FIRST AWARD WINNER
I was contemplating suicide when the phone rang harsh and clear on the wall in the kitchen. The familiar crackle of long distance momentarily brightened my spirits. Somebody was willing to pay to talk to me, and wasn’t that reason enough to live?
“Collect from Daktari,” an operator said, “will you take the call?”
Daktari — a codeword recognized by all members of a fraternal order I had joined and renounced years earlier, and to which all members of that order are honor-bound to respond, whether they are about to kill themselves or not.
Pen pal in love
My better instincts forbade it, but I accepted the charges for fear of violating some vague principle of universal morality. Besides, dead men don’t pay phone bills.
The familiar voice of Darrell T. McCaslin, my one-time mentor and inscrutable two-timing friend, broke through the static.
“I can’t believe you fell for the old Daktari phone scam. What thoughts, pray tell, have you so preoccupied that you would accept a collect call?”
“Thoughts of murder, asshole, and suicide,” I replied.
“You didn’t have to take the call,” he said.
“You didn’t have to make it.”
“So you’re going to kill yourself over it? Are you experimenting with some obscure tenet of romantic extremism? Let me guess, you’ve been reading too much Nietzsche again,” he said condescendingly.
“Camus,” I said.
“Ah, the French version of despair and hopelessness.”
“Required reading at UCSD. The fundamental question of philosophy, according to Camus, is whether or not to commit suicide. I have to come up with three solid reasons to live by Friday, or I’m dead — figuratively speaking, of course,” I said, wondering if the assignment accounted for a rise in the statistical death rate of graduate students.
“God, you’re morbid sometimes. You need to get laid,” he said, “which is why I called. I found the girl of your dreams. No joke. She’s perfect for you ...”
He’s at it again, I thought: selflessly scouring the globe for the woman who can give meaning to what he perceives as my otherwise tattered life. Once again he had found her, the dream made flesh, as he had three times before, and each time my slim hopes for compatibility had been blighted by the stale reality of the first date. I do not expect much from Darrell’s matchmaking efforts, and I usually get less.
“This girl...” he paused and I could hear scuffling and a shriek, “excuse me, woman — they insist on being called ‘women’ around here. This woman is a MENSA genius from a disgustingly rich family, and heiress to the family plastics fortune. She does the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in less than an hour, plays chess, writes poetry, reads Thomas Pynchon and Carl Jung but still gets a kick out of Bugs Bunny, plays tennis, skis, scuba dives and cooks award-winning Cajun-style gumbo outdoors over a mesquite fire she starts with nothing but two twigs and a piece of lint.
“She hates Bert Convy, matching designer furniture, kitsch art, shopping malls, pink and pastel green, decaffeinated coffee, Nancy Reagan., and the Los Angeles Rams. Furthermore, she has yet to meet a guy she’s romantically interested in. Oh, I almost forgot. She’s got a great body, and looks like a cross between Jaclyn Smith and Sally Field. She’s sitting right here — want to talk to her?”
“No thank you, Darrell. People like that scare me,” I said. “If she has such stellar qualifications, why don’t you go out with her? And where are you calling from? I can barely hear you.”
“She’s your dream girl, not mine,” he said. “And believe me, this place is full of them. I’m in a dormitory at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where 5000 of the nation’s brightest women are bustling through the ivied halls of academe without the distraction of men, except on weekends when they bus us Harvard boys in. Imagine all that stifled sexual energy exploding at once. Sparks the old synapses, doesn’t it?”
“Look, Darrell, I’m sure she’s a delightful person, but I don’t need a love connection, and I would prefer someone closer to home. Have you tried Doug Prescott? He’s willing to plan his life around a blind date,” I said, hoping to end the discussion.
“Just write her a letter,” he said. “You’re always saying you need a literate pen pal, so take advantage of an opportunity. At least you’ll get some mail out of it. Trust me, what have you got to lose?”
Darrell gave me her name, Jessica Trump, and address, and I resolved never to accept a collect call again.
I had no intention of writing a letter to someone I didn’t know, especially if she came recommended to me by a man whose twisted imagination has, on several drunken occasions, elevated many of God’s homeliest creatures to near-Aphrodite status. To Darrell, all brunettes look like a cross between Jaclyn Smith and Sally Field, and one is wise never to overestimate his powers of analogy.
Nevertheless, a few days after Darrell called, on a Friday night so dull the crickets were napping, I came across a piece of scratch paper on which I had written Jessica Trump’s address. I was in a writing mood, but I didn’t feel like focusing my energy on a specific project. I felt like writing a letter.
One is allowed a certain amount of artistic latitude when writing letters. Technical accuracy is not nearly as important as inventive fervor, and the untethered imagination enjoys roaming an epistolary field every so often.
In letter writing there is freedom to be weird, and who better to vent such strangeness on, I thought, than a repressed woman in Massachusetts whose only contact with men is besiegement on weekends by hormonally imbalanced Ivy Leaguers. The idea of imposing myself on a woman I didn’t know began to appeal to me.
As I sat down to write, I tried to imagine life at a women’s college. No doubt there were feminist rallies at lunchtime, with women like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug delivering guest lectures on the scourge of male domination in the workplace. The lesbian coalition was probably a powerful force on campus, and I wondered what their parties were like. Smith College, Nancy Reagan’s alma mater, is one of the finest schools in the country, however, so I had to believe that academic excellence was the primary attraction, and each student probably had her own reasons for not wanting to share a classroom with men. Maybe they attended private girls’ prep schools and were skeptical of the coed experience. Maybe they had brothers who beat them. Maybe they felt that men somehow diluted their intelligence.
In any case, it seemed like a difficult place to develop a relationship, especially if the only guys they met were bused in for parties on weekends. I can hardly think of a better way to magnify the deficiencies of my gender than to bus a drunken horde of them to a place where the women are said to be sexually starved; a place where they will not be held accountable for their actions because they are leaving Sunday afternoon, and unleash them without a hotel reservation into this steamy sanctuary of the mythically deprived.
Meaningful discourse with a man must be scarce in those situations. They must thirst for platonic conversation. Ironically, I thought, they probably fall in love with the first guy who doesn’t immediately want to have sex with them.
How easily one could initiate a postal romance with someone so isolated, I thought. It doesn’t take much to stir infatuation by mail, and you could probably get someone to actually fall in love if your letters were good enough.
In that incisive moment I began to devise a cold-hearted scheme of postal seduction. With deliberate malice aforethought, using only my typewriter, I was going to make this Jessica Trump, whoever she was, fall in love. Not with me, but with an image of the perfect man — an image I would create. He would be a character so appealingly vague that she would naturally project her own idealism onto him, subconsciously filling in the details of his flawlessness. Her heart was already as good as mine.
I would appeal to her frustration with men, sympathize with her, share my own carefully contrived disillusionment with the women in my life, and make her feel the pain of my emptiness. I would convince her that men from Princeton and Cornell were spineless lice, and that club ties and cocktails were the social equivalent of a brain tumor. I would be sensitive and moving in one paragraph, intuitive and witty in the next, carefully balancing the evocative weight of my yearning prose with a healthy sense of ironic amusement. She would be helpless to resist.
I felt a strange pride in knowing that I could remain emotionally detached from the project. Fabricating an irresistible male persona for a New England feminist intellectual was little more than a fiction writing exercise to me. I wanted her to fall in love with the idealized image of a person who didn’t exist, except on paper and in her mind, but the consequences of the undertaking did not concern me. I just wanted to see if I could do it.
First, I had to find out what her interests were and whether or not she was a willing correspondent. The game was going to be played by mail, so she had to respond to my letters quickly and frequently enough to sustain a more or less continuous line of communication. I figured that the success of my plan would depend on her eagerness to write.
I introduced myself as the guy who had been thinking about suicide a few days before, but who had decided to postpone the brutal act long enough to get a letter from her. I proposed that we use the U.S. mail as a forum for our ideas, which I was sure she would agree were numerous and complex and badly in need of articulating. Smart people like us, I said (flatter her mind, I thought), need to share our thoughts, and I maintained that I was willing to stay alive as long as she was willing to write to me — a ploy that I hoped was good for at least one letter.
It takes three days for a twenty-two-cent legal-size letter to go from San Diego to Massachusetts. It takes four days for the same letter to go from Massachusetts to San Diego. Nobody knows why east-west mail takes longer, but a week after licking the stamp on my first letter to Jessica Trump I had a response — five pages of textured blue rag-edge stationery encouraging me to channel my despair in her direction.
She assured me that if I kept writing she would give me plenty of reasons to live. Smart people like us, she said, still have doubts about their genius, and need to know that somebody else understands. She was enthusiastic about a postal exchange of ideas, and encouraged me to share my latest thoughts about death with her. The letter was heavily laced with sexual innuendo. She thought, for instance, that death must be the ultimate orgasm, and cited the writings of certain Eastern mystics on the subject.
I wrote back to explain that death was not nearly as interesting to me as love, and that if death really was the ultimate orgasm, there was no need to rush it, for I had not lost my interest in the average variety. Furthermore, I said, biggest, best, greatest, farthest, fastest, highest, tastiest, most expensive, or any other permutation of the fantastic absolute did not interest me because extremes tend to diminish the importance of everything that precedes them. I told her that I did not believe in hierarchies of pain and pleasure, good and bad, moral and immoral. I believed instead in the dance of experience, and accidentally stepping on other people’s shoes is part of that dance; the funny part. The human part.
I argued that the ultimate orgasm meant nothing and sounded like a notion concocted by some American committee on sexual excellence funded by the National Enquirer and Helen Gurley Brown. However, the idea would explain why there is traditionally no sex in heaven.
Death did not interest me, I said, because I felt that death was easy to understand. Death is the only thing that gives life meaning, and speculation beyond that fact is a waste of time. Love is interesting because it is impossible to understand; like God, Pee-wee Herman, and professional wrestling.
I wanted to create the image of a guy who was romantic by nature and temperament, but who saw the world clearly and was willing to broach the more difficult philosophical questions with insight and a sense of humor. How could she resist a guy like that, I thought, and mailed the letter, confident that my triumph would be swift and effortless.
Jessica Trump wrote back a week later, this time typing single-spaced on 100% cotton bond paper, with no mistakes.
She said she liked my letter overall, but there were parts, she felt, that were indelicately phrased, and some that were just plain ill-conceived. Regarding the ultimate orgasm and fantastic absolutes, she said I was philosophically myopic for not considering that death in this life is not necessarily the end of an individual’s existence, and that the extremes I spoke of were usually limited by lack of imagination and creative energy. She liked what I said about death giving meaning to life, but pointed out that it was textbook Freud, after all, and she was interested in original thoughts, not rehashings of ideas that have already been expressed.
She was confused, also, because I had mixed my talk of lust for experience with the idea that one should avoid extremes. Wasn’t this a contradiction? Isn’t there higher meaning to life if it is spent refining and perfecting human potential? And doesn’t this mean actively pursuing the limits of individual experience? How could she take me seriously if I insisted on sugarcoating my ideas with coy analogies and muddy thinking? She thought that perhaps I had been reading too many Tom Robbins novels and should try something meatier, like Goethe or Proust.
She also said that it was obvious I had never been in love, because if I had I would know that love is pure understanding, that love is life without the tarnish of intellectual doubt. She was sorry that I didn’t know about love, and asked me if I believed what I wrote, or did I merely write what I wanted to believe?
She added that she thought my letters were amusing and hoped I would keep writing. P.S. She included a short reading list.
There is a stubborn corner of the male ego which, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, will refuse to concede a battle of wits to a woman. He will concede beauty, compassion, elegance, style, sensitivity, and taste, but his dignity demands that he believe he is still the smarter of the sexes.
I should have recognized from our first exchange that I was in trouble. She had clearly thought circles around me. Vague thoughts begged questions in her mind, and evasive cleverness only sparked her curiosity about whatever I was hiding. She read deep into the core of every sentence, exposed flaws and awkward phrasing, and suggested ways to avoid such mistakes in the future. Where I had skipped along the surface, she had plumbed the depths. I was up against a woman with a better mind.
First Place Winner, Tad Simons
My capsulization of Jessica’s letter does not do justice to the way she flayed me. I hadn’t anticipated her perceptiveness, and was embarrassed that she had seen through my posturing so easily. I was ashamed that I had not been more convincing, and I saw that I was going to have to be more careful about what I wrote in the future.
I had severely underestimated her intelligence, but there was added intrigue in knowing that the magnitude of the challenge had escalated. She was not some lonely bimbo looking for love. She had a discriminating mind, so I had to devise a more ingenious approach to her heart. I had become more determined than ever to make her fall in love, and the dimension of resistance gave me new resolve.
I tried to remain detached from what I saw as the character I had created for her, but I had, after all, projected elements of myself in him and could not help but take some of her criticism personally. She was finding faults where I had tried to create a seamless image. This was not a woman who was going to be satisfied with image, however; she was too sensitive to deception.
I had not fared well on the love and death themes, so it seemed reasonable to change tactics. In my next letter I thanked her perfunctorily for her insights, and pretended to solicit her help on a paper I was writing. I set out to intellectually outduel her, to impress her with my knowledge of history, politics, and the solid issues of the world. I sifted through the library stacks and paraphrased articles from obscure journals, plagiarized indiscriminately from liberal political pamphlets, cited people who don’t exist, and flooded her with arcane information.
The tactic backfired, of course. She wanted to know why I had abandoned my previous line of thought, which she found worthwhile, and complained that she had been looking forward to a continuing discussion. She was sorry, but all that political stuff gave her a headache, and explained that she became queasy whenever she was forced to ponder the fate of the world. She felt sure that she could not help me with my paper, and could only suggest that I be more specific about my topic, whatever it was.
Besides she felt that most factual information was useless. What she cared about was the texture and quality of my thoughts. How did I really feel about things? Anyone can acquire knowledge, she said, but how much you know has nothing to do with the kind of person you are. Who are you? she asked. It seemed to interest her that I didn’t know.
Well, who was she? I was suddenly curious. Who was this person so adept at sniffing out deceit, and why was she so good at picking through the chaff and garbage of my thoughts to expose my essential weaknesses?
We exchanged letters every week for the next couple of months, and in that time my life changed dramatically. I began to structure my time around her letters. Communicating with her became the most stimulating activity in my life. As soon as I received a letter from her I would routinely sit down for the next eight or ten hours and pound out a response, and she did the same for me.
Her shrewd understanding of my character was eerie. It seemed that no matter what I wrote, she could detect evasiveness. She intuitively knew, when I was reluctant to clarify a certain thought or feeling, that I had avoided telling her something important about the essential me, the person I tried to hide behind the elaborate boundary of my personality.
Nothing, I felt certain, could be more frightening than a woman who demanded truth. Yet the more I wrote to her the more useless my pretenses became, and soon I was relieved to discard those timeless defenses and write honestly about my feelings. I began to tell her things about myself that I never knew, and had only discovered through writing to her. In turn, she was boldly candid about herself, even her sexual fantasies, one of which included several cans of motor oil and an anaconda. Writing to her became an obsession, and before I realized what had happened, I was totally and irrationally in love with her, and she with me. Then the phone calls started.
