“If You’re so Smart” by Tim Loc

“It’s been reported that 5 percent of students in the University of California system experience homelessness. For the state’s community college students, that number is a staggering 20 percent. The stats are a sobering reminder of how pervasive homelessness is and how it can’t be defined by any single narrative,” Tim Loc comments about the contemporary social problem that inspired his story. “If You’re So Smart”  appeared in the summer 2020 issue of TMR and was Loc’s first published fiction. Recently TMR intern Eric True talked with Loc about the story; you can read that interview here.

If You’re So Smart

by Tim Loc

 

The first setback came when the art store on Fairfax shuttered. Mr. Hashemi, who played Dizzy Gillespie records during store hours, wandered the aisles on the final days of the business, sighing and wiping his hand across his balding crown. “This is a small thing to you,” he said to Simon. “But I was here the first day. Some things you don’t forget.”

“I’ll miss this place,” said Simon.

“You’re too young to be sentimental.”

The second knock came when his roommate, Paul, kicked him out. Simon had found on Craigslist a subdivided room in Westwood. Paul, who’d inherited the condo from his parents, had put up separators and advertised the single bedroom as being three. He was paying off fifteen grand in debts from online poker. He was twenty-three.

The setup was less than ideal—the third roommate sleepwalked—but the rent was only seven hundred a month, and it was close to UCLA, where Simon was getting his master’s in design. The ploy was working until Paul’s parents dropped in for a surprise visit on Labor Day. They entered the room to find three mattresses, each with a grown man fanning himself in the late-summer heat. Paul, after ushering his parents back to Burbank, told Simon that he was persona non grata, effective the next day.

The third blow was announced in an e-mail from Tran, Simon’s uncle. He informed Simon that there were complications from a hernia surgery he’d had a year ago.

The doctors don’t fix anything. If they did, they wouldn’t make any money.

Tran, who was impractical and prone to anxious paroxysms, had never married. He spent his Thursdays going to Freestyle Night at the roller rink. He lived with Simon’s single mother, relying on her for financial assistance during times of distress. This fact both embarrassed him and made him protective of his older sister.

His messages to Simon became increasingly urgent, exasperated. It culminated with a four-hundred-word e-mail with the subject title “important.” In it, Tran reiterated the story of his sister’s life, beginning with her childhood in Da Nang (When her cat died, she got a chicken. When we ate the chicken, she got a lizard.). He talked about her many suitors and her hard luck in finding Simon’s father, who was a lush and a cheat. He reminded Simon of the time she’d spent two months of her savings to get him a pair of Air Force 1s. He reminded Simon that she was helping him with tuition.

You’re a big man now. Think about your family.

Simon, confused and hurt by the cryptic message, shoved his iPhone under his pillow.

Which is how he ended up in the parking lot at the Westfield in Culver City. He’d been staying at a Days Inn for a week until his funds ran out. He checked out on the final day and drove to the mall for Chipotle. It hadn’t occurred to him that he’d be sleeping in the lot that night. He didn’t know until he’d gotten back in his Hyundai and realized he had nowhere to go.

Though, of course, he’d known it all along. There was a reason he’d driven out to the Westfield—he wasn’t even hungry for Chipotle. He began to panic. He got out of his car and walked around the parking lot. A paunchy man was carting a flat-screen TV from Best Buy. A woman in jogging gear said into her phone, “There should be a dating app for people with night terrors.” Simon felt singled out, as if everyone knew why he was loitering. He felt so uncomfortable that he got back into his Hyundai.

As he sat there, a profound sense of shame passed over him. He’d failed in a manner that was personal and flagrant. He felt a gulf opening beneath him. He began to weep, and then he started bawling because he felt so stupid for crying in his subcompact car.

At some point he fell asleep. The next thing he knew, he heard a tapping on the window. A white light bore down on him. He turned the ignition and rolled down the window. “I was about to call the cops there,” said the person behind the light. “I thought you were strung out.”

