Friday, December 12, 2008

"Bar Talk" (pt 3 of 3)

Harbor House Hotel, Salt Spring Island, 1990-something

Anu's girlfriend arrives, Ivana, a real sweetie, young and cute as all get out. Her red-headed pretty girlfriend Zoe in tow with Devon a cousin of one of the island’s more prominent families, fresh from the oil fields of Saskatchewan with a wad of cash and a new 5-litre Mustang and a look and persona that says he is not like most of the other kids his age, he, I think, has a touch of respect, a touch of morality, not unlike his cousins who I know from the softball field. He is related somehow (everybody on this island seems related to somebody down the street or up the hill) to Dave, one of the nicest guys I have ever met and one guy who went out of his way to make me feel comfortable as the new guy on the team; his brother Chris, always friendly, always greeting you with a smile, and the youngest Drew, just like the others, though a little wilder as young kids of 18 or so are now. They have an edge now that has got to be a natural cultural phenomenon as much as anything else and if you think about it, the future is scary.

They sit then move to another table. I fly between the two tables, softball Fred and the two drunken ladies one minute, then Anu, Ivana, Zoe and that table, mad for conversation, caught up in the liquored atmosphere of Friday night Karaoke at the local bar, crowded, ages ranging from 19 to 60, all ages mixed together, just having a good time, no roosters in the barnyard posturing in here, no threat of fists and testosterone, just fun, I'm actually enjoying myself, knowing all the time my ex-wife is at home, my home, my old home, with the guy who came between us and I'm not dwelling on that painful thought, instead I'm deep in conversation with Zoe’s cousin, who has a darker complexion and I notice her and see beauty in an exotic way you don't often see out here in the farming/hippie/redneck community, and we waste our breath on religion as she tells me about the B'hai faith.

"We really take a lot of the good things from all the other religions...bla, bla, bla" she reveals in a serious tone that is purely the product of her young age, a tone that will surely diminish as she gets older and tastes life's illogical insanities that wait off in the dark, like a mugger waiting in the bushes, they will get her too, poor young thing.

I pretend to take her seriously and just wait to get my cynical question in.

"But is there consequence in the B'hai faith? Is there a hell of some kind that waits for those who don't pass judgment?”

"Yes, but no..."

Her explanation I cannot comprehend nor remember much of, except that she was kind and full of wonderful smiles. She did not drink and I regret not speaking with her further but we are interrupted as the Karaoke is over and the lounge is closing so we shuffle to the pub in the back.

Immediately the atmosphere is changed. Edge is prominent, menace hangs thick in the air. You can feel the place all over you. A band called "Auntie Kate" is jamming on the small stage and I recognize many faces among the crowd including the cute little waitress who looks a lot like a girlfriend I once had – a drop-dead gorgeous strawberry-blonde first love who broke my teenage heart, ah life - right before I met my wife (and whom I often dream about – a decade or so later - in the middle of my lonely nighttime tortures), who a few weeks back flirted with me, only to tell me she wasn't "wearing her ring", that she was married, and I said to myself what kind of man sits at home while his wife is out without her ring drinking with other men, many of them lonely, looking for companionship, teasing in an innocent way, some more direct, whatever I thought, how could they do this? Are they that secure? I think I once was but cannot be for sure it seems so long ago.

This place holds more drunks than the lounge and here people are openly inebriated. Many people look down and out, some sit open-mouthed, eyes shut, just passed out in chairs, others crowd the tiny dance floor, the band is almost mute to me as I blast conversation with Stan the "man with the van" who introduces me to what I think is a girlfriend and her friend, and I somehow feel the need to make the comment "he's just as degenerate as the rest of us," to which the taller, prettier one agrees, adding, "and he sells real-estate."

Seconds later, or was it minutes? I can’t tell in these frantic alcohol-fueled music-blasted moments time just accelerates, in any case I find myself face to face with a person who's been an irritation to me for a while now. Vern, a friend of the guy who stepped between my wife and me, and a guy who has become her friend and talks with her regularly, visiting her in my house often, until late at night, and who until this meeting made me really uncomfortable. I had nothing personal against him, just jealous of the time he was able to spend with her, and uneasy at the "friend" scenario, as it was used before and the results were catastrophic to me.

"Listen," he says, averting eye contact, "I don't know you but I think we should clear the air."

I feel immediately better in some weird way. Weeks before in a drunken haze I tried to instigate a fight with him in the bar by repeatedly bumping him, but he did not bite. And in a way I'm glad. With my luck I would have been sued, and my wife, ex-wife, whatever would have hated me even more, and for the little release I would have gotten from feeling the rush of participating in violence only people who do it regularly can explain, it would have backfired and caused more harm in the long run than any stupid "animalistic" release would have provided in the short term. Besides, maybe I get my nose broken or something even more painful and embarrassing.

"Really, I'm glad you came up to me because you know the other week when I was bumping you that was just the alcohol, I'm not like that, I was sort of at one point a long, long, time ago when I had things to prove and all that but I felt really stupid afterward and told her to tell you I wasn't like that and that I felt bad, really." And that was the truth, although my primal ego got off on the fact he wanted no part of me that night.

"I didn't even know it at the time," he says, which I think is total bullshit and a guy’s way of saving face, which he obviously feels he needs to do, being 25 and maybe not quite there yet, but I have no face to save I think to myself and he continues, "I just want you to know me and your wife are just friends, really, she's a great person and really her friend is the one I like."

Whatever, I think, but I'm happy to clear the tension, as I do not enjoy the negative aspects of male possessiveness. It is the center of my shit and I don't need it and spend too much time pondering it and asking the why over and over again, without ever getting close to figuring any of it out.

I try to shed some light and give this Vern some indication that really I'm an OK guy, so I continue, perhaps saying too much and even knowing it as I speak but I go on anyway.

"My problem is jealousy, I'm jealous of the time you get to spend with her, that was my time before and I'm still hopelessly in love with her and I'm miserable and shit happens...but I'm glad you introduced yourself, it'll make life easier for both of us, and maybe even her."

He agrees. I offer to buy him a drink and he says he can't because he's trying to find some people and that he'd catch up with me later. Fat chance. Off he goes. In my jaded paranoiac way I now wonder if it was a set-up or a contrived meeting designed with another purpose altogether. I think of the time a couple of months back when I made the mistake of talking to a girl, a cute little thing and a hell of a softball player - she made a catch on a line drive I hit that most guys would have ducked under, it was screaming and she just casually reached up and snagged it, thing of beauty - anyway, this was the first time in a while I just opened up and told my story, which was known around town anyway because this place is small and the grapevine active. This is something that didn't bother me until the humiliation of having to be felt for and told how sorry people are and the many "oh yeah, I thought so" comments and so on and so on until it began to tear me up and I finally got sick of it, so I tell her, and she immediately tells her best friend, Vern, who then tells my ex, who launches into a tirade about me and my mouth and how our business isn't anyone else's and all I can think of is hey, shit happens, you made the first ripple in the fishbowl honey, not me, and now you may not like, or agree with, or be able to control what people do, say, or think, just ask me about it, I know all about it, in fact if they gave out degrees for this shit I'd have a PH-fucking-D in the field.

So the evening gets more drunken and I see the guy who put together my car about eight years ago, Kyle, card carrying member of the Gunnit Church, and I just ask him out of nowhere about my motor to which he responds, in a complete drunken slur, "Fuck! Shit! Man I don't give a shit about nothin'. I got a 400 horse truck that'll blow the doors off..." the rest of which I block out. Here I stand next to a total drunk whose got an edge about him, and his mouth is moving and nothing's coming out, and I back away slowly until I blend into the blur the room most surely is to his glassed-over sad eyes, eyes that will never know anything but what little this place has to offer, but right now I want his sorry ass outta my face, and I move on.

I find myself talking to another girl I know from softball, a real nice girl who has a reputation people like to bring up when I mention her, and then suddenly my heart stops. There in the crowd is the guy who's A-listed my nightmares for the last nine months and I immediately feel sick, awkward, and a million other things all at once and I curse that someone can do this to me and I wonder what my ex-wife sees in him and wonder how he conned his way into her life. Earlier an older gentleman somewhat well-known in the community, with a high-profile job, told me it was “none of his business” but that he hated that "fucker, when I heard he was your friend and all that, man I just hated him even more...I know he's done this to other people too and the guy's as rotten as they come...bla, bla, bla negative bla."

All of this is blending and weaving now into a continuous stream of images and commentary. I can't think forward and I can't think back, I can't plan and I can't remember, I just move, everything automated, reacting to whatever ends up in front of me.

I appreciated the older guy's company on my side of the fence, but that didn't matter now. He was here now, across the crowded floor, talking to somebody who I like and consider a friend, and now we're in this awkward situation, in the same room, and there he is, the guy I really truly hate, the only person I have ever really hated and nobody knows hate until they are wronged by evil, and that’s him, the guy who makes me physically sick, who not only appears in my waking thoughts all day long but also shows up in my sleep, as my tortured mind wrestles subconsciously in the dark with his overwhelming presence in my life, he, the source of my misery, so what do I do? What do I god damn do? I walk up and blurt out something about buying him a drink. Yeah no kidding, I actually did that. I now know for sure that I am going insane.

I have reached a low so low it was unimaginable to me in previous lives. I realize this and walk away as he tries to explain that he can't drink with me or something like that, but I can't, don't, or won't hear him and walk away in a state of utter confusion.

And then the lights are turned on. Last call is announced. The sad reality the light exposes hits you like a wave of nausea. Sad, drunken people, struggling to the end of their evenings, shuffle about with rough faces and forlorn eyes. And I am one of them. I'm lost now, the evening hits me at once, and once again I am closing the bar and everyone there my age is there for awful reasons and I'm feeling like shit and once again I go home to my empty little place to spend the night longing for what was and remains impossible to recapture. The loneliness is killing me and I know it.

