I’M NOT SUPPOSED to come within five hundred yards of her house, but rumor has it she’s hired a gang of Vietnamese hard cases to get rid of me; so, order of protection or no order of protection, I’m going in. The back door is unlocked, and her mom and dad are just sitting down to dinner. They look like a couple of ghosts; I could put my fists right through them.
We had Christmas together at that table, Valentine’s Day. Her dad once complimented me on how clean I kept my car. I tell them not to mind me; go ahead and eat. I lean against the kitchen counter to wait for them to finish. The sun pushes red through the window, and the refrigerator and crockpot and microwave are hot to the touch.
“What’s this about?” her dad asks.
“Does a gang of Vietnamese hard cases ring a bell?”
“Lana moved to Chicago six months ago,” her mom says.
“Nice try,” I tell her.
Her dad wipes his mouth with a napkin, then stands and walks out of the room.
“It’s true,” her mom continues. “You remember all the phone calls you made here afterward.”
“My finger slipped,” I explain.
Her dad reappears, carrying a shotgun. I try to grab something out of the dish rack to defend myself, but my knees give way, and I end up scrambling out the back door on all fours.
I’ve always thought their yard was special, the fruit trees and the goldfish pond. Concrete deer graze in the bushes, and something is always blooming. I hop over the fence just as her dad appears on the patio. He points the gun at me — the same man who once admired the shine on my chrome.
“That isn’t necessary!” I yell.
A couple of cop cars howl past as I make my way out of the neighborhood. It’s not even dark yet, but already the gas stations and grocery stores are all lit up. There’s no such thing as a hiding place. I can see people waiting in line at McDonald’s. They straighten their hair and smile at their reflections in the window.
In order to shake any tails, I drive home via a different route, cutting corners, doubling back, and running a few reds. After a while, even I don’t know where I am. It seems impossible that I could get so lost in the city where I grew up.
MARTY BLAMES his worthlessness on one awful season of Little League. When he starts in on it sometimes, the whole bar yells at him to have another drink. You have to wonder about a guy who can trace thirty years of failure back to a grounder he bobbled when he was eight. You also have to wonder about the people who call themselves his friends but won’t let him get it off his chest.
I sometimes have trouble with conversations in crowded places. Here at the bar, for example, a dude can be talking right to me, but I can just as clearly hear the person sitting next to him, and the person sitting next to that person, which leads to confusion. It’s a filtering problem, I guess. Imagine drowning in words. That’s what it’s like.
Marty’s sitting near the TV with three packs of GPCs stacked in front of him. He smiles and points hopefully to his glass.
“Jennifer, honey,” I say, “get Marty another on me, OK?”
I like to help out when I can.
Marty inherited a chimp named John Wayne from an uncle who’d had something to do with the rodeo. Marty thought he might put the chimp in the movies, but all John Wayne did was drink beer and smoke cigars. He got loaded one night and set Marty’s apartment on fire. A few days later, he bit off the tip of Marty’s nose. When the cops showed up, John Wayne charged them. They had no choice but to shoot. Marty still carries the newspaper clipping in his wallet.
I’M CAREFUL coming up the stairs into my building. A kid who lives here is riding his tricycle in the hall. I ask him if he’s seen anyone strange snooping around, and he stares at me with the blankest face.
My place is what they call a “bachelor.” It doesn’t have a kitchen, just a room to sleep in and a bathroom. It’s against the rules, but I snuck in a hot plate so that, when I get tired of fast food, I can heat a can of soup or spaghetti. As soon as I find one cheap, I’m buying a little refrigerator. Then I’ll be able to cook bacon and eggs some mornings.
I sit in my recliner, which faces the only window in the room. The window looks out on the brick wall of the building next door. I don’t have a regular TV-watching schedule other than the eleven o’clock news. One man who comes by the newsstand where I work gets the listings out of the Sunday paper and underlines everything he’s going to watch for the entire week. That’s a little much.
It’s times like these I wish I still smoked.