“No, I’m sorry,” said Simon. “My bad. I’m leaving.” As he rolled up the window, the man said, “Hey, hang on a sec. You good to drive?” Simon put the car in gear and peeled off. He drove out of the lot, his heart lurching in his chest.

***

 

He carved out a routine. In the mornings he’d go to the student library to charge his phone, respond to e-mails, and send out job applications. At noon he’d buy a three-dollar mulita or sope from a truck on Wilshire. After lunch he went to class, and after class he drove out to Santa Monica to shower at one of the stalls by the beach. The showers—cold and bracing—expelled all feeling from his body.

In the evening he’d return to campus to work in the library. Then he’d swing by a Subway for a meatball sandwich. When night fell, he drove out to his spot in West LA, a sleepy street that abutted a middle school. He’d tried a couple other locations before he found it. He’d camped out in Venice for a while, but that was a waste of gas. He tried a suburban area of Westwood, but someone had called a community patrol officer on him. The West LA spot was perfect. The looming elms formed a dark canopy at night. There were only apartments on the street. It was mostly students and young professionals—people who had no illusions of ownership.

He tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. He’d sit in the driver’s seat and stare at his phone as if he were waiting to pick someone up. Then, when sufficiently tired, he’d climb into the back to lie down. He had a Powerade bottle to pee into. In spite of his efforts, there was one person who took note of him. It was another Asian guy—someone Simon’s age. He was probably a graduate student at UCLA too. He’d come back to his apartment at eight at night, lugging a North Face backpack and a bag of groceries.

Whenever he walked by, he’d gawk openly at Simon. Once, he even ducked his head to get a better look—their faces were just a yard apart—and Simon shot him a forbidding glare. Simon couldn’t tell if he was mocking. There was a semblance of real surprise in his stare, but how could that be? Simon came to hate his face—his wire-frame glasses, his gape-mouthed astonishment.

One night, Simon saw him turning the block. Simon stared at his phone, willing himself to keep his head down. But he looked up anyway, just as the guy was passing by. They caught each other’s gaze. Simon opened the door. “Hey, can you stop staring?” he said. “It’s not like I’m in your way.”

“Huh?”

“Stop staring!”

“Me?”

“Yeah! There’s no one else here.”

The guy stood there and looked at Simon. Then he nodded and did a faint waving motion with his hand. “Okay, okay,” he said. He walked up the stoop of his apartment.

The confrontation left Simon feeling disconsolate. He sat in the driver’s seat, stewing with indignance. Then, just as he’d decided to get into the back seat and call it a night, he heard a rapping on the door. It was him again.

Simon rolled down the window. “Do you want dinner?” the guy said.

“I don’t need your money,” said Simon.

“Uh, no, not money. I mean food. I made dinner. I eat very late because I have to study in the evening. If you want, you can come inside and have some.”

Simon blinked. “Sure,” he said. He wasn’t actually hungry. He was blindsided by the offer and had said the first thing that came to mind.

The guy introduced himself as Wen. He went to UCLA, too—a PhD candidate in Bioengineering. He had grown up in Tianjin. Before coming to LA he’d gotten his bachelor’s at McGill. His apartment was nondescript: a Timex clock, reprints of art nouveau posters, the assorted detritus from IKEA. It was a transitory place, clean but faceless. The one anomaly was a marionette that resembled a Creamsicle-colored sloth. It sat on top of a bookshelf. Wen caught Simon looking at it. “That is from my mother,” he said. “She is a schoolteacher. She does plays with puppets, for small children.”

“Oh, right,” said Simon.

Dinner, as it turned out, was claypot chicken and liang fen swimming in chili oil. “You made this?” asked Simon.

“It’s not hard,” said Wen. “You just need a good market.”

He cooked when he had the time, he said. He had a girlfriend who was doing her MBA at Emory; she’d spend the rest of her life ordering off Postmates if she could. “It’s a waste of money,” he remarked. “Plus, the food is cold by the time it comes to you.”

Simon found that he was ravenous once he’d started eating. He’d had Subway earlier, but this was the first home-cooked meal he’d had in months. His senses perked at the taste of real nourishment. He ate too fast. The heady vapor of the peppercorn pooled in his sinuses. Sweat collected on his brow. He scooped more rice into his mouth to tame the burn, but it was a lost cause.