(c) AC James

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Bar Talk" (pt 1 of 3)

Harbor House Hotel, Salt Spring Island, 1990-something

"Just shut up already, get on with your life."

His candor I admired, even appreciated, although I kind of felt like just popping the son-of-a-bitch in the mouth because I'm so sick of the simple answers, but I know he is only doing what he felt I sincerely needed, a kick in the ass in a new direction I suppose, and really, he is my friend and I know that.

"Look," I said, "even though I'm as sick of this whole thing as you are, it's not like I can turn it off like a light switch, it's eating me, just eating me up. Do you really think I'm enjoying this miserable bullshit? Given a choice, I prefer happiness."

"I know you're not enjoying it, but it's all you know now, so you're stuck in a rut. But let me tell you, you're getting used to your role now as the Miserable Guy and you probably don't know it but your whole psyche has taken on that character and on some levels you're getting something out of it."

"You might be right. I guess I'm used to being sad and miserable and depressed and pathetic and all that and now I'm so used to it that I just continue to stay in this miserable space out of habit. Jesus, what a scary thought! Maybe people feeling sorry for me and throwing sympathy my way is where I'm getting the attention now instead of from her and I'm so used to this now that out of habit I just play the game?"

"Don't worry about it," he says looking away.

My head twirls with this new concept. Holy Christ, maybe I'm actually afraid to let it all go and get on with my life without her because the “depressed dude” has become a way of life and maybe I enjoy being patted on the head like a god damn beggar in Bombay? Oh the hell of it all.

"I think you may be getting it. You're not that out of it. You do know what's going on and you know what? I really do think it's all out of your control, you poor bastard."

"At least you realize I'm not playing this part because its fun. I hate this fucking place."

Just then the waitress, Geena, whom I know by name and who knows me by name - a certain feeling of bar status is measured by your casualness and first-name friendship with bartenders and servers, people who work the place, you know the line "where everybody knows your name"...well everybody can know your name in any skid row of any downtown Draino-drinking alley anywhere - anyway, Geena greets us and asks if we'd like another round of drinks and we agree without hesitation.

My mind is not on the drink, the place, the people, but on me, and my miserable situation. I have become the topic, for me and everybody around me, like it or not. I am going through the sad ending of a relationship that on all fronts appears horribly doomed and so incredibly out of synch after being the center of almost half of my time on this planet.

My life has been toyed with by evil. A warning of some kind would have been nice, I feel, the decent thing to do, although looking for decency in the universe is often futile. All I'm saying is maybe I could've seen a sign, like “Speed Bump Ahead”, or more precisely “beware...gigantic cataclysm will appear out of nowhere”. Nothing, nada, zip, zero. All of a sudden she looked at me like I'd stepped in something. And I did. My life. It was my life that was stuck to the bottom of my shoe.

There is a cloud, a dark billowy monstrosity following me and it came at me with the suddenness and ferocity of a massive prairie storm. It came from nowhere, at least I failed to see it coming. Like a tidal wave, the beach was calm, serene even, before the dark gloom rumbled forth from the horizon. Then boom, off the scale madness. Lost, totally lost.

I now feel I can relate in some zen-like way to those little sad laboratory mice. I feel like I've been singled out for an experiment of some kind, somebody or something is studying me, and my fall, one human being so wretchedly ill-prepared for life's peaks and hellholes and I am now the rat in the cage and I know it.

I'm talking with my friend Anu. I respect this guy. He is loyal, and does not make a habit of discussing your business with others. Anu is cool. His walk, his talk, his whole trip is casual cool. The first time I met him he pulled up in his lowered 5-litre Mustang with a thousand-plus watts blasting "Low Rider" to everybody within a two block radius.

He and I are sitting at the Harbour House Hotel, on Salt Spring Island, population around 10,000 and change. We're in the lounge, one of the Island's more popular bars and the one we frequent most. We know everybody here, and we're comfortable. He continues his analysis of my situation, which is the topic most of the time even though I'd give anything to change that fact.

"You," he says looking stern and true and really wanting me to get his point, "need to let go. Kick some ass, man. Forget about everything and go forward."

I listen. I know. I understand what he says, and I have known this for some time now. But I can't stop the feeling and I cannot control my heart which just toys with my emotional being. It's like a Twilight Zone. I'm a Rod Serling character controlled by a sad old puppet master and I'm his sad old rickety puppet, with a torn little jacket.

My life was a good life. Moderate successes, health, family, material things, all the goodies. Then it all turned into a hellish nightmare and almost a year later it continues on its path, without logic, without meaning, without explanation, and I get bitter and more cynical and more jaded as each day passes. I want another drink.

I replenish the alcohol, and turn my attentions to Anu. “I know you're right, believe me I know, but I've tried everything, from drinking myself unconscious, staying up for days on end trying to figure out the whole thing, I've punched doors, walls, trees, whatever in fits of rage and frustration, I've bought her flowers, and hand written cards pouring out my soul, I've put my heart on the table for her, I've drowned in my own tears like I never imagined was possible, I've tried flirting with other women, I've partied and I've been distracted briefly....but it always comes back to her...I can't explain it, and I can't stand it anymore..."

"I don't know what to do man, I'd love to I've said I think a trip to Monty's would help"

Monty's is a strip club in Victoria, and Anu is convinced it would be good for me, but I have a problem with this whole concept. After having a partner for what seems like forever, when it comes to women, love, sex, and that whole world, I now feel like a hungry child, like a poor kid starving for attention, for recognition, for anything. I don't think it's a good thing to take a love-starved lonely broken man and let him see beautiful women dance naked around him. Sorry, but I cannot see the good in this and so I refuse.

I try and explain to my young friend that yes I do like naked women, hell I like all women, naked or not, but I tell him and try to relate to him that I've had a partner steadily for the past decade. Most of the people he knows and most of the people I will party with tonight were watching Scooby Doo and playing with G.I. Joe dolls when I was feeling my first tit and for them the true understanding of sex and love over a long period of time just cannot yet be imagined.

I miss it. Damn I miss it more than I thought I would. I miss it on many levels too, and I try to explain this to Anu who is now using his strip of celery to wipe off the salty rim of the drink Geena has just plopped in front of him.

"Look, I don't want to tease myself," I continue, hoping in some kind of way he doesn't think I'm strange because I do not want to watch beautiful women take their clothes off...but really I don't, "but I've been having sex since you were seven years old...the last decade or so with the same woman...let me tell you practice makes know the Kama Sutra and all the sexual-mystical bullshit? Sex is more than getting off, and it can blow your mind in ways you never knew it could."

He agrees with a nod, but I don't think he really knows what I mean and I think he's eyeing a group of locals who've entered the lounge in a loud way. I continue, not wanting to break my little soapbox speech, my passing of the wisdom to the next generation.

"When you really love somebody on a very deep level you can turn physical contact into a god damn experience that rivals any high. I'm telling you four hours of intensity releases endorphins and it opens your eyes to a place you didn't know was there...they didn't bring this up in Health class, they don’t teach you this here in our part of the world, and once you hit this peak you realize how incredible the whole thing can be...never mind your wham-bam-thank-you-mam'll never go back to that boring shit and that's why I will be alone tonight...its a manifestation of love in the highest form and its real.”

He laughs and sips his drink, perhaps really not understanding what I mean, but I know, god do I know, something in me makes me think about it every day now and it torments me to no end. Nothing, even knowing there are girls willing to sleep with me with little or no effort on my part, nothing and I mean nothing can replace what I've experienced and know as the truth and peak of all humanity. The inescapable misery is in the fact I know it's still possible, or at least I think its possible with that person, and that she is only a mile away we still speak and have contact. I am overwhelmed by the intense frustration of knowing what was and what can be and what might be, but not being able to go there anymore is eating me from the inside.

I have realized what many others have and do every day in every corner of this great big planet of sad souls all trying to find the same damn is the only real pleasure there is in life and once you've been there and felt your soul fill with the indescribable joys of it, you cannot help but feel life without it is a horribly inadequate waste of time...settling for anything less is to live without purpose, or so I I order another drink, this time a double.

I feel frustrated at the memories of pleasures that are now just that, flashes of the past, pictures in my head, stored next to and among odds and ends, memories countless in numbers, assembled without order, without sense, and I know in my torment among the endless remembrances of the past there are triumphs of the human soul, unbelievable human journeys that I miss so much now in my solitude the subject inspires anger and frustration and I let it out.

"Fuck!” A few heads turn but I don’t care, “you have no idea...and you grow so close to each other...we only stumbled into this over the last year or so...seriously, things just evolved to this other level...and then wham! It’s taken away, stolen from me...imagine thinking more about giving pleasure to your partner than to want the other person to feel full ecstatic joy and full physical reactions that release things we don't understand in the brain, you can be the high, you can be the drug, you can inspire things that make the world stop and you can get off and experience pure soul, pure joy, no thought, just pure life....see I don't want some little girl who has no idea or whatever and besides even if she was good and skilled in this area I really feel like I couldn't enjoy it the way I know I can unless there was love involved."

"No shit...” he says, and I can tell I lost him. I just can’t express it and when I try I always end up in a tangle of words, a mess of converging thoughts and the point I am trying to make disappears like a puff of smoke.

The people who befriend you while you're in the depths of turmoil and misery really must be your friends, even if they have their own failures, faults and bad influences, even if they may make your own self-destruction a little easier, there is some kindness of soul in them to let the stranger with the fistful of problems into their own complicated and troubled lives. Why do they even bother? I don't know yet but I hope I can help somebody someday, I hope I can stand to listen to all the wretched bullshit and broken-heart drivel, I know I can't do it now, because I can barely take my own shit.

