Ryan Ridge's short short stories carry a sort of essence of the 21st century. His brief prose style parallels with our abrupt, social-media-driven way of communicating in the modern world. The following tales--centered around the recently gentrified community of Echo Park in Los Angeles--capture the dark tensions behind everything from climate change to Charlie Chaplin tramp stamps.
I grew up reading Shakespeare and Mark Twain.
He strums his Gibson guitar with an unregistered handgun in an alleyway at the Psychedelic Street Fair. The acoustics are astonishing. After the failure of the ‘60s came the disappointment of the ‘70s. Now every decade feels like the last. It’s a story older than prime real estate itself. In the Country Western sunshine our heartbeats beat in ¾ time as you waltz into an Albertson’s on Alvarado Street to buy a bag of avocados. Everything costs more in California. Nothing is sacred unless it’s potential for profitable media. Culture is to Capital today as Carnegie once was: nu steel… Out of work actors can’t catch a break so instead they fall into afternoon matinees: comedy, dramedy, urban tragedy. Most lives are silent films no one sees. He handguns his guitar in an alleyway at the Psychedelic Street Fair. His weapon of choice is A.) His voice, and B.) An acoustic piano dropped from a ballroom balcony in the rain, but it rarely ever rains anymore. “These minor chords sound exactly like the distance between us…” And the ocean? It belongs only to itself.
FIRE CONSUMES BUSINESSES NEAR FREEWAY
Fire consumes businesses near freeway the first Friday of every third month. The sign above tonight’s flaming building says: NEED CASH NOW. Now that the sign is on fire it’s no longer a sign. It is a smoldering metaphor. Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire (Yeats). The residents have gathered together this evening to watch the blaze. They swallow edible marijuana while sharing stories from the golden days of television. “There’s no business like unemployment.” The sign above the burning building is engulfed in flames. From our vantage point, the partially smoked sign says: - - - - - ASH NOW. From my perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this as a business model.
I was determined to continue making silent films ... I was a pantomimist and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master.
I met an aspiring comedian from Colorado at the marijuana dispensary. In the lobby she showed me her half-ironic Charlie Chaplin tattoo. It was a tramp stamp at the base of her spine featuring the Little Tramp’s face. We were intimate that night in her studio apartment in Echo Park and the entire ordeal was done in silence “in honor of Charlie’s legacy.” That’s what she said. We were high. The lights were on. Eventually I was behind her, looking down at Chaplin’s face looking up at me. When I pulled out I covered old Charlie’s eyes and then I cleaned him up with a sock. Afterward, I felt a strange kinship for all his films. I never saw that comedian or her tattoo again, but I’ve seen Modern Times at least a dozen times now. It’s my favorite film.
On the rooftop of a Hollywood hotel: the tourists eye the other tourists by the peanut-shaped pool. They’re drinking expensive rum drinks and oiling themselves down, reading books with titles like Alice in Chains Again and Cupids on Jet Skis. One woman whistles for the bartender. That’s me. Her drink isn’t going to refill itself. Her small son hunts insects in the faux grass with a magnifying glass. Our lifeguard is a licensed realtor, sells condos on the side in Silver Lake. Now the boy sees something beneath the magnifying glass and motions for me to look. So I look. Below the glass a black ant is smoldering to death in the magnified sunlight. The ant’s tiny antennae are smoking and this idiotic child is laughing. I deliver his mother her drink. “Some kid you’ve got there,” I say. “He’s a complete psychopath,” she says. “The world’s smallest CEO. He takes after his father. Rub some lotion on my back?” I oblige. “Thank you,” she says afterward. “Don’t mention it,” I say. “It’s my job.” “Well, you’re good at it,” she says. “Thanks,” I say, “But it’s not my real job. I’m an actor.” She cocks her head and says: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in anything. No, I remember faces and I don’t remember yours.” “I’ve mostly done pilots,” I say. “Pilots,” she says, winks: “I’ve done a few of those, too.”
THE GANGS OF ECHO PARK
The gangs have gone away. Priced out to Eagle Rock, El Sereno, and the innards of the Inland Empire. On weekends they return to their home turf in ancient Mercury’s and souped-up pickups. They do this as a way of reconnecting with their roots, staying true. And if it’s true what they say about place giving rise to spirit then the spirit of Echo Park is positively Western in an old Hollywood sense. Most Saturday nights culminate in a gunfight. Tonight is no exception. Shots ring out on Preston Avenue and echo on up to Avalon Street. Now a gangster is dead in a stairwell on Armitage. Tomorrow I will step under the police tape on my way to church. My church is a bar called the Gold Room on Sunset. You can get a PBR and shot of tequila for four bucks. The peanuts are free. I sit in a booth near the back, drinking and praying for work. I can’t tell if the drinking enhances the prayer or if the prayer improves the drink. Amen. Lord, hear our drinks.