The first time she called I was worried that the magic rapport we had established in our letters would somehow dissolve with the immediacy of the telephone, but the apprehension was brief. We were able to segue easily into lucid, almost stream-of-consciousness conversations, feeding off each other’s thoughts as if our subconscious minds were electronically linked. It seemed as if our minds had developed a symbiotic relationship, and together we constituted a self-contained thinking unit that sparked what we both agreed was almost dangerous creative energy.
Our first phone call lasted four hours, and when I offered to split the cost with her she assured me that finances were no problem. “My grandmother has given me some money to play with,” she said. “The only stipulation is that I use it to improve my life, and I feel like my life improves every time I think about you.”
Women in love seem programmed for poetry. Men in love are programmed for gibberish. The second time Jessica called we talked for six hours, long distance from Massachusetts to San Diego, after which she said, “This may sound absurd, but I’ll bet we could dodge the cost of this phone call if we kept the line open for, say, twenty-four hours and three minutes. I would claim that a twenty-four-hour phone call is impossible, complain that their computer screwed up, and demand a refund. What could they do?”
“You know,” I said, “one more phone call like this one and you could just as easily have flown out here.”
She paused for a moment. I could hear her thinking, and then she said, “My spring break is next week, and I haven’t made any plans. I could catch a flight the day after tomorrow if you want me to.”
It was Thursday. She could be here on Saturday. I was stunned by the thought of meeting her in person. We were in love, that was for sure, and in a couple of days it would be possible to do what lovers do best. I couldn’t think. I could barely speak. “Sounds fantastic,” I said. “Book a flight and let me know what time you come in.”
“Are you sure?” she said. “You don’t even know what I look like. You might think I’m ugly.”
I scoffed at the suggestion that physical appearance could taint our love. How superficial did she think I was? We were soul mates, remember?
“Sure I’m sure,” I said, but as soon as I hung up and my head began to clear, I wasn’t so sure anymore.
Did it really matter to me what she looked like as long as she wasn’t physically repulsive? Certainly the woman I envisioned attached to her voice was beautiful, but all I really knew about her appearance was what Darrell had told me on the phone — that she was supposedly a cross between Jaclyn Smith and Sally Field. Hell, even Jaclyn Smith doesn’t look like herself without the help of a five-man makeup crew, and wouldn’t it be Darrell’s style to set me up with a dwarf or an albino and lie about it?
Jessica assured me that men found her attractive, but she did not consider herself particularly beautiful, which is how I assume most women assess themselves. I could not call Darrell because he was spending the semester in Paris, so all I could do was trust his judgment — a frightening prospect all by itself.
But wasn’t there something deeper here? Wasn’t I above the trivial tits-and-ass nonsense that blinds people to the delicate chemistry of true love? Isn’t love essentially spiritual? And hadn’t we already established that spiritual connection? How important was biological need compared to harmony of the soul? Biology was too simple, I concluded, and our love was infinitely complex, like DNA. I understood this, and she would understand it too, because we understood each other.
The banality of my thoughts was disheartening. I had listened to my mind’s dialogue countless times spoken from the plastic lips of actors in the melodrama of my nightmares. Could there be an element of truth to the afternoon turmoil of the soaps, or was I taking my cues from the artificial passion of a thousand television love affairs? I could only be sure of two things — that I was in love with someone I had never even seen a picture of, and I was scared.
I was scared because I knew that I had elevated Jessica’s loveliness beyond human proportions. I was not in love with her, per se, but with the magnificent ideal she had come to symbolize. Her letters and her voice had become my metaphor for the perfect woman. Whatever faults she had, I erased with my imagination, and I was sure that nobody on the planet could live up to my inflated expectations in person. I had to prepare myself for a letdown.
Saturday afternoon the air was unusually clear, and the water on the bay was flat and oily. Winds from the desert had blown the smog and haze out over the ocean, and a thick rusty cloud stretched across the blue horizon. My stomach was tight as I drove toward the airport.
The airport lobby smelled of cigarettes and luggage. Three marines stood next to a cement pillar and laughed at something as I walked by. I was a little early so I tried to compose myself. I stood next to a phone booth and watched a couple from Texas retrieve their baggage. They seemed to be missing a piece. The flight number changed, and people from Phoenix started to gather.
The overhead speaker finally crackled; Flight 236 from Boston had just arrived, and Jessica was on it. The choir began to tune up — a thousand muffled screams beating against the wall of my stomach.
I stood and looked down the corridor through which all arriving passengers must walk to reach the lobby. A glass partition and a turnstile gate separated the tunnel from the lobby, and I could see the first wax-faced passengers from Boston filing into the long blue hall. A short bearded man carrying a black briefcase led the pack of stiff-legged travelers up the ramp. People shuffled toward the gate and children mashed their noses against the cold glass, fogging it with their innocent breath.
And then I saw her.
She walked slowly and seemed to float along the wall as if she were being carried on a thick blue cloud. She wore a yellow blouse and swung a small purse in time with her easy step. Other passengers hurried by her, but she ignored them. Her thin smile hid a vague but obvious joy. She seemed to be savoring the journey, prolonging the sweet agony of anticipation, unwilling to rush the moment when we would finally meet face-to-face and know at once that our love was genuine, not another hollow fantasy whisked away by the black hand of fate.
She was stunningly beautiful.
Love beat like dove wings in my brain. The choir in my stomach strained at the chorus. She gripped the steel arm of the turnstile in her velvet hand and pushed her way into the lobby where I stood. My mind went blank. I tried to collect my thoughts as I watched her glance expectantly in my direction. To my horror she looked straight at me, her smile broadened, and she squealed as if she recognized me. Never had anyone been so visibly excited to see me.
She had the unmistakable dew of love in her eyes, and I tried to smile as she came toward me. I opened my mouth, but just as I was about to speak, one of the marines I had seen earlier brushed by me and threw his tattooed arms around her. She squealed again and mashed her soft lips against the cracked, sunburnt lips of the marine. A sour bile rose in my throat as I watched the marine slide his hairy arm down her side and take the full round cheek of her buttock in his hand. The tattoo of a long dagger pulsed on his forearm as he squeezed her, and I could hear his buddies chuckle behind me.
An hour later the last passenger on the plane had long since picked up his luggage and there was no Jessica Trump. The airline desk informed me that she had made a reservation but never checked in, and that she had not rebooked herself on the following flight.
I tried to call her when I got home but there was no answer. I few days later I received a postcard from Florida that read:
I’m sorry I couldn’t go through with it. You were right about fantastic absolutes. We would only have disappointed each other. To “La recherche du temps perdu.”
She disconnected her phone shortly thereafter and never answered my letters pleading for a more substantial explanation. I didn’t need it, though, because I understood completely. Sometimes a memory is not worth risking. Thank you, Jessica, for having the courage to preserve ours.
ABOUT THE CONTEST
Appearing in this issue are the three remaining winning entries from the 1985 Reader writing contest — the first-award winner and two more honorable mentions. (The second-award winner and three additional honorable mentions were published in last week’s issue.) Also included this week are a number of stories that did not win cash awards but that we felt were nonetheless deserving of publication.
Entrants were invited to submit stories detailing an incident in their lives that called for a courageous response: anything from an act of heroism to speaking one’s mind. Conversely, we suggested that they might recount a moment of failure, when the “right stuff” turned out to be in short supply. We received 558 entries, 327 of which were written by women. Men submitted another 231 stories. Authors ranged in age from ten to eighty, and story lengths varied from just a few lines to more than twenty pages.
More often than not, we read stories of private heroism from people who had survived unthinkable tragedy. Many contributors were victims of assault or robbery, while others had stumbled onto a crime in progress. Some people wrote dramatic stories of area disasters: canyon fires, boating accidents, and car wrecks. For others, courage was the strength to overcome a chemical dependency, or a phobia, or emotional trauma. We also received humorous stories about a first parachute jump or first marathon or a date at last with the person of his or her dreams.
As tantalizing as all this reading was for the contest judges, due to space considerations, only a few dozen submissions have been published. To whet your curiosity, therefore, and to offer a glimpse into the two-foot-high stack of manuscripts that came into our office, here is a sampling of some of the most memorable opening lines from contest entries.
— Death and I had met many times — or so I thought.
— The most cruelly obscure event in my life was my birth.
— My fear wasn’t a glamorous one.
— On October 18, I had the Chicken Skin Dream.
— I walked along the dark and diabolically twisted road.
— Who ever said dentistry was a science?
— It was a crisp, windy day, the kind horses hate.
— When William Shatner said that space was the final frontier, he had obviously never seen our garage.
— We claustrophobics have to help each other.
— Put your fingers in your ears and your head under a faucet of running water and you will have a wisp of an idea of that unforgettable sawing sound I heard as the skin of my frozen face was sliced open.
— I looked down past my knees, past my toes, all the way to the asphalt below.
— I was under twenty-one and bored!
— Like a first sexual encounter, a first autopsy is thought about carefully and planned out in detail.
— Screams pierced the stillness of the night.
— A cat has nine lives, a man’s knee only one.
— One time I saw a man grab a girl and push her into the back of his car.
— “Put down that knife!”
— It was one of those wholly unexpected and wonderful things that stumbles into one’s life like the sudden death of a rich relative that no one really liked.
It was our pleasure to host this year’s writing competition, and we thank everyone who entered.
Honorable Mention, Merc Morse
The summer sun of 1973 squinted through cool, coastal California fog, as our sand-colored, four-wheel-drive Bronco approached the international border south of San Diego. By noon, we’d be parched by 110-degree desert heat, and by evening — who knows? Dead or alive? Rich or poor? Take your pick!
Paul and I silently counted chickens. Two thousand kilos of marijuana — grass, weed, pot, product — purchased in Mexico for fifty-five dollars per kilo, worth $125 per kilo in San Diego (more back East), computed a gross profit of $140,000.
We entered Mexico without incident, passed through Tijuana, and met our “amigos” at the east end of the city, where, ignoring the traumatic traffic, we carefully inspected the new, huge camper shell which bulged atop the four-wheel-drive truck on which it and our fortunes rested. The Monster, with massive front end, extra-wide sand tires, and ominous suspension, ate Volkswagens for breakfast. Inside, even more intimidating, slept two tons of weed.
The load was “guaranteed.” If something went wrong in Mexico, the contraband would be “repurchased” (Mexican police are extremely opportunistic — if twenty tons of weed are confiscated, over half will trickle back to the dealers) and the “criminals” set free. A comforting thought. Mexico’s infamous prisons are not summer vacation paradises.
I led the parade, alone in the Bronco. Following in the loaded truck was Paul, young, Italian, handsome, witty, and usually full of humor and conversation. Behind Paul, in a new Pontiac with Mexican plates, came the “fixers,” just in case. We headed east into cloudless skies, rising heat, and lurking mountains. A seeming eternity of miles into a foggy future, we would leave the Mexican highway, cross the desert and border, then turn west to San Diego and safety.
Using ranchers’ vernacular, we checked the expensive and illegal radio equipment installed in each vehicle.
“Okay, Paul, I’ve finished with that fence line. Looks good to me. Don’t think any stock’ll git through there. Talk at ya later. Bye now.”
“Okay, Bob. See ya later.”
Once we cower in the shadows of the vigilant mountains, we’ll assume virtual freedom from detection by the Mexican authorities, but first we must survive an ever-present agricultural checkpoint and another infrequently operated check at a decrepit dam imprisoning a nameless river. Earlier, scouts ascertained that the federales — the Mexican federal police — had instigated no spot checks on this major smuggling route. The check at the dam frightened me, because there was no space in which to retreat, and the federales don’t shy from shooting the uneducated smuggler who contemplates escape.
Though traffic was heavy through the twisting foothills on this beautiful morning, I decelerated often to remain in pre-planned proximity of the heavily loaded, less maneuverable truck.
“Gettin’ awful hot already, Bob,” came Paul’s message. “Don’t push yourself too hard.” That was my signal to slow down.
I envisioned Paul, black hair becoming curlier as the sweat grew heavier on his face, up-shifting and down-shifting, eyes sprinting from road to rearview mirrors. Is his stomach churning like mine? Do we share the same fears today?
As the sun continued to rise, so did the temperature. It would probably be at least 120 degrees in the desert. My hands were sticky-slimy on the wheel as I approached the agricultural check, drawing neither nod nor recognition from the guards, who, luckily, were all taking advantage of the shade on their small porch, facing away from the traffic they supposedly watched. Piece of cake! I immediately relayed the good news. Now, only the dam. And then, the mountains — and the desert.
The dam ambushes your senses. It snaps you from your daydream back into the present with an odor of breathless doom. It is ancient, twisting, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. You are an intruder in another time, at another place, a sacred place, where you are not trusted, whence you will hastily depart once released from this nightmare. For me, the nightmare continued, but my presence on the western side of the dam road aroused no attention from the guards as the Bronco tiptoed across. One side of the dam falls steeply for hundreds of feet into the calm waters, low now during the dry season. The other side falls even more steeply into the dry bed that appears as no more than a trickle of muddy water caressing its rocky bottom. No time for scenery! The road is narrow, the width of an alley, and I wonder at the skill of the semitractor drivers as they meet with seeming indifference, mere inches separating their behemoths and the containing sides of the bridge. I lack their confidence, and stop to allow one of the giants to negotiate a curve, then continue on my errand, remindful that I have never cared for high places. A great involuntary sigh escapes my open mouth as I reach the other side of the aged crossing. I remember that Paul is waiting.
“Paul, I crossed the gully and I’m checking out the other side now. Don’t see any strays. Why don’t ya come on over and give me a hand.”
“Right, podnuh, I’m on my way. Seeee youuu!” Paul’s relaxed humor informs me that he has smoked a joint.
Mexico’s Highway 2 from Tijuana to Mexicali is no interstate. Rising almost a mile from slightly above sea level, then dropping eagerly a mile to the desert, it hardly deserves the nomenclature of “highway.” To win one mile you twist five rubberprotesting miles, back and forth.
The absence of guardrails leaps into your cowardly, already paranoid mind, and, if the thought fades too quickly, it reappears as you gaze down thousands of feet while negotiating the hairpin turns. The dead toy trucks and cars lay strewn among rocks and giant boulders, discarded, no longer played with, and they will pray for rust and decay to erase the painful memories of their screaming, jolting trips downward, but the prayers remain unheeded in the heat and lack of moisture. As I drive, I wonder if Paul will know the same awesome helplessness as he steers the overloaded Monster through these same turns.
We are alone now — Paul and I. The Mexicans left after our safe crossing of the dam. Jesus, if anything would happen now. A laugh expurgates even the thought of such a chance occurrence. Nothing will go wrong!
I am almost to the top of the mountain pass, and my speed varies from about five miles per hour behind a slow, snorting truck to almost fifty on some of the rare patches of straight, empty road. I hope that Paul is faring as well, because we have temporarily surrendered communication to the mountain. However, we have a code for such situations. Two presses on the “mike” button when starting a message mean that everything is proceeding smoothly, and two presses are all I hear from Paul.
The door of hell’s furnace opens and the heat hits me; it really, actually, honest-to-God hits me. It hits like a bale of straw, but smothers like a blanket. I have reached the top and have started down into that final life-draining barren expanse of desert. I swallow for breath, and the sweat drenches my heavy denim trousers and forty-dollar Gino Paoli shirt. I shift the Bronco down one gear. Even though it is new and the brakes faultless, the toy trucks and cars are etched in my mind, and I harbor no desire to relinquish to that silent graveyard the riches and good life I hope soon to enjoy. Son of a bitch, let this day be over!
