In nine stories that move between nouveau riche Los Angeles and the working class East Coast, and strike a balance between comedy and catastrophe, Kevin Morris explores the vicissitudes of modern life. Whether looking for creative ways to let off steam after a day in court or enduring chaperone duties on a school field trip to the nation’s capital, the heroes of White Man’s Problems struggle to navigate the challenges that accompany marriage, family, success, failure, growing up, and getting older.
“Kevin Morris is that rare writer who bridges the class divide, illuminating the lives of working class characters and affluent professionals with equal authenticity and insight. White Man’s Problems is a revelatory collection that marks the arrival of striking new voice in American fiction.” —Tom Perrotta
“The echoes here are of a former generation of American writers—John Cheever, John Updike, Raymond Carver.” —USA Today
“Life undermines the pursuit of success and status in these rich, bewildering stories . . . A finely wrought and mordantly funny take on a modern predicament by a new writer with loads of talent.” —Kirkus Reviews
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When Harrigan awoke, the first thing he saw was her left eye with its cobalt-blue iris. She'd snuck into his bed again. He didn't mind it. Any single dad is happy when his nine-year-old daughter gets in bed with him. Beautiful, really, that eye — those eyes. Ruby was tugging his arm, telling him to get up. It was early, and he knew she wanted to watch TV for those few valuable minutes before her nanny made it through the surfer traffic of the Pacific Coast Highway to the house on Malibu Road.
He turned on the cartoons and walked to the medicine cabinet, where he swallowed his morning meds. There were six pills: three Lamictal and three Budeprion XL, the generic brand of Wellbutrin. They picked him up and slowed him down — at least that's how the psychopharmacologist explained it. He was a touch bipolar; how big the touch and how far apart the poles, no one knew. He thought the pills helped, but there was evidence they didn't.
He made his daily fiber-supplement drink and waited for a cappuccino to drip from the machine. One of the artificially distressed kitchen cabinets was losing a handle, another thing to fix. The beach and the sky and the ocean were gray. He read The New York Times more closely than the LA Times, and didn't read the The Wall Street Journal at all. He shifted from left to right, making room for Ruby's brother, Bobby, as he sat sleepy eyed and grouchy, an unspeaking beast, all zits and hair in a Dead Kennedys T-shirt.
Once the nanny arrived, he backed out of the garage and headed slowly south along the shoreline in his black Mercedes S 63 AMG. It had a 518-horsepower V-8 AMG engine, F1 manual shifters, twenty-inch five-spoke light alloy wheels, seven-speed automatic transmission, and calibrated Active Body Control. The S 63 also had AMG-specific piping design and new contoured side bolsters for outstanding seating comfort, as well as an MSRP of $127,000. He wasn't sure what he paid; his business manager had handled it.
The feeling of wealth was still odd for him, so far away from his start. When the doctors had asked for family history, he traced his genealogy to the potato famine of 1845. His eight great-great-grandfathers, to a man, were listed in church records as "gravediggers." Descendants who made it to Baltimore, while they managed to find work out of ditches, did not prosper in the New World. He often wondered how, over the course of 150 years in America, such a big family could not manage to scrape together a goddamn dime.
He pulled into the Starbucks at Cross Creek. There was the usual line of people: moms who just dropped the kids at school, contractors dicking around, evangelical Pepperdine kids. The barista had a nose ring and caramel hair streaked with orange. The women stole glances at him. He spoke to no one, avoiding eye contact by staring at the kids' menu. Chocolate-chip Frappuccinos and Rice Krispies treats. He hated the way they announced the drinks. "Grande vanilla latte for Dennis." Humiliating.
He went stop-and-go down the coast until he hit a lineup at Topanga. He did not put the headset on; he did not roll calls. He moved in traffic amid no sounds at all: no radio, no CDs, no iPhone. He rode in silence as often as he could lately. He even stopped listening to the Dodgers, who were hopeless. The phone rang. His assistant told him she had Stern, his regular psychologist. Harrigan said he'd call back. What could Stern tell him? What would he ask? "Are you still crazy?"
