Illustrations by Jessica Abel
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT. Ordinarily, a Weekly Literary Supplement means book reviews and essays. Last year, we devoted one WLS to short fiction. This summer, we asked a number of local fiction writers to write a chain story. Each writer saw all of the preceding chapters (without the authors' identities), allowing him or her to build organically on the story in progress -- or, in some cases, to simply jump cut and run in a new direction. (Ignoring the previous writers' directives proved somewhat popular.) It's a sort of literary "telephone" game. And in that spirit, we've listed the authors' names alphabetically: Maybe you'll recognize the writer by his or her words. Find out who wrote what in the key that follows the story.
What Nancy decided was head toward Nebraska from her home state of Nevada but only by towns that began with N. Her mother had always said she was going nowhere but now that her mother was silent and dead, Nancy decided to see if that was true after all. She packed her car with chips and water and tapes, but no maps. The plan was no plan; she would simply follow the N signs, and see where she ended up.
That first night she drove east through Nevada, and many hours later, hungry and tired, in southern Utah, came upon the first N town, which was called, quite unfortunately, Nada. Nancy, who knew a bit of Spanish, wept into her steering wheel, hearing her mother's raspy voice yelling Nowhere! Nothing! Never! but Nancy still obeyed her own rules, pulled to the side of the road and camped in Nada, which had population 600 and a diner that served rhubarb pie. The dirt was whitish and the sky like old jeans. She sniffled into her sleeping bag and slept to the sounds of no cars whizzing on the highway. She did not see a single person except the man at the diner who sold her the slice of rhubarb pie and seemed to resent her exact change.
At sunrise, sloggy with morning, she climbed back into her car.
Heading northeast, she crossed into Colorado, and the mountains rose green and pink before her. The radio talk-show host was explaining how to clean your stove with a lemon wedge. On the next station was a song about losing your love in Kentucky. Static. Next: The weather will be partly cloudy. After 10 hours, she had not seen a single N sign on the freeway and began to wonder what to do if nothing showed up. Rules were rules. She wasn't allowed to stop. But just as she was passing through Boulder, just as her eyes were fading on the road, which was starting to look an awful lot like the dark gray inside of her mother's yelling mouth, Nancy saw a small sign. It said Next Exit: Niwot.
The road into Niwot was banked on either side by mountains that reminded her of sleeping cats or maybe bears, some sort of big beast, all haunch. She held her breath so as not to wake them. Another sign: You are entering Left Hand Valley. She thought, This was somewhere. She started to pass subdivisions of ample homes, although as yet few trees, just the occasional grouping of teenage aspen. This was a place where you could see straight through the front yards to the back, and in the back there were swimming pools covered with bright tarps. She drove past a bronze statue, Chief Niwot in full regalia. Hey, Nancy said. Her mood improved. Hey, she waved at a woman walking twin terriers. Hey, to a mailwoman. Hey, she waved at a lanky boy who looked to be about 13 or 14. He was standing on the opposite side of the street, hitching the other way, she realized. He was wearing all black, black boots, a long black coat -- no, a cape of some sort -- and his close-cropped hair, neon, fuchsia, reminded her of the lint she removed from her dryer whenever she cleaned her favorite blanket. This boy, however, did not wave back; in fact, he scowled, and Nancy thought, Whatever.
A low spread of ruddy brick, a library, the firehouse, and parking galore. There were quite a few nice crafts shops. Things made of wood. Boxes, cradles. Things made of metal -- all manner of wind chimes. In fact, an abundance of wind chimes, and Nancy hated wind chimes. But it was quite possible that she had become a little too settled in her ways. Too fixed in her likes and dislikes. So she sprung for one.
