Hugo’s name was written in neon paint all over the city. On my way back from work, there was the white-and-light-blue MINK on the fence across from the playground I went to as a child, there was the pink-and-orange gothic MINK in the cloverleaf I took to get onto the 99, and there was the red MINK on the back of the Paradise Road In-N-Out, now painted over so that all you could see was a faint trace under the beige scar tissue. I never noticed the tags until I knew him, but I’d probably driven by them hundreds of times.
When I first started to notice them, I’d felt proud. That’s my man, I thought, and clenched the steering wheel harder, sung along to my music louder. More famous than anyone in this whole town. He even had one tag, on the wall of an underpass, where he’d written FAME such that if you looked down at it from the bridge above, it said MINK. Tricky, Hugo.
Later, they made me feel sick to my stomach.
I had none of his fame. I grew up in Modesto — my land developer dad is fourth generation. The fact that I’ve ended up back here still feels like an embarrassment. My whole childhood, I begged my parents to move away. I dreamed of leaving and worked hard in school specifically to be able to. When I went away to college I thought it was a done deal. But after I thought I did it all right — got my MFA, moved to Oakland — my career went nowhere. As I was crying about it on the phone one night to my mom, she told me she’d seen a job opening to teach printmaking at the local junior college. I applied. It’s been six years now.
I met Hugo at a party. He’s younger than I am by five years. He’s thin, has dark skin and dark hair (he’s half Mexican), and carries himself confidently. He was easy to flirt with. I was attracted to him right away. He slept over afterwards and it was the best first-night sex I’d ever had. We told each other that we were artists, but didn’t say what kind of art we made, we mostly talked about our names. By the morning I realized, embarrassed, that “Hugo Mink? That’s an amazing name,” was as much an annoying platitude as “Karen Pepperberg? What, did you come out of a cartoon?” but the inanities had served their purpose, had gotten us into bed with each other. In the morning, I made him oatmeal and asked to see his studio. He agreed on the condition that I show him mine.
My studio is a little room off the JC’s communal printshop. It’s nothing to brag about, but I learned in college that knowing how to work the big presses is pretty sexy, so I tried to show off. But he spent more time looking at my prints than he did at the machines.
“I’m surprised by the red here,” he said, pointing to a print I had hung on the wall. “It’s a great accent.”
“Thanks,” I said. People tend to either know nothing about printmaking and give me simple, blind compliments, or give “feedback” that’s just showing off how smart they are in disguise. Hugo was different: capable of talking about art, but using the interest to speak kindly. I needed someone like that in my life. That was when I knew I could fall in love with him.
He walked down to the next print I’d hung up. The concrete basement floor sucks up the sound of most shoes — certainly the clips of my Keds — but he was wearing combat boots, and they made a thud as he walked.
The print was a grayscale background with a frame, like a window, on top of it.
“You could have used a blue background,” he said, pointing to the gray horizon. “And made it look like the ocean or the sky or something. But instead you did gray on gray. I should try that. I use too many bright colors.”
Next, he started flicking through my crate of records.
“They’re mostly old gospel blues,” I said. “I got them at a used record store in Oakland.”
“Huh. Not my thing.” He kept looking through them anyway.
His studio was the second floor of a big, neglected building. It was a huge room, and filled with junk: empty bottles he’d brought in off the street, piles of clothes, pieces of wood. He apologized for the mess.
“Don’t apologize,” I said. “This is amazing. I envy you the space.”
“Don’t envy too hard,” he said, nonchalant. I saw a sleeping bag rolled up against the wall and picked out enough important and quotidian possessions to realize this was his only home. But as we meandered back to my house so that he could show me some of his murals, I realized that it also wasn’t his real workspace.
The next time Hugo and I saw each other, he took me to get tacos from the truck in the neighborhood where he’d grown up. He had a pack of cigarettes rolled into the sleeve of his t-shirt and had his hair combed back in a way that made him look like a darkskinned James Dean. I was nervous. What if it was just a fun one-night stand? Neither of us seemed like the type the other would end up with. Instead, he had me laughing so hard the whole time that my lunch got cold before I took my second bite.
Seeing more of me was a way for Hugo to avoid sleeping in his drafty studio. By the time we started dating, he was sleeping over at my place every night. My roommates complained, reasonably, that he should be paying rent. But by that time, I knew he couldn’t afford to pay anything. I ended up buying my own place, the cheap, shitty little house on the west side where we still live.