He looked up from his bowl to collect himself. Then, as if the pressure in his head was causing a purge, he opened his mouth to speak.

“What do you think I’m doing out there? In my car?”

Wen stopped eating. He shifted in his seat, then placed his chopsticks on the rim of his bowl.

“Hmm. At first, I thought maybe you were, how do you say it, stalking someone.”

Simon barked with laughter. Wen, looking relieved, laughed too.

“But one night I see that you have your shirts on the coat hanger,” said Wen. “So I think, ‘Okay, this guy is living in his car.’”

He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for staring,” said Wen. “It was rude. It’s just that I always feel surprised when I see homeless people in America. There are so many.”

Homeless. Somehow Simon had avoided the word in the six months he’d been living in his car. To hear it spoken—to hear it applied intimately to him—made him fidget.

“What did you think America would be like?” asked Simon.

Wen pushed up his glasses with an index finger. “I don’t know. I watched a lot of Friends. Shows like that. I always thought that Americans had no worries. Even when they’re in trouble they act very confident, like they expect things will work out. Phoebe? She never seemed to have a job, but it didn’t matter to her.”

He grinned at Simon. “You’re like that. Kind of. You don’t seem very worried that you’re homeless.” Simon plucked a sliver of chicken and ate it. “Right. Just like Friends,” he said.

Upon leaving, Simon made it clear that he wasn’t a charity case. But after some haggling, they came to an agreement in which he’d drop in for dinner on Thursdays. Wen framed it as a mutual setup: he needed an American audience for the Western recipes he’d been meaning to try. That first week, it was clam chowder and Baltimore crab cakes. The next week it was meat loaf—a stately mound of ground meat. “They would serve it in Family Matters, but I never knew what it was,” said Wen. “When I found the recipe, I was like, ‘This is it?’”

“I think there was a time when I thought waffle fries were fancy, thanks to Boy Meets World or something,” said Simon. “I would rather go to an IHOP than eat my mother’s cooking. Complete insanity.”

For the most part, Wen followed the recipes on Bon Appétit. Sometimes he’d incorporate a trick he’d picked up elsewhere. He added fish sauce to a Bolognese, giving it a umami aroma. He put lemongrass and coconut milk in a pot pie. Every dish seemed faultless to Simon, but Wen would eat with an inward look on his face, chewing slowly to parse the flavors. He never seemed pleased. “I can taste the ingredients I didn’t use,” he explained. “It always feels like something is missing.”

One night, after they’d polished off a bowl of New England clam chowder, Wen took out a sheet of paper and flattened it on the table. “This was posted up at the Weintraub Center,” said Wen. “I know the professor. He’s old. That’s why he’s still printing these on paper.” It was lab work. Bachelor’s required. No background in sciences necessary. There was clip art of a Bunsen burner with googly eyes—it was spinning a basketball on a finger.

“Thanks,” said Simon. He slid the paper closer to him, then took a sip of the cheap wine he’d brought.

“You don’t have any questions?” said Wen.

Simon looked up. Wen gave him a quizzical look. There was a waft of disappointment.

“It’s all here, right?” said Simon. “I’ll just send him an e-mail. Wow. Hotmail.”

Wen shrugged. “Yes. That’s how you would contact him. But I mean you don’t seem very interested.”

“I’m interested.”

The secret was that Simon already had a job. He had been hired a month before at a Petco in WeHo. Once employed, he told his mother that he’d received a surprise scholarship—the rest of his tuition was covered, he’d claimed. Then he spent a week looking at economy lodgings. The best he could find within his budget was a studio in Palms. The room was hardly larger than an inflatable pool. When he tried the faucet, it sputtered violently, dry-heaving as if it were choking on a bone. There was a sandal in the mini fridge for some reason.