"Anu...I know I can't force it, I know I can't just jump into something with someone else, if there was someone else I really truly felt would fill the void, but what do I do to bide my time? How do I keep my sanity?"

"I don't know, man," he says, pointing across the room, “look there's that dude with the GTO. He's an idiot but that car is very cool. And you know the worst part is his girlfriend bought it for him."

Once again he changes the subject, for my sake maybe, more for his probably, and I follow. He is pointing at a local, one who is identified by his car, a 1965 GTO. This island has an old-fashioned infatuation with muscle cars, almost a religious-type devotion to fast gas-guzzling cars of decades past.

The people who take on this role are called "Gunnits" in local slang, and some go back a couple of generations on this island. The auto parts store is like the Vatican to them and if you're lucky enough to be in there when the old mechanic brothers are there, in their grease-stained coveralls hanging like papal robes, you really feel special and I mean culturally speaking it's not the symphony or academic kind of stuff but it's pure and real and there really is a gunnit subculture that is as valid in it's enthusiasm and truth as any more heady, snotty sort of hobby like pottery or theatre or art. I know I can talk to any one of them anytime, just talk four-barrel carbs and intake manifolds and headers, and if you have a Chevy it doesn't hurt either, and you've got a nice conversation, not too deep, but as real as any upscale pseudo intellectual talk over tea and biscuits.

"She's cute," I say, motioning to the GTO guy's girlfriend.
"Yeah she's a hottie," says Anu, "and she bought him that car. Damn, he must have done something in a past life to deserve good fortune."

At this moment the thought of good fortune baffles me. Why for some and not for others? What kind of place is this that harbors such imperfections, such imbalances? The muscles in my jaw clench shut as a surge of anger drives through my body. I look at the GTO guy and try not to hate him for all of life's inequities.

(c) AC James

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Eye of the Beholder (Pt 3 of 3)

The party raged well into the evening. Leanne and I talked about lots of things, but the story of the portrait wasn’t among them. I sensed that wasn’t something she really didn’t want to explore too much.

Besides, the evening became a parade of eccentricity. I met all sorts of wild people with every conceivable issue and opinion and commentary on this god damn world. We had great pretentious conversations full of sincerity and concerns and grand theories and philosophies. We all hmmm’d and yes’d each other to death, pretending to hear and care about all of this nothingness, with oh so serious looks and intellectual deceptions. So many people with so many things to say, and in the end very little of it made any sense, and certainly, none of it mattered.

I tired of all the talk and eventually, amazingly, I fell asleep – passed out to be more accurate - in a huge leather chair in the middle of the living room in the middle the party. Thank god I didn’t know anybody.

When I woke up it was cold and grey and the house was ugly. Leanne was gone, and all the serious people with all the answers were gone as well. Instead I looked around and saw bleak reality. It was all unfamiliar and strange.

In the morning light everyone seemed like sniveling runaway kids in torn and tattered clothing; down and out kids with no place to go; this was a rotten stink hole filled with dirty people. My ears picked up the sound of sick coughs, morning junky coughs, hack coughs, deep ones that break up and heave. It sounded like people were getting punched in the chest. I needed a surgical mask.

I smelled that skunky weed again and sitting a few feet away from me two sickly kids smoked the remnants of a joint. Anything, I suppose, to thwart the pain and depression of cold junky mornings.

I got up and stumbled toward the kitchen. I stopped in the doorway and watched a poor child of a girl struggle to make a giant pan of eggs. She was pale and thin with blonde straight hair that hung down to hide half her face. She kept sniveling and wiping her runny nose with her frail wrist. Then she'd tuck her hanging hair behind her ear, all in one motion. It made me depressed just looking at her.

She was cracking the eggs on the side of the pan. Bits of egg shell kept getting into the eggs. She slowly picked out the pieces one by one with a larger section of broken shell. It was all slow and deliberate and went on for several minutes. I figured at this rate it would take a few hours to make scrambled eggs. The burner apparently wasn't working right either. After a few minutes it had barely started to heat up, if at all. It was all broken dreams in a broken kitchen.

Eventually I woke up to the fact of where I was and what I was doing and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Sometimes when something is right in front of you, you miss it. The resolution of opportunity doesn’t always go by the clock or the calendar, or by convenience.

One day it came to me. Out of the blue, it just made sense. The woman in that painting was Leanne. It was a self-portrait. Of course it was. In retrospect, I should have known, but it went right passed me and got lost in the night.

Anyway, I have often wondered if I had figured this out when I was there, in that house, with her, that night, if things might have been different. I think, yes, I would have bought that painting, and maybe, Leanne would have been happy. Instead, my wall is blank, and Leanne, well, who knows, maybe somebody else got it right?

© AC James

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eye of the Beholder (Pt 2 of 3)

The house was an old Victorian, well past its prime. Once the home of some turn-of-the-century aris­tocrat, or maybe an industrialist tycoon, it was now just a beat, weathered old palace with dozens and dozens of anti­quated rooms, sitting tucked away, rotting amongst the crum­bling hills of Berkeley.

It fronted a tight street with many trees and overgrown bushes and shrubs. I walked up a path of broken stones, ducking branches and spider webs. The muffled sound of music from inside the house filtered through the bushes. After a short walk I came to a pair of huge front doors with ancient paint peeling from the weathered years, and on one of the doors was a huge brass knocker, like something you’d see in an old haunted house movie. The other door once had a knocker too, I could see evidence of such, but it was gone now, looted long ago. “Come In” was scratched into the wood on the door at about eye level.

I opened the door in time to hear the drum and piano intro at the very beginning of Joe Cocker’s “Feelin Alright”. The room opened to an immense foyer with steps leading down to a sunken living room, framed by huge windows with stained glass inserts and large potted plants. There were people all over, milling around in small intent groups, standing in pairs, leaning against walls, deep into conversation, and others sitting by themselves with content smiles moving to the music. Nobody noticed my entrance, if they did, they didn’t care.

The music sounded incredibly clear, ultra high-fidelity for sure, filling the room, and in such a way that I felt like everything was tied to the beat. In fact the whole room and everything in it was on time with the song. It fit perfectly. There may be starving artists living here, but somebody spent some serious money on a kick ass sound system.

The unmistakable odor of skunky pot sat like LA smog over everything as I found my way to the bottom of a huge spiral staircase. A pair of cute, young hippie girls came walking down past me with dopey grins cut beneath painted sunflowers on their cheeks. They looked at me and I looked at them and at that moment I loved the world again.

I walked up this great ancient stairway with a beautiful hand-carved dark wood banister lined with griffins and gargoyles peering out from the intricate grain. Oh the stories they could tell. If they could speak they’d probably tell of great rumbling earthquakes that creaked and cracked the very found­ation of the old home. Maybe they'd tell of the opulence of the golden twenties, of huge prohibition gangster parties, or maybe of the silent suffering in a depres­sion-era rooming house; and possibly I thought, of the time the house was home to an asylum full of broken minds that screamed private agony through the night.

OK, so I was all over the place, but I was in the moment and that’s what went through my head. I’m sure I wasn’t too far from the truth.

The top of the stairs spilled into a long hallway with doors lining both sides. There were paintings covering almost every inch of wall space all the way down the hall. I stared at them at them as I slowly wondered. People bumped into me as they laughed and partied on their merry way through their merry lives. I was looking at everything from beautifully rich and detailed portraits, to nondescript splashes of color, messes that could have been done by a chimpanzee. Art is art, I thought, who am I to say what’s what?

Suddenly I saw the portrait of the sad woman from the sidewalk sale. I stopped dead in my tracks. Maybe it was the light, maybe it was the wall, whatever it was, the painting was different than earlier in the day. The woman’s eyes were alive. They were so real, so full of grief, of trial, of pain, that I felt I knew everything she ever went through. I stood and stared for I don’t know how long before a voice interrupted my trance.

“What do you see now?” It was Leanne, the artist.
“Oh, hey…um, I see everything!” I shook my head.
“Yes, I mean, she's sad. She is hurt. I feel her pain.”
“How do you know?”
“Her eyes, they tell so much, I can see right into her.”
“You didn’t see that earlier today?”
“Well, I could tell she was miserable, and I saw it in her eyes. But now I feel it. Now I know. God, who is she?”
“Just a girl,” she said, “come, let’s go sit down somewhere. You want a drink or something?”
“Sure, thanks.”

We walked downstairs and through the living room which was now jammed with people. Leanne grabbed a couple of beers from the kitchen and we made our way to the backyard through huge open French doors. The yard was vast, with patios and detailed stonework, tiered gardens and trellises with vines climbing every which way. Impressive as it was, it also appeared to be largely ignored, with uncut grass and overgrown foliage. The people who lived here had other priorities and keeping up appearances looked to be down on the list.

The backyard grounds were scattered with people, music escaped nicely from inside, while a couple of dogs romped around chasing one another in a frenzy, one a big happy black lab with a red bandanna tied around it’s neck, the other some sort of menacing pit bull. The dogs whipped by our feet and I reeled back when the pit bull came close.

“Oh don’t mind him, he’s harmless” said a smiling Leanne.
“Is that so? OK then.” The bastard still made me nervous. We sat down on a couple of Chaise Lounges that faced out to the yard and a setting sun. I sipped my beer.

“So who is that woman, that girl, in the painting?” I asked.
Leanne looked off into the distance, paused, and then took a hit off her beer.
“I knew her a long time ago,” she said, “she was once a nice little girl, then she grew up too fast. She took some shots. Sometimes the road is a long road, with all sorts of shitty stops along the way. She was robbed.”
“That happens to a lot of people.”

What Leanne was saying I understood. It made me remember how I hate people. She was speaking of evil, the evil of men, the failures of man. I knew it.