I didn’t understand fully what a local celebrity Hugo was until my address became his. I thought fan mail was a thing of the past, but Hugo, who didn’t use email, got letters, multiple in a week, from kids and adults from all over the state. Magazines called wanting to write profiles of and conduct interviews with Modesto’s hottest graffiti artist; skateboard companies offered commissions for him to design decks or hoodies. He ignored or turned it all down, on edge about selling out, nursing a resentment towards all his friends who’d moved to the Bay and “gone corporate.”
I spent most of each day at the college. Hugo got up late, and as far as I could tell, ate cereal and watched TV most of the day. Sometimes he smoked some weed. In exchange for free rent, he learned a little domesticity. He kept me company while I cooked, he did all the dishes, he picked up the takeout.
His real work happened late at night. His buddy Nightjar would call around 12:30 or one, as I was falling asleep, and Hugo would get out of bed and go tag. I’m a sound sleeper and usually didn’t wake up when he came back, at five or six a.m.
“Doesn’t doing graffiti ever seem wrong to you?” I asked him as I served up French toast for brunch one Sunday. He’d gone out the night before. I’d wanted him to myself for a Saturday, but Nightjar had deprived me, and I was feeling bitter about it in the morning.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Also, did you have to use sprouted bread? I feel like I’m eating a sponge.”
“Isn’t it wrong to deface someone else’s buildings, or the city’s walls? And it’s healthier.”
“It depends on what you think of as wrong,” he said. “I’m not just planting my name all over everything for the sake of it. I’m careful about where I mark. You know what the real garbage is? Advertising. It’s not graffiti that’s ruining cities. It’s companies constantly trying to get you to buy useless things. Things that are bad for you! Like cigarettes or Coke. That’s visual pollution. That’s visual disease. I love fucking up billboards.”
We’d been living together almost a year when Hugo got arrested. My phone started buzzing on the bedside table. It was almost two a.m. I didn’t recognize the number, but I came out of my drowsiness enough to answer. It was the police.
“Is this Ms. Karen Pepperberg?” a male voice asked me.
“Yes,” I said. I propped myself up further in bed and started to worry.
“We have a Mr. Hugo Mink in our custody,” the officer said.
I put on some clothes and went to bail Hugo out.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked him on the way home.
“Nightjar and I went into a construction site,” he said. “Just over a fence. There was a nice wall on a building that’s gonna be torn down. But we set off some alarm or they saw us or something. I was drunk. I had some weed.”
“You told me you only smoked weed at home! You realize possession is illegal, right?”
“Yes, duh, Karen, I just got a hundred-dollar fine.”
“Which you can’t afford.” He shrugged. I was fuming.
“Can you give me a break for a minute? You’re not making it easier. Anyway, it’s not the first time I’ve been arrested.”
“Yeah, and who bailed you out then?”
“Cool, real mature.”
“You shut up.” We were pulling into the driveway now. “Whatever. You freaked me out. Something has to change. If you get caught again with weed you’ll be spending time in jail.” I turned off the car.
“But it’s a stupid law.”
“It doesn’t matter!” I batted the gearshift with my hand. “Your whole life is outside the law! Smoking weed! Tagging! I’m paying for the house, the food, the TV — and that’s fine. I love you! I think you’re talented, I love coming home to you. But I don’t have to let you live in my house. Out of respect to me, you need to get your act together, especially if you want to keep living here.”
“I get it. You can quit now,” he said. I didn’t. I was too upset.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting stoned on the couch at home,” I said. “But then Nightjar comes around, and you go get in trouble. You need to quit going out with him. Why don’t you just do work at your studio? Or find someone who’ll give you a wall? Call that guy who wanted you to design a skateboard deck! Or the guy who wanted you to paint a mural for his store! Something where you won’t get in more trouble with the law. No more runs with Nightjar.”
“I get it,” he said again, fuming.
“No, promise me like you mean it.”
“Yes. Okay,” he said, slightly calmer. “No more tagging with Nightjar. Are you satisfied? Can we go to bed now?”
“Fine,” I said. We went inside and got in bed.
I tried to keep Hugo busy. I brought him along with me to the JC, letting him poke around the printshop while I worked and sitting in my office drawing while I taught. He controlled the music during my classes, which meant a background with a lot more “California über alles” and a lot less of “When I Lay My Burden Down.”
