon as I had my hand on it I remembered just how stuffed with money it was, and didn’t want her to know the extent of my stability, so I took out the envelope only after turning my back to her. All were big bills, but I managed to select one in the middle range.
“Will this do?” I said, holding the bill over my head. “For the first month, at least?”
She glanced up briefly from her work. “It’s more than enough.”
I cursed myself then for not choosing a smaller bill, and thought about trying to exchange them without her noticing, but ended up keeping my first choice.
“Would you like to see my work?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, and she turned the easel around. The painting was awfully abstract, but after a few minutes of looking, I could discern what was going on clearly enough: it depicted me, or someone that looked like me, on a balcony, in the nude, with the skyline and the blue sky beyond me. My arms were stretched over my head, but my palms were pressed flat against each other; it looked as though I was preparing to take some sort of high dive.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “I wonder about my hands, though.”
“What about them?”
“I wasn’t holding them that way,” I said.
“Oh, you were,” she said, using a tone I did not appreciate.
“I don’t think so. I was holding them straight up in the air, like this.” I demonstrated the pose for her.
“You should keep believing that.”
“I’d like to keep you around for a while,” she said, sweetly.
It was then that my stomach reminded me of its existence, so I put on my leave-taking face again. “I’m going to get something to eat,” I said. My tone of voice suggested that there wasn’t going to be any argument about it.
“Would you like some company?”
“I think I need to be alone.”
“By myself, yes.”
“What a big bug you are.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“You,” she said. “A big bug.”
“Maybe,” I said, smoothing out the wrinkles in my suit.
“A big bug doing big things in the big city, all by himself.”
“Sure,” I said, playing along. “And maybe after this big bug puts something in his stomach, he’s going to go on the hunt to find a special someone.”
“Oh, really? For what?”
“To lie down with,” I said. “Since other bugs aren’t quite as willing.”
“Oh, really?” she said. “A special someone?”
“Oh, really,” I said. “A special sort of someone who might not yet know this big bug is out and looking around.”
“They’ll be lucky to meet you, big bug.”
“I am a big bug, aren’t I?”
“You’ve got money, you’ve got health. What else would you need?”
“I’ve got it all, except for some lucky someone, that is.”
“Some soon to be lucky someone.”
“Right,” I said. “Some soon to be lucky someone.”
“Tonight is the night.”
“Tonight?” I said.
“Tonight,” she said.
“The night for what?”
“The night for fun,” she said. “Fun night tonight.”
“Tonight is the night a big bug will have some fun with some lucky someone,” I said.
“Won’t that be fun?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Who knows? I might even meet my Sweetheart out there.”
“Out where? Where’s a Sweetheart?”
“Out there,” I said, pointing to the outside. “Out there, in the fun.”
“Out there in Famoustown?”
“Out there in fun Famoustown.”
“Maybe some food, something to drink?”
“Food and drink, yes. I’m old enough to mix the two.”
“Is that all? That can’t be all.”
“Food and drink and money and health and some lucky someone to lie down with in fun Famoustown tonight, all within a big bug’s reach.”
“Come here and give me that rent,” she said. “Don’t wait one second more.”
“Coming.” I put on my jacket, and then my shoes, and then walked over to her and pushed the money into her hand.
“Now go out and do what you said you’d do.”
“Here I go,” I said, and I smiled at my landlord, who smiled back, insanely attractive even in her aged state. I hugged her, kissed her on her wrinkled but beautiful cheek, then left the loft.