So this here's a piece of fiction that I wrote for one of those anthology calls. Yeah, it didn't get accepted. You're as shocked as I am.
It's a shorter bit of a much longer work called CINDY SAYS, but that title can still stick here. Yes, it's part of HAZELAND/QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS. No, the photo above is not of the theatre marquee mentioned, but it's as close as I could get.
Hope you enjoy it.
Yes, there's a couple inaccuracies. You got me.
Walter Tsang ran a bunch of three-car jam insurance scams out of an office on Seventh Street in downtown. Two confederate cars box in a third and both agree that the third one caused it. Worked a charm when you chose the right targets. The money was good, too. While it lasted. Kept me in rent and drinks and spending money between gigs after school, not that school did me a lick of good. Kept me somewhere between squalor and splendor and that was just fine for the time.
I just wish it had lasted. And I really wish that Terry hadn't coughed up everybody's name to the driver of that sweet Mercury. But from what I heard, he was hanging upside down at the time, eight stories over Broadway, looking up but seeing asphalt like it was the inevitable sky. Anyone who tells you they'd have done different is lying or stupid. The drivers even let him walk away from it, change his pants and leave town. Serves him right. I told him that going after old beauties was never worth it. Folks who drive those take the bent fenders very personally. Go with the new, I said. Pick someone who's used to paying their way out of an inconvenience. Pick someone who's going to forget you once they drive off the shoulder of the 101 on their way to Santa Barbara for the weekend. For the love of god, pick someone who's just leasing and doesn't give half a fuck.
But no. They grazed the Merc and pretty soon after that, Walter remembered that he had a very sick mother in Baltimore, probably on her deathbed even. Terry, Phil, even Ramon who was dumb-luck tougher than Job. He got the worst of it. I mean, he'll be able to eat solid food again, but never ribs. Not a tooth of his own in his head, or so I heard. Pretty soon, it was just me out of the crew left in town. But I'll never leave. No spooky crew was going to chase me out of the place where I was born and where I'd die, probably alone in a fleatrap, but on my own feet in my own town. And I was going to go out for a drink in my own town. Still had money, even if it was too big to spend anywhere but Fort Knox.
The air outside the Criss Cross Club on Broadway was cool and fresh. Inside was all smoke and sweat and Patsy Cline on the juke making everything even sadder and crazier. Wind must've been blowing off the ocean, but it was jammed with electricity like the juice from all the neon and the marquees was leaking out, jangling everything up. It wasn't just the gin and sevens, either. I'm no lightweight. I can take three and still drive Mulholland with one hand, curves and all. Pulled out the lighter and tipped the last one out of a pack of Benson and Hedges, held onto the pack absently. Took a quarter in a long breath and let it fill me up. Not a shake in these hands.
I gulped down the sights, staring down to the west. The lights of the Theatre District buzzed and hummed in familiar color wash of industrial rainbow. Above those, the KRKD tower beacon pulsed and I breathed with that for a moment. Across the street, a kid on a ladder struggled with the changeover marquee for the Million Dollar Theatre. He falteringly placed a letter with one hand and gripped the ladder with the other. All he had up so far was BLA, which I laughed at. Out loud, I guess.
"Hey, what's so funny, guy?" the woman asked.
I turned, half-realizing I was pulling myself up straight and sucking in the middle afforded me by a diet of tacos and fries and any drink not nailed down. Not that I was on the prowl, not that I'd made time for that in a long time. But you have to play the game when you're out on the field.
She stood like a local but didn't dress like it. It was a weird mix of what kids might wear at the Masque, but not cheap, not ripped and not from the rack. Her top was folded and pleated down her chest, but shoulders left exposed wholly, with slashed openings in the sleeve exposing her upper arms. All of her was colored red spilling from the Criss Cross signage buzzing above us. She should have been on stage. She had that look.
"You gonna talk or stare?" she asked with stiletto snap. "Not that I don't appreciate the attention."
"Oh, hey, sorry. Just, you're overdressed for here is all."
"Where's here?" She took a long drag off the last reach of her cigarette and it glowed as hard and red as the neon.
"Downtown. You should be somewhere classier. Maybe younger."
"Downtown where, uh, I didn't catch your name." She drew in an appraisal in the time it took for her to finish her smoke and exhaled. It went out like blood clouded in still water. There was something else in it. Maybe a lilac smell, but folded into the tobacco.
