The West |

Staggered Maturities

by Katherine Karlin

If you have ever had an obsession you know how it will expand like foam to fill the contours of your day. And if you are lucky enough to share that obsession, you understand that it creates an intimacy as intense as kissing. So when Vivian and Roberto found themselves in a sushi restaurant in Little Tokyo, plucking pieces of sashimi they could not afford from little boats floating down a tiny channel, she saw the adventure as a celebration of their friendship and not their insanity. They were looking for Thor Hjelstrom, who read the evening financial report on the radio. Roberto described Thor’s voice as “California sunshine, roughened by sand and sea salt.” Roberto was from the Midwest. He was a native English speaker but had second-language tics, like starting sentences with “But” apropos of nothing. If Vivian said “Let’s go to lunch,” Roberto would answer, “But let’s eat at Subway.” Sometimes he phoned her in the afternoon to say, “But how will Thor describe the Dow tonight?” This habit of his kept her off kilter, as if she were engaged in a cosmic argument she couldn’t understand. Thor Hjelstrom had poetry in his soul. Credit default swaps, mezzanine debts, depository trusts, all music from the back of his throat. The worse the news the better he sounded. Vivian and Roberto chewed their sushi listening for the unmistakable rust of his voice. He had mentioned this very restaurant in one of his reports, joking that it was his stimulus contribution to stop there after work. “Maybe if we throw some financial terms around he’ll find us,” Vivian suggested. Roberto agreed. “Have some of my collateralized debt bonds,” he said, waving his chopsticks like antennae. “No thanks. I have cramdown effect.” Vivian knew Roberto from work. They typed closed captions for television programs. When she applied for the job she told them she was fluent in Tagalog, which wasn’t exactly true—her Tagalog related mostly to family things, not to things on television, so while she knew how to say “gift wrap” she had no idea how to say “defibrillator.” But it turned out she didn’t need Tagalog. She simply tapped out dialogue in shorthand that someone would translate overseas. Some of her coworkers liked to slip in mistakes just to see if they would get caught. So a Gossip Girl might explain that workers and farmers must struggle to expropriate the means of their production, or the Korean guy from lost confessed he dreamed of being walked on by men wearing stilettos. “But what a good girl you are,” Roberto said when they first met. “Typing away in your cubicle. Don’t tell me. Strict father, demanding mother, three hours of piano practice every night and perfect SAT scores.” Vivian knew that men found comfort in this stereotype, and she did nothing to disabuse him. In fact her father was a drunk. A sweet drunk, but a drunk nonetheless. He was the guy you found at closing time, weeping and singing along with Earth Wind and Fire. Their coworker Julie was the first to go. She was called into the supervisor’s office and then she packed the pictures of her cats in a Suntory liquor carton. Julie never fooled around with her captions. The supervisor told her she underperformed. Then came Justin, whom everyone liked because he could always produce free Clippers tickets. When he disappeared, the sabotage increased. Felicia began substituting large chunks of “Grey’s Anatomy” with the manifesto of the Tamil Tigers. Heinrik encoded Tupac lyrics in an episode of “The Ghost Whisperer.” Vivian stuck to her script, not out of loyalty but from lack of imagination. Vivian and Roberto went to Malibu where Thor Hjelstrom was known to surf. It was a chilly afternoon and the surfers cast long shadows on the beach as they emerged from the ocean in their wetsuits. Any one of them might have been Thor Hjelstrom—tall, chiseled, fortyish, with blond hair faded to oatmeal. “I want Thor Hjelstrom to put his arms around me,” Roberto said. “I want him to protect my troubled assets. I want him to iron out the convolutions in my brain with his strong Viking hands.” Vivian nodded. She worried she was too shallow for him. For both of them—Roberto and Thor Hjelstrom. When Roberto got fired he decided to go back to Illinois. Vivian went to his apartment for the last time. They pulled the covers up to their chins and watched his favorite movie, “The World of Henry Orient.” It was about two girls running around New York wearing coolie hats and making slant eyes. “But it is a little racist,” Roberto said in response to Vivian’s silence. “You have to understand the time it was made.” “Okay,” she said. She envisioned her and Roberto running around the city in coolie hats like two little girls. When the supervisor called her into his office it was not to fire her but to tell her she would be taking on more responsibility. Vivian returned to her cubicle to close caption “Two and a Half Men.” “What we need is capital market efficiency,” Charlie Sheen said. “The accrued market discount has compromised our negative yield curve for the Macauley duration.” At the end of the day she packed her things in the trunk of her Toyota and tuned in Thor’s voice. There were two skies over Los Angeles. To the south the sun flattened the shadows out of the city from Crenshaw down to the Harbor Gateway, bearing heavy on the after-market auto parts stores and wig shops that sold real Indian hair. To the north, steel-colored clouds hung low like awnings full of water over the San Gabriels, and Highway Two cut sharp and deep like a canal dividing the cerebral hemispheres. She drove towards the rain.