They’ve got us on some kind of flight path here. All night long, helicopters clatter back and forth, rattling the windows and the loose change on the coffee table. I tried to organize the tenants in the building to make a complaint to the city. I typed up a letter at the library, xeroxed it at my own expense, and slipped it under every door. The only response came from a squirrelly guy on the first floor who calls himself an actor, but who I know sells office supplies over the phone. He stopped me in the lobby and asked to borrow twenty dollars.
MY BOSS, JAMES, tells me some people from a magazine are coming by to take pictures. They have his permission. They show up before noon, while I’m straightening the out-of-state papers. A bee has been hovering around the stand all morning, making me nervous. I tried to swat it a few times, but it read my mind.
The photographer thinks he’s a badass. He’s got muscles and tattoos and calls his assistant “dickweed.” A closet case, for sure. He drops a can of Sprite on the sidewalk, and it spills all over everywhere. He doesn’t say a word.
“Hey,” I yell, “do something about that.”
The models arrive later, after the camera and the lights are set up. I figure out ways to stare without anybody catching on. The blonde looks like she’d break if you spooked her. When she’s not posing, her face is wiped clean of expression; she doesn’t give away anything for free. I used to drive myself crazy dreaming about banging girls like her.
The photographer wants me in some of the shots. I pretend to sell the girls a magazine. I stand between them with my back to the camera. I look over their shoulders as they read a newspaper. That’s when that pesky bee lands on the blonde’s throat. I swear I see its stinger pierce her skin. She screams and crumples to the sidewalk.
“What is it?” the photographer shouts. “What the fuck’s wrong?”
She lies there bawling like someone’s just died. The photographer, the assistant, the makeup girl — everyone gathers round.
“Are you allergic, Tina? Tina, listen.”
Tina’s face is bright red. She gurgles and wails, and snot drips off her chin. I watch from the register. I don’t realize I’m smiling until the photographer notices.
“This is funny?” he shouts. “This is funny?”
I CAN’T SLEEP — the helicopters and all — so I gather my dirty clothes and drive to the twenty-four-hour laundromat on La Brea. Tricky shit goes on late at night: He-shes. Burglar alarms. Moonlight. Elaborate detours pop up out of nowhere and disappear by morning. Men with long poles change the names of movies and the price of gas. I’ve stopped searching for patterns. I know too much already.
An old Armenian is asleep on the bench in the laundromat. He snores loudly, and it looks like he’s pissed himself — there’s a puddle, anyway. Over by the sink, a Mexican woman folds towels while her kid plays with a toy car on the floor.
Half of the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling fixtures are burned out, which makes for some dark corners and jagged shadows. The change machine is on the fritz, too. I ask the Mexican lady to break a dollar, but she pulls the no-speakee-English bit, so I have to go next door to the liquor store. It all makes sense when I see that Ho Chi Minh himself is behind the counter. I get the feeling he’s been waiting for me.
NO CHANGE, warns a sign on the register. I give him a dollar for a twenty-five-cent pack of gum, scoop up the three quarters he slaps on the counter, then lay down another pack of gum and another dollar.
“Gotcha,” I say as he slides over three more quarters. “They sure didn’t teach you much about customer service in Saigon.”
He goes back to reading the newspaper spread out in front of him. It’s printed in his language. The letters look like bugs.
“You and your boys better watch yourselves,” I continue. “I don’t like being followed. My dad fought over there, get it? My Lai, motherfucker.”
“I’m Korean,” Uncle Ho says.
I catch sight of myself on the security monitor hanging from the ceiling. Lana’s got me so wound up, I can’t tell if I’m coming or going.
All my clothes fit in one machine. I don’t worry about separating whites and colors. I wash everything in cold. The Armenian has stopped snoring, and it is piss; I can smell it. When I close my eyes, I see bombs going off. The Mexican kid won’t listen to me. I just wanted to tell him a joke.
AFTER THE MORNING RUSH, I sketch my idea on the back of an old invoice. The bar lets me borrow a ladder, so my only expense is paint.
