NORTH OF L.A.
Last Sunday, I woke up in a patch of weeds, covered with a ratty, polyester blanket and clutching a hand-painted statue of the Virgin Mary. I had no clue where I was or why, as a devout disbeliever, I was in possession of a religious icon.
I knew I wasn’t in Hollywood anymore because I didn’t see the shadow-eyed prostitutes and their clown-necked pimps. Instead my aching eyes beheld brown grass and a little green inch worm squinching his way along a dried out twig.
Since my thirtieth birthday last year, I’ve concluded that my place on this earth is not destined to be a great one. I do, however, expect at any given moment to be able to identify my surroundings.
It wasn’t until I stood on unsteady legs and turned in a circle, that I figured out where I was: in front of my new apart-ment building.
The door to my apartment, ground floor-number thirty-one, was closed, but next door, number thirty-three with the crimson-colored door, was open. Inside I recognized the altar belonging to the Virgin. Below the altar was a recumbent pair of boots attached to a body belonging to one of the twin brothers, either Franco or Ochoa, who had so kindly introduced themselves the previous night, along with a bottle of their home-fermented clandestino.
Now, a week later, I am still uncertain as to what I’m doing in this northern Californian town called Salinas, alias the “Salad Bowl of the Nation.” I don’t even eat salad.
Living in Hollywood, saturated by heat and smog, every bit of creativity had been sucked from my brain. I doubted that I’d ever had an original thought in my life. Two unfinished novels, a barely sketched screenplay and piles of miscellaneous poetry had driven me to a spontaneous move. I had packed up, migrated north and landed in a shaky, weak-doored apartment with wall-to-wall urine colored carpet. Steinbeck had done it; why not I?
Steinbeck wasn’t the most renowned author of his time and he may not have been the greatest intellectual, or even the best versed, but to me he was…Elvis or James Dean or the Pope. I worshipped the man.
I looked out my window at the thick fog obscuring the valley hills, hanging in a shroud over the town. From what I had seen of Salinas during my first week, the cover was beneficial. Flat-roofed stories and fast food joints lined the main street. The air reeked of insecticides and fertilizers.
I should have visited first.
Salsa reverberated through the thin walls of my apartment. Children ran around broken cars and played in dirt yards. Rows of rectangular apartments faced each other. Squished between my apartment building, and a lettuce field, stood a white farm house up on a high berm, with six rows of red petunias.
Movement caught my eye. At the back of the cul-de-sac a group of people were gathered around a burning garbage dumpster. The dumpster seemed to be a neighborhood gathering spot. Time for some social interaction, I grabbed the bags of trash from my kitchen and headed outdoors.
As I neared the dumpster, I saw the two culprits from last weekend, Franco and Ochoa, standing next to a skinny girl. They all held burning cigarettes. Although Franco and Ochoa are twins, they are not identical, in fact, I see no similarities between them, either physically or in their demeanor.
The skinny girl had long, bare legs which were dusted with faint bruises and thrust into a pair of black clogs. A tattered orange sweatshirt hung off her bony shoulder and a short uneven skirt dangled below. She rubbed at her leg, lifting her skirt even higher to reveal a red gash across her upper thigh.
The garbage bags rustled in my arms and three pairs of eyes turned around. Two pairs of dark brown and one pair of yellow eyes, framed in glasses, faced me. Piss-yellow, tom-cat yellow, lemon yellow. Yellow.
“Que pues, Bob?” Franco said.
Franco is the tall one of the two, slight with oiled hair and a manner to match. He has a pugilist nose and is missing his left earlobe. He possesses a Rhett Butler air which women respond to with imbecile giggles.
All three laughed.
Light caught on the girl’s wire-framed glasses and I saw she was closer to thirty than I had originally thought. She held her cigarette between her thumb and forefinger.
“You’re the guy who just got hired at Elmer’s Fertilizer,” she stated. Her voice was low and scratchy, but a good scratchy, like a good kind of itch.
This job at Elmer’s is an embarrassment, but I hadn’t intended on anyone announcing it in public. Come to think of it, there isn’t too much in life, I’m proud of. This is the main bone of contention between my mother and myself as she considers my arrival into this world a splendid event, one to be celebrated. For three decades I’ve managed to disappoint her and avoid any worthwhile achievements.
I crinkled the garbage bags and looked out across the flat fields. “Part-time temporary,” I said.
