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House of Limbs
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, January 23, 2002.
Television: Young man in big house, showing us around.
Hello. I’m a young man. This is my big house. Each room has been brightly painted in a primary or secondary color. This room’s blue because the other one’s yellow, so, you know, we painted it blue. This one’s red because we painted it red with red paint, because the other one’s, you know, green. This is the kitchen where we keep the food. This is the bed where I make my babies. I own things you need to see, so that you know what to want. And this is my pit-bull-breeding brothel.
As I watched this hip-popitalist real estate porn — something my friend James later informed me must almost certainly have been a television program called MTV Cribs — I was assaulted by a classically oppressed memory of a similar house I once met, three times. A house I visited on three separate and consecutively ignorant occasions, over a period of eight years, with intent to rent. The sole significant distinction between the two residences, I recalled, was that while the MTV celebrity’s house encompassed over four thousand square feet, with high ceilings throughout and each room brightly painted in a primary or secondary color, the house it reminded me of was barely four hundred square feet, with 7-foot ceilings and about 25 percent of its wall space covered with mannequin parts. Human arms and legs, half-submerged prosthetic limbs, firmly and sloppily plastered in place. Fiendish fossils reaching out from some ancient and inclement Elsewhere to grope, to taunt, to kick, to trip all who pass, can be yours, now, for just $450 a month.
(“Cozy, rustic chalet with olde worlde charme. Single person only.”)
Neither house nor shack nor nightmare but an unpleasant coadaptation of all three, maybe. Or a boxcar derailed from someone’s very, very bad dream, airlifted and dropped into the forested hillside. The first visit was on purpose. The door opened, instantly converting a possible rental into a visit with the mutilated undead.
“AAAUUUGGHHHH!!!! Have you had a lot of people interested?” I asked the soap-operatic landlord.
“Oh, yes,” said she. “We’ve already taken 14 applications since yesterday. It won’t last the weekend.” The landlord coaxed me ever inward, virtually ignoring the appendages, vaguely apologizing as someone less ambitious might for, say, a minor stain in the carpet. “As you can see, the last tenant had rather unusual tastes,” she said, “and over here is the kitchenette.”
(Professional segue. Nice.)
“Over here’s the bathroom.”
Around the corner and into the bathroomette, where a corner micro-shower had been smothered with dark, uneven stucco, leaving only a small, vaginal crevice — tiled smoothly around the lips, no more than a meter high — just wide enough for a smallish adult to squeeze into and, perhaps, back out again. This was scarier to me than the indoor limb farm, as it brought to mind the mysterious former tenant’s sexuality. (“Ducks and ants,” I imagined him testifying, cheerfully, oiling a favorite machete in the hidden-camera tape played before the jury. “I have sex with ducks and ants.”)
“You have what?” the landlord interrupted my reverie.
“I didn’t say anything,” I replied and hoped it was true. It occurred to me that, as unsettling as it was to imagine what sort of person would undertake the creation of such a home — ducks and ants or not — it was at least 20 percent less settling to imagine what sort of a landlord would put the place up for rent as is?
I thanked this sort of landlord, feigned a significant glance at the top of my watchless left wrist and said goodbye, hoping never to return.
A year later, I accidentally showed up again. The ad in the Recycler made no mention of mannequin parts (I assumed and still assume that they were mannequin parts and not limbs hacked from other prospective tenants and dipped in resin), and while it did refer to both rusticity and olde worlde charme, so did most ads for rentals under $700 a month. So up the hill and park the car at . . . Ruthven Lane . . . wasn’t that the same? . . . naah, couldn’t be (up and up the hill), because . . . the old ad had said . . . wait . . . oh . . . shit.
But I was already there, had nothing else to do for an hour, so why not visit, sniff the place out for fresh corpses, see what the most recent tenants had done to it? Atop the hill, I spotted the landlord, arms crossed, standing there in front of her house of limbs, wearing possibly the same clothes as the last time we met. Beside her, another soap-opera star, her studly and sensitive yet profoundly bland husband.
“Hello!” and “Hello!” and “How do you do?” and displaying no apparent recollection of our prior meeting, Ms. Landlord unlocked the door, swept an open arm upward and inward in a gesture of profuse magnanimity, and initiated her rote tour spiel. Mr. Landlord and I followed her inside.
“As you can see . . .” Little had changed. A few broken arms, a broken leg, fresh paint, freshly scoured shower-vagina. “And over here is the kitchenette.” The young landlords exchanged healthy quips about the olde worlde eccentricities, as if a prospective tenant such as myself should find the ghastly darkness, dankness, intimidating ceiling, embedded body parts and stone-vagina shower to be whimsically elegant, charmingly deluxe, more hunky than dory, for just $200 a month more than last year.
I escaped and lived another six years before my third and final visit. The neighborhood was no longer in my price range, with sub-bucolic walk-in closets going for $1,800 a month and more. But I found myself driving toward the community market there and decided to pull over and check its community bulletin board. You never know.
A “small house,” cozy and rustic and so on, was available up the road for $1,200. If I pushed it, worked hard, didn’t get sick and didn’t eat, I could maybe cover $1,000 a month, so I called and set up an appointment to meet the landlord at the small cozy rustic and so on house around dusk.
As the moon rose, I parked near Ruthven Lane, looked up the hill and realized I was, once more, about to set foot in the house of limbs. Mr. and Ms. Soap-Opera arrived in full yuppie regalia, including a big shiny SUV and two towheaded spawn, frolicking. Mr. Landlord decided to stay and roughhouse with the kids while Ms. Landlord scooted me up the hill to my long-lost den of dismembered souls.
But it was gone. Sometime in the last six years, the limbs had left and taken their stone vagina with them. The entire tomb had been buffed and polished, painted in pastels, plumbed and waxed and carpeted clean and beige. And grown windows.
Without the limbs, Mr. and Mrs. Land-Opera had nothing to apologize for — not for asking $1,200 a month for their Concentration Camp Barbie™ Funhouse — so they went straight to the commercial:
“This wall here,” Ms. Landlord explained, “we painted pastel blue because the other wall’s pastel canary, so, you know, we painted this one pastel blue.”
“The hallway’s pale mauve,” her husband continued, “because we painted it pale mauve with pale-mauve paint, because the other one’s, you know, soft pale mint.”
“This is the kitchenette,” said his wife. “Where we’ll keep your food.”