The camera was a lens not to the world, but to my devotion. My brother Xavier had always seemed light years ahead of me—star athlete and honor student, charismatic and sure of himself. Although I was two years older, I knew the pecking order. Our dachshund Killa knew it too. We both followed in Xavier’s footsteps for as long as we could. Our overweight dachshund died in his sleep during bro’s programming phase in high school, hanging out with him and the nerd squad in the basement while they built a computer from used parts. They tried to hack the high school server to change their grades like in the movies and got sick on too many energy drinks. I tried to track what was going on, pounding the heavy bag during the late-night hangouts. Boxing was the only pursuit I ever excelled at over my brother.
Our father was a design engineer whose best invention was figuring out how to disappear. Between traveling overseas to roll out his devices or disappearing to the bar, we never had a chance to unravel the mystery of the man of the house. His sarcasm didn’t help, much of it was too sophisticated. Or something. Dad traveled for his job and sent postcards to us from around the world—the only thing in my unit at Hollywood Star Storage that reminded me of him. He would be disappointed that I now lived in a storage unit alongside those transitioning to and from homelessness. Once I decided not to reclaim my childhood bedroom, it didn’t take long before I couldn’t afford rent in the overpriced studio I’d shared with Xavier. Between his student loans and the occasional boxing lesson I hawked to geeky film students, we barely had enough to survive. Mom wouldn’t care, though. Her heart broke when Xavier died from mixing too much booze with speed and MDH in a party the semester before graduating from film school. I had let him down that night, tired from a long run. I was not there to protect him from himself.
I was too pissed off at myself to head home to Fresno for the funeral. I stayed behind with my brother’s things. His final project, you see, was still unfinished. Xavier had gathered video footage on the presidential election, asking questions to those not planning to vote—the disinterested, the disenfranchised, the disturbed. He focused on the neighborhoods surrounding Hollywood and used a man-on-the-street style that made nearly everyone open up. Interviews ranged from the elderly at bus stops to fresh runaways fresh at the Greyhound station, hipsters rolling to cafes to the homeless in tents, business owners in endless mini-malls to tourists wandering too far off the strip. The documentary’s working title was Election of the Fittest.
I watched these interviews at night in my 8’ x 12’ unit. By day, I used video-editing software to arrange Xavier’s interviews, sucking electricity from cafes. At night, I hung out in the storage unit reviewing the results on battery life until both myself and the computer were drained. I had been Xavier’s cameraman throughout the project and I wasn’t about to quit now.
It had been nearly three months since my parents had gathered up Xavier’s body. I could only guess if they missed me. I used the opportunity to disappear off the grid, cancel cell service, bide my time until I got to the finish line. After a week, I realized that the film had no ending, no crescendo. It did, however, have a beginning, narrated by Xavier, explaining the value of voting.Two years ago, he’d decided to ignore his partial scholarship at UC Berkeley to go to Hollywood Film Academy. All because of a vote. One that he claimed was rigged. One that ended up wrecking our family.
It all started when our father had an affair with a sales rep in Hong Kong, on one of his trips to China to manufacture the new garage door he’d engineered. Safety had been his biggest concern in the development process. Funny enough he didn’t take the same care in looking out for his marriage. Our mother busted him, hacking his email with only a fraction of his technical acumen. She knew our father’s love of Star Trek well. The password Tiberius gave her a window into his infidelity and strange addiction to Japanese manga porn. My brother and I got to hear all about it. Mom and Dad pissed me off in how comfortable they were in airing issues out in the open. This one was too much to take. Don’t be a prude, Jesse, one told me. Be glad we’re treating you like an adult, the other admonished. In the end, Mom wanted Dad to get his own apartment and prove that he deserved a place back in the family. Dad wanted to stay. He argued that to atone he needed to be present, to embrace a family he’d checked out on. Xavier called for a family vote and I was shocked that our progressive folks agreed to the proceedings.
Dad, the dumbass, should have known how it was going to go down. Xavier backed our mother as he had all his life. I backed Xavier. Dad lost the vote three to one. He wandered off when he heard the tally. We figured he’d sulk for a day or two then start packing up and finding a new pad, but he just ignored the topic. Doggedly. No matter who brought up the subject. He wore down my mother, he tapped into my natural lethargy, and I decided to let the matter pass. We were going to live in a house of denial. Not much different than every other family we knew.
Xavier, however, couldn’t take it. Ever since I could remember he had a rabid sense of justice. If I was getting candy of any kind, he made sure to remind my parents to tip the scales. Seeing others in school get preferential treatment turned him into a raving maniac in his quest to become valedictorian. After our unfair family vote, he threw away his scholarship. His decision to go to film school instead had been layered with anger and rebellion, dual impulses impossible to pull apart the same way the beans and cheese melted together in the burritos we both loved.