The trip downward is a replica of the ascent to the top, except for the rapidly rising temperature. As the temporary goose bumps envelope me, I smile to be shivering in such an inferno.
I traversed the mile downward in less than ten minutes, watching myself from somewhere above, not really believing what I was doing, again desiring release from this nightmare — to be among people I know, to be doing the friendly, secure things I always do, to be done with this thing which labels me a criminal, although I consider it neither criminally nor morally wrong. There is no way to convey the feeling of isolation and despair imparted by the threat of capture. Those who have never been there, will never know. Paul and I had agreed to meet for gas, a few beers, and mutual encouragement at a small general store/service station at the bottom of the mountains — the beginning of the desert.
The heat was intolerable as I pulled into the pump area, shutting my eyes tightly against it and the raging pressure inside my stomach as the Mexican filled the Bronco’s tank. Then, not trusting to chance, I insisted on checking the oil myself, but did not risk opening the closed cooling system. As I finished paying and was leaving the pump area, the Monster rolled in, Paul in the saddle. I half-slouched in the shade of a patio, exhausted after only a quarter hour in the sun, and watched silently as he checked his truck as carefully as I had checked the Bronco.
“Hey, buddy, good day for a dope deal, huh?” he joked, ambling over to where I rested.
I smiled. Paul had a sense of humor, which, coupled with his general personality, could put a man on the gallows in a good mood.
“Dos cervezas, por favor! ” I shouted through the open door to the lady at the counter inside, and she immediately produced two partially cool bottles of Carta Blanca — a panacea.
“You think an ice-cold Coors won’t taste good tonight?” I asked. Coors was Paul’s favorite.
“ Yup, and a couple of numbers,” added Paul.
“Right on, brother.” I whooped, and we gave each other five, arousing the amused interest of a couple of Mexican truck drivers dozing in the shade. The place consisted of an old adobe and plank building, newly painted a bright yellow, with a haphazardly patched wooden roof which wouldn’t last a month in a rainy climate, and the covered patio area that had been thrown on as an afterthought. Attar of shit emanated from a large adobe outhouse which boasted two genuine toilets, without the advantages of running water. How clever! You used the toilets and everything slowly oozed down the large hole underneath. And there were the flies — born and raised to hate gringos. No Mexican home or business in this area, of which the main building served as both, would be complete without the everpresent ninos, and there were four of them, running in and out, oblivious to the heat.
“Jesus,” I panted to Paul, “how can they take it? I know I’d die if I had to spend just a week in this heat, let alone work in it.”
We re-entered the building to replenish our beers. Inside, among the droning flies, were a few tables, an old glass-covered counter protecting some probably melted candy bars and small bags of potato chips and cigarettes, and an electric cooler purchased at a bargain during Prohibition. It sounded like Bogart’s diesel in African Queen. One wall displayed a two-year-old calendar and some of the inane cardboard, plastic, and metal advertising placards distributed to clients by the beer and soft drink companies in any country.
Outside, I shuddered with the feeling of hopelessness that the whole scene conveyed, and longed to move away, but the knowledge of what lay ahead was a magnet commanding us to linger over the tepid beer, unspeaking, but communicating nonetheless with the unbroken bond of danger we shared. Silently we started toward the trucks, each rehearsing our actions for the tortuous hour ahead, knowing we faced the greatest dangers from men and nature we had ever imagined.
I winced as I opened the door of the Bronco. When the sun is unmercilessly unopposed by clouds, smog, or haze, and the temperature in any shade to be found is in excess of 120 degrees, bare metal feels like a hot plate. The seat stung and clung to my completely soaked clothing, and when I touched the steering wheel, I wished for a pair of gloves. The ignition key was so hot I had to try three times before starting the engine. The salty sweat poured into my eyes, yet wiping caused more irritation. Air conditioning was taboo, since it would diminish hearing and dangerously overheat the vehicles.
The terrain and asphalt road wavered through the rising heat waves, as seen through the grotesquely distorted mirror in an amusement house. We were swimming in a huge pool of boiling brine, trying to keep our eyes open and our heads clear.
I reviewed, for at least the thousandth time, our plan and precautions. Once into the desert and out of sight of the highway, we would stop and change into four-wheel drive. Paul would give me a one-mile lead, using our much-rehearsed route. We would remain in constant communication, using ranchers’ jargon. In approximately forty minutes, before crossing the border, I would stop, notify Paul, and then scan with my powerful binoculars for any trace of movement which could indicate Border Patrol or U.S. Customs activities. No rock hunter or camper would foolishly risk his life in this heat. If I detected nothing, I would tell Paul and continue across the border into the United States. Paul would proceed to the border and wait. I would make a seven-minute run across a wide and very sandy gully. On the other side I would quickly scan with the glasses, and if everything were clear, Paul would join me, and we would run for the highway on the American side. If Paul remained on the Mexican side of the border as long as possible, he could retrace his route. The Border Patrol and Customs agents could not follow him into Mexico, and cooperation and radio communications with Mexican authorities was nil. Primarily, I watched for airplanes and Customs people. While practicing the route in a dune buggy, we had once been spotted by a Customs officer, who had identified himself and briefly questioned us. He wore no uniform and wheeled an old pickup truck.
Any desert activity must be suspect.
The Monster’s horn blasted me back. I had missed the turn-off.
Shit, what a dummy!
We left the highway and were soon concealed in the desert. My stomach tightened as we jumped from our trucks to change into four-wheel. As Paul came around the side of his truck mimicking a panting dog, I noticed the heat rash on his normally smooth-shaven, clear-skinned face.
“San Diego,” I stated simply as we shook hands.
“San Diego,” he repeated.
I picked my way slowly through the small sharp rocks that often littered the path, keeping a close watch for ocotillo branches.
Although both vehicles were expensively equipped, the hot, arid desert bakes the spiny branches of the ocotillo bush into railroad spikes, capable of puncturing any tire built by man. A puncture on the Bronco meant that we would abort and retrace our tracks in the Monster. We were undecided on our actions if the payload vehicle had a flat. Depending on the terrain, we could possibly change it, but to leave it would be giving it up for good to either Mexican or U.S. agents. If both vehicles should stall or become mired in the sand, we faced a walk in which we estimated our chances of survival at fifty-fifty, not a pleasant thought. Hopefully, we would never know. Top speed was twenty-five miles per hour because of the now sandy, now rocky terrain, and my Bronco bucked and swayed.
I continually watched the skies and desert. Everything seemed normal, so I called Paul. “Hey, podnuh, how about cornin’ up and havin’ a cold beer?”
“Okay, I’m on my way.”
I was suddenly disoriented. I blinked to focus, and the desert was unfamiliar. I stopped, performing in a slow-motion instant replay as I climbed laboriously from the Bronco and toward the water can on the back. The burning metal of the can radiated a faraway warm glow to my hands and fingers as I fumbled with the cap. Somehow I balanced the can on the truck, knelt, and allowed the scorching water to inundate my head. It worked! The haze cleared and my hands retreated from the searing bare metal. I tried to drink, but it was too hot. Cursorily, I resealed the can and glanced back. Half a mile behind I distinguished Paul’s small cloud of dust.
Back in the Bronco, Paul was calling.
“Hey, Bob, you all right?’’ his voice mirrored concern, and he had dropped the cowboy talk.
“Sure. No problem, just a little warm.”
“Okay, let’s go! ” came his nervous reply.
Everything that previously had seemed so simple was now complex. Why hadn’t we noticed those foothills? Was that a plane? Every foot was strewn with a new torture, and each rock or stretch of sand provided a new mirage of fear. What if the Customs people are waiting? They’re probably watching us now! And the heat — the never-ending, all-encompassing heat, searing lungs and parching burlap throats. But we were nearing that invisible dividing line which would magically transform the Monster’s treasure from $110,000 to $250,000, and that made this agony worthwhile. Didn’t it? God, what am I doing here?
I received and sent our terse messages automatically, unthinking. I surrendered to the heat and rolled in its blanket. I wonder if people dying in the desert just give in, as they say people freezing to death do? I wonder if I’ll just fall asleep and never wake up?
The border! There it is! A simple silver monument in the middle of nowhere, guarding only itself.
My mind cleared as I let Paul know my location. “I’m checking the fence line now, old buddy. Don’t see any bad places.”
“That’s good. Keep me posted.” That meant Paul would stop, hopefully one mile distant, and wait until I had scanned the border area with the binoculars. The binoculars! Jesus, I had forgotten. My hands shook as I fumbled with the case, and I had to go to the bathroom.
Hell, I’d do it in my diapers gladly if I could be in San Diego right now. The heat of the eyepieces singed my cheeks and eyes as I scanned the area. Anything close to the ground was blurry and jumping — a great haze. Apparently today’s temperature was far in excess of what we expected. While practicing, we could see much more. But I spotted no activity, and realized that no agents could maintain a desert vigil today. “Hey, Paul, the fence is fine. See you at the ranch, huh? I’m headin’ in. Too hot out here.”
Paul prefaced his reply with two depressions of his mike switch. “Okay. See ya at the ranch.”
At least he sounded like a rancher. I sounded like an Englishman with a Texas drawl.
Fifteen minutes from wealth and freedom. Now — the most dangerous portion of the crossing, the gully. It required approximately seven minutes to cross to the top of the other side, from where I could effectively stand watch. But for those seven minutes I would be useless to Paul. If a Customs or Border Patrol vehicle entered the desert from the American highway, neither of us could see it. Also, the bottom of the gully was a mass of soft sand which threatened to bog down even four-wheelers. The Bronco could make it, but for obvious reasons, we had never experimented with the loaded Monster, which, once settled in the sand, immune to spinning or pulling, would become a quarter of a million dollar morning newspaper item.
I nosed down into the gully, sliding and twisting, the heat increasing as I fell into that airless void. I hit the path on the bottom and accelerated. Even so, I was making headway at ten miles per hour, and the heat gauge was approaching the danger point. Don’t stop, horse! You can cool off later! Slipping and drifting, like a car on a frozen lake, I hit the other side and headed up, the gauge now on red, an occasional sputter. Halfway! Three-quarters! Now, almost the top! I wonder if God answers prayers for dope deals?
I wonder if God smokes? Good stuff?
The other side, on top of the gully again. For the past five minutes I haven’t noticed the heat, though my eyes are almost closed from the sweat and even my shoes are flooded. I ignore the binoculars. I merely glance around and get on the radio. Enough of the cowboy talk! “Okay, Paul, okay. I can’t see anything. Come on, roll that big fucker! ”
“All right. See you at the ranch.” Paul has also dropped his slang.
Nine minutes. I am both so nervous and happy that I don’t even worry about Paul getting stuck, my glances quickly directed to the sky, now to the desert, to the foothills, now to the distant highway, behind me, up again, back to the hills.
Hurry, Paul! Hurry!
I hear the straining engine before I see it, and I jump before my heart misses a few. “Oh, no.” I whisper, and reach for the mike to warn Paul, but before I can think of what to say, Paul and Monster appear over the top of the gully. I drown in an ocean of relief, the ecstasy patients feel when the doctor tells them the tumor is benign. It is only Paul. Only Paul? Only? It is two-ton Paul, not just any Paul. I am laughing. “I love you.” I am shouting at him. Laughing.
“Get going, you asshole!” he yells back.
Three minutes. Three minutes from the road. Three minutes, God, just three minutes. I lurch the Bronco forward. It coughs once, twice, until it smooths out and I’m soon up to thirty-five, the maximum on the final, three-minute run to the road.
I glance at my watch. Two minutes. Paul is behind me, and we’re both raising too much dust, but this is no time for caution.
“Shit! Shit! Paul, four-wheel!” I scream into the mike. In our excitement of surviving the gully we had forgotten to disengage the four-wheel drives. I skid to a stop. Paul is blinded by dust, so the Monster pulls around me, crabbing sideways in the sand.
“Jesus Christ,” he yells, leaping from the Monster to unlock his hubs. I fumble with mine. They are scorching my fingers, probably the hottest place on the Bronco, but I release them in record time. Even so, Paul is already behind the wheel.
“Fuck, let’s go!” he angrily screams.
Still two minutes. I pull ahead and race across the sand. Fuck the rocks! Fuck the sharp sticks! We’re almost there.
One minute! I see traffic on the road, but it’s only a semi and a gasoline tanker. Judas Priest, one minute. This is it, I tell myself, we’ve made it. Oh, please, we made it. Please.
We’re there. A bump, and I’m skidding onto the blacktop, headed west for the first time today. It is 2:30 p.m. Paul is behind me. No traffic. We’re safe! We’re rich!
We’re both singing into the mikes, voices scratchy and dry. “San Diego, here we come....”
There is no more heat, no more churning in my stomach, just elation, total elation. I am planning my night. First, a shower. Then, a number. Then, some wine. No! Champagne! Then a meal. Not a meal — a feast. I plan the menu carefully for five minutes. And the ladies — can’t forget the ladies.
The slowly falling flakes of fatigue and depression settle. But I am content beyond description. This makes everything worthwhile. The mountains, the desert, the heat, the flies, the expenses, the planning.
For years I shall dream of the toy cars and trucks. □
Honorable Mention, Jenny Cantor
Jenny J. Cantor
The job came with: $31,000 a year, free health insurance, a company car, major credit cards, and an office with two Ficus benjamina trees, one set of French doors opening onto a private courtyard, and a secretary outside an inner door.
It is 5:10 on Friday, the last day of my first week as the director of marketing for an international hotel and food service chain. Three folders, tan, black, and cream, are fanned out on one side of my desk. They are my first marketing presentations for this firm and they are good ones. It will be a pleasure to present them to the food division’s vice president at ten o’clock next Monday morning. There will be no need to bluff through a less than well prepared section, no need to hesitate to answer any questions.
The research is thorough. The reports are concise. The conclusions are reasonable. The goals can be achieved.
Professionally and personally it has been a smooth, seamless week. The company seems to attract agreeable people who appear to be pleased that I will work with them. I have not yet met anyone who puts me off, although I am not naive; I know that there is, lurking out there, someone whom I will soon avoid going with to lunch, and he with me. On the other hand, from the twenty or so people I have met, it looks as if one good friendship will develop and that pleases me very much.
For the first time in a long time the weekend looms as a waste of time. I am eager for the next week to begin.
Through my open office door I hear talk and laughter from the office across the hall. I will go over there in a few minutes but first, first I want to savor the pleasure of knowing I made a good choice when I took this job.
“Hey, Harvey. Pour yourself a drink.”
“Harvey’s here? Say, little fella, after the week you’ve had, I didn’t think you’d want to show your face around here.”
“Screw it, Phil. After the week I’ve had ...”
“Yeah. Lay off Harvey, Phil.
What do you want to do? Make a little Jew-boy cry?”
A little Jew-boy cry? No. I did not hear that. The distance across the hall distorts the sound. A little Jew-boy cry? A-little-Jew-boy-cry? No one makes that kind of remark nowadays.
