The Washington Post
Paint It Blackby Janet Fitch, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Josie Tyrell, art model, teen runaway, and denizen of LA's 1980 punk rock scene, finds a chance at real love with art student Michael Faraday. A Harvard dropout and son of a renowned pianist, Michael introduces her to his spiritual quest and a world of sophistication she had never dreamed existed. But when she receives a call from the Los Angeles County Coroner,… See more details below
Josie Tyrell, art model, teen runaway, and denizen of LA's 1980 punk rock scene, finds a chance at real love with art student Michael Faraday. A Harvard dropout and son of a renowned pianist, Michael introduces her to his spiritual quest and a world of sophistication she had never dreamed existed. But when she receives a call from the Los Angeles County Coroner, asking her to identify her lover?s dead body, her bright dreams all turn to black. As Josie searches for the key to understanding his death, she finds herself both repelled and attracted to Michael's pianist mother, Meredith, who holds Josie responsible for her son's torment. Soon, the two women find themselves drawn into a twisted relationship reflecting equal parts distrust and blind need.
Passionate, wounded, fiercely alive, Josie Tyrell walks the brink of her own destruction as she fights to discover the meaning of Michael's death. With the luxurious prose and emotional intensity that are her hallmarks, Janet Fitch has written a spellbinding new novel about love, betrayal, and the possibility of transcendence.
The Washington Post
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Paint It BlackA Novel
By Janet Fitch
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Janet Fitch
All right reserved.
Cold numbed the tip of Josie Tyrell's nose and her ass, just outside the reach of the studio space heater. Her leg had fallen asleep. She twisted her slight torso, enough to release tension, but not enough to disturb the painter working across the room in his paint-spotted Mao suit, his hair in a waist-length braid. Henry Ko wasn't painting well today. He had to stop every few minutes to wipe his eyes on the back of his hand, while Double Fantasy circled around on the studio stereo. Everyone was playing it now. John Lennon had just been shot in New York, and wherever Josie went, people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up. At least Double Fantasy had Yoko Ono.
On the cover that leaned against the dirty couch, John and Yoko pressed together for a kiss they would never finish. People were always trashing Yoko Ono, blaming her for breaking up the Beatles, but Josie knew they were just jealous that John preferred Yoko to some bloated megaband. Nobody ever really loved a lover. Because love was a private party, and nobody got on the guest list. She liked the pictures of Yoko and John in their white bed, their frizzy hippie hair. They'd retreated to the country with two passports only. Fromthe outside it looked like death. People could pound the walls all they wanted, but they'd never find the door. Nobody could guess at the gardens inside.
Out the long windows of Henry Ko's studio, the hills and shacks of Echo Park tumbled toward Sunset Boulevard like a child's bedspread scattered with toys. Bare winter jacarandas broke the view with their angular arms, round pods hanging from their branch wrists like castanets. Henry kept crying about John Lennon. Josie felt worse about Darby Crash. Darby had just killed himself in an act of desperate theater, a gesture swamped by the Beatle 's death like a raft in the backwash of a battleship. But at least she'd known him, with his shyness, his broken-toothed smile. She'd hung with him at the Masque, at the Fuckhouse, and on Carondelet. He hadn't been a natural performer, he had to get wasted, cramming anything he could swallow into his mouth, then played shows so intense that they hurt you to watch, made you feel like a creepy voyeur. Darby just needed people to notice him, someone to care. All their friends had gone to the funeral, everybody but her. His death was so horribly unnecessary, such a stupid stunt, acted out by someone so sad and fucked up he would kill himself out of a need to be noticed. Josie thought it was repulsive to treat it like a party. And then the Beatle took it all away anyway.
"But he wanted it that way," Pen said. She'd covered it for Puke magazine, saying who'd been there, like it was an afterparty.
At least they'd known him. Whereas look at Henry. Getting all teary-eyed over John Lennon whom he'd never even met. Huge crowds converged last weekend in Griffith Park to mourn the lost Beatle. They didn't go, she and Pen and their friends, you could just tell it was going to be some overaged love-in, hippie beads and "Give Peace a Chance." When anybody could tell, nobody was ever going to give fucking peace a chance. Nobody was going back to Woodstock anytime soon.