He drove south past the Santa Monica beaches and the volleyball courts and the eroding cliffs of Palisades Park. Past the pier and through the McClure Tunnel where the PCH becomes the I-10 and the sign read Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway. He asked himself, his ritual, "What if I just keep driving?" How far he could go, how long he would last with the assumed names, the hotel rooms, the paying in cash, he did not know. He felt gravity was sideways, that he should be further east, that he was of the Atlantic. He missed the changing seasons and the touch of holy water in the foyer; he missed the cold, dark, freezing rain.
But the western-most point of the eastbound I-10 was where he was in his life. He had long ago become rich producing movies, a vocation that suited him well. There was a house on the beach, a house in the mountains, stock positions, bond ladders, hedge funds for growth, hedge funds for value, and hedge funds for hedging against hedge funds. He let three-hundred-dollar gift certificates expire under other papers stuffed in his desk. Wealth insulated him from the grinding existence of his parents and siblings. But nothing prepared him for what had happened and the pain that visited his soul. The engine of his sleek, black, luxury car was overheating, drying up all its fluids. Harrigan was not young or old. The world had flattened and he'd become a cliché headed east.
How predictable and boring it was to be depressed. He'd heard about it, read about it, been warned about it, and now, right on schedule, he was living it. The source of the depression was no mystery, oldest one in the books. But as he made the drive each day, talked on the phone, had lunch, finished up work at the office, looked at Bobby's homework, and did all the other things that made up his life, he knew it was not what had happened. It was that he was not better, that he couldn't do better, and that he had broken his word.
He turned onto Avenue of the Stars. Century City was 20.7 miles from his home on the Pacific in Malibu. A dozen or so high rises, two large modern shopping centers, and a couple hotels. It was past Westwood and before Beverly Hills, between the country club for WASPs and the country club for Jews. He played golf at both but was a member of neither. Century City: a monstrosity of the modern, bastard child of the scumbags of real estate and the whores of show business. There was nothing in the name — Century City — that justified the importance, the primacy, the notion that it was at the center of things. It was in the center of nothing. Like everything in LA, it was an illusion.
He pulled into his building, past the guards and through the automatic card reader and into the lower circles of the parking lot. His reserved spot was next to the service elevator, which was an express to his floor, saving a trip through the lobby. A small man in blue coveralls was already waiting, which was not unusual. Taking the service entrance meant that Harrigan often rode with the working guys, the electricians, caulkers, framers, and the like. Seeing them made him think of his dad and his uncles, who carried pressure gauges and tape measures and had specks of drywall in the hairs of their forearms at the end of the day. They were far away from him now.
* * *
The little man smiled at him. There was a big O above his pocket, the insignia of the Otis Elevator Company. His nametag said Kingsley, which was a bit confusing to Harrigan, because the guy appeared to be Mexican — a little light skinned but definitely Mexican. He wore a small gold bracelet with a young girl's face, a photo image engraved on a charm.
Harrigan felt a stir. "Is that your daughter?" he asked.
Kingsley looked at his bracelet and held it up. "Yes."
The elevator didn't seem to be moving, so Kingsley stepped up and pressed the button, as though he were responsible for the delay. He stepped back and stared ahead.
"Oh, good lord," Harrigan said. "I'm so sorry." Then, after a second, he asked, "How old was she?"
"She was nine. Car accident."
Harrigan usually let this type of moment pass. But after the car came and the two men got on, he spoke up. "I lost mine, too," he said. "A daughter ... my daughter."
"Aah. I'm sorry. How old?"
"Seven. Eighteen months ago." He poked at the button for his floor.
"Then you know all about it, my friend."
"Yes, I do. I'm afraid I do."
