by Jocelyn Cullity

The producer, Harvey, sat on a fold-up chair in front of us, the thick layer of smog above Lake Michigan rising behind him. It was unusually hot for Chicago at the end of September. Harvey, Ginny, and me—Rosa—waited on the lawn by the big house waiting for Harvey’s wife, the director, to finish up the last shots for the commercial inside. On the driveway, catering cleaned up, and the production assistants and some people from wardrobe stood around the vans, waiting to pack up.

Ginny, my girlfriend, sat beside me on the grass, face still caked in makeup in case they called her back inside. My part had finished yesterday—I played a nun, driving other nuns across the grass in a silver SUV. This was when Ginny and I were trying to make it in Chicago. I only saw Harvey when he called me about a part.

Kama, Harvey’s assistant, wheeled over the cooler and handed around iced bottles of water. I’d heard he was from Thailand, a good-looking young man Harvey’d sponsored, whom he treated like a son. We watched Kama saunter to the driveway, where he blended in with the rest of the crew, all of them in black jeans, T-shirts, and headsets.

Out of the blue, Harvey said, “Hey Ginny, Rosa. What’s love about? First there was chaos. Then the earth was created, and then there was love,” he said. “I know you can’t generalize about such a thing, and we can’t define it or know it any better than anyone in the past, but what do we call love and what don’t we call love these days?” Harvey told us that Kama used to be beaten up regularly by a man. “He just took it. I mean, we’ve all heard about this stuff, but is that a kind of suffering love, or what is that?”

“There’s all sorts of love,” Ginny said, smoothing her knees with her hands. “How can anyone else know what really goes on between two people, Harv?” Ginny had short, fair hair. Was tall and slim, like me. She wore a cycling outfit. The summer dress for her part as the house-wife hung on a rack near the edge of the lawn.

“Maybe, honey,” Harvey said, and took a slug of water, twisting the cap back on.

Harvey was a big man who wore crumpled linen shirts and bracelets on both arms. He was fifty then. His production offices on South LaSalle Street were pristine and lined with awards. When he was in his office, his conversation was friendly but to the point, efficient. But now he looked at the little crowd on the driveway and then leaned towards us, pulling at his collar, eager to tell us a story.

“Fiona and I used to go to a place in Khao Lak, west coast of Thailand. A great place to go for a few weeks in between commercials. Good for the heart, R and R. The place was run by a guy whose old parents did the accounting and drank tea. For the most part, they were a nice family who ran a tight ship. But the middle-aged son liked to drink. Kama worked the bar. He sent money back to his folks in the countryside. A popular guy like he is here—everyone loved Kama. Kind, beautiful; the fair youth.”

Harvey looked over at the driveway. Kama had gone inside. The crew sat on turned-over crates, winding cables, talking quietly. In the house windows, you could see the two kids at the breakfast table, lights on, camera running. Outside, someone watered a portion of the lawn, like she had for the last two days, in an effort to keep it green enough for the production.

“So, anyway,” Harvey said, leaning back. “Near the bar, there was a set of stairs to get to the second and third floors of the hotel. Beautiful stairs, blue and yellow tile. And the bar-room opened on to some deep gardens. I liked to walk those gardens late at night, smell the sweet air. One evening, the middle-aged son, Kama’s boss, was drunk, and from where I stood in the gardens, I saw the boss hit Kama behind the bar. Most unusual to see that sort of thing. The next day, Kama sported bandages across his cheek. It was back to business as usual. I have a picture of them behind the bar, both smiling. So, I mean, what is that?”

“There’s always something you can’t fathom,” Ginny said. “A mystery. Or maybe it’s not a mystery. Maybe it’s just that love is more fluid than we’ll grant.”

“He wanted to keep the job,” I said. “Desperation. If his parents needed money, the desire to help them made him put up with it. You were seeing love indirectly.”

Harvey shook his head. “I’m not done yet, Rosa,” he said. “Wait and see what you think when I’m done.”

Ginny moved over a bit so our fingertips touched. I put my little finger over hers.