“Graffiti is the stupidest medium,” he said to me one day as we cleaned up after a class. “Just give any asshole a spraycan and he thinks he’s a prophet. They’re all stupid. I’m stupid. What I do isn’t real art."
“You are so talented,” I started to say, trying to get his spirits up, and I meant it.
“Stop it,” he said, “I don’t want you to just be like, ‘No, you’re so good, no, you don’t need to hate yourself.’”
“But I’m serious," I said. “You just need to learn to separate your talent from being destructive.”
“That’s not how it works. If I didn’t hate myself I wouldn’t get fucked up and put my dumb name all over city property. I can’t just decide to go throw pots or make prints. Or, like, sing gospel music!” he said, gesturing at the speakers. “If you hate yourself you can’t go around belting, like, ‘I sing because I’m happy! I sing because I’m free!’ You have to do things that hurt you. Like get fucked up. Like do graffiti.”
“Why don’t you quit doing it then?” I straightened up my back and looked at him.
“Karen!” he replied, standing up straight like I had. “Are you not listening? I just said! I can’t just quit loathing myself. I’m darker and sadder than any side of yourself you have.”
“You can work on it, Hugo, you can get past it.”
“What if I don’t want to?” he said. I groaned and put my hands on my head and went into my office. He went out back to smoke.
We avoided each other the rest of the day. The next day, he didn’t want to come with me to the JC. I was relieved. I dreaded going home. When I did, he was lying in front of the television, as usual. I tried to be pleasant.
The house was tense for weeks. He had been sullen since getting arrested, and if anything, he seemed to be more stoned more of the time, more drunk more of the time, but maybe now I’d just been clued in to notice.
Slowly, I realized that more often than not, he was stoned almost all day; when he left the kitchen over and over while we were cooking dinner, or disappeared for a while after doing the dishes, only to show up asleep on the bed later, I realized he was taking shots, finishing the job and passing out by eight. Finally, one day I noticed that he’d plugged in the old refrigerator we kept in the laundry room, and that there was a stash of vodka.
Realizing how fucked up he was, how much of the time, I recast all my memories of the relationship. I wondered how many times he’d been drunk while we had sex; imagining his intoxication, I felt like all my pleasures had been false. I felt naïve for thinking he just went to bed early, for not noticing how much his mood and his behavior changed from the time we started cooking to the end of doing the dishes. He knew how to hide his addictions, to tone them down, so that until it got this bad I’d never suspected he was doing more than what he told me. I was overwhelmed by my imagination. I had no sense of what really had been going on, or how long it had been this way. At least these days he was staying home, I told myself, not going out to tag.
He got arrested again three months later. For some reason, I woke up in the middle of the night, and sitting up, I realized Hugo wasn’t there. Maybe he’s on the porch, I thought. I knew it wasn’t true, but I put on a sweatshirt and went to look. I stood out on the porch. Tule fog and highway hum.
My phone buzzed. He’d been caught trying to tag the back wall of the county courthouse. He’d had a blood alcohol level of .19, he’d had weed and some prescription painkiller I’d never heard of on him. He’d jumped into Nightjar’s car when he saw the police coming, so it was a DUI plus his second possession offense. He had to do ten days of jail time.
We talked on the phone. I was pissed off. I didn’t bother going to the station to check on him.
I kicked the door open when I got home the next day after work. It was a relief to have the space to myself, but I was also disgusted by the place. The house smelled rank, there was a week’s worth of dirty dishes piled in the kitchen; mail had built up around the entryway so thick that any time you tried to come inside, the door got stuck.
I opened all the windows. I went for the dishes first. Then I wiped down the counters with a sponge and sprayed some lavender scent. I washed the sofa slipcover and hung it on the laundry line. I vacuumed.
Finally, I got on my knees on the tile next to the front door and started going through the mail. I picked up a big stack of it in my left hand and started shedding the envelopes one by one, fast like I was dealing cards, into piles. Letters for me, bills, junk mail, Hugo mail. There were no letters for me. We’d missed one electricity bill. There was a pile of direct mail flyers. But most of the mess was for Hugo.