She regretted her purchase almost immediately. The chimes rattled around in her shopping bag. She was making a lot of noise. When she took a counter seat in the diner and set down her bag, everyone stared. On the menu was rhubarb pie -- her favorite -- but dedicated now to new things, she asked for the cherry. It was too sweet, all syrup, low on actual fruit. She added a hamburger to her order and requested it rare, but it was served well-done. Since she was moving through courses backward, she ordered a bowl of onion soup, which was, predictably, all salt. She paid her tab in dimes, which irked the man at the cash register, and so she was thinking Niwot was not a place she could stay long. On her way out of town, she passed the boy with the bright hair again, still in the same spot. He held out his thumb. Nancy pulled over and reached across the front seat to roll down the window.
"Hey," she said.
She noticed that the boy was wearing mascara, big gobs of it. Some grayish eye shadow, too, and a ruby lipstick that Nancy had an urge to sample.
"Where you headed?" Nancy asked.
"Anywhere," he said.
The boy slid into the front seat, gathering his excess cape in his lap. They traded names. His was Ned.
He said, "Nancy. I get called that."
"Your friends call you Nancy," Nancy said.
"Friends," Ned said and puffed. "Yeah, it's a Left Hand compliment."
Nancy followed signs for the interstate.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" she asked.
Ned didn't answer. He turned on the radio and searched for a station.
Nancy noticed a smear of blood on his left hand. "Ouch," she said.
"Oh," Ned said. "It's not mine."
Then Nancy noticed three long scratches running down Ned's cheek, faint but recent wounds. She wanted to ask him if he was okay but decided to wait. Tears were welling up in his eyes. And it was starting to rain.
"You're going the wrong way," he said.
"This is the way I'm going," she said. "Are you in or out?"
He fiddled with the dial of the radio, picking up Denver, some old-timey two-step, Spanish language, lounge, unseen talking heads. "Fuck this," Ned said, switching it off in disgust. "I hate my life." He was crying, mascara streaks like Alice Cooper, Love It to Death. Nancy handed him the box of tapes. The kid riffled through the cassettes she had packed in the car before she left Nevada. Neville Brothers. Laura Nyro. Harry Nilsson. Nico. He chose the only one he recognized, Nirvana, and stuck it in the tape deck. Kurt Cobain's sad whine filled the car. Rape me, the dead rocker begged, and the windshield wipers kept time.
"My mother's dead," Nancy said.
He lifted his fuchsia-crowned head, wiped his nose on the back of his hand. His nails were painted black, and he had a chain wrapped around his wrist.
"She said I was going nowhere. What do you think?"
"I don't know," Ned said. "Where are you going?"
"Nebraska," she said.
"Close enough," he said, putting his boots on the dashboard.
His skin was very bad. He was picking at his face. He didn't follow a thorough regime of cleansing, she thought. Pancake makeup's a bitch to get off. Outside the windows of her Civic -- an old kind of Civic, the tiny ones that look like a lunch box lacking only the handle and the picture of the Power Rangers on the side -- the plains stretched on forever, without the slightest indication of the passage of buffalo or bareback riders on wild mustangs. Bury me on the lone prairie. An enormous RV passed them on the left, and the shock of the concussion about knocked them off the road. Bikes and lawn chairs hung off the back. Nancy stared at it as it grew smaller and smaller on the two-lane, wondering what kind of people left home only to take every goddamn thing with them.
"It wasn't my fault," the boy said.
"Sure," she said.
"We weren't doing anything."
"She thought she saw us kissing, but she didn't see shit."
"You and who?"
He didn't reply.
"I'm never going back there," he said after a while.
The rain was coming down heavier, and her wipers could barely keep up with it. It was a landscape all horizontal, without detail but the road. Dark land, paler sky, two halves of a desolation. There was no sunset, just fade to black.
"Do you believe in true love?" the boy asked. "Do you believe it's possible?"
She considered true love. If anything in the world could be true, it would be too much to expect it to be love. It would more likely be something from the mineral kingdom, true lead, or true quartz. Anything made out of flesh and blood was too squirmy and pliable. True was something the compass pointed. True maybe was a direction and not a place or a person at all. But, she figured, turning up the radio, anything that talked had no chance at all. The only time people stopped lying was when they stopped talking.