“How much longer do you think they’re going to take?” Harvey asked, peering at the house and fanning himself with his hand. “Jeez, you know, I love my wife. But Fiona always takes too long to wrap it up. We should be outta here by now. It’s a car commercial, for God’s sake. We’ve been doing them for fifteen years, and she knows we don’t need another goddamn take of the kids at the breakfast table. But I can’t say that to her, can I? Regardless of what it costs. Rule number one: never go into business with your life partner.”

“Did you ever talk to Kama’s boss? Confront him?” Ginny asked.

Harvey wiped his brow with his arm. “The guy’s dead now,” he said. “Gone. Like the hotel, the whole shebang.” He went over to the cooler and pulled out another bottle of water. He held it out to us, but we raised our half-full, plastic bottles. “Gotta dilute the coffee,” he said. “Gives me palpitations.” Harvey cracked open the new bottle and sat back down.

“This is the thing,” Harvey said. “It’s what happened when the waves came in that got to me.” He looked at his bottle. “I’m ready for something stronger than this. Let’s go to Grand Avenue, to that place we went the other night. That crowded place with the champion whiskey. As soon as she’s decided to wrap, whatever year that may be, we’ll lead the way.”

“What happened when the waves came?” I said. “I mean, what were you referring to?”

“It was all so awful,” Ginny said. “A tragedy like that.”

“Here it is,” Harvey said. “On this particular trip, Fiona stayed back. She had something in development and needed to get it done. Lucky. I had our usual room on the third floor, the top floor. Also lucky. The night before it all happened, I saw the boss bicker with Kama behind the bar. He was shorter, stouter than Kama, and he looked up at Kama. The boss wavered on his feet and you could see the pressure mounting, you could see him looking for something to scrap about. I wasn’t surprised when I saw Kama bruised up early the next morning.”

“God,” I said.

Ginny shook her head.

Harvey continued. “I was looking out at the water, the bright morning sunlight, from my balcony. It’s like everyone tells it. The strangeness of the fish flapping in the wet sand. Then the ocean rushed back in, poured into the swimming pool, and all these white umbrella tops were floating everywhere. There were power lines down, smashed-up cars.

“Then it was like, rewind. Fast forward. More chaos. The second wave came faster than anyone had any idea, throwing people into the air like little ducks. The water was rising to my balcony fast, and I was a total mess. I went out to the hall to find a way to the roof. That’s when I saw Kama on the stairs, looking down at all the water swirling where the bar had been. There was a god-damn Coca-Cola truck in that room, if you can believe it. Kama was going back down into the water, trying to reach that man, his boss, who was wedged between debris and the stairs. Kama, his face still bruised up, was gripping onto that boss’s hand—he was gripping onto the boss with both his hands in the swirling, tugging water. And the boss was dead. He was already dead, for goodness sake.”

Harvey got up and paced on the grass in front of us. “After all the suffering the boss put him through, here he was risking his life to save a dead man from floating away.”

“That kind of love belongs to saints,” I said. “Compassion.”

“Misguided, or that’s what I thought at the time. Misguided love. The guy beat him. But you’re right—there was something spiritual there.” Harvey emptied the dregs of his water bottle onto the lawn and went to the cooler again. He threw us another bottle each, and picked out one for himself. “None of that family survived. The place was totaled. At the time, you couldn’t imagine anyone ever going back to the beach. Kama lost his livelihood, the money to send to his parents. When we came here, we never talked about the place. I never asked him about anything.”

* * *

“I should have studied to be an analyst,” Harvey said. “I’m not stupid enough for this kind of soul stuff not to bug me, but I’m not smart enough to get any further with it on my own.” He clapped his hands. “But what about you guys,” he said. “You guys are going to get hitched, right? You guys are in love, right?”

Ginny winked at me. I blew her a kiss.

“What’s the date?” Harvey said. “When are you going to enter the fabulous institution of marriage?”

“Next summer,” Ginny said. “Gives us almost a year to plan it.”