But she was sure old Henry'd showed up with the other granolaheads, lit incense and rang finger cymbals and blew some pot, no doubt, in John's memory. Om rama rama. Did John Lennon really want all that? Was that what he was about? From what she'd heard, the guy'd had some wit and brains-did he really want to be the dead guy of the hour, like a melting centerpiece?
Finally, the artist stepped away from his easel, sighing. "What say, Jo-say. Pack it in?"
She unfurled her legs, felt the blood rush back, that tingle and burn, stretching fragile shoulders, their delicate bones clearly visible, small breasts with their dark nipples, the black triangle that contrasted with her unlikely bleached hair, the roots coming in dark. She put her clothes back on-a vintage dress she 'd traded for a domino bracelet, torn leggings-and worked her feet into spikeheeled pumps from Goodwill. As Henry cleaned his brushes, she touched up her bloodred lipstick, then joined him on the couch, orange velvet edged in brown dirt. He rolled a joint, special dope he called "The Spider"-brown turds of buds his friends in Hawaii sent him. Old hippies got so into their pot. She didn't mind sharing, but you didn't have to make a cult out of it.
As they smoked, Henry went on about John Lennon, how he couldn't believe he was dead, like the guy was some fucking saint. "He'd finally found himself," he kept saying. "That cat had just finally worked it out."
She toked along with him, knee to knee, and thought about the guy who shot Lennon. Shot by a desperate fan. On the news, fans were always desperate. Got his signature and then shot him down. The saddest thing about it was that she wasn't more shocked. To Josie, it just seemed part of the way things were heading, Ronald Reagan, greedheads running everything. Killing John Lennon seemed like just mopping up. Thirty thousand people missing in El Salvador, those nuns, and everybody in America was worried about who shot JR.
She and Henry leaned back against the couch. The Spider, she had to admit, was major deluxe. Henry turned his head slowly, keeping it supported on the couch back, looking at her with his small pot-reddened eyes that always smiled, even if he was angry or sad. He smelled of some weird liniment he brewed himself for nursing his tai chi injuries, roots and licorice and some kind of bugs. He put his hand on her knee. "Jo-say, you still with that guy, that Harvard cat?"
His hand on her knee. Henry Ko was like thirty-five, what was she supposed to do with an old guy like that? "Michael. Yeah, we 're still together." At least she hoped they were. Maybe he was back. In fact, he might be home right now, waiting for her. Suddenly, she had to go. She put her child-sized hand on top of the artist's turpentinedry one. "But I'll let you know if we break up, Henry, I swear."
She drove back to Lemoyne in her rattly Ford Falcon, a powder blue relic with band stickers on the trunk-X, Germs, Cramps. It was normally a three-minute drive, but she hit a line of cars with their lights on. Why were they going so slow? Maybe another John Lennon thing. She honked, wove, and passed until she got to the front and saw it was a hearse. Mortified, she turned off onto a side street and stopped, red-faced. How was she supposed to know-a line of cars crawling along with their lights on? Some days it felt like her sister Luanne had just dropped her off at MacArthur Park day before yesterday.
She drove the rest of the way under the speed limit, parked in front of her house, took the mail from her mailbox, and pulled the noose on the gate. Careful in her high heels, she descended the rickety steps to the little cabin behind. Nothing more than a shack, but they loved it back here, the giant birds-of-paradise netted with morning glories, so private they didn't need curtains. She opened the door, threw her key in the red bowl, and called out, "Hey, Michael?"
Silence. The empty chairs, the paintings, the wooden-bead curtain between the main room and the kitchen. The only sounds came in through the open window, that overlooked the steady traffic on the 2 and the 5. It had been five days since he'd stood there, in the kitchen doorway, beads pushed aside, grinding coffee with his brass Turkish grinder shaped like a tube. Telling her he was going away. She'd been getting dressed for a booking in Northridge. "I'm going up to Meredith's for a few days," he'd said. His mother was gone, off on tour in Uruguay or Paraguay and good fucking riddance.
