Literature In Los Angeles

ONE DAY LAST SUMMER

In LA NOIR on March 31, 2010 at 3:27 pm

1. Hot Air

The patio was a small rectangle of white concrete and red brickwork baking in the afternoon sun. It was wedged between the house and a steep hillside behind. At the far edge of the patio, a long row of terra cotta pots were lined up. Each clay pot was filled with dirt and contained a sprig of broken plant material, long dead. A small birdbath sat silent in the far corner, its concrete basin cracked and broken, dry as a bone.

On the other side of the terra cotta frontier, lay the steeply rising hillside, an unexplored world of brown dirt and native oak trees. The three-year drought had killed off all but the hardiest scrub brush. Even the leafy swords of a large yucca plant were losing their battle with the hot, dry air.

I opened the sliding doors in the back of the house. A blast of hot air hit me in the chest. The glare of sunlight reflecting off the white concrete blinded me. I stepped outside. 

Our old teak picnic table, once used for tall drinks and stuffed olives had been abandoned and was now pushed into a corner against the house. A small roof overhang created a dark refuge of cool shade directly over the table.

I put my glass of ice water down and tried to brush off some of the dirt that had accumulated on the bench behind the table. I sat down anyway, pulled my knees up under me and leaned against the cool green stucco wall of the house.

My water glass was sweating in the heat and cool to the touch. The drink was calm and refreshing and I gazed up at the top of the hill. Barely visible behind several large oak trees was the rectory of the local parish. A handsome young priest lived there with a pretty blond wife, four young children, a golden retriever and a pool.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

A crashing sound through the trees high above broke through my thoughts.
Whatever it was moved quickly, descending straight towards me, arms swinging recklessly at his side. Sunlight glinted off the metal of something small held in his hand, in a tight, not so reckless grip. 

I made myself small against the house and watched Dave, my neighbor, imitate a steeple chaser trying to clear a pasture fence. He jumped over the line of terra cotta pots with a punishing landing onto the patio concrete. He had a rod in hand, but I was pretty sure that he wasn’t there to offer me comfort and guidance.
I shrank into the dark patch of shade against the house, pretending to be invisible.

He cried out in pain and rubbed one knee, hunched over, panting in the bright sunlight.
Dave’s brown hair did as it was told and covered his head but his stomach rebeled. Folds of shameless fat escaped from his tight white shirt.
His yellow/green eyes, shaped like upended teacups, looked almost intelligent. His eyebrows weren’t helping. They were thick and black and professionally shaped and I could see rivulets of sweat and dirt rolling between his eyes and down his nose. If he were ever going to work again as a stuntman he was going to have to do better than simply groom his eyebrows and bleach his straight white teeth.

Finally he caught his breath and straightened his back up. He looked quickly around the patio, and with a deep oblivious sigh walked directly in front of me, and then around to the side of the house. He let himself out by the side gate and I heard him lift the latch, and then jiggle it from the other side. I didn’t move.

A small brown bird landed on the crack in the concrete birdbath and poked its tiny beak into the hole. It moved its beak back and forth and then rose into the air, stumbling off in the heavy afternoon heat.

 2. Midnight Blue

I didn’t seem able to move. I was thinking.
I wasn’t thinking about Dave. Dave was a distant memory; easy come, easy go. I was thinking of my mortgage. I was thinking of the balloon payment that was due, and the money I didn’t have. And most of all, I was wondering if and when my husband would ever come home.

The sun had finally fallen out of the sky but that hadn’t done much to cool down things. The backyard was a hot oven and now it was quite dark. I sat in the same position as earlier in the day, crouched behind the picnic table.

A long low howl from a dog started up in the distance and then suddenly fell quiet. A door slammed somewhere down the street, and the traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway reminded me of the roar of ocean waves. Sweat from the day clung to my shoulders like an old damp shawl pulled from a dumpster, and my water glass was empty and dry. I ran my tongue over my teeth looking for a drink.

I heard the sharp yelp of a woman and then footsteps running. A car motor started and roared away into the distance and then I went back to listening to the silence.

It must have been close to midnight when I heard sounds coming from the front of my house.
Someone started a conversation with my doorbell, and it turned into an argument. When I couldn’t take the pounding on the door anymore, I hauled myself up, opened the sliding glass doors, went back inside the house, walked down the front hallway and opened the front door. 