"Kent. Kent An—"
"We're going to stop at 'Kent' and we're just going to pretend that pretentious 't' isn't stuck on the end, okay?" Her eyes were dark and bright, made even more so by the lines of rouge and shadow traced out over the left side of her face. Her black hair had started out bound tightly but was beginning to go unkempt, or maybe every strand was placed with some care, I couldn't tell which. I'd have believed either.
"Okay. We'll keep it at that. And downtown Los Angeles in late June, if I'm to take your question on its face. Where else would we be?" I let the butt drop from between my fingers and smashed it out without looking, catching the bare spot in the sole and an instant of heat caught me unawares.
"Okay, you're not that drunk. You don't need to walk the line to convince me," she smiled and even in the dusk it was brighter than every sign on the street. "I was just walking downtown, looking up the Eastern Columbia. It's kind of a long way out of my way, don't see it often."
"You live in the Valley?"
She tilted her head for a second and smirked and I forgot where I was.
"Oh no. Nuke the Valley. Fuck the suburbs."
"It's weird, hearing a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn say 'fuck'."
"Hepburn?" Her face clouded over with a bafflement that couldn't be faked. "Oh, you mean that girl from Roman Holiday? God, what a tragic story. She could have had a career."
I tried to juggle that in my head. Maybe it was the gin. Maybe it was the all of her. "No, she was in Breakfast at—"
The dude across the street yelled something in Spanish as the ladder rocked beneath him. He danced like Harold Lloyd on a biplane wing, silhouetted against the white acrylic of the marquee.
She laughed as he righted himself. "Poor kid."
"They oughta get a taller ladder."
"Yeah." She turned back to face me, red and purple lit from the dusk. "Hey, you got a smoke?"
I reached for the pack and grimaced. "I'm out."
"Well, I shouldn't do this, but I'll save you here." She pulled out a slim handbag, dodging around the thin wires of one of those Walkman tape players on her belt. The headphones rested around her neck and I'd have traded places with those for nothing.
"What're you listening to these days?" I asked. "I'm into that new Oingo Boingo album. And a buddy of mine in the business slipped me an advance of the new X."
She looked at me like I was speaking Greek. "The new Doors album. Under a Big Black Sun, I think. It sounds kinda desperate, but nice to see that they haven't given up." She pressed something into my hand. It felt like a tape case, but the dimensions were wrong. It was thinner, but wider, not right at all. Maybe some new format.
"What the hell?" I stared at the picture of the band on the front. There was Jim Morrison front and center, thicker like Brando, locks shorn and harder-edged. "Hey, uh, what is this? Morrison's dead. Paris, 1971. Bath time gone bad."
"Here. Just calm down and have a smoke. Clear your head some." She took back the tape and swapped it for a pack of cigarettes. I looked at the package and read the brand in the half-light."
"Fatima. Wow. That takes me back. Jack Webb used to advertise these. Rod Serling, too. Probably what killed him."
She shook her head and said "Takes you back? It's 1982 everywhere. Now light one and pass it to me. I'm going to have to go soon."
I did as she told me to, trying to pull off cool with both between my lips for a moment as I dragged on them to start the burn. She watched me in the yellow glow of the lighter and I didn't want to be anywhere else. But I won't kid myself. She was playing with me, but maybe I enjoyed being played with. Like I said, it'd been awhile.
My head went ether as I drew another breath. Spots swam at the edge of my vision and the color bled and danced. I felt like I'd just had the bottle and was ready to dance with a barstool. I closed my eyes and the afterimage of the movie marquee danced in pink and purple on my eyelids.
"You should probably slow down on those."
"What's in 'em? Angel dust?"
She laughed with a sound as pure as the first rain hitting the street. "Plain, ordinary tobacco."
"Tobacco from where?"
I opened my eyes and had to steady myself. The colors everywhere were wrong. Even the red from the Criss Cross neon. It was deeper crimson. Utterly lush.
The woman took the lit cigarette from my lips but I could only barely feel it. "Just breathe the smoke for a minute. You're fine."
Gasoline on water sheen squirmed around my peripheral vision as I fixed on the Million Dollar Theatre as a beacon. I heard distant bells approaching from down Broadway and all I could smell was lilacs. The title on the marquee came into focus. Electric Sheep starring Tommy Lee Jones, it read. It was completed when not even a word had been finished before.
"Say something, Ken. You're freaking me out."
"I'm freaking me out. Hey, what even is your name?"
I could feel her leading me to one of those concrete planters that lined Broadway and she turned me so that I could lean against it without falling over. I felt like I was made of hummingbirds and none of was heading in any particular direction. The bell rang closer now like a big bike, ding-ding.
"Look, I don't mind the trip, just warn me next time."