Steve does. I hold a wine glass in my right hand to avoid shaking his hand and I am relieved to hear his office is in another wing, that he is in operations and so rarely wanders down here. With a little luck this will be the last time I will have to make small talk with him. I drink half a glass of wine and go home. By the time I have changed for dinner I have forgotten the episode.
A week later I will think of it when I am with three co-workers and the president of our division in a car driving up to the TWA terminal in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
My boss speaks to the driver of the car.
“Pull up there in front of the blackbird.”
“The what?” says the driver.
“The blackbird. The jigaboo,” says Mr. Miller. “There. Him. The nigger. The Neeeegro.”
“Don’t ever think that people who say nigger just dislike Negroes. People who use words like that are miserable bigots who don't like anybody different from themselves.” My daddy was never one to mince words and if my daddy was right, then I worked for the most miserable people in San Diego County.
My co-workers tossed off spic, yid, kike, and nigger. They poked fun at Mormons, Muslims, and the Pope. They told jokes about drunken Irishmen, dumb Polacks, and even dumber Swedes. Mexicans drove Chevys. Jews drove Cadillacs (also known as Jew canoes). Blacks ate watermelon. Mexicans loved beans.
In the 1960s, in a college lecture hall, I listened to a civil rights worker explain why he had spent a summer in the south. “It is easy to ignore a person’s right to be treated with dignity and respect, to think he deserves less than you, if you attach diminishing, childlike, or derogatory stereotypes to his identity as a human being. For nineteen years I listened to those stereotypes without comment and when I did, it was to take the first step toward becoming comfortable in a world filled with injustice toward others. When I was twenty it was time to share that injustice, even if only for one summer.”
“Amen, brother,” called out someone from the back of the hall.
“Right on,” said someone else, and the rest of us stood up to applaud and to cheer.
In the 1970s I repeated his words and my daddy’s to my own children.
I taught them there was no difference between the people who used racial and religious epithets and the people who let them pass without comment. All were beneath our contempt.
In 1981, Monday through Friday, I put on a dress-for-success suit, got into my company car, drove to my office with two Ficus benjamina trees — and there I said nothing, nothing at all.
Some of the things said at the office were funny and I could talk about them at home.
“How was your day today, Mom?”
“Not bad. First thing this morning I was told I was headed straight for hell. It made the rest of the day seem like a walk in the park.”
Mr. Miller had brought Mrs. Miller into my office to meet me.
“Mr. Miller is so fond of you,” she said. “He speaks of you so often.”
“Thank you. I’m so glad to meet — ”
“He says over and over again, what a shame it is that a lovely young woman like you will have to suffer in hell for all eternity. ..”
(“What? What did she say?”)
“... because you won’t accept our Lord as your savior. . . . You know, I’ve always wanted to know something. Is it true you people won’t let your children have a Christmas tree?”
There were other things said that I could not retell, for an anecdote is not funny when the joke is on you.
“We are on for lunch today, aren’t we? We can go in my new Christmas present.”
“Great, Carol. What did you get? The Mercedes?”
“You bet I did. And did Alan get a good buy. He Jewed that man down but good.”
I stared at Carol and she laughed. “Oh, don’t give me that look. That expression is as common as Kleenex. It doesn’t mean a thing.”
A line had been drawn and when I did not speak out to Carol at lunch, I crossed it.
Never mind that I was a coward for fear of losing the perfect job. Never mind that I continued to work, drink, eat meals, travel, and exchange birthday cards with people who offended and insulted me, and the people I know and love. Never mind that I lost my self-respect; and if my family and friends knew what I accepted without comment, I would lose their respect too.
What appalled me then, and is still painful to recall now, is that, at two in the morning when sleep would not come, I would lie in bed and excuse my behavior. I could rationalize it so well and justify it so neatly that by morning I was ready, even eager, to go to work again.
For over a year I never said anything to anyone. Not at the office. Not at home. Not even when Mr. Miller stopped at my office door at 11:45 on a February morning and said, “A little high on the production budget. See if you can call on the expertise of your ancestors and Jew them down.”
That does it! I stood up. How dare he say that to me. But Mr. Miller was gone.
It is true. It is not a worn-out image used by careless writers. Knees do buckle. They can wobble back and forth in their sockets so violently and so rapidly that they will not support your body. I sat down and when I could control myself I went out to my car.
East on 1-8 to Ramona. County back roads to Rancho Bernardo. The Del Dios Highway to Rancho Santa Fe. South on 1-5, east on 94, Spring Street through La Mesa, and east on 1-8 again.
Rain fell, the windshield wipers thumped, “You have to quit, you have to quit,” but I knew, snug inside that big American, gas guzzling, loaded-with-optional-extras company car, that I would not.
Damn it all. I liked, no loved, to know that I was one of the tiny percent of single working women who paid taxes on over $30,000 a year. I loved to call a meeting to order from the chair at the head of the table, to set policy others would work under, to sit behind my great big desk while suppliers and sales reps scrambled to present their bids to me. I loved the travel, my leather case full of business cards, and my two Ficus benjamina trees. I loved every single thing I had gained in exchange for my integrity.
In the 1960s I knew there was no price I would take for my principles In the 1970s I waffled. A million dollars maybe, but more likely it would take two. In 19821 knew what I would take, for I took it: $20,644 a year (net), one company car, free health insurance, a set of French doors, and two Ficus benjamina trees.
Gentle reader, do not think you are to read a neat resolution to this story. Do not think that I ever rose i the occasion, that there was a moment of truth when I stood up fc what I believed in; stood up in a conference room full of people to give a fiery speech on the meaning of brotherhood and the Bill of Rights and then marched out into t! sunset with the sound of applause and cheers ringing in my ears; for gentle reader, I never said anything at all.
Before I could, the Reagan recession swept us all away. The division I worked for folded. One t one, we took our severance pay am left.
For months afterward, while driving the freeways in my own ca while waiting in airports, in doctor and dentists’ offices, while standing in lines at the supermarket and at the DMV, I imagined myself back the offices and corridors of the company headquarters. I saw myself there presenting my point of view to my co-workers intelligently, reasonably, and with dignity. I was poised and self-possessed as I did the honorable thing.
Then there were the other times when I fantasized myself a firebrand like Thomas Paine or as brave as Joan of Arc when it came to defending principles and beliefs, and I was terrific. Full of righteous indignation, I marched into Mr. Miller’s office and, with a rhetoric and wit not heard since Disraeli, I let him have it right between the eyes.
In my mind’s eye I was very much the person I would like to be; and someday I would have a second chance, and when it came, I would take it.
Instead I blurted out, “My Lord. What are you doing here?”
Mr. Miller put out his hand and I shook it.
I remember that I was too rattled to do more than murmur platitudes around his rush of words.
“It’s good to see you,” he said. “Working for myself.. . doing well . . . could use you . . . room in our company ... discuss it at lunch . . . call me.. . .”
I remember that he handed me his card and I took it.
If I shut my eyes I can see him turn to walk back down the mall. I can see myself take a step toward him as if to say...
I said nothing at all. □
“Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.” That old adage that tried its best to be my life motto. I’m sure when friends consoled me with this old cliche they truly meant to help. But somehow I could never accept it as true: the names hurt me every time.
I always thank God for the brains he gave me, he must have known I’d need them in the kind of life I live. But I remember plenty of times swearing I’d trade brains in a minute just to have a pretty face.
The cleft palate and lip I was born with did nothing for my ego and left me with a squashed, lopsided nose, terribly crooked teeth, and a bulldog jaw. Finding the right words to describe myself makes me want to laugh. The most common way people “describe” me is by calling me “flat nose,” but to put it short, I’m no beauty queen.
Believe me, I tried my damnedest to live by the “sticks and stones” proverb. I pretended to ignore the names and the faces and the laughter. I avoided schools and anyplace else where kids might be. I really lived in fear of confrontation, praying no one would single me out and spoil my day. For once the names began, they rang in my ears for days.
Whoever invented the Walkman must have had the not-so-pretty in mind. No longer did I have to pretend not to hear. I was already a loner, but with a Walkman, I could simply tune out the rest of the world. I didn’t care what they had to say about me, just so long as I didn’t have to listen to it. I took my new friend everywhere and as long as the batteries held up, I was safe.
Unfortunately, on a particular day that stands out like a nightmare in my memory, the batteries in my Walkman were nearly dead. It was already a rotten day but I pushed it anyway by wearing a new fashion that hadn’t quite reached my neighborhood yet, but as far as I’m concerned, if I don’t look like everyone else, why should I dress like them? Pretty odd reasoning for someone who’s trying to be invisible, right? Anyway, I was walking down the street to catch the bus to night class, trying to get music out of my now fuzzy radio, and minding my own business as usual, when it all began.
I’d say it was about three o’clock and kids were getting out of school. A few people were sitting in their yards here and there, just another normal afternoon. Maybe that’s why I was totally off-guard. A school bus pulled over and let twenty kids off.
A few of them went their own way, but most of them stayed in a group and headed down the street in the same direction I was but directly across the street. At first I thought they were just making a lot of noise like most junior high kids do. I was concentrating more on my Walkman anyhow, but that old fear began to rise in me. I turned down the music when the yelling got louder, pretending nothing was wrong, but the fear was growing fast. My knees were getting weak and that dreadful feeling of self-consciousness swept over me. They were laughing that cruel laugh of judgment, and to this day I cannot understand how anyone could feel so good by making someone else feel like they wish they were dead.
I kept walking and pretending and waiting to see if my fears would be confirmed. Someone yelled out another ugly name that’s not appropriate to write in this story, and I then knew I could either keep pretending to ignore like a coward or I could just face up to them.
Whenever my heart starts racing, I know I’m about to do something drastic. I’ve never fought anyone, let alone ten or fifteen at the same time. I really was angry this time. Who were they, anyway? They weren’t any better than me.
I stopped where I was, faced them, and hollered, “If you’re so bad, come say it to my face!” And in general I told them they couldn’t be too tough talking smack from across the street. There were a bunch of “Oooo”s from the crowd, as though I were trying to call them out, and then they all came charging toward me.
I didn’t know quite what to do, but my feet were glued to the sidewalk. They all stood there in front of me and somehow I managed to say something that made sense. “I don’t know what it is you’ve got against me that makes you want to talk about me, but I think that’s really messed up.” Can you believe they were actually listening to me? I went on: “Here I am, walking down the street, minding my own business, and you all are yelling at me from across the street about what I look like.” My heart was pounding so hard I thought I’d have a heart attack any minute, while my knees felt weaker and weaker as I revealed more of my pain and anger. “Let me tell you something. I know what I look like.” My voice was quavering now and I was trying to swallow that hard lump in my throat. In my mind I prayed that I wouldn’t cry in front of them. Why should I give them the pleasure. “I get up every morning and look in the mirror and I know. I’m ugly.”
One girl stepped forward and told me straight out she didn’t say nothing and said she didn’t want to fight me ’cause I could be as old as her mom, for all she knew. She introduced herself and told me everything was cool. I told her my name but I didn’t want to get off track. At least someone in the group was sympathetic. “I just want whoever was talking about me to say it to my face and we can take it from there.” I didn’t care if we boxed, and I didn’t care if I got beat either. I was standing up for myself for a change.
Believe it or not, not one single person stepped forward. I can’t imagine they were scared of me, otherwise they wouldn’t have said anything to begin with. Maybe they felt sorry for me. I’ll never know for sure. I always like to believe though that they realized what I was saying made sense and they decided to leave me alone. I’ve passed the same group of kids several times on my way to school in the morning, although I still tried to avoid crowds of kids, and when I walked by, a few of them would even say hi. Sometimes one guy would laugh, but he never said anything or at least I never heard it.
I write this story now, one year later, and I can actually laugh about it. Yet I know I learned a lot that day. I’ve run into people since then who talked about me bad, but I refused to ignore them. I gave them a piece of my mind and it works every time.
That day, after I stood up to those kids, I skipped school, went home, and cried my eyes dry. Names still hurt me as bad as sticks and stones, but damned if I just sit quiet and take it. □
In the fall of ’84 I was working in a restaurant/bookstore in Solana Beach, California. I was a book clerk, which meant I had to put away books when they came in, run the cash register, and straighten up the store at night. It was a decent job, and there was plenty of free time. At night business would drop off, and I would spend most of the shift reading poetry, philosophy, and novels behind the book counter. It was an ideal situation for a writer. You could get all the bookstore work done early, and then settle back and start writing a short story. There were reference books everywhere. No one would bother you for hours at a time. It was perfect if you were a writer. Unfortunately, I was not a writer.
I wanted desperately, though, to be one. I wanted to write a great American novel, using all the people I had met when I had driven across the country from Massachusetts the previous winter. I spent seven months traveling after college before I arrived in San Diego, hanging out in shopping malls or on downtown street corners in cities like Nashville, Little Rock, Houston, and Phoenix. I felt a strange attraction to the down-and-out, the drifters, the homeless. After all, I was a drifter too. I had ceased to be a tourist traveling across America very early on in the trip. It bored me. All the monuments and historic sites were just dead stone and grass to me at the time. I preferred to listen in on the easy conversations the bums would have as they warmed themselves on benches in the huge, crazy malls and shopping centers. Who were these people? What were they doing in this city? What happened to them, years ago or maybe even weeks ago, to force them to abandon or be abandoned by others? What was the secret — to be laughing and gossiping and talking politics, while all the while you were hungry, decaying, dying?
By the time the fall of ’84 rolled around, though, I hadn’t written a single word. It became apparent to me that even though I had stopped visiting monuments and museums on my trip from the East Coast, I had still been very much a tourist. I had hung around these people and listened to their talk and fantasized about their lives, but I never really felt anything for them. I never spoke to anyone. I only watched and listened. Six months later, their faces and dialects were already fading from my memory. This was definitely becoming a serious problem. How could I write an extensive story about something that I really didn’t know anything about? Who would believe? On top of this, the upper management of the company I was working for was beginning to put tremendous pressure on me. It looked as if I was going to lose my present job. They were pushing a promotion on me. They wanted me to be the book manager. Simply put, this meant an immediate raise but also the loss of the free time that I should have been using to write my novel. I became desperate. Did I want to become a legitimate employee and make more money, or continue floundering over a novel that I hadn’t even started? Perhaps by declining the new position it would force me to really get moving on the book. Yes, but perhaps not. I didn’t even own a typewriter. They told me about the promotion on a Wednesday. I had until the next Monday to let them know. It was on Friday that I left work early, claiming I was sick. I was.
I lived in North Park, San Diego, but I couldn’t face driving directly home. I needed a beer, a relaxing dinner, and the Tribune. I needed to read about someone else’s problems I drove to a little restaurant near Texas Street and El Cajon Boulevard. I would go there at least twice a week. It was a quiet, clean restaurant that partially overlooked the main street. There would only be three or four other customers in the store by the time I got there, so I usually had the place to myself. I’d order my veal Parmesan with spaghetti, read the paper, and if it were late enough, watch the Punks and New Wavers walking by in small groups toward the Roxy down the street.
The place was busier than usual that night. My favorite booth was taken, but I settled on a table near the back with a view toward the front of the store. I ordered my meal. There was a low hum of steady chatter, and I tried to tune it out and just read.
