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Additional edits: 1981, 1987, 1996, 2003
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com.
Kanady follows the shoulder of the road. Alone. Under the flat package slung across his back. His feet kick pebbles and crunch on the sand. Every few steps he stumbles.
A stiff breeze tears through his coat. Kanady lets the package slide down his back, until it rests on the shoulder. He holds the package with one arm, turns up the thick coat collar, snuggles his head into the collar, stands facing back. The road, long and flat, twists out of sight two kilometers down. The evening light is bad. There are street lamps, every half kilometer.
He counts the lamps. “Four kilometers, max,” he thinks.
He holds the package out, balances it. It is wrapped in layers of brown paper and cardboard; long, less thick than wide—a slab.
“Like lead,” he thinks.
He watches the breath fog, strike the package, dissipate. It is clear he has gone too far to go back to town. He is more than halfway home. He can no longer walk back to town and hire a truck to haul the package. It is easier to continue. There is no other sensible choice. He will have to go on.
A shudder begins. It is the dark and the solitude. He inhales, hoists the package, hugs, lifts, turns, and stumbles on.
He listens to the soft crunch of feet on road. But what is that? He hears a sound behind. He slows to hear it: a patter, like footsteps. He pauses, hugs the package. The patter continues, faint, stops. He turns, looks back. Nobody is on the road. The chill bristles his back; the cold passes through like blood. With a shove forward, he resumes.
The pattering begins again. He stops, turns. It stops. Nobody is there. The footsteps were distinct, after each crunch a whisper, growing louder. He shakes his head, turns, pushes on harder.
There it is again, tapping, like a cockroach wrapped in tissue. He speeds up, walks more briskly, and they are there too, behind him. He stops. They stop. A moment passes. Then he goes on.
Roughly he turns and this time he sees it: a centimeter-tall figure. It must be half a kilometer behind. The shout doesn’t form—his blood is ice.
Kanady runs; runs, breathing in gasps. Metallic cold fills his lungs. He has to slow down to catch his breath. As he slows, the sound slows. It got faster when he ran. It sounds closer. The road starts to spin.
He stops. The steps stop. He stands, feels the breath come hard in and out. The dark figure is closer. It whispers. He cannot run any more—the package is too heavy. He checks the time: nine PM. He has been walking an hour. This walk usually takes forty minutes. Factoring the weight of the package, he judges home is still a kilometer away.
The terrain looks exotic. He has travelled that road almost daily, but always trying to get to town or return home. There was never time to stop and look. “Looks weird, but it’s the right road,” he decides. “Home is a kilometer.”
Kanady looks back. The figure is now two centimeters tall. He can just make it out: it wears an overcoat. Kanady cannot see the face—the overcoat flaps are turned up. It is so quiet. He wants to call out, but does not. He turns to walk, hears the figure’s footsteps on the shoulder. Kanady tries to ignore it; hopes for a second wind, stumbles, regains the pace.
Sweat breaks out on his face and shoulders. Why would anyone want to follow him? Perhaps the stranger wants his package. Straining, he speeds up. “Can I make it home before he catches up?” he wonders.
Kanady needs distraction. He thinks of his wife May opening her gift. Before he was a clerk. It was a long time without gifts. Two months ago the company offered a job managing clerks. The worst times are over. His new self—manager of clerks—will carry them to success.
The fear is gone. Now that he has decided to be a leader, the path is clear. One day he will manage the managers. The future is certain. They will buy a better house in a better place. Others will carry his gifts home from town.
He tries to forget the soft crunch of the stranger’s footsteps closing in.
It is Tuesday. She shopped. He looks forward to the hot meal Tuesday nights. Anticipating the meal, he chuckles. The stranger whispers behind him.
The house pokes up over the rise. Through the picture window May reads in the living room chair. She does not see him until he rings the bell.
As she gets up to answer it, he sees a face peer out the kitchen window. He puts the package down and waves to it. May opens the door. She sees the wrapped-up package, knows it is for her. The paper crinkles. Kanady comes in the door. She shuts it behind him.
“What is it?” she asks.
Kanady speaks in a flat tone and smiles. May smiles too. Her teeth flash. He thinks of fluorescent bulb glare on a Formica counter.
“For me?” she asks.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Pork. Stuffing. For me?”
“No, for your friend.”
“In the kitchen.”
She stares blankly.
“Can I open it?” she asks.
“Sure. Invite him in to see.”
He slides his arms out of the overcoat. It crumples on the floor.
“Invite who?” she asks.
“In the kitchen.”
May goes to the kitchen. Kanady lays down the package, follows her. She flicks a switch. The fluorescent bulb clicks, stutters, and comes on, bright. The kitchen is empty.
“I saw a face in the window. A man,” he says.
“Nobody is here.” Her voice chokes.
Kanady squints. She wears a dressing robe and slippers. The hair is tied up with an orange rubber band. The eyes are blue tinged with red. She is shorter by a few inches. She looks older than he remembers. The arms are limp at her sides.
“Something the matter?” she asks.
“Nah. Let’s go open it.”
They return to the living room in silence. She plops onto the floor beside the package. She runs her hands along the brown paper as if to smooth it, tears fingernails in. Out comes white packing fluff. She pushes it away. It drifts across the floor like clouds, sticks to the rug and gathers around the coffee table legs.
What comes into the light is a long crystal mirror.
“Beautiful!” she says.
She wipes the packing fluff off the mirror. He pushes the fluff into a pile with his feet. The mirror lays face-up on the floor. The room is inverted, her feet look huge. She looks up from it and meets his eyes. She smiles, shows her teeth, stands, steps, presses her body firmly against his. Her arms surround his neck.
She kisses him; her tongue slips between his teeth like milk.
“Thanks,” she says.
Together they lift the mirror and carry it to the bedroom. They straighten the legs out, tighten the screws that let the glass tilt in its frame. It stands firm. Kanady moves back, sits on the bed, wordless. May goes to the kitchen to get dinner. He sits and gazes, not moving except to breathe.