The air tasted funny, exhaust tanged with ozone and what smelled like fruit and chicken roasting on a nearby grill. I was hungry for this and I'd never even known it.
"Open up your eyes. But don't get weird. I'm right here."
I tried to push the smokes back to her, but her hand wrapped around mine, touch more electric than anything in the airwaves. "You're gonna want to keep those. Just don't use 'em all up at once."
"You're reading that sign, right? 'Electric Sheep'?"
"I sure am. Watched the crew film some of it in the Bradbury right there. We're standing in one of their shots."
"Yeah, hey, I remember that. But not the—"
I stopped speaking and watched the trolley car roll by, clacking on sunken rails, sparks arcing from the overhead wires. The conductor waved jauntily as he passed us, peaked cap perched on his head, lit from beneath.
"You're going to catch flies you keep gaping like that."
"The hell was that?"
"The Red Line. What did you think it was?" She patted me on the shoulder and laughed. "Yeah, I think you'll be okay. Just take it slow."
I stood and looked down Broadway into the deepening sunset. The ragged skyline was familiar, but not. The lights of the Theatre District dazzled, neon brighter than I'd ever seen it. Only they were the wrong colors. You know how Coke has that Coke and it's the same red every place you see it? These were wrong. The shades were off, some lighter, some deeper.
And there was the word RICHFIELD spelled out in vertically-oriented block letters, orange and blue. They were small in the distance but they were right there. I tried not to think about how the Richfield Tower had been disassembled when I was a kid, saw it on the news and knew that time was passing right before me.
"Oh, you dig the Richfield, too? Always been a favorite." She moved closer to me and her perfume added to the sensory confusion.
"I loved it too. Too bad it was torn down when I was ten."
"That's when they ripped the Eastern Columbia down, you mean. And put up that stupid glass box. Midcentury revival my butt." She drew a deep breath and exhaled.
"Where am I? I asked. "Is this where you're from?"
"Los Angeles, same as you. My apartment's off Fig. I get breakfast at the Pantry, same as you I bet."
"Only on Saturdays." I took the cigarette out of my mouth. I'd had enough. "Cindy, this is fun, but I'm at sea here."
Someone down the street yelled "Pollo y pastor!" A street vendor poked at the grill with a long pair of tongs and a swarm of sparks jumped from it.
"It's June 24, 1982. You're in Los Angeles. Don't sweat anything else." Something crinkled in her hands. "Look at this. 'Cause here's tomorrow."
She shoved some paper into my hands.
"Hollywood Park grand re-opening," I read from the glossy flyer. It felt slick as motor oil in my hands. There was a list of horses and riders I didn't recognize. Iceberg Lettuce, Hot Rail, Wild Gift, Spillover. "Yeah, so? I have no luck with the ponies."
"Luck's for suckers. My sister knows a guy who knows how it's going to play out." Her eyes fairly glittered as brightly as the Red Line's sparks. "Hot Rail in the seventh. Look at those odds."
"That says thirteen to one."
"Pretend it's guaranteed instead."
I stuffed the nearly-empty package of Fatimas into my coat pocket without thought.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Maybe some secrets are too good to keep. Maybe I thought you could use some extra scratch given the hole in your shoes." She stubbed out the remains of her cigarette on the concrete sidewalk. The light on her face shone too-deep red.
"Nothing gets past you, huh?"
"Not when I'm paying attention. Now maybe you want to wear your shoes out a little more and walk me back to my neighborhood?"
A pack of late-sixties model cars rolled low and slow past the two of us, arms resting on open windows, music blaring.
"What're those low-riders? What models?"
The candyflake glitter was reflected in her eyes as she appraised them. "Antelope mostly. There's a Thunderhead and a Gold Eagle in there. Aren't they—"
I heard the scuffling footstep before the guy hit us. He tried to sweep past her, snagging her purse as he went. A long black athletic sweatshirt hung off him, blazes of white writing on the back flashing before he turned. My hand held onto one of the straps that he'd slipped off as he crossed by and in front. He was skinny, rag and bone thin, but he pulled on the strap like a drowning man reaching for a raft.
"Get off!" Cindy yelled. She pulled a hand off her belt and a silver canister flashed as she brought it up and leveled it at the guy. I tried holding onto the purse, but friction burned against my palm as it came free.
"Gimme that--!" the thief's voice was shrill and shrieking, rising to a high whine as the spray hit him aside the face. I could only see the reflection of eyes there, the rest of it inky black shadow.