“Evan was the one said it first. He loved the name. Pale Moon. He said the moon at midday looked pale blue, like a jewel.” It was a voice coming from somewhere behind me. That was strange. I thought I was the only person this far back in the restaurant.
“Like her face. So pale with the blanket around it. But I told him. I told him I hated it. It ain’t a girl’s name. It ain’t cheerful like a girl’s name. ‘What do you mean,’ he says. ‘What’s so cheerful about a girl’s name?’ ”
The voice cut through all the others. I tried, but I couldn’t tune it out. I listened for a responding voice, but there was none. It was a woman’s voice, Midwestern, slightly husky but cool, smooth. There was something soothing about it. Why wasn’t anyone speaking to this woman with the beautiful voice?
“Grammy, what did I do wrong? She was so pale. ‘Listen to Uncle Jonny,’ you said. ‘Evan’s a good man. Better man than Tom was.’ ‘I loved Tom,’ I said. ‘Evan gave you a little girl,’ you said. ‘I know, Grammy. But she was so pale. Pale blue. I hated the name. The name killed her. She turned blue as the moon. He killed her, Grammy.’ ”
I glanced around quickly behind me. There was no one there but an old woman. I managed a few more looks at her while I tried to eat. She had long, thick, gray-white hair neatly brushed back from her face. Her face was sunburned, a ruddy, red color, but there were no wrinkles, no creases on it. Her eyes were a sharp, vegetable green. She had a striking, strangely beautiful face.
“ ‘Don’t talk that way, child. He didn’t kill that baby. God wanted her back.’ ‘I know, Grammy. But what’s wrong with me that I can’t keep a man more ’an a year? I met Felix at the dance hall, remember? My God,
he had those crazy brown-blue eyes. Crazy Apache eyes full of fire. I loved Felix, Grammy.’ ‘You killed Felix, honey.’ ”
I dropped a forkful of veal and spaghetti on the table. I saw her eyes looking straight ahead, penetrating the shadows between us like a cat’s eyes. I turned away quickly.
“ ‘You killed Tom too, you know.’ ‘I know, Grammy. Why? Why do I always wind up killing the men I love?’ ”
What the hell was going on here?
Is this woman insane? Just what is she talking about? Who exactly did she kill? No, she’s crazy. She’s just babbling. . . .
“ ‘Why, Grammy?’ ‘You killed that young Indian too. What was his name? Lenny, wasn’t it? Why’d you kill him, honey? He was a sweet boy.’ ‘Felix was sweet too, with them eyes. Those crazy eyes. They were gray when I left him. They looked like burnt coal, like two sad, burned up pieces of coal.’”
That’s it. This is insane. This woman is talking about killing three guys! I looked around at the other customers. They all seemed to be ignoring her. How can you ignore that voice, what she’s saying? Maybe they realize she’s crazy. They probably know her. She’s probably a regular, and they’ve heard this routine before. I glanced around quickly for one more look at her. She was gone. Hooked to the other side, toward the bathroom. Nothing. I don’t imagine things like that. She’s probably in the bathroom. Then there was a sudden shadow on my face. She was almost beside me, moving toward the front of the store. I caught a flash of her face, of her eyes just before she passed me.
Those were not the eyes of a crazy woman. They were cool and knowing. The past she was recalling was very real, and she was lost in it. Her eyes peered into it like twin green stars, and she moved slowly, soundlessly. In that moment I knew she was not insane. Just absorbed, busy with her ghosts as most of us are, to some extent. She carried a large shopping bag stretched full with something ... probably blankets. She moved between the tables looking straight ahead, reached the door, and was gone.
I watched for her through the main window of the restaurant, but I couldn’t see her. I didn’t want to lose this one. She killed at least three people, I was convinced of it. Somewhere in Illinois or Idaho, three men were lying dead, killed by someone they trusted, someone they might have loved, their graves all in a row beside a tiny grave, its little headstone reading “Pale Moon.” I stopped eating. I had to get out of there. I got up quickly, grabbed my jacket and the check, and headed toward the register. The small man with very thick, black-rimmed glasses was standing there as usual.
“How was everything this evening, sir?”
“Fine. Fine. Great.” I had to calm down. I handed him the ticket and some money. “Pretty busy tonight, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes,” he said, smiling. “It is still the holiday, I think. I think this is still considered part of the holiday.”
“Say, you didn’t see that old woman walk by just now, did you?” “Yes, I did. She just left.”
“The only reason I ask is that....” I faltered. “ ... I saw her leave without paying.”
“She didn’t buy anything.”
“Does she come in often?” “About twice a week. Every Friday and Saturday night.” He paused. Then, sounding concerned, “She did not disturb you, did she?” “No, no, not at all.” I couldn’t tell him. “I was just curious about her. She’s a bit. . . strange.”
“Yes, but very harmless. She sometimes talks out loud, but not often. She comes in just to get warm. She harms no one. She comes from Wyoming, I think. She is an Indian lady. That’s all I know.”
“Huh. Interesting. Well, thanks a lot.”
I walked out slowly, presumably deep in thought. When I got outside, I looked around madly for her. I ran out to El Cajon Boulevard, looking east and west. Just a few women outside the Slender Lady, east. I started walking west toward Texas Street, looking left down each street I passed in between. No one. I got to Texas and saw her just beyond the traffic light at Howard Avenue, walking slowly with her bag toward University. I followed behind her, slowly.
It is almost pitch black on Texas Street at that time of night, and I could only make out a vaguely moving shadow a hundred feet ahead of me. She finally came to the corner of Texas and University and made a right. I quickened my step. Making it to the corner, I saw her disappear into the darkness of an alley behind Pioneer Chicken. I walked by, pretending to be looking for an opening to cross the street to get to Food Basket. I glanced back nonchalantly. She was pulling a shopping cart out from behind a dumpster and putting her bag into it. The cart was filled with other bags and some loose clothing. She pushed the cart up the sidewalk and into the parking lot in front of Pioneer Chicken. I turned from the street and followed. When I got to the parking lot, I saw the cart parked neatly in the corner beside the all-night laundromat. I walked across the lot at a distance, heading toward the Golden Donut shop to get a good look into the laundromat.
The place was packed. Who the hell does their laundry prime time on a Friday night? Someone’s children were racing down the long row of machines, playing hide-and-seek with some other kids who were frantically racing up the other side . . . trying to avoid being seen, being caught. I leaned further into the shadows and watched.
She was in front of a large dryer. A few people glanced awkwardly at her as she pulled her blankets out of the shopping bag and placed them in the drying machine. She put a quarter in and watched. She seemed to be talking again, staring at her blankets, her mouth moving in what appeared to be little jerks from where I stood. I came forward a little to try and pick up what she was saying. There was only the long grinding sound from the washing machines. She opened the door of the dryer after a few minutes and felt the blankets. She gathered them together, picked up her bag, and walked slowly down the long aisle of people folding and sorting their clothes. She came outside to where her cart stood in the corner. I ducked into the Golden Donut.
I felt my breathing coming in short gasps. What did I think I was doing? Shouldn’t I be going to the police? Why aru i following this woman around? She kills people.
I couldn’t go to the police. Why should they think that this person actually confessed to a series of murders? She was just talking, babbling. I happened to overhear her rambling in a restaurant. But I could go to the library tomorrow . .. I could check the newspapers, call the authorities in Wyoming, ask them about unsolved murders on some Indian reservation . . . about an Indian woman who suddenly disappeared . . . about a small grave lost in a field somewhere, and a man named Evan who knew exactly where it was. . . .
No. I couldn’t wait. This was my story. I had longed for this for a long, long time. Something that was real — a life, a human voice, not just faces drifting in a shopping mall. Here was my novel just outside the door. I had to speak with her. That night. I could research the news later, but I couldn’t bear to be the tourist tonight, to let the connection pass ... watching, as always, from the pinhole of my shyness. . . .
I’ve got to get her talking, find out exactly what happened, why she did it all, everything. Killed her lovers. My God. “Each man kills the thing he loves.” I never really understood that line from Oscar Wilde. Why did she kill them? To keep from losing them to others? Was she afraid, then, that her love would outlast their love for her? I could start writing the story tomorrow. Forget irie jGu promotion. Tell them, “I’m a writer. I don’t have the time to manage your bookstore. I’m working on a first novel, already in progress.”
I found myself walking toward her. She was making up her bed beside the shopping cart, draping her two machine-warmed blankets over a third that lay on the concrete. She was talking to herself softly. I kept walking until I was beside her. I had no idea what I was going to say, but I knew that surviving the green coldness of her eyes without running away was going to take something different from me. I couldn’t speak to her like a writer, or a cop, or a “concerned citizen.” I had to speak to her so she would listen. I had to speak to her in her language ... a language of ghosts.
“I saw Evan recently,” I said. I was trembling. “He says hello to you.”
She stopped talking. She had her back to me, and slowly turned her head to the side. She was expressionless. The cool green stars looked left toward the street. I had made contact.
“Yes, I saw him. He talked about how he missed you . . . and the little girl. He asked . . . what you were doing, where you had run off to . . . why you had ... to run away. ...” My voice was breaking, I had to clear my throat. I watched her slowly sit down with tremendous effort, still looking out at the street. Why wasn’t she saying anything? Talk to me, please . . . talk to me. . . .
“Why you had to run away so suddenly . . . how you . . . why you left Felix, with his eyes gray ... as burnt coal . . . tell me why so ... so I can tell him you’re . . . okay.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I was floundering for words, for more fragments of her confession. Then, suddenly, she turned and looked at me. She pulled the blankets toward her, up to her neck.
I felt my face flush. Her eyes. I couldn’t believe her eyes. They were like large, watery plants.
“What do you want?” she asked, her voice still strong, smooth. But her eyes were wide with terror.
“I. . . I. . . just wanted to talk . . . with you. ...” I faltered. I felt my face burning, my heart making strange sounds.
“Leave me alone ... please,” she said, quietly.
I looked up and saw several people in the laundromat watching me.
They glanced down at the old woman, then back up at me. They were mainly women. They looked at me in fear, but more in anger. Somehow they sensed my cruelty here. I had desperately wanted this woman to be a killer, so that by the sheer ferocity of her past I might be forged into a writer. It was absurd.
In the few moments that she spoke to me, I knew that she hadn’t really killed anyone. You can kill the ones you love in many ways . . . you can break their hearts, hurt them deeply. Perhaps she hurt her lovers once, long ago. Now she lived with their pain, shared it with them. She spoke to her grandmother about them, and * little girl who died shortly after being born. There was a man named Evan, the father of the girl. And that was all.
“I. . . I’m sorry,” I said. In the light from a car entering the lot, I saw her face. It looked very old, despite the sunburn . . . very frightened, helpless. How do you apologize to someone like that? Do you just leave them, walk away, and let them slip back into their loneliness in peace?
I wanted to disappear, to run back to my apartment. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t slip back into the tourist again, the shy boy wandering the shopping malls ... no connection, afraid to touch but more afraid of being touched. . . .
“My grandmother was an artist,”
I said to her finally. I looked out into the street, and spoke to her. “She painted, sculpted . . . once she knitted my grandfather a kind of quilt jacket. It took her only three days to finish it. It turned out to actually be too big for him. He wore it anyway, of course, but she was pretty upset. It was the only thing she ever made that she thought was ugly, a failure. My grandfather loved it because whenever he’d wear it he’d kid her about it, and she would sometimes laugh. One day, just after she died, I found the jacket in a garbage dumpster. I thought, what a waste. I brought the jacket back to him and said, ‘Grandpa, wear this jacket did you throw it out?’
He said, ‘Because I don’t need it anymore.’ I said, ‘But you could still use it. . . it’s cold out.’ And he said, ‘I have other jackets.’ He had worn the jacket because he could make her laugh when he had it on. Now she was gone. What would be the point in wearing it if he could no longer make her laugh?”
I took off my jacket. “Here it is. I don’t know why I kept it. It’s too big for me. I don’t really need it. .. I’ve got other jackets.” I placed the jacket beside her. I glanced at her eyes for a second. They were back to their familiar green coolness, like green stars looking up at me from an expressionless sky. I felt glad. She would sleep tonight. She’d be all right. It was just one day after Thanksgiving. My family were all back East, still eating turkey and getting ready for my brother’s birthday. Tomorrow I could sleep late.
I walked back toward El Cajon Boulevard to get my truck. It was cold and very clear out. Monday I would accept the position as bookstore manager for my company’s store. It was more hours, but I needed the money. I figured that in a couple of weeks I could pick up a fairly good typewriter at Adam’s Office Supply on University Avenue near Thirtieth Street. □
Sisterhood is a precarious thing. Easy to feel in the throes of commitment, but occasionally difficult to transfer into real life. I mean, face it — you always feel more sisterly in your women’s group sessions than you do on the dance floor when someone looks better in your dress than you do. I always felt myself above such mundane comparisons, but then, I don’t shave my legs — which, even to one as committed as I, makes the wearing of dresses largely academic. Into such traps do the unwary fall when their hearts and minds are vying for attention.
But this morning I was feeling very sisterly, which I always do when I’m rereading The Women's Room, and I was very full of good intent. Even in confusion, my heart was in the right place; I never intended to denigrate. Besides, we’ve been fighting this battle for a long time, right? Even the most uneducated among us know that they’re worth as much as any man doing a comparable job, etc. They may not believe with my fervor, but the seeds have been planted; it simply remains for the next generation to bring in the harvest.
So I bounced along like Red Riding Hood, carrying my basket of rhetorical goodies to the next generation, the “New Wave Feminists”; feeling only a throbbing gratitude that my younger sister has such a definite head start on escaping the half-life. She is infinitely more knowledgeable about sexual dynamics at seventeen than I was; when I was seventeen, it was still a big deal for a guy to choose you to wash his socks for the rest of his life, and most of them knew it. My sister has succeeded in escaping this dogma so thoroughly that she doesn’t even wash her own socks. I feel justified in being proud, if a little wary.
My biology class at UCSD is owned and operated by a dapper little man who fancies himself quite politically aware. I dismissed him for a charlatan the first day of class, when he attempted to juxtapose nuclear awareness with disemboweled frogs; I am not, after all, taking biology to get my consciousness raised. I try to look for something interesting in each lecture, though, because I hate falling asleep in required classes. Falling asleep in an elective is another thing entirely; I can justify falling asleep in an elective. Required classes assume a little more dignity.
I saw her as I was rounding the corner into the doorway, sitting in the third row up, and I stopped for a moment to digest her signals. It took me all of two seconds to decide that this class period had to be devoted to covert surveillance; she was obviously a life form that the teacher would not cover, and I do like to think I’m getting a well-rounded education.
She was perhaps eighteen. No, I take that back — she was definitely eighteen. She was still wearing her high school armor, not understanding as yet that she was playing in the big leagues now. Worse, maybe she did understand it — maybe that was her problem.
It was her hair that caught my eye at first, because it flouted the laws of gravity so wonderfully. Only the determined application of handfuls of mousse and gallons of hair spray (combined with the assistance of two or three blow dryers) could be responsible for such elaborately nonchalant disarray. I wrestled privately with the ethics of setting the alarm for a half hour earlier than necessary so that you could come to school looking like you just rolled out of bed.