The narrow alleyway that runs between my building and the one next to it is filled with garbage. When everything finally quiets down at night, you can hear the rats down there, hustling and bustling and doing business. High fences topped with razor wire seal off both ends of the alley, but that doesn’t stop me; I slide the ladder out my window and climb onto it.
The sky is first. I draw the brush back and forth, laying down a patch of pale blue on the bricks I’ve grown to hate. While that bit dries, I turn around and climb back into my apartment. From my recliner, I admire the beginning of my new view.
A splash of ocean dotted with whitecaps, a crescent of beach, a bright yellow sun — piece by piece, it comes together. My only screw-up is the hula girl: I can’t get her face right, so I turn her into a palm tree instead.
I gaze at the scene for an hour after I finish. If I squint, it looks almost real. Everybody has the right to something nice. It’s not against the rules to prime the pump now and then. A stray sunbeam hits the paint, and the colors glow. I open a beer and put my feet up on the windowsill. If it weren’t for the funny smell of my recliner, I could be somewhere else.
THE PARKING-LOT ATTENDANT from across the street comes over to the newsstand on his breaks. I never bug him about browsing in the adult section because once, when my horn started honking and wouldn’t stop, he showed me which wire to pull. He has a baby daughter who was born with her heart outside her body. Down in Mexico, where he’s from, the cops and the dope dealers get away with murder. He’s funny the way he opens the centerfolds, then shakes his head and whistles.
“Have you seen anybody strange hanging around?” I ask him.
“No, Boss, nobody. Who do you mean?”
“Like some Vietnamese dudes. Gangster types.”
A car pulls up to the curb, and the driver yells for me to bring him a New York Times. I hate guys like that; I don’t care if they do let me keep the change.
When my shift is done, I count out the till. It balances for the ninety-eighth straight time. The night clerk takes over, but I linger for a while. He’s new on the job, so I warn him about the kids who are always trying to swipe cigarettes. His shoulder-length black hair is parted in the middle, and he’s reading a book about vampires. When I ask if he believes in that shit, he hems and haws. I don’t know what James was thinking, hiring this one. The little old ladies will be scared to death.
AS A PRECAUTION, I park two streets away from my apartment and hoof it the rest of the way. The shadows of a flock of birds passing overhead swarm across the sidewalk like vermin. I hear things breaking behind me, but you couldn’t pay me enough to turn around.
The office-supply salesman who says he’s an actor is eating grapes on the steps of the building. He’s not wearing a shirt, and I catch a glimpse of a gold ring in one of his nipples.
“Hey,” he says as I pass by. Then he gets up and follows me inside. “I saw you painting the other day.”
“It’s personal,” I reply. Fuck if I know what I mean. My mailbox is packed with sweepstakes applications. I think someone is giving out my address.
“Not to get all woo-woo, but what sign are you?” the salesman asks.
His lips, his hands — something about him makes my skin crawl. Can’t he understand my situation? I’m on the verge of getting to the bottom of this mess.
“Break a leg,” I say, pushing past him and hurrying up the stairs.
THERE’S NO LISTING for Lana in Chicago. I try ten different times, with ten different operators, to make sure. Then I check other cities: New York, Miami, Dallas. The operator in Paris barely speaks English.
“Bonjour,” I say. “What time is it there?”
“Six in zee morning,” she replies.
“Dawn, huh? And the weather?”
“Zee numbair you want?”
“It must be gorgeous. Tell me about it.”
“Zee numbair, sir?”
Lana dyed her hair blond. I was doing great then, processing work orders for the phone company. We went out to dinner all the time. I bought her a diamond tennis bracelet that I’m still making payments on. She never told me she loved me, but then, she’d never told anyone else that, either. We were easing toward something special. I was allowed to tongue-kiss her and put my hands on her tits, and once she rubbed my cock through my sweats.