“Do you still know her?”
“I don't know where she is. I don’t remember much about her, just little snippets. If it wasn’t for that painting, I’d have probably forgotten all about her.”

There was a lull in the conversation. Leanne was thinking. There was pain in her face as she looked away. There was stoicism in her eyes that belied the furrowing on her forehead. She had strength in her I could tell, but also a vulnerability that she did her best to hide. We both took sips from our bottles and looked out at the sunset, which was settling through a maze of violet streaks that splashed across the treetops.

“When did you paint it?” I asked.
“About ten years ago. I tried to paint it to show her she was beautiful. But that’s how it came out in the end.”
“Her eyes are so telling. Did you mean for that to happen? I mean did you paint it knowing the eyes would tell a story?”
“No, not at all. I was going to make her smile, that’s all I remember actually planning. I wanted to make her happy. I thought by painting her I would be able to do that. But it didn’t work.”
“She didn’t like it when she saw it?”
“No, she didn’t.”

Once again we looked silently off into the distance. The sunset was now a massive web of pink and purple and orange all gleaming across the darkening sky. It was a beautiful and impressive display.

(c) AC James

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Eye of the Beholder (Pt 1 of 3)

To be pursued is an awful feeling. To have something nipping at your heels is pure dread. For many, life is spent looking over their shoulder. Like it or not, know it or not, there is always something back there. For some the menace reveals itself huge and obvious, for others the pursuer takes lesser forms.

I always take a second look. Ever since I could remember, I've always had this feeling that something was behind me. So I've developed a habit of looking for whatever it is that trails me. I casually glance over my shoulder, then after turning back, I quickly look again. Maybe with that second look I’ll catch it, whatever it is, just once, and confirm my god damn suspicions. But the problem is there’s never anything there, at least anything I can actually see. Is this paranoia? Probably. But I think we're all pursued, one way or another, I just happen to look back a lot.

The bus was full of work day people, elderly people, an anarchist-type sitting, naturally, in the back row, and a few of those people who just go along totally unnoticed. They blend in to their surroundings. I fit somewhere in the middle of all of this. I don't think anybody noticed me, except the lady with the funky hat who was sitting in front of me. I caught her looking at me.

The bus lurched to a stop, the air brakes let out a burst, the uniformed driver yanked the handle and the glass door slid open. I stepped off and into one of those gorgeous San Francisco late afternoons, cool, pleasant, with a beautiful, deep, dark blue sky cut by a few silent wispy puffs of pacific fog.

There was a commotion, an event of some kind, on the sidewalk where the bus let me off. A dozen or so artists were displaying their efforts among the hustle of city streets. It was some sort of sidewalk art sale. I had time to kill, as I often do, so I decided to check out the art, and the artists.

I should clarify. I hate people. Maybe hate is too strong a word. Perhaps I dislike a lot of things about people. I don’t know. I can say more often than not, far more in fact, that they bore the shit of me. Sometimes I meet people and I actually hang out with them for some time, but once I get to know them, they bore the shit of out me. I know that sounds awful, snotty, whatever, but I can’t help it. It’s reality.

The flip side is I love people too. I love characters, people who are different, kind people, beautiful people, intelligent people, creative people, and those who laugh. I love all kinds of people. And I love love, true love, and real love. Christ I fall in love all the time.

It’s a hell of a way to go through life, hating everybody one moment and then falling in love the next. It's a high maintenance path.

I walked around the displays of mostly horrid art; sea scenes, waves crashing against rocks, bridges, gulls, bearded old men with skipper hats, whales, rotting wharfs, and old light­houses, all on cheap canvas sold in the open air by sad-eyed neurotic artists. Perfect, I thought.

I stopped at one booth. There were three paintings sitting on rickety easels. One was of a bird on a fence. Some sort of sea bird, I guess. The bird was bored to death, I could tell. Another was of a sunset. It was full of colors and looked pleasant except I was convinced the colors were the result of smog and pollution. And finally the last painting was a portrait of a woman. She was sitting on a stool. Her face was childlike; her eyes were full of misery. She looked awful. You could see the sadness written all over her face, although she appeared to be quite young.

Behind the table a middle-aged woman was reading a book. She didn’t look up when I stopped. At least I didn’t see her look up. She might have peeked, who knows.

“I like your work,” I said.
“What?” she replied, somewhat annoyed.

So I thought to myself, why in the hell are you even here? I mean her, not me. I know why I’m here, I’ve got nothing better to do – and that’s a whole other story – but her, she is presumably the artist, and this is accordingly, her work, and she set it up so people could see it and maybe put a couple of lousy dollars in her hand so she can buy more paint and continue to do this thing called “art”. She might sell an awful painting now and then if she looked up, made eye contact, and maybe even smiled for Christ sake.

“Your paintings, I like them,” I said, hoping maybe I’d engage her. It seemed like a challenge.
“Oh, thanks.” Again, her eyes never parted with the tattered paperback in her hands.

Fucking lively, I thought.

“The bird, he looks bored. Is that the case?”
“Hey, he’s whatever you want him to be man.”
“Oh yeah, right. I forgot. Well then, he’s dying of boredom. That bird is seconds away from the end. In fact, if you painted him ten seconds later, he’d be flat on his feathered back.”

She looked up. The weird draw the weird.

“OK, I’ll buy that,” she said, “You’re the first person to say that about the painting. Most people have nothing to say. At least you see something other than just the bird on the fence.”
“I see lots of things in your paintings.”
“You wanna buy one?”
“Maybe,” I said, which was total bullshit because I didn’t want to buy one, but I wanted to keep the conversation going and I knew if I said no she would have shut it down fast.

“The sunset, I like the colors.”

She put her book down, and I finally got to see her face. She was a middle-aged lady, with sort of black curly hair. She looked like she had a few hard years punched into the lines of her face. She had big brown eyes behind these trendy intellectual-looking hard framed glasses, and in those eyes I could see lots.

“Thanks. I painted that a long time ago. When I knew I was coming here today I had to pick a couple of paintings to bring with me. I wish I had a reason for choosing those three, but I don’t.”
“Well, I think those colors are because of pollution and smog. I know it’s all up to me, but you can’t tell me you paint these things without the slightest idea of why you choose that color or why you put that look on the bird’s face. You must have some idea of those details, right?”
“Um, well, I guess. But whatever they were when I painted them are gone now. Anyway, its way easier to just let you carry that weight. What I think or thought when I painted them is irrelevant now.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t like to be disappointed. I learned early on that if I had something I wanted to convey in a painting that it was almost totally impossible for that to happen. People see things the way they see them, and that’s all there is to it. Once it’s on the canvas, its outta my control. I can’t tell you to see or feel anything. If I want you to see what I see, or feel what I feel, and you don’t, then I’m disappointed. So, I have no expectations. You look, you see, you feel, or you don’t. That’s that.” She shrugged her shoulders and went back to her book.

I liked that answer a lot. I looked at her differently. She gave me something to think about. It made perfect sense. I stared at the portrait.

“Who’s that?” I said, pointing to the girl on the canvas.
She looked up, over her glasses. “Why do you want to know?”
“I don’t know, curious I guess.” Truth is I didn’t care, I was making small talk.
“She’s a person in a painting. That’s all. Once she’s on there, that’s it, she’s anonymous.”

Suddenly there was a loud voice and up stepped some filthy, bearded old madman. Somewhere beneath an explosion of grey-black hair was his face. His voice was pure sandpaper and gravel. He was going on about something I didn’t hear because the physical trauma of his appearance hadn’t worn off yet. He was talking to the artist lady behind the table, totally interrupting our conversation.

“Everything has to be offa this sidewalk in half-an-hour. We can’t have everybody scraggling out of here late, the god damn city assholes’ll be all over me with their freakin’ citation books. So start packing and make sure you’re outta here on time.”

“Who’s that?” I asked the artist lady.
“He’s the promoter, for lack of a better term.”
“HE is the promoter? You’re kidding? That guy?”
“Yup. He used to do concerts or something in the sixties.”
“Yeah I'm sure he did lots in the sixties.”

The lady stood up and started packing her stuff. She looked up at me. I thought she was going to ask me to buy a painting.

“Are you busy later?” she asked.
Was she hitting on me? I admit my mind is a mess, but that’s how it came across.
“Not sure, I have some options.”
“Well you got another one. There’s a party tonight at the house I’m living in. There’ll be lots of artists, writers, poets, freaky people of all types. Maybe you’d like to stop by and see more of my paintings?”
“Thanks, I’ll see what I can manage.”

She handed me a creased and very used business card.

“Leanne” was her name. Underneath it was the title, in italics, “artist”. There was a Berkeley address on it.

“What time?” I asked.
“Oh later, anytime really, the house is always going. Come by, I’d like that,” she said, and then she smiled. I thought, “Do that more often, and you might sell a painting.” She was very attractive when she smiled, but then, who isn’t?

(c) AC James

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Aisle D

Once a week or so I make my way down to the local bookstore. I wish I could say it was a small, quaint, sort of traditional, independent bookseller, but it’s not. Truth is I frequent a mega franchise bookstore, impersonally huge, with a chain-store coffee shop built right in, and annoying check-out clerks who try like hell to get me to sign up for a discount card or some such other gadget I really don't need.

In any case, I love the entire ritual of the bookstore. I love browsing all the titles, the pictures, the covers, new books, big books, classics, sections, topics, bargains, and I love the people watching. Who are the other people in here with me? If I wasn’t so anti-social I might like them because they read.

I read every day, even if it is just a few pages. Often I read books I like over and over. I've had people tell me that might be weird, but I know that is a normal thing among people who like to read and enjoy certain authors. I mean if you like a dead author, for example, and there are many to choose from – actually far more than the live versions – you almost have to read their work over and over. What choice have you got?