He saw the man who followed, close enough to know the man was short. Kanady wonders where the short man has gone.
The mirror stands on three legs. At the end of each, a three-toed animal foot is carved. The mirror reflects everything: the bed with its tan cover, the frill pillow, the desk with vase and dry flowers, the window, corner, door to the bathroom. The mirror reflects all, faithfully. Familiar objects he stopped noticing have suddenly become new. But the mirror does not reflect itself.
Kanady rises, goes to the mirror. It reflects brown hair, grey eyes, round face. Arms at his sides. He touches the mirror with his right hand, the left arm of his reflection rises, the left hand of his reflection touches his hand where it touches the mirror. He presses the reflected fingertips. They feel cool and hard. When he lets go, the frame rocks on its feet. The reflection of the room rocks.
As he enters the kitchen he thinks about the mirror, how it does not reflect itself. He stands in the doorway. His wife sets the table. The plates clank and the silverware chinks. She folds the napkins carefully. He remembers something then. He saw someone, in the kitchen window, when he was outside about to come in.
“No,” he thinks, “managers’ minds do not play tricks.”
She looks up at him and smiles again, her teeth flashing. He smiles back. She goes into the cupboard to get the tumblers. He leaves the doorway.
Kanady enters the living room and spots the pile of white fluff and strewn flaps of brown paper in the middle of the floor. His overcoat is also on the floor. He picks it up, puts it on. After buttoning two buttons, he bends to collect some of the mess, gathers it up. He presses it all together. Some falls out like feathery snow. He goes to the front door, reaches out with his hand, balances the pile and turns the knob.
“Going out?” she calls.
He goes out to the trash bins, opens one, still holding the garbage. He drops it into the can. Bits float down. He bends to pick them up. As he crumples them, he looks back through the window into his warm living room. Another face looks back out at him through the window. It is a man’s face. He drops the ball of paper into the can and closes the lid. He looks back. The short man stares. More than a face, Kanady sees the whole body. The short man’s hands press the glass. It bulges out like a bubble. It does not break.
Kanady approaches the bulging window. His breath steams, drifts. He goes up to the window, leans into it. The man inside the window does not react. His wife calls. The short man and Kanady turn simultaneously.
The short man goes into the kitchen.
Kanady expects to hear his wife shout, call, scream. “The man does not look like me. She will scream,” he thinks.
Kanady waits. There is no scream.
He walks around the outside to the kitchen window. The short man sits at the table. They talk, laugh. She serves dinner. They eat. A short man eats her husband’s dinner, and she does not scream.
“This is not all right,” Kanady thinks.
He stares openly into the kitchen window, stands back far enough so he is sure they cannot see him. They eat it all, except a ball of stuffing.
They sit back, talk as if they knew each other a long time.
She gets up, opens the door beneath the sink, dumps the remains of dinner into the trash bin. The short man puts a pot of coffee on.
He raps the window. The pair jumps, turns and stares toward him. The short man moves quickly to the window. Kanady ducks into the shrub. The short man looks out the window over his head. The short man says something. She laughs, but it sounds nervous.
Soon the table is cleared. They sit down to coffee and cake. He watches. Then there is liqueur. He can almost taste it, sweet, hot in the esophagus, the stomach, heat spreads out to the legs. They couple’s eyes meet. There in the shrub, he senses heat. He must do something.
Kanady breaks away and turns, begins to walk.
After ten minutes on the cold road a truck slows. He puts his thumb out. The driver brakes. The gears grind. The cab door opens. The driver calls down to him, “a lift?”
He climbs up.
In the cab it is quiet as metal. The driver begins a conversation. Kanady does not answer. He reaches toward the windshield, scrapes a mark off with a thumbnail. He is silent the entire seven-minute ride into town.
They pass the limit. A lit sign greets them coldly in the night. He tells the driver to let him off on the corner. The driver stops the truck. He opens the door, jumps down, knees bending, thanks the driver, swings the door back shut.
The shops are closed. People are asleep. There is a flickering blue light through a few windows; TV. He passes a clothing shop. The light from behind, a night bulb left glowing, silhouettes stiff plaster people. From behind him the street lamp glares on the window surface. It reflects patches of the quiet street. He jerks away from the reflection. Farther and down the street, a window flickers with dull neon. The sign commands:
Kanady looks in: a few people hunched over an iron counter. He pulls the door. It resists, then gives. The fryman is cooking something that smells like onions. He sits.
After a minute the fryman hands Kanady a menu. It is paper coated with plastic. The coating feels slimy. His eyes move down the typed column, glance over the prices. He stammers an order. The fryman looks far off, through the window. He turns and throws some soft objects onto the flat griddle. There is the fierce patter of heavy rain. The fryman waves the spatula, chopping lines in the onion smoke. He asks, “Corn or peas-and-carrots?”
The fryman lifts a silver lid. He scoops a steaming mound of corn in a lump onto the plate, walks to the fryer, lifts the wire basket, dumps the potatoes. Steam plays on the white plate. The fryman runs a hand through his hair as he sets down the white plate on the iron counter in front of the hungry customer. From a shelf under the counter the fryman pulls a bottle of ketchup, a paper napkin, a fork and knife burnished with wear. He sets them down.
Eating the grey yellow brown food warms Kanady inside. His skin remains cold. He cuts and eats the stringy meat, soaks the potatoes in ketchup. Sweet and biting, heavy. The corn is flavorless. The empty plate is greasy in some places, wet in others. Where it is clear, it reflects the ceiling, bare fluorescent tubes, ceiling fan (dormant), pipes, heat grate.
A woman gets up. Her clothes are stained and old. The belt hangs down from her coat by one loop. Behind the counter, the fryman follows her. From a scarred vinyl purse she produces a worn green bill. The fryman pushes buttons on the cash register. It clicks and rings. Numbers shoot into the window and the drawer opens. He takes the bill, clamps it down. Fingers poke into little compartments in the drawer for the change. He slides three bills out and counts aloud as he gives her the remainder.
“Four, five, five is ten.”
“Thanks,” she answers.
“Safe walk home ma’am.”