She'd stopped in the hall, finishing her lipstick, accurate even without a mirror. "What for?"
"It's a project I've been thinking about," he said, grinding. "I need time to concentrate." Casual, like it was nothing.
And she'd stared, trying to understand what he was really saying. They'd never been separated, not even when they fought. "Since when do I bother you when you're working?"
"I thought you'd be glad that I'm working at all," he said. She was glad, but why would he think he had to leave?
He kept cranking the brass arm of the mill, standing in the kitchen doorway in his baggy jeans and bare feet with their long Greek toes. "I need the space, Josie. Try to understand."
"But you always painted fine here." It was true, the shack was small. It was hard for him to paint anything even the size of the blind Merediths. And his mother's house was standing there, empty, up on the hill. "What if I come with you?"
He set the grinder down then and put his arms around her, tight. Kissed her. "I'll be working. You know how I get. Trust me, it's better this way." She held on to him, her eyes closed, drinking in his smell, pine and moss and some peculiar chemistry of his own, that she craved the way an addict craved freebase. She could lick him like candy. He held her for the longest time, crushing her to him, his scratchy beard.
She missed him like fire. She threw the mail in the bowl on the orange footlocker where the phone sat silent. She 'd called him twice already, but he hadn't answered-he'd never answered a phone as long as she 'd known him. But if he didn't come home soon, she was going up there, she didn't care how much he needed his space. Screw that. Three days was one thing, but a week was a separation. She'd barely managed to stay away this long, doing her best to keep busy-book extra sittings, going with Pen to see the Weirdos at the Hong Kong Café, a party on Carondelet. Maybe it looked like she was living it up, but all she was doing was waiting for him. What was he painting that he couldn't paint here? Or was he just dumping her? "Hey, fuck him and his brother too," Pen had said when she'd worried aloud at the Weirdos show. "This is great, just like the old days. Carpe fucking diem."
It felt strange to be alone in the little house, in the tranquillity of the afternoon. This was the first time she'd ever lived alone. She straightened the pillows on the couch, looked through the mail, put on the Clash, Sandinista!, sat down and got up. She couldn't settle anywhere. The house seemed so empty, her presence didn't alter its emptiness. At home in Bakersfield, she'd shared a room with Luanne and Corrine, and on Carondelet, she'd lived with Pen and Shirley and Paul. Later in the Fuckhouse, it was half of punk Hollywood. Now she was alone, her only company the paintings and drawings he'd done, furniture they'd salvaged, collections they'd accumulated, toys and hats and flatirons. Without him, it took on the quality of a stage set where the actors hadn't yet come on. She sat on the blue couch and leafed through an art magazine. A man making paintings using smashed plates. They'd seen his show at the county art museum. She'd liked the big, heavy-textured works better than Michael had, their confidence, their bold beauty. "Shtick," he'd said. "Ya gotta have a gimmick." Always so critical, he hated everything artists were doing now. He only liked Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, who painted like bloodhounds on the scent of human imperfection. And his beloved Schiele.
Why couldn't he sleep here and paint there? Other artists had studios. If it was too small for him, he could at least come home at night. She was afraid it was just an excuse. That he 'd decided, finally, he didn't want to be with her anymore. She yearned to call him, but hated the sound of the phone ringing, ringing, knowing that he might be standing right there, not picking up, knowing it was her.
She sat in his chair by the window, overlooking the hills, Echo Park, Silverlake, and beyond: the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park. The observatory's green copper domes stood out perfectly clear against the pale blue winter sky. She loved to sit in this chair with him, her arms around his neck, drinking his smell. She pressed her face to the waffled coarseness of the chair back, trying to smell it, her eyelashes fluttering against the skin of her cheek. Catching then losing it. Still stoned from the Spider, she shuffled back into the kitchen, drank a glass of milk standing up at the sink, peeled a finger-sized banana. She tried not to look at the wooden breakfast nook with its cutout hearts, where they ate their meals, and the painting that hung there, her at the old stove, light from the kitchen window pouring over her. When he was the one who did all the cooking. She couldn't do more than heat soup from a can.
