It might seem strange, but it started with a death. The death of the father precipitated the decision. The death was not unexpected but the outcomes were. Dean would sit in the hospital room with his leg next to his father’s dangling bag of piss. The tubes with fluids going in and out. The nurse periodically coming to vacuum the solid bits of phlegm to keep the ventilator clear. His father was in a hospital of no particular reputation in a sunny part of Los Angeles. IT was the wrong sort of hospital. The sort you come to die in rather than miraculously emerge from. Dean would sit in the room with the beeps and gurgling sounds. The family was there too. Not always at the same time. They had come from around the country. Stopping their lives momentarily, the last time they would visit this town they had visited many times.
That might have put some force behind the decision as well. All the expectations. They came to see the dying father, but they were also seeing the drifting little brother, the one separated by decades, wars, music, geography, just about every way siblings can be separated. And here they were with their long-ago grown up lives, as messed up as they were, they were somehow more complete, their major blunders behind them and forgiven. Dean was still in the middle of messing up his life while trying to start it over.
Death, someone else’s, is not the best time to make a meaningful decision, but it is not a bad time either. It is simply a time like any other. The witness, the one dying, will not be around to do much more witnessing. Therefore, the decision is really more about Dean and less to do with the fading father in the crumpled machine bed.
I’m going to architecture school, Dean said. At this his father, the wrinkled bag of organs kept alive by machines and some strange will or fear of oblivion, actually rolled his eyes and laughed a little. It was as if to say, You don’t need to do that. Or maybe, You shouldn’t do that. Or, Please don’t do anything foolish. But it was too late, this new thing had already been set in motion. Papers had been signed and people had been told. Even here, on this hospital bed, sure to die at any moment, his father had the power to make him feel like he had just made a huge mistake. Like he was a foolish little boy. He came to tell his father thinking it would mean something to him. Maybe it was the push he needed to finally die and be over with it. But this dying business was pushing Dean in strange ways, too.
It pushed him downtown, or what was supposed to be downtown, the junked outer edge of some supposed middle in the great expanse of buildings and roads they call Los Angeles. Lost Angels. It was the place he never went. There was never any reason to go. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing there. The architecture school was still nothing. A seeming start-up in an empty parking lot. Mere trailers of promise on the faded blacktop. It was the promise of a school. An academy of hope with cloaked masters of a new Way.
The trailers sold him on the venture. He would throw all security and safety to the wind for this chance at optimism. It was the reckless optimism of bums and junkies, gangsters and inmates, the City Council, the Mayor. It was hope that there was a downtown in the dirty little warehouses and shit structures where the trucks pulled up and the nation’s railway ended, releasing the hopeful into the orange dust and gassy smells. The school was a promise made of incentives and a shell, the shell of a building waiting to become.
But there was something about the trailers, the temporary nature of it all. It was insanity. The crazies in their dirty trousers and messed up hair who worked in the trailers seemed to be in a rapture. Across the plywood concourse that formed a network of connectivity between the mundane little shacks the words OURS and THEIRS were scrawled in huge paint roller graffiti script. Youth in beards and broken headphones. Beer bottles and candy wrappers. The smell of piss, and lighter fluid. Decrepit cars bounced over a dirt lot. A actual fire burned in an actual oil drum from the imagination of some African city or the waste of earlier bumland America. And there through the dust, the concrete shell sat like some hulk from Baudrillard’s dream of America, the damaged bunker from a past war waiting to live.