Harvey contemplated me, then Ginny. “It’s not just love with you guys, is it? I mean, it’s got to be a political act as well. That’s a good thing. You can’t help thinking you oughta get married, get the numbers up, eradicate homophobia, make your time on earth deeply valuable.”

“It’s love first and foremost,” I said. “It’s a personal thing, having a ceremony. We want to walk down the aisle.”

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Harvey said. “It’s an aisle, for Christ’s sake.”

He looked at us both. Then he laughed.

“You kids go on and have fun,” he said. “Don’t listen to an old codger with a worn-out heart like mine. You two have love written all over you. Two fair beauties with fluttering hearts. We don’t need to discuss the subject any further if we just look at you guys.”

* * *

The house threw a long shadow now, and there was a cool edge to the humid air. The haze sat like a cake layer on the lake. Three technicians shone lights on a window so that the kitchen appeared to be glazed in morning brightness. All we could see inside was a huddle of figures. The caterers had left; the group on the driveway had started to pack up the vans. Someone had driven the SUV away. We could have been out on an island, the three of us alone.

“But I’ll give you another example, where the bottom seems to fall out of love. I’m not a hypocrite—we can look at me in this example, not someone else.” He aimed his empty water bottle at the cooler. It bounced off and landed in the grass. Ginny took my empty bottle and put it beside hers.

“So, sure, there’s the love where sparks fly, where you want to see that person for the rest of your life, like you guys. Then maybe there’s a type of love like Kama’s for that hotel owner. Then there’s Fiona and me, an old pair of codgers. You put up with what you can’t stand in the other person or you learn to avoid it. Maybe. You know, it’s amazing how you can live with someone at close quarters for years, and ultimately know nothing about them. That has to do with the nature of love.”

Ginny moved closer to me so that our legs touched. I could smell the powder on her face, see that the liner had melted slightly around her eyes.

Harvey shrugged. “And maybe the foundations of love are economic, have to do with needing to live life. Maybe we puny humans think we order our lives with an emotion called love but are we merely putting a necessary transaction in place so we can live in an orderly, practical way? Is an economic transaction what love comes down to in the end?”

“I don’t know, Harvey,” I said. “We’ve all got to be a bit tired.”

“Yeah, maybe I’m tired, maybe I am. Maybe it’s time to quit. I’m getting too old for this business. The passion’s gone.” He tapped the left side of his chest. “I’m going to have a heart attack if she makes me go over budget on this one.” He looked at the house, staring at the shadows. “But I’d miss you guys. I love your work. I love you guys. I’d miss our crew like hell. We’ve got a great production family. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Creating? Even if it’s only a goddamn car commercial that’ll last a season? Fiona and I would sorely miss this family.”

* * *

Ginny and I both hugged our knees. A light wind stirred the sour smell of garbage in the city. Then the breeze subsided and we could smell the wet grass again.

“Let me tell you one last story,” Harvey said. “Here’s the question: Why did I bring Kama over here? I’ve tried to think honestly about that. Chicago, place of playful waters. Do you know that’s really what the name Chicago means?”

“I thought it was named after Chicagou. The chief who drowned in Chicago River,” Ginny said.

“Playful waters… shecaugo.”

“You wanted to give him a chance,” I said. “Give him an opportunity when he’d lost everything. That sounds like love to me.”

“Love has the capability of bringing peace on earth, right? Love—the heart of the soul. That’s what we all believe, isn’t it? That’s what I was thinking. I was thinking, I’ve got a nice home in a nice city. I’ve made a decent living. I’ve tried to treat people in my employ well. Love my fellow man, so to speak. Try not to let power get in the way. To desire the good—that’s a good thing, isn’t it? To always desire the good.

At the house, a window opened and Fiona stuck her head out. “It’s a wrap,” she shouted.

“Finally,” Harvey yelled, looking at the sky.

“You’ll see! We needed it! You always see,” Fiona shouted.

“You’re wrong, sweetness of my life. I never see.”

“Watch your mouth, Harv’. It’s been a long day for everyone, remember.”

