Promised Land, Chapter 1

…continued from here. The story starts here.

The third bus dropped him off in the city of Venice.

He’d been riding and changing buses for nearly three hours, inching his way across the endless city toward Jake’s place at the beach. He was surprised to discover that he wasn’t the only person in Los Angeles who didn’t know where the hell he was. Even the people who lived here didn’t know anything. He’d given the first driver Jake’s address, and the guy had glanced at him for a split second, then turned back to his driving.

“Where is that?” Friendly, but stupid.

“I don’t know. I was hoping you’d tell me.” No sense pissing him off so soon. “Venice?”

That was the magic word. The bus rumbled twenty or thirty blocks while the guy hashed out a plan, talking to himself the whole time, working through the possibilities. Eventually he came up with an itinerary, involving a couple of transfers. It was barely comprehensible, but it worked.

By the time the kid got off at Pacific Avenue it was early afternoon and the sky had turned a bright, hazy gray, fading to brown at the horizon, when you could see it. It was hot, but there was no visible sun. There was a taste in the air that the kid had never known before, since he had never been less than a thousand miles from the sea, and now he was just two blocks from it. The bus lumbered away, and he stood there and looked after it.

A seagull wheeled far overhead. A siren howled in the distance. But for that there was no sound and no movement on the street. The Pacific Ocean lurked unseen just on the other side of some buildings to his left, and the lack of anything beyond it made him feel as if he were standing at the end of the world. The corner he was on featured two broken down apartment buildings, an empty lot and a corner grocery. He went into the little shop to buy cigarettes and a Coke and to ask about the address he was looking for. The guy at the counter was 40, completely bald and muscled like Marciano. His chest rippled under his shirt when he pushed the change across the counter. He shrugged at the address. “It’s down Pacific.” The kid borrowed an opener for the Coke, drained most of the bottle, then set out to find Jake.

It was a neighborhood of flaky stucco apartments, four and eight to a building, jammed side by side and all of them touching the sidewalk. The street curved gently to the right and disappeared a few blocks ahead. Parked cars lined both sides. As he rounded the curve, things started to happen.

An ambulance overtook him from behind and raced past. Two boys on bicycles followed, and behind that a police black-and-white went by, too fast for the narrow, curving street. Rounding the curve himself, he saw the official vehicles parked all over the street. Ambulance, couple of squad cars, paramedics, fire truck. Uniforms all over the place. As always, the cops had drawn a small crowd, and now they were engaged in crowd control. They were standing in various heroic poses around the scene, refusing to speak to the curious neighbors. The kid had been looking at addresses, and now he saw that he must be very near his destination.

The cops seemed to be guarding one of the apartment buildings, and they seemed to be too late. The windows on the ground floor were smashed, glass and pieces of the frames blown outward and strewn on the sidewalk. The front door was hanging by one hinge. The kid couldn’t see the address on the building, and then he had gone as far as he could without knocking down one of the cops.

Through the broken doorway came the ambulance attendants rolling a stretcher, it’s occupant under a sheet and showing only a bloody face. As they rushed past the dangling door it twisted off it’s remaining hinge and fell face up on the sidewalk, revealing the four tin numbers tacked there. It was Jake’s address. As the stretcher went by, the bloody face looked up at the kid.

“Hey Alvin,” it said. “When did you hit town?” Then Jake was gone, stuffed into the waiting ambulance.

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Promised Land, Prologue

The kid hit town on the Super Chief from Kansas City, mid-morning in L.A.

Union Station, maybe he’d get back there some day, look around. Some kind of museum, nothing like it back home. He’d never ride the train again, though. Fucking snooty porters. A buck for a pillow. He’d rolled up his heavy coat and slept on that. Never wear that fucking thing again, either. Not in the promised land.

First day of summer in Los Angeles, and you could hardly see the end of the block, fucking air was so thick. It burned, too. Old timers would tell him You shoulda been here in fifty-seven, fifty-eight. Air was so bad it’d chip your teeth. Fuck them. This was bad enough. He could barely open his eyes. It felt like he was in a burning house. He walked out the front, past the cab stand, dropped his duffel bag and guitar case and hung the coat on a parking meter. Dug through the pockets for the phone number he had written down, found it, and went looking for a pay phone, leaving the coat behind. Who needed it here? He’d get something nice in L.A., something with some eyeball, who needs the farmer suit?