Her eyes were rimmed with some modern variation of kohl, and her lips were painted bloodless white in violent contrast to her darkly tanned face. The hair and the makeup combined suggested Medusa at a minstrel show, turning people to stone with her sullen buck-and-wing. Furthermore, and at an hour when I am lucky to find socks that match, she was wearing a perfectly coordinated and breathlessly tight outfit, complete with spike heels that laced up to somewhere around her groin.
I do not mean to suggest that she was a punk, which might have given her a politically acceptable excuse to be slouched in that chair scaring the shit out of people so early in the morning. No, she lacked the sullen eclat of the dedicated rebel, although it was painfully obvious that whatever she imagined herself to be, she believed in it fervently.
For some reason, though, this manufactured sexuality did not appear to be sitting well with her. She sat like a statue, eyes blazing with some internal fire, mouth compressed into a petulant line, arms crossed against her defiantly uplifted breasts. I reflected, as I maneuvered into a position for observation, that the fight I would’ve had with my mother to get out of the house dressed like that would probably put me in a similar mood. I was helplessly smitten with her chutzpah.
But as I feasted my eyes on her couture, the contradictions began to disturb me. Her knock-me-down-and-fuck-me hair, for one thing; anyone who took advantage of the invitation in her coiffure would probably find themselves impaled on one of those carefully touseled strands. It didn’t take much to figure out that her makeup was inviolate and sacred; it had taken too long to construct this cosmetic masterpiece. The idea of seeing her mask contorted with passion and filmed with sweat was incongruous as well as amusing.
As the teacher began to lecture, she uncurled one hand to rummage for a pencil and I saw her inch-long, vividly cyanotic nails ... and my fascination slowly began to turn into unreasonable, self-righteous anger. My ideals were being violated before my very eyes, in living Revlon color, in mix-and-match eye shadow and tubes of mysterious (and wholly unnecessary) unguents and creams.
For this I marched? For this I quit shaving my legs? For this my own eyes peer out unadorned from beneath my straight, undyed hair?
So women like this could laugh at my ideals and continue to truss themselves up like Christmas geese — dinner for the male ego? Never mind that she hadn’t made a sound; I had a vivid mental image of this little tart making fun of some gangly, stringy haired girl in high school and I wanted to slap her.
Sisterhood struggled with conditioning, though: I wanted to ask her who did her hair almost as much as I wanted to ask her who the hell she thought she was. Unaware of the titanic struggle going on above her, she yawned and wrote something about zygotes in her notebook; her handwriting was vertical and full of loops, and she dotted her i’s with little circles. I composed a note in my own cramped script (I pride myself on my unfeminine handwriting), suggesting that she read The Second Sex or, at the very least. The Women’s Room-, when I reread it, the note seemed vicious and jealous and hard and I crumpled it into a ball.
Finally, when the teacher turned his back to draw a picture on the board, I took a deep breath and
tapped her on the shoulder. It took courage: until the moment that she turned her painted face to me and said, “Yes?”, I had no idea what I was going to say. I only knew that the situation demanded speech. I was not so far gone, however, not to notice that her hair didn’t swing as she turned her head. It remained immobile, like a helmet, and I had to resist the urge to duck.
We looked at each other for a moment, her eyes guarded behind her makeup as mine were behind my aviator frames. I tugged at a lock of hair and tried to frame my statement in a way that would not instantly alienate her. Finally, I did what I always do in these situations. I made a fool of myself.
“Uh, where did you get your dress?”
She no longer looked questioning, she looked positively alarmed. I could see the Webster’s Children’s Dictionary word for “anathema” forming behind her eye makeup; I feared that along with it she was running over the possible exits from the room, should this strange and vicious dyke attempt anything funny. As it was, she struggled with the problem for a moment and said, cautiously, “Charlotte Russe in Mission Valley.”
I might have known. I had never been inside this store ... the window dummies affected me the very same way that she affected me and I felt impotent just looking at them. Their thighs were impossibly smooth and thin, their hair lacquered into strange parodies on this precise style. It disturbed me deeply to see twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls gazing at them in worshipful hunger, dressed in their sex roles and unswervingly committed to plastic excellence — at an age when they should have been beating the crap out of little boys, just on general principles. I could see her at that age, trying on dresses meant for women with thighs and breasts made out of fiberglass.
“Oh,” I lied, thinking frantically of a way to get out of this, “I just thought... I mean, it’s, uh, it looks very comfortable.”
The dress in question was skintight, black with little cutouts. It didn’t look comfortable at all. It looked like it would severely restrict the radius of every step, not to mention constantly straightening the little holes so that you didn’t become a walking peep show. She studied me for a moment, pursing her thickly painted lips and tapping her pencil on the arm of her seat.
“It was on sale,” she said, conspiratorially, “$39.95 — it was fifteen percent off.” She smiled then, comfortable passing on a female secret about shopping. “I would never have bought it at full price, but my boyfriend likes it.”
I felt thoroughly ridiculous, not to mention paternalistic — which is difficult to do if you happen to be female.
She smiled again and turned back to the lecture. I sat back in my chair, feeling like a failure to the movement, wondering what on earth her boyfriend could see in that dress — besides an awful lot of her. Dammit, I take ballet lessons. I’d look as good as she did in that dress. I had every right to ask her where she got it. So what if I hunched in my seat clad in jeans and a sweatshirt; even Che Guevara got dressed up occasionally. It came to me, however, that if I had to justify the question so frantically, I might want to reorder my priorities.
She doubtless had as much of a right to look like a fool as I had to act like one. The thought made me squirm. I had the uncomfortable feeling that she could sense the heat of my embarrassment through the back of her seat. I wanted to apologize, but apologizing for thoughts is a tricky business and requires finesse — and my finesse, I realized with a jolt, was in my bookbag, probably marking my place in my well-worn copy of The Quotable Woman.
Still, I felt compelled to speech once again. I tapped her on the shoulder and ducked, albeit imperceptibly, as she turned on her smile and swiveled to look at me. Poor girl, I thought sadly, poor girl is going to tell people about this at lunch. This dyke in my biology class kept touching me, I could hear her squealing, and she just wouldn’t leave me alone. I sighed inwardly, realizing that not only was I going to look like a jerk one more time, I wasn’t doing anything for the movement, either. But she had arranged her face into a “company” expression, carefully polite, and I could see that she was willing to risk violation of her own ideals to help me become more realistic. I had to say something. I hate having to say something, and someday, I vowed grimly, I will quit putting myself into positions that require diatribe and receive a whimper of resignation.
“That sale,” I said wearily. “Is that sale still going on?” □
When I took the summer job at Sea World, I believed it would involve the typical Disneyland drudgery — smiles, courtesy, and occasional flirtation with the jet-lag, Swedish girls — but not particularly taxing work. Oh, the deviousness and calculation of the personnel director. She failed to tell me that I would soon become a whistle-blowing general in an unrestricted war against the lunatic solicitors in the Sea World parking lot. After being called an atheist and a traitor to my country, and after several tiffs with the Sea World administration concerning my military tactics, I decided to turn in my dolphin-covered tie and call it quits. But did I “muster up the right stuff”?
Waiting for orientation to begin was hell. It was only nine o’clock in the morning and I already had a herd of sweat drops grazing above my upper lip, my stomach felt like it was arguing with an epileptic porcupine, and this raspy-voiced boy from Patrick Henry High School was babbling to me about some Model United Nations conference he had attended at Harvard. My underwear was sticking to a thorn bush behind me and a girl across the street was having a great time watching me squirm in discomfort. Finally, the park operations director arrived, and all thirty of us rose to our feet as if she was Jesus incarnate. And with her gorgeous blond hair, aqua-blue lipstick, and tight Sea World pants, she was the closest thing to heaven I had seen all morning. With a very suave and Shamu-looking grin, I approached my boss and savior.
“Hi, I’m Jon Goulian.”
“Hi Jon, nice to meet you. I’m Katy.”
“Nice to meet you. ”
“Let me see. Goulian, Goulian, Goulian. Ah yes! Goulian. You’re in the parking lot.”
“Parking lot? Great!” I thought of myself waving my arms like a wild chicken, nine hours a day for three months. “Parking lot? Great! When do I start?”
“Now. Mark over there will tell you everything.”
“Mark? What about you?”
“Me? I’ve got the Japanese pearl divers.”
Katy and Heaven were gone.
“Hi, Mark. I’m Jon Goulian.” “Hi, Jon. Nice to meet you. I’m Mark.”
There were ten of us. We sweated in silence in the back of Mark’s white Sea World pickup truck with myriad orange pylons, orange vests, and orange bottles of Coppertone. I refused to look up because if the sun were orange at that particular moment I think I would have screamed. Mark drove us out to “the point,” which was parking-lot jargon for entrance; I was going to be “point man.” Mark took about ten seconds to brief me on what I would be doing the entire summer, and then he drove off down the road with the others.
I felt and looked like an idiot. It was ninety degrees and I was wearing a tie and long pants. I had a huge, black walkie-talkie strapped to a huge, black belt that was hanging from my waist like a used diaper. I wore a plastic whistle around my neck, and covering my torso was an orange vest that looked like a camouflaged fish net for salmon. I stood in the middle of the road — my safety was less important to Sea World than a steady flow of traffic — and for hour after hour I waved my arms back and forth, back and forth, sending foreign road warriors down to my colleagues in the southern end of the parking lot. Occasionally, to keep from going crazy, I would try to add a little variation to my work. One time, I rolled my hips around and around, and with my arms wiggling like dying snakes, and with my legs caught up in the hopscotch boogie, I did an Egyptian-style dance that culminated in a pulled calf muscle. I got so caught up in my contortions that I failed to notice that all the cars had stopped moving. The tourists thought that I was a planned attraction and they applauded as my superior bawled me out over the walkie-talkie. The highlight of my first day was when an exciting camper full of pale and sickly-looking Midwesterners stopped to ask me for directions. Instead of pulling to the side of the road like a normal family, this driver decided to stop in the middle, turn off his engine, and walk out to greet me, holding up about twenty cars in both directions.
“Hey there, could ya tell me how ta get ta La Jolla?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling especially cruel. “Take 1-5 south until ya get to Ensenada. La Jolla’s ten miles further on your right.”
I was beginning to like my job, and by the third day I think I had sent about fifty La Jolla-seeking tourists to Arizona and Mexico. But a call from headquarters one sultry afternoon ended my fun.
“The solicitors are back,” my commander yelled over the walkie-talkie. “The solicitors are back.”
The solicitors were back. Every year about three charitable organizations invaded the Sea World parking lot to extract what tribute they could from the tourists. And every year the Sea World parking lot workers did all they could to stop them, or so I soon found out. The year before it was the Hare Krishnas, who chanted and screamed about how they were starving students in need of books and school supplies. This year it was a van full of missionaries and a very large, itinerant war veteran. It wasn’t that Sea World was against charitable causes, but in the business world, you can’t afford to let your customers be intimidated.
And that’s where I came in. With four one-man battalions and with whistles for weapons, I followed those missionaries like a hungry hound dog. There were five of them, girls in their late teens, dressed in white nurse outfits with caps that looked like severed chef hats. Wherever they went, we followed. If they split up, we did so accordingly. When they approached a tourist, one of us would skillfully slide in front of them and courteously inform the bewildered foreigner that “if you are approached by a solicitor in the parking lot, I would like you to know that they are in no way affiliated with Sea World and we do not encourage you to give them any money.”
The missionaries would then storm up and scream that “Sea World does not believe in Jesus Christ and their parking lot workers are all going to rot in hell.”
They would then go on to explain about their cause and what they would supposedly do with the money. But nine times out of ten the tourist would say, “No thank you” before the missionary was even half finished with her speech. This went on for four days and the missionaries weren’t making much money; boy, were they peeved. So on the fifth day they came to “work” bearing picket signs with the words “Sea World Persecutes Christian Missionaries,” and between our courteous advice and the missionaries’ preaching, the tourists were scared to death. Sea World security quickly took care of the picket signs, but they had no legal justification to take care of the solicitors.
So the war went on, and things got out of hand. At one point 1 had all five missionaries calling me a “dirty atheist,” while a man from t the veterans association, who was making even less money than my nurse friends, started throwing little American flag pins at my feet. “Do you know how many wars I fought in?” he bellowed. “You’re a traitor to our country. You’re a traitor to democracy.”
Every night I came home exhausted and sore, my throat dry from screaming warnings to tourists and my brain weary from thinking about whether or not I was really going to Hell. I tried to explain to myself that what I was doing was okay because my superiors were giving me orders, and then I thought about Hitler’s blue-eyed puppets and I felt worse. But I was too far into it now and I couldn’t stop. I kept track of how many tourists I won over each day, and each night I thought of new things to argue about with the solicitors. Vietnam was a continual source of friction between myself and my pugnacious, veteran buddy, and with the missionaries, one day it was Job, the next Samson; we went on down the line. Again and again, my employers called me in. “We’re getting complaints from the guests,” they told me. “They say our employees are fighting with church people in the parking lot.”
And I told them that for every minute that I argued with the missionaries, one hundred fewer tourists were bothered for their money. They knew I was right, but told me that if I didn’t ease up on my “militaristic tendencies,” I would be “relieved of my position and sent back to the point.”
So I eased up. The missionaries were rapturous and taunted me with handfuls of one-dollar bills, and the veteran just told me how the army would do me good (he still wasn’t making any money). Because I could only make “general announcements” to “groups of people,” my feeble warnings did little. My battalions were marched to Captain Kid’s World, and I was the lonely Sea World martyr, with no one supporting me and a hostile parking lot against me. The thought of going back to the point made me shiver with dread, and one night I had a dream that all those tourists I had sent to Mexico came back to Sea World and stuffed Shamu pinatas down my throat.
And it was the next morning that I decided to quit. I walked into the Sea World office, carrying a bag full of parking lot paraphernalia: walkie-talkie, vest, whistle, tie, and sunscreen. I kept my belt on. I paused momentarily in front of the supervisor’s door, and then with a determined shove I barged in.
Drenched, in the plush cushion of her chair, and with her legs crossed menacingly on the table, Katy’s aqua-blue lips blew dainty bubbles in time with the music: “Just give me one more night - (pop!). Just give me one more night - (pop!). Just give me one more night, and I’ll (pop!) (pop!)...”
“Katy?! What are you doing here?”
“Hi, cutie, what’s up?’’
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Her lightly buttoned shirt seemed ready to burst from her body, and I tried very hard to concentrate on the conversation.
“I heard you’re doing really well out there in the lot,” she said between bubbles.
“Yeah, you’ve shown ‘motivation, dedication, and a remarkable sense of discipline.’ ”
“Yeah?” Oh, what I would have done to unfasten just one more button.
“There’s going to be an employee party at my house on Saturday night. A huge one!
“You will be there?”
She arched her back and started to reach for the ceiling. “Ohhhh! I am sooooo sore!” she moaned. “Oh what I would do for a hot tub.”
I was losing it fast.
“By the way, Jon. Did you need me for anything?”
“Uh, well. I’ve lost my walkie-talkie, vest, and tie. Do you have any replacements.”