I’ll tell you what, it really sucks when they con you into buying something from that dead author you like by marketing it as new, never-released, newly discovered, or whatever, only to find out it’s from a time when that author couldn’t write worth a damn, or worse, it’s just useless correspondence with some old long-dead friend. This money grab is a major exercise in irrelevance, if you ask me. Anyway, a good piece of writing, like a good film, reveals something new each time you experience it.

On this day I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I wondered around, flipped through a few titles, and wasn’t really enjoying any part of the ritual as I normally do. I was about to give up hope when I found myself in the fiction section, aisle “D”.

I stopped and scanned the various titles of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I knew of him, his name, and even own an old Dell paperback, “A Raw Youth”, that sits on a shelf at home. I must confess though, I had had little success getting through many pages. The book was old when I got it, the pages browning, dark, wordy, and the entire thing was brooding before I ever opened up to one page. So that was my impression, at least twenty years ago, when I first attempted to read him.

I was standing and staring at the titles, kind of with my head tilted to read them, when suddenly a woman’s voice spoke out.

“White Nights,” she said.

I looked up, and there stood a vision. She was simply beautiful, and radiant. A woman about my age, about my height or a little less, wearing tight faded jeans with these sexy pointed heels sticking out from a retro flare, a cute sweater, and very long blonde hair. She was smiling, with kindness pouring out of a big green-blue beacon on her face. It took me a second to realize the beacon was her eye, the other one hidden behind a tremendous wave of hair - like old sexy Hollywood pin-up photos of Veronica Lake - that snaked across her face in a big backwards “S” as it fell lightly down, almost to her waist.

“Excuse me?”
“White Nights. Dostoyevsky. It’s my favorite”, she said with a dimpled smile that I am certain came from heaven.

Ok, so time stopped right there. First of all, a beautiful woman is speaking to me in the bookstore. I have been in there a hundred or two hundred times, and despite fantasizing about this particular moment, it was just that, a fantasy. Women have spoken to me, and I to them, but never was this much beauty placed in front of me, with eyes that spoke so much.

Secondly, she is telling me she has not only read Dostoyevsky, but she has a favorite of his. I quickly looked around to see if maybe I was the center of somebody's idea of a practical joke. There was nobody else around.

I had to say something. The long, stunned stare with my mouth dumbly hanging open wasn’t going to benefit anybody.

“Thank you, I’ll look for it.”
“It’s a wonderful read. He’s my favorite, and that story is my personal favorite.”
“I’ll be sure to give it a read.”
“Here,” she said, “I’ll find it for you.”

She reached across me to flip through a couple of books, looking for the story. Her arm brushed against my chest, briefly, and she came very close to me, inches away. I could smell the scent of her hair as it brushed past my face. I saw her take a very quick peak at me as she moved close. I felt a rush, a charge, shoot through my body. I pulled back quickly.

I stood back and let her take the space. I stepped around her, back to the beginning of the “D” section, clearing a couple of open feet between us.

“Here it is,” she said. Her voice was sexy and sultry.

She handed the book to me. It was “Notes from the Underground” and a collection of other stories, including “White Nights”.

“Thank you,” I said, “that’s very kind of you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, with a look that would melt even coldest and frozen of hearts.

I smiled and uncomfortably nodded my head, unsure of what to do next. She smiled back at me, and then looked away to the shelf of books directly in front of her.

We stood a few feet a part, browsing the titles in front of us. I saw nothing, couldn’t read a word of anything. She bent over to see some books on the lower shelves. I wanted to look, but averted my eyes. What can I say, my mother made sure I had some gentlemanly qualities. I managed this for all of two whole seconds, then, temptation triumphant, I glanced down. “Oh God” I whispered, partially to myself and partially out loud. It was sort of like a moan, to be honest.

I took a step towards her, not really knowing why or what I was going to do. I couldn’t possibly touch her, for god’s sake, I’m in a bookstore, she’s a beautiful stranger, and that could prove disastrous on many, many levels.

Then as soon as I moved behind her, she stood up, and back, and into me. My heart raced. God, I wanted to touch her. I felt her energies and they were electric. She was right there, inches from me, in fact her hips were in contact with me, right at that certain point where it all starts and ends. I froze. She moved slowly down the aisle, brushing against me, not by accident but by grand and calculated design. She knew exactly what she was doing. It takes two to tango, as they say, and we were now involved in a wondrous dance as old as time.

This went on for fifteen minutes or so, up one aisle and down the other, no words spoken, a give and take, a push and a shove, an epic dance. Her walk was slinky, slow, and deliberate, with lots of sway. I was dying a thousand deaths walking behind her, wanting to climb all over her.

And then, just like that, she was gone. She walked around the corner display and vanished. I looked all over the bookstore, but she wasn't there. I ran out the door to scan the parking lot, and saw nothing. The merchandise alarm was sounding a loud piercing screech behind me. I had carried Dostoyevsky out the door with me. A way-too-artsy clerk with elaborate facial hair chased me down. I looked down at the book she left with me.

“Don’t worry,” I said to the clerk, “I’m not stealing Dostoyevsky.”

I was left with the overwhelming memory of her beauty, her eyes, her hair, her body, her walk. And the electricity that danced between us as we worked the aisles of the mega-bookstore. I never danced like that before and I probably never will again.

(c) A.C. James

Monday, November 17, 2008

Zyzzyx Fly By

Mojave Desert, California, 1981

He was quite possibly the most downtrodden human being I’d ever seen. This homeless Berkeley hippie-kid was a regular at Bay Area Grateful Dead concerts and related events. He would hang around the venue and sometimes would luck into the kindness and charity of others to secure a ticket to get inside.

At these things one often saw the down and out. Poor acid-munching runaways and penniless subscribers to the sunshine daydream, subsisting on whatever they could manage from handouts and god knows what else. This was the bottom for many, but oddly enough there was a hierarchy of sorts. And scraping along on the lowest possible level was this poor guy. I saw homeless hippie dogs that were better off.

I’d see him around Berkeley, or San Francisco, Oakland, wherever, and he was almost always talking to himself, telep­hone poles, fire hydrants, garbage cans, and other inanimate objects found on the street. Countless times I'd seen him standing in a parking lot or on the sidewalk having a conversation with somebody or something only he could see. These dialogues were sometimes so animated that I’d think he was indeed talking to somebody I couldn’t see, that in fact something was there with him that was invisible to the rest of us, and that his delusions were really my delusions.

I even saw him in Las Vegas once. Well, not really in Vegas, but about a hundred miles from the glittery mirage of money and lights.

I was driving through the desert on my way back to Los Angeles with a couple of friends, and I saw a haunting image of him. It is how I will always remember this poor guy.

In the middle of absolute nowhere he stood hitch-hiking in a torn maroon Goodwill dinner jacket. In the scorching heat of high-noon desert, with thumb outstretched, chin held high in a statue-like pose, his slick unwashed hair hanging past his filthy collar, he stood reposed and proud and determined. Out next to a godforsaken turn off to a road to now­here - named by a civil engineer with a sense of humor - Zyzzyx Road - we passed him at 85 miles an hour, his tattered bodily image appearing up ahead to a quiet "oh no" from the driver. He grew rapidly to proper scale as we flew by, his Maroon jacket standing out brilliantly against the drab and blank desert scene.

Why was he there? Did someone just drop him off and leave him? It was strange and terrible scene, out in the middle of total nothingness, 110 degrees, there he stood, this poor, disheveled human being, with nothing, no water, no shelter, and no hope. We were stunned into silence, unable to avoid the coming pass, a moment we would all have to confront and reconcile in some way.

We asked questions to ourselves as we sped past, and I turned my head to see him as we zoomed by. The moment unfolded in slow motion and perfect clarity. I saw every crack, blemish, and wrinkle on his sad face. He didn’t look at us. In fact, he didn't even flinch. He kept his head raised in sullen stare, and his armed extended in that fixed pose.

Perhaps he realized the futility of the situation. After all if we had any inten­tion of stopping we would have slowed down, but we were going at a tremendous clip, without the slightest hint of hesitation.

He knew we weren't going to stop, standing direct and motionless as if to wait for the next car, which wasn't even on the receding horizon yet. I felt bad, seeing him out in the middle of nowhere, guilty, that we did not stop. In the car we attempted to divert our guilt by discussing his accom­panying stench, and having to deal with it all the way back to LA.

Hours later I was still thinking about him. I was sure he was going to die out there in the middle of the desert and it disturbed me that I wasn’t able to answer the call, wasn’t able to articulate my conscience and act to save this lost soul. I was troubled to no end and thought I had committed a crime of some sort, maybe not legally, but spiritually and morally, I was guilty.

But somehow, incredibly, thankfully, he did not die that day in the desert. A few weeks passed and I was sitting in a car at a stoplight in Berkeley when out of nowhere through the thick weekend University Avenue crowd he came bounding by in that same god awful maroon Goodwill dinner jacket, and, remarkably, a brand new pair of white high-top sneakers.

Not only did he live through his ordeal, and surely it was an ordeal by any definition, but he got a new pair of shoes. It’s all part of a great mystery that will never be figured out.

(c) A.C. James

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Saint of Westwood

Los Angeles, California, August 1978

It was a typical crowded Westwood Saturday night of jammed sidewalks. The fashionable village, only a few blocks wide in either direction, was mostly made up of book stores and restaurants, clothing stores and movie theatres. Lot's of movie theatres, all of them with the old-fashioned marble floor foyers and great big swirling neon marquees.

The sidewa­lks were crowded with mobile groups of teenagers, all looking for each other and seeing them­selves, flip­ping their feathered hair in the passing window reflections. The movie theatre line-ups provided a live audience for this annual weekend show.

