How good were things for a while, there?
Good enough to break a promise that had me back in Los Angeles, some six or seven years after the trigger was pulled. Thirty K in the bank, two hundred dollar per diem, all courtesy of HBO. Two straight weeks, paid to run wild among the best and the worst the apocalyptic metropolis had to offer. Boots on the ground. Countermanding the boulevards, alleyways and hidden storefronts of that sprawling warehouse. Coroners, executives, sheriffs, bus drivers, priests, undocumented aliens, parolees, Pentecostals, ID runners, drunks and gangsters of Echo Park.
My last night in town had me stranded at a community theater, a repurposed mini-mansion, once home to Spanish aristocracy. I sat in the nosebleeds and watched the rehearsal. A balls-out play about the life of Subcomandante Marcos. Prop guns fired, smoke clearing, the actor/director and all around bearded man proclaiming Es preferible morir con honor que vivir con la verguenza de un tirano dictando nuestros rumbos!
They ran through it six or seven times.
I took six or seven hits from my flask.
Replaying how it was I had ended up in that land of calibrated make-believe.
Fake backdrops bearing witness to the revolution, domed ceilings and historical pillars nestled against a dead-end sign deep in East LA.
Rehearsal ended at a punctual nine-fifteen.
I ran a follow-up with the director, took some notes. He seemed to believe his every last word, lips on a loop, talking art, culture, the rich tradition of the radical. As was the case with all compulsive artists, he never asked for my opinion. I got away with more than I needed. No need to fake my way through the proceedings. I wasn’t a revolutionary, was barely an artist. Certainly wasn’t a radical. I liked my bars empty, my mind broken, and my alcohol in whatever shade opportunity would allow.
He lit a cigarette, and at least we could agree on that.
Halfway through my Marlboro, Alana put in an appearance. Stood by her boss for a spell. Like any good director/actor and all around bearded man, he took the time not to notice, until the last traces of smoke had made their way to the upper balconies.
He introduced us.
We shook hands.
Then kissed abruptly.
A minor peck on the lips, just subtle enough to rearrange the letters in our names.
“So what are you doing here?” she asked. She smiled, a set of braces putting her anywhere between thirteen and thirty.
“You’re a writer.”
“Right now, just a peddler.”
“Research?” She lit a cigarette.
I copied her. Blew smoke. “Yeah. I got lucky.”
“And ended up here?”
“Long version ain’t nearly as lucid. Know a good cab company I can call?”
“Where you headed?”
“South Grand, between East Eighth and Ninth, that’s the place.”
“Can I drive you?”
She was maybe four foot eleven. On a good day. Dark skin, an accent that spiked and ebbed in what felt like Venezuelan rhythms. Brown eyes split in half by a bridge that blossomed out into a wide nose. Lips with sweet meaning, lost to her furrowed brow.
“When do you leave town?” she asked.
“Let’s not waste time, then.”
I turned to say goodbye to my contact.
He was already back on stage. Enraptured by a cardboard boulder that gleamed with a white and silver paint job. The bottom boards told him some sort of joke and he laughed.
I laughed along and let Alana lead the way.
Ignition switched, every last emergency light awakened as the engine bitched right back. We reversed our way along a single lane of gravel and tilting telephone poles. The car was a standard shifter, which I didn’t think I had seen since the days of Milo’s beat up ’82 Corolla.
“I heard it was HBO,” she said.
“They’re looking to expand their base. Want a new series, miniseries about Latinos in East Los.”
“And they called you?” She spun her car up against a garbage can, back bumper knocking it over. Rebounded, turning the wheel, a near one-eighty onto the nearest cross street. “That’s kind of something.”
“They called me, my father and my brother,” I specified. “They were under the impression that a family of Latino writers would make a nice angle.”
“It’s a gimmick.”
“So your father’s a writer?”
“He’s a journalist. Activist. Teaches at Pantheon University.”
“He’s whatever he needs to be at any given moment.”
“A real survivor.”
I rolled down the window. Lit a cigarette. “That’s him, alright.”
“Writer. Plain and simple.”
“You must be doing ok, though.”
“I ain’t the worst I been.”
“I ain’t that, either.” I rolled the window down. Lit a cigarette. “What’s your story?”
She had herself a smoke. “Just a girl from East Los, you know? Nothing special.”
“Yeah, this town is kind of rough.”
“Been here before?”
“I’ll tell you some other time.”
“Like when we get to know each other better,” I replied, knowing there was no chance of that.