"Sure," she said. "Why not."
When a few moments passed and he still hadn't responded, she glanced at him. No sign he'd caught the sarcasm, but he was awfully quiet all of a sudden.
"How do you feel about the letter N?"
"What?" he said.
Then it was quiet again. For a hundred miles.
For a hundred miles, the both of them just sat there and said nothing. Once in a while, Ned would sniff, wipe at his nose, doze off. This is the sound of honesty, Nancy thought. This is the sound of truth. Two people just sitting there, silent, honest. Then she thought, No. This is the sound of two people just sitting there not talking. Nothing else.
They drove on through the rain, and after a while she couldn't help feeling something was supposed to happen. Flat tires. Lightning. A head-on collision. She pictured a woman in a torn wedding gown appearing suddenly in the middle of the road, arms waving, soaked bouquet hanging limp from one bloody mangled hand. Pink roses.
Then for some reason she found herself thinking of the specialist's office, sitting there across the desk from him with her mother, and she pictured a thick green book on his shelf. Principles of Internal Medicine. Next to it, the Physician's Desk Reference. And in front of them both, an antique bottle -- the words "BEST OIL LINIMENT" on a faded, yellowed label.
She watched the windshield wipers scrape away the rain with that same unchanging rhythm and she pictured her mother, slumped over a video-poker machine, tubes snaking up into her nostrils from an oxygen tank at her side.
Nowhere. Nothing. Never.
Just outside Sterling, Colorado, 60 miles from the Nebraska state line, Ned finally broke the silence. "Hey," he said.
"What?" she said.
"Do you ever feel like you're just kind of moving along . . . and, like, something is supposed to happen? Like, something big? Like you're just going along doing the same thing over and over, but . . . I don't know . . ."
"Oh my God," she said. "I was just thinking that exact thing. I mean, here we are, driving to, I don't know -- nowhere -- dark stormy night blah blah blah, and all I can think is, Okay, any second now, my tire's gonna blow, or . . . some maniac's gonna jump out in front of us . . ."
"Or, like, there'll be a bright light in the sky and . . ."
". . . and aliens . . ."
"Right, aliens . . . abduction . . ."
"Yes, yes!" she said. "Aliens swooping down to abduct us!"
She laughed, hit the steering wheel with her palms, looked up through the windshield at the sky. She saw water, and black.
"Aliens," she said, grinning.
Then they were quiet again, the rain steady, unchanging around them, until gradually, in the silence, she became aware of him there watching her. "What?" she said.
"Stop the car," Ned said.
Nancy thought, What the heck, and slowed to a stop without pulling over -- they were, after all, alone in the middle of nowhere. "Take my hand," Ned said, offering his, palm upturned. The car idled in neutral, her foot on the brake. Nancy took his hand. Cold! His skin was liquid, with almost no surface tension. As she touched him, he shuddered deeply, then seemed to relax. Nancy let go, and when she took her hand away she saw a white, scorched mark on her palm, like when peroxide is poured on a wound. "Thank you," he said, a note of deep relief in his voice. "It helps me to have human contact. I've been adrift for a long time. When I first got here . . ." He gestured vaguely out across the open surface of the earth. "I was very homesick at first. I tried to fit in." He fingered his chain bracelet. "Then I met a girl." He started to weep into his hands. The swipe of blood on his skin had turned rust-red and grainy, and when his pale green tears fell, it began to wash away.
"Your girlfriend?" Nancy said.
"All I wanted was love," Ned sobbed. "But you see, I couldn't touch her. She didn't understand."