At the end of my interview, Elmer had flapped open his coat as if to display counterfeit watches, but instead rifled through his inner pockets for a pack of cigarettes and told me I was hired.
After lighting celebratory cigarettes for both of us, he never asked me if I smoked, which I don’t, he told me, “I like to see soft bodies in the office. Soft bodies means my employees spend a lot a time behind their desks and this is what I employ them to do and this is what makes me happy.”
He had taken a puff off his cigarette and scratched his swollen stomach. I looked down at my own stomach and inflated it. He winked and said, “We’ll work on it.” I should have quit before I even started.
The skinny girl clicked her clogs together. “Billy is Lloyd’s best friend,” she said.
“Billy? Lloyd?” I asked. “Do I know these people?”
She shrugged. She lifted her cigarette and contemplated it. The tips of her front teeth hung down below her thin lips. Limp brown hair fell down her cheeks, clinging to her shoulders. A psychedelic Olive Oyle.
“Billy is Elmer’s son.”
She put the cigarette to her lips and inhaled sharply. She coughed. “Sorry. I’m just learning.”
“No, you’re holding it wrong,” Franco held his cigarette in front of her, “look, put it between your these two fingers.”
She shifted her fingers and the cigarette dropped on the ground. “Damn.”
“I give up.”
Franco turned to me and punched me on the arm, causing me to drop my trash. Sardine tins and boxes of macaroni and cheese scattered around our feet. He ignored the mess, but I could see the girl examining the contents. “Hombre, we’re going to the fair. You gotta come.”
I felt exposed. i bent and tried to shovel my trash back into its bag. A can of vienna sausages rolled down the sidewalk.
“Fair?” I didn’t remember Steinbeck ever mentioning a fair. “I don’t think so.”
“The Salinas Valley Fair,” he said, “Man, ain’t you seen the posters and shit?”
I threw my trash into the dumpster as nonchalantly as possible. “No, must’ve missed them.”
Ochoa pointed a finger at me. “Bob’s a writer.”
“Yeah? What do you write?”
“Why would you want to learn to smoke?”
“A lot of people smoke.”
“It doesn’t hurt to learn something new.”
“Surely you can think of something better to learn.”
“I can think of worse.”
“Forget the cigarettes.” Franco threw his on the ground and crushed it with his heel. Come on, hombre, the fair.”
“This fair’s got everything.” Ochoa said. “You’ll have stories leaking out your ears.”
Ochoa is the more intellectual of the brothers, but prone to exaggeration and his recommendations do not hold much weight for me.
“Stories galore,” Ochoa runs a hand through his thick hair which responds by disobediently springing up into a bird’s nest. “Pulitzer prize shit.”
I smirked in his direction to let him know I was on to his lies.
“What sort of an attitude is that for a write? You gotta explore. How can you write without doing?” the skinny girl asked.
“See new things, yes. But a fair? This fair is a new experience I can afford to miss.”
She reached up to adjust her glasses, her elbows jutting out flying buttress style. “That is not a very writerly attitude.”
“For a writerly,” I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, “experience, I need to check out Cannery Row.”
“The Row will be there forever.” Ochoa said. “King city on the other hand, will not.”
“King City?” I knew that town. Steinbeck’s maternal grandparents had lived there.
“The fair is in King City.”
Tempting. But…”No, really. I got to write. I’ve been here a week and accomplished nothing.”
“A writer who doesn’t write,” she said. “You do need to live a little.”
“I am a writer who writes. I just have a slight procrastination problem. No, had. My move to Salinas will cure me.”
“But hombre, this event, this fair is the Goddamn Event of the Season.”
Goddamn Event of the Season. Now Franco had my attention. Steinbeck wouldn’t have missed this. Maybe this was one of the last untainted events the plastic people hadn’t discovered. He was right; how could I miss the Goddamn Event of the Season?
“Okay. All right. Shoes. I need some shoes on my feet.”
Franco asked the skinny girl, “You coming?”
“I’m picking berries.”
Obviously she was immune to his charms, but picking berries?
“Today? You gotta pick berries today? Come on, Sid, you can pick berries any day.”
“These berries involve a big surprise for Lloyd.” She smiled, her mouth moved up in the corners, but her eyes didn’t change. “Can I have a cigarette,” she smiled for real at me, “for practice?”
“Lloyd, forget him, come with us,” Franco gave her the rest of his pack and tugged on the sleeve of her sweatshirt.