After checking out the apartment, he told himself he’d mull it over and sign the contract the next day. But a day passed, then another, and suddenly he couldn’t justify spending all his paycheck on what was essentially a box made of drywall. He wouldn’t have any money left over for food or textbooks or simple toiletries. He could have looked for a place with a roommate, but that wasn’t much of an improvement. The idea was ludicrous: working thirty hours a week—on top of his studies—just so he could exist somewhere. He was already doing that in his car. So he remained in his Hyundai. He kept attending dinners at Wen’s to keep up the ruse; it seemed easier than trying to justify his decision.

“Why wouldn’t I be interested in a job?” said Simon. “I’m just keeping my hopes realistic.”

Wen sighed. “But they won’t want someone who seems unmotivated.”

“I’m just tired,” said Simon. “I had a presentation today in class.”

“I see,” said Wen. “Well, let me know if you want a recommendation.”

Simon took another sip of his Merlot, which tasted of syrup and metal. In that moment, he understood an essential fact about their acquaintance. Wen wouldn’t have been surprised to see a homeless person on his street: he’d been surprised to see a homeless person who resembled him. Suddenly, Simon felt like he had been invited here to prove a point.

The next Thursday, Simon texted Wen to say he was at a mixer hosted by his program. He drove out to the Westfield and parked in the lot, taking care to not fall asleep.

***

 

One morning, as Simon worked on his laptop in his car, an older woman waved at him from the sidewalk.

He rolled down the window as she came to his door. The woman shined a smile on him—a megawatt beam that almost made him squint. She wore a turquoise rain slicker. She gave off a thick, fragrant scent like lavender.

“Hello. How are you doing today?” she said.

“I’m doing okay,” said Simon.

“Are you lost? Do you need directions?”

“No. Why?”

“It’s just that I noticed you here yesterday. And, well, I live around the corner, so I know these parts pretty well. Are you sure you don’t need directions?”

They looked at each other for a moment. She held her smile.

“No, I can find my way around,” said Simon.

“I’m relieved to hear that,” she said. “I hope you get to where you need to be.”

Simon drove off that afternoon. He cruised around Culver City, Westwood, WeHo, going as far east as Mid-City. The county was enormous, yet every block felt cloistered with unwanted attention. By night he was back in Venice. He recalled seeing a street lined with RVs and lumbering commercial vans. They were clearly being used as living spaces. Towels were hung up as curtains. One van had a mural of Gil Scott-Heron painted on its side.

Simon parked behind an RV with an assortment of bumper stickers: San Diego Padres, The Descendents, Save the Bay, Gravel 2020. He climbed into the back and tried to sleep, but his mind kept flitting from one thought to another. He saw vestiges of his mother, his uncle, friends he knew from high school, peers in his courses. He thought about one of his instructors, who said she’d come up with the design for a popular laundry detergent when she suffered a seizure and experienced a hallucinogenic fugue (“Not that I suggest it.”). Fragments of his life whirled past him, colliding like atoms. Suddenly it was dawn; the early morning blush seeped through his eyelids. He sat up and, for a moment, tried to remember how he’d gotten here.

He climbed into the front seat, started the engine, then drove off to a Winchell’s, where he hung out until classes started at ten. After class he drove back to the same spot behind the RV. He wondered if the area would look more inviting in the daytime, but the sun only made him feel more conspicuous.

By noon he’d caught the attention of a man sweeping the sidewalk who’d gotten out of the RV covered in bumper stickers. He was short, with ropy arms and a wind-beaten face. His T-shirt was tucked into his jeans. His hair—close-cropped and streaked with silver—was topped off with a Pennzoil ball cap. He kept glancing over in Simon’s direction as he swept. When he finished, he went back into the RV, reemerged with an orange, and began peeling it as he sat on the curb. Simon ignored him and turned his attention to his phone. He was on his third game of Sudoku when he heard a tapping above him. He turned to see the RV man at his door.

“Yes?” Simon said as he rolled down the window.

The man put his hands at his waist and stood erect. “Are we doing okay here?” he said. “Not really my business, but I like to check in on our neighbors.”

“I’m fine. I’m sorry, do I need a permit or something?”

“No. Not in any official sense.”