Nancy cut the engine, there in the middle of the blank highway, and Ned poured out his heart to her. He'd been a teenager on his home planet, too, raised on grainy broadcasts of MTV and Beverly Hills 90210, as were all of his spaceman friends. One night after too many episodes of Road Rules, he'd stolen his dad's rocket runner and gone for a joy ride. He'd meant merely to buzz the blue planet, but he'd skimmed too close, been caught in the atmosphere, and plunged into the Colorado desert. His rocket was a goner, and no one back home knew where he was, and besides, his father would be royally pissed about the totaled rocket runner. He couldn't go home now.
"My pH balance isn't right for human contact," he said, snorfeling. "It's too acidic. People touch me, they get burned." Nancy made a quick decision. She reached forward and took Ned's shoulders, drawing him to her chest in an embrace. When she let go, she saw a burn on her right cheek reflected in the rear-view mirror. "We have to call your parents," Nancy said. "How can we do that? Do we call NASA?" Ned shook his head. "The only communication we have with your planet is one-way, and it's through your broadcast airwaves." Nancy made another quick decision. That was how many now, in the space of the very few minutes since she'd stopped the car in the middle of nowhere? She fired up the Civic and did a U-turn. "Where are we going?" Ned asked weakly.
"We're going to Hollywood," Nancy said. "You'd better buckle up."
This seemed to please him.
"I'm serious, put your seat belt on. It's the law. America keeping its people safe."
"I thought you just meant be prepared, or here we go. My penis is also an air bag. It protects me against head injuries, so I don't really need the belt."
"That's a very useful penis, Ned. How old did you say you were?"
"If you were paying attention you'd remember that I said I was 14."
"But you're really a lot older."
"Correct. I'm 18."
"Old enough to be in porn, darling."
"My exact thought."
"You're from Uranus, aren't you?"
"Watch this." Ned flung his head in the direction of the dashboard. Just before impact, his pants exploded and out popped a huge rubbery air bag.
Nancy looked over at Ned, amazed. "My God, are those testicles?"
Ned blushed. "Yes, they are, if you insist on calling them that."
"What a lovely-horrible piece of anatomy you have there. The men on our planet . . . never mind. I'm telling you this in all sincerity. I bet you could fit at least two people comfortably on your penis."
"You think so?"
"Yes I do. It kind of looks like a couch, like a huge bolster cushion, or a davenport. Do you think you can get that thing back in your pants. It's burning my elbow."
"Sorry." In one swift motion, his sex-organ air bag was folded up and inserted back into his pants. "How many miles does this get to the gallon?"
"Like a thousand."
The next 24 hours passed in a blur. The car sputtered as they approached North Hollywood. A freeway sign said, PORNO CAPITAL OF THE WORLD NEXT 10 EXITS.
"Magnolia sounds like a good-luck street, turn off here."
"We have no choice."
"We do have a choice. We either produce our own line of videos -- I got a camera, see?" Ned pulled a tiny silver box out of his pocket. "Or, we waltz into one of these gas station/porno boutiques and let them exploit us."
"I say we make our own. Keep it small and personal."
"Nancy, I'm kind of getting a crush on you. I want you to be in them with me."
"Ned sweetie, you're an E.T. I'm a good girl. I'm the driver. I eat rhubarb pie every chance I get. Plus I have allergies. You don't know this, but I'm allergic to paper money for example. We need to find you two girl-next-doors. We also need to figure out a way to coat your skin so you don't burn your co-stars."
Nancy drove straight to the North Hollywood Greyhound station, figuring it might be a good place to pick up 17-year-olds desperate for cash. Pulling the parking brake, Nancy envisioned two large-boned, moist-faced girls huddled beside the pay phone, one plaintively whispering that they hadn't eaten in so long, since yesterday's lunch, while the other's lip trembled and her hand closed around the receiver. Nancy would be helping.
When she walked inside, Nancy saw the only person in the place was a lummox of a woman with a short grizzled perm, sitting behind the scarred Plexiglas, reading the Weekly World News. Nancy panicked; she looked out the plate-glass window, where she saw Ned leaning against the passenger-side door.
