Maria Hummel delves into L.A.’s art world, a sordid place of vice, provocation, violence and, yes, mystery. When the thriller’s agent provocateur/artist disappears into the night, a journey begins into the scene’s seedy underbelly, a place where violence is fetishized and secrets remain undisclosed. An excerpt from Still Lives, recently released in paperback.


For the four years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, the Rocque Museum has been my university and my workplace, offering me a degree in contemporary art and the cosmopolitan life—brilliant as the blues in a Sam Francis painting, decadent as a twenty-four-karat cast of a cat testicle. Most days pass in a pleasurable blur of words and pictures. Most nights I hate to leave my little office, especially on April evenings like this, when I can look over my mess of proofs, out to the greening city, and imagine I am still happy.

A couple of blocks down the avenue, a new concert hall is rising like a silver ship from a dirty parking lot. Just past it, I see a theater pavilion, a row of jacaranda trees floating their violet clouds. A mile beyond that, I know the city’s river is still flooding its concrete throat, and I can remember why I came to this place, to live a new life, away from old ghosts. I would love to stay late tonight in this tiny room, with space enough for my chrome desk and file cabinet, a shelf of art catalogs, and one extra chair for visitors. It’s quiet here past six o’clock. I know where everything is, I have editing to do, and my glass door makes it impossible for people to surprise me. I could wait out the traffic, drive home late in the flowing lights of the 101. On my way, I might glance too many times behind me; I might rush the key in the lock of my peeling bungalow. But I would make it home fast, and there would be fewer silent, empty hours before sleep.

Horns bleat below my window. I look down to see two beverage trucks heading for the intersection that leads to the underpass beneath our avenue. They will take two more turns and disappear down a ramping street tunnel to reach the museum’s loading dock. The party is arriving.

Within a few hours, this whole street will clog with limousines. I need to steal my chance now and leave the Rocque. The entire L.A. art world converges tonight for the museum’s Gala opening of Still Lives, Kim Lord’s latest exhibition. Three hundred guests will arrive to eat, guzzle champagne, and crowd the galleries until the rooms hum and buzz. Then they will parade back outside to make glowing speeches about the artist, and dance. A tangible excitement will push out through their noise, like a ball held underwater. It will be the party of the year. Every show of Kim Lord’s is a moment. Every painting “is so powerful it makes your eyes bleed,” according to her new boyfriend, that up-and-coming gallerist with the crooked grin, Greg Shaw Ferguson.

Nice line. I can guess how Greg said it, too. First he looked the Los Angeles Times interviewer deep in the eyes, as if he were suddenly just seeing her, human to human. Then he spoke the words with a little gravel in his voice, shook his dark blond head, and ignored the reporter to brood on some secret thought. And during that brooding, which lasts just one second too long, she fell for him. They always do.

A white TV news van roars below, heading toward the same intersection. Time to go. Ruminating on Greg’s irritating allure won’t erase my own five-year folly over him, and it might thwart my escape. I sling my bag over my shoulder and grab some proofs to drop off with Yegina, our exhibitions manager and my closest friend. I need a good dose of Yegina’s undying loyalty to the Rocque to inoculate myself against more wallowing. So what if the man who moved to L.A. with me, the man I once thought I would marry, will be squeezing Kim Lord’s hand all night? Phones are ringing off the hook at our membership desk. We might all keep our jobs tomorrow.

Featured with permission of the author and publisher, Counterpoint Press

Photo of the author by Karen Pike


Maria Hummel is the author of the novels Still Lives (Counterpoint Press, 2019), Wilderness Run and House and Fire (Cooper Canyon, 2013), winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize in poetry. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Ploughshares, The Sun and The Believer. Her work was also featured in the 2012 Pushcart Prize anthology, and she was a finalist in Narrative’s Second Annual Poetry Contest. A former Stegner Fellow in Poetry, Hummel is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and lives with her husband and sons in San Francisco.