Dominick R. Domingo
Eastern Mojave—April 1965
The boxcar lurches with a faulty tie, rattles on across rusted rails that extend to oblivion. Its rolling door is half-open, frames the Owens River Valley yawning wide in the cobalt chill of dawn. Great swells rush by the open door, spotted with Joshua and sage, bowing mournfully to nothing. And behind all, the stark Sierra Nevadas march like sentinels into the patch of warm the sun has hurled to awaken the desert.
The car shudders again—another missing tie—Jake Preston hardly blinks. His eyes are half-mast like the rolling door. He is dusty as the sage-spotted basin, flannel soiled from the pumice mines. But Holly is white as new-fallen snow. His pride and joy, groomed to perfection. Call ‘em golden labs, but this one here—ain’t nothin’ golden ‘bout her. White as snow, she is. Weathered hands reach out absently, stroking the promise of white with yellowed, cigarette-stained nails.
A swig of coffee from that old thermos lid, rusty as the rails. It’s lukewarm but good. Just bitter enough to do the trick. Mornin’ used to be enough. Now it’s a full belly and some fire in the old veins to make the world seem right. Body old before its time—not too late to fix if he’d ever get to it—but like them Joshuas flyin’ by, each moment gone before he knows it.
“Go where the work is,” he’s heard himself say more than once, knowing it’s something more keeps him moving. “Always been that way.”
Jake looks to have sprung from the sandblasted Mojave, skin weathered and bronzed like red-stained earth, strong jaw angled like stubble-forested plains. His eyes are marbled blue discs, shocks of cerulean that shut out the wind. Shaggy locks have been bleached by the relentless sun.
The whistle sounds, long and hollow. Columns of smoke snake against the stroke of tangerine crawling down the face of the Sierras. The pronounced groan of railway brakes signals the approach of a lumberyard, tiny against the ever-present backdrop of age-old mountains. The train grinds to a halt.
Jake Preston grabs his backpack, coaxes Holly from the jumble of cargo, and drops into coarse sand.
The two slip discreetly between boxcars, stacks of lumber. Them conductors don’t take too kindly to vagabonds. Jake whistles nonchalantly as they break into a brisk walk along highway 395. All in a day’s work.
The sun is high now. The long shadows of morning have given up their violet cool, truncated themselves to a blistering noon. Jake wipes sweat from his eyes, peers into shimmering tendrils of rising heat. The parched basin extends to infinity, pale and diaphanous, reflecting only blue. The impression is dreamlike, seems to exist on some plane separate from waking life. If the tracks mimic a restless journey, emerging from nothingness and continuing on into an uncertain haze of future, the parched terrain is bleak as the heart that beats under the warm flannel of his shirt. Ahead, the tracks all but disappear into the mirage. Holly is up there somewhere, one with the parched desert.
“Easy, girl!” he cries.
She’s panting when he catches up to her. “Ain’t no reason to overdo it.”
He fishes a Marlboro from his shirt pocket, lights it with the vintage flip-top lighter he’s kept in operation for twenty years.
Through a curling of smoke, he sees something. He squints.
Halfway to the horizon, a tiny field of green punctuates the nothingness.
The row of facades is weatherworn, stripped of all hue as if being reclaimed by the desert. Not much to the town—service station, general store, post office. Each storefront is flush to the next, forging a united front against the undulating planks of a makeshift promenade lined with rotting tires. Jake’s boots navigate the splintery planks, crunching gravel now and again.
“Howdy,” he nods to a local advancing from a row of post office boxes not far ahead.
Jake thinks about asking the man if the outpost’s got a watering hole, when he sees the chipping sign: Last Chance Saloon. He ties Holly to a dilapidated post.
Wouldn’t be such a bad place to hitch a wagon for a spell. You learn to read the signs—the deposits of ore spotting hard, striated earth, the pumice mines and the perlite and even the cinder. All surely in operation. Not today, o’ course, bein’ Sunday. But every one o’ them desert rats he’s passed had dirt on his hands. You learn to read the signs. Every town’s the same—too many men, not enough jobs. Not one o’ them locals bound to squawk to a passerby—‘specially a ‘train-hoppin gypsy.’ Not straightways, anyhow. But get a drink in ‘em…
Moments later Jake places a nickel on chipped Formica, sweeps it into a pile of others. He fishes out lint.
“I’ll take one o’ them Diamondbacks.” A brusque nod, tip of the old leather fedora. It’s crusty as that flip-top lighter, curled up on the edges and brittle.
An old jukebox warbles in the corner, needle skipping across buckled vinyl. Two miners rack up.
Her hands are strong. Sinewy, wracked with arthritis, but strong. Strong as they pound the mealy dough. Strong as they slam it into the counter, fold dough into dough, slam it again. Gets rid of the air pockets. Pulverizes regret. The ritual is meditative, cathartic.
But she’s far away, eyes scanning the vast, limitless desert beyond the dusty glass. Somewhere out there, past the 99 cent specials slathered on the café window in water-soluble poster paint, somewhere among the Joshua and sage, is a moment that stands still. Could be the one in which she learned the art of tortilla-making. The pounding and the folding and the pulverizing of regret. Learned it from her daughter-in-law who left her own thirteen brothers and sisters in Mexico after marrying a gringo and then died mysteriously before her time. Or maybe the moment she’s searching for, the one that will stand still despite the whistling wind and the buzz of it through Joshua spines and the quaking of yucca and sage is a memory of her husband, who lies dying in the tiny apartment next door.
A real looker he was. Back in the day, anyway.
She pictures the broad smile, the piercing blue eyes before they were lined with wisdom and humor. The thick head of hair before it was wispy and scant, before time stripped it pure white.
Holly presses her snout against glass, making trails in the coating of dust.
“Where you off to now, girl?” Jake calls after her from several yards behind.
Cold Lake Lodge, a splintery sign announces in faded, chipping teal.
It’s set back from the row of storefronts, away from the highway. Behind the lofty two-story Victorian sprawls the dark, still lake that lends the bed and breakfast its name. It’s retained by sheer volcanic rock where the lava flows have cooled. Deposits of basalt punctuate the swelling earth between Joshua thickets, flung from some nearby cinder cone.
Holly is still sniffing, tracing the molding along the base of the window.
“Whatchoo onto there, girl?”
Holly stops, and as Jake joins her on the sagging porch his attention is drawn to a small flyer, taped meticulously in the café window.
Help Wanted. Room and Board. No Pay.
It’s not her husband who’s appeared against the desert, materialized from infinity. She knows this now. Equally handsome, bronzed by the sun, even a bit leathery like him. But this one’s a drifter. Eldon was always meticulous. No matter how bad things got, his slacks were always pressed. Hair always parted just so—the man who’s stepped up on the porch in unevenly worn work boots sports scraggly golden locks on the verge of matting. A drifter. Handsome all right, but a drifter.
“Afternoon, ma’am.” Jake’s tied Holly to a post and stepped inside the creaky door.
“Have a seat wherever you like.”
“Ma’am.” Jake approaches a Naugahyde stool at the counter, cherry red split with the Mojave dry. “Suppose this is as good a place as any.” The stool groans wearily.
Jake sheds the leather fedora, smooths matted hair. Backpack slung like dead weight on the stool next to him. She eyeballs it.
“Coffee?” She’s already pouring a cup.
“Ma’am.” Polite nod.
She hands him a menu. He peruses it, steals glances about the dim interior. Dusty as the outside, but with a dated charm. Vintage wallpaper richly accents the room, bleached out and buckled by squares of window light. The place is empty, save for the old miner at a corner table—hunched over, corpselike, thin webs of gossamer hair exposing an age-spotted cranium. He’s nodding off in the hot, heavy air, grisly beard skimming stale grits.
Her hands are still dusted with flour. Knotted and torqued and dusted with flour. She wipes them brusquely on her apron. Jake likes her sternness, her no-nonsense efficiency—reminds him of his mother. They’re the same age—or would be had his mother lived. Her silver hair is coifed impeccably in defiance of the desert’s ravages; she’s dressed to the nines beneath that blue-collar apron. Her eyes are just becoming clouded with cataracts. They reflect the desert, the endless miles of it that sum up a lifetime.
“Not from around here, are ya?” she demands through terse lips. She’s eyeing the backpack again.
“No, ma’am.” Jake knows the drill. New kid in town—twenty questions. But no luck in the saloon; he’ll have to make this go.
“You from down below?” She’s referring to the big city. The city of angels at the end of that long, ugly pipe that has stolen their water ever since Mulholland breezed through and turned the Owen’s River Valley into a raisin.
Jake takes his time, eyes glued to the menu. “Reckon I’m from all over, ma’am.” And then, changing the subject, “Don’t get many strangers in these parts, I take it…”
“Mostly roughnecks from out at the perlite mines make up the regulars. Them and the loggers comin’ outta Kennedy Meadows. When we do get strangers ‘round here ‘s mostly folks headin’ up to scale Whitney. Tourists. Come from all over.”
Jake looks around. The logger snorts, starts awake.
“Pretty quiet today, it seems…”
“Yes.” The woman’s eyes are sharp, girded, despite the cataracts.
Jake folds his menu. “Ma’am—I’m afraid the coffee’s gonna hafta do me. That and one o’ them muffins there.”
The woman turns, lifts the domed lid from a tray of baked goods. Jake glances at the flyer in the window. She catches it.
“Look, it don’t pay much. Room and board’s ‘bout all I can manage.”
Jake sees kindness behind the tough exterior, allows his pride to dissolve. “I can be an awfully good help. An’ I got references too.”
He reaches across the Formica counter. “Jake. Jake Preston, ma’am.”
She smears flour on her apron, shakes his hand firmly. “Mabel Robins.”
An eternity passes in the span of a single moment, her studying him, seeing beyond the unruly locks and the worn boots, reminding herself the spark in his eye is not her husband’s—even if she’s seen nothin’ like it since the strokes took him away. Her blue-veined hand reaches out, folds the laminated menu and places it efficiently in a stack of others.
“Have some eggs.”
Beneath worn flannel thick-dusted with perlite, Jake Preston’s heart smiles.
For the first time in a long time, he is aware of its beating.
On the ground floor behind the café, a fair-sized apartment distinguishes itself from rows and rows of nondescript rooms to let. Mabel Robins straightens pictures as she leads Jake down a narrow hall to the rear. Flashes of a former life—before the casualties of time—now faded and worn and coated in dust. A modest wedding ceremony on a dry lake bed, four children—all surely grown now.
“Janet stays till ‘round five or so…Nights, I ain’t got no one to help turn an’ bathe ‘im.” She says matter-of-factly. Her demeanor has lightened.
The old woman pauses at an open door, where a nurse tends to Eldon Robins. He is propped up in a modern hospital bed—incongruous among the miscellany of antiques. Jake can’t see the man at first; the nurse is leaning over the recumbent bed, massaging an arm gone purple. Without a word, Mabel approaches the other side of the bed and the two begin a familiar ritual. Sheets are pulled up dutifully, firm against frail bones, slight frame rolled gently onto its side just so. Sheets dropped, pressed deliberately with raw-knuckled hands, wrinkles smoothed away like pond ripples. All the while, the old woman hums.
Jake is transfixed. Something about the man captivates him—the hollow, vacant expression clouding blue eyes trapped like sapphire in their deep sockets. The gentle breath, labored but regular, steadfast as the rising of the sun or the opening and closing of yucca blossoms. Jake cannot look away. Something unexamined in him identifies with the man’s state.
“Lost track of the strokes,” Mabel is saying. “Some say it was them aluminum mines. Boys used to come home with cores o’ soot we’d hafta pick outta their ears—the size of pencils. Wadn’t no mistakin’ the first one; paralyzed the whole left side o’ his body. Jus’ lost the power o’ speech ‘bout a year ago.”
Mabel rolls a soiled sheet into a ball. “Hard to tell now when he’s had one.”
She stuffs the tight ball into a wicker hamper, joins Jake in the doorway gazing back at her husband.
“He ain’t the man I married no more—that man’s long gone. Heart’s strong, though.” Here the old woman pauses, her own words dawning on her as she speaks. “It’s amazin’ how long it can keep that ol’ body hustlin’ on.”
Mabel continues down the hall, flips on the light in a modest bedroom looking out at the dark, still lake.
“Don’t look like much…” she admits.
But Jake’s still trapped in the doorway, haunted, unable to tear himself away.
Her nails click mercilessly on time-polished wood floors, reverberating.
“You may as well settle in for a spell.”
He’s riffling through that cavalry-issued canvas knapsack—unpacking the few possessions that have followed him for God knows how long across the boundless desert. He’s always liked this part, the feeling that comes with settin’ down roots—even for a spell. Always something to end the good feeling—send him on his way. Nothing to do with him—just the work dries up or somethin’ catches up with him. Nothin’ to do with him. Just the way of the world. And anyway, he’s addicted to the adventure—the change of scenery. It’s always been that way.
Two changes of clothes—denim and flannel, flannel and denim. Gideon Bible as worn out as that lighter he’s kept in operation for twenty years. He places it on the dresser just so, the distressed blond wood dresser as bleached out and pale as everything else in the place, as though the sun penetrated its walls to exact pigment from the very heart of its interior—the dresser and the scuffed floors and her hair and those cataracts.
He cradles it with care—the final item in that canvas bag—lifts it with soiled hands and gazes at it before placing it on the colorless nightstand. The ornately framed photo is from twenty years previous, grainy emulsion tinted sepia, missing flecks of it eroding the memory as if by necessity. The moment is a fleeting one—frozen in time without a thought to what it might come to embody—a time when things were simpler, when for one brief, tenuous moment the world nearly slowed to a stop. It’s he and Farren McGraw in front of that old Woody he was so proud of.
Jake has always liked nighttime the best. Before the bitter coffee so thick you could cut it with the knife, it took courage to face the morning. At night you could disappear among countless stars. Somewhere, with the awakening of his heart, a sun is rising, spreading its tangerine warmth across a barren landscape. But looking into it is blinding, and the feeling of a beating heart to him is an ache—a dull, throbbing ache too full of longing to bear.
He never looks at the photo for too long. But then never leaves it behind.
The next few weeks have a familiar ring—getting to know the lay o’ the land. He knows his way around a grill, all right; ain’t nothin’ new. The way a short-order cook can seem to be mindin’ his own, but is secretly keepin’ one ear out at all times for local lore. Christ, the things he’s heard through the stainless steel of order windows, floatin’ up from them Naugahyde stools over the sizzlin’ and poppin’ of hot oil. It’s the perlite miners got the loosest lips—trudge down wearily from them shafts covered in dust, a thirst for spirits and human connection.
It’s the stories that center around Mabel he likes the best—how she married Mr. Robins after two weeks—met at a town social—wrote home from his tour of duty he’d met a girl strong as a workhorse and pretty as they come; made him want to be a better man. Then taught her to shoot a rifle and left her for two weeks straight in an adobe hut while he took off with the cavalry. Half a century later, she’s just as sure a shot. One day a bunch o’ loggers come through from the western Sierras—come through Tioga Pass up north. They’ve heard rumors from fifty years previous, when the lodge was a cathouse—a testament to the persistence of local lore. Where’s the girls? they want to know, mistaking Mabel for the madam. She chases ‘em out so quick with that sawed-off shotgun makes their heads spin.
“Mabel here can fend for ‘erself, all right,” the sheriff declares one day.
“This little lady here can shoot a chigger off a gnat’s ass” is how Logger John puts it, grinning in Mabel’s direction despite a shortage of teeth.
Jake thinks he sees her blush.
It’s Logger John and Post Master Rusty wearin’ holes in that cherry Naugahyde day in and day out, never quite warmin’ to the ‘train-hoppin’ gypsy,’ shootin’ him mistrustful looks through that order window. Never seen one yet wadn’t runnin’ from somethin.’ It’s Mabel they’re looking out for, and the warning is meant for Jake alone.
“Desert’s got it’s own form o’ justice,” Sheriff makes sure to let Jake know one day, cleaning his pistol. “In the end, claims everything…”
It’s when she’s most practical that Mabel’s own stories flow—dutifully performing the most menial day in and day out tasks. Like when she and Jake work in tandem with the sheets. Time was she’d hum while turning Eldon to prevent bedsores. Somehow the extra pair of ears has set her to ruminating, as if to give testimony somehow. The richness of such a full life affects Jake, a life reduced to anecdote and grainy photographs here in the unlikely outpost. It’s a deep longing the stories tap into—a pining for all that’s passed him by on those rusted rails.
He gazes into the cloudy blue of Eldon Robins’s sunken eyes. Nurse Janet’s late. Mabel Robins has changed diapers and sheets and gone out with the wicker hamper and now Jake stares at the old man, navigating the miasma of broiling clouds folding in on themselves, trying to discern desert from sky. He’s in there, all right.
Jake fishes a Marlboro from flannel in the open door. Shift about to start and it’s time for his daily ritual: quick skirt of that dark, still lake. The pack crinkles as he withdraws a smoke, and then the sound of metal ringing with the opening of that flip-top lighter, like a sword being drawn from its sheath.
Mr. Robins’s eyes have shifted. More lucid than ever, fixated on that crinkly package.
Involuntarily, Jake’s lips curl into a stubbly grin; he moves to the side of the hospital bed. The old man’s body remembers how—takes a gradual puff as the stogie is held to his whiskery lips. A long, steady drag and then another, eyes serene and content as always, but full of mischief. A column of spent ash tumbles the length of the old man’s unruly beard. Quickly Jake wipes it away, looking around.
It’s crack of dawn and Mabel’s got her pies. Delivery truck’s parked askew in gravel, the two boys hustling boxes on that wobbly dolly back-and-forth from the bed of the truck.
“I see you found yourself some help,” one of them says to Mabel, the darker one. He nods toward the window, where the Help Wanted sign has left an immaculate square in Mojave dust.
“Yes.” Mabel smiles, as if to indicate all has turned out for the best.
She offers nothing more about the handsome stranger the kid’s seen working the grill during their last delivery.
“I’m glad.” He smiles back. “You know if I wasn’t goin’ off to college—”
“Welp, we’re just about done here. Ma’am—” Here he nods toward the choppy lake, its dark surface just becoming banded with morning light. “You mind if we—”
“Go on ahead…”
The cinder glances off an obsidian outcropping and stops, spinning small circles. Jake kicks it again. This time it lands kerplop in the still lake. Still spinning circles but downward now, tumbling into the murk. Holly watches it disappear.
Jake hears voices. Past the brink of a great, monolithic slab of rich cinder, he hears them preparing for a morning dip.
“What are you waiting for?”
“It’s fucking cold!”
“What I tell you?”
Amber morning light glances off polished obsidian, refracting small halos. Deep striations of terra-cotta are interspersed with an ashen hue, as if to temper the life that has forced itself in a ridge from the periphery of dark, choppy water. Plugs of ochre have sprung up all along the cleft—cattails and hollow reeds, darting with dragonflies.
A loud plop and the two boys are thrashing now.
Jake rounds the enormous outcropping, and he can see them roughhousing, attempting to dunk one another among the icy waves. The sky is immaculate save for a single puff of white sailing along the horizon. The Joshuas no longer mournful, but reaching in veneration for the endless blue.
One of the boys thrashes through cattails, heaves himself onto the warming slab of igneous. He picks at the soggy reeds that cling to his legs.
Jake squints, recognizing the untarnished hubris of youth—the imperviousness that comes with it. He wonders if it will continue to get worse: the mild bitterness that has already come with mourning the loss of it, the willful surrender to destitution. The boys are blissfully unaware—probably twenty and in their prime. Not an ounce of waste—only pure, sinewy efficiency and sun-bronzed glory. And laughter. Laughter that rings freely, clattering off cold, austere obsidian before being swallowed by miles and miles of desert.
The two are oblivious. Perfectly, flawlessly unaware of time. Jake is reminded of something he can’t quite put a finger on.
Just then, the boy notices him and smiles across the distance. The smile is unerring, guileless.
“Down there closer to Ridgecrest,” Mabel specifies, waving toward the delivery truck parked askew in coarse gravel.
The boys are from the bakery not too far down the 395.
“Come once a week,” she explains. “Don’t matter to me none if they wanna cool off a bit. Long as I got my pies.”
Jake ties his apron, prepares to start his shift.
The sun is setting behind a still horizon. Jake gazes at vintage wallpaper, shreds of it peeling downward with gravity, revealing bygone eras like sediments in an archaeological dig. Alpine light wanes, projecting a distinct square through rustling shears. It strikes the papered wall, setting it aflame. Despite its rich, fiery cast, Jake knows the sun is actually bleaching the pulpy fiber.
His hand reaches out involuntarily, clutches the framed photo on the nightstand. Holly is curled up at the foot of the bed, dozing. The sepia photo leaps forward, minute particles of emulsion reassembling themselves, marching a former version of Jake and Farren McGraw and that old Woody into the present.
San Juan foothills—Colorado—1945
“Y’all go on and on ‘bout needin’ an extra pair o’ hands on the farm ‘till Farren finishes his schoolin,” Reverend Sanguine pointed out to Dale McGraw those twenty years ago. “And this kid shows up on the church steps like a gift from God.”
It was chance made Jake hop off the train at Eternal Springs, nothing more. Before the tracks led to dusty places bleached bone white by the sun, they’d taken him to green places, verdant fields wedged between even greener mountains roiling with timber. He’d been riding the rails since Ma and Pa died in that auto accident. After a brief stint with Uncle Everett, that is. Turned out the old lush was more interested in nursin’ that bottle than raisin’ ragamuffins wasn’t even his. By the time Jake Preston hit eighteen, he’d traversed every state west of the Mississippi.
And so it was he ended up on that farm, sugar beets no less, baling hay and sweating in the Colorado sun alongside a seventeen-year-old Farren McGraw.
“Ain’t no sin te take yer shirt off,” Jake razzed him, peeling damp cotton from his own lean torso.
Kid was sweatin’ up a storm, collar buttoned up to the Adam’s apple, braided suspenders just so. Repressed all right, that one. Always spouting scripture, never quite raising his eyes from the earth. Took ‘till three days in to strike up a conversation with him come noontime. Emile McGraw had brought down a tray of iced lemonade, pitcher dripping with condensation even there in the shade, flies droning incessantly ‘round them bales of hay where she set it. Jake spotted it straightaway even before she situated that tray and left—the nasty bruise she’d tried to disguise with cosmetics—running from jawline to temple. Every color under the sun. Farren’s perpetual silence was starting to make some sense.
“Hear there’s still gold up there.” Jake broke the monotony of droning flies and stifling heat and condensation. “Just ain’t no cost-efficient way o’ refinin’ it.”
“Hogwash.” Farren managed to avoid eye contact, his deep-set blue eyes instead darting to Old Man Griffin’s mine at the top of that crest overlooking the farm. “Nothin’ up there but dirt. That ol’ molehill was exhausted back in the Gold Rush days; everyone knows that.”
Jake had heard it said what draws you to a person is what you’ll one day resent. Whatever your differences, they marched themselves out in the first few moments of meetin’ a person. Somehow the boys’ friendship, however they would come to define it, centered on that mine somehow; it would come up again and again—Farren sure it was dead as a doornail, Jake challenging him, asking him if he believed everything he was told. It would become Jake’s self-appointed task to open the kid’s mind—did he ever make it outta that Podunk town? Not just to Denver with his pa to purchase farm equipment, but out beyond the alfalfa crops and the hicks with their sawed-off shotguns and corncob pipes and small-mindedness? And always Farren insisted he had all a man needed—was set to marry Ellen Sanguine in the fall. And once he completed seminary, her pa had a position just waitin’ for him right there at Eternal Springs Baptist.
“Never understood why folks wanna shut off so soon” was all Jake said, “when there’s so much fuckin’ beauty in the world.”
He’d seen things, if only beyond that rolling door to the rattle and thunder of a boxcar, huddled there with the rickety cargo, that he wouldn’t trade for the world. Urban skylines crisscrossed with brooding soot from incinerators like an amber glaze. Wide plains, cumulus clouds hanging over them, stacked against one another to eternity, sunrises that imprinted themselves on the heart. But it was the folks he’d met changed him the most—the city folk and the educated folk and the poor folk on the reservation who’d given him the soapstone beads, even that oil tycoon in Texas with money comin’ out o’ his ears. All them ideas change a person, Jake knew—make ‘em who they are.
Still, he didn’t mind slummin’ it, long as there was work. Since Reverend Sanguine had brokered the gig—fancied he was doing God’s work by helpin’ out the McGraws and the kid both, no sweat off his back allowin’ Jake to shack up in the old toolshed out back of the church. Jake’s lumpy cot was wedged cozily between an old corroded Ford and some dented barrels. At night, the shadows of hanging tools spangled corrugated tin—rusty shears, splintery hoe, spayed shovel—the moon hanging full and low and slathering the tiny window with silver.
He showered in that tiny stall on the McGraw farm on the east side of the barn: sluggish trickle of brownish water, old stiff scrub brush and a misshapen basin made of wooden planks, held together by a flecked copper band.
It was Farren who walked by one day, coiling a braided rope, and spotted his stack of clothes—holey jeans and work boots placed neatly there on top, heard him singing “Old Black Joe” off-pitch but with gusto, saw his tanned calves beneath the splintery partition.
In the privacy of his tiny bedroom, tucked away in the gable of the McGraw farmhouse, Farren tossed off. He didn’t have siblings—no male cousins for that matter—Pa didn’t have family and had been sure to drive off or alienate all Emily’s kin. Farren hadn’t dared peek, but could certainly replay the little he’d seen as much as he liked, could certainly augment it into full-blown toss-off material. But just as he was losing himself, head thrust to the side, muscles tensing, he caught sight of it, in no uncertain terms, bathed in a column of moonlight from that skewed window: the King James version of the Holy Bible. Farren groaned, thunder-stolen, and rolled over, forcing himself into a frustrated form of sleep.
Jake had as little to do with Dale McGraw as he could get away with. But over the days and weeks he saw something sinister in his employer. The man stood tall and wiry, veins protruding as if to pronounce some kind of sublime rage. His hair, just beginning to dull to pumice gray, lay plastered in sweaty strands to his forehead in front, was chopped severely across the base of his skull in back, exposing a band of closely buzzed follicles. His brow compressed against sharp cheekbones, bracing eyes that smoldered intensely in their sockets. Jake was one of few people who refused to look away when they were trained on him.
“I told you y’all can call it a day,” the man spat one evening when Jake hung around a bit too long on the farm, gawking.
As Jake wandered unhurriedly back toward the hovel and the church, he glanced back over his shoulder in time to see Dale McGraw pop his son on the back of the head.
It was Farren took Jake up to that old mine one day. Said he’d had his first fight with Ellen—a real knock-down, drag-out. Jake had got them cogs turnin’; all Farren had to do was mention joinin’ the cavalry to set her off—seein’ a bit o’ the country before settling down right there near her folks. But the riff sparked something in him, and his eyes were full of contagious dreaming when he said it: I wanna show you somethin’.
And quick as lightning they were bolting up that steep incline, flying over dogwood hedges and mountain mahogany, to that shelf tilted and thrust against the billowy clouds, red like exposed flesh and spotted with bristlecone pine. Found work in every state west of the Mississippi, and nowhere else had Jake seen that startling juxtaposition of red-stained earth and blue-green vegetation rising up like great alps over quaint Victorian mining towns. They were dime a dozen in Colorado.
“And this here’s what’s known as the social tunnel.” Farren’s voice echoed off chiseled granite as they made their way through a narrow shaft. “Miners was sleeping three to a bed up here—ladies from town would come up ‘n’ meet ‘em halfway. Here at the social tunnel.”
“You don’t even know what that means, do ya?”
“’Course I do.” Farren blushed. “Just ain’t talked about…”
Jake burst into laughter. “Why you ain’t never been…social! You and Ellen ain’t never even done it!”
“Laugh all you want,” came the reply. “‘He that soweth the flesh shall reap corruption; but he that soweth the spirit shall reap life everlasting.’”
When they’d made it to the main shaft—a lofty vaulted arch of chiseled granite supported by thick, sturdy beams, Jake’s eyes lit up.
Chipping away at a glistening vein of God-knew-what: “They was pumpin’ fifty tons o’ ore outta here per day back when, and now all dried up? I don’t buy it…”
“Don’t mess with nuthin,” Farren warned, looking around.
“Got a fellow back in Texas—investor,” Jake went on, ignoring him. “Made o’ oil money. I jes’ know he’d get a small operation goin’ here—find a cost-efficient way o’ extracting the gold from ore. Ain’t like the Gold Rush days no more. ‘S all chemical now.”
Farren told him he was dreamin,’ and Jake told him back that was the only way anything ever got done since the dawn o’ man—gotta dream it first, and it went on from there.
“Anyway,” Jake sighed after a long pause. “That’s all some of us got is our dreams.”
Farren had learned to look at him. Call it trust, but his eyes fixed steadily without darting, giving Jake the cue to continue.
“Ma and Pa was killed pretty early on. Wadn’t nuthin’ I could do te save ‘em. Learned pretty quick not to expect much from this life. Things could be taken away at any time.”
The words came out choked, Jake fighting an unfamiliar tightness, a straining, a swollen, paralyzing ache from the core. The tears came hot and fast.
“But my dreams—” He smiled through the salty deluge. “—they never left me…”
And then after a moment, “I ain’t never spoken a word ‘bout Ma or Pa…”
Just then, with the feeling of release came an equally profound sense that something had been stirred, something at the very core of the earth. A deep bellow thundered up, sheets of rock rained down, and the world went crazy. A deafening thud and then the showering of fine silt that came after. And finally, deadly silence.
Jake swatted at the air, clogged now with debris and heavy with dread and lightless as a crypt. The tunnel had collapsed only yards away, was sealed from floor-to-ceiling. Farren took hold of that old military flashlight they’d grabbed from the barn on the way up. The two approached a massive wall of lacerating shards spread out at the base.
“That was the only way in.” Farren’s face paled in the weak amber glow of the flashlight.
“Shit.” Panicked, Jake scrambled at the loose rocks.
“Quit diggin’ around now, dammit!” Farren raised his voice for the first time. “That’s what got us in this trouble te begin with.”