The streets on summer weekends were packed tight with cars. Vans with airbrushed surfer scenes painted on the side, mini-trucks with CB antennas, giant 4x4's, Baja’d out V-dubs, and a few high-end, head-turning exotics. Traffic was always bumper to bumper, not really an inconvenience mind you, but because everybody wanted to drive like that. The slower they go the easier it is to see people, and the easier it is to be seen. L.A. is nothing but people watching on a massive scale.

This night I was with several friends and we prowled the streets for any kind of entertainment. On one corner a street show was going on, a threesome of jugglers with a comedic rout­ine held a small audience at bay. The Hare-Krishnas came by, banging their bells and chanting, bopping along single file, twenty of them or so, through the gawking crowds.

Eventually we stopped in front of a book store and it was here I noticed a man standing by himself. It was odd not only because of his appearance - details to follow - but mainly because very few people ever stood by themselves on a Saturday night in Westwood.

He had the look of the road, a traveler, a man on the move, not by means but by necessity. His clothes had road wear, a few small tears, faded and thinned areas of sad fabric. His head was shaved and he had a large backpack slung over his shoulder. He was older, thirty-five, forty, maybe older, I didn’t know, but he had years on him, more than I'm sure time alone had placed. He had a pencil thin moustache and a monstrous five o'clock shadow. His beard stubble went all the way around his face, past his ears, to the top of his head. It looked like a Hollywood make-up job, like an old Dick Tracy cartoon character.

He was wearing a beat up green army jacket with various patches and insignias on the arm, buttoned right up to the top. His eyes were filled with large black pupils that busily surveyed the scene. He caught me looking at him and instantly used this to open a dialogue, stepping forward to speak.

"You ought to be careful, the man been pas­sing here lately," he said in a heavy East Coast accent.

He was referring to the LAPD who patrolled these streets regularly on Saturday nights. I thanked him for his warning.

"Hey, thanks for the advice."

He broke a big grin which showed nice, clean, movie-star straight teeth with a large part between the front two.

"What's with the backpack?" I asked.
"I'm on the road,” he said, “left New Jersey a couple of weeks ago, I left the hospital ward, just walked out. Jesus, they probably don’t even know I’m gone!”

My friends had disappeared into the book store and I was alone with this strange guy. His hands and feet twitched, he was a mass of nervous energy.

"Where'd you say you just walked out of?" I asked.
"God damn psychiatric hospital, they think I'm in need of some sort of therapy, various kinds apparently, pleasant and unpleasant. It seems as though I've been judged by somebody else as crazy”, he giggled, “Hell, I'm crazy alright, ha, that’s a good one. I have nothing against any of them, really.”
“So are you, like, wanted or something?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. I've been in these places ever since I was a kid.”

As he spoke his eyes darted about, checking everybody and everything out. These were the eyes of an animal surveying its surroundings, as if to analyze and categorize threats and non-threats, predator and prey. It was a look of survival the kids from the cozy SoCal suburbs did not possess.

"Like I said, every thirteen minutes, fifty seconds a black & white cruises by with this one cop who leans back real far so you can't really see what he's checkin' know?"
"Yes, I've seen that before, standard operating procedure" I replied.

My heart was not in the conversation at this point and as I answered him I looked over his shoulder and casually around to see where my friends were.

“Do you believe in God?" he asked.
"Um...well, I dunno man," was my hesitant reply. I hated that question.
"You know that I am God, and so are you, and so are they (pointing to the many people who were walking by us) and so is the squirrel that lies flattened in that street."

I giggled nervously. Things were going in a certain direction, and I wondered where my friends were.

He went on, "God is everything and you understand? He exists and then again He doesn’t. All this religion, all of it, all over the world, has driven us further from the truth, it’s all a mess, we've really fucked the whole thing up. It was once so simple."

He had felt injustice of some kind, this I sensed.

"You know," he said with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing pause of absolute certainty, "...there really is another side to this life."

I felt nervous. I wanted to change the subject.

“Do you have family?” I asked.

“Yes of course. I don’t know where they are, or really who they are, but I was birthed, so I have, or had a mother. I would assume she was not the Virgin Mary, so I do, or did have a father. Truth is I bounced around a lot. Don’t remember too much from the early years. I think the last I saw my mother was when I was about eight, and I was taken from her, taken to a home.”

He had stopped to fish through his backpack. He moved back and leaned against the wall of the bookstore to search for something. When I saw him grappling with his worn pack I suddenly felt sorry for him.

"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"I need a cigarette, I got one in here someplace."

I watched him as he fumbled around with his pack. He found what he was looking for. His hand shook has he lit up his bent but usable Marlbo­ro. He inhaled deeply and let out a big cloud of smoke. Then he tied the top of the pack shut.

"...­aaahhhhh..." he sighed. "I just like to blow out smoke, I hate the taste and loathe the death cursing side effects, but boy I like blowing out smoke."

He sat for a moment and puffed on the mangled cigarette.

“You got any kids?” I asked.
“No. No I don't. But I have loved, and I have been loved. Oh yes I have!" A smile shot across his face. "There’s a girl I know, or knew. We spent a glorious summer together. My life has never been the same.”

I felt for the guy. The poor bastard had been abandoned. Life had dropped him by the side of the road, like an old dog. Parents, family, childhood, love, sanity, they all came and went, and here he is, alone now, on a sidewalk in a strange city, far away from the places he knew or knows, starved for anything, alone in his thoughts about the troubled universe, and above all he seemed to sense the grand inequity in it all. The guy was lonely, and was only looking for somebody to talk to. I had nothing better to do and my friends were gone, somewhere, so it fell to me, at this time and place, to offer a receptive ear, a friendly face, a brief respite in an otherwise harsh, cold, world.

“So you had a girlfriend for awhile?” I asked.
“Yes, I suppose you could call her that,” he said, “we never used those terms, didn’t have to. We just hooked up by chance, wonderful chance, amazing timing, and divine luck. We walked past each other on a crowded Saturday night, and our eyes met. Through a busy crowd we just saw each other. I looked at her and she looked at me and we knew. There was no doubt and no need to talk about it. No questions asked, we knew, intuitively, we knew. There was a connection and that was final.”
“Really," I said, "I’ve heard about things like this happening, but you know, in the movies and stuff.”
“It happened, I can confirm it. We spent a few months locked into a vacuum. There was a crazy world around us at the time, drugs, alcohol, lots of destructive people, bad scenes, but in all that haze, all we could see was each other. Nothing else mattered much. The sky could have fallen and we wouldn’t have noticed.”
“Sounds like fate was kind to you.”
“You know" he said, "when I looked into her eyes everything I ever wanted from another person was there, instantly. And the look she threw back confirmed everything I thought and felt. She couldn’t hide anything. I knew all and she knew all and we floated in the clouds.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Jesus, about twenty, twenty-five years, a long time ago I guess. But I’ve never stopped thinking about her. It's not like I thought about her all the time, just some of time. But I never went too long without her memory jumping back into place. Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I see her. I see her eyes, those big bright eyes. No matter where life has taken me over the years, whatever was going on, I’d still see her in my mind's eye. You know what? I think I have spent my lifetime looking into the eyes of everybody I’ve ever met, hoping only that I'd see those eyes again.”
“What happened to her?" I asked, "where is she now?”
“Well, I got busted for something stupid, spent a 60 days in Passaic County Jail, and when I got out, she was gone. My friends told me she took off to California with some guy she met. I never blamed her. Everybody was takin’ off to California back then.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“Well I didn’t realize it until I got here, but I think so. I’ve been across America, all over the place, not really sure where I was going or why. Not even sure where I’ve been. But last week without much thought I caught a Greyhound from Fresno, and I stepped off of it in Hollywood. I walked around like most first time visitors do, checking it all out, the stars on the sidewalk, the people, all that, you know. Then I stopped in front of a phone booth. I stepped inside and picked up a phone book, and I opened right to the page, and I looked down and, there she was. First name my eyes came to. It’s funny ‘cause I hadn’t even thought about her for awhile until I was in that phone booth. Something made me step in there and pick up that phone book. Something guided my eyes to that exact spot. What are the odds of that?”
“Holy crap, is that so?”
“Yup. So I got the address and I made my way there, over in the San Fernando Valley. My heart pounded in my chest as I walked up that street. I was so nervous I thought I was going to die. I was terrified, but I had to go, I had to see her face again."
"Why were you terrified?"
"Well, first of all, I wasn't sure if was really her or not, could've been somebody with her name. And then, if it was her, maybe she's changed? Maybe what I found would destroy the myth in my mind."
"Yeah, I what happened?"
"I went to the door and I knocked. I could hear footsteps and then the door opened. Holy Jesus, it was her! Even though all those years had passed, she looked exactly the same. I would have spotted her anywhere, anytime. OK, she's a little older, but god dammit she's beautiful. Oh my god! The eyes! My knees buckled. It was like stepping back in time and revisiting a precious memory. She looked healthy, and happy. We both stood and stared, no words. I felt the way I used to when she looked at me way back when and right then I knew she recognized me. Finally I said hello, and she said hello."

He was smiling, his face was bright, and his eyes were glazing over.

"It was a simple and profound greeting," he continued, "we just stared at each other and everything was communicated through our eyes. Then after a few minutes we sat down on the front step and talked for a little while. Anyway, she’s in a relationship, long term thing, living a good life.”
“Wow,” I said, “that’s a hell of a story.”
“She still loves me, and I still lover her. That much is certain, and I know that will never change. It was like no time had passed. Even though innumerable lifetimes have lived and died since I last saw her, everything was exactly the same. We made plans to talk again, to see each other again”.
“So that’s good,” I said. ”Your whole trip was worth it?”

He suddenly looked away. Lines appeared on his forehead. I could see pain in the features of his face. Clearly something had affected him.