It is true of any of us that, should a stranger meet us at the intersection of elevator and automobile when the chill cloud of memory hits; if he should recognize the subterranean cascade of longing and remorse; if he knows well the depthless sadness of not seeing a child rise into the brace-face, the inappropriate midriff, the biology major, the bride; he would be privy not just to the naked basis of our being but to our utter defenselessness to the lateral and vertical rhythms and movement of this world.
* * *
Kingsley dropped off his paperwork at the management office and rode the elevator back down to his truck. He had received the call after midnight to service the broken car for floors eleven through twenty. As he went through the payment kiosk, he teased the Ethiopian girl who took his money, telling her he was coming back to take her away with him. She tried not to, but she laughed, only the latest to learn there was no resisting Manuel Kingsley.
He pulled onto Century Park West heading east, thinking about how beautiful the buildings were. Architecture, to him, was man's way of talking to heaven. He enjoyed getting called to Century City, because it made him feel special. It was fancier than downtown or the Valley, where his work usually was. It was closer to the heart of show business, and Kingsley, like so many, was a sucker for the excitement of Hollywood. He could feel that in the buildings. And, man, those buildings, they were a wonder.
As he drove down Olympic, he saw he was low on gas: the digital monitor told him he had sixty miles before empty. Enough to get home to his wife so she wouldn't worry. He could fill up later. He turned on the wipers, and the cleaning fluid washed the dust away. Kingsley felt lucky to see the marvel in things. After Opal died, eleven years ago, he vowed not to waste his spirit. And he had kept this vow, for the most part, aided by the knowledge there were lots of people who didn't have it too good. He had known great sadness, but it had not claimed him. He thought of this as Opal's gift.
Nor had money possessed him. It lost its hold when she died. Gradually, his taste for life came back, but finances would never again keep him up at night. He wished for things, sure. He wanted more time. He had fantasies about young girls. His back hurt in the morning. But he got what he needed, some fishing in San Pedro and an old man's love of golf. And family and friends, all healthy, thank God.
At sixty-two, Kingsley did not feel alienated from anything. He wasn't going from left to right or right to left. Life was like an elevator ride: ups and downs. He helped people get up in the morning and go home to their families at night. He took pride in the efficient delivery of millions to places all over the city. These were not coping mechanisms, but the abiding convictions of faith, for Manuel Kingsley was not a man whose mind defaulted to worries about work.
He made the transition from the Santa Monica Freeway in the west to the Pasadena Freeway headed east. He switched on the radio and a guitar solo blared, reminding him of Casey. Kingsley laughed thinking how much his life had come to revolve around a twelve-year-old named Casey Evans. Opal's sister, Ophelia, had married Scott Evans, a quiet guy who worked with computers. Kingsley's wife had been against the white boy at first, but after all they'd been through, Kingsley told Ophelia to follow her heart. He could not refuse her anything. And Scott had won him over by learning all about elevators, the subject that Kingsley loved better than best.
He parked the truck on the Doran side of the Starbucks on Glendale Avenue, deciding to stop even though he was on the flip side of his usual morning. No one in Starbucks ever really knew if he had just worked all night or was setting off for the day. He craved the caramel Frappuccinos and snuck one in every morning. He knew all the workers and ordered the usual from the kid at the register. They talked about the Angels, who were always in it these days. He saw Barbara behind the counter. He asked for a report on her son, a linebacker at Crenshaw. As they chatted, she gave him his drink, and he pushed it back with a frown. She said, "Manny, you know you ain't supposed to have it." Then she relented and gave him a little shot of whipped cream, their private joke once more made.
As he headed back out on Glendale Avenue, his mind traveled again. He thought about his grandfather, long-dead white man in Mexico, eccentric vagabond from England, reader of Shakespeare. He thought of his mother, who lived with his sister and her family in Uvalde. They had all come to Los Angeles in the fifties and lived off Olvera Street, working in the shops and washing dishes. So much had happened in fifty years, so much was left behind, and so much was gone. Yet memory did not diminish the charge he felt driving alone in his truck, headed east to a home that he owned in California. In America.