She screwed her face up at him and walked off without looking back.
“Can’t win ém all. Five minutes.” I headed toward the apartments. “Meet you two in front, on the sidewalk.”
My computer sat next to the only window in my living room. Cords stuck out the back and sprawled across the floor into unpacked boxes and bags; they beseeched me, begged me to plug them in and start writing.
“Shit.” I didn’t remember the cords being on the floor when I left the apartment. “Tomorrow. I swear, tomorrow I’ll…begin.”
I grabbed my shoes and left without looking at the computer again. It was as bad as leaving a dog behind.
Franco and Ochoa lounged next to my Toyota smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Ochoa leaned against the door, arms crossed, thick shoulders slumped, Franco stood facing Ochoa, his limbs stretched straight, knees locked and legs arrogantly spread.
“You drive, we don’t have gas,” Franco said. “If you think this piece a crap can make it.”
“Hey. You want a ride or not?”
We headed south on highway 101, popping suddenly out of the fog just outside Salinas city limits. For forty-five minutes we drove along fleshy green fields wheeling by like green bicycle spokes. Giant eucalyptus trees lorded over the crops. Telephone poles with scarecrow arms stretched across fields; grey bushes covered with dust grew along the road.
I parked in a field full of ruts and gopher holes. The May sun baked the cotton shirt to my back and a drop of sweat trickled through my sideburn, sliding down my cheek. A hot wind blew smelling of popcorn and manure. King City was not an appropriate name, no king would have set foot here.
We paid at the entrance and stepped through the cyclone gate. Franco reached into his shirt, pulled out a clear bottle and unscrewed the top, taking a healthy swig before handing it to Ochoa. He took a pull and held it out to me.
“Oh no, I remember this. That hangover almost killed me last week. And I have to work tomorrow.”
“It’s good for you.”
“Suit yourself,” Franco said. “More for us.”
We headed toward a ferris wheel grinding through the sky. Franco walked with a swagger, but Ochoa walked with an attitude you don’t want to interfere with.
On the right was a giant hot dog-shaped vendor stand. A greasy man sat behind the counter poking at a tray of red wieners turning and roasting. Wooden barns lined the walkway and I could smell the animals inside. Children wearing white uniforms with green scarves around their necks, crossed in front of us, leading cows, pigs and lambs zig-zagging from barn to barn.
I pointed to a kid. “What’s this?” I asked.
“4-H.” Ochoa said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Hombre, you don’t know about 4-H?” Franco asked. “Best meat you can buy. You gotta buy a pig.”
“Buy a pig? No. What about the kids in white?”
“They raise them.”
“I don’t believe you, these kids raise cute little animals and then slaughter them?”
“They don’t slaughter them, hombre.”
“Then who does?”
“Other people, such as yourself buy them and slaughter them.”
“These kids are little beasts. It would have devastated me to sell off our family dog for meat.”
“You gotta buy a pig today.
“What would I do with a pig?”
“Eat it.” Ochoa said, chomping his teeth up and down.
“You buy it; they butcher it, and you eat it.”
I know life is strange in small towns, but the problem with me believing Ochoa is that because of his propensity to exaggerate, I can’t tell what is true or what is an exaggeration or what is an outright lie. Lies in and of themselves don’t bother me, in fact they come naturally to me and in my youth I suspect I was a pathological liar. It was a natural merge from lieing to fiction. Still, each time Ochoa utters something I have to stop and make a judgement.
I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Okay, maybe you’re not crazy.”
“He is right. And it’s simple, Guero,” Franco punched me on my other arm, “even you can do it.”
We stopped at the bottom of an oblong ferris wheel. A blistered sign above the ticket box read, “The Zipper”. Ochoa walked up and grabbed a girl collecting tickets and kissed her until a man waiting in line tapped him on the shoulder. She laughed, showing tiny little teeth all filed in a straight line.
“Bob, this is my novia, Cherry Flame.”
I held out my hand and she took it, her hand jumping like a fluttering humming bird.
“Cherry Flame. Nice to meet ya, Bob.”
The wind spun her hair in front of her face. She had perfect twisting tornado curls that stuck to her smeared red lipstick. I thought about asking if Cherry Flame were actually her real name, but didn’t because I decided it was.
“Bob’s a famous writer.” Ochoa announced again.
“Yeah, what do you write?”
“I’m here to have a writerly experience, as the girl at the dumpster so adeptly phrased.”