First things first, though. Call Jake. Jake had been out here for a year, knew the ropes, said he had a gig for the kid, make some real money for a change. Hah. Money for a change. Tired of working for change, those dives in K.C. Fucking drunks didn’t know their butts from page eight, comes to good music. Night after night in those dives, he couldn’t play bad enough to bother anybody. He tried, too, at first a wrong note in an old standard, then whole wrong chords. Nobody noticed, fucking drunks puttin’ their cheap hustles on each other, telling him tone it down, man, people are tryin’ ta talk.

Fuck you, he thought. People are tryin’ to play music. No more of that shit out here. They had good clubs here on the coast, famous places, clean places, where people came to listen. Places like Shelley’s, and The Lighthouse, and up north The Hungry i. He was already thinking the coast, trying it on, rolling it around in his mind. I’m on the coast.

He found a phone booth, went in and dialed, his eyes burning and watering. Five rings, six. He fished a Lucky out of his shirt pocket, lit it with the old Zippo. Eight rings. He hadn’t told Jake he was coming, and now he started to regret it. He thought he’d surprise his big brother. Hey, man, I’m here! Maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea. Ten rings. He hung up the phone. He was sweating now, and the muggy brown air felt good when he opened the door of the booth.

Jake lived in Venice. The kid still had the postcard, a couple of broads in skimpy bikinis, Greetings From Venice Beach, California! Fucking Venice, like that place in Italy. Nothing was real out here. Those broads looked real, though. The address on Pacific Avenue. It’s not much, Jake had said, but I’m never home anyway. Never home. Probably should have picked up on that, he thought now. He dropped the cigarette on the curb, put the sun at his back, and started walking.

In no time he was lost. The streets wouldn’t let him keep the sun at his back, and soon the sun was straight overhead anyway. Good thing he’d dumped the coat. He rubbed his eyes for the hundredth time with his sweaty hands, and cursed the heat and the filthy air. A city bus lurched toward him, spewing black smoke. He had fifty bucks or so left in his pocket, lucky those porters had let him keep that much, a half pack of Lucky Strikes, his eyes and his feet burned and he had no idea where the hell he was. The bus door opened and the driver looked out at him, bored. The kid looked up and down the street, but there was no one coming to his rescue. He stepped aboard, heading for the promised land.

Continued here.

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Snubbed on Oscar Night

My mojo has no effect.

I didn’t really expect Gwyneth to invite me to escort her to this year’s Academy Awards show, although I did dust off the tux. Imagine how the paparazzi would have reacted. But she could have called, if only to say Hey, I’m in town, just wanted to say hi, let’s get together some time. I mean, what would that have cost her? Am I asking too much, people?

You have my number, babe.

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A Christmas Tale

I was the last one out of the office on Christmas Eve, and the holiday was pissing me off.

I don’t really celebrate Christmas anymore, but I have a soft spot for it — the wish for peace, the kindness to each other, the fresh kindled hope for a better future, blah, blah, blah. It’s sweet, you know? But of course we have done our best to ruin it. The buildup is so huge I am always let down by the reality, once it arrives. And I find that I don’t believe anyone’s holiday wishes. I think they’re just platitudes. I was sick of peoples’ hollow Xmas greetings, and feeling grouchy about the whole thing.

So it’s around sunset, it would be totally dark in fifteen minutes and a chilly wind was starting up. I was leaving the office, not smiling, grousing my way out the back door because the front was locked, and I get half way down the outdoor steps when I see her standing in the parking lot. She’s old now, and none of us knows how long she’s been living in and around our parking lot, but she’s been here longer than I have. Her grey and white coat is filthy and her body is impossibly scrawny. As I go down the steps, the heavy security door bangs shut behind me. She hears it and steps warily over to where she can sort of lean on the side of the building, her head cocked my way.

“Hey there, old girl,” I say. She is blind, or nearly so, and she turns toward the sound of my voice. We have seen each other around for years, but she has shown me recognition only in the past month or so, and even now some days she doesn’t. She hesitates, then takes a shaky step toward me. She recognizes me, and even though the office door has closed and I won’t be able to get back in to wash my hands, I know that I will have to pet her, and that her fur will leave a greasy residue that I will have to wear all the way home. I put my briefcase down and sit on the bottom step.

