The Garbage and the Glory

The artist was a lean, loud, and lanky gal who was beautiful in her own odd way, but too much of a handful to bother hitting on. We were married anyway — though not to each other, for which we both thanked the stars. Her own paintings were dark, with flashes of humor, but she made most of her living daubing trompe l’oeil fantasies onto the walls of the nouveau riche around Los Angeles. That was the decade when anybody who was nobody, but had the money to cover up the fact, moved themselves into a McMansion and called the artist to upgrade the drywall that defined their lives. When she was particularly proud of the paid deception she had worked, she called me up, and I threw my big stand camera and a squad of floodlamps into her van so I could record it for her sample book. Though there was no interpretation involved to make it interesting photography, I could usually sneak in a few shots with my hand camera, logging the lifestyles of the rich and lonely for my own eventual sample book, which, if I ever actually assemble it, should be called Vanity Unfair.

She pulled the van off the freeway at a new exit halfway up the Sepulveda Pass. This was normally one of the most turgid traffic jams in the Western world, since it connected the main part of LA with the dull-eyed sprawl of the Valley, but it was almost tolerable on a Saturday morning.

“Where the hell is this place?,” I asked. “As I recall, there’s nothing much here but a pump station and a garbage dump.”

“I don’t know anything about that. I just know it’s way up a steep road and it’s a pain in the ass to get to. This one right here.” She pulled off the old road that paralleled the freeway where a sign announced “Glory Canyon Estates,” implying a geographical feature that I’d never heard of during a lifetime in LA. We turned a corner, and the road climbed steeply up, straight and bare for a good solid mile. I recognized it with a certain disbelief. “That road,” I said, “used to lead to the garbage dump. I remember reading about this development in the paper.”

She looked at me quizzically from the steering wheel. I went on: “Yeah, I used to see the trucks grinding up this hill when I drove by on the freeway. You must have too.”

She snorted a harsh little laugh. “You’re right. That’s a good one! Tuscan glory on a garbage dump.” The van strained on up the hill. We finally came to a lonely gate: two cinderblock walls, topped with Spanish roof tiles, curling like waxed moustaches on either side of the road. A little man in a little gatehouse stopped us, demanding to know who we knew in his little domain. The artist sneered out a name, and the little man made a phone call, then waved us through without even looking at us again.

The house in question was, like all the other houses I could see, no more than the pencil outline of a generic country villa. The doors and windows flaunted machine-cut curves and bevels, and the textured stucco between them lay blank and bare as desert sands; a pair of massive white columns held up a tiny pediment that was entirely blank except for a strip of molding; it perched there like a child’s hat on a fat man’s head. The front yard was a smaller version of the usual suburban lawn, with tiny clusters of flowers plugged into stiff lines on either side of the concrete porch. I piled my gear on the porch, and the artist rang the doorbell. A silent little woman opened the door: the maid. I suppose they all had maids. The artist bustled in as if she owned the place, and I draped myself with my studio bags and lurched in after her.

The silent maid followed us to the dining room then vanished into a side door through which we could hear the gurgle of a washing machine. The dining room was two stories tall, sported a skimpy bronze chandelier, and was filled with almost-ornate new looking furniture in dark woods. On one wall was the artist’s work: a Tuscan valley, painted as if it were being seen through weathered French windows open to an eternal summer. Oak trees dotted the undulations of grass-covered hills that fell away to a curving river valley in the distance. Purplish clouds drifted across the sky. It was good work. I set up my lamps and camera.

On the wall adjoining that one were real French windows, with what looked like aluminum frames. There was a view of a little yard and the backs of two other identical houses. Between the houses you could see the hill, clothed in red tile roofs, falling down towards the curve of the freeway, and beyond it a glimpse of undeveloped hillside with a couple of drooping oaks, half dead in the smog.

I adjusted the light and took my photographs. It was one of her best jobs yet, as far as wall art went. I was done in half an hour.

As I was packing up, a tall, thin man with thick glasses came in and whispered to the artist. He wore a polo shirt and pressed bermuda shorts, and was knobby-kneed and barefoot. The artist murmured something back, and he faded through the door. “That the owner?,” I asked.

“Yeah. Though it was his wife hired me. Ah, look at that!” She pointed to a crack in the plaster near a corner of the floor.

“The garbage is settling underneath,” I said. “I’ll retouch it out of the pictures.”

When we left, the owner was standing in the middle of the high-ceilinged empty living room, staring silently at the floor. Another bronze chandelier hung over his head. He didn’t say goodbye as we passed.