The boys sat in swarthy black, wondering what to do, imagining that Mrs. McGraw might find their unfinished sandwiches and that old pitcher right on the bale of hay where she’d left it and begin to worry. Surely night was due to fall any minute.
That old flashlight didn’t last long—dimmed to a deep amber flicker and then cut out altogether, leaving the boys huddled in a void black as pitch to imagine their breath on the frigid air. Jake rocked, something more than the cold hijacking his body, something deep-seated and pervasive that rose up from restless places inside himself that he hardly knew. They ain’t comin’. They ain’t comin’. They ain’t comin’…
When they woke hours later, they were huddled in a tight embrace. They’d found one another in the dark, ended up that way to fend off the cold, and remained so until the braying of hounds awakened them, or was it the shaft of amber morning light pouring in from a tiny fissure above? It could have been Jake’s eyes that popped open first, or Farren’s, to the muffled voices of the search party.
Holly is licking his face. The sun is up and it’s time to circle that dark, still lake so she can do her business. Jake’s fallen asleep with the photo clutched there against his heart. It’s permeated his dream life, sent tendrils to awaken nothing in particular, nothing linear anyway, just the feeling of being there in that place called youth. The sun is up and part of him still lingers there, either that or dream fragments have followed him into the still Mojave morning. He lays unmoving, absently caressing that frame with hands soiled not by pumice but by that greasy grill, basking in the patch of morning light, for once welcoming its nostalgia—the remembrance of a heart once alive with beating. Today there is a comfort in the remembrance. But as always, it is tinged with a dull ache, ever-present but distant like the looming Sierras. A sense that it can never last.
Jake places the photo on the nightstand.
Moments later, he’s thrown on his boots and they are tracing the contour of the lake in the still morning.
“Since when are you modest?”
Holly is squatting, but won’t do her business.
“Tell you what, I’ll avert my eyes.”
When Jake turns, the boy is there, the boy from the other day. He’s navigating the sage and coarse sand barefoot, dripping with icy water.
“You got another?” He smiles, gesturing toward the cigarette.
“Sorry, kid. Got a whole pack inside.” Jake nods toward his corner of the apartment several dozen yards away. He notices the delivery truck parked there in the gravel.
“David.” The boy smiles, extending a hand on approach. “David Gagnel.” The outstretched hand is dark like rich soil, clean fingernails glistening alabaster by comparison.
Jake shakes his hand. “Jake. Jake Preston.”
David smiles, teeth flashing white against an olive complexion. It’s disarming.
“C’mon before you freeze to death.”
Jake fishes a dented pack of Marlboros from the front pocket of last night’s flannel shirt flung over the nightstand. He’s handed a towel to the kid, who swiftly dropped his wet swimsuit and kicked it aside. He’s dry and sitting on the bed now. Jake hands him a cigarette.
“Mabel would have my hide if I smoked indoors,” Jake warns.
With that, David Gagnel extends a leg from the old, lumpy mattress and swings the door closed on rusty hinges. “What Mabel don’t know won’t hurt her.”
He flips the lighter and swaths the bent stogie in blue.
The kid has entitlement, that’s sure; Jake recognizes it as a product of his generation, and suddenly feels robbed by his own.
David stands, putting himself square before Jake. He blows a long, steady hit into the air and, through a billowing of smoke, goes in for the kiss. Jake turns on instinct; the kid’s on his neck now, latched there. Kid takes the hint, places the stogie in Jake’s mouth, slides south down the mat of fur between flannel till he finds the ridiculously large belt buckle. Fumbles with it, biting through denim.
“I get so horny in the morning,” he admits, voice muffled.
The towel unfastens itself, drops to the floor. Blood is surging.
And then he’s mastered the thick leather belt; he’s going to town. Jake’s head falls back involuntarily. He can’t help moaning. He’s no monk, but it’s been a long while all the same.
Nurse Janet is balling sheets, headed for the hamper. Her orthopedic shoes set the floorboards to moaning as she makes her way down the hall, but one groan stands out from the rest.
She stops in her tracks, ears pricked.
Every muscle is tensed. Jake’s on the bed now, head thrown back past the pillow and against the wall, vocal cords disobediently making themselves known.
“Shhhhh.” David giggles, then returns to work.
A tensing of muscles, every muscle, and Jake finishes. He’s spent, cigarette still dangling from stubbly lips.
A second later he’s on his feet, sprung up from that bed, hopping leg-at-a-time into holey denims. The kid’s still there on the buckled mattress, looking up at him with puppy-dog eyes. Lord, but youth is a thing of beauty.
“Welp—them eggs ain’t gonna scramble themselves!”
The kid doesn’t budge; he’s eyeballing the sepia photo on the nightstand.
“Ain’t you got deliveries to make, son?”
Slowly, deliberately, David stands. He stretches a lean, olive-skinned torso in the tentative haze of window light, steps into the damp nylon bathing suit he’s left crumpled on hardwood. He eyes Jake insistently as he folds the towel that conveniently dropped only moments earlier. At the last second before leaving, he steals a kiss on the lips.
For a full minute Jake remains there like a stuck pig, faced with his own limitations. The brush of tender lips is a reminder of something long-forgotten, something he’s all but closed the door on. Oh, his body remembered how to respond. But his heart, beneath all that flannel, shows no sign of beating.
Jake scrambles eggs, turns them in the pan, fluffs them. The ritual is mechanical, body acting on autopilot. He’s thinking of the damned kid sent from the devil to steal his peace, framing flawless skin and white teeth and full lips, wondering what could be wrong with him that he didn’t kiss back. He’s read in a magazine that senses dull with age. Somehow the idea is haunting—he’s never quite heard it put that way. Always reckoned folks just got bored or stopped appreciating their surroundings. Now he knows it’s the natural course of entropy. Maybe, on some level, he doesn’t want to know what he’s lost. And so he didn’t kiss back.
His shift is over. Jake Preston lies flat on his back, Holly curled up contentedly at the foot of the bed. His gaze drifts to the skewed window with its misshapen moldings, where the sheers rustle in an invisible breeze like the hot breath of the Mojave itself. For the first time, he notices it—the horizon is askew. Not just a portion of it—the entire expanse is tilted against the sky, causing the Joshuas to grow sideways from red-littered earth. The place is rife with volcanic activity—pillars of basalt spangle the terrain in clumps, ostensibly hurled from the many cinder cones spotting the Inyo range to the east. But now it dawns on him—the entire area is one great plume, rising inch-by-inch, year-by-year, so immense as to be imperceptible, but surreal all the same for its effect on the equilibrium. And one day, it will blow.
When David comes up from Ridgecrest the following week, Jake doesn’t so much as turn from that greasy grill sizzling and popping with oil, David stocking shelves with fresh baked goods and burning a hole in him from behind.
The following week, plucking soggy reeds from his sinewy calves, David glances about the fringes of the lake. He thinks he sees a white speck, clean as new-fallen snow, and a man waiting for that speck to do her business. But it turns out to be a snowy owl, cruising along the crest of cinder that hugs the bank, on the trail of a gardener snake.
Jake’s always liked night the best.
He’s just leaving the circle of warm, amber light that protects Cold Lake Lodge in its embrace—is about to plunge into anonymous, liberating black—when the squeal of tires on gravel cuts the night. A spray of flack, the groan of an emergency brake, and David clattering the length of that delivery truck to appear on its tailgate, right there in Jake’s path.
“Need a ride, stranger?”
Jake’s boots grind coarse sand, shifting his trajectory.
“Can’t avoid me all summer, you know…”
Lord, his teeth glow even brighter in the light of the moon. It shimmers like abalone, hanging full and low against deep indigo, just out of reach of the shuddering Joshua spines. Jake takes a nip from the flask he’s brought along. It matches that vintage flip-top lighter, puts a little fire in the veins when they run low. His arm reaches out, extends the flask. The kid accepts.
Wordlessly, beneath the abalone sky, they begin to walk. The Milky Way spangles the sky from horizon to horizon, weaving between stark black pillars of igneous rock. Far beyond the circle of light, David presses his back against a slab of cinder, taking in the heavens.
“What brings you to this dried up ol’ place, anyhow?”
Jake chuckles, looking around. “Not sure how I got here. Sure as hell never thought this is where I’d settle in.”
“What keeps you movin,’ exactly?”
“Just easier that way, I reckon. Go where the work is.”
“Look, I like you, man.” David’s eyes are clear and full, the reservoir just beneath the surface reflecting the moon. He looks around. “And there ain’t a whole hell of a lot goin’ on around here…”
A hollow wind sets the Joshua spines in motion, conducting their rattle and buzz.
Jake shifts uncomfortably. “Look, I’m a simple guy…”
“Simple?” David paces the volcanic slab, ancient as the stars. “No hopes, no dreams…”
After a long pause, despite himself, Jake hears himself confess: “S’pose I had dreams once. Long time ago…”
David hops from the chunky lava flow into fine silt. The moonlight collects in his glassy eyes. “Why don’t you tell me about ‘em. Sometimes if we tell our story, even to one damn person, we’re free…”
Jake slumps down on the rock face, takes another swig. David sits next to him.
“Told my story once—” Jake ruminates. “Didn’t end so well…”
He’s already back there—in that lightless crypt where he bared his soul to Farren McGraw and caused everything to shudder and collapse. Jake recounts their brief relationship, how they awakened in one another’s arms as if by the shifting of tectonic plates deep in the earth, something unseen and more powerful than them both.
“That’s how a diamond gets made,” he’d told Farren that afternoon before the tunnel collapsed, trying to awaken something in him. “The Earth—she seems to be sleeping. But deep down, she’s always moving, changing, forging something as beautiful as this…” He’d held up the glittering diamond that was the fruit of his relentless chipping and scraping at hard earth.
“Bytownite,” Farren came back. “Next door to glass.”
“Sure that ain’t your pop talkin’?’ That’s what Jake said whenever Farren was pessimistic or myopic.
The Reverend wasn’t too pleased about the mine collapse; neither was Mr. McGraw. But he kept Jake on to pay off the cost of the rescue operation. Boarded that place up real good. Still, they found other places to hang out. It was Farren who backed Jake up against that rusty old Ford and pressed their lips together, ran his fingers through the unruly mop of hair, pried his flannel shirt apart with a pop of soapstone buttons. Their first kiss was full of discovery. Jake would later attribute Farren’s forwardness to all that Bible-thumping.
“Fire and brimstone only ever resulted in horniness.”
What Jake didn’t know was that when Farren got home, he just about scrubbed his skin off under the uneven spray of the calcified showerhead. That Dale McGraw seen him come in late through the crack of a door, watched him pad down that carpeted hall in nothing but a towel, fighting the urge to throw the kid up against the wall and beat him senseless, his wife lying awake in bed wondering at the way instincts transmuted themselves.
Reverend Sanguine lost count of the mornings Dale showed up on his porch after blacking an eye or bloodying a lip, rocking himself, counting on his childhood friend to reassure him he was a good man. That he could be bigger than the card he’d been dealt. That the Lord had in fact stayed his hand and he’d not technically repeated the sins of the father.
In Jake’s estimation, Mr. McGraw went nothin’ but harder on Farren. Coulda been that after graduation, the kid kept right up with his plans for seminary. Unsavory to argue with the Lord’s work, but found himself resentful all the same at the kid’s resistance to the family trade.
“Took Pop a good, long while to build up what we got,” Farren himself would defend when Jake said anything at all. As if to rationalize the man’s behavior.
Farren kept right up with his plans to marry Ellen, despite regular trysts with Jake under the splintery hoe and the hanging scythe and the corroded hedge trimmer. Compartmentalizing was not an effort; it’s all that was known to youth—thinking only of the moment—and to society, who preferred it that way. Only once or twice did Farren have to bite his lip on home visits with Reverend Sanguine, grit his teeth and get through those few passages. The ones about man not layin’ with man and it being an abomination. About them who will not inherit the Kindgom of God bein’ right there among the adulterers, murderers,and thieves.
And when that boy even younger than Farren was found swinging from that bare-limbed tree in the cool morning, toes grazing wheat-colored grass, Farren’s heart made the connection. The family hadn’t shown up to services since the internment. Fearing they’d lost their faith, Reverend Sanguine thought it best to reach out to them, lest they leave the fold altogether. On arrival, the father’s eyes were hardened like steel, but the mother’s were red-rimmed and raw, searching for answers.
“God hates fags, don’t he?” She pleaded for the Reverend to confirm it, to satisfy some perverse need in her to hear the words.
A full summer came and went. Farren worked harder than ever—took on an extra job at the service station to pay for that Woody he’d seen in town. More than likely a means o’ gettin’ away from the old man, bein’ a worthy prospect for Ellen Sanguine. And all the while, Jake collecting ore in secret up there at Griffin’s mine. But nights, the rest of the world disappeared, and it was just the two of them on that lumpy cot, bare-chested and limbs intertwined in the cool sheets, to the symphony of crickets and the frosting of silvery moonlight. It was just skin on skin and fingertips lightly grazing, and a slow, lazy drifting off into abstraction. Just before succumbing to sleep, Jake would feel for Farren’s heartbeat penetrating his rib cage from behind and synchronizing with his own.
One night, an abrupt and deafening clatter cut the air just outside the toolshed. In half a second, Farren had thrown Jake to the floor.
“Ain’t nothin,’” Jake panted, peering out into the silvery dark. “Just a possum or somethin’.’”
But inside, he knew they both had reason to be on edge. They’d felt the prying eyes in town, felt sure they’d been found out. It was tough to bear.
“This ain’t right.” Farren was shaking his head, tormented.
“We oughtta jump in that ol’ jalopy and get outta here.” Jake nodded toward the Woody parked outside the sagging shack. “Go somewhere we can just…be.”
“And where’s that? Some mythical place with waterfalls, where the deer do nuthin’ but graze all day?”
“Somethin’ like that.” Jake half smiled. “And no pryin’ eyes, neither.”
Jake’s eyes were filled with the lucid dreaming that had so often saved him from his own life.
The time was right.
“Look, I been collectin’ ore up there all summer long. Tore up them planks. I’m takin’ it to Denver to have them tests done—that fella I was tellin’ you about—he’s willin’ to put up the dough…”
For a fraction of a second, Farren’s eyes ignited with hope. But then something else took over.
“What I got with Ellen is real. It’s more real than what we got—somethin’ that may or may not come to pass. Ye can’t build a life on that!”
Jake felt his heart accelerate. “You and Ellen? That’s real? Y’all are just gon’ hang around status quo-ville, same as your daddy done, and raise up a couple o’ ragamuffins just as fucked up as him!”
Farren had heard enough. “You leave my pop outta this!”
Before the words had left his mouth he’d swung at Jake, clocked him across the jaw. Jake swung back. They found themselves in a tumble, flipping that tiny cot into the air, crashing now into corrugated tin and narrowly missing tetanus-infested prongs. At last they tumbled away from another, both springing to their feet, recognizing the impasse as a truce.
Jake labored to catch his breath.
“Look,” he panted, heaving, “Sheriff found out I been pokin’ around up there at the mine—said he could make it real tough on me hangin’ around. Tomorrow I’m hoppin’ a train for Denver. I swear, if it’s the last thing I do, I’m gettin’ us both outta here.”
Farren’s eyes slid to the dirt floor. He’d grabbed his starched shirt and was buttoning it methodically, moving absently to the makeshift door. He opened it to leave, regret clouding his eyes.
“I’ll write you,” Jake said from his place on the cot.
And Farren was gone.
The boys wrote each other through the fall, Farren going on about the hypocrisy he could no longer help but see on those home visits, rushing toward the altar and seminary all the same, Jake saying tests were underway and that Farren should keep his fingers crossed. Farren examined each letter on arrival, making sure its seal had not been broken or tampered with. Only once did Ellen Sanguine spy a letter Farren had failed to stuff away before her arrival. Quickly, wordlessly, she let it drop back onto the old mahogany desk when Farren returned from the washroom.
Jake delighted in their long-distance correspondence; any scrap of paper marked Eternal Springs that appeared in his rinky-dink Denver PO box jumpstarted his heart. Riding the rails had lost its appeal; the letters were permission to live in the memory of those cool sheets and that callus-fingertipped touch and the symphony of crickets that made the stars glow even brighter behind the San Juan mountains.
The letters stopped coming.
After a third returned post, Jake could only reckon Farren had gone on to marry Ellen, thought it best to stay away and let ‘em make a go of it. Them tests didn’t turn out so well anyhow; he reckoned Farren had been right about that ol’ molehill. And so he stayed in Denver, not knowing where else to go or what to do.
Late December he read about it in the Denver Post obituary. Scant on details.
It was a bitter cold winter morning Jake trudged back up that muddy road for answers—that deeply lined tract that wound through frozen grass to the McGraw farmhouse set gray against the sagging sky, chipping and forlorn. The splintery door creaked open in agony, yielding a dark, narrow margin.
Emile McGraw placed her hollow countenance in the dead space, eyes set on the muddy earth.
“Can’t tell you how sorry I am, ma’am. I’m awfully sorry.”
“The Lord took him…” The woman’s eyes were lost in abstraction. “One day we will understand the Lord’s will.”
Jake fought the lump that had taken up residence in his throat. “Wish I’d known in time for the services.” Suddenly Jake wished she’d look at him. “We was real close.”
Her voice was flat. “There wasn’t no services…”
For the first time since Jake had arrived on that splintery porch, her eyes grew lucid, focusing on something several yards away. “Oh, Lord. My azaleas. I’m so embarrassed.”
Jake followed her gaze to a pot of withered blossoms.
“No matter how hard I try, them weeds just keep comin’ back.”
Suddenly her eyes darted, flashing terror, and Jake saw that Dale McGraw was rounding the corner of the house. He hacked away at a blue-gray hedge with rusty clippers, unaware of the visitor.
“How did he die? I’m sorry—”
A microscopic flash of anguish, quickly recomposed. And then a story, recounted with precision. His car was found at the bottom o’ that access road soon as the sun come up—down there by the main highway. For some reason he’d left his Bible by the running board of that car he was so proud of.
Mrs. McGraw looked at Jake for the first time. “He hung himself. My boy hung himself.”
Jake choked on the information, robbed of the luxury to mourn. But more than that, the rage that rose in him voiced torment at the injustice, at the story not being told.
“That ain’t like him” is what seethed out, made it past the lump. “He would never—”
The raw grind of her voice cut him off at the pass. “He was havin’ a rough time. Talked about leavin’ Ellen. Leavin’ Eternal Springs.”
The knife twisted with the cruel irony of a narrowly missed escape. Jake looked around for something, anything to ground him. The world was reeling.
“Some folks don’t like to talk about that sort of thing. Suicide, that is. Some folks don’t want it to get out. Suppose that’s ‘cuz the soul’s supposed to go to hell. But it’s better that get out than…”
“There’s much worse things can damn a soul to hell…”
Before Jake could discern the meaning in her words, her eyes darted again. Dale McGraw was weeding nearer the porch now; he locked eyes with his former farm hand across the distance. In the space of that one short moment, Jake saw in the sinewy forearms, veins bulging with fury, in the throbbing temple and clenched jaw, what the man was truly capable of. A final glowering scowl and Dale McGraw returned to his work. Jake turned back to the vacant shell before him.
“You don’t never think his pop went a bit hard on Farren?”
By rote, from the script again: “Mr. McGraw had my boy’s best interest at heart. Didn’t always go about it jes right—he’s like his own daddy in that way—jes wanted to raise his son up right.”
Her eyes drifted to the planter once more. “It’s like them azaleas…you see somethin’ unsavory takin’ root and you nip it in the bud. Forgive me—”
Emile McGraw looked suddenly nauseated, and as she pulled the door shut its rusty hinges issued a tortured wail. Jake stuck a foot out.
“I’d like to visit him, ma’am—if I may.”
The sickness rose, her pain escaping momentarily. “The grave is unmarked.” She ejected the words like bile.
Jake forced his body to turn on its heels—catatonic, numb, impossible to wrangle.
When he was halfway down the stairs, Emile McGraw called out. The rawness in her voice yielded to despair. “Jake—”
He turned. She was reaching for something just inside the foyer.
“This come general delivery jes the other day. I think you should have it.”
Her frail hands, raw with wringing, placed a manila envelope in his, wrapping his fingers around its contents. Their gazes met through the iron bars of respective prisons, and in that moment, the soul of Emile McGraw, the Emile who once ran through tall grasses in a gingham dress while skipping church, before the bruises and the cosmetics to hide them and the reciting of scripts, knew that standing before her was the man who loved her son.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Halfway down the muddy trail carving through color-drained, dew-plastered grass, he broke the seal. It was the photo. The one taken their final day on the farm together. A traveling photographer had wandered up from the main road and found them baling hay in the summer heat. They’d leaned against that old Woody, blissfully unaware of time and what it would rob them of, Old Man Griffin’s mine watching over all from miles above.
The earth was rushing up from below, him clutching that photo to his heart, the muddy earth scored with contusions and lacerations, pools of still water reflecting the brooding sky and his own tears hot and fast like a tempest come without warning. They rose up, flooding some deep shaft within, mingling now with puddles of muddy earth, reddened palms pressing dank soil as if to extract blood. His body heaved.
At the bottom of the hill Jake hitched a ride with a middle-aged trucker driving an eighteen-wheel logger. But not before Dale and the sheriff idled up alongside him in that old police cruiser, hurrying him on his way with their smoldering glares.
“I left Eternal Springs jes the way I found it and the way it always would be…” Jake’s eyes are still back there, haunted by the memory.
David’s are moist, reflecting the moon. His affinity has only grown deeper, touched by the story. He hasn’t known the man long, but could love him easily. And there’s a chance the man could love him back, if only he could be fixed.
“You couldn’t save him,” David hears himself whisper. “You should forgive yourself.” And then with a smile, “I think it’s you who needs the rescuing…”
Jake stands suddenly. “Didn’t know you was a shrink.”
David winces—didn’t see things going this way. And then, trying to fix it, “You said yourself it’s easier to keep movin.’ Maybe it’s time to be still.”
Jake lids the flask, turns back toward the warm glow of the lodge. He can’t resist saying it. “Awfully wise for someone who’s never been in love.”
David calls after him. “Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least I still have it in me!”
Jake hears his own boots grind to a halt. He keeps on.
White shears rustle in the Mojave dry, mingling with the buzz of invisible wind through Joshua spines. Jake lies in bed, mind churning. Past and present mesh in the tapestry of stars outside the window, connected in mystery, filaments placing him here and now and muddled in confusion. His mind struggles to extricate a thread from the great tapestry. If he can only focus, maybe he can rethread the thing. News of Farren’s death stung at the time. Like a bitter wind, laced with sand. Since fate had taken Ma and Pa, he’d grown used to solitude—learned not to expect much. And then the universe had opened up for one brief moment, shedding light into darkness. But it had been fleeting. And suddenly it became the same old dark place it had always been.
He’d have two more false starts in the years to come—but each melancholy ending only echoed the pain, sealing a lonely fate. Somethin’ to do with the futility of it all. You could give somethin’ everything you got—you could believe in ideals, and still it just wasn’t enough. Made you wanna throw your hands in the air. He remembered the precise moment he’d said those words to himself—that he couldn’t go through another ending, wouldn’t survive it, the world being what it was. At the time he thought it meant he’d choose carefully and only then take the risk.
What he could not have known in saying those words, is that life would come and go in the waiting, pass him by on them rusted rails. That he’d be closin’ the door on all the things afforded to youth—that feeling of invincibility, hope for the future, thinking of a person night and day, wanting to hold hands and never let go. The soft brush of lips and the spark of electricity between them. Holding someone, just holding them wordlessly in the dark, knowing that if all else crumbles, you’d still have one another.
That final summer at Griffin’s mine—beneath the drifting cirrus clouds, guarded by roiling timber, he and Farren McGraw had left the world behind. Its Victorian houses and one-room chapels and small-mindedness. They’d rolled in the grass and laughed and shared their dreams and just lay there, fingertips touching, feeling one another’s breath and the syncopation of their hearts. What they didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that it was the last time—ever—they would feel that free.
The scream is bloodcurdling, guttural. It travels through the hallway, bouncing off papered walls.
In half a second Jake has thrown off the tangled sheet—he’s been tossing and turning anyhow—and sprung into the hall.
She’s already there, dashing forward, tears streaming down her lined face in the moonlight. And then she’s in his arms, strength dissolved, her frame made all the more frail for his sturdiness.
“There wadn’t nuthin’ I could do!”
The sun rises with trepidation, cresting the slanted dome. The coroner is scrawling notes on a clipboard, interrogating Nurse Janet. Jake pours Mabel a second cup of coffee, places it in her trembling blue hands.
“Kids’ll make the drive out this afternoon. Talk about the services and such.”
Jake nods in silence, tightens his grip around hers.
“Had to just let him go,” she laments. “He was chokin’ on fluids—suffocating.”
The previous night’s alarm has yielded to melancholy. Her voice is raw, distraught. Her eyes are moist but cried out.
“You did the right thing,” Jake assures her. “He’s in a better place now.”
“Wouldn’t have wanted to go on the way things was…”
“I know. He was a proud man. Sure don’t make it easier…”
Jake’s look is wistful, earnest. “He was content leastways. Down to the very end.”
“It’s that heart.” Mabel’s own words hit her as she speaks. “Always had a strong heart. That’s why his body held on so long.”
Something she’s said cuts to Jake’s core. He feels his hold relax on hers.
“I’m the opposite.” The realization can’t help but flow, like magma. “ A body can live twenty years with a broken heart.”
Mabel recognizes what she first saw in him that day he’d shown up on the cherry Naugahyde stool, having appeared against the desert like an apparition. The thing that made her want to reach out and save him from himself.
“Some folks live their whole lives with a broken heart.”
Her eyes, just beginning to cloud over with cataracts, scan the desert once more—the endless miles of it that sum up a lifetime. Jake’s eyes follow hers to some indiscernible point where the tilted horizon dissolves into sky.
Jake Preston is walking again. He is miniscule—a mere speck among the Joshuas that carve their stark black silhouettes into a limitless void. The Milky Way careens against the inky black, flung from horizon to horizon on strings of interstellar flack as old as time. The tapestry is taunting him again, embroidered as intricately as the threads of Jake Preston’s soul—the memories, the possibilities, the opportunities passed and roads not taken. His boots graze coarse sand, moaning with regret, lamenting the miles and miles traversed without pause, without refuge. His life is a series of threads—hanging, tattered, begging to be woven together into something recognizable. Meaningful. His mind reels, grappling with the vastness of it, the impossibility of forging an image from the tangle mess.
It’s too late.
The sun will be up soon and it’s too late.
A thicket of Joshuas looms up from the desert floor, reaching for the heavens. A palpable longing sets them in motion, hollow wind whistling between broken spines. How many times has he passed such an outcropping, such a mournful figurehead in the desert’s sterile lack? How many times has a contorted jumble of inanimate limbs sprouted up before him or beside him or behind—competing for his attention? Something in him recognizes the longing—the desperate skyward reaching—something visceral and deep and rooted. Something in his stomach and his very bones and in every cell of his being.
The tracks are rumbling, producing a deafening roar—the world slowing to a stop or the rusted rails accelerating or both, and all Jake knows is that the sun is going to rise and it means something. It’s going to crest that skewed horizon where the yucca grow sideways as far as the eye can see, where that dome is forcing itself from terra firma, so slow as to be imperceptible but bound to blow one day. It will spread its rays across the landscape whether he is ready or not, and something in him has to decide.
David’s words return to him: you should forgive yourself.
A meteor shower illuminates a corner of the sky, finale to the fleeting shroud of night. A moment later, the same corner of the sky awakens, tangerine warmth infusing the inky black. Turning the threads to shimmering gold.
For the first time in a long time, Jake welcomes the sunrise.
The boys are hustling pies. David steadies the load while the other kid negotiates coarse gravel round the side toward the walk-in refrigerator. The sun is barely up.
“Got somethin’ for ya,” a voice rasps.
David turns. Jake is there, holding up a cigarette. His hair is combed, pulled back. He’s still scruffy, but has run an old rusty clipper across the scruff so it no longer turns in on itself.
David’s look is scornful, full of mistrust. He hefts the hand truck across the threshold onto buckled linoleum. Once the kid’s got a handle on it, he turns back. Jake is still beckoning him with a bent cigarette. He swallows his pride, follows.
They’re inside Jake’s tiny room now. David reaches for the cigarette; Jake swipes it behind his back, seats David on the bed.
“Close your eyes.”
It’s hard to trust the man.
“Go on—close ‘em.” Jake runs callused fingertips across his eyelids. They flutter. Jake kneels before him on the hardwood floor.
And then, before the kid knows it, he’s being kissed. Powerfully, tenderly. He can’t help but reach around, entangle his fingers in the surprisingly silky blond locks, push closer, harder, tighter.
The kiss is long.
Jake Preston is beyond reassured. It’s still there, powerful as ever. That spark he was afraid had been lost to time. More powerful than ever for having lain dormant and protected, like a volcanic reservoir deep in the earth.
Their lips part.
“I want to be still with you,” Jake whispers.
David’s eyes open, lazy. He smiles an involuntary smile.
Without another word, the two fall back on the bed, fingers intertwined. The sheers rustle. The world has slowed, halted even, contentment creeping up profoundly in the form of touch. Jake embraces him from behind there on the bed, and the world disappears—his heartache, David’s doubts, the protests and judgments and intolerance. As the past retreats, Jake finding himself in the unfamiliar territory of the present, he feels for it. Penetrating David’s rib cage from behind—that familiar sensation of a heartbeat synchronizing with his own. A tiny smile creeps across his face.
Jake knows he’s addicted to adventure—all them new places and comportments and folks waiting for him down the tracks. He also knows his greatest adventure will be standing still.
And for a time, that’s what he does. The rails groan, the world slows to a stop and he can breathe. David got sick of looking at that damn picture and shoved it in the drawer of that bleached-out nightstand. Not once has Jake opened the drawer.
But as always, the respite is short-lived. Somethin’ always catches up with him—not the law or a gambling debt or even his own demons—nothin’ so clear cut. Nothin’ to do with him—just the way of the world. When Cliff Robins takes over Mabel’s estate after the services, shocked at the state of affairs, things change. He keeps Jake on, but it ain’t the same. And it’s only a matter of time before he sticks her in a home somewhere. Probably Ridgecrest. That poor excuse for a roadside stop with its bullet-ridden signs and littering of broken bottles.
They been squawkin’ in his ear anyhow—the sheriff and Logger John—‘bout how Jake’s got ulterior motives, thinks he’s gonna run the place. More than that, the looks boring through the stainless steel of that order window are speculative and fueled by something visceral. Could have to do with what Nurse Janet heard that day or just somethin’ human read into a shared glance—a lingering moment in that walk-in refrigerator at pie-stocking time. All Jake knows is it’s time to move on.
“Thought this time I’d sit still for a spell,” he says to David.
The puppy-dog eyes blink.
“But there’s no future here. Not a safe one leastways.”
“The only chance you stand is bein’ still,” David whispers. They both know it to be true.
Suddenly David’s packing his own bag—not with a rusty thermos or a flask or a flip-top lighter—but new things, untarnished things, plenty of room to accumulate.
“But sometimes standin’ still,”—here he places Jake’s hand on his own heart— “means movin’ on.”
Pretty wise for a kid.
“Hell, all I got waitin’ for me is college.” He smiles. “I can do that anywhere.”
The day Jake Preston leaves Cold Lake, the desert is rife with activity—restlessly spawning dust devils that skid across that imperceptibly quaking dome. Cirrus clouds hang frozen in the stratosphere, wisps of them wavering in tandem with an invisible current. Mabel’s silver hair, so perpetually coiffed, hangs in loose strands that dance about her weathered face. Her knotted hand is held tightly in Jake’s.
“Thank you,” she whispers, eyes reflecting the dust storms.
The old woman has seen it all—more than Nurse Janet or Logger John or even the sheriff, enforcer of the Mojave’s unique brand of justice. She’s seen the world change, slow as the rising of the volcanic plume that will one day claim Cold Lake Lodge. But it’s not for her to speed them along—the ways of the world. The wealth of things seen and heard and felt is precisely what allowed her to see Jake’s heart buried under all that flannel, like a vein of gold deep in a mine shaft or a diamond crushed into beauty by terra firma.
“Thank you,” Jake returns.
He joins David in the boxcar.
And then he’s moving, great swells flying by spotted with yucca and sage. Joshuas no longer mournful but reaching in veneration for the endless blue.
Soon Cold Lake Lodge is lost in the diaphanous pale, but a tiny speck beyond that rolling door.
Together, they watch it disappear, consumed by desert.
The Salt Flats
‘A woman’s will is a powerful thing; if she wants something, her subconscious will move heaven and earth to bring it to her.’ —Somethin’ I read somewhere once.
It ain’t hungry. Varmint been in there a week and he just look at it now and then, slits for eyes, huddled there in the corner shaking like a sketcher ampin’ te fix up, like he know he gonna be eaten. Maybe he don’t know—but he know somethin’ ain’t right. Like somethin’s waitin’ for him but he don’t know what. Never seen the inside of a snake belly or felt its ribs closin’ in on him so he don’t know what te be ascared of. But he feel it, like a storm cloud on the horizon come storm season when Ma says it’s time to come in and you can smell the change in the air—the humidity creepin’ in and push out the dry.
Not a cloud in the sky today. Them salt flats is parched as ever, soakin’ up every drop o’ wet out past the houses. We live just on the edge—Ma and Rachel and me and Jacob, and used te be, Pa. No one else seems te notice ‘em, but I look out over them flats to forever—them flats used te be a lake they say, squinting into the blinding sun glancin’ off them white crystals, and wonder what’s out there. Pa once said there was an end to it—that three hundred miles or so past is Los Angeles. Ma told ‘im to shut his trap and said that’s where all the godless folks live and there ain’t no use in us knowin’ what’s there. Couldn’t be so bad, them city folk, I thought. Plenty o’ bad apples ‘round here too.
“You come away from there now!” Ma hollers from the kitchen.
I’m in the den, where the cage is, where the big window looks out on the flats, and Jacob’s room in the tool shed.
“When he gonna git hungry, Ma?”
“When the Lord wills it. Now come away from there an’ find somethin’ else to do…”
“But there ain’t nothin’ else to do.”
“That ain’t true. Idle hands is the devil’s playground!”
We’ve had Luke for a year now—that’s his name, Luke—and the poor rat been in there with ‘im goin’ on a week, ‘bout as long as Pa been away. Luke come slitherin’ up from the flats one day, outta the blinding hot white, right to our porch. It’s Jacob finds ‘im, makes the cage for him out o’ that old fish tank wasn’t no one doin’ anything with. Come te think of it this is right after Ma takes ‘im in. That’s a long story there, but Jacob ain’t my brother, no more than that snake and that rat is kin. Ma took ‘im in ‘cause his parents wasn’t no good an’ he wasn’t yet eighteen, she said. Said it was the Christian thing to do.
“I said come away from there,” Ma nags me again, and then the screen door flies open and Rachel runs in holding somethin’ and cryin’ and causin’ a fit.
“Look what I found, Joshua!”
She comes over and she’s cupping her hands and she looks fascinated by what she’s got prisoner in them pudgy little fingers and she looks traumatized all at the same time.
It’s a baby bird, all naked and fleshy, tiny hairs poking out and eyes swelled shut and gasping for something. She holds it out and its tiny wings flit and spasm and it wants something. She looks from it to me and I never seen two creatures more akin—my sister Rachel ‘bout as fragile as that tiny thing—blue veins showing through transparent milk-white skin. Her hair and eyes is so fair the other third-graders call her ‘the ghost of Randsburg.’ That’s where we live. Ma’s never cut her hair—it’s the color of straw—so it’s down to ‘bout the middle of her back. When the kids call her a ghost, I stick up for her bein’ the older brother and all, but then tease her all the same at home. Sort o’ the way of it. Then I feel bad later ‘cause I know she’s fragile. Still, even with that rice-paper skin she manages to run around here barefoot all day soiled up to the ankles, even out there in them thistles and sage. That’s how she come across that bird.
“I think he’s hungry,” Rachel says, watching him lunge.
Ma comes over and takes a look and at first she’s perturbed, but then something shifts when she sees Rachel all wide-eyed.
“Where’s his family, Ma?”
“Well, Angel, sometimes birds jes fall outta their nests. Look like a sparrow.”
“Maybe his wings is broken.”
“Sweetheart, he ain’t even close to can fly yet. Them wings ain’t broken—looks like nothin’ got to ‘im yet out there. But he gotta grow feathers before he can fly. An’ it’s his mama teaches him that…”
“Can we keep ‘im, Ma? Can we feed ‘im somethin’?”
Ma looks at her and the helpless little thing, all bald and shiny. “I suppose.”
And then they’re stuffin’ toilet paper in a shoebox and putting milk in an eyedropper and forcing it drop at a time into that oversized beak there on the kitchen counter.
Jacob comes in after kickin’ dirt off his boots on the porch, sees what’s goin’ on and says to me under his breath:
“This story never ends well. Yer ma even knows that.”
“Shut yer trap.” I say.
“It’s true. Wadn’t once a little girl ever found a baby bird who watched it fly away. Always ends the same way.”
I plug my ears and my ears is hot and Rachell’s all excited now and Pa been gone a week and this is the first time she’s excited. She been mopin’ around and wonderin’ where he off to and if he ever gonna come back and I even heard her cryin’ in her room once and now she got a project. The way some folks at church say Jacob is a project.
“You heard me right,” Jacob’s whisper-shouting in my ear now, prying my hands away. “When I was her age, did the same thing. We all done it. Learned our lesson. Shoebox and the whole bit. Milk through an eyedropper, then later mashed up bread soaked in milk, then all excited when them feathers come in. But thirty seconds after we released that thing into the wild, a coyote come up and gobbled it down. Can’t release a thing into the wild ain’t never been exposed to it. It’s the mama bird alone teaches the baby to fly…”
“You leave him be,” Ma shouts at Jacob. She can’t hear what he’s goin’ on about but sees him pryin’ at my fists.
He’s twice my age—me eleven and him just about to turn eighteen. But he ain’t never heard the sayin’ ‘pick on someone your own size.’ When he ain’t workin’ the general store he’s pumpin’ iron out in that converted shed—gets bigger every day. An’ just last week he come home inked up wit the image of a big ol’ grizzly bear, from shoulder to elbow—but Ma didn’t say nothin’. Don’t say much when he picks on me neither, and today ain’t no different. Just goes back to watchin’ Rachel coddle that bird, humorin’ her need to do it.
“Where’s his family, do ya think?” Rachel wonders out loud.
There’s a long silence. “Probably moved on, Angel.”
“Why? Why if he jes’ fell out o’ the nest?”
For once Ma is silent. No bible verses, nothin.’
Ma’s always spoutin’ scripture, like breathing. Since Pa left she’s upped our penance to twice a week and she stands there hands folded, even when we ain’t in church, swaying gently side to side like a willow and some kind of serenity comes across her face. Pa gone and her at peace with it or tells herself it’s better than the boozing and the yelling and we kids are better off. When the serenity wears off it’s: “Bo Pearson can drink himself to death if that’s what he want.”
Even Ma’s name come from the Bible. Ruth Pearson. Well, not the Pearson part—got that from Pa. According to Ma, Ruth means ‘from the Earth.’ And fuck if she don’t look like she come straight up out of it—ruddy skin flecked like granite, honey-colored hair as long as them grasses that come up against the sides of buildings in town. Even her pale eyes look like they come out o’ the ground—blue all right but blue like a mirage or that endless dry lake before it went dry. When it reflected sky.
When Ma sways folks is more apt to use them words I heard at church one day. Called her pious and self-righteous. Whether I want an answer or not it’s Jacob gonna give it to me and wasn’t no different this time around and he even heard what they said. Holier-than-thou, he threw in, then said it was a quality some folks possess when they think their shit don’t stink. Also said it’s them folks who’s pious who have the most skeletons in their closet. Makin’ up for their own past sins, he said.
Hard as I tried, couldn’t think o’ what Ma coulda done made her pious. Wasn’t nothin’ like robbin’ a bank or killin’ no one, anyway. Half the time I didn’t like what Jacob had to say, but the rest o’ the time I knew it was the truth no one else was willin’ to say out loud.
Only been a year or so, but can’t recall what it was like before Jacob come round, before Ma turned that tool shed into a bedroom. Pa didn’t say much—jes razzed her for her open heart. Takin’ in a stranger wadn’t no different, he said, from her green thumb or her compulsion to birth babies or what he called the menagerie—all them critters brought in from the desert on top o’ those that laid eggs and was eventually eaten. Luke and that pathetic bird is just the latest.
“Yer ma just wanna make sure she’ll never be alone,” Jacob said one day.
“Shut yer trap. Yer lucky you got a place to sleep.” I said back.
At church folks whisper Jacob’s done time, and every time Ma catches ‘em and pretends not to and just finds a way to fit it into the conversation: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” or “Judge not lest ye be judged,” or “He who has forgiven little has loved little,” or just “Everyone deserves a second chance” when she’s run clean out of passages.
No one says what he was in for; maybe they’re fishin’ for details an’ that’s why they whisper. Whisper the words juvenile offense then rinse off the gossip sayin’ there ain’t no such a thing as a bad seed and what monsters them parents musta been. Say he’s better off leavin’ ‘em back east and havin’ nothin’ more to do with ‘em. In the year he’s lived in that shed, I ain’t never once heard him mention his folks, don’t want to know myself what happened, but he’s surely told Ma everything. Probly what made ‘er heart go out to him.
Since Pa left and no one at church seen him anywhere in town, they got better to gossip about. Last week Mrs. Bales leans over in her pew, close enough for me to hear, and says to Shawna Baldeen, “Heard he din’t just up and leave. Apparently, she made ‘im…Run ‘im off with a twelve-gauge shotgun.”
Shawna’s reply even gets me thinkin’: “She’s put up with his boozin’ for twenty years. Wonder what’s changed?”
I’m glad them petty folks moved on to the next and Jacob’s old news. I like him. He punches me a little too hard in the gut—gives me wedgies and holds me down ‘till I cry uncle but does it to toughen me up. He’s always doin’ somethin’ out in that shed when he ain’t sleepin’—fixin’ somethin’ of Ma’s or staining old furniture. Taught me to make Indian arrowheads and scrapers with an old deer horn on a shred of tire rubber, the one good thing he got from his dad he said. Then it was how to burn ants with a magnifying glass or salt snails. Said back east they’d pick the butts off fireflies and make necklaces out of ‘em. That or write their names on the sidewalk with the severed abdomens like the glowing embers of spent cigarettes.
One day when he’s worked at the general store long enough to afford it, he buys a used dirt bike from the Recycler. Takes me out to the salt flats and he’s gonna teach me how to ride it. Says it’s the best place and the crystals are soft but not too soft and even though the glare is blinding, least there’s no one else and besides it’s good for figure eights. I hold on about his waist, no helmet or nothin’ and we’re heading straight into the blinding white-hot glare.
One figure eight, and the thing sputters and runs out of gas.
He’s sniffing on the air, smelling for a leak. “Ain’t no way!”
And then we’re trekking across the flatness, ridges of salt crunching beneath his boots and my sneakers and them useless tires, shielding our eyes from the sun as it come up from all them crystals. We’re sweatin’ by the time we reach the paved road again. He heaves the dead weight of the dirt bike up onto buckled asphalt, rich and black compared to the paleness of Koehn dry lake.
A row of abandoned storefronts stands looking out into the nothingness from long ago. All but disintegrated into coarse gravel; it’s habit keeps ‘em standing against the wind—the hollow, pelting whisper.
“Need a hand?” A voice comes from nowhere, bouncing off facades lacerated by the constant rain of sand.
Jacob turns. A man is there, silhouetted between the sagging frame of what was a once a gas station, and the remains of an old stucco café. But something ain’t right. The stagger is erratic, twitchy, like a pinball being bounced along between obstacles—rusty fifty-gallon-drums and rolled up chicken wire and jumbles of old signage layered and chipping and splintering into decay.
Another pile of debris comes to life, splits into clear ghostlike silhouettes that meander toward us and the bike and the eternal void of the flats. All three figures is tall and wiry, like paper mache´ marionettes.
“We’re good.” Jacob waves. His head’s down now and his pace accelerates. “Just keep on,” he says under his breath.
“I can front you a gallon o’gas if you like,” the man calls, almost to the road now.
“Thanks, man. But we’re good.” Jacob steals a look. “Not too far to go te get back.”
Suddenly there’s a roar like thunder and the man’s throwing open the rolling metal door of the old café. I can’t help but look; the interior is cavernous, like a forgotten mineshaft, heaped with strange things forming strange impressions stark and wretched. An incandescent bulb swings moth-yellow against the cool, dark interior.
The man’s already got a gas can in his hand—he’s reached into the mess, holds it into the air now over his head to taunt Jacob.
He can’t resist.
“Stay right next to me,” he says as we cross the highway. “We could just as well walk it, but I don’t wanna hear you squawk later about your tired little feet or worse yet tell yer ma I took you out here without a helmet.”
“Too hot te walk,” the man says. “Y’all live in town?”
“Not too far,” Jacob says, nodding ambiguously toward what could have been anywhere in Randsburg.
The man loosens the gas cap. His hands is blackened—not with grease or car exhaust but years and years of it. His knuckles is raw, hands twitching unsteadily. His jowls is hollow as a skeleton’s, leathery skin pulled taut more like mummy cloth than paper mache´ I decide. Jacob loosens the gas cap on the bike. I do as he tol’ me an’ stay right there, but my eyes can’t help to wander. Certain things jump out in the flickering yellow light: an enormous tarp draped over God-knows-what, antique pool table, old neon beer advertisements. Unfamiliar smells, like they been tanning hide with chemicals, in fact there’s open barrels of it and sawed off milk cartons swirling with iridescent colors. The walls are draped with tanned hides and pelts, impossible to identify even with them heads still attached. Suddenly I can’t help but gasp. It’s been there the whole time but only now can I see it there in the shadows: a eight-foot-tall Grisly with talons spread and muzzle wired full open, strangely frozen and lifelike at the same time.
“Like a museum, ain’t it?” The man muses, enjoying my reaction. He smiles; yellow teeth jump from a clenching and unclenching jaw, announcing the missing ones with a wheeze, temples throbbing and icy blue eyes reflecting the salt flats behind us. The other two men wander back and forth just outside the rolling door, muttering. Jacob looks down as he pours, but keeps an eye on everything—me and the yellow-toothed man and his twitchy friends and the taxidermy.
The man wheezes again. “Come on, I’ll show you the rest.”
“That’s all right,” Jacob scowls. “We gotta make a beat.” He’s emptied the round gas can and is screwing the lid back on.
“Thanks for your help.”
There’s a quick nod, and in the man’s eyes is an inscrutable look, like he knows something or he knows Jacob knows something and then we’re gone.
We’re halfway back to our own porch, two miles down along the crusty fringe of them flats, when Jacob shouts over the whistling wind in our ears:
“Don’t never go near there. That’s a meth lab.”
I say nothing.
“That’s all this dried-up tumbleweed-blowin’ shithole town produces: tweakers and bible-thumpers. Tweakers and bible-thumpers.”
Half the time, I don’t know what that guy’s goin’ on about.
What I do know is it ain’t the first or last time I seen desert rats like them zombies we run into, squattin’ in dilapidated shacks. Half o’ Randsburg is fallin’ down, fer God’s sake—Johannesburg too for that matter—collapsed or burnt out by fire or just plain abandoned like a nuclear blast come and drove folks away in a split second. Jacob says these twin shithole towns was jumpin’ back in the day, when them mines was in operation. Now they’re just twin shithole fuckin’ ghost towns.
Come spring bikers come up from below—tourists and off-roaders with their Harleys an’ dirt bikes and mopeds and ATV’s, kickin’ up dust and mayhem and stealin’ our quiet. But secretly folks look forward to new faces, and the cash that come along with ‘em. Come spring the general store overflows with bright-colored windbreakers and neon helmets and brand-new boots without a scuff on ‘em. Which is why, a week after Rachel finds that baby bird, Jacob’s asked te come in on Sunday for a double shift. Ma says she wishes he’d come to church and that the Lord don’t want us workin’ the Sabbath. But he’s payin’ rent now so she don’t say too much.
When church lets out folks spill onto the patchy lawn for fellowship and ma was fidgety in there and now takes off like a bat outta hell. Don’t wanna answer no more questions, slipped into conversation backhanded and sly. Leastways ‘bout Pa. And so we all slip out. Even if it’s true she told ‘im to leave, and just as true the Lord frowns on divorce, them church elders was behind her all the way. Ma and Pa met with ‘em for weeks on end, tryna do the godly thing, even if Pa griped about it every time between hocks o’ snuff.
“Them elders got loose lips just like the rest of ‘em,” Ma rants in the end, right about the time the gossip starts up.
We stop off at the general store on the way home—Ma’s outta butter—and Jacob ain’t there. Manager says he’ll be in later, for the afternoon shift. She don’t say nothin’, just buys her butter and grabs Rachel and me by the hand. We’re almost to the door when one o’ them brightly-colored out-o-towners calls out to Ma. Her calloused hands tighten around ours like when she’s bracing to defend against the gossip.
“It’s me!” The woman cries across the sawdust-covered floor when Ma turns. “It’s me—Sally!”
And then they’re hugging, right there next to the postcards and keychains, rocking back-and-forth but not pious somehow, the other patrons looking on and us kids looking on and wondering who Sally could be. She’s in riding gear, but not inked up like most biker chicks. She’s tanned and fresh and her hair has a natural wave, unfrazzled like Ma’s, and her makeup looks different somehow, like she was trained how to put it on. Must be an old friend, Rachel and me decide, but looks half Ma’s age.
“Kids, this is Sally Mathis—“
“Sally Morgansen. We went all through school together. Right here in Randsberg.” Used to be an elementary, a junior high and a high school right here in town Ma’s told us on several occasions, before they started bussing kids out to Ridgecrest.
“You down below now?” Ma asks her straight out. She nods toward the flats and the mythical big city that lies what could be a thousand miles beyond.
“Got that right,” she smiles. “Got outta Dodge first chance I got!” She looks at us kids, then back at Ma. “ No offense, o’ course…”
Ma smiles. A terse smile, but there’s warmth underneath, a reminder of someone she used to be.
The woman offers to buy us all lunch, tells her husband to take a few spins on the flats, and we’re seated at one o’ them long picnic tables right there in the general store where there’s sawdust on the floor and a jukebox and all the lemonade you could want. Rachel and I spit straw wrappers across the table to fight boredom while we wait for the food to come, keepin’ one ear out all the time as Ma and Sally catch up on twenty years. Soon they’re giggling like they was still in high school, Ma slumped on the table and Sally laughing through her straw into the lemonade. I seen Ma laugh, but it’s been a good long while, since long before Pa left and the congregation come down on her and the gossip started up. I like Sally already. She don’t seem to care about any o’ that. She does know to whisper when she can tell Rachel and I is listenin’ in, though.
“You hear about Rudy?” she whispers through her straw.
“Morales?” Ma sounds surprised to hear the name.
“Who else? You two keep in touch?”
Ma folds her hands, begins to sway. “’Course not. That was a long time ago.”
“Hear he’s in the joint. Third offense—three strikes. Armed robbery this time.”
Ma continues to sway, summoning that serenity. But a tear appears in her eye.
“I’m sorry,” Sally says at last. “I thought you knew.”
On the way home Ma tells us all about Sally, smiling like I ain’t seen in forever. Turns out her and her husband’s staying at the Bed and Breakfast in town. Sally said they do every year while the kids is away at camp; it’s a fluke she ain’t never run into Ma until now. Thought about lookin’ her up lots o’ times, though. They come for a week every summer, do some off-roading and visit her folks. Her ma’s a retired waitress and her pa retired law-enforcement. That night, her and Ma sit Indian style on the braided rug on our floor chugging wine from the bottle, giggling even more than before. Not once does ma spout scripture.
Rachel feeds that bird at the kitchen counter, smiling with purpose. But deep down, it’s some kind of desperation keeps her at it, some kind of masking of sadness—even I know this. She pretends she don’t miss him, but how could she not? Every night she’d sit on his knee, even if he smelled like booze, and they’d make up stories together, her starting one and him adding to it and just seein’ where it took off to. Now it’s that bird’s her nightly project. It’s finally growing feathers but they look painful, poking like wax daggers from inside.
I walk over to the tank and look in. That rat don’t look terrorized no more. Like he forgot he ain’t nothin’ more than lunch and same with Luke. At first, even when he wadn’t hungry his reptile eyes would still dart, waiting for the right moment and knowing it would come. But now they’re—I wouldn’t say friends, but comfortable all the same. I start to wonder if they’ll ever seal the deal—fulfill their purpose—and whether it’s fair to keep the critter in there, terrorized or not.
I ain’t got no homework—it’s summer—so I sit just out o’ sight in the hall and listen in. Turns out Rudy was Ma’s first boyfriend—long before Pa come along workin’ the only pumice mine still in operation in Johannesburg. Ma says Rudy had a good heart but was dealt a bad hand. In and out of foster care, nothin’ but crappy folks put their hands on him and everything. Says it breaks her heart what’s become of him, wonders if things woulda been different with decent folks, or maybe even if she herself had done more.
“You can’t look back,” Sally comforts her. And then, after a long silence:
“What happened with you and Bo?”
Ma’s laughter has given way to tears, and she wipes one away. She’s lying on her back, hair spilling onto the woven rug like willows on a pond. She looks straight at the ceiling as Sally strokes her straw-colored hair with caring fingers.
“Just had enough, I guess. Weeks o’ counseling but he wouldn’t give up the bottle. Not even for us.”
“Demons run deep,” Sally confirms.
And then Ma says it. First time I heard her do it: “I made him leave. Gave him an ultimatum.”
“You didn’t make him. He chose.” And then, “But somethin’ must have changed—given you the strength…”
“It’s God put it in my heart.” Ma says.
There’s a long silence, broken only by a troubled sigh from Sally. “If you don’t mind my asking, is it really marriage counseling if it’s through the church?”
Ma sits up straight quick. “What do you mean?”
Ma relaxes. “I know what you mean. It’s true. They’d just as soon I look ahead to the afterlife than dig in the dirt and look into the past. They’d just as soon I repeat my patterns and suffer abuse if it means doing the godly thing and avoidin’ divorce.”
“Not sure how—it’s God put it in my heart, but I seen clearly, all on my own without them elders, what I been doin’ all these years. Why I chose the men I chose. I was tryn’a fix him. Rudy. All this time.”
There’s a long silence and I peek around the corner further, from the hall. Sally’s still stroking her hair. Ma looks from the ceiling straight at her.
“He raped me.” She says. Matter-of-fact. “And I stayed with him.”
Sally kisses Ma’s forehead.
Just then, the porch creaks and Jacob can be heard kicking dirt from his boots. They land with a thud on the planks and the door is forced open, moaning in protest. Sally’s eyes dart to the door. Jake’s sweaty and covered in dirt, but when he sees the visitor he pushes the bangs from his eyes, wipes his hands on his flannel shirt, and extends one of ‘em.
“This is my friend Sally,” Ma says without getting up. “Jacob’s livin’ with us while he gits on his feet.”
“Nice to meet you,” Sally smiles, shaking his hand. But her eyes return immediately to Ma’s, eyebrows raised. After he passes, goes straight out to that toolshed, Sally smacks Ma.
“You don’t see it? You really don’t see it? He looks just like Rudy!”
“Oh, Lord.” Ma sits up, and they’re giggling again. “Maybe Rudy twenty years ago…”
“You know what I think? “ Sally says at last. “ I think you’re still tryin’ te fix ‘im.”
I start to doze off as they go on and on—Ma sayin’ again how Rudy had a good heart and it’s all them hands on him caused him to repeat the pattern, how even though she chose the wrong men she’s had the good sense to keep an eye out for it all these years and ain’t no one ever laid a hand on her kids. How Bo didn’t have it in him, even if some kind o’ rage was behind the drinking.
And then, I’m just about to doze off, when the back door snaps open and shut. Jacob come back in, shirtless—that tattoo’s all healed—and swigs milk from the carton in the cool of the open fridge. Sally’s stealing looks at him.
I know you wasn’t at work today,” Ma says for some reason. He ignores her.
“Double shift my ass.” It’s the wine. Not a bible verse in sight.
Jacob still ignores her, instead hovers over the shoebox where Rachel’s still dripping soggy bread into a hungry beak.“How about that? He might make it yet!” He’s takin’ in the feathers, the eyes now open—crusty but lucid.
Suddenly, from nowhere, Rachel shrugs violently, flinging his hand from her shoulder where he’s set it.
“Darn right he gonna make it!” She cries, tears streaming from her eyes. “Now shut yer trap!” The eye dropper clatters to the tile counter and she runs from the room.
That night I can’t sleep. Couldn’t keep my eyes open there in the hall, but now in my own bed they’re full open, like they got toothpicks in ‘em. I’m thinkin’ about that poor rat, need to know for some reason if he been gobbled up. I wanna tell him he shouldn’t be so relaxed, that he was right to stay in the corner like a stuck pig. I tip toe to the tank in pitch dark, careful not to wake anyone, and the flickering yellow bulb inside reminds me o’ the one in that abandoned café, casting everything in a strange, uncomfortable light.
Suddenly I notice the light’s on in the shed. The big window looks out on the salt flats, consumed by pitch blackness at night, almost non-existent. But the tiny shed glows moth-yellow against the black, shades pulled half down but something moving inside. And then I hear it. Jacob’s arguing with someone. The two voices are hushed, compressed on the silence, but even more intense because of it.
I ease that back door open, stifling its slow, rusty moan. The crickets are chirping, masking words flung hot and angry into the night. I tip toe across the coarse gravel of the yard, wonder how Rachel does it with all them thistles, and come right up under the window where I can git a better earshot. Shadows dance on the aluminum sill, animating the tiny margin beneath yellowed blinds that hang askew, attempting privacy.
It’s Ma’s voice thrust up against his, mingling with its deep tones and the crickets and the silence of night. Their voices push and pull at each other like an angry dance, something about his lies and the double shift and where was he really? But it’s more and less than that at the same time—the distorted wall-shadow of something else. I fight doin’ it, but still find myself standing tiptoe for a better look on that stack of concrete cylinders brought up from the flats. The chickens are stirring now, I tell them to shut their trap, even the pig’s beginning to growl low and guttural so it vibrates the earth.
He’s got his hand on her neck now, I can see it in that tiny margin, him wide-eyed with passion and her serene and at peace. She’s surrendered to his grip, fallen silent.
“Let it go,” he says. “Just let it go. “ His voice returns to a throaty whisper. “Don’t fuck this up.”
But his hand is still on her neck, and I wonder if I’ll make it to the house to call the police without him hearing the gravel or starting them chickens goin.’ I couldn’t pull him off o’ her anyhow; he’s too big and besides I know what it’s like to have his fist in my gut. I deicide I ain’t got a choice—Ma’s bound to pass out any second—am just about to drop from them concrete cylinders into coarse gravel, when he releases his grip.
And then they come together, like magnets. She’s kissin’ him like I never seen her kiss Pa, and him still shirtless and glistening in the yellow light and suddenly they’re flat on his tiny cot and his pants is down around his ankles. The cot’s moaning and that pig won’t shut his trap and the chickens run back and forth and that bird is going to die. There’s no doubt about it.
It’s goin’ to die.
Ain’t barely crack o’ dawn when that front door flies open again. It’s Ma’s friend Sally. I can hear Ma whisper to her come in, in her groggy mornin’ voice, and the smell o’ coffee fills the house, but not before Sally slams a stack o’ papers on the kitchen table and whispers real loud like these walls ain’t paper-thin:
“That kid’s got a record, you know…”
“Yes, I’m well aware. Is that what you come all the way over here for?”
“He’s done his time. It’s between him an’ the Lord now…”
There’s a long silence and lyin’ there on my bed I can only picture the way Sally’s lookin’ at Ma, ‘cause the next thing she says is:
“What he tell you? Let me guess—jaywalking?”
I’m tiptoeing down the hall now.
“Misdemeanors. Nuthin’ but misdemeanors,” Ma assures her.
“Actually, he was never convicted of anything. Got ‘time served’ ‘cause he couldn’t post bail and sat in there until his trial. And then that jury just let him off…”
I slide down the papered wall in the dark, cool hall, just behind the kitchen nook where I hear Sally push them papers in front of Ma.
“My Pop got a hold o’ this. Took ‘im five minutes online.” And now she’s reading aloud from the printout: “September seventh, 2011. Maywood Illinois. Jacob Smith was released from Maywood Penitentiary Monday after a verdict of ‘not guilty’ on charges of arson and manslaughter. Back in May, the D.A.’s office dropped the charges from double murder to manslaughter due to lack of sufficient evidence. Smith was tried as an adult, despite being sixteen at the time the Smith home mysteriously caught fire. Arson investigators determined the cause of the fire to be arson and Jacob was arrested soon thereafter.”
I hear the pages shuffle, and Sally’s skipped ahead. “In addition to a lack of physical evidence jurors sympathized with Smith after allegations of molestation and abuse came out during testimony. In the end, though Smith confessed to starting the fire in the family home, prosecutors fell short of proving it was anything but accidental. ‘The occurrence was tragic at best,’ psychologist and expert witness Dr. Frank Weston is quoted as saying on the stand, ‘And subconscious wish-fulfillment at worst.’”
“Wish fulfillment?” Ma’s outraged.
“Article says it was a freak accident. Put some stain-soaked rags in a box when he was done workin’ in the garage. Spontaneous combustion. We’ve all heard about it, we’ve all read the label but what are the chances? Apparently you gotta lay them out in the open air, plenty of ventilation, or if you put ‘em in a box it’s gotta be airtight. It was the combination of bein’ in a box with ventilation.”
I come up from the floor like a dust devil. Somethin’ in my body just puts me on my feet and I’m running down that cramped hall, right past Ma and Sally, flying out the sliding door and across all that gravel and them thistles. I run right past that rusted shed with its crooked yellow blinds like crooked yellow teeth without lookin’ back and Ma’s callin’ after me but soon the whole world disappears. The petty church folks and their gossip, and Ma’s new friend who’s really a ghost from the past and she ain’t no different than them and I don’t like her no more.
The heat rises in waves off them salt crystals that repeat as far as the eye can see. The sun’s barely up and already they’re shimmering, blinding, obscuring the horizon so it just plain dissolves into sky. It’s as fuzzy as everything else is right now, but there’s a comfort in looking out over the haze—always has been. Part o’ me, like Ma, don’t wanna know what’s out there—is fine with the ambiguity. I picture the lake when it was full, reflecting a blue sky, the same dusty blue in Ma’s eyes. Doin’ it slows down all them thoughts churnin’ ‘round like a dust devil—all them things I seen I wish I could unsee, all them things I suddenly know I wish I could unknow—things I musta known all along if I know ‘em now, but was able to keep at bay. I can’t help but think Ma’s got her own form o’ wish fulfillment, God puttin’ things in her heart, things the elders can’t. I can’t help but think that his wish fulfillment and her wish fulfillment come together and put Pa in the ground somewhere, under a concrete slab. I know it ain’t true, but that’s what knowin’ a thing does to a mind. Nothin’ is off-limits.
Just then there’s a hand on my shoulder. It’s Sally. I realize I’m way out on the flats—a good five hundred yards into the blinding white.
“I thought you were asleep,” Sally admits. Her voice is soft. Not a forced whisper anymore, but a caring one, like when she was stroking Ma’s hair. “I’m sorry. I know you like him.”
A quiet breeze moves between us, stirring bits of sand.
“And you can go on liking him. Yer Ma’s right—it’s between him an’ the Lord. If it helps, no one ever gets away with anything. May think they do, but always someone who pays. My own Pop says his Pop, God love ‘im, drank and smoked ‘till his dyin’ day at the ripe old age of ninety-three. Lungs as healthy as a horse, liver just as healthy.”
Sally’s looking out into the void, eyes scrunched, like she’s trying to separate the earth from sky. “But it was the kids who paid. Every day. It’s his own kids he sacrificed for the bottle. Probably why Pop went into law-enforcement. He’s tryin’ to fix this world just like everyone else.”
Just then her eyes soften, give up tryin’ to discern heaven from earth. She gets real abstract. “I used to think we were born with a sense of right and wrong. Been down below for twenty years now, and see things for what they are. Including this dusty little town. I know now God is learned.”
I don’t know what she means, but her hand on my shoulder is nice and I like her again. I wish she would come around more often.
“You ever make it outta here,” she says with a smile, “ever make it down below, you look me up, okay?”
That night I wake up straight out of a sound sleep. I’m already sittin’ upright when I realize I’m awake. My mind’s been replaying an image over and over again—not a dream so much as idle reverie, all dark and cigarette-burned on the edges: Rachel’s flingin’ his hand from her shoulder. Only it’s a bear claw, talons spread.
My body stands, some invisible string compelling it down the hall like a marionette. My arms reach out in the dim light and slide the lid aside. I’m going to set ‘im free. It ain’t fair. But when I look inside that tank, a microcosm of the desert all around us, I can’t bring myself to do it. Can’t tear them away from each other. Even if they ain’t friendly by choice, didn’t choose to be thrown together, they’re—familiar. That rat’s all nuzzled up in Luke’s coils, sleepin’ peacefully.
Hard to tell how much time has passed—could be five minutes or five hours—when the ear-splitting blip of a siren and the flash of red lights wakes me up again. Sun’s just up and that patrol car’s kept its lights off and siren quiet right up until swerving into our gravel drive. Footsteps pass my window, two sets of ‘em, sending gravel flyin.’ Then they’re rapping on the metal door of the shed.
“Come out with your hands up!”
And a second later: “FREEZE!”
And then Ma’s up and yellin’ out the back door and there’s chaos and I hear the words, “Put your hands behind your back.” Cold, harsh click of metal on metal.
“You’re under arrest for the crime of possession and distribution of an illegal substance.”
“We stand judged by the Father alone!” Ma is shouting.
“You have the right to remain silent.”
“We will all stand before the judgment seat of God! Romans 14:10!”
“Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law.”
“Romans 12:19: Leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’
“You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police.”
“Peter 2:4: For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell…”
Ma’s voice trails off.
I feel my own tears come quick from nowhere, unstoppable, like when the humidity come up and there’s a change in the air and it’s time to come in. They won’t stop—like they aim to fill up that dry lake so it reflects sky again, dissolve them crystals and return the blue to Ma’s eyes.
The doors of the patrol vehicle slam shut with finality. It speeds off.
I come out into the hall. Ma’s sliding that back door shut. She’s moving slow like a zombie, sees me but don’t say nothing,’ starts searchin’ around absently for her purse like she’s gonna take off after ‘em and follow ‘em to the police station.
I’m just glad it’s drug charges and not wish fulfillment.
Suddenly, Rachel’s up. She don’t seem to care about the sirens or the lights, instead rushes up to the tiled counter like it’s the most important thing in the world, like she knows it happened.
When she gets there she screams bloody murder, tears shooting straight out o’ her eyes.
“Jacob did it!” She screams between convulsive sobs. “I know it! He left the lid off on purpose!”
I come up next to her at the kitchen counter and Luke’s still in there, coiled up in all them wadded up tissues in that shoebox. His ribcage swells and retracts gently, peacefully despite her screams. And that baby bird’s nowhere to be found.
It’s funny how a thing comes at you—never quite the way you think it’s bound to. Got it all figured out how it’s gonna come down, and then something comes outta nowhere like a storm on the flats, and messes with the plan. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Ma would say.
I know full well it was me left the lid askew. Didn’t mean to, but remember clear as day peekin’ in on that varmint, ready to set ‘im free only hours before.
Rachel’s still sobbing. “He meant to do it. I know it…” she cries lookin’ straight at Ma, angrier than ever she keeps him ‘round. I decide to let ‘im take the fall. How Rachel wants it anyway.
I don’t say nothing, just put a hand on her shoulder as we watch that ribcage rise and fall.
Code of Silence
Dominick R. Domingo
They arrived separately general delivery, addressed to the D.A.’s office in sloppy cursive: first the left foot, then the right. Neatly severed with surgical precision, errant arteries cauterized as if to silence the gruesome tale of being separated from their owner. Shakespeare propped Levinia on a stump in a pungent swamp to bake in the sun, made sure to cut out her tongue so she could spout only blood, not the grim details of her harrowing ordeal.
This is Shakespearean, all right, Detective Frye decides seeing them lying there on the sterile, hospital-white table. Toes can be hairy things, he also decides. But you only notice when the hairs are dark and matted, juxtaposed against the pallor of blood-drained cadaver skin.
When the crumpled note between hairy toes leads his team to the rest of the poor sap, Frye knows it’s the drug cartel. Vinnie’s boys. Honoring tradition, they’ve encased the torso in cement, poured sloppily into a fifty-gallon drum sarcophagus. The head is on a post nearby, guarding the Cannery Row loading dock with vigilant, contusion-smattered eyes. Tufts of hair are matted with clotting crimson.
They don’t scream. That’s the strangest thing Detective Frye noticed the first time he watched a snuff film, one addressed to his office but intended for his eyes alone. In the same way the incisions are clean, methodical, the act is always one of ritual solemnity. A beheading, that is. Usually the poor sap has long since accepted his fate; what is there to scream about? Of course that first one came in pre-talkies, so the grainy 16mm film was extra silent—and anyway what pathetic drug lord had access to clean production sound or for that matter an editor worth his salt to marry it with the footage? Still, the whole silent affair was as surreal as Tinseltown itself—backdrop of crisp, unrelenting California sun, gentle sway of palm trees guarding unspeakable horror, like sentinels. Head rolling like a bowling ball into shitty sun-scorched grass.
If the detective were a film director, he would recognize the perfect irony of juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is everything, Kid, he might say. Well, that and casting. Casting is really everything.
The heels are worn from the outside in, like conch shells battered on an invisible tide. The misshapen result betrays the scuffed leather boots’ bow-legged owner, even when slumped in an adobe corner somewhere. Today they’re grinding cement, displacing tiny grains of sand as he pounds the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in front of the Derby. It’s high noon—the relentless California sun beats down, scorching, penetrates strata of smog like sedimentary layers in an archaeological dig. Local Indians had a name for the gaping stretch, long before Angels came to roost in its bleak but fertile belly: Hazy Valley. Locals use the fact to dispel notions that the brown muck is in fact the amalgamation of car exhaust, incinerators, and factory soot. All that shit settles to the ground. It’s the invisible stuff that kills you.
Jebediah Whitlock—Jeb for short—breaks into a harmonica-like whistle, partly to drown out the discord of Miracle Mile traffic, partly to import a taste of home while he paces. Only been a few hours, the duration of a business class flight from Dallas, but already he sees the fading to memory of saguaros, ocotillo, tough-as-nails ranchers and old-fashioned southern hospitality. The idea of Texas, an abstraction, bleaches with the relentless sun, like silver emulsion from a tintype photograph. He’s glad to leave behind the hand-rolled cigarettes he’d normally smoke to pass the time. Better to whistle.
Twelve noon, Pops said. Jeb has no reason to doubt the man’s word. Town car was there as promised, curbside at the modest Glendale airport where Howard Hughes took off and landed countless times, the chauffer was sure to say. An 85 year-old Negro named Emerson, the driver insisted on calling Wayde ‘Suh,’ despite being sixty years his senior. The man pointed out Tinseltown’s landmarks all the way to the Ambassador Hotel, where a reservation had been made in the young man’s name as promised. Nope. No reason to suspect Pops is anything less than a man of his word.
They met two weeks before, mid-April, at a rodeo in Wichita Falls. No sooner had Jeb dismounted when his handlers were on him like flies on shit, steering him insistently through the stadium’s dark underbelly. Jeb turned back, flashed a winning smile at the fanatical crowd one last time before submitting to their plans for him. He’d grown used to this lack of freedom—the inability to breathe; it came with the big time. The Circuit. And so did the adulation. The proof that his tomfoolery amounted to something, made him more than a fly on shit like Pa said.
Even if Pa didn’t, the rest of the world adored him.
Not to mention the dolls. Even now, he could hear their shrill squeals chasing after him from the stands. He was being steered toward the booking office to meet someone.
“Fella’s been thoroughly vetted,” Jeb’s booker assured him. “Not just one o’ them Hollyweird types—seems like a real solid individual.”
Jeb’s half smile was hopeful but reticent.
The man was portly with silver-temples, corpulent frame stuffed aversely into a savvy double-breasted pinstriped suit. Coulda passed for just another Wichita Falls rancher, the only difference a fedora in place of a ten-gallon ridge top. When the two were seated alone in the booking office, Jeb’s handlers out of their hair, the man leaned in close.
“I can get you in pictures.”
The silence of whooping and hollering from the stands.
“Assuming that’s something that appeals to you.”
Jeb’s smile gave him away involuntarily.
“Don’t know as I can act my way out of a paper bag,” the fresh faced nineteen year-old admitted, blushing.
“No matter.” The man shifted his mass, wrangling enthusiasm with keen eyes. “All you got to do is ride a horse, fire a pistol, and flash that million-dollar smile. You’ll have ‘em swoonin’ from the City of Angels to the Big Apple. We’ll make you the next Rudolph Valentino.”
“Hmmm…I dunno,” the boy hesitated. “Seems to me in talkies a fella’s got to have a special talent nowadays—theater training or somethin’…”
“We’ll getcha in workshops with Hollywood’s finest, Kid. This is what I do. I’ve taken more than a few desert diamonds and shined ‘em up real nice. Ever heard of Artie Acord? Buck Jones? Them’s my boys.”
All at once Jeb’s eyes were full of desert diamonds—not dusty, cinder-encrusted things, but perfectly cut gems polished with dazzle.
“Thing is,” the man went on, “Them boys can ride, no doubt, shoot a gun. But they ain’t got your dimples. Or your swagger. Swag ain’t somethin’ a man can buy…”
“That makes you a talent agent, then?” Diamond eyes girding, not with skepticism so much as a measured scrutiny. Best not to come off too eager.
“Agent—manager—sponsor,” the man scoffed. “Not too big on titles myself.” So came the answer, or the non-answer, depending how you looked at it.
“What matters is alchemy,” he qualified after a beat. “Having the Midas touch. And that’s what I got.”
Here the man reached out a beefy, thick-palmed hand. “The others call me Pops. Pops Devereaux.”
Jeb shook the man’s pudgy hand, hoping his own mild perspiration would not offend.
Then the battlements girded even more, against the feeling of being dime-a-dozen. “The others? ”
“Protégés,” Mr. Devereaux explained. “You’d room with a handful of borders while we get you in them classes and start lining up screen tests. Aspiring actors, real promising. Room and board’ll come outta your first motion picture contract. A drop in a bucket. Beauty is, apartment’s a stone’s throw from the Paramount lot. And them other boys—they’re at the top o’ their game. You’ll learn from one another. Son, one o’ the keys to success—and I seen my share—is knowin’ a good thing when it ambles into yer path. If I were you, I’d consider myself the luckiest cowboy at the rodeo right about now.”
Jeb looked to his unevenly worn boots, like conch shells battered in an invisible tide. They’d been skimmin’ him anyway.
“I sure as shit wouldn’t mind getting’ outta Dodge…”
By the time his handlers came knocking on the locked door of the booking office, Jeb had taken to calling the man ‘Pops.’ He’d even adopted a screen moniker for himself, one worthy of a matinee idol: Wayde Archer.
He thinks he sees Pops materialize in the gray haze, half a block down Wilshire. He kicks a pebble, whistles nonchalantly to look less eager.
He jumped on that plane without a word to Pa—or his handlers for that matter. Their contract was verbal anyway. And they’d been skimming. He was no fool.
“Welcome to the City of Angels,” Pops enthuses, taking the boy by the shoulder and leading him into the enormous hat that could have existed nowhere else in the world.
The meeting at the Brown Derby is a formality—a chance to skirt around specifics before Devereaux gets the kid settled into that bungalow-style cottage in Beachwood Canyon. Other than sparse details like the address of the defunct silent picture house-turned theater on Hollywood Boulevard that hosts the acting workshops Wayde’s already enrolled in, the ‘meeting’ consists mainly of name-dropping, promises, and the hushed recognition of eccentric patrons who come and go behind dark sunglasses. One of them puffs on an obscenely long cigarette holder as the aging doorman drapes a heavy fur coat across her slender porcelain shoulders.
“Norma Talmadge,” Pops informs Wayde in hushed tones. “Now as she’s washed up, she comes here to lay low. Weekends, this joint is the bees knees, but at this hour she can mingle with the hoi polloi.”
Bee’s knees. Hoi Polloi. Wayde rolls them over silently, for size. Vaguely he wonders what happened to the folksy manner Pops used at the rodeo—the colloquialisms, the twang. He imagines the man keeps several personas handy, plucks out just the right one for every occasion. He can’t help to wonder how the two of them look to the other patrons, Pops a grizzly bear to his own wiry frame, silver hair shellacked with butcher’s wax like a politician’s. His own dishwater blonde lochs hang in a tousled mop over one eye or the other at all times. When not smashed down by a Mountie or a ridgetop, they form a loose pompadour. The eyes they conceal are squinty and doe-like all at once, bordered by thick, swarthy brows. Inviting and off-putting, he’s been told. It’s the dimples that make up for the latter, the fairness of youth casting all with an aura of good intention, an invitation to bask in innocence should it rub off somehow.
“Mr. Devereaux,” a piercing voice interrupts Pops’s play-by-play.
A woman, maybe forty, has rounded the arched backrest of the booth that cradles the two in secrecy. She stands over them, brandishing a smile that is really more of a smirk. A ginger pageboy is chopped severely at the jaw, cornice box bangs too short to do anything but jut forward in defiance of gravity. Her coral lipstick is complemented by a small beauty mark, fabricated expertly in eyebrow pencil.
“Evelyn. Wonderful to see you.” Pops obliges. A kiss on a satin-gloved hand.
“Your nephew?” The woman presumes without missing a beat.
“This here is Wayde Archer,” the man corrects her, boastfulness retiring the confiding tone of his former personality. “A fresh new talent you will no doubt be seeing plenty of on the silver screen!”
Wayde gives the gloved hand a hearty Texas handshake.
“Evelyn Hood,” Pops introduces the woman. “Evelyn writes for the…Tinseltown Courier is it? The La-La-Land Tribune?”
“The Hollywood Confidential,” she corrects him, affecting an air of respectability.
Pops grunts his disdain. “How is the rag biz, anyway?”
“Not going anywhere,” she assures him. “And now I must run. A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Archer.”
When she’s gone, Pops looks around, making sure the coast is clear. “Gossip. She writes gossip. Dames like her are sharks. She comes here to rub elbows—be seen. What she don’t know is…she’s rubbin up on B-listers.”
Wayde nods, a signal to Devereaux he’s taken a mental note.
“Still,” Pops qualifies, “Her words can make or break a career—it’s an essential relationship.”
Essential relationship. Wayde nods again, more emphatically than before.
Here the man leans in close as if to impart some sort of numinous wisdom: “In this town, you just gotta dive in and swim with sharks. All there is to it.”
Long after Evelyn Hood has gone, Wayde struggles to put a finger on the look in her eye: slightly dazed, perhaps even in shock, but not vacuous. There’s more in there. It’s a look he’s never seen in the Lone Star state.
The chipboard partition is never enough. He can read voices like fingerprints. Long before learning to assemble disjointed features—an eye, a nose, a particular mouth—into any form of facial recognition, we rely on voices. From the womb, a mother’s voice imprints on the soul—its velvety tones, its texture, its rhythm and cadence and lilting infliction. Voices are the true fingerprints, Monsignor Palumbo knows.
Even so, he keeps his eyes averted, fixed on the dingy floor of the confessional, where a crumpled bill huddles in a corner, having plunged from the wicker collection basket. His own profile is sliced into fragments by gothic ornament—the blades of warmth meant to mimic candle light that penetrate the negative spaces in particleboard.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” comes the voice, anything but lilting. It’s abrasive, like Italian sandpaper.
Palumbo hopes his heavy sigh is inaudible. Crappiest part of the job, knowing what people are capable of—what small, pathetic lives they lead and how their pettiness can get them in over their heads. Suddenly it’s just them and the man upstairs, and the stakes are high. There was a time, soon after being placed at the small chapel on the border of Edendale, when he could not look at a pedestrian without imagining their various offenses. Couldn’t look the grocer in his cataract-shrouded eyes while paying for an apple without seeing deadly sin. The crossing guard at Alvarado was likely guilty of larceny, the librarian: cold-blooded murder.
He’s since learned not to let his mind wander, to instead use the knowledge that humans are rotten to the core to try to redeem them. The day he resolved to do exactly that, he announced it to the deacon.
“Congratulations,” came the superior’s reply, “You’ve just recited the job description.”
The fallibility had been theoretical, though, until Palumbo saw it—or more accurately, heard it—for himself through flimsy chipboard. They were rotten.
“I’ve done it again,” comes the gravelly Chicago whisper.
Lord give me the strength not to judge. Monsignor Palumbo crosses himself for the tenth time in a single morning.
“I’ve committed murder,” comes the bookend of the confession.
Suppressed sigh notwithstanding, Palumbo does not bat an eye. It’s a weekly thing. The moderate Catholic church’s congregation was primarily latino when he started twelve years previous—third and fourth generation families descended from local rancheros. So the occasional gang hit made its way into the confessional. But over time, the church’s Hispanic population has become rivaled by Italian Catholics like himself, transplants from Chicago or the east coast. He’s seen the shift from that modest, dingy cube—the inextricable linking of mob ties with the film biz, its labor unions and money people.
Murder confessions are one a week lately.
“Did you hear me?” The voice whispers. “I said murder…”
Palumbo could just tell the man with the throaty voice to say five Hail Marys and go on with his day. But he knows in addition to the benefits of shock value and the opportunity to brag, it’s the narrative itself, the divulging of gruesome particulars, that amounts to unburdening.
“So there I am, toolin’ down the highway, makin’ my way back from the border at T.J., when I sees ‘im in my rear-view mirror. Smokey’s tailin’ me…”
Palumbo wonders if God frowns on eye rolling.
The man goes on. “Like a good citizen, I pull over, of course. Middle o’ nowhere. Never mind I got the goods right there in the trunk; I do what’s right. Smokey approaches my passenger side window, asks for my pink slip and registration. That’s when things go awry, see…”
The man’s folding aluminum chair creaks.
“Truth is, I’m doin’ just like he told me, reachin’ for the friggin’ glove compartment but Smokey thinks I got a concealed weapon or some shit. So he draws. Real fast like.
“’Fore I know it, he’s lyin’ there in a pool of his own blood. All went down real fast, see?”
The metal creaks again. Children’s voices leak out of the main sanctuary, strangely jubilant, discordant, blissfully ignorant.
“You ever seen blood pooling in the Mojave sand?”
Palumbo says nothing. It’s rhetorical. And somehow poetic. Illiterate and poetic.
The man waxes on about the dragging of a body under the sweltering Mojave sun, how stark and desolate the stretch can be this time of year, the feverish digging of a shallow roadside grave. Not much different than the man’s previous adventures, each an episode set somewhere en route from that incognito tunnel where it comes up just past the street urchins and the culture shock and the overnight boom of clubs thanks to foreign investors. Last installment it was the offing of a rival runner. All in all, the season does seem to have an arc; if Palumbo has it right, this is sweeps week.
The man does his penance, ducks out of the booth with sheepish machismo. Palumbo’s about to do the same. Despite the morning’s familiar ring, it takes a swift turn for the novel and unprecedented. Moments after the newly unburdened voice exits the confessional, Palumbo stoops to retrieve the errant, crumpled bill and he hears it: the clatter of patent leather shoes. He exits the booth warily, wicker collection basket in hand.
“Monsignor Palumbo,” a respectable voice echoes across the lobby.
Two law enforcement agents have come in from Hollywood Boulevard, stand silhouetted against the bleached out square of whooshing traffic. The backlighting carves out stern jowls, stubborn brows, the look of steely confidence only the law’s authority can buy.
“May we speak with you?” The more imposing of the two commands more than requests. They’re already advancing across polished tile, fedoras in hand.
Palumbo shuffles forward wordlessly, meets them halfway. The acolytes have gone home for the day; the few straggling parishioners who remain have retreated to the courtyard. It’s just the three men and the traffic.
“Detective Martin Frye,” the taller man introduces himself. Pewter eyes decompress under heavy, pinched brows.
“How do you do?” the priest obliges, extending a hand.
Frye’s grip is as impressive as his chiseled-granite jaw, its angular relationship with pronounced cheekbones. Palumbo is doughy by comparison, though younger by a decade at least. Frye’s power is not boisterous or loud; his calm, steady manner is the product of all he’s seen.
The men are the same in that respect.
“This here is Detective Aller,” Frye offers, motioning to his comrade.
The D.A. eyes the passing traffic, then the courtyard, where a child’s voice continues to bounce playfully, innocently, off quarried limestone. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”
The priest leads the two to his tiny, cluttered office behind the pulpit. It seems to be an extension of the wall, tucked somehow behind the gargantuan monolith of a pipe organ. Palumbo sets the wicker basket on a stack of papers and seats himself behind the clutter. He motions for his visitors to have a seat themselves, but there is only one folding chair opposing the makeshift desk. It’s awkward.
“We won’t take much of your time,” Frye assures the priest, foregoing the chair.
“Detective Aller and I were just wondering if you’d caught wind of any shady goings down of late.”
Palumbo tries not to look as perplexed as he feels. Tries to keep his heart from beating out of his chest.
After a moment: “Gentlemen,” here drawing on all his faculties, “I’ve taken a vow. Surely you’re aware of the Sacramental Seal. God takes it quite seriously.”
It’s a good move invoking the name of the almighty. It’s not Palumbo himself being uncooperative; it’s a higher authority.
“This one’s pretty serious,” the D.A. asserts.
Palumbo waits. The two men lock eyes. For a flash, Palumbo identifies with Frye’s haunted look, though he doesn’t know why.
Frye gives in and plants himself on the chair. “You ever seen the look on a dead man’s face after he’s choked to death on his own blood? Seen the stupid smile says he enjoyed it?”
The priest doesn’t blink. But suddenly he’s glad it’s only testimony that comes his way. Nothing to unsee.
“Picture’s worth a thousand words they say,” Frye goes on. “I’ve found it to be true. Nothin’ like comin’ across a crime scene and having to put all the pieces together. Like how a tooth ends up across a room, 100 yards from its owner. Nothin’ like having to imagine the blow responsible for that. This particular sap had it pretty bad.”
Palumbo folds his hands, waits.
“This one’s just the latest in a string. A campaign, if you will. But the lid’s bound to blow. Details are just too grim. Well known actor, unpaid drug debt.”
Palumbo’s often thought money to be the root of all evil. Sure, it’s made the world go ‘round for ages—folks justify a hell of a lot of shady employment to put roofs over heads and food on the table—but traditionally the goods they bartered were essential. Practical. Now, in this town anyway, the intersection of the almighty dollar with pure entertainment—not artistic integrity or literary value but titillation, has opened the floodgates to greed. To the casting couch and unscrupulous starlets with their legs in the air and labor unions run by mafiosos.
The doughy priest knows they’re trying to bait him. To prick his own ear for gossip. Still, he’s got to ask.
“You said it’s bound to blow. Has something leaked?”
‘Always does,” comes Frye’s answer. His granite brows compress like tectonic plates, crushing his pewter eyes into diamonds. “But this one’s too scandalous. Even the gossip columnists are holding their shit out of decency. For now. Self-regulating—imagine that! It’s an amazing thing, Hollywood’s code of silence,” he reflects, suddenly pensive. “As if celebrities had any honor to protect…”
And then, after standing but before leaving: “If you change your mind about that oath…”
Here he eyes the wicker collection basket on the cluttered desk.
“—you know where to find us. Could be worth your while.”
For the next few weeks, Palumbo checks the confessional for wires on entry. Eventually, he forgets.
The cottage is on stilts. Despite being as new as most of Hollywood Hills’ tracts, it looks rickety, precarious. It’s shrouded in succulents, enshrined by impossibly slender date palms, pitched about its foundation as if poised to catch the red-tiled cube should it decide to plunge from its perch. Wayde’s never seen a palm tree; they look alien somehow, as if spawned from nanospores imbedded in some meteorite fallen from space. They dot the volatile undulations of the Hollywood Hills sporadically, reduced to towering silhouettes by the colorless haze. He’s gazing at one, climbing its snakelike trunk with his eyes as it dissipates into the stratosphere, when Pops breaks the trance.
“You’ll like these boys.”
He throws open the front door without knocking, arms loaded down with burlap grocery bags: tuna, saltines, homogenized milk. Most produce is delivered to the stoop these days, but the delivery trucks don’t quite make it up into the new hilly neighborhoods.
They’re home—all three of Pops’s protégés. He introduces them as ‘borders’ once he’s set the groceries on flecked marble Formica. There’s Clifford Montgomery, who’s not an actor as it turns out, but an aspiring writer. Wants to get into screenwriting, but looks like a poet. That’s Wayde’s take anyway, judging from the ironic seersucker suit, horn-rimmed glasses and unruly beatnick ‘do that would get a fella’s ass kicked in Texas.
Then there’s Laurence Skye, who looks to be more interested in swashbuckling than reading or writing books. The kid looks like he’s still in costume after rehearsal—some Shakespeare play in which he plays a grape-fed lothario. A pencil-thin moustache hints at some kind of sexual proclivity. He’s jovial and friendly—not in a Texas way, but friendly enough, drawing Wayde in to a bear hug on first meeting.
Finally, there’s Big Joe. Shorter than the others, but stocky. Sicilian, most likely. He’s shirtless, says he’s been sunning himself on the deck, but somehow Wayde suspects the kid rarely comes in contact with a T-shirt around the house. The moment the groceries land on the counter he’s popped the lid of the glass quart bottle, is chugging milk voraciously like he’s just crawled across the Sahara.
“Nice te meet ya, kid.” Big Joe bumps Wayde on the shoulder, a friendly enough gesture. If Wayde had to place it, he’d say Brooklyn. One thing he’s learned during his few hours in L.A.: everyone’s from somewhere else.
The next week is surreal.
Later it will be one big blur, getting settled in to a town that doesn’t avail itself. So geographically spread out, for one. Streets all windy and steep—never on a grid like a normal city. Taxis don’t exactly venture up into the hills, and sharing one jalopy between three fellas is tricky at best. Wayde tries to focus on the positive—all those young starlets in workshop, their eagerness. He can’t decide which he prefers—the blondes with their clam diggers and fitted angora sweaters or the brunettes with their costume jewelry and even tighter satin pedal pushers. He doesn’t have to decide now, he decides. They rehearse in that defunct silent picture house whose marquis now reads: WEST COAST DRAM TIC ACAD MY. The exercises are fun but silly, most designed not to engender technique but to make an impression at auditions. He’s learned to stress syllables in a novel way, the way least expected. Never mind that no one talks that way. It makes an indelible impression. Makes you stand out from the crowd.
He’s headed home from workshop, top down. It’s spring; he can’t help but notice the bougainvillea that spill over cinder block walls, unable to resist the hustle and bustle of Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not just the palm trees that are imported; it’s the Chinese pear trees and the jacaranda and the cherry blossoms. Before Mulholland, before the orange groves and their stolen nourishment, the L.A. basin was a step above desert. It occurs to Wayde that just like every last aspiring actor and screenwriter pounding the boulevard, even the vegetation comes from elsewhere.
Wayde turns into Beachwood Canyon just as the sun dips behind the Santa Monica Mountains to the west. As he pulls into the cottage’s drive, the only evidence of it is the red-violet ambience that washes a cloudless twilight with flickering, the single patch of alpine glow that sets the palm trees aflame high above the cottage’s deck. Big Joe’s splayed under the purple blanket, spread eagle on a plastic lawn chair. He’s buck-naked.
“Ain’t a drop o’ sun left, cowboy,” Wayde advises him en route from the carport.
“Thanks for the tip.” Joe’s voice is groggy, a clear sign he’s been snoozing all afternoon.
He points lazily to a wooden ice chest edged up against the stucco wall. “Picked up some suds. Have at it.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Wayde pops the serrated cap from his bootleg relief and plants himself in a lawn chair.
“How was class?” Big Joe prompts.
“Pukemake.” And then, after some consideration. “Some fine dolls, though. Tell ya that much.”
“No doubt.” Big Joe’s aced Cold Reading 101 and moved on to Improvisation. He squints from beneath a burly arm, face down, as though the purple twilight is putting a damper on his siesta. “Still, you seen one platinum blonde dish, you seen ‘em all.”
“Guess I haven’t had my fill as yet,” Wayde confesses. “But I feel ya. Somethin’ generic about this town. Like the only crop it yields is fake cowboys and bimbos.”
“See what I’m up against?” Joe laments.
“What you mean?”
“Story o’ my life. Don’t fit no mold. Ethnically ‘fluid,’ my SAG card reads. Them casting agents don’t know what to make of me. We tried the whole Latin lover angle—seems Valentino and Navarro got the last helping there. They send me out to play gringo and I’m too ‘swarthy.’ Send me out to play a caballero and I’m too gringo. Think I’m Italian or some shit.”
Wayde laughs heartily, despite himself. “Truth be told, that’s what I took ye for,” he confesses. “Figured you was from Brooklyn or some place.”
“You kiddin’ me? I’m from right here. Yours truly is one of a dyin’ breed they call natives.”
“You ain’t joshin’? I though everyone here was from someplace else.”
“Third generation ranchero. On my Papi’s side, anyway. My great-grandmother was full-blooded Hahamog'na. From the Arroyo. Right over that ridge there.”
Big Joe makes an ambiguous gesture with his beer. “Her name was Little Dove.”
“You don’t say. Why don’t you go out for Injun roles?”
“There ain’t any. Those roles go to white men in redface.”
The two laugh.
“Anyway, my people are the true natives. Before anyone else. ‘Course, no one owns the land. No one can. They call this place the City of Angels. Well, my people were here before the angels, that much is sure.”
“You don’t say?” Wayde’s gaze pans to the palm-fringed silhouettes of the Hollywood hills being slowly ingested by a deepening twilight. The distant-most ridges are obsidian black.
“Time was, we were the only ones here. Scattered all over the Verdugo mountains. Some say this very tract of houses sits on an ancient burial ground.”
“Now you’re tellin’ ghost stories.” Wayde dismisses the idea.
He tears his gaze from the point where black hills dissolve into sky. Big Joe’s stretching, tensing every muscle, as if he intends to do something other than lie there sunbathing under a nonexistent sun.
“So is Big Joe your Indian name then?”
It’s at that precise moment Big Joe rolls over on the plastic lawn chair, from belly to, well—goods on display.
No further explanation is needed. Wayde allows his eyes to drift back to the hills, to abstraction. But instead of settling on obsidian black palm tree silhouettes or mountains he now imagines spangled with wigwams and sweat lodges, they fix on the concrete drive. In the last wash of purple twilight, he sees it: the microscopic fissure running along the foundation’s base, from entryway to deck. The cottage is new; the entire tract is. And already the foundation’s cracked. Wayde’s read about the earthquakes and wildfires and mudslides that are L.A.’s tradeoff for perfect weather. Suddenly the red-tiled cube seems even more precarious than before. If its spindly stilts are not swept away like toothpicks in the next landslide, its foundation is sure to split like the Titanic come earthquake season.
It occurs to Wayde like a flash flood: as hard as Mr. Deveraux and Evelyn Hood and all those blonde starlets are trying to propagate themselves into history, the land itself is trying just as hard to evict them.
A perfectly round wall clock ticks off seconds, excruciatingly. The clip-clop of unevenly worn shitkickers sidles off faux marble as Wayde Archer paces a generic, forgettable corridor. The exterior façade of Superior Casting is equally nondescript—that eclectic but bland fusion of Art Deco and Spanish style architecture that has descended on the L.A. basin along with the alien palm trees.
Pukemake, Wayde decides.
He clutches rolled up sides in a sweaty palm, muttering contrived dialogue under his breath as he paces. He’s the only one pacing; the other strapping cowboys are scattered the length of the hall, lounging, leaning nonchalantly, otherwise affecting that air of stoicism that comes only from hours of contemplation under a big sky while watching cattle graze. Despite their silent nods, the mimed hocking of imaginary snuff, they’re all posers. Every last one.
“That’s your edge, kid,” Pops assured him before calling in the audition. “Authenticity.” He didn’t need to do a damn thing. Oh, the two practiced the strategic clutching of his hat on entry, designed to tease with a glimpse of the goods, then the smashing down of those golden locks, the flick of a sculpted rim, the perfectly timed wink. Before introducing his find to the casting agents themselves—best to be over-ready for such a juncture—Pops thought it best to send the kid out on a few open calls to put his workshop skills to test. This one, for a Western, of course, was posted in the Insider’s Casting Logue.
Wayde trusts Pops’s assessment he’s the real deal. “You can’t buy genuine, kid.” But what if it’s more of an edge they’re looking for? Every last one of them posers sports a strategic five o’clock shadow pronouncing a chiseled jaw. What if boyish is not their angle? The character description in the post said nothing of dimples or irresistible charisma. The speculation could drive a person crazy. Not to mention that despite the gamut of questionable authenticity, the cowboy lineup amounts to variations on a theme, a mind-fuck in itself. Wayde’s convinced he’s perusing a herd of clones, each with some minor variation due to genetic engineering.
A hollow, paneled door flies open and a brassy casting assistant pops her head into the hall, as if from a cuckoo clock. She clutches a clipboard.
“Wayde Archer?” She calls between smacks of chewing gum.
“Ma’am,” Wayde replies with a nod from halfway down the corridor.
The redhead with the coral lips looks from her clipboard back to him. “Well c’mon, cowboy! You waitin’ for an engraved invitation?”
Inside the stuffy conference room, a portly middle aged man from the same mold as Devereaux sits hands clasped behind a folding conference table. It looks temporary. Everything in the room looks temporary, as though it could be easily dismantled in case of a flood. A single calendar hangs askew on the dingy, colorless wall, dangling precariously from a strip of clear cellophane tape. Otherwise, décor is nonexistent.
Wayde inches into the room, suddenly aware his boots have worn unevenly, that they’re conch shells counterproductive to the act of walking. He feels his fists clutching the molded leather of his hat for security. Somehow he can’t tear his gaze from the calendar, from the pathetic length of threadbare tape. He’s terrified the calendar will fall, pictures it fluttering to the tiled floor. It’s all he can think about. The wall clock in the corridor can be heard penetrating thin plaster, counting down muffled seconds until the inevitable flood.
“Have a seat,” the man motions, politely enough. Pops knows the man, warned Wayde in advance he always chats up talent before getting down to business. But somehow the prospect is more daunting than any brahma on the rodeo circuit. Suddenly the man’s gray sideburns are unruly horns, his gullet a swinging dewlap. Wayde half expects the man to expel dust from his flared nostrils.
Stick to the plan, Wayde reminds himself. He winks, but it’s more of a tick or a spasm. He plops the hat on his profusely sweating crown as he sits, but it’s askew. He tugs it into place, flicks the rim awkwardly as though shooing a fly. The timing’s all off. Not at all what they’ve rehearsed.
“Hold up, partner,” the man insists before Wayde’s settled his full weight into the flimsy plastic chair.
Wayde stands back up, halfway.
Here, the casting agent leans forward in his own assemblage of plastic and aluminum. It groans in protest under his considerable weight. He’s reaching out, guiding Wayde’s hand up and away, hat with it, as though captivated by some vision involving parting clouds and god beams and fluttering cherubs. His other hand extends, entranced, tousles the mop of golden hair so it hangs over one eye.
“Now we’re talkin,” his hearty baritone snorts approval.
In another fluid motion he’s unfastened the top two buttons of the boy’s plaid flannel shirt, exposing the cleft between pectorals, like neighboring alfalfa fields. But instead of yielding hay, they’re bare and windswept as the Great Plains after the dust bowl. Further south, the enormous gold belt buckle Devereaux approved flashes gray window light, pronouncing the prowess of slender hips.
“Where’d you come from, boy?” The man marvels.
Wayde seats himself tentatively, relaxing into the cold plastic only once the nod of approval comes.
“The Gold Star State, sir. Dallas originally. Pops discovered me at a rodeo in Witchita Falls, though.”
“Devereaux’s got a keen eye,” the man summarizes. “Name’s Ant, by the way. Antony DeStefano. This here is my lovely casting assistant, Norma. She doubles as my reader. Lucky you, huh?”
Wayde shakes the man’s hand, and that of his leading lady for the next twenty minutes. DeStefano turns to Norma playfully.
“Who does this kid remind you of?” It’s a leading question, a practiced one.
The girl, all of twenty-one, smacks her gum, eyes vacuous. “Hmmmmm…”
Even if she’s remotely impressed, her brand of withholding is of the schoolyard ilk.
“Aha!” the man belts out suddenly. “It’s a young Buck Jones! That’s it!”
Norma nods emphatically, scrawls a note on her clipboard.
Wayde’s tempted to try his hand at namedropping. Might lend him credibility to be represented by the agent who discovered Buck Jones, the hottest matinee idol of the moment. Or the manager, or the sponsor, or whatever Devereaux was.
“Ahhh, nostalgia,” DeStefano’s grunts before Wayde can say a word. “I’ll never forget the day I first seen that boy wrangle a steer. Witchita no less, come to think of it! Says to him then and there I says ‘mark my words. You’re gonna be a star.’ Told him to give up the rodeo circuit. ‘Go for the big time,’ I tol’ him. ‘You got what it takes, Bucky. Not just the look, nor the talent—cause you sure as shit got both—but that indefinable ingredient that can’t be bottled or we’d all be rich! That elusive, soul-level form of divinity they call star quality.’ Week later I got Bucky in workshops out here, an’ a week after that the kid’s landed his first feature: Western Blood—the vehicle that made him a star. Long after the man’s turned to dust, or returned to the stars, wherever it is we all go, along with every last one o’ them teenage girls whose loins he awakened, his name will be in lights, even brighter than them stars.”
Somehow Wayde knows it’s Buck who wrangled the talent agent, not the other way around; it’s Ant DeStefano he pictures hogtied in the center of a dusty ring. Still the story, true or not, demands some kind of reaction. Wayde summons a look he’s perfected in workshop—that of being impressed. It’s all in the eyebrows. Inside, he bites his tongue so hard it nearly bleeds.
Frye squints, assimilating the chaotic shards of flickering light that give form to shapeless dark. He’s read about the persistence of vision, how the brain’s ability to retain a single frame of celluloid long enough to relate it to the next that whooshes by is the sole lightening strike behind motion pictures. Behind the entire industry that feeds this town and makes it go. It’s all a fluke. A lightening strike.
He expels a drag, watches tendrils of smoke curl in space, obscuring the shaky production values of the second snuff film he’s watched in as many days. Emulsion grainy as always, cuts heavy-handed and thick-glued, making them jump as if trying to escape the projector. To evade the horror they are destined to bespeak. One day he half expects a Vitaphone soundtrack, the jarring snap of a production slate. For now, the most highbrow cinematic innovation remains an overzealous cameraman who pans across sun-scorched crabgrass, following a messy trail of what could be maple syrup. The tripod-mounted camera at last finds, rests on its reluctant subject. The man’s slumped over a shoddy block wall overgrown with lichen and witch’s hair. An invisible pillory prevents his hands from moving, from cradling an already scalpless cranium that flashes stark white in the afternoon sun. His off-camera assassin parades the pelt irreverently on a sharply pointed stick. Blood streams from the open wound of skull, darting eyes flash equally blanched, Lucid with panic but resigned all at once.
This time it’s a machete. Fast and brutal. No sawing—just one fell swoop. The camera pans shakily, follows the tumbling sphere until it rests among the litter that’s blown up and collected at the wall’s base. In the final few frames, Frye catches something. He rewinds and replays.
It’s a tiny patch of graffito that’s caught his eye, scrawled on the haphazard arrangement of quarried stones that form the wall.
“The Arroyo,” he mumbles, recognizing the Mayan lettering.
He’d know it like the back of his hand.
When his men arrive the scalp is still there, baking in the sun. It’s been flung in the yellow grass like half-eaten pizza, but grown leathery and tough over three days’ time like dried jerky. The Arroyo echoes a hollow chorus of frogs and cicadas, their collective tune a show of solidarity. Whatever it is the residents of the shady glen have witnessed, they will never tell. It’s Frye himself who follows the dank deposits of alizarin along the base of the wall, where it meets unruly grass. It’s Frye who finds the first errant tooth, and the second, pulpy roots still attached. It’s he who finds it staring up at a buttermilk sky, who will be haunted by the involuntary, masochistic smile plastered on the listless bowling ball of a head so long after separation from its host. The flies are to be expected. Frye’s heard stories of chickens running around headless for minutes or hours after visiting the chopping block. Not humans. At least according to the snuff films that came in to his office like personalized gifts. The final expressions of humans remained frozen in time, whether those of anguish, resign, or just a stupid, toothless grin.
The man was an informant, the papers claim. Called to testify against the drug cartel—Vinnie Malone in particular. The exact nature of the dead man’s association with the mob is unspecified. Same with his connection to Hollywood, for that matter. Second informant since the trial began two weeks ago. Frye smirks, reading the summation of facts splattered across the front page of the L.A. Times. He’s always amused by it—the piecing together of leaked information spiced up with speculation, but not to the point of slander or complete fabrication. It’s a delicate balancing act, the ethical checking of facts and the integrity of protected journalistic sources with just enough titillation to keep readers turning the page. No different from a screenplay in that respect. The mob’s been running the show since prohibition. Only recently have they got their hands in the film biz, forcing unions to strike and studios to pay up to keep productions going under budget. Informants always turn up dead; it’s nothing new. What’s new is when the informant—a dealer or an addict with an insurmountable drug debt—turns out to be a Hollywood celebrity.
Jeb Whitlock’s always been in a hurry. He was born premature and kept in a shoebox by the hearth—a makeshift incubator—until big enough to inherit the bassinette handed down between his six older siblings. He skipped crawling altogether, just up and walked one day. Same with words: the boy just observed, never uttering a peep—not a single ‘ma’ or ‘mama’ or ‘pa’ or ‘papa’—just full sentences, all at once. Since, he’s gone back to being a man of few words.
He was in just as much of a hurry to leave home. His pa had a lifelong affair with the bottle. Said it was the financial burden of 7 mouths to feed drove him to drink, the death of his own dreams and aspirations. The dust bowl didn’t help matters. But once the Whitlock farm recovered, maintaining its viability was priority. The Whitlock boys were groomed to work the land while the girls were groomed to marry.
Jeb had other ideas.
He entered his first rodeo without his Pa’s knowledge; bucking broncos would be his way outta Dodge. And the universe conspired.
Pa should be happy, Wayde thinks on one of the rare occasions his thoughts drift to Pa. He thinks of Texas often, but not Pa. Truth is, Frank Whitlock’s the son of immigrants who moved west by incentive of the government—Manifest Destiny—to work the land rather than being lost in the shuffle among huddled masses. He should be happy I got out.
I may be a dumbass like Pa says, but I’m a dumbass who knows when it’s time to get outta Dodge.
“Dunno what come over me. Everything was off from the get go,” Wayde laments, still stunned by his failed audition. “Fell flat on my face is what I did.”
“Don’t give it a second worry,” Pops assures him as the two climb the broad flagstones leading to the red-tiled cottage the other boys have named El Charro.
Devereaux nods consolingly. “There’ll be plenty of others.”
“Thanks, Pops. Still—fallin’ on yer face sure ain’t much fun…”
Devereaux squeezes the kid’s shoulder as they head into a darkened kitchen. The others are out.
“Some actors collect ‘no’s’ as a badge of pride,” the man reassures him. “It’s a numbers game, kid. Sooner you get that in your head, the better. Maybe once you get a hundred or so rejections under your belt we’ll start to worry. How’s that?”
“Guess I just worry you’ll stop believin’ in me,” Wayde admits. He doesn’t see them coming, not by a long shot—the tears that well up beneath hooded lids. His need for approval is unexamined, the fact that Devereaux’s become all his pa’s not, regardless of his motivation. Wayde detests the neediness the tears represent—shoos it away like more flies on shit. When it all does come to light he’ll let himself off the hook—That’s what it does to a fella to get the shit end o’ the stick for an old man.
Devereaux seats himself at the L-shaped breakfast nook, flicks a switch that swaths the Formica slab in the warm, incandescent glow of pendant lamps. “Kid, if I believe in something or someone, don’t matter what ilk of naysayer comes along. I told you about Buckey. Took more than a few chances on that kid, and it paid off. It was me who got Western Blood green lit. But not before every last reader rejected the script, every last head of every studio in town. I believed in it. And him.”
Wayde is beyond reassured.
“And this here’s what locals call the Shakespeare Bridge.” The cabbie gestures with torqued knuckles toward the quaint bridge that fast approaches, flanked by Tudor lampposts. “No one knows why, other than its appearance. Truth is—and this is the inside scoop, mind you—Miss Norma Talmadge was under contract with Paramount. Dropped her there many a day; she lived here on the east side of town. Here in these hills. Just couldn’t seem to make it to set on time. Kept cast and crew waiting more often than not. Part on account o’ this cursed gulch, part due to other unmentionable factors. So the studio built this bridge for her. So she’d have no excuses.”
“You don’t say.” Wayde reprises the look of fascination from workshop.
The cabbie, easily half-a-century his senior, has let him in on local lore for the duration of the trek from Beachwood Canyon toward Hollywood Boulevard, pointing out the eccentric turret jutting from an obscenely opulent chateau supposedly belonging to baroness Daisy Buchhausen, the rival estate that serves as the consulate for a Transylvanian ambassador. Wayde’s late for workshop; Big Joe still out with the convertible despite their agreement. He’s had to call a car service—never mind being down to quarters—but he’s already decided to forgive the kid. Sure, his manner’s laid-back, relaxed, but he’s well intentioned. Solid. And anyway, one cab ride’s not gonna break him. Soon enough, he’ll reach out and get a hold of his own finances back home.
The Shakespeare Bridge deposits the rickety cab in Franklin Heights, where the old man navigates more windy, incomprehensible streets. When the terrain flattens, they’re surrounded by horse properties. Wayde takes notice.
“And these here, these are the stables where Buck Jones comes to ride. Too far a trek to Corriganville or Iverson. Didn’t wanna get rusty in the saddle.”
Pops has paid for Wayde’s time at Griffith Equestrian Center for the same reason, but that’s just as far as the movie ranches. L.A. is indeed a sprawling mish-mash interspersed with stubborn mountains in the most inopportune places.
“You’d never know it to look at me,” the old man ruminates, “but I wasn’t always just a cabbie.” Wayde catches the man’s foggy eyes in the rear-view mirror, sits up a bit straighter. He may be a captive audience, but he knows enough to respect his elders. Bottle or no bottle, his pa raised him up right.
“Used to be in ‘the biz’ as they say. During its heyday. Before talkies came along and shot the whole deal to hell in a hand basket. Nothin’ I aspired to—never can see a thing comin’ but gotta go with it all the same when it ambles into your path—found myself a full-fledged Hollywood agent. Guess I had a keen eye for talent. I do so hate to brag— ”
Here the man leans in close, confiding in the rear-view mirror: “It was yours truly discovered the greatest star ever to grace the silver screen. Plucked ‘im straight outta obscurity, Buffed out them shitkickers and replaced that corncob pipe with a Cuban cigar. That kid was none other than the one and only Buck Jones.”
Wayde sticks to his plan to forgive Big Joe; after a minor row the two hug it out in the kitchen. By way of truce, Big Joe invites the relative new kid to church the following day, Sunday.
“What denomination?” Wayde raises an eyebrow.
“Whaddya think?” Joe juts out a burly arm as if to showcase its deep olive tone. “You know I’m a greaser. A Mestizo maybe, but still a greaser.”
Joe socks him in the arm, no holds barred. “For a cowboy, you sure as shit ain’t too quick on the draw.”
“I could say the same,” Wayde defends. “You should know this gringo’s Baptist. One hundred percent corn-fed Baptist.”
“That don’t matter none,” Joe explains, as if the condition were the equivalent of a chronic disease. “This deacon’s pretty progressive. He welcomes all—even Baptists who’ve fallen off the wagon.”
Wayde returns the left jab from earlier. It’s a mistake; the kid’s a brick house.
It’s strange but church is the one thing he misses most about home.
“Let’s do it.”
Twelve hours later he’s wedged in a pew, wondering how the hell congregants know what to say and do. When to rise, when to sit, when to chant—in meaningless Latin, no less. A dead language. Far as he can tell, it’s all by rote. Still, there’s a poetic beauty in the ritual of it—the vibration of voices coming together in unison, the lifting of it to stained glass and ceremony. Wayde looks to Joe more than once, unsure how to proceed. It’s in those stolen moments, eyes locked with those of his unlikely friend, he recognizes it in himself: the need for ceremony. For ritual and community. In all life’s chaos, anything constant is a buoy. Even here, wedged between third-generation rancheros and Chicago Italian thugs, it’s familiar routine that binds, a reminder of what existed before the fleeting, transitory shantytown that is Hollywood.
After communion, parishioners mill about in the ochre-hued limestone courtyard. Wayde displaces yellowed grass with a worn heel while Joe chats up an exotic looking Latina some distance away. The girl is flawless. Sunlight polishes a sheath of pulled back hair, as jet black as it is perfectly straight. Her eyes lift in the corners, accented with kohl. Her frock is traditional but somehow stylish, spangled with crimson rose petals. It’s a shame Joe got to her first. Not that he would have had the huevos to approach her; on the circuit they flocked to him.
“Mr. Archer!” A voice accosts him from behind, glancing off weather-polished limestone.
Wayde’s learned to respond to his new moniker. It’s taken time, but it’s second nature now.
The voice belongs to the woman he met at the Derby—the journalist—his first afternoon in town.
“Evelyn Hood,” she reminds him, extending a now gloveless hand.
“Howdy,” Wayde enthuses, shaking it with neighborly zeal. “Wayde. Wayde Archer.”
“I know,” she assures him. “How could I forget?” Despite the coy tone, her own manner is guarded, her demeanor a dam threatening to burst and reveal some long-held secret.
The woman is alone. Her Sunday-go-to-meeting getup is more dressed-down than her luncheon-at-the Derby attire. The coral lips remain, as does the expertly fabricated eyebrow pencil mole.
“Are you a regular here?” She wants to know, as if it were a pub or a local eatery.
Her inquisitive nature predates her chosen milieu, Wayde instinctually knows.
“Heck, no,” he admits. “Just discovered St. Teresa’s.”
Evelyn follows Wayde’s focused gaze to Joe and the flawless Latina who seems made for him. Her eyebrow raises. A restless nature combined with good breeding compels Wayde to make the obligatory introduction. Big Joe seems to know the woman. The Latina is introduced as Veronica Valdez.
“Give my regards to Mr. Devereaux,” Ms. Hood insists, grace muddied with something more sinister, a facetious concoction that is her brand. And then just before leaving—Wayde senses she’s always just leaving—a final dose of intrigue that sounds as much like a threat as anything:
‘Oh, and let him know, if you would, that the lid’s about to blow.”
Like he’s done a dozen times during the service, Wayde looks to Joe in consultation. Their assignment is cryptic at best. And then, all at once, Evelyn Hood is gone.
Veronica Valdez moved from Tijuana at the age of 7, when her father’s employer—an American restaurateur—opened a Mexican restaurant in San Diego and asked him along. He’d be paid under the table for washing dishes, but the wages would be better and the family’s lifestyle would be a far cry from what it was south of the border.
Ironically, young Veronica learned all forms of Aztec folk dance at San Diego’s community center. Her attempts to maintain the culture of her heritage in the home pleased Mr. Valdez to no end. Not to mention it charmed adults and hooked the girl on adulation. When she began wearing a bra and makeup, the adulation only increased, especially that of men. She danced and sang in community theater but knew she was destined for the bright, dazzling lights of Broadway. Or even better, the silver screen. After graduating high school at seventeen, Veronica Valdez earned her citizenship. She said a tearful goodbye to thirteen brothers and sisters and prepared to run away to Hollywood. Through tears, her mother suggested the girl had hardened; how else could she leave those she loved? It was then the whispers flew—the stories of having been touched that circulated in the homes of every last one of Veronica’s school friends. It didn’t bother her, being touched. But she was still leaving.
Her chosen mode of transport was a slow-moving Amtrack. Four hours, all said and done. Before debarking, she’d landed a roommate: aspiring actress Lola Russel, who lived in Hollywood but had gone to San Diego to visit relatives. Lola already had representation; she’d starred as a chorus girl/featured extra in several MGM talkies. The speaking parts were right around the corner. It was decided Veronica would live with Lola in Franklin Heights, just over the Shakespeare bridge from Paramount.
‘Proximity is key,’ Lola assured her.
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“I told you, kid. She’s like a sister to me.”
“You’re the best,” Wayde gushes. No slug on the shoulder this time—only a bear hug will do.
Their first date is to Musso and Franks. Classy joint, and right there in the thick of things. He’s had to scrape together the funds, but it’s worth it. There are two attendants per patron, doing nothing but standing there with serviettes draped across their forearms. Wayde has the distinct feeling should he ask one of them to pick up his dry cleaning, they’d dash out the door without a second thought.
Waydes’ glad he worked up the nerve to ask Veronica out. She looks angelic, there in the soft candlelight of the steak house. Her hair is gathered even more loosely than at church, the only other context in which he’s seen her. It billows about her shoulders in tiers, unbound by the harsh product most modern dolls gooped in their sculpted locks. He watches it bounce, refracting tiny halos.
She’s already had considerable success, Wayde learns. He’d know it if he’d stepped out to see a picture since arriving. She’s being marketed as an Aztec princess. Not just descended from Aztecs—but from royalty. The skewed depiction of Mexicans as lazy greasers or no good caballeros has been thwarted by the romantic fever dreams of the public; it was Valentino and Navarro who first crept under the bed sheets of American housewives, Dolores Del Rio under those of every last red-blooded American male. Wayde is not exempt from the fantasy. Dolores Del Rio’s got nothing on this doll, he decides early on.
“I rather like that you’ve never seen one of my pictures,” Veronica admits when the fact becomes undeniably clear.
“I will first chance I get. I promise…” Wayde vows sheepishly.
“Really,” she insists. “I mean, it’s so boring, really. Most actors I meet in this town just want to talk shop. There’s so much more to life than this industry. Not to mention, a girls’ gotta wonder about their intentions. You—you’re like…”
Here Veronica takes him in, as if for the first time. “Why, you’re just a deer in the headlights.”
“Well, now. I’ve been called a lot of things…” He rests his chin on folded hands, bats his eyes innocently. Still, he’s got to say it: “But you should know I ain’t no spring chicken.”
She takes a mental note. The possibility that there’s more to him—more of an edge—is a selling point. Still, she insists “if there’s one thing we Aztec Princesses can do it’s read hearts. Yours is pure.”
Wayde accepts the characterization.
“Do you have plans next Friday?” Veronica Valdez asks near the end of their dinner.
Wayde likes her forwardness; it’s proof things have gone well. They’ve talked about the challenges of going it alone, their shared missing of certain things from home but not others. Their love of family, or at least the fantasy of it, the desire to create it for themselves. Not necessarily together. Way too early to speculate about that. Or is it? Don’t let your mind wander, you stupid shit, Wayde’s had to tell himself several times during the meal. When the thought occurs to him, as a remedy for delusion, that his parents married after only two weeks of acquaintance, the other voice, the one that constantly reminds him he’s dumber than a fly on shit, counters: And look how that turned out.
“So do you…?” She brings him back from wandering, clasping her hands patiently and resting her chin thereupon.
“Have plans Friday? I’ve got a film opening,” she says nonchalantly. “I’d be honored if you’d accompany me.”
“You don’t say.” Wayde wishes he could douse himself with the glass of ice-cold water only inches away.
He collects himself. “Sure. Of course.”
No shit. A premier. A red carpet. The press. He’s been in Tinseltown less than a month and he’s headed for a red carpet.
“Can you believe it? Can you fucking believe it?”
Wayde’s barreling at Big Joe like an overgrown puppy; what else can he do but return the overzealous bear hug?
“Easy, Cowboy. It ain’t the second coming.”
“Been here three friggin’ weeks an’ I’m headed to the red carpet!”
“And anyway, it’s her premier, not yours. Remember?”
“True ‘nuff,” Wayde admits, still looking like a kid in a candy store.
Big Joe’s almond eyes narrow unlike Wayde’s ever seen. “But I suppose it don’t hurt none to hitch your wagon to a rising star.”
Wayde’s expression falls with a thud. “It ain’t like that…”
“I know.” Joe’s expression says he wishes he could take it back. “I told you, kid: she’s like a sister to me.”
The premier is everything Wayde expects: the frenzied, anonymous adulation emanating from a sea of blinding flash bulbs, the shrill cries of the masses behind velvet ropes. Just like the rodeo circuit only less dust in your nostrils and no smell of shit. Only adoration—from the press and the fans and the paparazzi, all of them wanting more. For the paps it’s a bone or two—a turn or a look—just the right pose that will mean payday. The journalists claw, thrusting microphones in an attempt to be the first one at the scoop. Are the two a couple? What’s the nature of their friendship?
Wayde takes his cues from Veronica, content to hang on her arm and take a back seat to her practiced smile, the periodic wave that is both gracious and dismissive all at once. Not a single question answered. Not an utterance. When Evelyn Hood appears behind the velvet rope with a press pass pinned to her fur stole, Wayde’s tempted to acknowledge her. After all, they’ve met on several occasions. But it’s Veronica’s night; he knows not to steal the spotlight by offering anything more than a smile and a nearly imperceptible nod in the nosey reporter’s direction. He’s beginning to understand the game. Not that he expected Veronica to formally present him to the press or to rattle off his nonexistent resume. The withholding is more than privacy or boundaries; it’s mystique.
Mystique is currency.The picture is entertaining enough, but nothing the Academy is bound to throw a gold statue at in Wayde’s estimation. It’s being billed as ‘mixed-genre’: something between a Western and a detective flick. The lead, a newcomer known as Stone Hardy, plays the reluctant sleuth who finds himself unwittingly dragged into a murder mystery south of the border. Veronica portrays the tough but vulnerable proprietor of El Barcito, which conveniently allows for no less than two full-fledged song and dance numbers involving upright drums known as Teponaztli, Aztec pan flutes, legs and piled-up hair and a deluge of red roses to make Nero proud. Despite their status as newcomers, the two leads carry the film well. The studio wanted its two stars to attend the premier together, to fuel media speculation about a possible romance. But Stone Hardy’s in a committed relationship—with a man. So when Veronica insisted on her own escort, Paramount arranged for Kate Crowley to accompany Stone Hardy. She’s one of the most popular starlets of the moment. More importantly, she’s under contract and therefore obligated.
The four of them sit together during the screening, and Wayde can’t help thinking they make a handsome quartet. Stone is easily six-four, chiseled and Aryan. Kate Crowley has cupid’s bow lips and round, smoky eyes that she bats seductively or coyly depending on what’s called for.
There’s an after-party at Malena’s El Adobe on Melrose, but they don’t stay long. Veronica and Kate have downed several Tequila shots each when they decide they’re bored with celebrities and it’s time to ditch the joint. And so it is the four of them pile into a limo stocked with plenty of bootleg moonshine and head into the Hollywood Hills. Sprawled on a blanket, looking down at the sea of sparkling lights, they collectively decide it looks like a mirage.
“Fucking Tinseltown,” Kate slurs, fur stole slipping into dew-covered crabgrass. “Tinsel-fucking town.”
“You’re drunk,” Stone observes.
“And you’re a queer,” she retorts. “Queer as a three dollar bill, as they say.”
Stone Hardy says nothing—just continues gazing abstractly into the sea of lights.
“Haven’t you ever had pussy?” Kate pursues. “Not even once?”
Veronica’s laughing hysterically, halfway between their blanket and the wet grass.
Wayde lights up a cig, by way of distraction, passes it to Stone. He’s laid off long enough, and anyway, there are worse habits than smoking hand-rolled cigs when you drink. If he starts up again, he’ll only do it when he drinks. Stone accepts the butt, hits it hard.
Suddenly Kate’s on her feet, navigating the uneven hillside in unbuckled Mary Janes. Her movements are meant to be seductive, but are severely impaired, rendering her writhing and hip grinding the equivalent of a baby giraffe trying out new legs. She sidles awkwardly to her date’s side, him seated still, and begins hiking up the hem of her skirt to a nonexistent Jazz tune.
And then Veronica’s joined her. She flanks the handsome actor on the other side, teasing him seductively with the tapered point of her stole. Kate’s got her hemline north of the border, exposing a satin garter belt. Faced with little to no reaction, she grabs Stone’s hand and places it there, on her thigh. Her hips swivel relentlessly.
Stone blows a steady stream of smoke into the night, smirking good humoredly.
It’s only when Veronica straddles him completely that Wayde draws the line.
The next morning, she hardly remembers it. And yet, tears form in her eyes.
“I’m not used to this. To any of this,” she pleads, as if to explain something. “But I want it. I do. Please have patience with me.”
Wayde understands. Still, in the same moment, he decides to wait to say the words he’s planned.
Wayde retrieves it from the far reaches of the Formica counter top: the lone soda cracker that has fallen to its demise and cracked in two with the shaking of the cardboard box. Wayde knew things were grim, just not how grim. He could slather it in tuna, he supposes, swiping crumbs to the floor and sidling up to the pantry with crossed fingers.
There is a God, he decides, seeing the last dented can of tuna hanging in the shadows on curled-up shelf liner punctuated with pineapples. Things will be a hundred times better, Wayde knows, when he’s wrangled control of his finances come August. He’ll be eighteen on the twentieth; paying lawyers to emancipate him before then would be throwing money away. And he knows there ain’t no way his old man’s bound to voluntarily give up his cash cow in the mean time. It’s only a few months. ‘Till then, canned tuna and saltines it is.
“You oughtta let Pops take care of it,” Clifford Montgomery, the aspiring writer in the large bedroom said when the topic came up. “Man’s got all kinds o’ legal counsel right there in his office. On the payroll. Man’s got means.”
“Nah,” was Wayde’s one-word summation. “Reckon I’ll hang tight ‘till summer.” He’s been skimmed before.
“Suit yourself,” the wannabe beatnik scoffed.
Right about now Wayde rethinks the plan; the cracker’s dry and the canned tuna tastes more like tin than anything that came out of the ocean. Maybe that poser’s got a point, he thinks.
It’s then that Clifford bounces in from the deck, toweling off and sliding the glass door shut on an irritable track. Dusk is falling beyond the glass, swallowing a broiling horizon in apocalyptic crimson. Somewhere out there is the ocean; Wayde’s seen it on a clear day. The neighbors say on a real clear day you can even see Catalina Island twenty-six miles out. Wayde has yet to see it with his own eyes.
“Saltines ‘n’ Kipper—supper of Kings,” Clifford rankles.
“I ain’t above it.” Wayde feebly defends the meager assemblage of crumbs that narrowly constitute a meal.
“No casting agent’s bound to cast a leading man who’s thin as a rail. You know that, don’t you? You really want to whittle yourself away to skin and bones?”
Wayde’s noticed Joe’s imposing physique—damn near impossible to ignore. But he’s chalked it up to heredity. Suddenly he notices Clifford is equally muscular, only in a more…collegiate way. His mass is distributed vertically, more ectomorphic and vascular. His tan, unlike the deep olive of Big Joe’s complexion, possesses a ruddy tint that lingers on the surface like a temporary resident. The result, for all intents and purposes, is less thuggish. His fit physique and luxurious tan speak of privilege, if anything.
“You should come to the gymnasium sometime. It’s right down on Sunset. If you like it, Pops’ll surely spring for a membership.”
“Suppose I should,” Wayde reflects, suddenly sheepish but not committing to anything.
Laurence Skye enters from the deck, kicks off worn deck shoes with sinewy, bronzed toes. The crimson sky is yielding to inky black, palm trees beginning to sway with an invisible current. The two boys have been sunbathing—something Wayde finds incredible in March—but it’s grown chilly. That’s another thing Wayde’s picked up on: it cools off at night. Here, no matter how sweltering the day grows, evening is forgiving. Not like in Texas, where the stifling humidity enfolds you like a blanket well into the night. Where it can be a hundred and five degrees and pouring rain.
“You boys don’t look anywhere near starving,” Wayde observes.
“We don’t eat that shitsling in the pantry, that’s for sure,” Laurence chimes in. “You’re the only soul brave enough to do that.”
“And anyway,” Clifford adds, “That grub’s the bare minimum. For appearance’s sake, really.”
Wayde’s stumped by the statement. “What are you getting at?”
Laurence smirks at his friend; Wayde catches it. “Just that we got our own cash flow. We like to keep things…liquid if you catch my drift.”
“Yeah, we’ll slum it at the Derby,” Clifford editorializes. “But that’s about as lowbrow as our tastes run. Right, Larr?”
Here Clifford uncorks a bottle of Pinot Grigiot, pours himself a glass.
“Y’all got part-time jobs or somethin’?” Wayde pursues, partially taking the bait. It’s true the two are rarely home. Most often it’s just him and Big Joe holding down the fort at El Charro. Until now he figured the two were at workshops or seminars perfecting their respective crafts. And on weekends, socializing.
The two men look at one another cryptically as Clifford hands a glass of Grigiot to his friend.
Laurence sloshes the first sip around inside a slack jaw. “Talk to Pops; he’ll hook you up.
Wayde’s lost. His audition was downtown, in a pocket—or more accurately, an armpit—he didn’t previously know existed. The nondescript industrial building was wedged between a canning facility that smelled of tuna and several blocks occupied by austere storage facilities that looked more like army barracks. His mistake was turning left when he should have turned right, or vise versa; he’s found himself driving in circles trying to get back on track, passing the same grim landmarks over and over again—either that or every block looks the same. Wayde’s figured it out: the downside to L.A.’s sprawling geography—its sheer, boundless, ever-expanding circumference, is the neglect it spawns. He passes sprawling stretches of waste he’s sure are due to end at any moment but instead continue on indefinitely, characterized by foul aromas, graffiti, bonfires and vagrants gathered around them and random, unprovoked fistfights at unfrequented bus stops. It’s the quieter stretches you gotta look out for, he knows, eyeing lonely hubcaps and graveyards of stripped vehicles.
When at last he finds himself chugging onto the expressway toward home, he’s elevated, but still immersed somehow in the Godforsaken squalor and neglect. The nonexistence. Shitty, sun-scorched grass lines the fractured, tenuous concrete serpent that wriggles through cookie-cutter concrete blocks, shredded litter blown up against chain link and barbed wire. The incessant graffiti is almost redeeming, the splashes of color that will fade with the relentless sun and time. Even the concrete will split; tiny, scarcely discernible fissures promise as much. The asphalt will crumble and be reclaimed by Hazy Valley. It’s not a durable building material, Wayde’s heard. The city is tenuous, fleeting at best, he knows. Dust in the wind.
When Wayde arrives home to El Charro, Big Joe’s lounging poolside. Wayde describes his ordeal, the hidden armpit he’s just glimpsed.
“That shit will come and go,” Joe confirms simply. “Hazy Valley will remain.”
He dips a bronzed foot in the turquoise water of the pool.
“I defend L.A. all the time. Where else in the world can you surf and ski in the same day? Where else can you bask in perfect weather eleven months of the year?” Here his eyes drift to the heavy brown blanket that hangs over the distant skyline, the gently waving palm trees no different than all those transplanted dreamers. “Unlike most cities, it’s the people that make this place shitty.”
Wayde lights up a hand rolled cigarette. It’s an old, bad habit he’s left behind, but it helps to curb the ol’ appetite. He won’t take it up for good.
‘Wish you’d let me take care of the emancipation,” Pops offers again, seated at the L-shaped Formica counter. A pendant lamp extrudes his massive form from darkness.
A cardboard box lays smashed on the counter, Nabisco logo nearly indecipherable. Wayde’s raised it into the air to prove his point, jostling the few remaining crumbs from its bowels.
“I’m fully willing to pick up a part-time job,” Wayde assures him. If only in his own mind, he wants to distinguish himself from the caviar-or-nothing mindset of the upstairs residents at El Charro. He finds their bourgeois standards loathsome.
“Maybe I oughtta wander down to the Derby—see if they need a dishwasher or…”
“—Don’t do that!” Pop cuts him off at the pass. His manner is disproportionately adamant.
“What, then? Far as I can tell, ain’t no rodeos in town.” Wayde’s cogs are turning. “S’pose I could ask around at the stables…”
Pops cut him off again: “Hold up, cowboy! Those boys got good heads on their shoulders, and they’re willin’ to go the extra mile for their dream. But they ain’t washing dishes, that’s for damn sure. And they sure as shit ain’t shovelin’ manure.”
It’s here Pops explains the nature of the boys’ employment: accompanying Hollywood A-Listers to social events—premiers, red carpet events and the like.
Wayde draws on every microscopic fiber of street smarts he’s acquired in his young life. “They’re escorts?”
“If you wanna call it that.” Pops Devereaux is not big on labels.
It’s the studios, he explains, who insist their stars have chaperones for important events; it’s nothing more than that. Fine dining, polite conversation, a smile for the cameras and a kiss on the hand at the end of the night. All in all, easy money.
Devereaux watches the boy’s reaction: a mix of skepticism and intrigue. He’s thinking of her, of course. A little pocket change could be just the thing to make a go of things with Veronica Valdez. Laundry quarters won’t cut it for long. And the moment is now.
Pop reads Wayde’s expression, smiles victoriously. “Count you in, then?”
Didn’t take Wayde long to learn Pops Deveraux had a gift for exaggeration. But the man sure as shit spoke the truth with regard to the status of the clients; they’re A-Listers, all right: Margaret Field, Eve Harding, Tillie Woodrow. Only on occasion is Wayde furnished the client’s identity in advance of a liaison; it’s not like he can research them. Plenty of Hollywood pictures fail to make it to the Podunk cinemas in Texas; half the time both the name and the face escapes him. Still, the client wields a haughty, enigmatic air of importance, like a heavy perfume or a double-edged sword. Wayde can only hope if he does betray his own ignorance to a given client’s level of celebrity, the anonymity proves refreshing. Perhaps with him, if nowhere else at no other time, those sirens who peaked just a millisecond before his time can imagine themselves to be whomever they wish—a raving beauty or a former self. Most have been taken out to pasture prematurely with the advent of talkies, but found themselves unwilling to give up the limelight and fade to obscurity. They attend premiers as ‘honorary, esteemed guests,’ soaking up the red carpet’s shower of bulbs as if each flash were trained on them alone, each fanatical cry of adulation meant for their ears. The addiction to glamor does not extend to the young man’s escort services; turns out he’s a Monday night boy. Straight out the gate, rather than parading him like arm candy on the red carpet, they’ve got him waiting in the limo behind tinted glass until the conclusion of the screening. It’s under cover of darkness they indulge themselves in the benefits of his company, cruising Mulholland with moon roof gaping, wine flowing, garters and cummerbunds crumpled on plush leather.
The chauffeurs know the drill, wordlessly turning onto aborted succulent-lined offshoots or dead-end roads with a single look in the rear-view mirror.
It’s rationalization, not arrogance, that tells Wayde he’s providing a therapeutic service allowing them to bask in his youth in an attempt to recapture their own, as if by simply gazing at him beauty might rub off somehow. Unlike the zealous teen groupies who oversell themselves but turn out to be wet noodles in the sack, these dames have been to the rodeo plenty. They’ve got all kind of tricks and no hang-ups. They’re at their sexual prime, no longer burdened with waspy prudence or Catholic guilt and ready to make up for lost time. Wayde learns a few new tricks himself, like how to fuck doggy style in cramped quarters with your boots on when the limo’s not a stretch, how to maintain leverage by digging your heels in. How to keep your motivation with a third party keeping an eye on things in a rear view mirror. Not yet eighteen, Wayde Archer’s repertoire is impressive.
The conditions are no different with the male clients. Oh, sure—he bristles the first time. More accurately, he rears up like a startled quarter horse when the limo door springs open in the dark brick-lined alleyway behind Grauman’s Chinese, revealing none other than a tuxedo-clad Artie Acord. But having been raised right, Wayde remains cordial. Turns out the icon is a southern gentleman from the same mold as himself; the two spend the evening discussing a shared affinity for rodeo clowns, well-crafted spurs, and the superiority of ridge tops over mounties. When it comes time to put out the second time around, all it takes is a slight, nearly imperceptible shift, a swapping out of faces. In a way, he’s been wired for it—that’s what it does to a cowboy to get the shit end of a stick for an old man. It’s his little league coach Wayde swaps in—the one who represents his first source of positive male attention, and later, the priest from Witchita Falls Baptist who became all Pa was not.
And though Wayde Archer doesn’t see it coming—not by a long shot—the sex is easy. Maybe more so than with a woman. Everyone gets off, and there’s no mystery how to make it happen. Every last kid Wayde grew up with found himself in a circle jerk at some juncture in his horny adolescence. Men and boys, Wayde knows, are all too familiar with their own plumbing. So what’s there to be repulsed by when the plumbing just happens to be someone else’s? At first, though he doesn’t have words for it, Wayde knows he’s rationalizing. Turning tricks is precisely what’s allowing him to make a go of things with Veronica, paying for the dinners and speakeasy cocktails and the nights out on the town that will keep things equitable. But soon enough he’ll get hold of his own finances.
It’ll mess with his head in the short term, as it would any corn-fed Texan worth his shitkickers. But eventually he’ll come to see the moral lapse for what it is. He’ll be grateful for having crossed the boundary, count the experience among those that make life rich. And as much as anything, it’ll cement his hunch that those who are repulsed—them rednecks that moan and groan about perversion and deviation and recruitment and inculcation—doth indeed protest too much. All that comes outta Texas is steers ‘n’ queers—Wayde’s said it himself.
It’s Big Joe first calls it what it is. They’re lounging at the pool at El Charro, buck naked—Joe’s liberal mindset must be rubbing off—when the mestizo rolls over, assets flopping to the side.
“So how’s tricks?”
“Huh?” Wayde tilts his ridge top to shield squinty eyes from a mid-May scorcher.
“I said ‘how’s tricks?’ You been turnin’ tricks, no? That’s what Larry and Monte said.”
Wayde scoffs involuntarily, spits imaginary snuff into the warm, dry air. “S’pose. If that’s what you wanna call it…”
He lights up, blows a steady stream of smoke against the impeccable cobalt blue of the sky. “Word travels fast in these parts, I see…”
Once his ruffled feathers lay down, Wayde takes the opportunity: “What about you? Pops got you workin’ too?”
“Oh, yeah.” Joe says with a hearty laugh. “But I been makin’ ends meet long before I met Devereaux. Before he ever got me hooked up with representation, goin’ out regularly on auditions.”
“What about them male clients?” Wayde may as well get it all out in the open.
Big Joe laughs a second time. “Not a problem.”
“Really?” Wayde sits up, incredulous. Though he’ll come to put a bow on things, for the moment he’s conflicted. Somethin’ about you can take the boy outta Texas but you can’t take Texas outta the boy.
Joe recognizes the squeamishness; he’s seen it a million times. “That stuff don’t bother me none. Sorta how I roll…”
Wayde tugs at the crusty rim of his hat. “Ya don’t say.”
The revelation sure as shit explains a lot. For one, why Veronica Valdez has been relegated to sister status. She’s easily the most exotic, stunning creature Wayde’s laid eyes on. As he falls for her over the course of weeks, spring melding into early summer, the three become something of a family. An unconventional one, but still a family. As such, they take to attending church regularly.
One Sunday, Wayde spots something across the sunbaked limestone courtyard during fellowship: a hand. Just a hand, resting on a shoulder. He’s taken back in time, quick as lightening. Suddenly the shoulder is his own. He’s the acolyte, clad in ridiculous ceremonial attire, feeling both protected and burdened by the insistence of the grip. Monsignor Palumbo seems like a decent man; his sermons depart from the rote theology of the sect, challenging the congregation. They never end in a conclusion or a mandate, or in fire and brimstone of any kind. Only in an invitation to ponder. Wayde’s read somewhere that morality is doing what’s right despite what you’re told; religion is doing what you’re told despite what’s right.
Wayde brushes the hand off mentally. The world is full of hands. And shoulders. Just as the acolyte hurries on his way, begins folding his removable satin collar, Palumbo looks up. His eyes lock with Wayde’s as though across a vast limestone desert.
Palumbo can feel the ribbons of light on his cheek, piercing that flimsy chipboard and reconfiguring themselves on his flesh. He can almost make out their gothic ornament—one sliver an arch, another that strange clover that seems neither divine nor even remotely respectable. The tungsten light is fiery today; one of the bulbs in the wall sconce has deepened to crimson and flickers precariously like a flame.
“Forgive me father for I have sinned. My last confession was…”
Palumbo’s stopped listening. He knows the voice. He’s already assembled the features: a haunted eye, a taught, determined lip, leathery jowls. All bathed in flickering hellfire. It’s Frye. The man’s shown up for services three weeks straight. Only approached him that one time, then left the offer standing. And now, here he is in the tiny booth invisible to the eyes of the world.
“What is the nature of your sin?”
“I’ve framed someone.” The light flickers, dims to blood red.
“Well, I didn’t do it personally; my office did it. But it was to protect me.” The flicker is constant now, like a flame that could go out in a puff or expand to consume the entire confessional.
The clearing of a throat.
Finally, the familiar voice rasps “I let it happen.”
Somehow the nerves that made Palumbo’s heart pound on their first meeting have yielded to a strange, familiar comfort. In a way, he’s honored the man would confide in him, collar or no collar. He waits for the grim details, the inevitable unburdening. But the detective is more stoic than the drug runner who normally takes the prize for gravity. Maybe instead of bragging or getting off on shock value, the man’s actually sincere. Actually cares about his standing with the man upstairs.
“Thing is…” The detective clears his throat again. “They knew I was between a rock and a hard place. If the true culprit went down—it was an informant got knocked off, one of Vinnie’s boys—they knew I’d have a target on my head. It was Vinnie did the job himself. Took on too many, got sloppy.”
An invisible wind moves through the confessional, setting the flimsy chipboard in motion. Suddenly the shards of red light scatter, replaced by ambiguity.
“So I let ‘em do it. I let ‘em frame someone else.”
Palumbo waits, but knows nothing more is coming. The Sacramental Seal prevents him from divulging the secrets of men’s hearts. But it says nothing of kindred spirits or strange bonds in the dark, of voices more telling than fingerprints.
“This other party, the one who took the fall—is he purely innocent?”
“You kiddin’ me? Cat’s got a rap sheet a mile long.”
“There you have it,” Palumbo says at last, sighing involuntarily. He can think of no other way to put it: “Saint Peter doesn’t split hairs. God knows it all comes out in the wash.”
All at once, the blood red bulb flickers and dies altogether. Instead of casting the tiny confessional into blackness, what’s left is the ambient fluorescent light from the lobby. It’s immaculate white but seems a world away.
“Don’t know if I’ll ever feel safe,” Frye admits. “Until they clean up this town. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Palumbo knows he’s talking about the city of angels. But he may as well be talking about the world.
Wayde knows he’s dodged a bullet. Big Joe hasn’t said a word about how hustling and getting in deeper with Veronica Valdez might represent a conflict of interests. She’s like a sister to him; he’s sure as shit said it enough. Why then, for shit’s sake, hasn’t he objected to the double duty? Maybe he figures if Wayde’s all spent from turning tricks he’ll be less likely to consummate the relationship. Or maybe Joe’s been turning tricks so long himself the drill is second nature: such details get compartmentalized. Put on a high shelf. The most he’s ever said to Wayde on the matter is a general warning: “Just don’t hurt her.”
Could be Wayde’s own conscience creates the rift. Makes him feel deceptive. He’s held off saying the words, the three words that would make him a true hypocrite. And he knows his own heart. Still, it’s a funny thing, the power of suggestion. He begins to wonder about his own motives, whether he does have it in him to ride the coattails of another. He almost wishes there weren’t a weekly premier, one red carpet event after another, that the rags hadn’t released his name and predicted a quick rise to fame.
All he knows is, however it happened, whatever got in, he’s conflicted. And his mind won’t let it go. Funny how once a cowboy’s mind is aware of a thing, the external world rears right up and confirms it. Makes it impossible to ignore.
It’s a moonlit night; the Deusenberg’s pulled down a long, erratic dirt road off Mulholland. The chauffer’s whistling to pass the time while Wayde Archer and Artie Accord go at it on the rear bumper, pants around ankles, grunting and working up a sweat. Wayde’s flattered the man has requested him for a third rendezvous. Makes the whole deed easier somehow. Affection never hurts.
The lights come from nowhere. No squeal of tire rubber or rain of pelting gravel. If anything, it’s the damn chauffer shoulda had his ears open. But suddenly there they are, blinding the two with their insufferable headlights and shouting to them to freeze as they advance from the nothingness. The two cowboys raise their hands in the air, give up hopping back into their trousers, or trying to, hard-ons preventing zippers zipping, as if pale flesh had not already been on display, bathed in headlights for all to see. As if the younger of the two had not just been bent over that rear quarter panel, his own rear catching moonlight.
“You do know this is private property…” one of two faceless, silhouetted sheriffs advises them.
“No sir.” Art tucks the tail of his shirt into tangled trousers.
“Well, it is.” The humorless cop nods toward a gated mansion several hundred yards farther down the path. “And you do know what you’re doing here is wrong…”
Wayde looks from Artie into the blinding white light that renders the sheriffs nothing more than disembodied voices. Wayde’s never had a brush with the law, could never have guessed that whether you agreed with the law or not, a slap from law enforcement feels like a warning from the universe itself.
“Sorry, sir. We’ll be on our way.” Sweat forms on Art Accords upper lip.
The man’s got a lot at stake; it suddenly dawns on Wayde. The man’s nervousness rubs off, launching Wayde’s mind to reeling.
Later the night will seem surreal—the low-grade arrest that’s more like a polite tour of the police station, the casual fingerprinting and the mug shots and the professional demeanor that says lewd conduct and indecent exposure happen every day in this town. The most worrisome detail, though Wayde won’t know it until later, is when the second officer stoops to retrieve something from the eroded dirt path.
“This yours?” He asks, waving the smashed butt he’s excavated from dirt.
“Yes, sir,” Wayde admits.
“Look around, kid. Nothing but dry brush around here. Lighting up here’s akin to arson.”
The seemingly innocuous piece of evidence, one that will seem profoundly more important later, is pocketed.
It’s rattled nerves that compel Wayde to share his ordeal when he arrives home from his visit to the police station. Joe’s out; it’s Laurence and Clifford who soak in the details there in the breakfast nook, slack-jawed with morbid curiosity and giddiness all at once. Natural reserve would normally keep Wayde silent on the matter, but he’s never been to a rodeo quite like this one.
“You’re gonna hafta tell Mr. Deveraux,” Laurence advises.
Wayde sighs. Exactly what he was hoping to avoid.
Clifford’s hazel eyes light up with more than just the amber glow of pendant lamps. “‘Course there’s another whole angle to this, you realize. A fortuitous one.”
Wayde doesn’t know the word, so he waits.
“You realize how high-profile Art Acord is, yes?”
“And how much the man’s got at stake, yes?”
“S-pose.” Wayd’es got no idea where this is headed.
“Well, if you’re ever real hard up, you could gently remind the man what would happen if word of his extracurricular activities got out—to the tabloids, for instance. That you’ve got lips that work, and not just for blowjobs.”
“I don’t follow.” Wayde scowls, done with worrying about sounding like a babe in the woods.
“Extortion, you idiot.”
Wayde spits imaginary snuff into the air. “Doubt it’ll come to that.”
Before he can back out of the room, it rears up in him like an angry Brahma released from a stockade, Wayde’s diplomacy yields to disgust. “You sleazeballs are in the extortion game?”
Laurence and Clifford exchange a look of ennui.
“I plead the fifth,” Laurence drones, turning toward the stairs.
Clifford follows, leaving the circle of warm light and trailing him into shadow.
When the universe speaks loudly, you listen. The first time Wayde goes to confession, he gets Joe to coach him in advance.
Seated in the plush but utilitarian confessional a day later, (Joe’s coached him he may kneel but doesn’t have to) Wayde strains to recall the script. It feels like an audition.
“In the name of the father”—here Wayde crosses himself awkwardly, hoping St. Peter is non-denominational—“It has been, well, seventeen years since my last confession.”
A long pause ensues. A family rushes by the confessional, crossing themselves; Wayde can see them through the small gap between curtains.
“What I mean is, I’m seventeen years old. So really, I’ve never…”
“—I understand,” comes the voice. “But you are well beyond the age of discretion in the eyes of the church, confirmed or not. It’s good that you came.”
Wayde sighs. It’s true: Monsignor Palumbo—it’s him beyond that chipboard partition after all—understands. He’s an understanding man. Or seems like it, anyway. He’s got understanding eyes. Kind ones. They’re blue, Wayde thinks, with—
“—Is there more?” The voice then asks. Wayde realizes an eternity has passed.
“Ummm…Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Palumbo’s tempted to tell the kid it’s one or the other—the first script or the second but not both—but lets it go. Instead, he helps out.
“What is the nature of your transgression?”
Another pause, the size of Texas. “I’m afraid I’ve deceived someone.”
“You’ve told a lie.”
Palumbo sighs; this could take a while. His compassion is boundless, but he’s never been good at pulling teeth. If he were, he would have been a dentist.
“What is the nature of the deception?” He concedes.
Wayde fidgets. “Well—maybe I should put this another way. Is a lie of omission really a lie?”
Palumbo feels like he’s on a game show. Patience, he tells himself. The kid seems earnest, sincere. Shouldn’t that count for something? Sure, they all start out that way, wanting to do the right thing. He’s had to shift his agenda many times in his career, to keep from burning out. To keep the futility at bay. This kid, it suddenly dawns on him, is a gift from God. A reminder that maybe the difference he can make is before it’s too late. God puts it in his heart then and there: he’s meant to play a role in the kid’s spiritual journey. He’s had similar hunches before, like being a pawn in the grand design.
“The Bible does not distinguish between lies.” Palumbo proceeds with caution, feeling the weight of responsibility.
“And unfortunately, the Bible says nothing of omission. But God speaks to us in other ways—through history, the church, the way he moves in our own lives.” Monsignor Palumbo measures his words. “It is admirable to protect the heart of another. It’s your own heart that knows when there’s true deception.”
“Hmmmmph.” More fidgeting, the drumming of fingertips, conch shell heels grinding Berber carpeting. “S’pose it’s not a good sign I can’t sleep nights.”
“Probably not.” Palumbo smiles behind chipboard. “Your heart will always tell the truth. God’s truth.”
For the first time since ducking into the confessional, Wayde tries to sneak a peek through the corrugated partition. The wall sconce has been fixed; the ambient florescents balance the faux candlelight, each cancelling out the other. The fragmented images yield little; Palumbo’s looking at the floor of the confessional. What Wayde doesn’t know, can’t know, is that for the first time the priest hopes there is nothing more. Despite himself, he’s somehow invested in someone’s innocence.
“There’s more,” Wayde disappoints. “I’ve broken the law.”
Here it comes, Palumbo can’t help but think. He’s bludgeoned an old lady or stolen candy from a child or mowed somebody down in an intersection without stopping.
“Thing is,” Wayde ponders, tone shifting in a way that pricks Palumbo’s ears, “It’s not a law I agree with…”
It could be he doesn’t want to hear more, but Palumbo cuts him off at the pass: ‘The Bible tells us to follow the laws of our land. Paul 13 says ‘let every man be subject to governing authorities; whomever resists has opposed the ordinance of God.’
“I know, I know...” Wayde’s voice is raw, sounds truly conflicted. “But the law ain’t right. The law shouldn’t govern love, in my book.”
Palumbo gets it somehow. After a long, thoughtful intermission: ‘Many schools of theology define sin as that which hurts another. I’m inclined to agree with you; God knows when someone’s been hurt. And he knows that love, any expression of it, is divine…”
It could be that he took that first confession as a free pass, or that he’s completely out of control, or even that some small part of him thinks it might fix things taking some of the chi he’s been squandering in limousines and putting it in her direction, but Wayde takes the next opportunity to consummate his relationship with Veronica. For one, he knows she’s not a virgin, and it messes with him. He knows she was molested. That night after the premier, when she straddled Stone Hardy in the Hollywood Hills, Wayde saw clearly how it all works. Dolls like her feel helpless and out of control; they turn the tables and start acting out, as if being just as promiscuous as men will give them back their power. Well, he isn’t going to let that happen. If he loves her enough, he can save her from a long, lonely road.
They’ve been out for drinks at El Coyote; he attacks her the minute they get in the door of her apartment. Lola’s out for the night; it’s just the two of them. Veronica’s pleasantly surprised, throws his ridge top on the settee in the foyer and reaches for his dishwater blonde curls, pulling him into her. In a flash they’re against the wall, rattling pictures. They’ve downed libations at El Coyote—bootleg Tequila and moonshine—the buzz makes their dance effortless. More importantly, it serves as a pretext to forego pleasantries and get down to business.
Wayde doesn’t waste any time. Lips locked with hers, skulls banging, he heaves her pelvis up onto his; her legs need no encouragement wrapping like vines around the trunk of his back. He carries her into the bedroom—he knows it well; it’s the one where he’s patiently waited while she’s touched up her makeup before premiers and art openings. There will be no patience this time, no waiting. He’ll take her here and now, in such a complete way she’ll have nothing left for anyone else, in a way that will make her think only of him, forsaking all others and having to remind herself to eat and drink. His broad back will consume her, his sinewy arms reaching around and cradling her buttocks, tongue so far down her throat oxygen is but a memory, the thrusting and incessant pounding in time with the beating of hearts.
It works. The chemicals flow, all the right ones, long after they part and he rolls aside, out of her, flops onto the bed. Long after her head finds his chest, locates his heart beating deep inside a sturdy ribcage like a blip in a vast universe. Long after they fall asleep this way, her hair spilling across him like an obsidian waterfall and sopping up the light sweat, to indescribable, featureless dreams with no storyline but imbued with dopamine and euphoria.
It’s she who says it first in the morning, the moment her eyes flutter open. “I love you.”
His heart does a flip. He looks at her in the morning light, tracing her lines with his eyes in an effort to record what he must never forget: the willowy slant of her form, the wandering tendrils of hair that bounce across the sheets like ripples on a brook.
“I love you too.”
“I thought I should tell you…”
Deveraux’s angrier than Wayde expected. He’s seated at that Formica countertop, pendant lamps vaguely defining the furrowed brow, the plum-faced agitation held in by a clenched jaw.
“Dammit!” His wrath doesn’t so much seep out as spill, like a bursting dam. “You gotta be more careful than that!”
The world beyond the sliding glass door is stark black—no fiery dusk or flickering purple twilight tonight. Only blackness.
Wayde smirks sheepishly. “I didn’t pick the location, you know. If it were up to me, I woulda picked the Bahamas…”
His attempt to lighten the mood does not go over well. Pops slams a pudgy fist on the counter. The whole kitchen rattles, pendant lights swinging as though set to motion by a tremor.
“You don’t get it, do you, you ungrateful little punk? You’re in their files now!”
Wayde thinks about what it could mean. They fingerprinted him, even took a mug shot. So what?
“You don’t want to be in LAPD’s files you stupid shit.” Pops informs Wayde Archer, trying in vain to measure his words.
But a moment later the man’s beside himself, head in hands, looking like he might tear out clumps of shellacked politician hair.
“It’s too late…too late. Goddamn it…”
Wayde gives the man a moment, hopes he’ll calm down. He moves to the refrigerator, pours himself a glass of lemonade. When he dares raise his eyes from the floor, Pops is already glaring at him, eyes red-rimmed and raw.
“You’re gonna let me emancipate you, Goddamn it. All of this could go away… No need to turn tricks. My lawyers could take care of it in a snap—coulda done it five times over by now!”
Wayde’s already shaking his head. “I’ll be eighteen in August. No need. And I been skimmed before…”
Suddenly Devereaux’s on him, against him, got him pinned against that porcelain refrigerator so tight he can smell the man’s musk. His face is right there, red temples throbbing, jaw clenching and unclenching furiously.
“You hear me? You ain’t callin’ the shots here you ungrateful shit! After all I done for you…”
Suddenly there’s a slap. And another. Not a love tap or a firm reprimand, but the back of a raw-knuckled hand. Wayde feels the heat welling up under his cheekbone, knows his jaw’s out of whack. But he’s pinned there, the man’s full weight on him like a bronco, preventing his escape. It wouldn’t matter anyway; he’s already frozen. In disbelief, yes, but on some level the paralysis is instinctual. Unexamined.
“Yes sir,” he hears himself agree. He’s just hoping he won’t have a welt for his audition tomorrow.
The man eases back, just a bit. “Tomorrow after you meet with Carniti, you’re going to jump into that convertible Pops was good enough to gift you with, and come on down to my office. We’ll do the paperwork. You hear me?”
Wayde looks to his fist, where ice cubes continue to swirl in the glass of lemonade. He hasn’t spilled a drop.
Pops Deveraux releases his weight from the boy, reluctantly, straightens the kid’s collar and tousles that mop of dishwater blonde lochs. Before leaving, he plants a kiss on the boy’s closely-shaven cheek.
“You got promise, kid. And I know you want to make it just as much as I want to see you make it.” Here his voice lowers to a whisper. His tone shifts as if to explain something gravely important: “You gotta understand: Evelyn Hood’s got a connection down there. That broad browses LAPD files like recipes…”
Amber morning light careens through gossamer sheers, setting a sea of cotton sheets aflame. Her hair tosses among its ripples and crests like an oil spill, a breathtakingly beautiful, iridescent oil spill set aflame by the rising sun. She’s still asleep, dreams still churning behind dark, fluttering lashes. He can almost penetrate her delicate lids, unfettered by the morning light, almost penetrate whatever dream has left her with the pleasant smile. She’s most at peace in sleep, Wayde’s noticed, basking in the current of dreams or memories or some indistinguishable melding of both. He knows the reservoir is real, the one that exists before and after waking life, before birth and after death, the one that spawns dreams of former lives. Whatever separates them in life, whatever demons or differences wrestle with the illusion, he knows they’re together there, and always will be.
The audition is with a real casting agent. Not the fly-by-night director of some low-budget independent, but one of the top tier casting agents in Hollywood. Guissepi Carniti works with all the major studios; he’s the go-to guy for up-and-coming talent. Like Pops, by his own reckoning, the man’s got the Midas touch.
“You’re ready,” Devereaux assured his protégé when he graduated workshop. “I’ll be damned if you’re not.”
The goal is to get Wayde Archer on Carniti’s roster. Though Pops shrugs off titles, it turns out he’s the talent agent after all. When a casting call appears, Pops submits Wayde for the part. If he’s right, the casting agent calls Wayde in. Better to audition for the casting people directly in advance of all that, Pops explained; it’s an essential relationship. Once in their lexicon, you’re more likely to get a call when I submit your headshot.
“You been trained well,” Pops assured him after setting up the audition. “All you’ve gotta do is use those skills.”
There was something insistent in Pop’s eyes when he said it, something that suggested a dual meaning. But Wayde didn’t quite formulate it at the time. Maybe he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer after all.
“Pops says you got real talent,” Carniti purrs from across a flimsy laminate table scored with fake wood grain. “C’mere.”
The man is fifty, well dressed, dripping with gold. Wayde advances toward the desk, waits. There’s no casting assistant today; the place is conspicuously quiet.
The man rounds the desk, stands insistently before the potential talent. He reaches up and in one fluid movement has swiped the buttons from Wayde’s shirt.
It’s all making sense; the puzzle pieces suddenly fit. And in one fleeting instant Wayde’s made a decision. He’s already crossed the boundary; what could it hurt? And if he’s serious about making it in this town, he’s got to up his game.
The man’s strong hand is already on his crown, pushing him south.
As Wayde drops to his knees, he thinks: I need to get better at this anyway. It’s an opportunity to practice, really.
Well, that went okay, Wayde summarizes, buttoning the two pathetic buttons that have not been torn from his plaid flannel his shirt. He hops into the convertible in an asphalt parking lot scored with fissures.
There’s only one space reserved, for Carniti. The other spaces in the lot are anonymous, each parking bumper stark white and nameless, an unmarked headstone in a forgotten cemetery. The lot is as deserted as the casting office. It was deadly silent, other than the creaking of springs. As if the imminent flood, the one that threatened to descend on all his readings, had already come and wiped away the sparse furniture and makeshift décor and something else he could not put a finger on.
As Wayde takes off down Sunset Boulevard, it occurs to him that of all the temporary office spaces he’s visited on auditions, this one was the bleakest. Everything collapsible, except the couch, of course. The celery green sofa was sturdy, with reliable springs. The absence of an assistant made sense in retrospect. As a rule they seem to come and go, sent daily or weekly by temporary employment agencies. And more often than not, they’re horrible readers. Wayde wonders if he’ll get better at it—working off their wooden deliveries so much like newscasts. Not that it mattered this time; the cold reading he delivered was a formality—a shirtless afterthought.
The relentless California sun fights to penetrate a dull sheathe of haze. On the rare occasion there are clouds in the southland, they’re amorphous, shapeless, one dissolving into the next without borders. In Texas you can tell a cirrus from a cumulous and a cumulous from a cumulonimbus. Here it’s all just…haze. Wayde’s stopped at a light; he looks around. The palm trees are all leaning in the same direction, reaching for the one patch of sun that has succeeded in penetrating the gray sheath. Bougainvelia spill from cinder block planters, the only splash of color. Only now, rather than reaching for the hustle and bustle of the boulevard, they’re sad and desperate, spilling toward buckled sidewalks. For such a new city, L.A. sure seems tired. Jaded. The veneer has worn off; everything Wayde passes as he jets toward Larchmont is gray and lifeless. Sycamores send out angry roots that all but obliterate stained concrete walks, smattered with car exhaust and splotches of chewing gum.
It hits him at once, like waking from a pleasant enough dream to the harsh reality from which it was only a brief respite: things are a mess. Certainly not how he planned them. Thinking back, he didn’t really plan them at all. Just got outta Dodge. Away from the old man. Maybe if he planned better things wouldn’t be such a mess. Maybe the future would be clearer and seem brighter and the sidewalks would not be heaving themselves in broken mounds. Fragmenting themselves between tendrils of regret.
It occurs to him he could just get out of Dodge. Instead of hightailing it to Devereaux’s office like he’s promised, he could stop off at El Charro, grab a few things, and hit the road. Even as the thought blooms, pushes through cement as hope is wont to do, he knows his old pattern is not the answer. And he knows why it will never do: he loves her. She’s the one thing that makes it all worthwhile. He’d give up the prospect of fame and fortune, even the chance to make Pa eat his words about flies on shit to make a go of it with Veronica.
And he’s even fucked that up.
His plan was to love her so hard, despite her demons, there’d be no room for anything else. Amazing how quickly the desire to save her from herself has turned to feeling duped, how owning the key to her sexuality feels like propriety; the moment resentment entered the equation expressions of love turned to degradation. It was only after running into Stone Hardy again at El Coyote, seeing their drunken interaction, that he grunted the words while deep inside her:
“You like being a little whore? You like being my whore?”
He didn’t chastise himself about it at the time. Or even the next time. Sex is an aggressive act; lots of hormones are released that make you say crazy things. And part of him knows it’s she who brought it out in him. That it’s what she needs.
Wayde knows Jebediah Whitlock’s been left in the dust, and he doesn’t like who he’s become. Even the gaudy frame of grace and healing he’s placed around his evening profession has fractured. The feeling of good will and generosity has yielded to the less admirable flaunting of youth, a currency. The cruel taunt of beauty that only money can buy.Beneath clenched fists, Wayde feels the steering wheel turn and suddenly the convertible is gliding into the parking lot of Deveraux’s office in Larchmont Village. The whole thing takes about ten minutes. A few signatures and that’s it. Of course, if Pa contests it, there will be a hearing. But it sure seems like a done deal. It’ll go in the post tomorrow, the lawyer says.
Soon, Jebediah Whitlock will buy himself back.
“May I fill it out here?”
“Of course, sir.”
Wayde is handed a pen there at the counter. He’s stopped off at the Derby to ask if there’s anything available in the line of work. Anything—waiting tables, hosting, even dishwashing. Of course, Pops will probably lay more than a set of knuckles on him when the man finds out he’s quit hustling and taken up dishwashing. But if there’s one thing Wayde knows for sure, it’s that hope requires action. And taking action, even just filling out an application, could do wonders to clear away the shapeless haze of anxiety that has collected around him, blocking his view of a way out. If he can clear just a narrow path in it, maybe the rest will burn off.
“Mr. Archer,” a familiar voice cuts through the haze.
Wayde looks up.
It’s Evelyn Hood, looking like the cat that ate the canary. Even more so today than normal, if possible.
“Ms. Hood,” he greets her. In lieu of shaking her gloved hand, he returns to diligently filling out the application that has begun to sop up condensation from the bar.
“I hate to interrupt you,” the woman insists in a tone that says the opposite. She seats herself on the stool next to Wayde’s, leaning into the bar and lighting a long, slender cigarette.
“—But I was wondering if you’d forwarded my message to Mr. Devereaux.”
“Huh?” Oh, yeah. That cryptic message in the courtyard at St. Teresa’s. During Fellowship.
“Slipped my mind,” Wayde admits.
“Well,” she croons, expelling a long stream of smoke into the otherwise cavernous interior, “He’s surely caught wind by now.”
Here the woman reaches into her clutch, unfolds a copy of The Hollywood Confidential and places is briskly on the counter. She smooths its wildly buckling pages; though dated only yesterday, it’s been read repeatedly.
Wayde’s curiosity gets the best of him; he glances at the cover story.
Hollywood Idol Sebastian Artiga Murdered In Cold Blood.
Wayde knows the name; how could he not? The quintessential matinee idol, albeit of the silent film variety, to eclipse not only Ramon Navarro but Valentino himself.
“Hadn’t heard.” Out of respect for the dead, Wayde places his pen on the counter, retiring his task for the moment. More importantly, ignoring the woman is clearly not an option. Ignoring Evelyn Hood is never an option.
“Let me read it to you,” Ms. Hood insists, drawing the paper closer in the dim light.
“Legendary Screen Idol Sebastian Artiga was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home on the morning of Sunday, June sixth, according to police. At first, the scene looked to investigators like a robbery gone wrong. But the brutality of the murder soon led them on a different path. A more personal one. According to unsubstantiated reports, the victim had been chained to his own bed, tortured and bludgeoned with various objects, including an expired Yule log from the bedroom’s fireplace. A fireplace poker was also found next to the victim. Autopsy reports confirm the insertion of the red-hot poker as the ultimate cause of death.”
Wayde bristles distastefully, the desired effect by all indications. Evelyn continues rattling off grim details, cobbled together from leaked coroner’s reports and confidential investigator testimony as well as pure gossip and speculation within Hollywood circles. Wayde’s never heard or read such a scandalous bit of journalism.
“So much for Hollywood’s code of silence,” Wayde scoffs. “What happened to decency?”
“Story’s too big,” Ms. Hood comes back. “Folks have a right to the story. Journalism is their line to information.”
“The Hollywood Reporter—isn’t that just a gossip rag? Ain’t none o’ that bound to pan out. Am I right?”
“On the contrary, all sources have been vetted. And still we managed to break the story first.”
Wayde’s eyes return to the bar; it’s dripping with condensation. “You must be very proud.”
“Indeed I am,” Evelyn boasts, clutching the buckled spread to her heart. “And the truth always has different angles, my young friend.”
Wayde sweeps the bangs from almond eyes both squinty and doe-like all at once. “What’s in it for you?”
The woman’s eyes are fixed and steady. “The burden has always been on the savvy consumer to weigh the information available. To consider all sources and remain judicious, to reconcile the jibber jabber of all media outlets and news organizations. If the truth is meant to be made public, it will be in time. I’ve always been of the mindset that the truth is subjective. That the perspective one takes is but a matter of semantics.”
Wayde doesn’t follow all her fancy words, but gets the gist. Still, he waits to see where she’s headed.
“I have the luxury,” she continues, “Of protecting my sources. That’s the beauty of my chosen profession.” With that, an inscrutable smirk and a long, deliberate exhalation of smoke.
“Reporter’s Privilege,” it’s called. “Holds up in a court of law.”
“Whose law?” Wayde comes back, not sure himself what it means.
Evelyn stares him down, making only a scarce attempt to divert the stream of smoke she generates next.
“You’re judging me.”
“We got our own codes in Texas,” he says simply.
“Let me tell you a story,” Evelyn demands; it’s not a request. She settles onto an elbow, ashes her cigarette in the nearby ashtray.
Wayde faces her square on, hoping it’s not a long story, but wondering what it could reveal. What that dam of secrets might be that seems ever ready to burst.
“I came to this town from the Midwest like you,” she begins. “Straight off the turnip truck, as they say. But I had goals. Lofty ones. Didn’t give a lick about fame or fortune or even the film biz. What I cared about was humanity. The humanity in all of us.”
Suddenly she’s got Wayde’s attention; it’s the last thing on Earth he expected her to say. For the first time he notices her haunted eyes are translucent blue. But they’re shaded in their sockets by the dim overhead light.
“I’d just graduated college—yes, journalism—and I came here to do a piece on The Hollywood Dream. Not on celebrities or glitz and glamor but on what it is in all of us that strives for more. Why a place like this attracts dreamers from the world over, stars in their eyes. And why, eventually, things pan out or, well, fall with a thud. They come with their one year plan, or their five year plan, with something to go back to or no backup plan at all, hoping to be discovered. But eventually, I learned, when things don’t ‘pan out’ as you say, they’re stuck here. That’s what the book became about: all the walking zombies here in the land of dreams, still here, walking around in a fog of disillusionment.”
Wayde finally recognizes it—what he saw in her eyes on first meeting that he couldn’t pinpoint: she was shell-shocked.
“Thing is,” she confirms, “I became one of them. I sent out my manuscript, sent out dozens of queries to publishers. Hundreds maybe. No one lapped it up. Not a single ‘yes.’ Suddenly I was a walking zombie no better or wiser or more impervious than any one of them.”
She blows one final hit into the air, as if to expunge the disillusionment, and smashes what remains of the slender butt in the obsidian ashtray on the bar.
“Funny how art can come to imitate life.”
Wayde doesn’t know what to say. It could be the tear, the single tear, that has formed in her translucent blue eye, but he feels for her. She produces a handkerchief from her clutch, dabs at the border of eyeliner that has begun to lose its shape.
“So here I am. Peddling gossip.” She laughs, heartily.
Wayde laughs with her.
It’s here that Evelyn Hood grows as vulnerable as Wayde will ever see her, leaning in and lowering her voice to a whisper.
“You’re wondering why I’m telling you all this. I’ve known Mr. Deveraux for a long time. Our relationship is frosty at times, but one of mutual respect. We must look out for each other.”
Wayde’s as confused as ever; it shows in his eyes. Here Evelyn Hood places a hand on Wayde’s brown, capable one, and suddenly hers seems small and vulnerable, as though made of easily shattered porcelain.
“Though I must protect my sources,” she explains, earnestly and cryptically, “I do have them. The D.A.’s office is looking for someone to frame. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again. The district attorney is on the mob’s hit list. And if this goes down as another unpaid drug debt, the man is six feet under.”
Wayde does his best to sift through the woman’s innuendo, to penetrate her disingenuous manner and identify the subtext. But it just won’t come.
“When they look for someone to take the fall,” she explains, as if to a three year-old she’s been informed is slow, “The D.A.’s office goes straight to LAPD files.”
Suddenly the surreal night comes back to Wayde: the fingerprinting and the less-than-glamorous mug shots and the polite tour of the Hill Street station.
Evelyn Hood withdraws a compact, reapplies her eye makeup and that perfectly fabricated mole.
“I can divert them,” she whispers just before leaving. “Public opinion is as important as anything in this town…”
“You think they’re aware of Pop’s operation?” Wayde asks Big Joe, lighting up a hand-rolled cigarette.
“What it sounds like.”
They’re lounging at the pool. It’s midday and the sun’s as hot as ever. A light breeze ripples the water’s surface.
“You in their records?” Suddenly Wayde’s feeling protective. They’re a family, after all.
“You kiddin’ me?” Big Joe’s hand goes instinctively to his lean belly; he laughs aloud. “Me and the LAPD’s in a long-term relationship.”
“For one, I’m a greaser. As if that ain’t enough, I tol’ you I was makin’ ends meet long before I met Pops. There was a spell there I wouldn’t have seen anything resembling a hot meal without the Big House!”
The long belly laugh shows no sign of ending, telling Wayde the kid’s not concerned. Funny things, unlikely friendships; Wayde’s more worried for Big Joe than himself. He’s told Joe the details of his strange encounter with the journalist. Everything he could decipher, anyway.
“Woman’s got huevos, I’ll give her that” is Big Joe’s assessment. “Went from legit journalism to gossip, but still fancies she got principles. Protecting her sources. Pshhhhhh.”
“Seems nice enough, underneath it all.” Wayde suggests. “Guess we all draw the line somewhere…call it self-regulation.”
“Don’t see much of that round here,” Joe sighs.
Suddenly his eyes are lost in the choppy water of the swimming pool, and he settles into his plastic lawn chair.
“They say given half a chance,” he ponders, “A fish’ll grow as big as its tank.”
“Ya don’t say…”
“It’s messin’ with my head, Father,” Frye rasps, downcast silhouette defined by cold florescent light from the sanctuary. “They’re taunting me. And it’s getting real personal; their tactics get more brazen every day.”
On the other side of flimsy particleboard, Palumbo pictures the pack of coyotes he’s seen running the streets of Edendale. The story’s been all over local news: as new housing tracts encroach on their natural habitat, they come down from the hills, running in packs or congregating right smack in the center of the L.A. Basin. The pack that appeared on his very own street looked well fed, not mangy and malnourished as God intended. Instead of skulking along guilefully from shadow to shadow stealing sideways glances, the pack stared him down unflinchingly in the cold moonlight.
“I’m not sure I understand the nature of your sin,” Palumbo admits, attempting to sift through the ore to the heart of the matter. Even the most seasoned martyr whips out the violins out of guilt, that small part of them that knows misfortune is brought upon oneself.
“Oh, um…” The seasoned detective catches himself. He’s forgotten he’s kneeling in a confessional. His silver temples throb.
“Every week a new informant gets knocked off. Our case has lost its legs. If we fail at putting Vinnie away, don’t know where I’ll ever feel safe…”
“With all due respect, sir, perhaps what you need is not clergy services, but—well—counseling.”
Frye clears his raspy throat.
“Psychiatric counseling,” the priest clarifies, in case it didn’t land.
When the detective has gone, the clatter of patent leather Oxfords having melded with the cacophony of traffic from the boulevard, Palumbo sighs. If he’s learned anything in his position, it’s that with or without the Bible, men construct their own moral and ethical boundaries—those they can live with. And more often than not, they’re nothing more than rationalization. For survival.
The very next day, the drug runner appears in the booth—the one with the lacerating voice like Italian sandpaper. Palumbo half expects a season finale packed with ratings-worthy bombshells and a scintillating cliffhanger.
The man doesn’t disappoint.
“Shoulda stayed away like Vinnie said,” he brays, nervously clutching a string of blood red rosary beads. “Said offing the informants was top priority, not some washed up Tinseltown cocksucker with a drug debt. Said not to get sloppy. But I did it anyway…”
There’s a lull in the traffic. No families rush by, crossing themselves. There’s nothing but deadly silence, the shifting of beads like futile penance or a lottery.
“Thing is, I enjoyed it,” the man confesses. “I’m pretty far gone, ain’t I?”
As far as Palumbo’s concerned, the statement is true: the man’s a lost cause. Beyond redemption. The priest has just about written Frye off along with the drug runner—too much baggage, the both of them. Too many boundaries crossed. It’s the kid who’s become his personal project—the doe-eyed, bowlegged rodeo clown who still stands a snowball’s chance in hell. Saving the kid from the fate of those other two has almost become an obsession.
“Ever seen a man with a red hot poker up his ass?” The coarse sand paper grinds, waking the distracted priest from reverie. He considers the question rhetorical, opting for silence.
The drug runner’s hands go suddenly limp with realization. “Vinnie ain’t loyal to no one, not even family. Don’t know where I’ll ever feel safe…”
Palumbo’s often entertained the thought: the scum of the earth get what’s coming to them. It’s the company one keeps in life that keeps a knife out of one’s back. Or not.
“I was hoping you could help…” The man’s voice sounds choked, desperate.
Monsignor Palumbo cannot believe his ears.
“Surely you’re not asking for sanctuary,” he marvels incredulously, “from the mob…”
Palumbo’s exiting the booth—time to call it a day—when he spots them peaking from under the plush but flimsy drapes of the confessional: a string of blood red rosary beads. The drug runner was fumbling with them but somehow must have lost his grip.
The priest stoops to retrieve them. He’ll deliver them to the lost and found to maintain the man’s anonymity under the Sacramental Seal. For some reason—maybe it’s his own obsessive-compulsive nature or the undeniable fact that the drug runner is scum—Palumbo draws a echo from his breast pocket and folds it about the string of beads before stashing it in the folds of his robe.
Wayde’s called in to interview at the Derby for an expediter position. That’s the fellow who brings out the food for the waiter, the kitchen manager has to explain. Other than that, the interview is a breeze. Just like an audition only without the cocksucking and no one walks funny afterward. Instead, the interview concludes when the kitchen manager casually asks, “so when can you start, kid?”
Wayde feels it beginning to burn off, the hopeless fog that has shrouded him for days, dread evaporating with the rising of an invisible sun. It’s just as he suspected: one development gets the ball rolling and suddenly it seems remotely possible to chip away at the rest. He’s told Big Joe how desperately he wants to make things right with Veronica. To start over without the grudgefucking and the perverted fantasies, however perfectly suited. Instead of her demons dancing with his, it could be just the two of them. Sex could be an extension of their affection—he’s heard of it working before.
“My people have a saying about starting over,” Big Joe assured him as encouragement. “Doesn’t quite translate, but the gist is: Life is long, and it always seems like the end of the world. We learn to be young.”
Why wait? Wayde’s mind is reeling after his successful interview. He makes up his mind: he’s going to hop in that convertible, race right over there and tell her how he feels. Exiting the Derby, his worn boot grazes an abandoned copy of the L.A. Times. The cover story, in bold print, reads: SEBASTIAN ARTIGA MURDER: New Details Emerge.
The L.A. Times is no tabloid. Morbid curiosity gets the best of him and he draws the paper near, backing beneath the Derby’s awning and beginning to read:
In a press conference today, the L.A. District Attorney’s office released new details in the murder investigation of veteran Hollywood actor Sebastian Artiga. They are very close to making an arrest, according to lead investigator Martin Frye.
‘We have a very strong case,’ he assured the media.
According to Frye, investigators’ early theory turned out to be correct. Too gruesome to be an opportunity-based robbery gone wrong, evidence of torture and dismemberment pointed to a motive much more personal in nature. Without divulging specifics that might compromise the investigation, Frye did confirm that investigators have interviewed countless Hollywood insiders in Artiga’s circle, all of them confirming one fact: Artiga regularly frequented male prostitutes, often entertaining escorts at his Hollywood Hills estate.
“The hustlers in question tortured the man for hours,” Frye said in today’s conference, “Most likely to get at his assets, or any cash or valuables he might have kept in the home. When he refused, something simply SNAPPED. It’s clear that the hustlers regularly engaged in homosexual acts with clients, but also carried around a deep-seated self-loathing. The bondage may have been voluntary on Artiga’s part,” the D.A. concluded, “The decapitation surely was not.”
Wayde Archer’s arms drop to his sides, buckled newspaper with them. A sick feeling rises in his stomach, and not just at the thought of an eviscerating red-hot poker or a bowling ball head far from where it belongs, but at the undeniable hunch that something’s not right. He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer—maybe he is just a fly on shit—but he knows in his gut when things don’t add up.
Wayde won’t let anxiety undo the hope that has colored his morning. He’ll keep it at bay, ride the wave of bliss that will carry him all the way to her place, into her arms. Maybe he’ll even propose. They can move far away from Hazy Valley, from fame and fortune and all that comes with it.
I should really call first, Wayde thinks, snapping out of it. He was raised right, after all. And he wouldn’t want to walk in on—well—better to call first. He’ll stop off at El Charro and do exactly that, he decides.
But when he gets there, everything’s amiss.
There are police lines and squad cars and investigators milling about the property. Even Pops is there, discussing something in hushed tones with the lead investigator. When he spots Wayde approaching the drive in the convertible, unable to turn onto it, he holds up a finger. A few final words designed to dissuade the investigator from something and Deveraux’s trudging across coarse grey asphalt toward the driver’s side of the Caddy.
“What in tarnation?” Wayde cries.
“They’re searching El Charro on a warrant,” Pops explains. “They’ve already recovered what they’re looking for.”
Pops doesn’t seem angry or even perturbed. The calm before a storm, Wayde’s sure.
“And what is it they’re looking for?” Wayde wants to know, half bracing for a knuckle sandwich.
“Couldn’t tell you.” Here Deveraux’s inscrutable calm looks something like compassion. That, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “But their minds are made up. Lead investigator’s dug his heels in, hell bent on making an arrest.”
Wayde’s mind goes to extortion, to the two squeaky clean, collegiate lotharios who are about as innocent as two kids with their hands in a bloody cookie jar. But in the pit of his stomach he knows the sleazeballs are not who the investigators are after.
“The fuzz would rather avoid a scene,” Pops explains, his often-boisterous bellow reduced to a low decibel whisper. He steals a sideways glance at the gumshoes who mill about the taped-off porch, keeping a vigilant eye on their hushed exchange.
“They’ve let me come talk to you first, hoping I’ll convince you to turn yourself in without incident.”
Wayde can’t believe his ears. Can’t believe any of it. Least of all that Pops Devereaux is treating him with kid gloves like a hostage negotiator. It’s surreal.
“Big Joe’s already in custody,” Devereaux informs him next.
That’s when the rage rises in Wayde, that fierce, fraternal protectiveness that’s been the only thing other than Elena to make him feel alive the past few weeks.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
Pops places a pudgy pink hand on Wayde’s arm. “This will all blow over. Trust me. I’ll make it all go away. For now, you’d be wise to do as they say and surrender peacefully. They haven’t got shit.”
“Haven’t got shit? Damn right they don’t! What could they possibly have?”
Pops proceeds with caution. “They’ve confiscated some rolling papers—claim they’re the same brand found at the crime scene. Something about fingerprints, saliva. Imagine convicting a kid on that!”
Wayde’s stomach drops a full floor, a broken elevator. His mind flashes back to that one unfortunate evening off Mulholland drive. He can see it clear as day—the crumpled, burnt-out butt the arresting officer recovered from inconsequential dirt.
They’ve planted it.
“The rest is just hearsay,” Devereaux assures the alarmed seventeen year-old whose heart’s begun beating out of his chest.
“The REST?” If the man is trying to comfort him, he’s doing a bang-up job.
“Gossip. A few lowlife hustlers from the west side told cops Artiga was fond of cowboys. Underage cowboys. They may have pointed a finger.”
Wayde’s eyes drift involuntarily to the porch, where Laurence and Clifford casually hold court with the team of investigators. Wayde’s rage rears up again like a cornered thoroughbred.
Jebediah Whitlock ain’t no dummy. His whole life he’s been made to feel he’s the dull knife in the drawer. But he knows a thing when he knows it.
I ain’t no fly on shit, he tells the voice that never leaves him.
Things go from bad to worse. Jebediah Whitlock—that’s how they address him—is not read his rights. He’s hauled into Hill Street station for questioning. No mention of lawyers or phone calls—only hours of grueling interrogation, scare tactics, intimidation. His insides are knotted up. He could keep things simple and tell the truth every step of the way—probably the best way not to get caught up in a tangle of fabricated details he could later fudge. He knows he’s innocent; telling the truth seems like the way to go. It’s his loyalty to Pop that creates the split. He’s always sensed the cops know about the man’s operation but look the other way. Some kind of payoff. Still, there wasn’t time at El Charro to get stories straight. As deeply ingrained in Jeb Whitlock as the instinct to tell the truth, is an instinct to remain loyal. Not to mention that Pops is the only one working from the outside on the boys’ behalf.
As a compromise, Jeb admits on the fly to prostituting himself with Art Acord; it’s already on record. But he claims to have met the man at a party earlier in the evening. Jeb only hopes he’s not hauled in for questioning.
When Hill Street’s done with him, Jeb’s sent on a bus to county.
Here, he surrenders his few belongings; they’re encased in polystyrene and tagged with a five-digit number. He’s issued an orange jumpsuit and shuttled along with dozens of other inmates to await booking. His shoes are inspected, the officer tasked with the job scowling all the while and spitting occasionally at nothing. When the man’s finished examining a given pair of shoes—their lining, their soles, even their laces, he throws them at their owner, issuing a racial slur when appropriate.
Then comes the waiting. Hours of it. The holding cell in which Jeb eventually finds himself is cramped with orange jumpsuits—some sitting on the shitty floor between clumps of toilet paper and discarded underwear, some rocking or singing to pass the time. There’s a single toilet centered against the back wall, fully exposed. Whenever it’s put to use the other jumpsuits avert their eyes. Wayde glues his to the shitty floor, counting shit stains. He’s kept to himself every step of the way. It’s not that he’s a snob—he was raised right after all, and God knows every one of those orange-clad men is innocent until proven guilty. It’s the irrational feeling that something might rub off if he makes eye contact, something that will make him a career criminal and sentence him to this shit-stained purgatory for all eternity.
It’s eight hours before he’s booked into a room and collapses onto a paper-thin mattress on a hard metal frame.
Three weeks later, there’s a sign from the outside.
He’s been lost in the system for what seems an eternity, curled up in darkness or wandering the endless clanking halls of a labyrinth several steps below purgatory. He’s lost all track of time, the lightless crypt rendering night indistinguishable from day, save for the shrill wakeup call that startles him from restless, disjointed dreams, the only reminder of a life he once knew. It is a dream, that other life, along with anything beyond this here and now, this blackness of shit-smeared concrete and steel bars and sickening regret. It’s the shrill alarm that punctuates space and time; he almost welcomes it. Except that reality ends up being bleaker than the brief respite of his dreams. On waking his mind reels full-throttle, visiting all he’s left in the dust. All the cigar-tinged, less-than-perfect vignettes, the subsistence that amounts to life. He hightailed it out of Dodge without looking back—but for what? For some elusive, glorious ideal cheapened by the desperate want of a million others just like him? A million flies on shit who don’t appreciate what’s right in front of them? Innocent until proven guilty but he’s convicted every last one of those orange fly-on-shit jumpsuits. They march in unison to infinitum, taunting him with vague familiarity.
It’s true that Texas—an abstraction now—teems with things unappreciated in retrospect, that the dream which led him here is an elusive silver screen façade that’s ever one take away. But one thing is perfect, and it’s what he meditates on; it expands to fill the dark void and sustain him. What he has with Veronica is fraught with fissures, no doubt, jagged edges. But his broken edges fit unerringly with hers, forging a perfect vase. He pictures her obsidian hair billowing about her shoulders at Musso and Franks, spilling like an igneous waterfall across a sea of cotton sheets. Its tiny halos are the only light in darkness for him—tiny, arcing refractions of hope in an otherwise dull void.
“Have you seen her?” It’s the first question he asks, desperate and panicked.
“Sorry, kid.” It’s Pops who’s come to visit.
Two guards appeared at Jeb’s cell, escorted him wordlessly through the hellish maze to the visitor’s area, where he addresses Devereaux through bulletproof glass.
“Does she know I’m in here?” It’s in saying the words that the possibility sinks in: “Hope to God she don’t think I up and skipped town.”
“We got bigger fish to fry, kid. You gotta focus.”
Jeb’s eyes narrow. Pops doesn’t get it. Never has and never will.
Pops’s own eyes narrow back, shedding all pleasantry. The only time Jeb’s seen the look is when Pops threw him against that porcelain refrigerator at El Charro.
“You want to see that broad again, you gotta play your cards right—simple as that.”
Jeb folds his hands, leans in toward the thick glass to indicate he’s paying attention.
“Now we gotta get you a defense team. Public Defender ain’t gonna cut it in this town.” Here Pops scans the cinder block chamber slyly, intense scowl indicting the stoic guards who flank the visitor’s entrance behind him.
“Too corrupt, “ Devereaux editorializes.
Jeb knows the man’s playing good cop. If there’s one thing weeks of purgatory will do, it’s strip off rose-colored glasses. Or stupidity.
“I gotta get outta here, Pops. I gotta see her!” Jeb’s back on it, a hound dog on a scent. “Not to mention this place is drivin’ me batty. I’m lost in here, Pops—lost all track of time and I ain’t kiddin.’ Completely invisible, too. Can’t get no questions answered—not a one—most you can get outta them asshole prison guards is a loogie full o’ snot hocked in your general direction. And you’re lucky to get that. Far as they’re concerned, you’re subhuman. Worse than a fly on shit. I mean, prison ain’t meant to be a pleasant experience but it’s beyond that. Them bastards have lost their humanity. You ain’t got someone working from the outside, bottom line, you’re lost in the system. You don’t exist.
Pops’s eyes slide down the thick, yellowed glass, settling on his fidgety pink digits. “Bail is more than I’d hoped. That’s what’s taken me so long.”
It doesn’t add up. Jeb knows the man’s loaded. And when he knows a thing, he knows it. Devereaux’s cast himself the good cop, no doubt. More than that, Jeb knows he’s being taught a lesson. He just doesn’t know why. He’ll have to play along. He summons the puppy dog eyes he perfected in workshop.
“I’d just about given up on you, Pops. Ain’t no one else on the planet—not even my real Pa—has the slightest inkling where I am right now.”
All at once, panic surfaces in the kid’s eyes, and it’s not a look he’s perfected in workshop.
“This ain’t made news yet, has it? Or the tabloids? She can’t find out that way…” His every thought’s still on her—the idea of her that’s his sole reason for fighting.
“Most that’s made the headlines is a statement from the D.A.’s office. Public knows an arrest has been made. But no details.”
“But the silence comes at a price, and it wasn’t cheap,” Pops concludes, confirming Jeb’s hunch that cops have been looking the other way with regard to Pops’s operation. That something’s bought their silence.
Jeb’s glad his name’s not been splattered across the front page of the L.A. Times. But the relief is short-lived. When you’re in purgatory, a sick feeling’s always lurking around the corner of the twisted labyrinth. If she hasn’t caught wind of his arrest, there’s only one conclusion Veronica’s bound to come to: he’s skipped town. If she’s stopped by El Charro for answers or sent Lola over, God knows what those sleazeball lotharios told her.
Deveraux’s timing is perfect. “Your emancipation went through, by the by. You’re a free man.”
The irony is not lost on Jeb. Still, he hardly believes it. “Pa didn’t contest it?”
“My lawyers are very persuasive,” comes the answer.
The image brings both more sickness and a remote satisfaction: that of Pa with a pistol to his head. Or worse, encased in sloppily poured concrete inside a fifty gallon drum.
“You want to see that broad again,” Pops lays it our sternly, “you gotta cough up bail. Then we’ll worry about a defense. Your old man’s outta the picture; you got full control of your finances, kid. You just gotta give Pops your account info and you’re a free man.”
Jeb’s sick feeling is growing sicker. “You’ve done a lot for me Pops. I’m grateful—really, I am. If you post bail I promise it’ll be the last favor I ever ask. Ain’t you got means?”
Devereaux’s eyes narrow again. “And ain’t you the famous Jebediah Whitlock, rodeo prodigy?”
Reluctantly, Jeb agrees to make Devereaux a cosigner on his two savings accounts. He tells the man where he keeps the passbooks: wedged right there in the safest place he knows, between the pages of the Gideon Bible on his nightstand. Assuming it hasn’t been confiscated in the raid, that is.
“I’ll be back in a day or so.”
Jeb allows earnest despair to well in his eyes in the form of tears. “I gotta get over there and see her.”
“I know, kid. I know.”
Two days later, Pops returns with papers to sign. Says he’ll go to his own bank, have the funds wired from Jeb’s, and visit the clerk’s office at county.
“By sundown tomorrow you’re a free man,” he promises. “Barring an act of nature.”
“Thank you,” Jeb mouths through thick, yellowed glass. He means it. His tears say as much.
“Not a second thought,” Pops assures him.
Before Devereaux exits on the far side of the glass, Jeb sees him hand something to one of the two humorless guards flanking double doors. The guard exists after Devereaux, disappears momentarily, then reappears to escort Jeb from his side of the visitor’s area. But instead of taking him back to his lonely cell, the guard plants Jeb before a mounted telephone in a part of the great labyrinth he’s never seen.
With that, the man drops a dime into Jeb’s skittish palm.
“Compliments of Mr. Devereaux.”
Dead willow fingers pierce the glassy surface of violet-spangled water, scattering reflections that dance. They’re mere illusions after all, not life itself. The great trunk grows aslant in the brook, marking the spot with numinous importance. But the leaves it surrenders are afterthoughts, sullen tokens that muddy up an otherwise sacred vigil. Deep in the cloudy murk, far beneath the lie of reflections, tendrils dance in invisible currents. Ophelia’s locks reach for the living, animated by the stream of her own dying breath. As it exits her frail body it heaves, delicate frame and gossamer folds and supple breasts. In an instant, she’s gone from this world.
Jeb thumbs the telephone receiver anxiously.
He doesn’t know Shakespeare. Hasn’t heard that the branch broke but the world knows better. He can’t know the depths of Ophelia’s sorrow or the archetype of her longing or what it is to pine, to want to end the excruciating pain with the herb of grace. He’s suffered in his own prison, but it’s nothing compared to the abyss of devotion, the deep knowing in every cell that the world is deceptive. But he pictures her just like Ophelia, cotton sheets now gentle muddy streams. The image makes no sense. All he really knows is that the voice on the other end of the phone is flat.
“She called you for weeks.” Lola informs him sternly.
At any moment she’ll give in, call off the dogs, he knows it. “Can I please talk to her? I know she’s there.”
“I hardly know you, Wayde. But what I do know is that heartbreakers get their comeuppance. It may take a while, but the cruelty of life catches up with them.”
“It ain’t like that; you don’t understand…”
“—What I do understand is that it’s too late.”
“It’s not too late. If you’d just let me explain it to her.”
The long, excruciating silence is when the image surfaces, the dream or the memory of her hair floating in tendrils between fallen leaves.
“She’s gone.” Lola says simply.
The line crackles.
“They said it was an accidental overdose,” she explains, no sugarcoating. “But I don’t believe in accidents.”
Jeb hangs up the phone.
If the previous several weeks of incarceration were purgatory, the next two are the eighth circle of hell. His only hope has been shattered, the tiny movie he’s played over and over again of the two of them moving far away for what really matters. But what looms greater than mourning the loss of her, making sense of the tragedy of it, is knowing he’s been careless with the heart of another. That he’s deceived someone who turned out to be fragile. Veronica Valdez was touched. She put on a tough exterior and made him the deer in the headlights. He knows now being touched stops a person in their tracks. It’s she who was the true innocent. Despite what Lola said about heartbreakers, what Wayde’s done haunts him. He’s not just a fly on shit. He’s a monster.
What remains the same is the lightless despair, the sick feeling, the knowledge that he’s lost in the system, the great labyrinth of lost souls marching in orange-clad unison. What’s new is the sinking feeling, the knowledge, that Pops is never coming back; the man’s skipped town. With his every last cent.
It’s almost funny; getting out of Dodge used to be his thing.
Jeb’s used his one phone call; Pops made sure of it. Even if he could get back to El Charro, could tunnel out with a spoon or click his worn heels together, he knows he’d find it abandoned. The two lotharios, the ones that pointed the finger he now knows, likely skipped town right along with Devereaux.
Jeb mourns the fantasy of ever again seeing the light of day.
He prepares to rot.
Palumbo’s trying to concentrate on his sermon. He’s a professional; he’s done this for years. So why does he find her so distracting—the red head in the second pew who’s cried off her mascara? His sermon’s on integrity, but not what one would think. He likes to take them by surprise, get them to rethink their presumptions on liturgy. He’s made the connection to community—how we’re all in this together and if our shared humanity is not enough to regulate our base drives, what have we got? He’s gently suggested if we can’t find our compassion and realize that we’re all here to save one another, each of us filling a need or completing another or removing a broken arrow, we’re lost. And apparently it’s affected her. Boy, is he good.
In the limestone courtyard during fellowship, she approaches him. He turns.
The tears have not stopped. Not a stitch of makeup left, not even that eccentric mole he’s noticed all the way from the pulpit.
“How do you do, Father?” She extends a gloveless hand. “I’m Evelyn. Evelyn Hood.”
“Monsignor Palumbo,” the man returns, twinkly blue eyes signaling she’s safe with him.
“I enjoyed today’s sermon very much.”
“Thank you,” Palumbo nods. He just knows she’s going to say it struck a chord.
Instead, by way of explanation: “I have a friend who’s been accused of something horrible.” Here, her eyes fix on the priest with conviction. “But he’s innocent.”
Palumbo consoles her earnestly as best he can without details. “Rest assured the Lord sees all and exonerates the innocent. ‘We stand judged by the Father alone.’ Romans 14:10.”
“Thank you, father.” She can’t let go of his hand. Nor can she stop the steady stream of tears.
“Would you like to speak privately?” Monsignor Palumbo asks her gently.
“The thing is,” she sniffles, “He could be imprisoned for life. Or executed. He’s a member of this congregation.”
Palumbo’s cogs turn, taking stock of missing faces or sinister ones, comparing the sandpaper-voiced confessions he’s heard in the dark to conspicuous absences. He’s noticed the doe-eyed rodeo clown has skipped services. How could he not notice? The kid has become his project. Though the suspect’s name has not been released to the public, Palumbo knows it’s the kid she’s referring to.
“May we enter the confessional?” The priest urges.
There in the dark, protected by the Sacramental Seal, Evelyn Hood’s voice lowers to a whisper. It mingles with the dozens of other disembodied voices Palumbo’s heard over the years, silent to the ears of the world but meant for his alone. Some of them forge a strange connection, an unlikely kinship. Some rile him, testing his compassion and inciting judgment or even wraith. Rotten to the core, he’s heard himself say. Evelyn Hood’s does neither, only invites him to withhold judgment and ponder. To rethink his own take on liturgy.
She explains that she indeed has connections at LAPD. She gets what she needs and they get what they need. It’s never been discussed, but she knows she’s being used to leak information and sway public opinion. That way, the courts and human nature being what they are, the D.A. can get whatever results he needs from a jury.
“Think of me what you wish.” Evelyn’s voice is suddenly as brassy as her hair, no trace of her former vulnerability. “Think whatever you like—that I’m owned. But everyone’s got a Daddy in this town. It’s the mob owns the D.A.’s office, has ‘em running scared half the time…”
“There’s one thing I don’t quite get,” Palumbo admits. “Even if Frye feared for his life, why an innocent kid like Archer? I know the kid; he’s got a good heart.”
“Frye let his officers take care of it. They’ve known about Deveraux’s operation for a long while now. Looked the other way. Call it just another payoff—happens every day in this town—but Pops was willing to sacrifice one of his own…”
Evelyn Hood is long gone when Monsignor Palumbo emerges from the confessional. His mind is reeling, questioning his own gauge for innocence or guilt, his own relationship with doubt. More demoralizing, he wonders if God truly does see people’s hearts and deliver justice in the end. Or do some escape it somehow, make it to the end without so much as a scarlet letter? He knows he’s no different than his congregation—that he creates his own arbitrary morality, his own boundaries. Those that suit him. He knows, because he’s about to forgo the Sacramental Seal.
Palumbo notices it for the first time, stretching floor to ceiling in the lobby. He wonders at how it is he’s never noticed. Oh, he knew something was there, maybe even a mural. But he’s never caught its narrative content. It’s Abraham, clutching a great glistening sword in trembling fists, raising it high above his head against a thundering cloudbank. At his feet, his own son lies naked on a rock, skin pallid under the stormy ambience but coursing with blood.
It’s early Monday morning Palumbo crosses Wilshire Boulevard in street clothing. The sun’s already scorching, sending razor sharp shadows crawling across the eroded pavement before the D.A.’s office. He’s already thumbing it: the tissue-wrapped string of beads that’s been sitting unclaimed in that pathetic drawer known as the ‘lost and found.’
The moment Frye’s eased the door shut behind them, Palumbo produces the sacred rosary, fingerprints invisible but fully intact.
“You’ve got the wrong guy.” He says simply.
The boys are shuttled from the state penitentiary to Hill Street Station to expedite their release. The two are reunited there in the courthouse before the judge; they exchange glances, but nothing more. The elation each respectively feels is tempered by the injustice endured, the feeling that at any moment the other shoe could drop. The judge explains new evidence has been introduced into the investigation that exonerates them, or rather, implicates a more viable suspect. It’s enough, when paired with insufficient evidence against them, to warrant the release of the boys from custody.
When they emerge through Hill Street Station’s double glass doors to freedom, it’s Evelyn Hood standing there in the pouring rain beneath a ridiculously colorful umbrella that’s more of a circus tent. Her coral lipstick smile is sincere; sure, it turns up asymmetrically in one corner, betraying a keen awareness of life’s secrets—of all that exists behind the thin veil of willing delusion, but it’s not a smirk. It’s most decidedly, categorically not a smirk. Any mild distrust on the part of the hustlers, or the former hustlers, is quickly trumped by the woman’s familiarity—the sense she’s a kindred spirit somehow. She steps forward to meet them on a slick, deserted sidewalk.
“As a journalist I never thought I’d say this,” she qualifies, “but do not ask any questions. Just kiss the ground.”
Big Joe does exactly that, not wasting a moment. He kneels on the fractured, pollution-smattered cement, slick with rain and rife with jaded promise, and presses his lips to the future it represents.
A moment later they’re piling into Hood’s four-door Seville.
Sheets of rain pummel the windshield of the Cadillac, taunting inept wiper blades with their relentless assault. Jeb’s never seen such a tempest in La-La Land; for that matter, he’s never seen anything remotely resembling weather.
“Chubasco,” Big Joe explains when Jeb questions the accuracy of the Sunshine State’s reputation. “Comes from the south every year around this time in June. But the Tongva here called it Quaoar, for chaos.”
As if in protest, the broiling cloud cover belches thunder, flashes of lightning illuminating it from within like an X-Ray. The result is startling, profound, illustrating in no uncertain terms the tempest is sentient. It’s a great living, breathing network of thought forms and energy, hell bent on destruction. The great churning mass is anything but chaotic; it’s willful and determined.
Evelyn navigates the slippery pavement with meticulous care, turning onto Beachwood Canyon with a minimum of fishtailing. Sheets of runoff come at them from above, forming walls that form higher walls like the front lines of an advancing army. On arrival at El Charro, she skillfully circumvents one of countless puddles and turns into the curved, aggregate-speckled driveway.
There’s no luggage to grab; the boys exit the vehicle empty-handed. They stand there, doors open, unsure what to say, whether to invite her in or just see her at church or defy her mandate to maintain a code of silence on the off chance she meant the opposite. Jeb’s hunch is correct: Pop’s convertible is long gone, along with any sign of the other tenants of El Charro. Even the deck chairs have been taken. Unless they’ve been swept away by the Chubasco.
“Thank you,” Jeb offers at last.
Evelyn’s look is one of stern warning; the code of silence will remain intact.
“—for the ride,” Jeb finishes.
From the other side of the vehicle, Big Joe nods his concurrence.
Evelyn winks. It’s then that Jeb notices—the expertly fashioned eyebrow pencil mole is nowhere to be found. Maybe she’s retired it, he speculates.
They hear it first, long before it arrives, as a deafening, guttural moan from the bowels of the earth. Jeb thinks it’s an earthquake; the southland is known for them, Hollywood itself seated precariously between volatile faults as if to test nature’s erratic temperament. The three look to one another, frozen like prisoners suddenly aware they’re in a gas chamber.
It’s not an earthquake.
Five hundred yards above, a great wall of water careens through Beachwood Canyon, banking off steep hillsides and thrashing anything in its path, tearing up brush and unearthing stones the size of buildings, softening the earth to melted butter. Chunks of hillside surrender, come down with the relentless current, slowing it with viscosity while adding to its destructive force. The flood ingests all in its path, amassing greater and greater wraith with each casualty.
The surging mass rounds a bend, revealing biblical proportions.
“Oh shit,” is all Joe can utter through a slack, paralyzed jaw.
There’s nowhere to run.
Decapitated rooftops decorate the surface of the muddy glacier—those red-tiled postmodern attempts to furnish the forsaken place an identity. In a flash, El Charro’s roof is one of them. Before their eyes the Spanish style cube is torn from its foundation, abducted, spindly stilts shredded from beneath it like toothpicks. The concrete slab is torn in two; what remains of the driveway is left sagging in serrated asphalt tendrils. Inches from the brink, the car and its open doors and two recently emancipated civilians stand awestruck and speechless. Any utterance would be nullified in the deafening roar; it shows no sign of subsiding.
A detached melancholy accompanies the surreal unfolding, a wistful sorrow of buckling alien palm trees and their whipping stalks like falling prey, shredded frond crowns careening downriver like bumper cars, no remembrance of former glory. Jeb’s not looking for it—not scanning for artifacts among Spanish tiles in the flow of magma, but it’s hard to ignore: the stark white cranium bobbing on an earthen tide. So is the second, and the third, and the ribcage and its severed spine that come next. A disembodied pelvis banks off the sheer granite bedrock that remains intact. Turns out Big Joe was right after all: the entire tract has in fact been built on an ancient Hahamog'na burial site.
Evelyn Hood’s guesthouse looks out over Edendale, or Red Gulch as it’s known to locals. The undulating hills offer a view of the growing downtown skyline in one direction and distant, dreamlike surf in the other. It’s smaller than El Charro, but more than sufficient for two unlikely friends-turned-family. There’s nothing to unpack; the only worldly possessions the two own between them are the shirts on their backs—the ones handed back to them in numbered burlap sacks to replace the orange jumpsuits. Jeb’s brush with the law has made him skittish—once bitten twice shy. Any injustice he feels at having been wrongfully accused, incarcerated, is couched in the feeling of having dodged a bullet of his own making. More than that, he knows you can’t fight city hall.
Evelyn advises him to get a private investigator on Deveraux’s trail pro-bono; local law enforcement won’t do a damn thing to track him down. And the unscrupulous man could be anywhere. Jebediah Whitlock harbors little hope of ever again seeing the considerable nest egg he’s accumulated at the tender age of almost-eighteen. Live and learn.
Evelyn’s advice has a vaguely maternal tone, which extends to her insistence the boys get jobs and pay rent, however modest. The job at the Derby is not waiting for Jeb, needless to say. He talks Joe into hoofing it down to Musso and Franks. As luck would have it, two servers have just quit; after a ten-minute interview, the boys are issued monogramed towels and taught to stand attentively with said towels draped meticulously across eager forearms.
Soon enough things regain a sense of normalcy. It’s then that Jebediah Whitlock, Big Joe, and Evelyn Hood step out to Sunday morning services. Jeb and Big Joe have not spoken about Veronica, but sitting there in the third pew a gaping chasm seats itself between them—an absence each feels to the core, soliciting silent tears. The sermon is about innocence: the myth of it, its fragility, the stealing of it or willing forfeiture. The selling out and the trading up and the slow, gentle erosion of it over time. Palumbo likens it to a conch shell, gently, painlessly caressed by waves until shapelessly beautiful. He takes the congregation by surprise as he often does, suggesting that innate kindness is not something many of us are born with. It’s a gift, a rare gem in a selfish universe out to propagate itself, chewing us up and spitting us out in its relentless unfolding. Kindness is the anomaly, he says. Most of us learn innocence. Our mothers teach us to temper our base drives with it. He invokes Cain and Abel as the potential drive in all of us to kill or be killed, and challenges the congregation by asking who among them would die for principle.
The ensuing silence is as much an expression of culpability as anything.
“Most of us wander about blissfully unaware God is watching us, benefitting from his grace all the same, operating on the pleasure principle but citing true principle only when it serves us. It’s nothing more than a card we play when the time is right.”
The clincher is what the congregation least expects:
“The well-kept secret is that God finds principle cold and unforgiving. God is not a fan of piety; he detests self-righteousness. Our humanity is in the pleasure principle, the easy way out, in our simple desire to like and be liked. For there lives our compassion and our forgiveness—there in the tiny cracks that form in what we can cite and document and hold over one another’s heads…”
Jeb’s picturing the Gideon Bible he’ll never see again, floating on a reeling tide of fallen earth, among the bobbing corpses and stark-white craniums.
The limestone courtyard is flooded with mid-morning’s scathing light; it glances blinding off rough-hewn corners and crudely carved gothic ornament. Children dart unattended between cool, violet shadows, avoiding the searing light.
One of them seems more serious than the others. The boy has extinguished the candles in the sanctuary, a weekly ritual. He’s now folding the satin collar of his Acolyte robe, approaching Palumbo for approval he’s done everything right.
Monsignor Palumbo places a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Just then, Palumbo looks up and his eyes lock with Jeb’s across the limestone desert.
The look in them in inscrutable, kind and full of grace, but inscrutable.
Jeb nods. A good, old fashion, Texas nod.