She went into the bedroom and lay on the bed, the fragrant linens that still smelled of their last lovemaking, their painting of Montmartre on all the four walls. She kicked off her shoes and crawled under the covers, white on white in the colorless light. It was almost Christmas. She needed to finish making his shirt, with the stripes cut horizontally, to make it unusual. Green to match his eyes. Maybe she would find him some sheet music at one of those little places on Hollywood Boulevard, dirty Twenties blues, all new jelly roll and cakewalking babies from home. She could decorate the house in paper snowflakes, hang them from the ceiling, thick as leaves. How surprised he'd be when he came through the door and saw them. Of course he'd be back. Just another day or two.
She was thinking about snowflakes when the phone rang in the living room. Flinging herself out of bed so fast her head reeled, she got to the phone and grabbed it before the third ring. "Michael, thank God, I-"
"Excuse me, this is Inspector Brooks ..." Some government fuckhead.
"I'm from the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. To whom am I speaking, please?"
Fuck. Luanne. The crank. The last time she'd seen her sister, she'd been down to ninety pounds. Though it could be Jimmy. Tommy. Any of them. "This is Josephine Tyrell. What happened?" "Your phone number was found on a motel registration. We're in the process of running fingerprints, but tell me, has there been someone missing?"
"I don't think so," she said. She heard the shuffling of papers. "White male. Registered as Oscar Wilde."
All she heard was the roar of blood in her ears.
"Miss Tyrell?" She could barely hold the phone. All the strength had gone out of her arms.
"Do you have any idea who this person might be?" said the voice on the other end, as if nothing had changed.
"Yes," she said. "No." She sat down on the furry couch before she fell. "I don't ..."
"This person you're thinking of, how old is he?" She searched for her voice. "Twenty-two." "Height?"
"About six feet," she whispered. "Weight?"
She didn't know his weight. They'd never had a scale. "Skinny." "Eye color?"
"Green." Please, let him say brown. "Scars or tattoos?"
She thought of his body. She ran her mind over it like fingers. "A scar, on his right hand. Between the thumb and first finger." She rubbed her face, trying not to drop the phone, trying to listen through the roaring static in her head. "A mole, on the right side of his rib cage." An artist's model, her body memory never failed. It worked independently of her mind, which had shut off. It couldn't be. This was a Tyrell call, speed contest, stabbing, shoot-out. An OD at the Fuckhouse.
There was a pause. "Is there someone who can come with you? We'll need to see you downtown."
Josie stood on the sidewalk holding herself together with both arms, as if her guts would spill out onto the concrete if she let go, watching for Pen's red Impala. Her friend slammed to a stop in front of the house, her purple hair a flag in that old convertible. She threw open the side door. "I got here as fast as I could. Oh, Josie, don't think anything yet. It could be anyone."
She was still closing the door as Pen peeled out. It was deep into rush hour. They skipped the freeway and took Riverside Drive, the back way along the river, past the Brewery where she 'd just modeled for Tim Delauney the week before last. Don't think anything. It could be anyone. She hoped it fucking was. Anyone else.
Macy to Mission, the foot of the concrete mountain that was LA County General. The coroner's office wasn't up at the hospital, it was down at the bottom, with the trucks and light industrial, a boxy two-story government building, the lettering painted right on the side of the building, LOS ANGELES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CORONER, medical examiner, forensic laboratories, public services.
Pen left the Impala parked sideways across two spaces and they dashed into the foyer, all brown marble and beige linoleum and patched acoustic ceiling, like the lobby in a building full of cheap dentists. At the counter, a heavy black woman looked them up and down, Pen's purple hair and black lipstick, Josie's punked-out bleach job, her yellow fake fur. Like they were a sideshow act.
Excerpted from Paint It Black by Janet Fitch Copyright © 2006 by Janet Fitch. Excerpted by permission.
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