“How about now?”
“No.” She paused at an intersection. “Well, yes. Well, engaged. Doesn’t matter.”
She smoked her cigarette and we stared out our respective windows. The entire city was alight with orange streetlights and the cold carriage of distant lives.
She pulled into the parking lot.
I tossed the last of a pack out the window. “Thanks for the ride.”
The radio reminded us of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s ongoing success.
“Don’t know what else there is.”
“This place has a bar, right?”
“You’ve been here before.”
“Buy a girl some drinks,” she said, stared with a puckered glare. “I mean, you can’t really be this stupid.”
“It’s been a while.”
“Now what does that mean?”
I reached into my bookbag, checked the situation.
Fresh pack of cigarettes and a sealed pack of Trojans.
“Hope you like your ice cubes warm,” I said.
She removed the cover to her car stereo, and slipped it into her bag.
The Stinson was a ten story cardboard box, carved out from the rapidly changing skyline of downtown LA. A few blocks shy of Broadway, where the crooks, hustlers, and one-eyed serpents still pedaled their porn, Prada knock-offs and gold watches that would turn your wrist green on a dare. A few unfortunate steps north, and your eyes would bleed at the sight of construction signs, large metal cranes stretching on high, Caterpillars laying the foundation for a playground of another color.
How the Stinson would survive was anyone’s guess. Home to the last of the great drifters, a transient mansion for men with no inclination of past or present. Either on their way to the next great adventure or postponing the inevitable suicide. Noose fastened tight, drenched in scotch and unbearable camouflaged memories .
Never mind the trailblazing smoking ban that would soon envelop half the country with its own brand of chamomile haze. The lobby’s mismatched armchairs, cracked sofas and wounded coffee tables all played host to cell phone desperadoes, tugging at the last remnants of their cancer sticks. Frenzied eyes, last minute deals to ensure the Stinson would not remain their home for even one week longer than absolutely necessary.
Same went for the bar.
The jukebox was drunk, the barstools splintered, and the ashtrays didn’t give a shit.
Master of ceremonies was a middle aged, platinum-dye job with thick lips, planetary tits and a dress in leopard prints. Silver eye shadow haling from some East Asian destination . They called her High Top. She was fast, sharp. A woman so quick to anticipate, that she appeared to simply drift up and down the bar on a lazy gust of wind.
I ordered a scotch on the rocks.
Alana ordered a white Russian, got carded. She flashed an ID and a blazing smile of electric diamonds.
I paid for both.
She raised her glass. “Salud.”
We drank in silence and smoked, let the record player turn over a new leaf or two.
“You’ve been here before,” she said.
“Not in this bar.”
“In Los Angeles.”
“You said you’d tell me when we got to know each other better.”
Alana glanced down the way. Knew I would follow suit, caught some ancient man with a fedora and a crippled hand talking nonsense to his drink. “This is as better as it’s going to get,” she said.
“I fell in love with a girl named Leah,” I told her. “I fell in love with her some several years ago, back east. Followed her here. Out to the wild frontier. Didn’t end so good…” I took a stab at my drink. “I was talking to some guy earlier today. Some kid, really, not much younger than me.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty four, I think.”
“Yeah, we all think. Go on.”
“He’d just got sprung from prison. Shaved head. Sad tats all over his arms.”
“Yeah, Homeboy Industries, they got a tattoo removal program.”
“But they can’t do nothing about the teardrops, yeah. Too close to the eyeballs. Can’t have lasers that close to your eyeballs, can you?”
Black-and-white photography on the wall dealt out puddles of Sinatra, Mohammed Ali, and any other person you wouldn’t think might have thought to stop in.
“Yeah.” I told her. “He was waiting for his interview. Being brought back into the fold. His eyes were darting behind his glasses. He was trying to be positive, talking about his time in prison, his prospects for a new job. But his knee kept bobbing up and down. Rapid fire. He wasn’t doing as hot as he said, no way. And the only thing I could think was about the smell of this place. This city, the way things hang in the air. Even though my last encounter was everything west of Fairfax, all I could think was what happened last time I was here. Man, dangerous thoughts, when all you care about is yourself.”
“What did she do to you?”
High Top stopped by and asked us if we wanted another drink.
Only one answer to that.
We lit a few cigarettes, and when our drinks arrived, High Top got her hemispheres upside down and handed me the white Russian. Gave Alana the scotch. We each settled on the hand we were dealt and drank.