“And Bob’s going to buy a pig,” Franco said.
“No, I truly am not.”
Cherry snorted, her upper lip crimping above her perfect teeth. Then she giggled and put her hands on her hips. Her hips were so small that her fingers practically met around her waist.
“Pigs are very smart animals. Smarter than dogs even.”
She bounced back and forth on the balls of her feet baiting us to challenge her.
Franco took the bait. “Not true.”
“It surely is. I read it in the newspaper.”
“Oh sure. What newspaper was that?”
“It’s true,” Ochoa said, “I read about it too. They did all kinds of intelligence tests and pigs won.”
Cherry stuck her tongue out at Franco. “See. Cows were low on the smart list, and sheep were about as dumb as they come.”
The group of kids waiting to get on the Zipper complained about the line and shook the metal gate back and forth. She ignored them.
“Ochoa is always sticking up for you, Cherry,” Franco swung his sleek head back and forth, “if that was true, we’d have pigs for pets instead a dogs.”
“It is true. And people do have pigs for pets. Pot bellied pigs.” She stomped her foot. It was small enough to make a foot-bound Chinese woman jealous. “If you ever watched the news, Francisco, maybe you’d learn something.”
“You’d never catch me with a god dammed pig for a pet.”
“Our brains weigh about one-fortieth of our body weight,” I offered.
They all looked at me, I could see them gauging the size of my cranium, opening it and placing it on a scale. They accepted my statement. I couldn’t remember if it was true or not.
Cherry Flame wobbled her head from side to side. “Except for Franco, of course, his head only weighs one sixtieth of his body weight.”
Franco glowered and leaned toward her, but Ochoa caught his attention and something in Ochoa’s eyes stopped him. Flinging her arms out, Cherry Flame punched them both in the chest.
“Oh no, you two ain’t going do that again.” She said. “No fucking way.”
She turned from the brothers to the irate Zipper customers and sweetly took their tickets. The machine started. Cherry put her arms around Ochoa and stepped back holding the clear bottle.
She held the bottle up to the sun and took a drink. A shiver passed through her body, shuddering her bangs which were glued into an upright curl over her forehead. She passed the bottle to me, the bottle neck lined with her red lipstick. She saw me eyeing the bottle, so I thought it would be an insult not to take a drink. I took one. A liquid inferno slid all the way down to my stomach.
“So,” I gasped, “what happens at the Godamned Event of the Season?”
An aftertaste of strawberry Kool-Aid stuck to my tongue.
“Eat, drink,” Ochoa said. “Spend money.”
“Fight.” Franco added.
Not much of an event. Although what did I expect, events in L.A. followed the same guidelines.
Cherry frowned at the brothers. Franco nudged Ochoa and grinned. “En el ano pasado…whew, what a scene.”
“Fight?” I asked taking another swig. The drink smoothed everything out. People laughed, walking through snowflake-sized sawdust blowing into the air, sticking to their hair and faces.
“One more drink and then a ride,” Franco declared, passing the bottle around.
The ride ground to a halt and the passengers walked off, wheeling unsteadily into the toll booth or the gate, whichever they hit first. I studied the ferris wheel and saw it was set up differently from an ordinary ferris wheel. Instead of seats hooked onto a wheel, cages were strung along the axis of an oval. Grease oozed out of the connector joints.
Ochoa and Franco pushed me into a cage. I looked back and saw a small boy bent over, clutching his stomach. The ride operator pulled a belt over my waist and slammed the door shut.
The ride screeched and began. I hung with white knuckles, but then relaxed. It was pleasant circling through the air; I could see the entire fair. A band played a catchy tune, picnic tables full of families ate barbecue, I tapped my fingers, hummed along with the music.
My cage suddenly flew forward and started rotating in the opposite direction of the oval wheel. I screamed and tried to find Cherry to tell her something was wrong, but the ground swirled by in a series of upside down figure eights. A flash of red lipstick went by upside down and I heard her say, “faster, faster, they’re my friends.”
“No!” I yelled.
Franco’s crazy laugh filled my cage and then cut short.
When I got off the ride, my eyes watered and I cupped my balls to make sure they were all still in the right place. I wanted to curl up in the sawdust.
Cherry flung herself against Ochoa. “God, that was great. I’ve never seen it spin that fast.”
Ochoa swallowed and took a few moments to reply.
“Yah, Cherry. Thanks for the ride, we gotta go buy Bob a pig.”