“Aren’t you happy you found her?” I asked.
“Yes, very. And happy she is happy. But I am afraid I will never see her again. I’m not sure she can manage it. I’m not sure it’s right. There seems to be so much lined up against it. Look at me, I’m a mess. She is doing well. I don’t think my place is where my heart is.”
“Affairs of the heart are seldom logical, somebody said that once, I'm not sure who.”
“No matter what happens,” he continued, “I will never forget those few moments I was able to spend with her after all that time. It was magical. It proved to me all that was once good, was good.”
I just looked at him.
“You know," he said, "I wish I could say I’m ok with all of this...”

Then he reached down picked up his backpack and threw it over his shoulder. In silence he gathered himself, gave me a parting look, and walked off into night.

(c) A.C. James

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"La Tuna Canyon" (Pt 2 of 2)

Van Nuys, July, 1980

Flores introduced me to Fred as we drove off. He seemed cordial. I looked at Flores.

"I thought you said he had the weed?"
"Relax" was his rather typical reply.

Within seconds we were back on another freeway.

"How far are we going?" I asked.
"Not far", said Fred.

He looked at Flores with a sneaky grin. I felt like I was on the outside of an inside joke.

After pulling up to speed with the flow of traffic, Fred continued to accelerate. Incredibly I watched the red stick on the speedometer move past 60, 70, and then 80. Suddenly we were passing other cars like they were standing still. Soon we hit 95, and the focus of the driving became to avoid the vehicles that were going the proper speed. My heart began thumping in my chest and I could feel it pound in my head. Instead of sleeping soundly in my bed, I was hurtling along some god damn freeway at breakneck speed. It was all surreal. I tapped Flores on the shoulder from the backseat.

"Is there some reason we have to drive like this? I mean, why do we have to drive so god damn fast?"
He just laughed. A sadistic glare sparkled in his eye.

Fred was driving with one hand on the steering wheel and the other rolling the radio dial from station to station. He was zipping around other cars, from lane to lane, with great dexterity and an eerie calmness. I buckled my seatbelt and said a prayer, which, as a matter of course, I simply never did. "Please, God, I don't want to die" I said to myself. It was one of those times when you really hope there is something, anything, that can actually hear your pathetic plea and somehow influence the outcome of an event like this.

After jamming through every possible signal on his radio Fred stopped dead on a Mexican station and turned up the volume. Here we were doing a hundred miles an hour on a half-deserted freeway at one thirty in the morning, and now Mexican music blasted in my ear at full tilt. The sound of Tijuana added to the delirium in the speeding vehicle.

We were really flying now, the gas pedal completely pressed to the floor, maxing out at something around 120, Fred banging the steering wheel in tune with the wild Latino beat that assaulted me from the tiny inadequate speakers behind my head. I began to lose my focus on everything as the outside world became a giant blur, passing by without form or recognition.

I was convinced a bad fate was seconds away. This was a recipe for disaster. This is exactly what the CHP is looking for, I thought, a late model American car hurtling through space, the bespectacled driver with madness in his eye, the mop-haired passenger laughing manically in the night and the Mexican musicians firing through bad speakers.

I watched helplessly from the backseat as Fred’s attention now diverted between the road and a little knapsack that sat on the front seat between the two of them. He fumbled through it with his free hand. His head was quickly alternating between the road and his knapsack, at close to twice the speed limit. The Mexican fiesta music blasted in my eardrums. It was as if all I knew as normal was left somewhere back near my car at La Tuna Canyon, my brain swimming in the distorted images of reckless speed and yipping Mexican musicians. Sweat began to bubble on my forehead. Breathing normally was difficult.

Flores was laughing, and now I realized the merchandise was in the car the whole time. Right there in the knapsack on the front seat.

Fred finally found what he was looking for, handing Flores a handful of small sealed bags from which to choose. My jaw hung open as I stared at the most unorthodox dope deal I’d ever imagined, on the freeway, at 120 miles-per-hour, in the middle of the night.

Suddenly Fred slowed down and pulled off the freeway. As I felt the safety of manageable speed unfold beneath the car, I sighed, a deep breath of gratitude to a god who apparently answered my personal plea. However this moment of reprieve was only a tease. Fred guided the car onto an overpass, made a left turn, and we headed right back onto the freeway, this time in the opposite direction.

"Ah fer chrissakes" was all I could manage. Flores was sickly amused.

Soon we were passing cars and the insane scene repeated itself. 60, 70, 80 and beyond, the motor buckling up to Detroit cruising speed as Fred reached down to the dial and began snapping off stations once again. This time he landed on KMET and Jim-fucking-Ladd who decided at that moment in time to play “The End”, the Doors apocalyptic anthem from their first album, a late-night Ladd favorite and such a perfect fit for this scene I could only giggle at the grand coincidence. I held on.

“This is the end, my only friend, the end...of our elaborate plans, the end...”

Jim Morrison's voice echoed through the speakers, the eerie tune filled the car. Flores chose his bag and paid for it. Fred counted out crumpled one dollar bills on top of his steering wheel while doing 120 miles-an-hour.

“...can you picture what will limitless and free...desperately in need of some stranger’s hand, in a desperate land...”

We passed a matt-grey late 60’s muscle car of some kind. The driver’s head snapped to his left as we shot by him, our eyes meeting in a momentary glimpse. I had doom in my eyes and I know that guy saw it and recognized it.

“...lost in a roman wilderness of pain...and all the children are insane...”

I looked back to watch the muscle car recede into the night. The headlights faded into the distance for a few brief seconds, then they held their ground before, incredibly, gaining on us. Fred glanced in his rearview mirror, aware we had company.

“...all the children are insane...waiting for the summer rain..."

Morrison narrated and the band’s melodic tempo filled my head. I watched in horror as the muscle car caught up with its obvious advantage in horsepower.

“...weird scenes inside the gold mine...ride the highway west, baby...”

The muscle car was now only a few feet behind us. We had picked up a willing partner for a high speed dual, this moment of suspended sanity, this tempting of fate. Time seemed to slow down in the way I imagine it does only in preludes to catastrophe.

“...There’s danger on the edge of town...ride the king’s highway, baby...”

Fred was now engaged with the muscle car driver, both of them jumping lanes, three at a time, the mass of steel screeching diagonally across the huge concrete highway, playing a perilous game with one another without the slightest hint of fear or restraint or common sense. My breathing was quick, short, and I struggled to get enough air into my lungs.

“...ride the snake, to the lake, the ancient lake...”

Apparently I had reached the edge of a precipice and I was looking into an abyss. Had my entire life led me to this moment? The rush of thought was impossible to sort through. Adrenaline filled my veins and a high crept over me and through my body like a warm surge. I felt light, like letting go. Sweat was pooling on my body.

“...the west is the best...get here and we’ll do the rest...”

The muscle car was trying to pass us, his big block power evident. Fred was having none of it, cranking his wheel from side to side to prevent the move.

“...the blue bus is callin’ us, driver where you takin’ us...”

It was all a dream. I kept telling myself this couldn’t be happening. But then the muscle car nudged our bumper and I knew it was real and a dream would be too easy an explanation for this insanity. I felt a pain in my chest.

“...the killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on...he took a face from the ancient gallery and he walked on down the hall...”

The muscle car was trying desperately to get the lane and make the pass but Fred was presenting violent opposition with sudden jerks of the steering wheel, to which he now decided a few screaming “yeehaws!” would add just the right touch. I took this as confirmation the end was in fact, near.

And just like that, without warning, Fred pulled the car hard right to an off-ramp and the muscle car sped past and into the night. Fred turned the music down and looked over at Flores.

“Its good bud, man, it’s from Humboldt” he said.

I don’t remember getting out of the car and back into mine when we arrived at the rest home. In fact, I don’t remember anything from the rest of that night, only I'll never forget the buzz of danger, the irrational, and the extreme. I looked into the teeth of the beast, and I felt the rush.

Years later I learned Fred met his demise by his own hand. It was an outcome to a life I didn’t find difficult to reconcile.

(c) A. C. James

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Bar Talk" (pt 2 of 3)

Harbor House Hotel, Salt Spring Island, 1990-something

"Yeah, whatever, he's probably got his demons too...but what about tonight? What are you doing?" I ask.
"Ivana (his girlfriend) is supposed to be here for Karaoke" says Anu.

Terror hits me. Karaoke! Anything but the drunken spectacle of Karaoke, but before you know it we're sitting with a local softball legend and two ladies and the music is on loud and sad as wannabe singer's drop their inhibitions and act out their fantasy for the eager crowd more appreciative for effort and courage than talent or ability to carry a tune

Fred, the softball legend, was playing the game in leagues all over western Canada and even as far north as Inuit when I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, another lifetime ago. Fred was catching on the local team I joined when I moved to this godforsaken rock, as beautiful as it is, it is the home of the doomed, we all know that, and he is as lively as ever. Always the lampshade dude at the party, he has mellowed somewhat with age, but still he reels off one-liners, almost like a Flinstonian Henny Youngman.

"My wife..." he says in deep growly voice, leaning over with his gigantic carpet-layer forearms which I've seen smash softballs with such efficiency even steroid-pumping 19-year old assholes with attitude stop and stare and recognize...he goes on " wife ain’t much of a wrestler, but you should see her box! Muwa ha ha ha ha!" He howls approval of his own joke with such gusto you cannot help but share the enthusiasm and laugh even though you may feel the humor to be catering to a lower part of your intelligence, but hey, get off your high horse and just dig the laughter because you’re here once and the more you laugh the better your pitiful existence will be and the happier you'll be and the wider your smile will be on your deathbed, and in the end that's really all that counts.

At the table he is in the company of two women who both just hit thirty with a little more on their frames than ten years ago but with big smiles and a let loose attitude of young single mothers out for the first time in a long time.