Kanady is finished. He draws the napkin across his lips. He is dry. He orders a coffee. It comes. He sips it. The first taste singes, numbs, so the bitter taste of the next swallows is dull. The plate and saucer show the ceiling, rippled, and the fryman’s thumb, huge, as he takes it, stacks it in the grey plastic bin.
Kanady does not want another cup. He brushes the crumbs off the coat, stands and pulls the wallet from inside his shirt. The wallet has lain next to his chest all day. It is cool in the fingers. The register churns, the bills and coins are exchanged. He turns and leaves. The door gives, opens, and the cold air feels to him like a dive into a pool. He leaves the fluttering humming lights and the tepid onion smell. He scrapes across the sidewalk; an oniony wisp trails him, mixes with the smell of gasoline.
The street leads Kanady to a green. This is the town center. A war statue among benches. He pulls himself across the dim grass, plops down on a bench, slides to the center. In the statue a metal man holds a metal scroll in one metal hand and a metal rifle in the other. Kanady wonders what kind of metal it is.
“Bronze?” he asks.
He does not answer. Embossed on the scroll is the word:
The street lamps, haloed, cast highlights on the metal man’s hair. The lamps buzz. Down one street he hears a car whisper, gravel crackle. Kanady’s eyes circle the town square. He leans against the bench back, quiet. Shops windows, bank, dark restaurant, streets trailing away. His breathing is regular, even.
His head lifts. He is chilled through. He had dozed. What seemed like a minute must have been hours. He stands, stiff and cold.
Enervated, he walks. Concentrating on the effort, he pushes along the sidewalk. He pauses at the diner. It is dark. The scent of onions fades. He touches the glass. It bends like a soap bubble. Curious, he lays his palm flat on the glass. It yanks all warmth from the hand. He pulls away with a jerk and shakes the fingers.
He walks. Nobody picks him up. The smell of late Autumn coming is strong and sour. The town floats by, as if deeply flooded. He goes down the long country road, lit by buzzing street lamps splayed every half kilometer. He counts nine of them before seeing his house against a purple sky. He runs to it. It is hard to breathe. Through the kitchen window he sees the sink, table. In the center of the table sit two liqueur glasses and a bottle, half-drained. He scrapes to the bedroom window. There are two lumps in the bed.
The front door is not locked. He would have remembered, for safety. He goes to the bedroom door. It is ajar. He pushes. May lays in bed alone. There is a place for him. She inhales and exhales slowly.
Kanady goes back outside, around the house. In the kitchen sit the drained glasses and bottle. In the bedroom, two lumps. He knows the second lump is the short man. The short man looks nothing—nothing!— like him. The short man inhales, exhales slowly. Kanady must do something.
Kanady strides back through the front door again, through the house, into the bedroom. He stands over the bed, where May sleeps. He pulls his arms out of the overcoat. It falls to the floor, crumpled. He undresses. Dropped on the floor, the clothing makes a limp pile. He gets into bed.
It is warm. But only the skin. Inside is slush. Kanady sits up, stares into the mirror in the dim morning light. He leans head on folded-back arms. The mirror reflects everything. Bed, woman, desk, vase, window, doors. Everything but him. And something else. He stares. Something is missing.
Kanady thinks about himself. He is no longer a clerk. He is a manager of clerks. It takes years of work to be a manager. Someday he would manage managers.
Once he did not want all this. He was small, did not aspire. He did his job only. He wanted different things. He had ideals. Now he is hungry. “Nothing wrong with that,” he thinks, “you want what you want.”
The realization comes that he can leave this behind, to the short man. Kanady can go, never manage managers, not reach what he sees. Others want it, too, other clerks. He manages clerks.
Kanady looks at the mirror, at a face that looks back. That is it. The short man’s face looks nothing like his. That is no manager of clerks, just a short man. If Kanady leaves, the short man can hold his place. But the short man cannot manage clerks, or managers.
Kanady decides not to leave. It is the house. It takes a lifetime to pay for a house like this. He must do something.
Kanady stands. The short man stands. Kanady approaches the mirror. The short man approaches, obedient as a clerk. Kanady touches the hard glass, grips the wooden stand in his fists. He lifts it, though it is heavy. He tilts it so it lays parallel to the floor. It reflects only his calm face and the ceiling with its dark lamp.
He slams it to the floor.
It is an expensive antique mirror with carved animal feet at the ends of its wood legs. The legs buckle, the glass smashes, loud as a car crash. She sits up, gasps.
“What is it?”
He stands, crouches, holds his breath. His eyes are slits. He holds the cracked frame. A glass shard drops out, shatters.
“You broke it. Why did you break it?”
On the floor: a pile of broken glass, and blood. Kanady crouches, holds the frame. His hands are bloody.
Copyright © 2003 Bob Jude Ferrante
deery wakes up.
The dream of an apartment comes again. A bedroom, closets, a bathroom, a kitchen. In the kitchen a washing machine, dishwasher, all waiting for me to press their buttons. All waiting to perform.
“Deery.” Hector’s voice pulls me from the dream.
The whole world blurs in from gray. Hector’s hand scratches at a scab on his left arm. He picks, peels. Whiteness oozes out.
The scarred wall, the pitted ceiling slide into view.
On the foam mattress flung slantwise on the floor, three year old Buster sleeps. He is still, quiet. One thin brown arm is up over his head. A big hole shaped like a horse’s head gapes under his T-shirt armpit. His mouth opens a little. Now Hector talks and talks. His voice is cranky, busted; the junky’s whine.
“Deery. Wake up. You awake?”
“You awake? Because I am dismay and want to tell you why this dismay. One time was a story about a guy name of Gregory. He turn into a roach. He wake up, he is a big roach. I dream about turning to a roach.”
His sheets rustle with the greasy rustle his sheets have. With Hector everything is greasy. He is the king of grease. He seldom bathes. He fears water. Something about drowning or slime.
He moves, the sheets rustle dull as oilcloth.
“I want you to–look, can you look?–I want you to look at me. Is that a laugh? Don’t laugh!”