I reached again for the purse as he wailed and clambered to his feet. Cindy took half a step back and brought her left foot up, ready to drive a spiked heel through anything she could get a hold of. Admiration flared up in me, envying her refusal to take anything from anyone. That wouldn't have been me, but I'd have wanted it to be.
The thief lashed out with a sneaker-clad foot, hitting Cindy's balance off center as she prepared to slam her foot down. I half-lunged and threw myself, catching her around the waist so she didn't eat asphalt. Nobody should. She fell against my arm and almost took me down with her. I hauled us both up to our feet and she was stiff with rage.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine! He's getting—"
I let her stand on her own and started after the guy as he ran up Second street. He was all wiry speed, even if a little unsteady from the macing he'd just gotten. Cindy must've missed him; normally that stuff puts a guy on his knees. Less noisy than a shotgun and works on drunks. He was making speed up Broadway, running in front of a pack of mismatched headlights. I crossed behind, laughing that he was only making things harder for himself. He ran up Second towards Hill and I was right behind.
Off to the right, the rails gleamed in the streetlights that shone in the wrong color. Too cold, too clean. I tried not to let it bother me as I ran hard for the guy. Every running step put stars on my feet. Never go cheap on shoes.
Got a good look at the back of his jacket. It read CROW (something) in two rows of hand-painted white on the black fabric. A band? A gang? I didn't know. I'd never heard of them. But why would I have? This was LA but not. Everything around me screamed that. It was an echo of a place, but the echo came back only mostly accurate, enough to add up to a sense of alienate familiarity.
Up ahead, the dude ran towards the mouth of the Second street tunnel on the other side of Hill. He was beginning to wind out, and I was, too. He darted into the empty intersection, just behind the unfamiliar shape of a delivery truck filled with Alta-Dena milk.
"Drop the purse and! I won't have to! Mess you up!" I shouted between burning breaths. I wasn't convinced but then I didn't have to be.
My chest was going to furnace as he hit the tunnel. He was frozen against the glare of an oncoming trolley. He was also looking back, maybe trying to size me up. I got the impression that he was a runner and would fold pretty fast if I caught him.
"Croweater needs this! You can't—!" he shouted as he spilled down to the raised sidewalk. The purse flew down into the nearby rails as I falteringly caught up to him. The purse was a dark smudge in the light of the oncoming trolley. I figured the clearance wouldn't destroy the bag, but didn't want to take the chance. I'd gone this far. Why not get run over by a phantom train to impress a girl, right?
The lights in the tunnel flickered for a moment as I vaulted the handrail and hit the roadbed, nearly losing any footing. The light from the headlamp ramped up and a horn sounded like God himself was at the wheel. More flickering, like the whole world was coming off the sprockets for a moment. My hand closed around the vinyl of the purse and I snatched it close as I rolled off the tracks, but into the auto lanes.
Not my best plan, sure.
The train rolled at me and then the sound stopped dead. No echo, no doppler, just a subtle ringing in my ears as I stood up in the green-lit tiled tunnel.
And everything tasted different. There was no ozone, no crackle in the air. The color was right and the million little differences that had crept up on me before were gone. I could feel a tension dissipate out of me like heat radiating off a summer street.
The blare of a honking Mercedes hit me from all sides, bouncing around the hard tile and I stepped back onto the sidewalk without a thought. Because there was no rail to vault.
Because there was no mugger sprawled out on the concrete in front of me.
I peered at the spot where he'd been and couldn't find anything there. No scuffmarks, no sweat, no nothing.
And I knew in my heart if I walked back to the Criss Cross Club on Broadway, there'd be no Cindy.
But I carried her purse the entire way. Didn't look in it once. Walked the shakes out of me and looked down Broadway. No Cindy. No Richfield Tower. All the colors were all right. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both as I patted my pocket for the pack of smokes she'd given me. They were right there where I'd put 'em.
I looked for what I'd seen before, after calming down some, just feeling as empty and hollow as the rattling wind.
Home was no longer that.
I figured that out the second that I'd seen the door to my place hanging open. The deadbolt had been punched right out, leaving only a suggestive black hole in the fakeshit wood where it had been. I stopped on the stairs for a moment, thinking about reaching my hand through and maybe getting it chopped off for my trouble. Whoever had gotten to Tsang and Terry and everyone else had gotten down far enough on their list to get to me, the most puny and inconsequential cog in their inconvenience.
I stole back down the stairs and down the scattered streetlamps of Figureoa to the Pantry. I didn't know what time it was, but I knew it'd be open. And the phone out front was usually in working order. I punched in Tom's number and tried not to freak out at every shadow that moved. I couldn't stay here. Everyone else had left town so maybe it was time for me to, and the suburbs over the hills wouldn't do.