They immediately strike up conversation with me because I am running the slo-pitch league this year and they have a lot to say about it. The blonde one is wearing red and a beaming alcohol glow (they've been drinking since 2 o'clock in the afternoon) and she looks me in the eye when she speaks and I feel she is thinking more than what's coming out of her mouth.

"Hey, I like your jacket, wanna trade?" she says with a slight slur or accent of some kind, I'm not sure which.

I hand it over, a black leather thing I bought for my ex-wife, I bought it for her many years ago and she never wore it because it's too "masculine", so I own it by default. Now it’s on this somewhat slaphappy blonde – her jacket now drapes my chair - and the Karaoke is booming some sad tune and people dance and older folks enjoy their evening as I try to keep my mind off of the fact I cannot escape. I miss her and I wish I could do something else, find some way, to replace the void in my heart.

I end up sitting next to the blonde who suddenly devotes her attention to me.

"I wanna go for a walk, down by the docks, let's go" she offers up.

Fred makes some comment about falling in the ocean. Blondie says she was a lifeguard, and I decide a walk with a woman might be okay. So I take the bait.

"You wanna go, let's go!"
"Bring your drink, but hide it good!" she says as she follows me outside.

We leave and walk across the street to the waterfront and about thirty seconds into it I find out she has a boyfriend, nine years younger, someone I know only in name, and I immediately curse my fate. I find some nice woman who gives me the time of day and she has a boyfriend, which makes me want to go back to the bar. I feel guilt for being with someone else's girlfriend, and I don't want to go there. A minute later she asks me to hug her. I dumbly put my arm around her as we stare at the boats all silent and tied up for winter nights. A few blank minutes pass and I'm walking her back to the bar wondering if she thinks I'm weird for not trying to grope her or kiss her or something. The conversation slides into lip service small-talk.

"So who are you going out with again?" I ask , looking for something safe.
"Brent, he's 21. We've been going out a month now, and he's going away to school on Monday."
"Oh yeah, really?"

It's then I realize he's rooming with a friend of mine, who's also going away on Monday and I state the obvious.

"This island really is small, isn't it?"

She ignores my comment and continues to walk, little steps in what I think are slutty pumps, but I say nothing, only think it.

"So, what's your story?" I ask.
She looks confused and blurts out "what do you mean?"
"I mean what are you doing here on this rock, how did you get here and what do you want out of life?"
"Wow! That's too much" she says, reminding me she's drunk, "but I moved here with an old boyfriend and then we broke up. I cut hair".

We small-talk our way back to the bar and I try to give her the impression all men are pigs, except me, and that we're all looking for the same thing. She looks me in the eye as we go back inside -one luscious moment - and I think she believed me.

Inside the crowd has thickened, with some horrible song being sung by someone who has only done this in a shower before and I wonder why I am here, but before I can dwell on this sorry reality I am greeted by many people I do not know well but am friendly enough with to chat and the hours begin to slip by. Miles the real-estate guy says I should go to Victoria with him and hit a club or two. I meet Chris, cousin of the bouncer from the pub, and his girlfriend who knows me as the guy with the Mustang. We talk about her 11-month old child and why she left her ex-husband. In ten seconds flat she spins a tale of alcohol abuse, young parental dysfunction, and two sad lives turned upside down by unprotected teenage sex.

This island eats people I keep thinking to myself, isolation and lack of morality, lack of respect, lack of thought, lack of conscience, all of it makes lawyers and therapists, drug dealers and liquor-sellers happy, but the rest of us die slowly without even knowing that our lives are getting sucked out of us as we just mark the days and buy new calendars every now and then.

The older you get the faster it goes and the best part of life gets harder to hold on to.

(c) A.C. James

Friday, November 7, 2008

Escape From LA

Southern California, June, 1979

We rushed out of the valley into the final blast of a fire-red dusk, the color of the hills a blank khaki. Here life is guided by only two seasons, first the long dry brownish one that is dominated by extreme heat, intense smog, and excessive drought. Then in its brief glory, the green season, when fields of crayon green grass shoot up all over the foothills and surrounding canyons. It all happens in the short span of a few brilliant spring weeks. The hills come alive with giant grass blades that explode three feet skyward in a hurried exaggerated life. Then it all dies as quickly as it appeared, leaving the terrain covered with a blanket of dead, dry brush.

Lifeless now, it all sits and waits in explosive silence as the summer heat staggers on; it waits for the fall and the Santa Ana winds to whip through, igniting often by any means possible (a careless cigarette, an arsonist) into destructive storms of brilliant fury. It is a season of annual brush fire chaos. Massive waves of amber and orange havoc cloud distant skies. The days end with layered sunsets of purple ash that confirm smoking ruin somewhere in the midst.

LA burns, it slides, it shakes, and it kills, and it does it all over again, year after year. Yet people keep coming to LA which says something, although I'm not sure exactly what.

We headed up and over Tejon Pass, toward Gorman, and the famous Grapevine that hurls you into the central Californian desert. We pass several carloads of Mexican farm workers standing on the side of the road, their outdated vehicles obviously ill-equipped for the climb. Groups of befuddled bedraggled men, some in crooked straw cowboy hats, stand around scratching their chins, staring drearily out at the world from behind the open hoods of their road weary rides.

A silence settled in as the car moaned and groaned up through the old pass. We sat silently staring at the miles of empty California hills aglow with the dying light of day. That brief moment immediately after the sun sets when the last stretches of light explode directly up and over the horizon in one last splash of fiery celestial brilliance.

We cleared the grapevine and descended into the San Joaquin Valley, the I-5 taking us to Bakersfield were we’d then head east on the 178 to the 14 and then the old 395 up through real California, ancient Cali, Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop and then into the mountains near Mammoth Lakes. The 395 was old California and it was like going back in time.

After some initial flatness and dark desert night, we began flying through an endless stream of tiny main street towns that welcome you with "Speed Zone Ahead" signs, most with less than one hundred as their posted population. Towns where the gas stations and Coke machines haven't changed in forty years and where old folks sit in rocking chairs on rickety porches, watching the travelers whisk by in all manner of new and expensive machinery, all of them on their way someplace, passing through, trying to escape the inevitable crest of urban decay.

The highway becomes a gradual incline after you clear the Grapevine to start the northward trek through central California. First the low desert, with its dead brush and flat blank terrain, then into the wonderful high desert with it’s wide open vistas.

We screamed across the nighttime flats, the big gas-guzzling American car in its element, straight ahead and humming at a calm seventy-five. The dog with his snout out the window, his cheeks blowing up like Dizzy Gil­lespie­'s into the oncoming wind, slit-eyed joy on his face, tongue hanging out and flopping around as he feverish­ly bit the in­visible menacing breeze, leaving streaks of windblown dog spit all over the half-rolled window, he oblivious in his canine hap­piness, and me oblivious in my wonder­struck freedom of a long nighttime drive, speeding out of the city, being on the road in the middle of the silent immensity of a clear starry night.

(c) A.C. James

Thursday, November 6, 2008

"La Tuna Canyon" (Pt 1 of 2)

Van Nuys, July, 1980

We flew up the freeway on-ramp at Burbank and Sepulveda and the little stereo wheezed and whined as the car caught up to freeway speed.

Late at night those freeways open up and reveal their immen­sity, five lanes on each side, usually choked with millions of cars and trucks everyday all day but now they became huge dark concrete rivers spotted with brake lamps and headlights for miles ahead. Our destination was a place called La Tuna Canyon, somewhere out on the other side of the valley.

It was a long drive, out to where the lights of nighttime suburbia no longer flowed together in endless mass. Here they shone in pockets of new develop­ment, separated by areas of great flat black darkness that in sunlight of daytime only reveal empty lots dotted with scrub brush, rotting mat­tres­ses, abandoned appliances, rusting masses of twisted metal and dead cars.

At night it was much like the dark of desert, and it seemed far away. This was undeveloped land. I knew then if I were to take the same drive twenty years down the line those empty ignored lots would be filled with apart­ments and condos with dumb names and security parking; or redundant mini-malls with fast food waste and dollar stores. Clean cut concrete ripe for urban graffiti and San Andreas tremors.

We settled in as Jim Ladd pontificated in his too-perfect radio voice about injustices of some kind.

“Where do we get off?” I kept asking as the drive got lengthier and lengthier.
“Up there” Flores kept saying. I was getting agitated. Flores just giggled.

After a way-too-long drive we got off the freeway, pulling into a pocket of civilization. We cruised slowly along a deserted apart­ment lined street until Flores directed me to pull over. We stopped in front of a multi-storied apartment building and I tuned off the motor. On the front doors it read "Canyon View Rest Home". I stared at it in disbelief.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me?" I said.
"Nope...this is it, he lives here...with his aunt or someth­ing...just wait here" said Flores.

In a flash he was gone, and I was alone. As I sat there waiting for him I tried to fathom a drug dealer who lived with an aged relative in a rest home. The thought was baffling in itself, yet I knew Flores, and I knew he was a beacon for things on the edge.

The street was empty, still and silent. A slight breeze blew in and over the car like a spectre, the trees shifting and swaying in the dark, their movement defined in the shadowy dim of the street lights. A dog barked in the distance. Time passed slowly and I cursed at the paranoid inconvenience.

After what seemed like an eternity Flores reappeared with his connection, a guy named "Fred". Heavy set with short jet-black hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, dressed in camouf­lage pants and a loud Hawaiian shirt, he floated by with great bounding steps, his feet seemingly wanting to go in dif­ferent directions.

They walked past me and Flores motioned for me to get out of the car and follow. I sighed. We got into another car parked down the street, a big four door thing that looked much like what an undercover cop would drive. Fred started the engine. I realized then that we had to go someplace else to get Flores his god damn weed, knowing full well at that moment that there is nothing worse than a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend at one-thirty in the morning.

Seldom do these things go smoothly.

(c) A.C. James