“Sorry, Hector. I didn’t mean it.”
He smacks the floor.
“If you had my life it wouldn’t be so funny. I just want you to check if I still human. It ain’t psychotic or anything to think about being a roach. Roaches have eternal souls. They live forever. They go everywhere. On the walls. On the ceiling. In the toilet. Eat scraps from pizza boxes on the floor. Places we can’t go. A grain of sand look like a rock to them. There are these pictures in Life magazine and a grain of sand look like a rock.”
Morning after morning he does this. You can’t make what he’s saying in the morning. He must lay there for hours, breathing and thinking. That’s the main problem. He always tries to think in the morning.
This has got to come out like feathers in milk. When you reel Hector in you have to be gentle. Like talking to a dog. As long as you soothe it out, you can say anything you want, even call the dog a piece of shit. Say it wrong and the dog growls. Hector does more than growl. And since he’s a junkie he can’t judge the damage he’ll cause.
Simultaneously I reach down and lift up Buster. One brown baby hand rubs an eye and he whimpers, soft as a faraway bird. Hector babbles more, all breathy.
“I dunno, maybe it is a dream. From a story in a book. I am up now. Real up. You sleep okay? How did Buster sleep? Hey little guy. You look cold. You cold? Bust?”
Buster yawns huge. Hector waits until Buster is done yawning.
“It was cold last night, no? The footprints of Winter, even in San Diego, Buster. Roaches don’t leave no footprint and look how long they been around. And look, the size my foot. Make you think.”
Buster starts to cry,
but then shoves a thumb in his mouth,
Hector stands up on the bed and reaches for the ceiling, stretching. He sits, never takes his eyes off Buster, his face romantic and soft.
“Looky, Buster. Looky, here come Bernie. That Bernie. He cute, huh Bust?”
Buster sucks his thumb, swivels to look where Hector points and stares impassive. I look over and jump right up still holding Buster.
“A rat! Hector, that’s! Jesus!”
I’m shoving hard up against the wall to escape it. Bernie is in the pizza box. Suddenly it’s so quiet you can hear sharp little teeth nibbling a cold crust.
“What are you talking about, Deery? Bernie not a rat, he a mouse. What you talk about? Jesus Christ. Bernie too small to be a rat. Rats big fuckers. Like this big. What you know about mice and shit?”
“Rats. Jesus. Call the desk. They have something. Poison. It barely hurts. It’s not cruel or anything. Jesus, look what he’s doing to the pizza…”
“What are you talking about, poison? Bernie ain’t bother anybody. He friendly. Let him eat. I ain’t hungry. I don’t need nothing. Some water. Pass me it, that, that, the bottle.”
I kick the edge of the pizza box. The rat takes the hint and skitters to the door. It squashes its gray body down to fit under. Hindquarters, back knees, tail, gone. Like a switch came on, the street noises, car horns, shouts, come back. I set Buster down, grab up the Evian bottle, pass it to Hector. The water comes from the showers down at the beach. I filled it yesterday. Hector hates to go downstairs. That’s why I’m here.
“When Diesel come around with my medicine I went, or once a week to clean up, that’s it. And the sound, the sea, the ancient sea, make me ralph. So stay up here. Fuck the beach. Sand right in here. Been here for years, right on the floor. Who need the fucked-up beach? It all here.”
“Speaking of, you need me to go downstairs yet, Hector?”
“Eh? You know, I was thinking about what you called this place yesterday. What was that? Dago? Bad like calling San Francisco ‘Frisco.’ But I think they call it Dago because that how people around here say ‘Diego.'”
“Hector, I’m going out. Need anything?”
“I say `Dee-yay-go,’ your voice suppose to rise on the first syllable and the last two come out soft like the rain last night. Diego. San Diego. Got it?”
“Hector. Out. Food. Stuff.”
“Out? Can you go to the store? Can you get me some… I got money for it. In the left inside pocket… Shit. It only eight-o-five. Loan me twenty cent, okay? Um, Dunhill, mild.”
He stuffs the crumpled-up bills in my hand. One falls. I bend to pick it up.
I open and close my hand to say good-bye the way Buster likes. Hector’s voice comes out the door after me.
“Don’t get burned,” he calls.
she burns down newport avenue.
Outside room 14, I go down the hall to the stairs. In the Newport Beach Hotel, the walls flake ship gray paint. The brush of the sea air has daubed them with white warts, white barnacles. My mind drifts to Buster, still upstairs with Hector. Lately it’s the ceiling. You never saw a kid stare at the ceiling so much as Bust. That’s his nickname, Bust. I never spent much time with kids before he was born. The only kid before that was me. Never did much staring.
As you go down the stairs of the Newport Beach Hotel, they don’t creak. But you expect them to. Three are cracked. The middles are worn away smooth and show tan wood. If you get close enough, you can count seventeen coats of paint, lots of different colors, around the edges of the holes. The stairs sag and bounce. They don’t creak.
Out on the street, I walk slowly, still stiff from sleeping curled up with Bust all night on the floor. I try to look happy but feel blunt and burned inside. There’s some Peter Tosh music, it blasts so loud hairs lift up from my head gently, sailing up and around. On Newport Avenue, everybody follows invisible lines on the sidewalk. Old men amble, heads like coconuts from behind. I slide into the walk-beat. If roads are blood vessels, Newport is a slow vein, bringing dead liquid back to the heart. It takes its time and won’t take any shit about it, either. Let the heart get pissed off.
In the store right by the entrance is a fake slot machine. An old Spanish guy is in rapture. He puts a quarter in every twenty seconds or so. I look at the TV screen of it. Each time he gets a jackpot, it flashes a color cartoon of a woman in denim shorts and a tie-on top. Jackpot. Now the top is untied. Jackpot. Now it’s almost completely off.
