Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Story Behind "Peep Show"

by Holly West

Last week, I asked Eric Beetner, the editor of the forthcoming UNLOADED: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, to tell us a little bit about why he pursued the project. This week, I want to tell you about the short story I contributed, "Peep Show."

Many of you know I lived in Los Angeles for nearly thirty years. My most recent history there was in Santa Monica and Venice, but in the nineties I lived in the Wilshire District and West Hollywood.

Those were lean times for me, as ones twenties often are. I mostly lived paycheck to paycheck and my first apartment on Mansfield and Wilshire consisted of one room and a bathroom. There was a hot plate and mini-fridge in one corner of the closet. After saving up, I added a small microwave to my meager collection of kitchen appliances. My rent was $400 a month.

I loved that neighborhood and still do. Driving through it, the nostalgia almost suffocates me. Good, bad and sometimes ugly, I can't escape my past, nor do I really want to. I just have to resist idealizing it.

Around 1996 I decided I needed more lavish accommodations and thus moved to another one-room apartment on Seward and Santa Monica Boulevard. My rent increased to $500 a month, but now I had a kitchenette, complete with a stove, full-size fridge and peel-and-stick linoleum flooring. The neighborhood was undeniably seedier, but it was also more exciting. Sunset Boulevard was just a couple of blocks away and Circus Disco, a gay-friendly nightclub, lit up the corner of N. Cherokee and Santa Monica Boulevard.

It was also the part of West Hollywood where transgender prostitutes ply their trade. Not to glamorize what is clearly a difficult and dangerous life, but I thought they were beautiful. Most put far more effort at looking feminine than I did--I suppose they had to. Their looks were hard, but their vulnerability somehow shone through.

I wanted to know their stories.

One of my upstairs neighbors was a young Thai man who was quiet and friendly. By day, he dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, typically and unquestionably male, if one is to go by appearance alone. But at night, he transformed himself into a lovely woman--legs up to here, gorgeous long hair, perfect make up. Not unrecognizable, but nearly so.

I don't know if he was a prostitute or an escort. I don't know if he was transgender or merely enjoyed dressing in drag. Our most meaningful interaction was ever just a pleasant greeting. He was simply a nice neighbor who lived upstairs and occupied the parking spot next to mine.

At some point during my residence in that building, I acquired my first dog, Kramer. My lease didn't allow dogs and I told the apartment manager, a lovely Armenian lady who lived in the apartment next door to mine, that I planned to find him a new home as soon as I could. It was true when I said it, but within a week I was certain I couldn't give him up. At one point she must've realized that he'd become permanent but neither of us acknowledged it aloud. She'd grown to love Kramer, too.

After a few months of living peacefully with Kramer, he awoke in the morning's wee hours, growling. Something going on just outside my apartment had disturbed him. His growling soon turned to barking and I quickly shushed him. The nice landlord might be okay with knowing there was a smuggled dog living next door, but if he became a nuisance, she might insist I toss him out.

When I quieted him somewhat, I went to the door and peered out the peephole. The building's entry was abuzz with official looking people--fire and police men and such. The only window in my apartment faced the side of the building next door but I could see the hint of flashing lights from emergency vehicles. I couldn't guess what had happened but whatever it was appeared to be serious.

I didn't dare exit my apartment because I had to attend to Kramer. I went back to bed and tried to go back to sleep--I had to work in the morning--but it was impossible. Neither of us could settle down. Somewhere around 6am I got up and checked the peephole again.

I'll never forget what I saw.

Two fire fighters carried a black body bag down the stairs, which were directly in front of my door. I didn't know who was in the bag, but the fact that anybody was inside of it at all was enough to make a lasting impression. I don't remember exactly what I felt--certainly shock--but without knowing the who/what/where of the situation likely limited my response.

By this time, Kramer was in dire need of a morning walk. When the activity outside finally diminished, I opened the door and popped my head out to see if it was safe to take him out. My landlady was in front of her own apartment speaking with the building's owners. When she saw me, she scuttled over and I asked her what happened.

Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into my Thai neighbor's apartment on the second floor. It killed him.

If I ever knew further details about this murder, I can't recall them. It's tempting for me to assume that he died because he was transgender. I'll never know. As fate would have it, I'd already arranged to move out of the apartment but wasn't due to leave for another week. I called my friend Harold, with whom I was going to live, and asked if I could move in that day. He agreed and I never spent another night in that apartment on Seward.

But sketchy as my knowledge and memory is, I always wanted to write a story based on this event. When Eric asked me to write a story for UNLOADED, I thought this was the perfect chance. The finished version of "Peep Show" is very different from the truth, but the broad strokes are there. I can't read it without revisiting that time in my life.

I'm not sure I did my neighbor justice in the writing of it and I still wonder if his killer was caught and punished. But I'm proud of "Peep Show," nonetheless. I can only hope that he continues to rest in peace.

UNLOADED (Down & Out Books) officially drops on April 18 and includes stories by Reed Farrel Coleman, Joyce Carol Oates, Hilary Davidson, Joe R. Lansdale, Joe Clifford, S.W. Lauden, Thomas Pluck and many more. Pre-order your copy now.

UPDATE: Rob Hart, another contributor to UNLOADED, shares the inspiration behind his story, "Creampuff."


Anonymous said...

Wow, that's a terrifying and tragic experience, Holly. I'd be haunted by it as well. I do hope they caught the killer. I'm looking forward to reading the anthology and especially your story now that I know the origin.

Holly West said...

I hope you enjoy it, Sarah. I'm really happy to be a part of it.

Other Lisa said...

Fantastic, tragic story, Holly. Really looking forward to reading what you made of it. And thinking of your poor neighbor.

Lisa B.

Stephen Buehler said...

Holly, I'm late to the blog but I'm glad I finally read it. That's some story! I'm glad you were able to mine it and make it your own story. I'm looking forward to Unloaded and Peep Show.
- Stephen