“Sure do, and while you’re at it, get some sunscreen from the nurse. Your face is burnt! ” □
It was late afternoon. The sun was only a slim crescent of brilliant white light behind the hill of the canyon, and the clouds had begun to take on a familiar silver and gold tone. A silence seemed to have settled like a fog over the tranquil neighborhood, and a faint wind
sighed and shivered its way through the trees carrying the scent of freshly cut grass and the beauty of spring. Something had happened in this quiet neighborhood not too long ago, and damned if I wasn’t going to find out what it was.
But I suppose I cannot tell my own story without first telling his.
He had moved into my life in the summer of 1982, bringing with him a wife and a cocker spaniel. To the adolescent of fourteen, a new neighbor meant little (unless the new tenants either had, or were, beautiful girls). I viewed his arrival with something less than acquiescence, and before too long his presence vanished with the invisible quality of familiarity.
As the summer lengthened into autumn, and the trees prepared for winter in their timeless fashion, I began to see mor~ c r him and less of his wife. I realized this much in the same way you wave noreoinmittally to a nameless acquaintance; noticing it, but not thinking about until it happens again. He would come and go as often as thoughts do, but his lady I seldom saw.
The house he had chosen sat on a corner lot, which at that time was the population center of the neighborhood kids. It had been lived
in by several different families over the years and he had inherited the luxuries of past residents. Included in his package was an enormous swimming pool (complete with diving board and Jacuzzi), an abysmally large side yard that could be used for anything from piling cordwopd to housing a motor home, and a meticulously groomed landscape — of which I was to be the patient caretaker in the years to come.
It was this house that I found myself beckoned to one day in early October by my ever-curious friends.
I guess I can thank these friends of mine — who always seemed to be teaching me a lesson in humility or life — for introducing me to this mysterious man. But the lesson on that warm autumn day is one that can not be found in any textbook and is usually considered taboo even by adventurous teen-agers. As I rounded the corner and started up the street, I was greeted by three of my closest friends — Randy, Andy, and Eric. Each of them wore a giddy smile on their faces and they took turns ducking into the bushes bordering our new neighbors’ fence. It took me but a second to understand what was happening, but I got in line just the same. When my turn came, I was directed to a small hole in the fence. As I looked through it, I was reminded of a long-ago Norman Rockwell painting I had seen somewhere with a small boy peeking through a similar aperture at a baseball game. But what I saw was far from any baseball game, and I strained my eye to get a better view.
A tall, sun-bronzed woman of perhaps twenty lay outstretched on a patio lounger with one arm behind her head and the other at her side with a drink in hand. Her clothes had been folded neatly on the table behind her, and shiny beads of water stood out on her bare breasts. I was admiring the uniformity of her tan — even her inner thighs and toes had matched — when my unknown neighbor appeared from the confining limits of the hole with a bottle of suntan lotion in his hand.
He had removed his clothes, too, every stitch, and they proceeded to engage in some sort of greasy, sex-related activity.
“Is that his wife?” I asked the fence.
“No, it isn’t, and your time’s up.
So move,” came the reply.
I surrendered my position to the sex-zealot, Andy, and stepped bewilderedly into the street. I stared unblinking into the excited faces of Randy and Eric and stated flatly, “What a pervert.”
Apparently the name stuck. For days on end during that Indian summer, the youth population of this Clairemont street could be found clustered around a two-inch diameter hole in the fence of a truly amazing man. What I saw in that month will last a lifetime. Orgies of up to ten people, photography sessions, nude champagne brunches and dinner parties all existing under the watchful eyes of no one but four teen-agers. It was unbelievable.
Like the temperature, things at the Pervert’s house began to cool off with the coming of November and I supposed he had decided to take it inside. I saw very little of he or his wife during November, December, and January, and had just begun to forget about him when he pranced into the spotlight on a blistering February day. Only this time there were no women, cameras, or champagne. Just him, clad only in a bleached white bath towel and holding a classical twelve-string guitar. He played beautiful and simple chords, occasionally humming and singing along. I was moved by this poignant moment of humanity, and suddenly needed to know his name. He was no longer a salivating pervert, but rather a man with emotion and feelings, and his name was important.
So I waited. Because the time never seemed right to ask, I finally took it upon myself to glance at his mail. As I casually strolled up to his door, I wondered what I would say to him if he opened the front door and asked me what I was doing. I shrugged it off, and looked anyway. The first one said only RESIDENT, but the second was a large envelope postmarked in Nashville, and the gummed label read: Jack Easterly.
Jack the Ripper
Jack the Stripper
As the months dragged on into spring, and the grass flourished into a lush, green carpet, I found myself waving to Jack and wondering about the kind of man he was. With each time I saw him, he looked more and more like Clint Eastwood, and with a last name of Easterly, I made a crude assumption that the two were related somehow. In my mind I saw the two Jacks — a naked man with a bottle of suntan lotion, and a harmless, docile musician with a warm heart. Eventually the former faded into somewhat of a remembrance as I came to know him better.
I suppose I first came face to face with Jack on a lonely afternoon in mid-April, although I had no intention of doing so. Since he was the big attraction in the neighborhood, things seemed to gravitate around his home in one way or another. On this day, however, the activity was not around his house, but rather on it. As I rode down the street on my bicycle, what I saw amused me, and I went to investigate. Randy, Andy, and Eric were gathered around Jack’s garage, laughing and pointing at something on it. As I got closer I was able to discern the spectacle and was suddenly quite un-amused. The scripture was crudely written but legible nonetheless. It had been created with Spray-on-snow, and it read: PERVERT.
To my ultimate dismay, that was not all. These artist friends of mine showed me the entire portfolio, that included death threats to Iran and the Russians, a greeting to Jack (with sexual connotations), and a Santa Claus face on his Neighborhood Watch sign complete with the words HO HO HO. Nothing had been spared in their artistic rampage — the street, his garage door, and fence had all been blemished by their can of snow. Before I could ask where they had gotten the can of Snow-spray and the stupid idea, the harried proprietor arrived in a green blur that was his car. He sped down the hill at perhaps forty, and turned sharply into his driveway, stopping unbelievable inches short of pulverizing the garage door. Within seconds, he had noticed the graffiti and his hands sought our necks. The three artists, apparently oblivious to their work, stumbled away to the sanctity of Andy’s home where they were met by the unforgiving eyes of his mother. I watched all this the way you watch a dream, and was trying to stifle a smile when his pallid face appeared in front of mine, unsmiling. His bloodshot green eyes bore into mine with rage and his breath stank of vodka.
“Don’t fuck with me,” he said, almost casually. “I’m with the FBI, and I don’t fuck around with kids.
So don’t fuck with me,” he repeated.
I stared unblinking at his face, not quite believing what I had just heard, when I noticed the artists had been set to work cleaning up their project under the close supervision of Andy’s mom. When I turned again to him, he was gone — swallowed by the doors of his mysterious house. I walked quietly home, forgetting all about my bike, my artistic friends and everything else but him.
But still I wondered.
Throughout the remainder of spring and into the months of June and July the subject of Jack Easterly was turned over and over in speculation by the children, and his name became synonymous with God. He was obviously a man of influence who was not to be “fucked with.” But my judgment was only slightly swayed by these opinions, and I knew that they hadn’t seen this man that they so feared strum soothing notes from a guitar. So I continued my pilgrimage of waving, although with some unseen reservation, and felt that I knew this man better than anyone else. He had, after all, talked to me.
“Hey you.” I looked around to see who was calling, and was surprised to see Jack standing bare-chested on his porch. “Yeah, come here for a minute,” he said.
A quick glance around assured me that I was alone, and it was me who he wanted. Without a thought, I walked to him as if I was meant to all along. His face showed sympathy and compassion and he held a glass that contained a clear liquid with several ice cubes.
“What’s that kid’s name who lives over there?” he asked pointing across the street at Eric’s house.
“Well you tell Eric to stay out of my fucking yard and stop breaking my fucking lights. Okay?”
His face cleared a little, and he looked back at me. “What’s your name?” He drained his glass and set it indifferently on the mailbox.
“Mine’s Jack.” I shook his limp hand and looked at my shoes. “And you tell Eric that if I catch him in my yard again, I’m gonna get two Italians — his age — to go over there and fuck him over.”
“And tell that to that little shit Andy, too. I talked to his mother, you know.”
I didn’t know, but nodded anyway. “And that other kid, what’s his name?” he asked. “Y’know, the one who plays those fucking drums all day.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” he said as if he had always known. “You tell him, too.”
“Okay.” I had repeated it three times now. Like a charm.
He turned to go inside, and I fetched his glass for him. He smiled. “Thanks, Jeff.”
“Okay. See ya, Jack.”
I was the center of attention for the next week, and I was endlessly bombarded with questions by my friends. What did he say? What’s he like? What’s his name? I answered all these questions with unbelievable patience, not giving too much, but whetting their appetites for more. Andy proclaimed he would go meet him, Eric chose to stay, and Randy seemed to be totally indifferent. I was enchanted.
Several weeks later I was startled out of a light doze by Andy’s incessant knocking on my door. He informed me that Jack wanted him to wash his car, but that wasn’t all.
“What do you mean ‘that isn’t all?’ ” I asked him.
“He wants you to cut his grass, too.”
I started to say something but was interrupted.
So I went. Andy led the way and when both jobs were done, Andy was given a five spot and I a ten. Our eyes widened as we watched him carefully separate our money from seemingly endless rolls of twenties and fifties. Since money was a new thing to Andy, he scampered off home to show his mother. I, on the other hand, stuck around for a while and chatted with this fascinating man. I learned that his marriage was shaky, and it would probably be dissolved soon, much to his regret. I felt for this poor man — with all his ostentatious jewelry and wads of money — who was the victim of a tragic thing. I pushed my mower home thinking about him, and I wondered again what he was like. I had, however, set my foot in the door of his heart, soon to wedge it wide open.
I finally came to know Jack following my first tour of duty as his “landscaper.” Because I loved money more than I was curious about Jack,
I made it a point to cut his grass on a weekly basis. I suppose it was this selfishness that I was later grateful for. With the completion of each job, and before I collected my wage, Jack and I would talk ceaselessly as if we had known each other for years. Our conversations ranged from music to life (he considered the two as complements to one another), and I learned more from his simple words than any school teacher or smart-ass kid could teach me. I would often quote his words to those who didn’t know him, and they were usually quite impressed. I was becoming his disciple and didn’t even know it.
Before too long, I found myself visiting Jack on a daily basis, going out of my way to stop and say “hi.” I valued his opinion on everything from diction to women, and his advice I never rued. For the neighborhood kids, he was still something of a spectacle; someone to watch and laugh at, always deriving some kind of childlike enjoyment. He would sometimes make whole sentences out of swear words, and then turn right around and say something so deep it would leave me speechless. I remember sitting for hours watching and listening to him interact with society, always outdoing himself each successive time. Jack would talk to me about love and life, and the need to maintain an open mind — three things I have patterned my life along — and somehow tie them into a visible importance that was pertinent to the situation. Within weeks I considered him as good a friend as anybody.
When that endless summer finally ended, and all the bored kids picked up their books and went back to school, Jack seemed to fade back into the unseen void of a harried life. Of course I continued to see him once a week — because money was still very important — but the less I saw him, the more I began to wonder. In late October the girls began to reappear, slowly at first, but fairly regular later. I met some of them and others I did not. Jack was still Jack, but somehow different.
I was shocked, but not totally surprised, one day in November when I saw a moving van parked innocently outside his house. I knew his type as one of the ones who leave people behind to wonder about them. But, in fact, that was not the case. Jack was very chipper and bouncy — smiling and laughing at everything — and his reply to my query of “Movin’ out?” was simple, hearty laughter.
“Nope,” he giggled. “That’s my wife’s shit up there ... it didn’t work out,” he said as he took his eyes off mine. “But why don’t you jump up there and see if there’s anything you want.” His smile returned. “Go on. You can keep it,” he chuckled.
So I did. I found a nice desk lamp that I still use today, and I’ll probably always have it. Just for the memories.
I spent many of my days at Jack’s house, doing little more than chatting or watching TV, and began to separate from the rest of the world. He left only three times a day, almost as if on a schedule, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and would often come home soaked tt) the gills smelling like vodka. Jack drank too much vodka, without a doubt, but it almost seemed to add to his personality, and I never noticed it until after he was gone.
By Christmas time Jack had become the focus of many parties and gatherings. I introduced each and all of my friends to him, and he patiently met them with heartfelt compassion. He knew all their names almost immediately and extended certain gratitudes we had never before seen. He was, perhaps, a bit too generous, and in a way I will probably never know, his reputation spread beyond my sphere of friends to include people whom I shared only a nodding acquaintance with. This unsettled me at first, but soon, like Jack, I came to accept them as friends and eased up a little.
Before I knew it, Jack had reverted to his previous role as host and entertainer (although with a somewhat younger crowd) and he was philosophical only when we talked alone. I felt somewhat alienated from him at times, but appreciated him all the more when I could speak with him openly and honestly.
He nonchalantly mentioned over a spaghetti dinner one night to Randy and me that two girls (who I scarcely knew) had tried to rob him of $200. This fact did not seem to agitate him at all, and he seemed to neither notice nor mind that they had gotten away with it. I was amazed he could be so calm about it, but he was cool all the way through, and that moment seemed to mark the beginning of his untimely end.
As the days rolled on into the banner year of 1984, Jack’s house remained a haven for a small clique of people who liked to relax in the Jacuzzi with a cigarette in their mouths and a glass of Southern Comfort in hand. It was a place to kick back and “get away from it all.” Jack hired me to fix up his backyard — he surprisingly had given it the least of his time — and promptly paid me ninety dollars cash. I was also hired to stack his wood and clean his garage. I noticed, though, that the money was becoming less important, and I was becoming more interested in him. He seemed to be falling into an abyss of depression, and while still Jack, appeared to be in a downward spiral of emotion.
I was able to view the three personalities that Jack was so famous for in the months of March and April. As I remember them, I can still see the three expressions he had worn; that of brashness, of anger, of love. I remember waving to him over his fence as he made love to another unknown woman in the Jacuzzi, and nearly dying in laughter as he waved back with a childish expression on his face. And I can still see the lines of concern and hate on his forehead and the sallowness in his cheeks as he drunkenly yelled at me over a forgotten incident. And I can still feel the love in his words and see the sparkle in his eyes as he told his two most devout subjects (myself and another neighbor, Wende) how much he always wanted to have children and the way he wanted us to be successful in life. It was moments like those that I will never forget in my life.
It was one of those picture perfect spring days, with the birds singing lightly in the trees and the flowers silently blooming, that I said goodbye to Jack. I had sensed a glow of life in the air that day, and the sun seemed to actually smile on the earth. I remember walking home that day and thinking how alive everything looked and also of Jack. He had said that Monday was too late to cut his grass, and I thought I could talk him out of it. But it was too late. His house had just come into view when I watched a body enveloped in a brown blanket, being carted across the street. My mind went into a frenzy, and my first thought was that Jack had killed
somebody. There were several police cars lined up in strategic positions around his home, and they crawled like beetles around the street corner. I ran past my house, hardly noticing my own dad, and cut across the street to Jack’s side.
When I arrived at Jack’s lawn — his uncut lawn — heavily winded, I saw several more cops. One of them, a lady, stood in the doorway and I approached her.
“What happened?” I breathed.
“Nothing is wrong,” she stated almost mechanically. “Everything is just fine.”