I shake my head, walk by. A tangy whiff of urine rises from the Spanish guy’s clothes. Past him, a kid eyes the Twinkie rack. He’s dressed like a thousand other Ocean Beach kids, head wrapped in a red bandanna, grayed suit jacket over old blue jeans. I shake my head right at him as if to say, “can you believe this old guy putting quarters in and getting nothing out?” The kid doesn’t return the look. He reads the labels. No shit, kid. They have cupcakes, orange creme and vanilla pudding and chocolate frosted, with no cholesterol in them now. What will they think of next? I go up to the counter, pluck a red-gold pack of Granny Goose nachos from the clip rack. Breakfast. Maybe lunch too. Bust and I are in a recession.
“Pack of Merits.”
“Soft. And a Dunhills mild. Blue box.”
I look back. The old man is having a winning streak. The kid is to the side of the machine, yanking at the cord with his foot. The woman is just about to appear on the screen naked. The screen stutters and goes blank. The old man jumps back, jolted from his trance.
“Hey! Hey gringito! Ve te chingar a tu madre, gringito! Maricon!”
The old guy screams more foul things in Spanish at the kid. I know them all, used to have a second-generation Mexican boyfriend who taught me the lexicon of Spanish filth. It was the only Spanish he learned from his parents. The old man raises a fist. The kid sings,
“Chingo, gringo! Chingo, gringo!”
and bolts from the store.
comes from the street, fading away. The old man is standing outside the door, staring after the kid with hatred.
“Wonder how much he got?”
the clerk asks, waving a hand toward the Twinkie rack.
I shrug, walk over to it. It’s a mess. Some are bitten. One is smashed on the floor. A bunch are just gone.
“At least he only got shit, Twinkies, Ring Dings, Devil dogs…”
I tell the clerk, trying to sound comforting.
I mean, if you want nutrition, go to the Chicken Pie place in Hillside. Ocean Beach is not for those seeking nutrition.
she talks about u-haul(TM) cab design.
When Buster and I first came to Ocean Beach we slept in the cab of the U-Haul for a week with all our stuff in the back. I slept curled around the hump in the middle of the floor. Bust slept on the seat. That was right after John evicted us. We don’t normally sleep in U-Hauls. When they designed your basic U-Haul, making the cab a comfy place to sleep was not high up on the priority list.
A week later I met Hector on the beach. He’s lived in the Newport Beach Hotel for two years. The showers in the Hotel have been broken for, what? Something like a year. So he takes showers once every two weeks, in the stalls where the surfers go by Dog Beach. It’s really called Ocean Beach, but everyone calls it Dog because it’s one of two beaches in San Diego where dogs can go. You can tell that right away because of the dog shit buried in every inch of sand. It’s like you need a mine sweeper set up for shit detection.
It was three weeks ago last Thursday, one PM and hot in that beachy way. Bust and I are sitting on a blanket by the men’s bathrooms, where the surfers hang. The shower is going. It stops. This guy sticks his head over the edge of the wall, fixes me with a look. He asks if I have a towel.
I say. I go to the U-Haul, unlock the back, yank the door up, climb in and dig through a box, find a towel, jump out, close and lock up, carry it over. He doesn’t say thanks, just takes it and dries off, rubbing his hair for days, weeks. I find a bench and sit. It looks like he’s trying to scrub his head bald. His chest hairs vibrate under the towel like tiny greasy worms, or cilia. He finishes, comes over and holds it out to me.
“Thanks for the towel,”
he finally says. It dangles from his hand, limp and oily. His hair is black and shot with gray lightning bolts. I think of Zeus from Mythology class. Then he starts really into talking and I immediately stop thinking of Zeus.
“Hi, I’m Hector. I live around here. It’s a pretty okay place. Are you from around here? I like your eyes. Nice eyes. What color is that?”
“I don’t know, brown I guess.”
So we met. I told him we just got there, about sleeping in the truck and how it was a drag. Hector made his generous offer and so Bust and I have been staying in his room, at the Newport Beach Hotel, almost three weeks now.
In the three weeks we’ve been together, Hector and I have developed a relationship of sorts. I run out, do things for him, pick up his drugs from Diesel, this tall black man in a running suit with a beeper and a Walkman on his belt. He’s on roller blades; pretty strange guy. But here on Newport Avenue, where everyone is strange, you don’t notice it so much.
Hector told me he used to play for the Yankees farm team. Then one day he got hit on the head with a fast ball. He was in the hospital a while. Now he’s on permanent retirement. The team gives him 6,000 dollars a year and a year’s supply of Demerol and Dilaudid. He sells them to Diesel in a lump, puts the cash in his account at Bank of America. He buys it back from Diesel at cost-plus when he needs it–he calls this `maintenance.’ He only takes some when the sickness comes and he starts lurching over the brown steel garbage can, retching.
That’s his life.
I’m okay. No, really, I’m okay. But the place isn’t good for Buster. The hotel gets very cold at night, they don’t seem to be too keen on heat. I asked Hector how much he pays for a room. He said, `forty dollars.’ I told him he could stay at the Lazy Eight for forty dollars and get heat and clean towels with no holes in them. He just stared at me as if I was crazy even to suggest the idea. I guess the Newport Beach Hotel is as addictive as the stuff he sticks in his veins.
she makes a decision.
Buster crunches chips. I play with his hair, the soft curly black hair, twirl it, wrap it around my fingers in tight little black loops.
“We have to get a real place to sleep or we’re going to get sick or die, Bust old mustard. I’m going out to talk to this woman I called out of the paper this morning. You’ll be okay with Hector, right?”
Hector gives Buster a little shake. Buster’s head vibrates. He glares, impassive.
“He gone be fine, right, Bust? He gone be great.”
“Hector, don’t you crash. Buster gets into trouble if he knows you’re not watching. Got it?”
“Got it. Go get your place.”
she has a flashback.
English is cruel sometimes. Imagine the person who made up these words a thousand years ago: six-one, three hundred pounds, teeth sharpened with nail files.
Four weeks ago Monday, I get a letter from my book-keeping job at Santa Clara Auto. The letter asks if I want to continue the medical.
I go in and ask Beverly the personnel girl, “what’s this letter about?”
She goes, “if someone gets let go, the law says we got to give `em the option to continue the medical. It’s the law. It’s called COBRA. You want it to continue or not?”