They give you fifty bucks a day to be an extra in the studio audience. The only prerequisite is that you are alive and then all you have to do is clap when they tell you to clap and laugh when they tell you to laugh. I was broke and needed cash fast for rent, which meant I was in the studio audience up in Century City. Ironically, it was a sitcom comedy that I’d auditioned for. I’d come close to getting one of the leads, but in the end they’d gone “a different direction.” Now the character I would’ve played was extolling brilliant life advice to his adopted daughter after she’d been booed off the stage at her student talent show. It was supposed to be one of those heartfelt moments where the audience says Awww and claps. All around me the crowd was awing and clapping, but I couldn’t contain myself: I was laughing. It was hilarious to me to think that had things gone a slightly different direction I’d have been down there on the stage making the big bucks and maybe that other hack actor would’ve been up here in the audience like myself, contemplating what might’ve been. Sure, I was laughing, but it wasn’t funny. And I was causing my own scene because I was supposed to be clapping. “Fucking A,” I said as I got up to leave. The man in the aisle seat glanced awkwardly at my crotch as I passed. “Excuse me,” I said. “Pardon me,” I said. “Sorry.” Yes, I left early, but they still gave me fifty bucks on the way out. I passed a line of extras waiting in the sun. Like most days, more had shown up than they needed.
The United States is unusual among the industrial democracies in the rigidity of the system of ideological control––indoctrination, we might say––exercised through the mass media.
Originally the big film studios were located in Echo Park. It’s where they manufactured much of the American propaganda in the late 30s / early 40s. No one called it propaganda. During WWII the studios moved to Hollywood. Had they not, we’d have Echo Park to blame for our colossal misunderstanding of the world. We might say: I’m moving to Echo Park to make it. But I didn’t make it. I wanted to be an actor, to be a speck in the spectacle, but the further I got into the business, the more I mixed it with pleasure. It hurt. Then I woke up hung over one afternoon in my termite-infested apartment in Echo Park. I went to the balcony, took a few tokes from my e-cig, and I soaked it all in. Then I woke up again. My epiphany? I needed more epiphanies anyplace else.
The name of the game? Let’s call it “Termite Control.” It’s a game you––and by you I mean me––play at home periodically out of necessity that requires ridiculous amounts of concentration and fortitude where you spend hours on end staring at the hardwood floor in your apartment's living room, letting your eyes relax so you can see the floor: the whole floor, all of it, and you try and spot any sudden movement, and once you've seen some action, you go to the place and find the little hole in the hardwood where the termites are coming in from and you cover it with a piece of clear packaging tape. Sometimes this prevents the termites from entering the room for months. Other times, like now, they're back within minutes because they've found another access point. To wit: you've played this game nine times tonight and the night is still young. In terms of rules, there are no rules except for this: learn to lose. Learn to love to lose. There’s no winning this game (and it's a good life lesson!). Because when you move out come summer, someone, perhaps your slumlord, or maybe the slumlord's assistant, or the maybe even slumlord's cleaning crew, is going to wander in here and wonder why 2/3’s of the apartment's surface area is covered in clear packaging tape. “What’s going on here?” they might ask. Or: “Was he trying to pack the entire apartment?” And you'll have no answer to these questions because by then you'll be long, long gone.
California was behind me like a bad dream. I’d sold everything except for my motorcycle and a change of clothes. Now it was fall but it felt like spring. The seasons had turned strange. I was outside Houston, drinking with some old astronauts at the old astronaut bar. One guy had been to space. I asked him what he thought about climate change. He said, “I’ve been to space.” I said, “Yeah, what was that like?” He said, “It’s a lot like climate change. No one cares.”
Ryan Ridge is the author of the story collection Hunters & Gamblers, the poetry collection Ox, as well as the chapbooks Hey, It's America and 22nd Century Man. His latest book, American Homes, is out from the University of Michigan Press as part of their new 21st Century Prose series. His next collection, Camouflage Country, co-written with Mel Bosworth, is forthcoming from Queen's Ferry Press in December 2015. Past work can be found in NERVE, Fanzine, FLAUNT Magazine, and more. A former editor-in-chief of Faultline, he now edits Juked alongside his wife, Ashley Farmer. He is currently a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville. FOLLOW US ON INSTAGRAM: @AUTREMAGAZINE