She was younger than me. Barely legal. Eight years’ difference doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be surprised. I don’t remember ever being as silly as she sometimes was. She got drunk and puked in my car, even after I warned and warned her. She shoplifted breath mints and mascara. Her parents thought I was great. Looking back, I think they were probably happy to have someone take her off their hands. We dated for three months and twenty-two days.
MARTY PASSES AROUND a bottle of pills he found on the floor at Arby’s. The prescription label has been peeled off, and he’s hoping someone might know what they are. Jennifer says antibiotics, but her boyfriend, Bob the Snob, smells one and guesses Valium. I drop a tablet on my tongue and wash it down with beer. They all swear I’m crazy.
Someone’s seen a movie that gets us on the subject of time travel. I can tell you this: My dream is not to go back and lay a bunch of money on the Derby or the Super Bowl. I also wouldn’t save Lincoln or Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Invisibility interests me more, but nobody wants to talk about that. “Figures, you skeev” is how they put it. This place is a pigsty.
Some Fridays, women come in, two or three together. Usually, they’re too old for me. I don’t go for the druggies, either. They giggle and flirt and sing along with the jukebox and get all the wet-fart regulars squirming on their stools. Marty’s the worst. I once saw him spend half his paycheck on a couple of grannies who bugged their eyes at each other and laughed up their sleeves every time he turned his back. I’m lucky I have Lana to keep that part of my brain busy.
The place is dead tonight, though. The end of some sorry line. Marty follows me out to my car, which is parked in front of the pet store. While we’re standing there talking about nothing, every animal in the place starts screeching at once, like they all have little knives at their throats. I just about go to pieces. It gets louder and louder, but Marty won’t shut up. “I mean, the world does its thing,” he hollers over the din.
At Denny’s, where I stop to eat, I get this idea stuck in my head that I can see through everyone’s clothes.
“THE POLICE were here looking for you,” my mom says first thing when I walk in the door.
“You don’t know the half of it,” I reply.
“Leave that girl’s family alone. They’re serious.”
She sets her wineglass on the kitchen table and goes back to cracking walnuts. Shells fly all over the place. It’s like she doesn’t even care where they end up. This makes me angry right off the bat, because I’m reminded of how utterly incapable she is of putting two and fucking two together.
Dad is in the living room, watching something on TV. He raises his fingers in a wave, but doesn’t say anything. I walk over and look at the family portrait from Christmas 1982: my brother before he became an accountant, my sister before she became a housewife, and me. The years eat you right up. I know what I was thinking back then, and it didn’t have anything to do with this.
When the commercials start, my dad sits up. He’s wearing a neck brace as a precaution after some kind of operation on his back.
“Come here where I can see you,” he says. “I can’t turn around.”
I join him on the couch. He lays his hand on my shoulder. They’ve redecorated twice since I moved. I’d have to scratch through two layers of paint to get to a color I remember. The latest addition is the vertical blinds on the sliding glass door. They cast prisony shadows across the carpet.
“I quit smoking,” I tell my dad.
“That’s so great. I’m proud of you.”
He punched me in the face once, for talking back. We were strange kids, my brother, my sister, and I. Sadder than most.
My mom comes in and hands each of us a beer. She needs to know what kind of pizza I want because she’s calling Domino’s pretty soon. Then we have to be quiet because Dad’s program is back on: a documentary on the secrets of ancient Egypt. When he thinks I’m caught up in it, I feel him staring at me. During the next commercial break, I ask, “Has Lana called here for me? Any hang-ups, maybe?” and a tear races down his cheek.
I USED TO CUT SCHOOL and smoke weed with the older brother of the cop who cuffs me for the ride to the station. He and his partner show up at the end of my shift. I think about making a run for it, but James tells me to be cool and get it over with. He went through the same thing with his ex. To this day, he’s not allowed to speak to her except via her attorney.