“Michael didn’t… ?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“You better call him.”
I hang up and call Michael, my boss.
“Michael, what’s this about I’m fired? Is it true? Because I got a letter about continue my medical and Bev says I’m canned. Is it true?”
He sounds tired.
“Jesus, Deery, I mean. A couple days back I get a memo from Edgar, he says we’re getting some big chain firm to do the books. I meant to tell you.”
Just yesterday, he asked me to go out and get coffee for him. Eggs. Which I brought. He could have told me then. Except he figured I wouldn’t get his eggs.
So I am a statistic. No notice, no severance. My ex Danny would say with some companies the only way to get what’s yours is sue. Auto was one of those places. But to sue, you need an address. And I am two months back on the rent.
I am fucked for another book-keeping job. I never finished college. I just read books, everything: physics, detective novels, chemistry, poetry, history. Book-keeping came from a book, like everything else. Auto hired me because I was cheap. Now something is cheaper.
I go back to the apartment, draw the shades and get in bed. It is eleven AM. Danny isn’t home yet. Bust is still at day-care. With the shades pulled down the room fills with indigo mist. I sleep all day, wake up at six to pick up Buster. We climb into bed at ten. Danny isn’t home yet.
That was Monday.
Tuesday morning. I have a cup of coffee and the classified. Bust plays with his wood fire truck. It’s what, ten? No Danny. I can’t tell if he came in. The phone rings. My stomach drops. Bust picks it up.
It’s cute the way he says, “yo,” instead of hello. He’s not saying, “yo!” He’s saying, “Hello,” because his l’s sound like y’s. His r’s are round too, and he has trouble with consonant constructions like “dr.” So it’s like, “pyease give me vink.”
This does outrageous shit to my heart when I hear it. Hormonal.
“Hi, Daddy. Hi. I’m dood today? I’m home all day. I’m pyay with twucks.”
I grab the phone from Bust. He starts crying and tries to grab it back. We fight over the receiver, Bust screaming,
“I want talk Daddy!”
But I win.
“Danny? You had me so worried. Where are you?”
Danny doesn’t answer.
“Where the fuck are you? You okay? You need me to get you?”
He starts to talk, and it’s obvious he’s stoned out of his mind. Danny’s in NA, that’s Narcotics Anonymous. It’s like AA, but for ex-junkies. Not any more.
“I stayed over Lisa’s. I was sick.”
I make out a few more words. Then I reach critical mass and fission into a three megaton screaming fit. They tell you in ACOA not to get worked up because that’s what the addict wants, attention–negative or positive, it does not matter. At this point, I give two shits about ACOA counseling. The bastard must get out of my life.
So I am screaming, Bust is still trying to get the phone away, and Danny mumbles and sputters incoherently into the phone. Our official family picture.
Later on, I go down to the Seven Eleven and buy a six-pack of Corona, in honor of the end of Danny. I fall asleep with my arms tight around Buster.
That was Tuesday.
Wednesday morning I’m really hung over. The coffee machine burps loud. Everything is too loud. There’s a knock that’s too loud. I open the door, it’s John, the landlord, who owns the bakery in town. He’s got flour on his fists. They’re fists.
“Deirdre, what the fuck are you doing here?”
“I live here. John, listen, do me a favor and come back later? I feel like shit.”
“I can’t come back. Why the hell are you still here? You’re supposed to get out today.”
“Hey, wait. You can’t kick me out. You have to give me notice. Give me another week or two. Look, it’s been tough this week. I got canned, Danny is moving out…”
“You didn’t see the notice I tacked up on the first?”
“No. Eviction notice?”
“Yeah. You were supposed to be out. I came to check out the place for damage.”
“I didn’t know.”
“What do you mean? I taped it to the door and mailed you a copy. You can’t pull that shit! I know the law!”
“Calm down, John-boy. Something could have happened to it. Danny could have taken it down and didn’t tell me.”
“Your stupid junkie boyfriend is not my problem. I got tenants moving in here tomorrow. You have to get out today. If you’re not out by tonight, I’ll come back with the Sheriff.”
He turns, walks down the walk. I call; he doesn’t turn again.
You’ve got the picture by now–we can stop right here, can’t we?
she meets star.
Her eyes are redder than any eyes, ever. She looks stoned. But I can smell pot on people hours after they smoke it. She smelled like cloves. But she is mellow, very mellow. Maybe it is age or worry or something like that. Unfathomable.
“Star Grass. Star, like Aldebaran. Grass, like… you know what that’s like. Good old Jack died four years ago, left me this. I put in the new roof. I mean, two guys staying here did it. Roofs are like car engines, did you know that? You can’t just fix a roof. You got to put a whole new one in. Other than that, it’s been the same for a long time. So you’re looking for a place. I’m full up in the house, but there are some units out back and there’s a vacancy.”
Star leads me out back. Behind the house there’s an apartment building, long, brown, and spotty. It smells and looks like a big piece of bacon. There’s a couple of kids, they can’t be more than seventeen, sitting in the doorway of one of the downstairs units. Number six. His hand is wandering around inside her shirt. She’s making like she doesn’t notice. She’s looking at something. I look up to see what. There’s a cat on the roof. It looks like it’s got a pigeon in its mouth. She’s watching it eat the pigeon. I look down. The boy cups her breast. A feather floats down in front of my eyes. Star looks back at me.
“You want to see the place or not? Come on, I got phone calls to make.”
We go up the steps. She takes out some keys. They jangle like tubular bells. We stop at a door. She looks through the keys, tries a couple in the lock.
“Maybe I brought up the wrong set. Sorry. Have to go back down. I’ll be right back.”
The door opens by itself. The guy’s black black eyebrows go up and down a few times. He looks over at me, back at her.
“Hey Star,” he says.
A beat. She asks,
“What are you doing, Pee-dro?”
“Sleeping. What are you doing?”
“I thought I told you to move out.”
“You said clear out all my stuff. I did that. It’s at the Lock-It place you told me about.”
