An agency’s summer intern may never learn the reality behind his unexpected visitor. 1,912 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Inside the Kappa Nu house on Gayley Avenue in the heart of Westwood lived some of UCLA’s finest. Chapter President Travis Donnelly always felt that the frat houses on campus got a bum rap. Sure, they got a little rowdy sometimes and broke a few rules regarding underage drinking. But what about the car wash to fight autism? Fraternities were more than just a bunch of drunk guys trying to get laid. They were about a bond of brotherhood that lasted a lifetime.
Travis had confronted a similar bias in his summer internship at a major Hollywood agency. He didn’t like to name drop, but it was one of the big ones. People assume agents are assholes, but the truth is it’s not the 1980s anymore. This summer he witnessed no one throwing hot coffee at their assistants or doing coke off of hookers’ asses. It was all corporate now, and multi-national companies had reputations to maintain and whole departments devoted to charitable giving. Yes, he wanted to be a powerbroker one day, but he learned from his mentors at the agency that the business isn’t just about commerce, it’s also about doing good. Travis learned that agents have the power to make great art. Film and television were the modern forms of American literature and Travis came out of his internship wanting to make entertainment that mattered.
Of course there were also cool parties to attend and celebrities to meet and the interns did get some great stories to tell. He even met Selena Gomez at The Standard. But none of that really mattered to Travis. It was all about doing good. On the other hand, the internship program was a bit of a grind with scripts to cover every weekend, and Travis wasn’t afraid to admit that he was glad to be back in college for one more year before he had to enter the real world.
So, on this warm Sunday afternoon, it was nice to be able to chill with his bros without any responsibilities. The video game of choice was Grand Theft Auto V, and Travis, with his curly mop of brown hair and lanky frame, was hunched over on the couch, kicking doughy Pete Westerly’s ass in multiplayer mode as a handful of other brothers watched in the house’s large common room.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
It took them a full second to even realize what it was. No one rang the doorbell at the house. Hell, most of the brothers didn’t even know there was a doorbell. So, when it suddenly rang, the guys knew it had to be a stranger. Travis paused the game and got up to answer the door.
It was a homeless guy, maybe thirty-five years old, though it was hard to tell under the grime and matted hair. Travis’s first instinct was to slam the door shut, if not to avoid whatever hassles this guy was peddling, then at least to block the stench coming off of his body. But the guy didn’t look dangerous or insane. In fact, he just looked kind of ashamed, like knocking on their door was the last thing in the world he wanted to be doing. So Travis fought his instinct and asked, “Can I help you?” hoping he couldn’t.
The guy started slowly, like he didn’t know where to begin. “I saw the letters. I was a Kappa Nu. Before the war.”
Shit, Travis thought, this guy is a brother.
The guy continued, “I don’t want any money or anything. I just want…” He paused there, trying to muster the courage it takes to beg for something. “I just wondered if you had something I could eat.”
Travis turned white. Here he was, president of Kappa Nu — at UCLA no less, one of the top schools in the country — lounging around playing a video game on a huge fucking TV while a fellow fraternity brother was on the street begging for food.
“Yeah, of course, man. Come on in. What’s your name?”
“Okay, Mike. I’m Travis. Come on in. We’ll find some food for you.”
The guy walked in tentatively, following Travis to the common room. Before Travis’ brothers could voice a collective “Who the fuck is that?” Travis preempted them with, “Guys, this is Mike. He’s a Kappa Nu. He was in the war.”
The brothers fell silent.
“Here, you want some pizza?” Travis asked, indicating the day-old boxes strewn on the coffee table.
“Yeah, anything’s fine.”
Mike devoured a cold slice like he hadn’t eaten in days. Then, with a nod from Travis, Mike took another slice and this time savored it a bit more.
The brothers looked on, feeling the full range of guilt and shame over seeing someone eat to survive, when one of the guys spoke up and asked, “Where’d you go to school?”
Mike looked the kid over, sizing him up for sincerity. Then he opened up, explaining, “I was a Kappa Nu back east. At B.U. Then, like a dumb son of a bitch, I signed up for the Army.”
“Were you in Iraq?”
“Yeah. It was bad. This was in the beginning, when we were losing guys every day. My unit was escorting a convoy to Tikrit when the shooting started. RPG came in the Humvee and my buddy Mitch dove right on it.” His eyes went wide, obviously remembering something he’d rather have forgotten. “Didn’t even think about it. Just plopped himself down on the grenade like some old-time war movie.”
“What happened?” one of the enraptured brothers asked.
“Grenade ripped him in two. The blood…” Mike trailed off.
Travis turned to his friend. “Smitty, let’s get Mike a change of clothes.”
Smitty got up without hesitation. “Yeah, cool. I got a sweatshirt he can have.”
Mike was still in a daze recalling the horrors of war. Clearly, he was remembering a lot more than just the part he told them.