By the twentieth or thirtieth envelope, I was so sick of seeing or or that I was thwacking them down violently, going faster and faster so I could just get to the end and throw the whole pile away. Then, a little five-by-seven manila envelope cut off my whole fusillade. Instead of scrawled with our address, it was meticulously decorated. The handwriting was tilted backwards and written in long, deliberate strokes of black ink, thin but masculine, and the rest of the paper was covered in an intricate pattern. As I looked closer, I realized that they were train tracks. I flipped it over. The tracks continued onto the other side.
The envelope was sealed with Scotch tape. I folded the metal clasps up and slid my finger into the flap and pried up the tape, ripping a little bit of the pattern. A small zine with a spine covered in yellow duct tape slid out. There was a note attached to the cover with a paper clip.
The zine was filled with black and white photocopies of photographs, two to a page. The first page had two photos of a young guy standing in front of murals. He was wearing a hoodie in both images, and in one he held out a spraybottle, as if jokingly threatening the person behind the camera. The reproductions were fuzzy, but the murals seemed more pictorial than Hugo’s. I thought I could make out silhouettes of birds and trees.
The rest of the pages were images of trains and of drawings on trains (mostly in white). There were a few photographs interspersed that showed something from the local environment: a rail signal, a power line tower.
One of the pages showed a picture of a big, tightly wound tornado spiral that had been drawn next to the that ended It was as tall as the painted letter, probably three feet. Another showed a sketch of a man with hair so long and a beard so long and shaggy that all you could see of his face was a little rectangle for his slit eyes and beaklike nose. That picture was next to a photograph of a neon totem pole of fast food options:
On the final page was a white drawing of the profile of a bird. It was drawn as if perched: its feet met one of the edges where two pieces of the boxcar’s metal met each other and there was a little rim. It was a little plump, sort of like a quail, and had a crown on its head. It had a speech bubble coming out of it that read The hand of King Rail himself.
I didn’t have to teach the next day, so when I got up, I had some food and sorted through my art supplies until I found a white paint marker, a postcard, and a stamp. In my best mimic of Hugo’s handwriting, I wrote a message on the back of the postcard.
Dropping the card in the mailbox on my way out of town, I passed the cloverleaf MINK (like I said, it made my stomach feel sick) and headed up the 99 to Roseville.
Taking the freeway in the Central Valley can be beautiful in the spring, when the trees and fields are blooming and from time to time the view strikes you with the sense that you are in fact in the most productive bowl of the world. But in the winter, you drive and drive and feel like it’s just going to go on, brown and fallow, forever. You can’t help but think of all the people around you with bad things going on in their lives and imagine that somehow the emptiness crept in and sucked away their desires, then slunk out and left only indifference for them to wither by.
I thought of Hugo. I pictured him taking breaks from watching TV to stare off vacantly over the houses and fields, all the way to the treeless horizon. But I never pictured the landscape depressing him, or sucking him dry. He had lived here his whole life, and the empty, brown spread was comforting to him. My repulsion, seeing it as bleak, was learned. I remembered feeling mortified while driving my New Yorker college boyfriend from SFO into the Valley deafness one Christmas break. “There’s a lot of agriculture on this drive,” he said, bored to scorn.
I promised myself I would visit Hugo in jail when I got back to Modesto.
The train yard was so big that it was easier to find than the town of Roseville. It really was amazing, a parking lot for trains a hundred tracks wide. I parked the car and walked in. For twenty or thirty minutes, I weaved between the stationary trains. If I saw a drawing, I stopped and looked. Occasionally a train pulled in or out, but always at least ten or twelve tracks away.
Finally, I pulled out my white paint marker. I approached a burgundy boxcar. It had a little drawing of a man in a cowboy hat at the other end of it, which seemed like a lucky charm. I drew an etching press with a huge wheel. Then I drew a bird above it. Then I gave the bird a joint to smoke.
I wondered how to sign it. I finally wrote. If Hugo’s name was good enough for him, mine was good enough for me.
I made the hour’s drive up to the Yards every day after work until the following Saturday, when Hugo got out of jail.
On the drive home this time, I didn’t berate him like I had before. What was there for me to say? I didn’t want to ask how jail was, either, so I sat and tried to look placid and let him say whatever he felt like saying.
He didn’t feel like saying much. We heated up some soup and sausages for dinner, and talked only timidly. It was awkward but comfortable, as though the slow, careful exchange of new lovers had returned to us, who knew each other so well.