She turns to me.
“Typical. I tell him to pack up his stuff, he still comes back to crash.”
“Well, you said get the stuff out. What, you wanted me to do something else?”
She puts an arm around Pedro’s shoulder.
“Pee-dro, I know you’re not dumb like you pretend. But let it go. She’s here to see the room. I still have to show it. It clean?”
“Show it. That’s cool. No problem. I got to go to work in a few minutes anyway.”
She looks surprised.
“Work? You got a job?”
“Yeah,” he beams, “I’m painting houses.”
“Imagine that. It’s about time. Maybe you can pay me a little what you owe?”
“Yeah. I was going to come by and tell you.”
He looks at me.
“Hi. I’m Pee-dro.”
“Star’s a cool lady. An all-time. You’ll like her. By the way, what time is it?”
I check my watch.
“Ten of ten.”
“Shit! I’m late, man. Good luck!”
Suddenly he’s got a stained white jacket that sticks out behind him like a cartoon picture of a man running. He flies down past, feet like a drumroll.
Star calls out,
“Don’t forget to pay me!”
She laughs, turns to me.
“He’ll forget. He doesn’t mean it. Makes it more convenient, right?”
I nod in agreement; don’t know what else to do. The place looks good.
She pushes the door. It’s open, we go in. It’s a single room with a dusty rose carpet covered with dark stains like acts of terrorism. It’s empty of furniture, but ten or so boxes lean up against the wall with the picture window. I walk over to the boxes, look in; only some dust balls inside.
“Bathroom’s in there. Wouldn’t go in. Don’t think it’s been cleaned yet. Now the numbers. We charge one month rent for cleaning deposit but you get it back if you leave the place like you found it. There’s a dishwasher. It needs repair. If you get it done, I’ll let you take half what it costs off your rent. Otherwise there’s not much sense in fixing it, because people just keep breaking it. Jack put them in. He hated doing dishes. I don’t think people appreciate them, the way they treat them. When can you move in?”
“I’m not sure. It’s a very attractive apartment. What did you say it was, again?”
“Six twenty five, first, last, and deposit.”
“Not that I have a problem with the price, but it’s kind of high for a studio, don’t you think?”
“You should see what Agnes down the street asks. She gets seven hundred for places the same size. This is a beach town, hon. You want to go down talk to her? I could call ahead.”
“No, that’s okay. Why don’t you give me your number. I’ll check into it and call in, say, two days?”
She reaches into her pocket for her card.
“Here. Wait a second, I think the number’s wrong on this one. Let me.”
She gets out a pen and writes another number, crosses out the first.
“Don’t call this one. Call this one, got it?”
I nod. I nod a lot. Then I leave.
You can tell me you hate me, but:
I had two hundred twenty five in travelers checks.
With the right amount of whining, I could borrow the rest from Hector.
Star would probably let us move in with one month’s rent paid.
She didn’t look like the type with big floury hands who’d threaten you with the Sheriff. So the place looks like a lot like home.
So do it. Hate me.
she smells something.
I walk back across the beach, trying, not always successfully, to avoid the piles of shit. I am singing the Bob Marley song that goes, “everything gonna be alright, everything gonna be alright.” A Golden Retriever runs past, a black stick covered with seaweed protrudes sideways from his mouth like a cancerous antler. He stops, turns to stare. One eye is brown, one blue. Behind him runs a 13 year old boy in a baggy red T-shirt. He’s laughing. The dog takes off. The air smells like burning tires. Something feels wrong. I can’t tell what yet.
Passing Giant New York Pizza, the thought comes, better check out the U-Haul. But first, get back and see Bust.
I turn left at the jetty, go through the sand strewn parking lot at the corner of Newport Ave. Machine gun blasts and electronic stealth bomber fire scream from inside the 25 cent Arcade.
Entering the Newport Beach Hotel I drag a hand against the doorjamb, feel the smooth, sun-drained wood. The clerk is there for a change, sitting at her rust-pitted tan school desk. I smile but she stares through the gauze of bandages that are her thoughts, like a stunned victim in a burn ward. Her hand shakes an inch above the receipt book. I go upstairs.
Room 14 is empty. The smell of burning tires returns, strong, seems directly behind me. Nothing is behind me. Hector should be here but he’s not. Bust is gone. There’s a wallet on the floor. I pick it up. Inside is a ribbon of sand which hisses as it slips to the floor, also three dollars and a bank card. I stuff it in my purse and sprint out.
I don’t know what to do so I head for the lot back of Giant New York Pizza to check on the U-Haul. It’s too early to panic, they’ll turn up. Hector ran out of water. He didn’t run away with Bust.
A kid with half his hair shaved off bumps me and runs by. Another kid with the same haircut comes zooming past the telephone pole, screaming, “Get back here, fuck-er!” They seem to trail that same acrid, lonely, industrial odor.
The U-Haul is okay, still locked tight. One tire is partly flat. I make a mental note to visit Cables’ garage, home of the free air pump. They actually have a sign that says this.
Maybe they are at the showers? I go to the showers. A hundred feet past, by the Beech Deli, cop lights flash red then blue. I don’t habitually approach police. Especially male specimens. But that burning tire smell pings your nostrils like radar.
It’s a festival of blue, cops everywhere, pushing people away; expert, brusque. Through the shifting crowd you can see two still bodies on the sidewalk in front of the deli. The crowd parts to show more. One body has greasy hair, old corduroys, a beat-up pair of Adidas. He lays face-down, one arm up squashed under the head, the hand curled under. A gray metal thing glints in it. Hector.
Hector, what are you doing here? A gun? It’s blocks from the hotel. And the other body? You could see roller blades. Diesel.
What the fuck? Hector killed Diesel? Diesel killed Hector back? How? And where is… What did he do with…
she becomes lion cage mama.
You ever heard them say how when a mother’s child is threatened, she can do incredible things? They’ll tell you the story of the housewife who could barely pick up a chair and move it into the dining room for a guest that suddenly can bend lion cage bars to save her kid. I never believed that shit. Believe them if you want.