The world looks different from the back seat of the cruiser. Everything suddenly assumes a new preciousness. If I get out of this, I promise myself, I’m going to buy a camera and start taking pictures. I also want to spend some time at the beach. It’s just twenty minutes away, and I haven’t been there in years. Up front, the cops are talking about a hooker they busted in front of an elementary school. She was so messed up, she was propositioning fifth-graders. We stop at a red light, and wherever I turn, there are palm trees and big white clouds that inch toward the horizon. Click. I snap a mental photo. Click, click.
The room they put me in has no windows. I walk the perimeter looking for pinholes that might conceal lenses or microphones. A suit comes in, Detective something or other, and tells me to sit down. “I know your dad,” he says.
It’s his duty to inform me that this is the last straw: if I violate the restraining order again, Lana’s parents are insisting that I do time. I get the impression there have been conversations about me going on behind my back. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable.
“I’m going to be blunt with you,” the detective says. “If you’re having mental trouble, we can get you help. Don’t be ashamed to admit that you’re in over your head.”
“I’m fine,” I reply.
“Your dad says this is about a girl who dumped you.”
“Not dumped, exactly. She moved away.”
The detective brings the end of his tie up and brushes it against his nose, then suddenly drops it when he realizes what he’s doing. I can just barely hear someone singing “Happy Birthday” over the station’s PA system.
“I’ve been dumped; we’ve all been dumped,” the detective continues. “It’s fucked, but you’ll get past it. Just tough it out. Not all that John Wayne stuff is bullshit. He had balls, you know.”
I laugh. “Oh, yes, he did.” I’m thinking of the chimp, not the man.
“So, are we square?”
I feel better in a strange way. Something like forgetting. There’s one of those coffee machines in the hall, the kind where the paper cup drops down and the coffee dribbles in. I stand next to it and buy coffee for everyone who passes, good guys and bad. “Hey, thanks,” they say, and, “What a treat!” After a while, I run out of money and have to walk all the way back to the newsstand to pick up my car.
JAMES GETS a nosebleed out of nowhere. He stands in the street so that he won’t drip on the magazines. One of the old-lady customers says he must be low on iron. He leans his head back and pinches the bridge of his nose. After a while, it stops. His blood turns black in the gutter as it dries.
We listen to opera on the radio. It’s Friday, and everyone is in a good mood, getting ready for the weekend. An old man they call the Witch Doctor stops by for the Racing Form. We ask him for a sure thing, and he just laughs at us. My lunch sandwich is especially tasty. “This must be made with love,” I say to Agna behind the counter, and she gives me a free refill on my Coke. Walking back across the street to the stand, I have a vision of how normal things could be.
I handle the register while James rearranges the displays according to a plan he got out of a trade paper. The automobile section moves to where the do-it-yourself mags were, and they replace hair and beauty. It’s all about “guided focal points,” he explains. Every month, it’s something new. The parking-lot attendant comes over, and I point to James so that he’ll know what’s up. He passes by the pornos and buys a Mexican newspaper instead.
After work, I go to a movie. Something about teachers and high-school kids. There’s an actor in it I recognize from the stand. We have his autographed picture over the register. Mostly, though, I watch the other people watching the movie. Lots of guys are there with their cute little girlfriends. I feel like I ought to warn them. The air conditioning in the theater is cranked up so high I start to shiver, and I have to leave before the big showdown at the prom.
ON MY DAY OFF, I buy one of those disposable cameras. Twenty-four exposures:
1. The checkout girl at the drugstore, to see if the flash and everything works. “I have a cold,” she says. “Leave me alone.”
2. A police car speeding past with its lights and siren on.
3. Pigeons on the steeple of a church.
4. The Hollywood sign, but I think I’m too far away.
5. A Mexican girl pushing a stroller. I tell her I work for a magazine and ask her name. “Maria,” I say, “I’m gonna make you famous.”
6, 7, 8. Two dogs humping in the alley behind Pep Boys.