“Dave?” I didn’t recognize him. He must have gone home and showered after I last saw him because he was cleaned up considerably.
His black hair was damp and smelled freshly washed and it was slicked neatly down behind his ears. He wore a dark blue silky shirt ducked neatly in around his thick waist and he wasn’t sweating. His long arms hung loosely at his side and I didn’t notice a metallic glint anywhere.

He showed me his bleached teeth and examined me with sad eyes. 
“Andy in?”
“No,” I said.” I looked steadily for a moment into his eyes, and then slowly started to close my front door. 
He must have misunderstood, thinking that I said, “Come on in,” because he stuck out his long arm and pushed my front door back open.
“He’ll be back in 5 minutes!” I said. I tried to think if I had shared with any of my neighbors the news that my husband Andy had taken an unofficial Spring Break from our marriage, AWOL since April. 
“What do you want anyway? Stop it,” I said. Dave was walking into me, backing me down the hallway. I abruptly stopped and he ran into me. “Go home, Dave. There’s nothing for you here.”

“I need your car, Tracy.” He said. 
“I like dancing with you swell, Dave, but shove off and find your own car.”
“I don’t have a car. Sandy took it.” His eyes were sad again. His lips looked thin and squeezed together and his upper lip was perspiring. “Help me, Tracy.” 

He was too large to push so I let him go by. He rushed into my living room and looked surprised at all of the books in the bookcase. 
He went over to the wooden entry table with the glass top, and using one hand, he started to rummage through the piles of mail looking for my car key. 
His other hand was wrapped around something. I couldn’t quite make out what it was because it was stuffed in his pants pocket.

He stopped to admire the cover of one of Andy’s GQ magazines.
“Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” I said, calling his bluff.

Ten minutes later, I was behind the wheel of my metallic green Volvo, backing out of my driveway with Dave and his little Beretta compact pistol next to me in the passenger seat.
I turned right off Sunset, heading north on PCH, following the coastline. We were going to Santa Barbara, Sandy’s hometown. 
Dave thought Sandy might be there.

Photo by Ramona Candle

3. Champagne Cupcake

It was quiet in the car. Peaceful. It was almost as if we were out on a date, except that I was married to someone else, and Dave held a gun at my side.
Other than that, it was a romantic evening with the ocean on one side, the mountains on the other, and a peaceful hum in the summer night air.

Sandy…..

Sandy was Dave’s wife. They moved into the neighborhood only a few months ago and I didn’t know her well. Sandy was drop-dead gorgeous – platinum blond – or Champagne blond as some like to say.  And if you believe the rumors, she was once a Playboy bunny.

I can’t vouch for the Playboy part, but it’s pretty much fact that Sandy was once a pinup girl.

I saw her once. Leaning against her bed. Sprawled on a fluffy white rug, wrapped – more or less – in a thin power blue blanket, and not much else. All rosy and round – like some kind of a pink Champagne cupcake. The painting was 1/3 to scale on canvas. In oil. Some artist had painted her for a magazine cover, she said.

She’s the type of woman who could make a man hungry just by looking at her.

We drove past the Malibu Colony. The street lights thinned out considerably, and then, suddenly, they disappeared. After Zuma Beach, where the Coast Highway runs next to the ocean, I couldn’t see the water but I could feel its immense black expanse next to me as I drove. There were a few stars in the sky reflecting their lights off the ocean waves, twinkling, keeping me company.

“Why did she leave?”  I asked just to be saying something.

A small silver convertible with four young joy riders out on a hot dark summer night whipped past us going close to 100 mph. Suddenly, their bright lights blinded me and I held onto the steering wheel tightly, taking it on faith that the road continued straight. Then, the car was behind us.
We were alone again in the dark. I looked at Dave. A large tear was slowly winding down his cheek.

“I loved her,” he said. I thought for a moment that he had a candy jawbreaker in his mouth. He was moving his jaw back and forth hard enough to crack his molars.
“She was cheating on me. God damn Priest.” His wet sad face had the soft vulnerability of an uncooked biscuit. 

I kept to myself and we drove on in silence.