I felt a pulling in the stomach. But bars were not at risk of being bent, if you can understand. Maybe because, from the moment his tiny brown head emerged, I always expected to lose Buster. The stomach-pulling was fate foretold and doom come true, not bar-bending.
The Deli seemed a likely place to find out.
she meets estragon and vladimir.
Inside the Beech Deli, two men stand behind the counter. My voice is shaking, I am shaking, but can’t show them. I need information.
“Hey, can you tell me what’s going on out there?”
He looks up. His eyes are yellow and red; his silver hair seems held up by magnetism or curved space. He looks at my hands: left, right, left, right. He cannot understand why they are empty.
The other springs forward, planting his hands firmly on the counter as if it will suddenly levitate if he doesn’t hold it down. One blue eye shudders in its socket the whole time he talks.
“They shot each other. I heard it. They was shouting, something about money, I heard the word `dollar.”’
The other butts in, “You can’t be sure. It could have been something else,” and I stand there, unable to do anything but listen to these two.
“It had to be `dollar.’ Then the black guy started screaming and then there’s a bang. Then two more. Bang, bang! First the thought comes that it’s firecrackers. Then you realize it’s a gun and I was scared we’d get robbed so I called the cops.”
“They came real quick too.”
“Yeah, they came real quick. The cop said it’s drug-related.”
“It was drug-related. That’s what it was. Drug related. The place is falling apart. Used to be a lot better place to live. Twenty years ago.”
“Nah, it was always a shithole.”
“We was robbed five times last year. So I called the cops. That black guy with the skates, I saw him around all the time. I always thought there was something funny about him but you couldn’t tell either way.”
I cut in,
“But did you see a little boy? A little mixed-race kid, about three years old?”
They go vacant, both of them, for a second. Red-and-yellow answers, thrusting out an accusatory finger.
“There was two guys laying dead on the ground right outside my store! Guns! You think I’m gonna notice a black kid?”
Suddenly he jerks the deadly finger up and points it at the back of the store, spit flying from his mouth.
“HEY!!! YOU GONNA BUY THAT?! PUT IT DOWN IF YOU’RE NOT GONNA BUY THAT!!”
In the back, the two kids replace one comic book each in the rack, then shrink away.
“Bastard kids. They come in and read the whole book. Then they go out and all the books is wrinkled, got greasy spots.”
I turn to leave. The other one stands, his face serious, lost in thought.
“You’re talking about a black kid, like this high? Kind of quiet and serious like?”
“You saw him!”
“Yeah. I saw a kid like that. He was standing right by the body. I thought it was strange at the time, him standing there. He didn’t cry and he didn’t look shocked or anything. He looked curious.”
“Did you see where he went?”
“Lady, Jesus! Relax. He was standing there when the cops came, then one of them told him to go home. He went toward the beach.”
she finds her balance.
On the way to the beach, next to the leather store, there’s a bank machine. Hector’s card pops into mind. With the number on the back. There’s nobody in line at the machine. It will only take a moment to check.
I walk up to the machine with the card already out and lined up with the slot. It catches in the slot with a rubbery feeling and slides in, the machine pulling. The whole action reminds me of something, and I shudder.
The machine says,
“Please enter your PIN.”
There’s a moment of panic because I realize the number is on the back of the card and I can’t see it. But then I spot a big red button marked CANCEL. The card comes back out. I look at the number. The card ritual is repeated.
“Please enter your PIN.”
I enter it and select ACCOUNT BALANCE. The machine goes blank for a second, then it displays.
“Account Balance: $ 4,273.55”
I have to look. Again. Things like this don’t happen. To me. They happen to other people.
Four thousand. First. And deposit.
You, don’t get all ethical and shit. Hector would have left it to me anyway. He said himself, there’s no other family he gives a shit about.
If only Buster were here. Not that he’d understand of course.
Then I remember the beach.
finally, she gets back to dog beach.
Buster plays in the sand with a kid’s pail and shovel. The kid, blonde-haired, future surfer expression on his face, grabs back the pail. Buster thrusts the shovel in the sand, picks up a big sticky wet scoopful, reaches over and carefully drops it into the pail.
The kid looks up in sudden wonder. Buster grins–a huge Buster grin, the kind I haven’t seen in about six months. The kid just stares, wonderment poisoning his good looks. My eyes unfocus. Behind the two boys, stretching for a thousand thousand miles, the ocean pounds, always there, drawing in the vestiges of lies, mistakes, days. It cannot forgive, remember; it never goes away.
Copyright © 1997 Bob Jude Ferrante
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com
She codes. She looks only at the screen. And codes.
The code is measured in lines, each beginning with white space, each ending in a semi-colon. Her friend Felix would look at them and say, you could have saved four bytes there. Her boss would see the quote from a line of his own code, and smile. His boss would watch the check-ins and grunt with satisfaction at the LOC count and lines to defect ratio.
The screen she looks at is blue shaded in the background, and white on the page she is looking at; even though there is no real page because this code is designed to be compiled, not published. The typeface is Courier New, long popular with coders (or more likely, just a given circumstance of her editor).
When she backed away far enough, you could see it was a perfect clod of dirt – studded with a million contexts (a bug’s hideout here, a recess where a stand of Clostridium tetani lie in wait to be injected into some mammal there).
She’s focused on coding, its art and its results; her bank account and investments; her house at the beach and her apartment in the City where she works. She’s no good at being with people; she does reading detective novels, her music (light rock of the 80s and 90s – amusement there) and quiet moments of sunset. She’s not here to get involved with anyone, or to have adventures.
But adventure comes seeking her the moment she becomes remotely interested in someone romantically. This has never happened to her before, but as they say, there’s a first time even for the most unlikely of us.
And with that romance, and the compromises it engenders, she is dragged against her will into her first real adventure since she was a kid.
She remembers when she was a kid, making up stories, taping them, until she discovered machines and their intelligence; she loves them, their orderliness, their challenges, the fun and bravado of doing it well, better than the boys.
Copyright © 2011 Bob Jude Ferrante