9. A cactus with red flowers.
10. James at the register.
11. James again, because he says he had his eyes closed the first time.
12. The parking-lot attendant. He asks for a copy for his wife.
13. A stretch limo.
14. The sky.
15, 16, 17, 18. A girl who looks just like Lana. She won’t stop, so I have to walk backward in front of her while snapping the pictures. She tries to grab the camera, and I almost get hit by a bus while running away.
19. Jennifer leaning over the bar to hug Marty.
20. Me and Marty pretending to kiss (taken by Jennifer).
21. My shoe (a mistake).
22. The first car that follows me home.
23. The second.
24. The third, close enough to see the Vietnamese guy behind the wheel.
The clerk at the one-hour photo place claims that the camera was defective and none of the pictures turned out. Not believing a word of it, I tell him I want them anyway. A while later, he hands me an envelope containing twenty-four black prints and twenty-four clear negatives. I spend half the night going over them with a magnifying glass, but nothing reveals itself.
AT THE BAR, someone has put a sign-up sheet for a day trip to Catalina on the bulletin board by the restrooms. There are only two names on it, and the deadline is tomorrow. They tried to start a softball team once, too. The broken mirror in the bathroom has been replaced, and a fresh coat of paint covers the piss blisters pocking the metal divider between the urinals.
It’s against the law to smoke in bars anymore, but the management here doesn’t pay any attention. Everybody’s puffing away, which is fucked, because the only time I crave one is when I’m drinking. I rest my forehead on the edge of the bar and stare down at my feet. As a mental exercise, I try to recall where I was at midnight on New Year’s Eve for as many years back as I can. The first five or so come easily, but after that, it’s a struggle. My life should have been more memorable.
“Don’t you dare fall asleep in here,” Jennifer says, jabbing my arm with a long red fingernail.
Any of these people would sell me out in a minute, and my suspicion is that one of them already has. Those gangsters are awfully familiar with my schedule. The door opens, and the setting sun roars in like a wildfire. A figure stands silhouetted on the threshold. Everyone turns to look, squinting and raising their hands to shield their eyes, and I think, When they finally come for me, it will be something like this. But today it’s just another regular, taking his sweet time.
“Hurry up, asshole,” someone yells. “All the dark’s getting out.”
“YOU’RE FUCKING WEIRD,” Marty says. I’ve made a whole production out of unveiling my painting for him, the beach scene on the brick wall. I sat him in the recliner and replaced the white bulb in the floor lamp with a blue one for a cool, nighttime effect. I fixed him a rum-and-Coke and made sure everything was perfect before I raised the blind, and “You’re fucking weird” is what he comes out with.
“I gotta go,” he says.
He’s drunk and belligerent. They shut off his phone today.
“Wait,” I urge. “Give it a minute. It looks almost real.”
“I gotta go.”
Sympathy is like a gift, I know. You’re supposed to give it without expecting anything in return. But this guy owes me, God damn it.
“Did you sell me out, you fucking Judas?” I yell after him.
I WAKE UP with a headache. The sound of my own footsteps makes me wince. Someone has scrawled, “Wash Me Bitch,” and a swastika in the dust on the hood of my car. It’s Lana’s handwriting. I usually stop at the AM/PM for coffee on the way to work, but today I drive right past, because there’s a gas truck there, filling the underground tanks, and a spark could come from anywhere.
The night guy left a note asking me to restock the candy rack because he didn’t have time. In between customers, I get the candy boxes out of the storeroom and square things away. It’s a slow day. Everyone’s eyes are puffy and red, and there’s a haze that just won’t lift. This geezer buying Variety and the Reporter tells me it has something to do with the government putting viruses into jet exhaust. The viruses drift down and infect us and make us easier to control. Then the fucker tries to pay me with a counterfeit twenty.
James shows up about noon to spell me for lunch. I can’t get anything down. When I swallow, I feel like I might choke. So I sit in my car for a while, listening to the radio. Every song has the word love, fire, or angel in it. The headache is still there. It feels like somebody is kicking the backs of my eyeballs. I pull an oily rag from under the seat and press it over my mouth to muffle my scream.