4. Light in the Darkness

North of Oxnard, after on particularly long stretch of empty highway, an oasis of light loomed up in front of us, promising not only gas, but something to eat. My fingers were numb from gripping the steering wheel.

“Hey, Dave…” I said. I felt him grinding his teeth, listening.
“We need gas.” 

The teeth grinding never stopped. I gripped the steering wheel tighter; my fingers felt tingly.
“Don’t worry. I have a debit card in my purse. I’m going to stop and fill up the tank,” I said.

I took his silence as agreement and I pulled the Volvo into one of the self-serve islands in front of the minimart. A garish inhuman white light illuminated the empty pumping islands; no other cars or people were in sight. I saw the clerk in the shadows of the store window, peering out trying to see who had driven up.

With a push of the button, I turned off the keyless car engine. I removed the key from the slot, and I opened my car door.   
“Wait…” Dave’s voice was scratchy and hoarse, out of practice. “Give me your car key.” 

I handed the key to him, filled the tank and when I finished, I got back into the driver’s seat and looked at him. “Don’t you want to get a snack or something? You don’t look well.”  I said.

He didn’t look well. He looked pasty and his thin closed mouth was tightly clenched.
“At least get out and stretch your legs a little,” I said.

He took my cell phone from the side cup holder where I had stored it, and his gun from his pocket, and he put both in the glove compartment. I had to show him how to lock the compartment, and then he opened his door and got out.

Leaning into the car, he asked: “Do you want anything?”
“Chips and a Coke. Diet,” I said.

I watched him walk toward the mini-mart and open the door to the store. Holding the door open, he turned back and looked at me. He made a show of pushing the remote “auto lock” button on the car key for me to see, locking me in the car, chuckling to himself. We both knew that I could open the car from the inside but obviously, I wasn’t going to just to run off in the dark on foot, alone. Dangling the car key in his hand, he grinned. He looked happy for the first time that day.

Wise guy. I smiled back with a sad smirk. At least he was happy. 

I watched him as he turned and walked into the store, past the clerk at the front register, and then, he disappeared into the shadows.  When I couldn’t see him anymore I grabbed my purse, and emptied my wallet of everything except $50. I leaned across the passenger seat, opened the passenger door, and chucked my wallet out. It landed next to the gas pump where Dave might find it if he thought to look.
I put my seat belt back on, and started the car by pushing the Volvo’s start button. I pulled the car out of the station and onto the road as quickly as I could.
Too bad Dave didn’t know that I kept a spare car key in the glove compartment and that it worked remotely from anywhere in the car. Too bad.

I headed south down that long dark road with a full tank, no money, and a cell phone locked in the glove compartment, out of reach. Just me and my car, and the open window.
The cool breeze on my face felt like freedom.

I approached LA and the lights of the city increased. A plane was in the sky above me. Quiet at first, and then with a roar, it passed overhead. The sound died away and I imagined the passengers buckled safely in, reading magazines or watching the TV while they cut through the air, gliding through the darkness, going home.

5.  Home

I turned left off the Coast Highway and up towards the hills. My gas gauge said “empty” but it didn’t matter; I was home.
I parked my car and watched a little bird land on the low branch of the Sycamore tree in front of my house. He hopped on one foot, gave a long piercing chirp and then fell silent. In front of the tree, an emaciated coyote, head down, tail tucked between his legs, scurried up the street, heading for the mountains behind the houses.
Most of the sky was a still a dark velvet blue but in one corner there was a growing glow of light. The air was still and warm. It was going to be another scorcher.  

I opened the sliding glass doors to the back patio and I walked outside. An acrid smell of wet wood and a recent fire was in the air and the terra cotta pots were covered with a thin layer of ash.

A lonely little bark came from under the picnic table. It was Dave and Sandy’s pet bulldog, El Cid, covered in ash, cowering.

Investigators showed up later that week to tell me that someone had torched Sandy and Dave’s house on the night they went missing, and to ask if I knew who did it.

I never did see Dave or Sandy again.
I did see the Priest. He came knocking at my door asking for Sandy, and he told me a tale of careless love and jealousy, and loss of faith. I recently heard that a new priest – this time without a family – had moved into the parish rectory.

These days, I keep El Cid and Dave’s little Beretta handgun close; one’s for company and the other is for protection, not necessarily in that order.

Story and image by Ramona Candle.

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