We eased back into each other. The stint in jail had come with probation for Hugo, whose stipulations included participating in NA and AA. I didn’t talk to him about the meetings unless he brought them up. Slowly, he started to seem like the Hugo I’d first met: laid back, goofy, inspired by art and insightful about it. In the months of lethargy, I’d forgotten that Hugo existed. So I let him get better at his own pace.
But then he fucked up. He got drunk while hanging out with Nightjar and had to reset his sobriety count. He told me one Friday morning after his meeting. I tried to keep my composure. I knew getting upset would only make things worse. But I couldn’t. I sat down on the couch and started to cry.
“I thought I could trust you!” I said. "You were getting so much better!”
“You can trust me,” he said. “Look how much better I’ve gotten.”
“How much better you had gotten. What got into you?”
“Hey, hey. I just made a mistake. I’m still committed to this. It’s all good.”
"You think it’s all good. It was all good. I just — ” I held my hands over my wet eyes. “You can’t go out tagging any more. I thought maybe you could be around Nightjar without fucking up, but you clearly can’t. You’ve got to stop entirely.”
Hugo sat down next to me and put his hand on my knee. I held it.
“Let’s make some lunch,” I said once I cooled off. Hugo followed me into the kitchen. I started pulling things out of the fridge. “Put on some rice,” I said. “I’ll stem this chard and cut it up.” Hugo filled a saucepan with water and turned on the stove.
“Karen,” he said after a moment, turning towards the counter where I was chopping and putting his hands on his hips, “you’ve got to stop it.”
“What?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the cutting board.
“I mean, I know it’s hard,” he said. “But you keep saying you’re going to quit chard, and you’re still doing it. You’ve gotten a lot better, but you really need to quit entirely.” He had come up to stand behind me, putting his hands on my hips and kissing the back of my neck until it tickled.
“You really need to quit,” I said back, imitating his voice. “I thought I could trust you to get better on your own!” I started to laugh, hard. He let out his laugh too.
“Let’s have sex while the rice cooks,” he said.
“Let me finish with the chard first!”
“I thought you were gonna quit that shit!”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’ll meet you in the bedroom.” I chopped half of it and then couldn’t wait any longer. I went into our bedroom. He was lying on top of the covers in his boxers. I took off my clothes, ran my hands up his thighs, and lay down next to him. “Ready?” he asked. He rolled to kneel above me.
“Yeah.” He entered me and sank in low, so that his pointy hips were against my fleshier ones. I ran my fingers down his ribcage, to his butt, and up his back.
He came quickly, and flopped over onto his back and closed his eyes. I propped myself up on my elbow and looked down at him, feeling like I’d cleared out my tension and could get back to loving him, to helping him get better.
“Hey,” he said when he opened his eyes. He pulled me down next to him.
“What?” I asked.
“I know I was joking around. But I want you to know that I am gonna get clean.” He paused. “But also that I can’t stop painting. I mean, like, going out tagging. You know that indoor shit’s not for me.” We lay silently for a minute.
“I can handle that,” I finally said. “I trust you.” I sat up and kissed him on the cheek. “Have you ever been to the Roseville Yards?” He hadn’t.
We drove up after lunch. We were quiet in the car. I picked the music. When we got there, I walked him around, pointing out drawings I remembered here and there. After a little while, he gestured toward my pocket.
“Can I have the marker?” he said.
“Of course,” I said.
“Don’t follow me,” he said, and walked away to the other side of the train. I advanced slowly, waiting for him to return. When he came back, I gave him a smile meant to say, Tell me what you were doing? But he didn’t tell. “Ready to head out?” he said instead. He handed me the marker.
A month later, a month during which Hugo went out tagging and still stayed straight and sober, another manila envelope arrived from King Rail. Hugo still ignored his mail, so he didn’t notice that I took and opened the envelope addressed to him. This one was covered with drawings of birds, arranged so attentively that they were practically tessellated. I slid out the zine and looked through the new installment of photographs. Most of the pages this time had pictures of graffiti murals. Some had local scenes — bodegas, ranch fences. There were a few photos of trains, but none had train drawings.
Until the final page. It had a single photograph of a drawing on a boxcar, stretched out across the whole page. I rotated the zine to look at it. There were two lines of white text, unsigned, unmistakably the work of Hugo’s hand.
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