Needless to say, the days started to get away from me in a haze of memories. Without anyone to chase, I drifted aimlessly. I stared at the gray and white patterns on the metal ceiling for answers the way our ancestors gawked at the stars. In the morning, I woke up and exited my storage locker, joining the dozen or so others who chose to be locked in at night with their things rather than sleep on the streets. Henry, the middle-aged man with curly white locks and an Indiana Jones-style hat at the front counter, knew about those of us who lingered behind. As long as we kept out of trouble he would ignore our presence. He had an accent I could never quite place and a lazy eye that made it seem like someone was sneaking up from the side. During the day, I joined the others in my quest to get fed and take the occasional shower, sneaking into the gym at my former apartments, and learning how to subside on the one-pound burritos at Del Taco. I still had a couple of Xavier’s classmates who paid me for lessons and I quickly slipped into the cracks.
Those of us who lived at the storage unit called ourselves Stars. We got to know nearly everything about each other. There were currently six of us on the second floor and six on the first floor, broken down by ethnic lines, with mostly whites upstairs and Latinos and Asians downstairs. The second floor crew referred to ourselves as Tops and the first floor as Bottoms. Damian, our longest tenured resident and the only black guy, had kept the peace for months from his penthouse unit in the back, making us follow a series of rules for hiding ourselves, procuring portable toilets that would be carried out to the dumpsters in the morning, prohibiting alcohol and kids, and governing our noise levels. One day, he strolled outside with his backpack on his shoulders in his daily quest for work. This time, though, he never returned.
It was a week before the peace began to break down. We met as a group every Sunday night in Dylan’s unit, who used it to have an affair with his office intern down the street. His storage unit was empty, except for a bedroll, and he’d left us with the combination to run our council meetings. Hector wanted to get our blessing for his cousin Adrian to move in. The kid was only fifteen and running from some trouble somewhere. Nebraska, a muscular, bald, and tattooed white guy—who hawked his motorcycle and lived in Harley gear—got pretty riled up about the suggestion. I listened to the Stars argue and proposed an election for a new leader to take place the same time next week.
Everyone thought it was a great idea in a year where the president was the topic of conversation out on the street. I felt guilty, somewhat, for making the suggestion. I planned to film our election for the ending of my brother’s film. Nebraska quickly lobbied to become the second floor candidate and his platform included keeping the status quo and the rules that had kept us safe, supporting Damian’s laws as our unwritten constitution. Hector wanted to bend the rules for family cohabitation with children welcomed into the clan. He also thought the no alcohol and noise after eight policies should be repealed. He argued that we needed passion in our shitty lives.
Our already surreal enclave became even weirder the next few days. Maxine, whose storage unit had grown to resemble a studio apartment, invited me to lounge on her loveseat with votive candles flickering, pink and purple fabric strewn on the walls to give the impression of being inside a genie’s bottle. She patted the worn cushion next to her and I smelled marijuana clinging on her, in the air. Drugs were something that Damian had not tolerated. Maxine drummed her fingers on her neck as though playing a musical instrument. She smelled like something floral and I wonder if it was just the candles or if I’d forgotten what flowers smelled like spending so much time inside.
“Jesse, choices need to be made, you know that, right?”
“I’m not sure I should be here, Maxine. We’re not allowed to have guests over this late.”
“Or overnight guests,” she whispered and shot me a pronounced wink so slow and deliberate that I wondered if she was having a stroke. She twirled her long brown hair around her index finger. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“I’m not sure what I’d even say.”
“Don’t you want to know my secret?”
Every instinct told me that I should bolt, but I couldn’t help myself. Perhaps it was boredom. Or loneliness. Or the half-ass feeling of intimacy you gained from someone confiding in you.
“I’m thinking about swinging,” Maxine said.
“That’s a shock.”
Her laughter erupted in spurts, separated by gasps, then a wracking cough. Afterwards, she looked almost contrite and her sad face made me wonder whether she’d once had a husband or kid. The Stars talked about everything except what led us here in the first place.
“I’m thinking about swinging my vote to Hector. Rules are meant to be broken.”
“So are people,” I muttered.
When she asked me to repeat myself, I just shook my head and awkwardly shook her hand, shuffling to the door and to another night of limbo.
The next morning was election day. We’d timed it to be on the same date as the presidential election. For us, though, this was the only election that mattered. We the People were the real people and we’d decided on a more representative form of democracy in a place where a vote actually mattered. We all agreed to meet at sunset in Dylan’s unit to hear our two candidates debate and to follow on the heels of that with voting. I would film it for my brother’s documentary. I would find closure.
First, I needed to capture footage of the presidential voters. The closest polling place was a Korean Catholic church used weekdays for summer camp drop off and AA meetings. I hung out in the lobby within view of the booths and skirted the disdain of the harried volunteers looking to usher in the voters. Eventually, I was forced outside to talk to people with I Voted stickers on their shirts and jackets. They tried to look away from the camera, stomping off late to work or to the lives they’d temporarily put on hold. The only question I asked was: Did you vote for the person you wanted? The answer, far too many times, was no. Xavier had stuck to his guns for all the good that had ended up doing him.
After scarfing a couple of free donuts from the AA meeting in the back of the church, I thought I saw Damian slipping out. I pointed the camera to capture the phantom of our former leader, but he ducked down like he was embarrassed to know me. He had transitioned out of purgatory. Or maybe this guy just looked like our former leader. I’d spent so long staring at video footage that I was having a hard time understanding what was real. There was something like anger boiling inside of me or perhaps fear. I was desperate for a sign that justice was part of the world and not something kept alive only in action movies and comic books. I needed to feel like one person could make a difference, even if, especially if, he was dead.