"Nothing," Nancy said, walking near enough to Ned to touch his sleeve, wondering how close before she got burned. He wasn't looking at her, but across the street, where several fast-food joints were doing morning business.
"That's what a hamburger's all about," he said, crossing in the direction of In-N-Out.
"You eat?" Nancy asked as he walked away, noticing Ned's shoulders overfilling the cape. He's getting bigger, Nancy thought, and, I have to find a john.
She walked into the bus station and straight for the bathroom, which ã was bizarrely clean, literally sparkling, and not smelling of urinal cookies or turds but oxygen.
"Nice," Nancy said out loud, seating herself on the toilet. Just before she relieved herself, she let out a choked cry. Looking down between her legs, she realized it would have to be her. Since her mother's death, she had not felt up to the responsibility of even simulating procreation. She'd been fixating on death for so long, on void, and now this man, boy, Ned . . . could she take it? What were the ramifications? She could stop the plan right now. It had been her idea. She was allowed to make a decision.
"I can," she said, releasing a hard stream that simultaneously pushed out a few tears.
As she reached for the paper, Nancy heard the bathroom door open, and what sounded like a tin pail touch the tile floor. Nancy held her breath and listened -- nothing, then a light padding, a glimpse of pale pink Chinese slippers. Nancy felt a flare in her chest, fear or expectation. She quietly zipped and stood and peeked through the slit of the stall door. She saw a small girl -- not necessarily young, but with a tiny frame, fine platinum hair partly obscuring a calm, heart-shaped face that seemed to give off light; there was a soap-bubble radiance about her as she knelt by the wash bucket.
They don't have crack on Uranus, and at first Ned thought the Ronald McDonald hunched over the toilet in the In-N-Out men's room was going to shoot at him with a glass blowgun. He'd once picked up a flickering Tarzan movie where the handsome natives, in little tiger-striped loincloths, had fired poison darts at the bad white explorers with bamboo blowguns.
But what really startled him was that Ronald McDonald was there at all -- in an In-N-Out! Wasn't there some kind of hamburger loyalty oath? Was it even legal for the god of one burger chain to enter and relieve himself in the restroom of another? Even living on a faraway planet, Ned had picked up enough from tuning into TV and radio to know that hamburger worship was an integral part of American society. And he was surprised that different sects could intermingle so easily.
"Want a hit?" asked Ronald, his eyes broken-glass glittery underneath the badly spackled clown makeup.
When Ned didn't answer, Ronald McDonald shrugged. Ignoring Ned, he fired his lighter and held it to the tip of his glass pipe, exclaiming, just before he inhaled, "Beam me up, Scotty!"
It was then that Ned understood. Ronald McDonald was a space traveler, just like him! He was so happy and relieved he almost cried. Because Ronald had a way out. A way back! All the clown divinity had to do was fire up his magic blowgun, take a deep breath, and transport would commence.
When Ronald saw him looking, he nodded, smoke pouring from his nostrils, and shoved the tubular space mechanism into Ned's mouth. The clown picked what looked like a speck of Kitty Litter from his polka-dot pocket and jammed it into the pipe's business end. Then he fired it up, took an unsteady step backward and watched the mangy boy from Uranus inhale with such force that the mirror flew off the men's-room wall.
Five minutes later, when Nancy saw Ned stumble out of the In-N-Out, the first thing she noticed was the size of his head. The second was the strange, demented smile on his lips. The third was the glurping, purple, lightly furred vagina between his eyes.
"N-n-nancy," Ned mumbled, barely audible at first, then louder and louder, in a voice that resembled nothing so much as Jiminy Cricket. "N-n-nancy, there's something I have to tell you."
Too stunned to reply, Nancy simply gaped at him, squinting, until she realized that the Jiminy Cricket voice wasn't coming from his mouth. It was -- she had to rub her eyes before she could believe it -- it was coming from the mini-vagina on his forehead.