“C’mon, sweetheart,” I coax, and she walks very slowly toward me, until I can just reach out and touch her bony neck. I scratch for a moment, as she tries to make sure that I mean no harm. When she is satisfied that I am safe she comes all the way over to where I am sitting. I scratch her and amazingly, she purrs. She is so decrepit I am surprised that she can purr. My gentle petting rocks her whole body, and I can see that it is only with effort and concentration that she is able to remain standing.

“Poor old baby. It’s a tough life, isn’t it?” I ask in my gentlest cat-calming voice. She lifts her head and stares into my face with her blank, milky eyes.

Yes, it’s tough, she says, but look at me. I’ve survived. Her voice is a high-pitched croak.

Her frailty is so obvious I don’t want to discuss survival with her. “Well, that’s great,” I say, stroking her cheek. “Uh, where are you sleeping tonight?”

I’ll be here as usual, she says, and a shudder runs through her. Maybe under that pickup truck over there. Delicately, she places one skinny paw on my thigh. Do you mind? she asks.

My pants will have to be cleaned. “No, of course not. Come on up.” She needs my help to get into my lap, and more assistance to get comfortable, but at last she is lying there, more at less at ease. The effort has exhausted her, and she just lies there for a minute.

You know, she says at last, I’ve been such a fool.

“What do you mean?” I ask, surprised.

She sighs. For all these years I feared and hated you people. I hid from you, and I looked upon all of you with distrust and suspicion. She looked sheepish. I bit one of you once, a long time ago.

“Well, that’s not so foolish,” I say. “You’re feral, and we don’t have such a good reputation among your kind. It’s totally understandable.”

No, it was wrong. If I had known all along, that all you wanted to do was pet me and feed me… She trailed off. I mean, where did I think those bowls of food and water were coming from, right outside that back door? I was so blind — she smiled — I mean before I was blind, you know? I shifted a little, and we had to get rearranged. She spoke again.

My heart was closed. I couldn’t see the kindness that was offered to me. I had to do everything for myself. I thought everyone who approached meant to hurt me, or take something from me. I’m ashamed to say that I taught my kids to be the same way. All of them are gone now, bless ’em, except for my youngest. I hope it’s not too late for her. She’s a pretty little thing, you know. Takes after her father. She coughed. You might not believe it, but I was pretty once, too.

The old gal in my lap — and this turn of conversation — was making me uncomfortable. “Well, I think you’re still pretty…”

She coughed again, and it went on for several seconds this time. Don’t kid me, sonny. I’m a foolish old hag, and I’m almost blind, but a girl knows.

I could think of no comeback for that. She wasn’t allowing any flattery, any platitudes. Overhead, the wind whistled through the wires.

“Look,” I say, “would you like to come over to my place tonight? It’s warm, and I’ve got plenty of food. You could take a warm bath, if you want.”

She stood up in my lap, and crept slowly back onto the asphalt at the base of the steps, stretching her arthritic limbs as she walked. That’s a sweet offer, sonny. A few years ago I would have jumped at it. But now I’m afraid I’m too set in my ways. I couldn’t sleep in a house. I’d be too nervous knowing I couldn’t run if I had to. Besides, I’ve got my Little One to look out for. She’s around here somewhere, and she won’t come out while you’re around. She still needs me, more than she knows. She doesn’t pay much attention to her old mom these days — you know how they get. She still has a chance, though. I hope I can show her that she doesn’t have to make my mistakes. I have to show her… she coughed some more, and I thought there was a catch in her voice. …I have to show her how to open her heart to the beauty and pain and love that is all around, instead of hiding in fear and suspicion. She gazed nowhere in particular and was silent for a moment. Before I go, you know?

I stood and picked up my briefcase. There would be no use inviting both of them — we lived in different worlds, and this parking lot was nothing more than the place those worlds touched. But I was glad we had met, and touched, this night.

Thanks for listening, sonny, and for petting me. It’s really what I’ve always wanted, if only I’d known. Crazy, isn’t it? After running and hiding all those years, now I can’t get enough of it. And thank you all for the food — the Little One and I, we appreciate it.

She turned and started to make her way along the side of the building, toward the alley. “Merry Christmas!” I called, and for the first time that year, I really meant it.

She stopped and turned. Merry Christmas to you, sonny. Now scoot. Go home and be with your wife. She’ll be waiting for you. Then she walked stiffly on, and around the corner of the building.

I could feel the dirt on my hands. I looked at my pants, and they were covered with her dirty fur. A perfect half-moon had risen and floated low over the buildings in the twilight. Traffic rushed by on the boulevard. I turned and walked to my car.

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