He owed it all to elevators. Twenty-six years in a business that set him free. Kingsley was trained to repair the Gearless Traction Model, the workhorse of the industry and the predominant machine in LA. The GTE could go five hundred feet per minute, with steel cables attached to the top of the car and wrapped around the drive sheave in special grooves. The transfer between the weight of the car and the counterweight attached by cables moved the machine. Ninety-five percent of all problems were caused by faulty upkeep or someone pushing the wrong buttons. There was a confession in almost every call for repair.
He parked in the driveway of his house and looked at the digital readout from the gas gauge: thirty-nine miles till empty. The sprinklers for the front flowerbed were on and Manny's work shoes got wet. A warm, brown light followed him when he opened the door. His wife was already cleaning the house. She smiled and went into the kitchen. He sat down at the Formica table and looked at the papers, La Opinión and the LA Times. She put out plates of scrambled eggs and tortillas, popping up and down to get what she thought he needed. She made him eat the bran muffin he hated.
They spoke Spanish in the quiet voices of old friends. He was tired, yes, but he would be ok later. He moved into the living room and put on ESPN with the sound down low. She closed the old gold curtains so the room would be cool and he would have shade for his nap. She brought a glass of water and a handful of pills: Lipitor, Atenolol, Myleran, vitamins, and antioxidants. The Myleran, a large oval pill, made him nauseous. But he was only on it for six more weeks, when there would be another scan.
As he settled into in the soft, deep, red quiet, he glanced at the photos near his head, on the table at the end of the couch where he lay. The old black-and-whites of his parents in Mexico were crowded out by a group picture of the Kingsleys and Evanses at the wedding. There were lots of sports action shots and team plaques off to the side and a very special Polaroid of Casey and Manny on the golf course at Arroyo Seco. Manny kept looking, though, and found the one he was after this morning. It was Opal when she was a toddler in his arms at the beach. She was looking at the camera from over his shoulder. Manny's back was turned, but his profiled face smiled up at her. He looked at his little girl closely now, as he had done a million times before, paying particular attention to those big, beautiful, brown, and round eyes.CHAPTER 2
The Plot To Hold Hands With Elizabeth Tremblay
It is not cool that people around here think it's ok. It's bad enough that grown men are going to beauty salons, sitting under hair dryers, walking around like poodles, and saying "Do you like my perm?" Bad enough that we have pet rocks and mood rings. But if that isn't enough for you, if that doesn't show the ridiculous state of affairs here in late-seventies America, consider this: we have to live with the knowledge that someone, somewhere, thinks it is ok for the Philadelphia Phillies' away uniforms to be baby blue. They wear goddamn baby blue uniforms on the road. Am I the only one who is ashamed? And while we're on the subject, they screwed up the P in Phillies, making it round and puffy and completely stupid looking. The kind of P the Pillsbury Doughboy would pick if he was running the club.
I am sitting in detention. My first one. Two hours of forced confinement after school. It's jail-like. Actually, there are many similarities between my school and a penitentiary. We went on a field trip to the state prison at Graterford a few months ago — which is pretty bizarre when you think about it, but that's another whole road — and the thing I remember most is that it kind of looked like our high school. Both are made of reddish brick, concrete, and feature wonderful painted-cinder-block interiors. Both have lots of gray railings and windows with chain linking inside the glass. I don't know how they do that with the windows.
My English teacher, Mr. Matthews, must get an extra twenty bucks to sit through this, which he probably needs if you go by the way he scrunches his face as he balances his checkbook. He sees me come in today and says, "Budding, what are you doing here?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "White Man's Problems"
Copyright © 2014 Kevin Morris.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Plot To Hold Hands With Elizabeth Tremblay,
Here Comes Mike,
Rain Come Down,
White Man's Problems,