"N-n-nancy," he repeated finally, "c-c-c-ome closer."
And when she did, leaning in until she could feel the heat wafting off his skin like steam, Ned grabbed her, pulled her head next to his, and whispered, "I just want you to know, I'm really Jesus Christ, and I've come to save you."
"Naw, muthasucka! I'm a.k.a. Hey-soos Christo Johnson, booger! It's tyyyymmmme to hit the bricks!"
Nancy blinked and ran for the car. A stogy-smokin', muscular Brutha with pompadour snatched Ned by the shoulders, lifted him off the pavement, and deposited him in the nearest Dumpster as if he were a basketball. An unzipped Italian leather jacket revealed his hairless chest and inny. He wore true faded denims, cowboy boots and had a swagger that wouldn't quit.
She tried to drive off, but the Brutha took the wheel butt first. "Scoot over, Sweetcakes -- I'm drivin'."
She scrambled for the passenger's side. "Is -- is this what's known as a carjacking?" She was grateful to be rid of freaky imbecile Ned, but gratitude did not include robbery.
"I see you're a new arrival. Appropriation's da word. Welcome to Southern California. Y'all will never leave."
He drove a beeline south, the obsidian towers of Universal City glowing on the dark horizon, taking the Lankershim entrance north off the 101.
There were the golden arches behind and the golden arches ahead.
Nancy took in the lights, gasped at the palm-blessed beauty of the Hollywood night. He busted the radio, adjusted for high bass on the rear speakers, pulled a Curtis Mayfield cassette from the inner reaches of his jacket and slipped it into the tape deck.
"Kick back, Sweetcakes, and I'll get you hip."
"If you fancy. Rip Johnson, at your service. Ex-star of the Chitlin Circuit, formerly of Nantucket, now nouveau rapper down for the ducats. As Fate has so deemed it, and as I've long dreamed it, we meet at last on this road to success." He popped the ashtray and dropped ash.
"Pul-leeezze! I'm suffering smoke inhalation and lung cancer."
"Oxygen it is!" He lowered the window and flicked. The spiraling stogy shot through the window of a passing Nissan. The driver lost control and careened into the center divider. There was a five-car pileup in the left lane. "This town's a bitch when the air conditioning fails."
"Haven't you heard? Kidnapping's a felony."
"Darlin'! I'm jes borrowin' yah a taste. Think o' me as yo' tour guide -- this bein' yo' first night in L.A. 'n' all."
"Besides, aren't we goin' in the wrong direction?"
"I's fulla shortcuts -- and we's takin' the Long Short Way -- 405 south. Straight to the Westside jungle! Grab yo' wighat, Nancy! Parrrrr-tay!"
Nancy studied her self-appointed host. He was even more out of place inside the Civic's cramped interior than Ned had been, with all his eccentricities.
"Excuse me for asking," she asked, "but is everyone in Los Angeles so . . . exterior?"
At that moment the Civic was buffeted by the wind from a passing catering truck, its mustached driver looking sweetly tired after what must have been a long day. When she turned back to Rip he seemed quieter somehow, and had, she was grateful, returned the mouse-colored automatic, which he had formerly brandished in his left hand as he held the steering wheel, to the pocket of his leather jacket.
Rip looked at her as if deciding whether, having just kidnapped her, he could trust her further. Apparently he could, because he said, "You've touched on a sore point for many of us Southern Californians, Bruthas and Homies alike. Namely: How does one protect one's most vulnerable inner self from such a relentless, pervasive and brutalizing culture? If you answered, 'By projecting an outward image that mirrors the enemy,' you'd be in the area of right." He shook his head sadly, and something clanked in his hair.
Nancy considered this. Could she snatch the gun from where it was poking out of his pocket, shoot him once or twice, and still keep control of the speeding car? Suppose the automatic's hammer snagged on the lining of his pocket?