“There was a minor disturbance, but —”
“A minor disturbance?” I screamed at her. “I just saw them take a fucking body out of my friend’s house, and I want to know what happened! ” I was really upset, and couldn’t stand to look at this incompetent woman. I stormed inside.
Inside, the house was cool and dark, and several plainclothes men milled around me. I finally cornered one of them, demanded who he was, and asked him the same question as I had the cop. He was a wiry drink of water and he looked at me through Coke-bottle glasses when he said, “The gentleman here,” he glanced at his notebook, “shot himself this morning.” His words seemed to echo through the dead house like a curse. I felt dizzy and sick. The man, who identified himself as the coroner, disappeared and I found myself alone in Jack’s living room. I saw the clock that I had so often glanced at to see how late I was, the now silent piano that Jack had often played, and I could almost see him — sitting in his Lazy Boy with his glass of vodka cussing at a person on TV — and I realized I had never felt so lonely in all my life.
I walked home in a daze, always wanting to scream, but somehow refraining. He had said, “Monday is too late,” and I shuddered at the thought. Had he been planning it? And if so, for how long? Did he have death on his mind as we chatted two days early, his dark secret somehow hidden? I cried. I cried and thought about all we had shared, and that made me want to cry even more. I took a cold shower and smoked a whole pack of cigarettes in that afternoon, and my mind was still not relaxed. I had to know why.
Later that day, though still in shock, I found myself talking rationally with Eric and an idea emerged that I had been agonizing over like Macbeth had; not wanting to but doing it nonetheless. Something very extraordinary had, indeed, happened here, and the both of us longed for some reassuring answers.
The darkness of night had just begun to set in as we crept silently through Jack’s gate. We closely examined the windows and doors and found them locked. Of course, we both knew they would be, but seemed to hold a futile hope that maybe we might get lucky. We searched the house in the fading light for a way in and were just about to give up, when Eric remembered the doggy door.
“This is how we got in to get the can of snow,” he explained.
“Well, then, crawl in and go unlock the sliding glass door,” I whispered. He looked up at me with uncertain eyes but went anyway. He was scared, but still a kid.
Hours seemed to clock off before Eric’s face finally emerged at the sliding glass door. He gingerly removed the stick holding it shut, and slid it open quietly. He held back the drapes as I stepped through, and I smelled it right off. It was the stench of death; the musty smell I associated with the back rooms of my grandparents’ old houses. The house seemed to be well lighted, and I tried not to think about what it might be emanating from. We walked past the dusty table with its bowl of candy in the center (“Want a piece of candy, Jeff?” he used to say) and into the hall. To the right was Jack’s bedroom (which appeared even brighter) and to the left was the other rooms. As I left Eric, and stepped into his room, I saw that the source of the extra light was his trusty nightlight by the end table. I noticed, also, with something like revulsion, that there was a glass on the table, carefully placed on a coaster. I walked over to it and smelled the tangy scent of vodka and felt a cold hand touch my shoulder. That time, I did scream and turned to stare into the terror-stricken face of Eric. He pointed to the closet door, which was now open. I walked over to it and clicked my lighter inside. What I saw approached true insanity.
On either side of the closet, Jack’s carefully pressed suits hung like dead criminals and I noticed
something else, too. Was it. . . blood? I slammed the door shut, no longer concerned, and shoved Eric out into the hall.
“Was it —?”
“Yes it was,” I said.
We looked through each of the rooms, not knowing what to expect, and scared pale. I had just about given up on his study — his files and drawers were locked tight — when I saw a newspaper article and a small, blue brochure. I hadn’t noticed them before, and I wondered if Eric had chosen the wrong time to play games with me. But he was gone. I looked closer at the article, holding it up to my lighter, and I realized that certain parts had been emphasized with a pink highlighter pen. The highlighted pieces told of child pornography and related Mob involvement and, although it said nothing specifically, I had my ideas. The blue brochure read in bold print: DO I NEED A WILL? Under it, someone had written: YES! I set them both down and walked out into the hall. From the kitchen I heard Eric. “It’s dark. Maybe we ought to go?” He was but a shadow among shadows and I suddenly needed to use the bathroom. I stumbled through the pitch black and up ahead the clock on the microwave blinked 7:01 like a welcome home banner.
So we left: I, out the big door, and he out the little one. Once outside, we hesitated only a moment to take one last, disparaging glance, then departed slowly and remorsefully as if in a trance. Eric crossed the street silently and disappeared into his house and I watched him go from Jack’s front lawn. It was quite long and seedy and I wondered if I should cut it. I would never do it again and I felt some inner need to somehow thank Jack for all he had done for me. But, of course, it was too late. I sat there for nearly two hours and watched the stars come out. It was May 21, 1984, and he was gone, forever. □
I swear that the house on Thomas Street was staring at me with tired eyes when I drove by it the second time. The first pass of it had revealed a dirty white, wood-framed house built in that mad period when housing millions of World War II veterans was the priority of the nation. It lies on a corner lot, blanketed by pepper trees and encircled on three sides with a dismal, rain-starved carpeting of dying grass.
Seeing it for the second time made me want to step on the gas and forget about house-hunting on that clear and windy day in March of 1982. Sailing on Mission Bay sure seemed more attractive, but the element of time was not on my side. I only had three days to get living quarters established or else I’d be joining the people at the Rescue Center downtown. With that thought in mind I made a U-turn and my large Buick squealed to a stop in front of the house. As I looked for the front door, I noticed a front porch that hid behind two large juniper bushes. A wisp of smoke was coming up from behind the bushes, and then a pale faced image arose with the smoke. We caught each other’s eye and he remained standing as I approached the stairs to the porch.
This must be the guy I talked to on the phone, I thought. His name was Tom Shell and his name sure fit him. He was a shell. He stood about five feet, eight inches tall. Maybe more, but he had kind of hunched shoulders and back, like an old man. But he looked about my age, twenty-six or -seven. In the flower bed of youth he was definitely a weed. He had a pale complexion that had seen enough acne. A large nose overshadowed droopy red eyes that had seen enough THC for one day.
He had blond hair that was combed every which way to hide his receding hairline. Besides his presence, the only other thing that irritated me was his handshake. It was the type that salespeople use when they think they’ve found a sale: too strong, too long, too fake . . .
“You must be Jeff, I’m Tom. It’s a pleasure to meet you, come on in,” he said.
Entering the house sent a feeling through me that would’ve sent any “just flew the coop” kid running back home to his parents. However, it had been eight years since I abandoned the nest, and since then I’d seen, and lived in, quite a few places like this. Too many, it seemed.
We were greeted by a large living room connected to a den that was off to the left. Both rooms were empty of furniture, with the exception of a small black and white TV on the floor, and a beanbag to keep it company.
“Uh, where’s your furniture?” I asked.
“Well, to tell you the truth,” he began, “I had to sell it to pay a lawsuit that I lost recently.”
Little did I know at that time that it had been a former roommate who had taken him to court.
We walked through the den and on to the kitchen, where I saw that the wallpaper was a mosaic of grease, smoke, and faded brown flowers.
The appliances were original equipment, yet they worked. Beyond the kitchen was a garage converted into a storage room that was halfway filled with strewn boxes, several bicycles in various states of disrepair, and a few half-dead end tables with two or three legs.
“Yeah,” said Tom, “feel free to utilize this space for storage, if you decide to move in.”
Then he went on and on about how great it was to have such storage space available.
We went back through the kitchen and to the other side of the living room where a hallway began that had three closed doors attached to it.
A fourth door was open and it revealed a bathroom that had seen some facelifting. It looked pretty good with its redwood paneling and tiled sink counter and shower/bath combination. Just as I was about to comment, Tom started rambling again about how he had done all the work himself.
“Yeah, I wanted to make sure that my roommates have a comfortable bathroom. I feel that’s important!”
Oh boy, I thought, I guess he didn’t feel that living rooms and kitchens rated high on the list of importances.
I asked him if he owned the house and he replied that no, he did not own it. He leased it from some family friends and was in the process of fixing it up as he felt that someday he may be able to buy it. Now that sounded responsible!
After looking at the bedroom, I decided that this would be the place to live in for now. Hell, maybe I could get some rent knocked off for doing stuff around the house; and time was hanging on my shoulder like a cat about to be thrown out of a warm house on a cold night.
I told Tom that I’d move in. Boy, was he happy! Once again he started his ramblings; this time it was about how I would fit in just fine with the household, that I seemed to be a good guy (and he could judge character because he was a salesman), and how everything would be cool as long as I didn’t party all night long, and as long as I paid my rent on time and picked up after myself.
He said that the other roommate was named Jo Ann and that apparently she was never home because she was always working or out on dates. She and I would share the bathroom as Tom had one connected to his bedroom.
I asked him what he sold for a living and he announced that he was involved in the “beauty industry,” selling shampoo and such items to hair salons. He then started to tell me about the bullshit he sold but I had to cut him off by asking how much money he wanted in order to settle the transaction. First and last, he said.
One Week Later
“Jeff, I hate to tell you this, and I’ll replace them, but uh, I crashed your bicycle last night and the handlebars broke,” Tom was giving me this sincere look as he spoke. “It was my fault, I was drunk.”
Oh well, I thought, that’s what can happen when you’re a nice guy and start lending your $200 bike to a roommate.
Four Days Later
“I hope you don’t mind, Jeff, but I happened to pass your room and saw your pot tray. So I borrowed a couple of bong hits; I should be getting some more later today.”
Okay Tom. Whatever, do whatever you feel is right.
Two Weeks Later
“I think Tom is a slob,” announced my roommate Jo Ann. “He’s always leaving his shit scattered everywhere. His dishes sit for days in the kitchen, and I think he’s been getting into my food.”
She had a point there. We agreed that he was poking his face into our refrigerator purchases.
Jo Ann continued, “Another thing about him is that he’s always borrowing a dollar here, a dollar there.” She was waving her hand back and forth to emphasize “here and there.”
She had another point there. We agreed that a roommate meeting was in order.
“Tom, Jo Ann and myself have a few things we’d like to discuss with you . . .”
Three Days Later
It was three o’clock in the morning when I heard the telephone ring. It wouldn’t stop ringing; it dragged me out of sleep, like a crane lifting an abandoned car out of a lake.
I picked up the receiver and heard some laughing in the background. It almost sounded like a party. Then I heard Tom’s voice and I knew the party was over.
“Hello? Uh Jeff, guess where I’m at?”
“Probably in jail, Tom.”
He started laughing. “How did you know? Man, you’re really a trip, did you know that?”
“Listen, Jeff, you’ve got to help me,” his tone of voice was pleading me, “listen . ..”
I’m listening, I thought. Why don’t you quit laughing and tell me what it is?
He continued, “You’ve got to help me. I happened to be involved in a hit-and-run accident and a friend that was with me got hurt. I totaled my car and the cops arrested me for felony drunk driving. I’ve got bail arranged, but I need you to take the rent money that you owed me as of yesterday, and take it to this guy who’s the bondsman. Okay?”
“Yeah, sure, what’s his name?” I asked.
He told me where to go, then I hung up the phone and went back to bed. What an idiot. He can wait until tomorrow. With a smile on my face,
I started thinking that he could wait a day or two after tomorrow.
One Week Later
“Hey, Tom, when in the hell are you gonna fix my handlebars? It would be nice to ride my bike, especially on a day like this.” I was mad, real mad. It was a perfect day to ride over to the beach and it had been over a month since “Dummy The Tom” broke it. That was his new nickname, it fit him too well.
He didn’t like it, and that made me one happy roommate.
Two Weeks Later
Tom brought over one of his buddies today. Actually, Tom doesn’t have any friends, but he sure has a bad habit of making any stranger his best friend. He would bring people over that he met on the boardwalk; generally the people consisted of low-life quality. They would help Tom smoke his pot and be his friend until the fun would run out. Then that person wouldn’t be seen again, but there was always another one that followed. I had mentioned to Tom that I didn’t think it was too ' cool having these strangers come over, but he always replied that he wouldn’t bring them over if they “weren’t good people.”
Well, today I had the pleasure of meeting Tom’s friend Rocky. Rocky was about six feet, three inches and weighed about 200 pounds. He was a big boy. Besides his large frame, he had a long, black beard and long black hair tied into a ponytail with a little “Harley-Davidson” motorcycle beret. A red bandana encircled his head, and a silver earring dangled from his left ear.
I didn’t like Rocky from the moment I saw him. And I know he didn’t like me. We lived in two different worlds, and saw the world in two different lights. Tension began to fill the air. But just to be a nice guy I offered him a beer, but not Tom.
I had been watching a good football game when these guys came sauntering in. Rocky wanted me to change it to another game that he wanted to see, and Tom agreed. I didn’t feel like arguing, so the channel was switched.
Just then the front door opened and Jo Ann came in. She was dressed to kill with her red dress and high heels, and Rocky started licking his lips. She said hi and then strolled into the hallway. By then, Rocky was beside himself with lust and he started making some crude noises with his lips. I looked over at him and he looked at me and then he said, “Man, oh man, does she live here?”
I nodded my head and looked over at Tom. He had his eyes closed.
“Hey man!” Rocky asked. “Let me have another beer.”
After five more beers down Rocky’s throat, Jo Ann came in to the room on her way to the kitchen. Rocky jumps up and blocks her path.
“Hey honey, you sure are pretty. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
Jo Ann looked over at me with only one question in her eyes: Who in the hell is this weirdo?
I stood up and started to officially introduce the two when all of a sudden Rocky tells me to shut up.
“What the hell is your trip?” I asked. I was scared, my heart started pounding, and the room closed in with heavy fear.
“I’m talking to her, fucker, you stay out of this!” he screamed.
Then he walked over and slammed me against the wall, sending my head crashing against the wall. A sheet of pain ripped through my head and started blurring my vision. Through the curtain that was descending on my eyes I could see Tom getting up from his snooze on the couch, and then I heard Jo Ann scream.
Rocky’s back was toward me and he had his arms around Jo Ann, holding her tight to him and laughing down into her frightened eyes. That was it! I stood up slowly and watched Tom trying to tell Rocky to cool it. To my left was a softball bat leaning against the wall;
I picked it up and yelled at Rocky, “Let her go, mother fucker, or I’ll kill you! ” I was in a rage and I felt crazy energy seeping through my system. I had never felt so strong as I approached Rocky, staring him in the eye. I was ready for him and he knew it. He let go of his prey and faced me with a gleam in his eye. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so good. I was shaking and he saw it and started laughing. Oh shit, I thought, this mother is gonna kill me.
He walked slowly over to me and started talking in front of my face; his beer breath spilling on my face, we were definitely face to face!
“So you’re gonna kill me, huh?
I doubt that. But I’ll tell you something you little punk, you got balls. More balls than this idiot that I came over here with. And you know what? I like that! So . . . I’m gonna just leave real peaceful like', okay? Is that all right with you?”
I nodded my head slowly. He then smiled at me and then he turned around and walked out the door, chuckling to himself.
I turned and looked at Tom and said, “You stupid motherfucker. I’m giving you thirty days’ notice to get the hell out of here. Lease or no lease, you’re out!'"
I walked over to him and cocked the bat, glaring at him for a minute. He broke the silence and in a meek little cat voice said, “I’m leaving ”□