“What did she do to you?” Alana repeated, taking another ride on the merry-go-nowhere.
“You’ve been here before .”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“You know this place.”
“You ever been stabbed before?”
I shrugged. Gave negligence a walk in the park. “Had a prostitute hold a knife to my throat once…” I took a taste of her white Russian, let the milk coat my stomach. “Not on my tab. Someone else’s. Also, it technically happened to Wanda. But I stole it for myself, we used to have this agreement.”
“Well, Wanda can keep it.”
“You stab somebody, Alana?”
“I ran wild around downtown with a fake ID back when I was a teenager,” she told me. “I came here with my boyfriend. Someone tried to put the moves on me, some old man with a crippled hand, but he was all muscle. Marine, or Navy Seal, or something you wouldn’t want to fuck with, anyway. Things got out of hand. High Top wasn’t bartending that night, and I guess it’s good for the both of us that she wasn’t. The cops told me his name afterwards, and it was Franklin. He stepped into the middle of the fight and my boyfriend stabbed him. I mean, it was an accident, but also, yeah, he stabbed him. He was dead by the time the EMTs showed up. He took off, ran his ass back to East Los. I stayed behind, holding Franklin’s guts in place. He’s no genius, my boyfriend — he left his blade behind and everything. The cops interrogated the shit out of me, just for fun, a chance to give their hands a little taste of my body. They never needed any of it.”
Alana took a bite of her straw. Lifted it from her drink like a slender cigarette and pointed some twenty feet away from where we were sitting. “There’s Franklin, all over the place.”
“So I imagine your boyfriend’s in jail.”
“Not anymore. And he ain’t my boyfriend.”
“Out on parole?”
“Yeah.” I sighed. Drank her white Russian, which sent my head spinning. “Twenty years knocked down to three? Got him to cop a plea without proper representation?”
“Sounds like a match to me .”
She stared at me. “It’s not as likely as it seems.”
“What was your boyfriend’s name?”
“Manny. Manuel Castillo.”
I shook my head. Got the jukebox to hear my thoughts, send a little Rahsaan Roland Kirk my way, You’ll Never Get To Heaven. “I may have to check my notes,” I said.
“You’re wrong,” she said.
“Bit of a coincidence, then?”
“A familiar story?”
“They’re all familiar stories,” Alana said. “And there’s no such thing as coincidence around these parts. Everything I’ve described matches everything you’ve described, because that’s all there is.”
I polished off my drink.
Alana had done pretty good business of her own, ordered us another round.
“Keep this up, you won’t be able to drive home.”
“Don’t be fooled. Sometimes, I like it here.”
I laughed with a tired wave of my hand. Lit a cigarette. High Top remained confused as to who was who. Served me the white Russian, slid my scotch between Alana’s awaiting hands.
“My room is a pastel rectangle, approximately fifty square feet,” I said. I handed her my cigarette, and lit another. “The walls are blank, cracked, like the rest of this place. The ceilings are fine. Higher than most hotels, possibly the most merciful part of this quiet thrust. The bathroom is a combination of wilted wall paper, blue flowers, and cracked porcelain. No television. Alarm clock wired to the radio. The ice machine on my floor has a hole in it, a plastic spider web spreading out. Like it was punched by someone who needed to get what was in there in a real hurry. Out of my windows, they face west, and you can catch the mirage of downtown LA as the sun sets, the buildings built into the freeway, the smoke and final solution to this crazy fucking city.”
Alana had herself a helping of what was rightfully my drink.Her braces gleaming, with an inadvertent laugh as she leaned close to me, she said, “Sounds like you ended up right back in LA.”
“And you just plan to never leave.”
She rubbed her forehead against my face, nose moving up, pressed against the corner of my mouth. “That was always the plan.”
I kept my hands where they were. Let my mind wander all over the angels in my imagination. Laughed a little. “Things get worse, don’t they?”
“Better hope they keep getting better,” she said. “You chose to come back.”
A few seats down, a perfectly bland nobody ran his hand through shallow streaks of grey. Turned to the man next to him and wondered where the time had gone. The man replied with a quick adjustment of his white undershirt. His eyes bulged behind lids that insisted on sleep. Didn’t look like that was going to be the case, though. Not as long as the sun continued to set, and certainly not as long as the clouds kept their distance for fear someone might recognize a familiar shape, somewhere in the world up there.
Not on that particular evening, promises broken, watching the clock strike midnight at the Stinson.
or for fucking free in digital
so long and thanks for all the pish.