"To be honest," Rip continued, "I don't even like driving all that much, let alone carjacking, but it's my only entrance to a world that means everything to me. I refer of course to the one of gangsta rap."
"But where do you get the rest of this stuff?" Nancy asked. "Have you ever been to college?"
"I took a philosophy course for college credit once in prison," Rip admitted. "I got a B. I was flying right up through the Middle Ages, but that Enlightenment -- Whew! It stopped me in my tracks."
As he spoke, Nancy noticed that his hand had edged closer to the automatic, probably a subconscious reaction to his insecurity with Descartes and Hume. Well, he wasn't alone. But it was a pleasant hand, she thought, if you just took away the gold rings, assorted scars, homemade tattoos, and fingernails yellow and thick as claws.
The same hands as Paw-paw's, she thought to herself suddenly. Sweet Jesus, she hadn't thought about him for years. Paw-paw, tall and broad as a family-size refrigerator. He walked with a mysterious limp and carried a cane of polished Florida cypress to lean on.
Paw-paw was her step-grandfather, her grandma's fourth or fifth or seventh husband -- no one knew which of her men-friends Grandma had actually married. "Boyfriend, husband, uncle? What's the difference?" Grandma'd ask, then she'd start to laugh, tilting her chin down so that she'd have to look up through her long eyelashes at whoever she was talking to and Nancy could see why men had turned to goo under her grandmother's gaze. All her life she'd seen Grandma casting her spell over all kinds of men of all ages and wonder why she, Nancy, was so incapable of that kind of charm. Where had that part of the gene pool evaporated to?
Paw-paw smelled good, a mix of cigarillos and Florida water. A sweet-natured man, he was never mean when he drank, and sober or drunk, he sure did love her grandma. Still, his very existence had embarrassed the shit out of Nancy's mother. There were rumors about his ancestry. When Nancy was 7, she'd bopped her first cousin (on her father's side) hard on the head with her shoe when he called Paw-paw a nasty name behind his back.
Naturally, her mother was no better. She never came right out and said it; instead she'd whisper in a nasty know-it-all tone, "Everybody in town knows Paw-paw's been touched with the tarbrush."
He'd shown Nancy how to shuffle and fan a deck of cards like a professional and pick the horse that always won, or at least placed. Paw-paw made sure she knew why Man o' War was the greatest racehorse that ever lived, and as a small child she believed these were a set of skills that would help get her through life with a degree of equanimity, until her mother disabused her of that notion.
Then Nancy had what she knew (even while she was having it) was a dime-store epiphany. "It was her. It was her. Nothing has ever made my mother happy, except unhappiness."
"Well, some people are just like that."
Rip. In her trip down memory lane, she'd completely forgotten about him and his gun. She saw an opening and took advantage of it; with one graceful motion she grabbed the gun away from him. Her audacity gave her the advantage, and Rip knew what it looked like to see somebody's brains splattered across a windshield. Determined to avoid that fate, he threw his hands up in a gesture of supplication.
"Drive," she said.
"For Godsake, idiot, take the wheel."
Which he did.
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.
Neal Nelligan was jogging down the oceanfront sidewalk from his new ocean-view condo on Neilson Way. He thought he heard a cat. He came upon the little car, old cheap thing, with its lights on, bumped against the barrier. The woman inside was crying. A head injury. No doubt.
Naw, Neal Nelligan thought, peering inside the car window at the weeping woman, she's not hurt; she's just another hung-up chick. They were all over the beach. What was a guy to do? Obviously what the guy she was crying over did. Just move on -- and he did, jogging away from any kind of pain.
Nancy had seen him, saw him move away. Indifferently. Like everyone else, like everything else. Indifferent.
She got out of the car, not bothering with the signs that prohibited parking. The gun in her hand was warm now, a cherished present.
The sun was setting behind a layer of gauzy clouds. Already there was the purplish tinge of dusk. Blue . . .
The blue hour!