“Look, look, look,” James says when I get back. He holds up the new issue of the magazine that was taking pictures here that day.
He opens it, and there’s the stand, the models — Tina and what’s-her-name — but something’s wrong.
“At least you didn’t break the camera,” James says.
“That’s not me,” I reply, and I mean it. I’ve never seen that face before.
James ignores me, turning to show a customer. “Free publicity, right?”
The customer punches me in the arm: “Check you out.”
“That’s not me,” I repeat, but they don’t hear. I take a pack of Camels from the cigarette display and step out to the curb to smoke. It was silly to quit in the first place. I can’t even remember what I was punishing myself for.
I always picked Lana up when she got off work at the shoe store because she hated riding the bus. She’d already wrecked two cars: her mom’s and the Nissan they bought her for graduation. We disagreed about what color things were, smells. I once heard her tell a friend that I was a pervert. That’s what kind of bitch she could be.
I would have cut myself for her. I would have eaten shit. When she stopped answering the phone, I lost hope. The plans we’d made apparently didn’t mean anything. I finally tracked her down. Whoever brainwashed her had done a fantastic job. “Get over it,” she said. Suddenly I was the enemy. She brought in her parents, the police. I backed off, but that wasn’t enough. She had to get vicious, with the gangsters and all.
A KNOCK at this hour can mean nothing but trouble. I grab the knife off the coffee table and stand with my back to the wall, in case they shoot through the door. But it’s just the actor, the phone salesman. Greg. He knocks again, even after I tell him to go away.
“I’ve got something for you,” he says.
My stomach twists and gurgles, and I taste ammonia. I open the door maybe six inches, stopping it with my foot. Greg is alone. He’s barefoot and hasn’t shaved in days.
“Come on,” he says, pushing with his shoulder. “Let me in.”
I show him the knife. I stick it in his arm, just the tip.
He backs away and touches the blood.
“You make me sick,” I say.
“You sure were singing a different tune last time, trick.”
He throws an envelope at my face. The card it contains has a naked man on it. “Cheer up,” Greg has written inside. I will kill him if I ever see him again.
THE PALM TREE appears first out of the darkness, then the ocean and the sand. An alarm clock beeps somewhere, and pretty soon it’s noisy as hell, everyone in the building waking up and getting ready for work. It used to give me a thrill to be a part of it. I was convinced that I fit right in because I showered and dressed and ate breakfast like my neighbors. Now all those radios tuned to all those different stations just sound messy to me. I get up from the stinking recliner where I’ve waited out the night and slam the window down.
At work, there’s a sign above the register that says, ONE DAY AT A TIME, and I guess that’s good advice, but I’ve got the creepy-crawlies pretty bad this morning, and my left nostril is all stopped up. The night guy hasn’t done the candy again, which means he takes me for a chump. I smoke half a pack of cigarettes before noon. A car slams on its brakes to avoid a wino, and the screech makes me bite my tongue. The sky looks like someone’s been punching on it. I don’t think I can handle rain.
A Vietnamese gangster sneaks up on me and buys a Sports Illustrated. Then he walks back across the street, gets into a Jeep with another hard case, and sits there, watching me. James keeps a starter’s pistol in a drawer under the register; he doesn’t believe in real guns. When Lana’s dad answers the phone, I lay it out for him: I’m on my way over, and I want Lana waiting in the front yard. The gangsters drive away. Message received. I call James and tell him I’m locking up.
The pistol rattles against the windshield when I lay it on the dash, so I move it to the passenger seat. It’s green lights all the way over there — the first time that’s ever happened. The sky is almost black now. People have their headlights on. The cops are in front of Lana’s house with their guns drawn. I pull over a block away and walk toward them. The television antennas are screaming at the telephone poles. In the clipping Marty carries, there’s a picture of John Wayne sprawled dead on the floor. He looks ridiculous in his diaper and cowboy vest.
Here lies a man who couldn’t crack the code. I bequeath my car to the parking-lot attendant. Everything else you can give to the poor.