Travis turned to him. “You want to take a shower? I could give you a razor if you want to shave.”
Mike snapped out of it. “Yeah, actually that’d be great. Thanks.”
A good half hour later, Mike came back down to the common room looking like a new man — clean, shaven, wearing a Kappa Nu sweatshirt and sweatpants. Maybe this was what he looked like before things went south, the guys guessed.
Mike still seemed a little ashamed to be taking their charity and avoided eye contact as he said, “Thanks for everything, guys. I’d better be going.”
“Wait. Where are you going?” Travis asked. For some reason, he really wanted to help this guy. To make a difference in his life.
“I don’t know.”
“Stick around for a while. Grab some dinner with us. We’re having a party tonight.”
“Yeah, I don’t know.”
Another one of the guys added, “There’s gonna be all kinds of tail here. When’s the last time you been laid, man?”
But Mike just looked away. He didn’t even smile.
Travis saw his expression and put his arm around Mike. “We’re brothers, man. Stay for a little while longer. Get some more food in you. Till you’re ready to go back out there.”
Mike looked up, finally making eye contact. “Yeah, okay.
That night, the Kappa Nu house was rocking. Not a blowout ten-kegger like the Fall Bacchanalian Orgy, but attracting forty or so undergraduates was still pretty good for a Sunday night. People were dancing to the DJ kicking it old school. The bar prominently featured a grain alcohol punch with a dry-ice fog cascading over the edge. And dozens of barely legal girls paraded around in tight-fitting outfits as promised.
Mike stood at the bar taking in the scene. Probably one of the few legal drinkers, he opted for a can of Diet Coke. Travis came over to him with a cute sophomore named Lindsay. She had curly strawberry blonde hair and a big rack and her daddy issues had led her to hooking up with almost every guy in the house.
“Mike, this is Lindsay,” Travis introduced. “Mike here is Kappa Nu, Class of ’02. He’s a big war hero.”
Lindsay’s eyes lit up. “Really?” She had no idea about Mike’s background. He just looked like any other cute older guy to her.
Mike turned a little red. “Well, I don’t know about hero, but I fought, yeah.”
“Did you ever kill anybody?” Lindsay asked with a laugh.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mike replied, cold as steel.
Clearly uncomfortable with this line of discussion, Mike changed the subject. “You want a beer or something?”
Lindsay smiled and twenty minutes later Mike found himself on the dance floor trying to keep up with this buzzed nineteen-year-old. Forty minutes after that, Lindsay pulled him into one of the empty bedrooms and they had sex. Lindsay was in her biological prime and her toned tight body was a revelation.
Mike awoke the next morning to find Lindsay gone and his spirits soaring. He tramped downstairs tentatively, only to find the common room filled with brothers hooting and hollering at Mike’s apparent success with the lady. Mike turned red once again.
“You have fun last night?” Travis asked with a big smirk.
“Yeah, thanks for that.” Mike looked at Travis with a tear in his eye. “Really. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
“Where are you going to go?” Pete Westerly asked.
“I was thinking about going to stay with my brother for a while. He lives in Arizona.”
Not sure what else to say, Mike eyed the front door. Travis came up to him. “Here, take this.” He handed him twenty bucks. “It’s not much. Enough for a bus ticket maybe.”
Mike hugged Travis. Then he left.
Smitty was the first to speak. “Holy shit, man. That was intense.”
Travis grew philosophical. “Yeah, goes to show you. You never know how shit is gonna turn out.”
The guys hoped that this experience would change things for Mike. It was out of their hands now but still they were beaming. The men of Kappa Nu had done a good deed and they felt proud of themselves. But it was more than mere pride for Travis — he felt vindicated. Because Travis now knew he was right, it was all about doing good.
Mike walked down Gayley and turned onto a side street. He looked back over his shoulder for a second before pulling out his car keys. He clicked the button and the doors unlocked on his slate grey 5-series BMW.
Mike got in and headed south out of Westwood. He turned left onto Santa Monica and in twelve minutes hung a right on Avenue of the Stars and pulled into the garage on Constellation. In his office, he changed out of his new Kappa Nu sweats and put on the extra suit he kept on the hook behind his door. He walked over to his credenza and opened the bottom drawer where he had stashed a pile of clothes emblazoned with different Greek letters from colleges all over L.A. County. Mike felt a gaze upon him and looked up to see his young male colleague in Motion Picture Lit staring at him with disdain. “Dude, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just call a prostitute?”
Mike looked back at him contemptuously. “That’s disgusting.”
2 comments on “Community Service”
Kind of a sidenote, but here and back-to-back Thomas Warming is hitting homeruns on every illustration. Creating a great look. Now back to our story…
Outstanding. I did not see that ending coming at all. I thought Mike was gonna go all PTSD and beat the K Nu’s to death with an empty pizza box. This story is worthy of an O. Henry Award.