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.”
How Do People Live in This World? In Sherwood Forest, they strung sheet plastic between eucalyptus trees with lengths of purloined clothesline. They slept on burst and filthy mattresses, variously finessing the dearth of linen with fresh ferns and eucalyptus boughs, plastic shopping sacks, or newspaper. In these shaded human nests Pete found a primal, soporific allure. Should he keep sinking through life and wind up here, sleep, at least, could be managed, even sweet.
Freddy had offered Pete an outdated box of grape HiC, profoundly speckled bananas and a matzo shard — the very goods Pete had handed him at the Bread Basket earlier that day. They’d sat on bent lawn chairs overlooking the water, munching the unleavened bread while puppies tumbled at their feet and the Samoyed bitch scratched fleas with unflagging concentration. “Pretty swank, eh?” said Freddy. “Enjoy it while you can. The city’ll come through soon enough, haul everything away.” He previously had lived in a large encampment in Griffith Park called the City of Lost Souls. “Now that was a great place to live, till the city ’dozed it.” The municipal destruction of homeless dwelling places was de rigueur, Freddy claimed, lest taxpayers glimpse the true joys of unfettered existence and promptly revolt.
Pete kept walking south, passing under the Hyperion Bridge. An enterprising backyard farmer had set a chugging little pump midstream to bring free water to his beds of mint, basil and lettuces. Farther on, six Asians — three couples, one pair quite elderly — straggled down the bank. One man carried a greasy box to the water’s edge as the others gathered around. Pete observed from a respectful distance as the man pulled apart the box’s flaps and tipped out an ivory-colored duck.
The duck wobbled, stepped on its own flat, pancake-sized feet and toppled sideways. Clearly, the creature had never walked before and must have come straight from some poultry company in Chinatown. Pete used to buy living ducks and quail and game hens for Trotwood, his former restaurant, from Supreme Poultry on Broadway, and have them butchered on the spot. This clumsy specimen, Pete knew, would be tender as trout if roasted. But such was not this fellow’s fate. Flapping and slipping on moss-slicked stones, led by some dim ancestral directive, the liberated bird tumbled into the shallows, entering the water with a wriggle that became a full-body convulsion of sheer, unmistakable joy. Home! A man could fall down and weep at the sight. Indeed, the spectators laughed and softly clapped and bowed to the ecstatic, spasming creature who now tried, with tremendous difficulty, to crawl up on a rock, slipping back into the water again and again. His waving benefactors urged him on, and clapped when the duck finally achieved his granite perch. Never mind that his yellowed feathers had clumped up, revealing bare pink skin and no trace of insulating down, or that he was shivering madly.
Waving and bowing, they helped one another up the bank and departed.
Pete moved in for a closer look. The duck, one foot laid squarely over the other, gazed out upon his new life. In addition to hypothermia, this downless wonder faced not only bounding dogs freed from their leashes and coyotes from the park, but also Sherwood Forest’s enterprising cooks. On the bright side, should he survive, the duck might swim, quack, meet girl ducks, gorge himself on insects, worms and succulent duckweed. A few protein-rich water bugs would clear this quacker’s brain. My friend, Pete thought, your karma has definitely changed.
Walking homeward in a whipping breeze, Pete once again came upon homeless John, who was conversing with a woman by the Hyperion Bridge. The woman, small and slim with too-skinny limbs, bounced impatiently on her sneakers. John’s body mirrored her shifting; subtle as a dancer, he was actually blocking her path, and Pete didn’t like the look of it. “Hey there, John,” he called.
In the woman’s blanching face, Pete saw himself as she did: an ally to her accoster, a bigger, fatter threat.
“Hiya, Pete,” John said. “I told Suzy here she can walk on my river anytime.”
Suzy took a decisive step away and John slid in front of her as she threw Pete another wild glance.
“First, though, she could show some respect and shake my hand.” John’s smile bore the blandness of pure evil. “C’mon, Suzy. You too high ’n’ mighty to shake an old man’s hand?”
Though it might have been amusing to further spike the terror in Suzy’s face, there was no sense in letting things get out of control. Pete stepped into John’s scent field of urine, wood smoke and alcohol seepage. Hooking arms with the scrawny wino, Pete neatly turned him aside, downstream. John’s resistance was brief. One good reason to weigh 260 pounds is that no near-dead river rat would dream of fighting you.
“God, Pete,” John whined. “Just having a little fun.”
“You don’t need that kind of trouble, my friend. Keep on going, now.” Pete gave him another buck, and a southward shove.
Pete himself turned north, partly to keep his bulk between the girl and John, ideally to extend comfort and, possibly, reap her gratitude. Lumbering within earshot, he called, “Hey! Suzy! You okay?” At the sound of his voice, she broke into a run and then slipped through a gap in the fence.
By the time he got there, she was half a block away, scampering down the middle of an Atwater avenue. He considered following, to see where she lived, so that some day, with this morning’s gallantry long forgotten, she’d come in from the grocery store, toss her purse on the coffee table and there he’d be, sprawled on her sofa, skimming Redbook. “Well, well, well,” he’d say. “What took me so long?”
He did not pursue her, however, as he had not asked for and received his mother’s permission to do so, that being the prerequisite for all variations of his daily routine.
His next stop was the gym. A gay gym, filled with mirrors, but what did he care? It was the only gym in walking distance of the apartment. Guys gazed raptly at their reflections as they ran treadmills, rode the stationary bikes and pumped iron. And there he was, the slag heap of flesh, monument to the fleeting comfort of food, to whom no one — male, female or indifferent — would give the hairy eyeball. Pete pedaled to manic house music for thirty minutes, sweating a cataract. He lifted free weights with sissy poundage and did bicep curls with ten-pound dumbbells, three sets of ten, then triceps extensions with five-pounders. He still couldn’t lift a weight without thinking of the one that had broken through his ex-wife’s computer screen — the crackle, the exquisite gratification, the utter irremediability. Oh, the look on her face! (And the terror in their son’s.) Leg curls he performed on the machines, twenty for hamstrings, fifty for quads. As for squats, the bare bar was all he could manage, and even then he had to elevate his heels. A set of ten lunges set him quivering like a great unmolded gelatin. His gut had grown so large in the last six months that it sabotaged his sit-ups, requiring him to spread his knees so wide his balls popped from his shorts for the amused perusal of passersby. For weeks he’d obliviously left pools of sweat on the inclined board until the owner of the gym presented him with a stack of towels and asked ever so politely if Pete might possibly mop up after himself.
The workouts had sparked some improvement, although not so as anybody else could notice. For Pete, the bottom was rising. At least not every oncoming car, or height above twenty feet, or electrical cord and length of nylon rope, presented itself as the solution to all his problems.
Excerpted from the book Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. Copyright © 2003 by Michelle Huneven. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.