Palo Alto: Stories
By James Franco
Hardcover, 208 pages
List Price: $24
When I got to high school I didn't have friends. My best friend moved away, and I wasn't popular. I didn't go to parties. I got drunk only once, at a wedding. I puked behind a gazebo. I was with my cousin Jamie, who is gay. He goes to high school in Menlo Park, which is a five-minute drive. He is my only friend. He smokes menthol cigarettes.
After school I would go home. Me and Mom and Tim would watch Roseanne at the dinner table because Dad wasn't there to say no.
Then Dad would come home and we would study. A lot of times my math tests were on Thursdays, so my dad and I would study extra long on Wednesdays, and I would miss Beverly Hills 90210. I never taped it.
I did so well in math class that I got this internship for the summer at Lockheed Martin. They make missiles and satellites. I was the only girl out of ten students who got selected.
My dad was very excited.
He said, "Marissa, one day you and I will work together."
That summer, between my freshman and sophomore years, I worked for a Swedish guy named Jan, pronounced Yan. My job was to watch old film reels of the moon. There were hundreds. I worked in a cold, windowless basement. The reels would run from one spool to another on this old machine that looked like a tank. I was supposed to record blemishes and splices in the film. Sometimes the moon was full; sometimes it would get a little more full as I watched. Sometimes the film was scratched so badly it skipped, or it broke. I was in the basement forty hours a week. I watched so many moons.
It got so boring, I stopped looking for splices. Instead, I drew pictures on computer paper that I pulled from the recycling bin. Jan was never around, so I drew a lot. I drew rainbows, and people, and cities, and guns, and people getting shot and bleeding, and people having sex. When I got tired I just drew doodles. I tried to draw portraits of people I knew. My family always looked ridiculous, but funny because the pictures resembled them, but not enough. Then I drew all these things from my childhood, like Hello Kitty and Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony. I drew my brother's G.I. Joes. I made the My Little Ponys kill the G.I. Joes.
I drew hundreds of pictures and they were all bad. I wasn't good at drawing. It was also a little sad to draw so much because I could see everything that was inside me. I had drawn everything I could think of. All that was inside me was a bunch of toys, and TV shows, and my family. My life was boring. I only had one kiss, and it was with my gay cousin, Jamie.
One day, Jan came down to the basement. He saw all my little drawings. He didn't say much. He picked them up and looked at them. He looked at every picture that was there. When he finished with each, he put it onto a neat pile.
He was tall and restrained, with clean, fading blond hair, combed back, with a slight wave in the front. He had a plain gold wedding band. As he looked at the pictures, I tried to imagine what he did for fun, but I couldn't. He put the last picture down on the neat stack and looked at me.
"How is Mr. Moon?" he asked. In his accent his words came out short and clean. There was a hint of warmth, but it was contained.
"I found a few scratches today," I said.
"Good," he said, and left. I didn't draw any more that day. I looked at the moon.
The next day I was back in the basement. It was almost lunchtime, and Jan came in.
"Come here," he said, and turned and walked out. I followed him down the hall and outside. We crossed the parking lot, me following him. The surface of the blacktop was melting where they had put tar to fill in the cracks. There were no trees in the parking lot and the sun was pushing hard. I followed the back of Jan's light yellow shirt and tan slacks over to his truck. It was an old, faded mustard-colored pickup that said TOYOTA in white on the back.
When I got to the truck, he was messing around with something in the stake bed. He put the back part that said TOYOTA down. On top of this, he laid out a big, black portfolio.
He opened it and there were drawings inside.
"Look," he said. He stepped back, and I looked. He said, "These are mine."
They were good. They were mostly portraits. There were a bunch of portraits of a pretty woman's face, all the same woman. He was a lot better than I was.
"That's Greta, my wife," he said. "She was not my wife then, when I made them. She became my wife."
"She's very beautiful," I said. She was. Prettier than me.
"I did these when I was at school," he said. "I wanted to be artist. But it was no good. It is no good to be artist. I practiced every day, eight hours a day. Then I could draw like Michelangelo. Then what? There is already Michelangelo. I realized there was nothing more to do. In science, there is always more to learn. Always more."
I didn't look at him; I looked at his pictures. I felt very lonely. I pictured him and his wife, alone at a long table, eating some bland Swedish food, not talking. The only sounds were from the utensils hitting the plates, and the squish of their gentle chewing.
"So," he said. "You see." He reached over me and shut the portfolio to punctuate the "You see," but I didn't know what to see. Then I looked at him. He stood there and looked at me. We were so awkward.
"Okay," he said finally. "See you."
"See you," I said.
From "Lockheed," a story in Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco. Copyright James Franco and Scribner 2010. Reprinted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved