And, in a matter of seconds, the car, seemingly of its own volition, careened down the Lincoln Boulevard offramp and slid into a neighborhood of apartment houses and tree-lined streets. Sycamores, poplars or some such, square buildings each like the other, street after street. Until the car stopped, pulled over halfway down a block.
"Why are we stopping here?" Nancy asked, surprised by the force of her question.
"Toss of the dice," he answered. "Gotta stop somewhere."
Toss of the dice, Nancy thought, but he sure as hell wasn't any Paw-paw no matter what his rap about inner selves --- most vulnerable inner selves, he said -- and outward images. Now he was going to attempt to get the gun from her.
"Paw-paw never hurt anybody."
She looked at him, as if to ask what his problem was.
"You keep saying things that make no sense."
"Ah, yeah," she said and laughed, again surprising herself, now because she was in a predicament such as this and found things amusing, ironic even.
She glanced down the street, its square stucco buildings, the trees, and thought, This place seems to go on forever, this neighborhood. Then she remembered the gun in her hand; she could do what she wanted, anything. What she wanted was him out of her car.
"Get out," she said.
"What'd you mean, 'Then what'? Run your rap-cool ass down the street and out of my sight before I put another hole in your ass."
She wasn't proud of herself, or even the least bit surprised now. Instead, what followed these last words was a deepening sorrow, a wistfulness for something she could feel yet not quite remember.
"I promise," he offered. "Just give me my gun. I'll get out, you drop it up the street, I'll fetch it after you're gone, splitsville."
"I'm counting to 10, fuckhead." She lifted the gun, aimed at his forehead.
She wasn't kidding. She wasn't bluffing. No bullshit here. He understood that much and more -- she was crazy. Again, he saw brains splattered across a windshield. He got out, carefully, didn't look back.
She rested the gun on the seat, slid over to the driver's side and pulled shut the door her self-appointed host had left open. She took hold of the wheel. She'd had a plan -- to head toward Nebraska from her home state of Nevada, but only by towns that began with N -- and she'd abandoned that plan, found herself in Los Angeles. What now? Another plan? Back to square one?
But her mind drifted. She was thinking of her mother, thinking that her mother might have been different, everything might've been different, if only someone had held a gun to her head every day of her life.
Now she could hold the gun to her own head. She had a head on her shoulders. And she had a gun. She tapped her fingernails against the metal.
She stroked the long, cool barrel, caressed the trigger. She picked it up and held it in her hand. The weight surprised her. The feeling of portent, of hard packaged consequences. She pressed it against her shiny, travel-grimed forehead, slid it down to her cheek, felt it warm to the temperature of her blood. She had never had a gun before. Maybe that was her problem. She had never had a gun to hold to her head, for anyone to hold to her head.
The streetlights hummed and burned holes of light in the dark. The leaves of the palm trees rattled in the breeze. The fourplexes and little one-story houses all around her were sleeping, lights out, covers drawn up. Where the hell was she? Fear had left her with an uncomfortable need to change her underwear. She'd been to L.A. once before, with her mother and a man, when she was 8 or 9, on a fractured trip to Disneyland. She had taken the rides alone. She had watched them giggle and kiss from the merry-go-round. Seen his eyes narrow and her mother's arms cross from the top of the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Heard them arguing as she trundled away on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. When she returned from flying over Never-Never Land, her eyes squinting in the hot Anaheim sun, he was gone. She and her mother left together on a Greyhound.
There had to be more to L.A. than failed romance, porno films and philosophizing carjackers. The wind picked up, and she could smell the ocean, faraway and tar-stained, but salt water nonetheless. There would be a public bathroom at the beach. There would be something else to look at, something besides this gun.
She left the neighborhood, turned onto Lincoln. The sky was getting lighter. She was lighter, too. She crossed Pico Boulevard, Grant Street and Pacific Street. Not an N in sight. She came to Ocean Park. It would have to do. She turned right, topped the hill, and there it was. The ocean. She let her car coast down the wide street, under the bridge with the painted murals of whales and wild horses. She ran the red light at the bottom of the hill and came to a stop only when she could go no farther, the Civic's grill resting against a painted yellow cement barrier. For the second time in her two-day trip, she put her head against the steering wheel and cried.