Once her mother . . . Her mother? ã Had she ever extended a moment of kindness? No, it had been her father . . . Her father? An absent presence. Oh, it had been Paw-paw -- Paw-paw who had told her about the blue hour, the moments between dusk and night, when the world turns blue. That's when everything is clearest and most blurred at the same time. Clearest because the perception of seeing things as they are, entirely and finally, is sharpest; blurred because it's only the hazy blue light that creates that certainty and carries it away.
Mesmerized, she had walked to the edge of the ocean. Along the beach, others were leaving, fleeing a stab of coolness. Only three silhouettes lingered on the shoreline, lithe dancers performing tai chi, slow ritualistic motions that acknowledged -- what? The inevitable night.
This whole trip had led to a stretch of darkening beach. A stretch of . . . Nothing. That word again, her mother's curse. "You're nothing . . ." Had her mother even seen her? Had anyone ever seen her? Oh, as a girl, sure, Paw-paw -- but, no, he hadn't really seen her, not in that awful dark room . . . Even on this trip of discovery, had anyone truly seen her? Ned! No. She had seen him, so clearly -- the black caped gaunt figure. She had humored his hallucinations about having giant sexual organs. She had even pretended to see them. Out of kindness. Then there was Rip Johnson, who had threatened her, for no reason, as if she was nothing. Nothing. Had anyone along the way even noticed what she looked like? She wanted to shout to the encroaching darkness: "I'm 27, my hair is brown, my eyes are almost blue, and I'm not a bad person!" Who would hear her? "No one. Nothing." Her mother's words were thrust at her from within the rising tide.
She looked down at the gun, her only companion. What had this trip revealed? Why was it undertaken? You're nothing. Words she had tried to prove wrong on this strange odyssey. Or had she confirmed them? Every unrelated step, every fragment of ambiguous experience, every seemingly random twist and turn of her journey had been shaping into her fate, long ago uttered in a curse. You're nothing -- and so it was all as meaningless as . . .
As meaningless as this --
She cocked the gun and aimed at the night. Action without purpose. She pulled the trigger and fired and opened her mouth to laugh and saw: a brightness-smothered sky turned dark stars drowned spinning orbit shore blinded moon a black flower blooming out of perfect darkness -- but before she could hear the sound of her laughter, the bullet she had aimed at the night had ricocheted, gliding off the sharp edge of a rock that loomed like a glowering face, and the bullet hurtled back at her, throttling her laughter.
Nowhere . . .
Nowhere . . .
Nowhere . . .
Nowhere . . .
Nowhere . . .
THE AUTHORS, in order of appearance:
1. Aimee Bender is the author of the story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and the recent novel An Invisible Sign of My Own.
2. Peter Gadol's latest novel is Light at Dusk.
3. Janet Fitch is the author of the best-selling novel White Oleander.
4.Rubén Mendoza is a Los Angeles writer and poet.
5. Hillary Johnson is a journalist and short-story writer, and author of the novel Physical Culture.
6. Benjamin Weissman is the author of Dear Dead Person: Short Fiction.
7.Nancy Rommelmann's short fiction has appeared in Lynx Eye and The Saint Ann's Review. Her new book, Rommelmann's Bar and Nightlife Guide, will be published next spring by St. Martin's Press/L.A. Weekly Books.
9. Wanda Coleman is a poet and fiction writer whose most recent book is Mambo Hips and Make Believe: A Novel.
10.Jim Krusoe, is the author of Blood Lake and Other Stories.
11. Nicole Panter edited the collection Unnatural Disasters: Recent Writing From the Golden State, and is the author of Mr. Right On and Other Stories.
12.Greg Sarris is the author of the short-story collection Grand Avenue. His most recent book is Watermelon Nights: A Novel.
13.Diana Wagman's new novel, Spontaneous, is due out from St. Martin's Press/ L.A. Weekly Books in October.
14. John Rechy has written numerous novels, including the classic City of Night and, most recently, The Coming of the Night.
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