The man went quiet, as if he’d proposed a question. Not knowing what to say, Simon asked, “Is Mike Gravel still running?”

“Look, is this for some newspaper assignment?” said the man. “I got one of those a month ago. You know, investigative reporting. Putting a face to a societal problem. That stuff.”

“No, I’m not a reporter.”

“Okay, then. What do you do? What’s your thing?”

“I’m a student at UCLA. Design.”

The man sighed and looped a thumb around a belt strap. He looked away for a moment, then pointed at the van with the mural. “That guy right there. Plays the flute. Chess whiz, too. Used to work at Northrop Grumman until he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.” He pointed farther down the curb, at an RV with a Jolly Roger flag taped on the side. “And that woman there is Sally. She’s pushing fifty now. She waits at a Johnny Rockets. Sends half her paycheck to her mom up in Modesto for hospice care.”

He leaned over and put his hands on the ledge of the car door. There was a measured quality in his eyes. He looked like someone who was hardly surprised by anything. It was comforting, yet it spoke to the futility of it all. “My point is this,” he said. “This isn’t some temporary situation. We’re just in it, pal.”

“It’s not like I’m on a road trip,” said Simon. His eyes began to sting with tears. “It’s not like I’m out for a joy ride.”

“I didn’t say you were,” the man said, putting up his hands.

“I looked all over the city.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“You make it sound so easy, like I can knock on the next door I see.”

“Maybe you should try that.” The man shook his head and took a step back. “Look, I’m just kidding,” he said. “But you’re a university kid, right? If you’re so smart, you’d realize that we’re in RVs out here, not dinky sedans with gaping windows. So this is a safety issue, for one thing. And if any of these officers see a kid out here? That would catch their attention. We have an understanding with the city. It’s in our best interest to keep things the same, you know what I’m saying?”

“You mean I have to leave.”

“That’s not within my jurisdiction. I work in elevator repair. I spend my free time sweeping the sidewalk, doing the crossword, and letting Marcus kick my ass on the chessboard.”

Simon rolled up the window and turned on the ignition. The man tapped on the door again. “Hey, you stay safe out there, all right?” he said. His voice was muffled by the glass. “Use your good sense, if you got it.”

Simon refused to acknowledge him. He pulled away from the curb. He looked in the rearview mirror when he came to a stoplight; the RV man was still monitoring him, standing with his arms crossed. There was an air of permanence in his posture, as if he’d been there forever, waiting as the sun raked its way across the sky.

***

 

Pain radiated in his head. He reached up to touch the back of his skull; he felt something slick and gummy. He opened his eyes. The picture before him was inscrutable—as free of context as a foreign script.

Gradually, it came to him. He recognized the amber glow of the streetlamps. He saw the “reunion gate” sign on the fence by the school. He was parked at his old spot in West LA. Other bits of memory began sifting through. He recalled placing an order at a Yoshinoya. He remembered exiting the store and coming upon someone rummaging through his car. Simon yelled. The culprit—ancient, skinny, eyes flashing with terror—darted off with an armful of loot. He also had Simon’s backpack strapped around a shoulder. In it were a MacBook and a hard drive.

Simon gave chase. The thief started dropping odd bits of bounty. A Henley shirt. A textbook on Alan Fletcher. A bottle of Head & Shoulders. At first it seemed like he was losing grip, but then Simon realized that he was tossing the items to make an obstacle. It was a comical move, like something out of a Pink Panther movie. And just as Simon had this thought—of how funny it was, how outlandishly ineffectual⁠—he stepped on the Powerade bottle and pitched backward. A white light erupted in his field of vision. It felt as if his mind were a television set and the channel had changed with a click of the remote.

He got up on his feet. The thief was far off now, rounding the corner of a Rite Aid. He was laughing to himself, though it was possible Simon was imagining this. His head hummed with static. The programming kept switching in his brain. The next thing he knew, he was back in his car, driving down a residential street (Where had he left his Yoshinoya?). He blinked, and suddenly he was on the freeway.