Fiona shut the window. The house was ablaze with lights. The crew tore down the set, working like bees. Kama and Fiona stood in front of a monitor—they’d be viewing the last shots.

“Let’s get out of this joint,” Harvey said. “Get us some stiff, well-earned drinks. You guys ready?”

“Finish the story,” I said.

He stared at me. Then he said, “Oh yeah. So here it is. Here in this town, I’ve got plenty. Kama didn’t have a thing, not a dime to his name. Any money he’d saved under his pillow to send home that month got sucked out to sea. Just the literal shirt on his back, that was it. So if I’ve got plenty, and he’s got nothing, why couldn’t love connect us? A means between the two of us, all the way across the world. A connection between poverty and plenty, something that reaches right around the globe. A divine, noble transaction,” he said. “See?” He held up his hands and let them drop. “Everything comes down to transactions.”

“He looks very much at home here,” Ginny said.

“Three years he’s been here, and his parents are doing fine. He can go see them in between productions. He’s got his own condo here. Green Card. He’s done well. That makes me happy. Very happy. But deep down, what is it all about? I’d like to say it’s love. But Kama’s compassion for his old boss beats this. Aren’t I really just an image to Kama? An image, and not a reality? He says he loves me like a father. His American father. But that’s not it, I don’t think so. I don’t think I can be more than an image. And doesn’t that serve me right, that I can’t transcend that image? You see, doesn’t my desire to do good – doesn’t that help me out more than anyone else? Doesn’t that simply make me feel good? So how is that really love? I don’t think it is. I think it’s a transaction that makes me feel good. That’s all.” He stood up and held out his arms. “That’s all it is, folks. Nothing noble.”

Ginny and I studied Harvey.

“Do you get it? I’m telling you, the bottom falls out of love if you look at it long enough. Maybe it used to mean something. But these days the bottom has fallen out.”

“It doesn’t have to be so black and white,” I said. “There’s a big gray area—a big, warm, gray area.”

“You can’t unravel it like that, Harv’,” Ginny said.

“Sure I can,” Harvey said. “Simply rewind: Love gone. Earth gone. Chaos.”

* * *

We got up. Harvey stood at the edge of the lawn in the dusk, watching the activity in the house through the windows. Perhaps we all felt the conversation had gone on too long, had made its way to its fizzled end.

“Let’s walk down,” Harvey said. “Get some exercise.” We got up and stepped from the grass onto the driveway, over the fat cables that rimmed the set, and walked past the vans.

“I should go visit my mom this weekend. Maybe I should go tomorrow,” Harvey said.

“Your mom is still alive?” I asked.

“Yeah, in a home. Alzheimer’s. Asks me what subscription I’m selling any time I go. Maybe I’ll phone instead.”

We walked away from the house towards Grand Avenue, Harvey leading the way. “Let’s really celebrate the wrap tonight,” he said.

“Go dancing,” I said.

“Not me,” Ginny said. “I’m wiped.”

“Me, too,” Harvey said, glancing back at us. “Let’s save all the tables in the place. Order a few whiskies. Talk about nothing.”

Ginny took my hand. She still had on the heavy powder, the melting eye-liner. Maybe she’d forgotten; maybe she didn’t care. We thought we heard someone shout behind us and we stopped to look back at the house. It would be left trampled. We couldn’t see anything much, but we heard the clang of equipment as crew members loaded it into the back of the vans. The lawn was all a shadowy pool, empty outside the lit windows. We turned to catch up with Harvey, a small, burly figure in the distance. I forgot for a moment what street we were on. Had anyone been told where we were going? A gust of cold wind from the lake blew crumpled paper, a potato chip bag, brown dust around our ankles. Ginny and I leaned into each other, and gripped each other’s hands. It’s all that we could do. Somewhere close by, an ambulance wailed, then a fire truck started up, and the sirens began to scream.

Jocelyn Cullity teaches Creative Writing in Truman State University’’s BFA program. She received her Ph.D. in English (Creative Writing) from Florida State University. Most recently, her work has appeared in the award-winning Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53), TWJ Magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle, and Blackbird.