By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Illustration by Erik Sandberg
Pete Ross overslept. When he came into the living room, his mother was already on her knees at the neatly made sofa-bed. Knuckles pressed to her forehead, she was conversing with her second husband, Jesus Christ, from whom she was temporarily and amicably separated.
Some widows take up tennis, or volunteer to be museum docents or to hold crack babies down at County hospital. After her husband died and Pete finished college and moved up north, his mother became a nun. At forty, she’d joined a socially progressive order of Carmelites and went to live in their cloister, a six-unit stucco apartment house in Glendale. Aside from missionary trips to Central and South America, she’d lived there for twenty-one years, until a few months ago, when she was granted a leave to move in with Pete.
They shared a modest, one-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz. She’d stay, she promised, until he got back on his feet, with a real job, and the courts — and ex-wife Anne — let him see his son again. In the meantime, she attended Mass daily, prayed on a fixed schedule, and ran a Catholic charity, a food pantry in Glendale. Pete worked at the Bread Basket himself, as his mother’s part-time, barely paid assistant — his toehold in the working world.
Not wishing to interrupt her prayers by clattering around the kitchen, Pete left for his walk without coffee. He headed down Los Feliz Boulevard, where traffic was thick and slow, then across the freeway bridge to where homeless John worked the off-ramp with his WHY LIE I WANT A BEER placard. Pete knew John from the Bread Basket and palmed him a buck. Then, slipping through a wide hole in the hurricane fence, he set out along the river.
An extravagant battlement in the war of man versus nature, the Los Angeles River was built fifty years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers. The channel stretched thirty miles from the western San Fernando Valley directly south to Long Beach — a huge chute designed to carry water to the sea as swiftly as possible, its steep banks crudely paved with sand-colored concrete. (Imagine the engineer, thought Pete, whose tombstone could read: He paved a river.) A recent change in Corps policy — inspired by severe budget cuts — now allowed the river to flow year-round, and in these few miles of riverbed by Griffith Park, where there had always been a natural sand bottom, boulders rolled in, islands formed and nature moved home with enviable virulence.
Healthy, great oaks and cottonwoods, greening with new leaves, had taken root on midstream islands. Bamboo thickets, reedy grasses and thrashing willows sprang forth with frenzied life. A breeze snaked up the trough from the ocean, and on its currents coasted gulls, snowy egrets, the occasional grouchy cormorant. Mallards and mergansers, white Chinas and diminutive cinnamon teals, finding safe harbor here, had married and reproduced, now swimming in well-matched sets of two. Pete once had seen a buffleheaded drake, but apparently there were no buffleheaded hens to tie him down.
Atop the barren banks ran a narrow paved road, preferred by bikers, runners and walkers, that lent good peeks into the modest back yards of Atwater and thus yielded clues to Pete’s continuing investigation: How Do People Live in This World? Some yards sported lawns as even and neatly edged as wall-to-wall carpet, others had weedy patches of carrots, peas and lettuce, or tidy raised beds, still others were private dumps or wrecking yards. The downside of the high road was canine, all the snarling and barking dogs — pit bulls, Akitas, Rotts and Malamutes, favored pets of the poor and disempowered — hurling themselves against flimsy fencing as pedestrians passed by.
Pete, preferring to walk along the water’s edge, took a diagonal path down the steep bank. Braking his bulk, he engaged in a brief meditation on the frailty of knees and then, at the thin lip of concrete shore, inhaled the river’s fetid breath. The water was green from algae that grew in long, undulating hanks like the hair of countless drowned women. A great blue heron regarded him from a granite boulder. Shopping carts were lodged nose-down in the stream. Along the banks, busted-up sofas would host teenage beer-fests and gang conferences until they were dragged to Sherwood Forest, the homeless encampment in the wooded no man’s land between river and freeway, right across the water from where Pete now stood. No one was stirring at this early hour except for some Husky pups gamboling by the water.
Pete had visited Sherwood Forest just yesterday, hosted by Freddy, whom he also knew from the Bread Basket. With waist-length hair and a thick mustache, Freddy was able-bodied, intelligent, and had some college under his belt, but he loathed work so much that the far margins of society appealed to him far more than the lightest yoke or burden. He’d invited Pete over to see how homey the transient camp had become — “should you ever,” he added, “consider the river life.”
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