And now he was here, at his former haunt on Selby Avenue. A woman walked by with her lumbering mastiff. The dog turned its snout toward Simon. The woman discouraged it with a sharp “Hey!” She bowed her head and kept walking. He must look like a mess, Simon realized. Also, one of his windows was smashed in.

His mind clicked again. Now he was watching a different sitcom, one in which he was trying to scale an evergreen to get to Wen’s second-story balcony. He was amazed at his agility and at the sturdy conviction of the branches. When he got onto the balcony, it was just a matter of opening the screen door (the lock was broken, a fact that Wen had kept complaining about out loud). Simon made his way across the darkened room and dropped on the couch. Once down, the reserves of energy that had guided him up the tree were abruptly shut off. His limbs felt like columns of rubber. He descended into a dark hole.

A hand jostled him awake. The light was on. Wen was jabbing him in the shoulder. Bags of groceries were at his feet. “What’s going on? What happened to you?” Wen shouted. “You’re getting blood on the couch!”

“I fell,” said Simon. He felt the back of his head again. This time he found a crude lump. “I climbed up to your balcony,” Simon continued. “I had to hide out. Someone would have called the cops.”

Wen sighed. He picked up the groceries and walked off to the kitchen. “This is crazy!” he screamed.

Simon cleaned up as best as he could in the bathroom. The blood had caked. He used his fingers to untangle the clots of hair. When he came out, Wen had set the table. He’d heated something he’d made the previous night: mapo tofu and steamed eggplant. Simon took a seat and picked up his bowl. He wasn’t hungry, but he understood that this would be the last time he’d sit down with Wen.

They ate in silence for a while. Wen started taking little pauses in which he’d set down his bowl, fold his arms on the table, and glance away as he chewed his food. There was a look of disdain on his face. A moment later he picked up his rice and shoveled another mouthful. Then he’d go back to folding his arms and chewing angrily. Simon made it a point to finish the rest of the food. He kept eating the mapo tofu until rivulets of snot were streaming down his nostrils. At the very last bite, he held up his bowl to scoop the remaining bits. Then he set it down and laid the chopsticks on top. He and Wen sat that way for a second, just looking at each other.

“You don’t even try. It’s like you want to live in your car,” said Wen. He was practically spitting out the words.

“Right, I guess it comes out now,” said Simon, sneering. “You know you wouldn’t have invited me in if I wasn’t Asian.”

Wen puffed out a breath of air and shook his head. He laughed. “You know you’re crazy, right? That’s why you don’t have a normal life. You’re just crazy.”

“I’m here to make you feel better about yourself,” said Simon.

“Fuck you. I am not the Red Cross,” said Wen. “I am not here to feed everyone who shows up at my door.”

Simon got up.

“Goodbye,” Wen said dismissively.

Simon walked out, back into the damp embrace of night. His car was still there, thankfully.

As he floated down Olympic Boulevard, his future revealed itself in his mind. It came to him with total clarity, as if he were recalling a material fact. He imagined himself as a graphic designer at a buzzy start-up. Once his portfolio was respectable, he’d jump ship and work for a vaunted but dwindling publication—the pay would be less, but the work would be more meaningful. He’d adjunct at Art Center on the side. He’d hike Runyon Canyon with his Shiba Inu every Saturday morning. He’d have a condo in downtown, and in that condo he’d have an espresso machine, an assortment of potted ferns, and a shelf filled with first-press vinyls. He hadn’t wanted these things before, but now they appeared to him with a strange pointedness. He could feel the closeness of these objects—the mere possibility of them. This sense of proximity was exhilarating.

He arrived at a stoplight. It flashed yellow, then red. The night was cloudless. The asphalt glowed under the moonlight. An Uber pulled up next to him. He could make out the silhouettes of the driver and the passengers, but he couldn’t discern a face.

Yes, he had it all planned out. He just needed a spot where he could think beyond the reach of his day-to-day. He needed time and patience. He needed a place to wait. It could be so simple.

 

***

 

 

Tim Loc splits his time between Los Angeles and his home city of Alhambra, California. He has worked as a writer and editor for several LA publications. He is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program. This is his first published short story.