"Nuke the Valley," indeed, I whispered at the third ring.
"Who the Christ calls at two AM?" Tom snarled into line, any threat there dulled by the sleepiness in his voice.
"Tom, it's your brother. I got some trouble." I watched oncoming traffic as a I spoke, trying to stay measured. He wouldn't put up with me if I flipped out.
"When don't you?"
"This is worse than usual. Looks like it's time to move. I'm gonna need the box from you."
He yawned. "The box you told me not to give you. That one."
"The very one. Can I stop by and get it?"
"It's not here, man."
"You gave it away?"
"I'd never do that. Not to my favorite brother. It's at the studio, locked up."
"Safer there than here. You can get it in the morning."
"It's the morning now."
"You can get it when the sun's up and the vampires aren't out. Not before."
"Fine. I'll be there at nine."
"Hey, you oughta know." He swallowed hard. "Catherine's still working there. And there ain't much place to hide."
"Maybe she won't come in tomorrow. She's still got school, right?" I swallowed a dry fist of hair down my throat. "Besides, I have way bigger problems than her."
"Do you, really?"
"Swear I do. Goodnight."
I listened to the coins drop in the guts of the phone and let it rest. No point in arguing with him. And I wasn't getting anywhere without the money to travel. What I had in my pocket might get me to Pacoima, but that wasn't near far enough.
I went into the Pantry and sat down at a counter which hadn't changed in more than sixty years. Maybe it was the comedown from all the adrenalin I'd pumped out tonight but I couldn't stop myself from thinking about all the time recorded here, all the decision branches that split and split again going from a single through-line to one that clouded into an endlessly multiplied uncertainty. Like a tree growing from a single trunk line.
Yet one was real and solid and the others were unreachable if you even knew to look for them. I took out the packet of cigarettes and stared at the label again. It was from another time. Not my through-line past, but one of those others, one that had broken off and still continued growing on its own accord. It had become a of tree but different than the one I'd spent my under.
Could I live in another? One almost like the one I lived my whole life in?
"Hey pal," the waitress said, snapping me out of my recursive waking dream. "You can't stay here unless you order something. You just can't stay here."
I'll admit. I stared at her for a time just then.
"Yeah. I know." I put the cigarettes back. I could feel that there were maybe six or seven in there. Who knew how long those would last. "Just gimme some hash browns and eggs and you can park the pot right here." I slapped my hand on the chipped formica, black gaps in the corners like rivers wound through granite.
I could ride MTD after I got kicked out of here, at least for a couple hours.
The hash browns were great. I wondered if I'd ever have another plate like them. After I finished, I went through the contents of her purse by feel, fumbling around where I couldn't look.
Yellow-green fluorescent tubes lit up the inside of the bus, showing the dirt and whatever else stuck to the floor everywhere. It stayed off freeways, making wide lurching turns and I just let the rows of stucco in the mist roll past me, half-fugue and half-sleep. I made the connections and transfers without thought, my stash of quarters eroding over time as the last miles were eaten up and I found myself on Lankershim near Magnolia. Still LA but other LA. The Valley, fucked.
My brother Tom worked for one of those tabloid shows, Quest4. It's The Weekly World News meets Disney-level nature documentaries layered with just enough actual fact that they can avoid being called fiction. I even worked there, for a little while. Cath got me the job while we were still a thing, but I managed to piss that away just like I pissed her off. What can I say? It's a talent.
I didn't know whether to be flattered or appalled when the guard recognized me, even though I felt like dogshit wrapped in that diagonal-striped blazer.
"Nice purse, K."
"I don't have time for the jokes today. So just imagine I said 'fuck you' in reply."
"You're still overwriting," he said as he buzzed me in.
Behind me, the sun was shining through the last of the high clouds and it was going to be hot as hell today.
The Quest4 offices and writer's room and editing bay and research library were all in the same space of a lower-floor soundstage built in the sixties television boom. Like a lot of small operations, it was held together by substandard drywall and the fear that you really wouldn't find a better gig than this before unemployment ran out.
I only hated myself a little for being afraid that I'd run into her sitting behind her desk, pen in her hand like an unlit cigarette. I was afraid she'd let me have it, the whole nine yards. It was no less than I deserved.
But I was really afraid that I'd only get a refusal to be acknowledged. That's what I'd really earned. Fury would be recognition that I had mattered once, even if it was a branch that no longer connected.