I barely remembered my walk back to Hollywood Star Storage and slipping inside before dusk. At night, the track lighting in the ceiling made the jutting hallways seems like something out of a horror movie. Like there was something feral in the very fabric of the air, in the folds of a hidden America, that would come after us. We were all destitute, needy, and dangerous. We all felt like there was someone to blame.
I followed the flickering of candles, our mobile sources of light, to Dylan’s unit in the far back part of the first floor, the furthest away from the elevators. All the Stars were already congregated inside. Billy had set up a propane lamp in the back corner to send shadows scuttling along the walls. Javier, who’d once worked as a schoolteacher, was getting the groups organized with the candidates sitting on chairs in the center of the room in front of a flimsy table.
“They sold Damian’s stuff this morning. They didn’t even wait a month,” Kevin blurted out, our longest tenured second floor Star. “We need someone like Nebraska.”
“The hell with that. It should be equal rights for everyone to do whatever they want,” Prem replied, our newest and youngest Star, teetering on the skateboard he rode everywhere inside and outside of the storage units.
I had a hard time following the debate. I fought to keep the lens on the faces of the speakers in the dim lighting. With no moderator, everyone spoke on top of each other until Maxine slammed her hand on the table in front of the candidates. Nebraska and Hector took turns at first, putting forth their platforms. It was simple for our former biker—Nebraska wanted to follow the rules and safeguards that had kept everyone safe. It was our constitution, he argued. Hector wanted each person to have the option to make their own rules, no curfews or noise constraints, no age or numbers quotas—a live and let live approach where any conflict could be addressed man to man.
“You mean hombre to hombre,” Nebraska said. “We can’t have two sets of rules. We Tops plan to keep things the same.”
“Why have an election then? Let’s vote, gringo,” Hector said, eyeing the audience and counting his support on his fingers.
“Of course, a lazy Mexican wants to stop the debate short.”
“Who’s Mexican?” Hector asked.
The debate got ugly after that with Hector and Nebraska facing off, people gathering in small groups to back the candidate from their floor. Maxine ignored the others, running her fingers through the flickering wick of the candle she carried. I wondered if she was high.
Xavier had been a pot smoker in high school, but it always made me feel paranoid, unsure of myself, too distracted to follow conversations. Bro was interested in having a good time and the winding debates that came from smoking weed. These talks were replaced during film school with hopped-up conversation fueled by speed, cocaine, MDH, and mushrooms. I wasn’t sure if Xavier thought this was part of the artist’s journey or if his anger with our folks led him to drift further from the kid they thought would be successful. I was an enabler—I see that now. There was nothing that had prevented me from telling Xavier to cool it or to call our folks and let them know that he was in real danger. So many things become clear after the fact, like editing footage. The outcome of our home election seemed so clear now it could be a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
I remember the one time I got angry enough to fight my brother. The one time I ever punched him.We argued over a girl I liked that he ended up macking on at a party. He told me I could go out with her, that he wasn’t interested. I popped him once in the nose with my left hand, enough to water his eyes and for fear to register on his face. It was the same expression my parents and I saw together at the morgue: terror rippling from his jaw, as a pale grimace, thin lines crawling from his cheeks to his eyebrows. His eyes were partially slit, enough for us to see those brown cameras taking us in. Dad began to pontificate on the dangers of drugs and my hands shook. I walked out of there and out of my parents’ lives for fear I would kill my father.
That rage had never really left me. When I came to my senses, I saw Nebraska grabbing Hector by the collar and pinning him against the wall. The images of men and women tussling were indistinguishable from shadows and the room danced with writhing tattoos and fluttering fabric. It was a lesson in something—perhaps the unintended beauty in the bowels of Los Angeles and how alike we are in rage. I felt it rising in me and I saw my father everywhere, even in his absence. I howled loud enough for everyone to pause and look in my direction. I placed all of my grief in a single blow against the back of Nebraska’s head. The video camera split in two. My hand quivered. Nebraska sneered and collapsed on his back. Unity and peace descended on the room. The election was meaningless. The strongest person was the leader and everyone looked at me.
The questions began and made perfect sense. Should we call an ambulance? Should we escape through the emergency exit and flee? Should we wait until morning and monitor Nebraska throughout the night to make sure he was still breathing? I bent down and examined the biker’s peaceful face in the light shining from Maxine’s hand, her candle illuminating something I’d never seen in my brother’s death. The whole storage unit waited for our problems to disappear, for the greater good to emerge from tragedy, for a reason to escape the void into the light of another day.
Martin Ott is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction, including Underdays, Sandeen Prize winner and Forward Indies Finalist. His newest book, Fake News Poems. takes the headline of a news story from each week as a jumping off point to explore political and personal turmoil in the first year of Trump’s presidency. His work has appeared in twenty anthologies and more than two hundred magazines, including Antioch Review, Epoch, Harvard Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and Zyzzyva.