A Short Story by Robert Kulesz
I’m drunk in the bar car, deep in the spirit, sitting across from a toothless old cripple at one of the yellow tables bolted into the floor. He wears a black cowboy hat on his way back to Colorado after burying his grandson in California. We’re staring sideways out the long train window. Two walking canes hang on the back of a bolted chair next to old Bill.
‘He was a surfer’ he says. ‘Drowned in them storm waves offta Orange County.’
‘Man’ I say.
He shakes his head. ‘Why in hell would anyone wanta go out in storm waves. Them guys really think they’re that good?’
‘Maybe some of em are.’
‘Shit, man, he was from Colorado.’
This reminds me. My seventeen year old neighbor on La Mirada Avenue in East Hollywood climbed on a chair and tightened a rope around his neck then lit up the inside of his skull with a shotgun. ‘Eddie always had a backup plan’ his girlfriend told me at the funeral, referring to the gun and rope.
‘Where you gettin off?’ Bill asks.
‘Chicago, I guess.’
‘You guess, huh?’
We’re the only ones in the car except for the bartender. Bill lights a Pall Mall, takes off his hat and puts it on the empty chair next to him. A threadbare net of white hair is combed straight back over his skull. He’s drinking black coffee with Jack Daniels. ‘What you doing in LA?’
‘I live there with my girlfriend.’
‘She with you?’
‘She stayed home.’
Bill grins through the smoke. ‘She kick you out? That where you got that?’ He points to the square white bandage on my forehead.
‘Bumped into a door.’
We’re coming into the high desert and the temperature’s starting to drop. I can feel it when I press my face against the window.
A couple hours ago I was in downtown Los Angeles. It was hot for February: palm trees slumped in the late afternoon light and the streets baked in a brown smog. Laura dropped me off at the station after we’d spent the night licking our wounds from a barfight.
She’d been attacked by Julie, my high-strung ex, and as far as I can remember there was no good reason for it. We’d run into her by chance in a place off Hollywood Boulevard and everything seemed okay at first. We were all leaning on the bar acting civilized when Julie just lopped the end off a beer bottle and zing! slashed Laura’s forehead with it. Seven stitches and a lot of blood but Laura refused to deal with the cops, having been raised in a radical political family where police were rejected outright as shock troops for the ruling class. She has principles.
After the emergency room I dropped her back at the apartment and sped to Julie’s place, filled with a helpless rage that made me want to break her arms. She didn’t make a squeak when I smashed into the door but her shadow stained the crack of light coming from inside and the floorboards sounded: she was there behind the wood, holding her breath.
‘Psychopath!’ I shouted and again rammed my forehead into the door. Yellow sparks fizzed off in my brain.
But I’m thinking now that maybe Laura’s through with me too. When I got back I told her I'd bashed up Julie’s car as payback: smashed in the headlights, windows, keyed the paint, punctured the tires but that some of the neighbors might have seen me and called the cops.
‘I love you but you’re always getting us into shit’ she said as we sat in the apartment, dazed by the violence, drinking a jug of red wine out of big coffee mugs. ‘Even if this wasn’t your fault.’ She had a white patch over her stitches and I’d fixed a little one on my own forehead where I’d hit the door. ‘It’s like everything’s a joke to you’ she looked down at her hands folded in her lap ‘nothing matters day to day and I’m just sick of it.’
So morning found me sitting on a low table opposite the bed where she’d finally fallen asleep wearing her yellow t-shirt rusty with blood. Her long red hair, stiffened with the stuff, was spread over her face like dead grass.
When she woke up we agreed I should leave town for a while because there was no way to know when or if the cops would come looking for me. I was paranoid: I’d gotten arrested a couple months before in Tijuana for getting into a drunken argument with a federale and it was then I discovered I didn’t much like jail, even for a night.
‘Besides’ she said ‘I need a break, man.’
We borrowed cash from Laura's mother for my fast exit. She was happy to see the back of me. Ever since Tijuana she’s been pushing Laura to cut me loose— she says I’ll never be able to give her daughter the serenity she needs. I was glad to take her money, the phony. She sits on a beanbag chair in her redwood house high in the hills and talks about giving away all her possessions because they “slow her soul.” She flies off to India for three months every year to forget about her swimming pool. Who is she to judge me?
‘I think you should work your chakras’ she said when she handed me the money. ‘I think you should go away and I don’t think you should see my daughter anymore.’
‘Mama’ said Laura.
‘He’s a very young spirit, Laura’ said Most Serene Mother standing in the driveway under a eucalyptus tree. ‘He is far from Understanding.’ She headed back inside to watch the Discovery Channel.
Laura dropped me at Union Station. It was no big scene: we sniffled numbly and pushed our lips on each other.
‘I’ll see you soon’ I said. ‘Call you when I got my new identity.’ It was a joke.
She rolled her eyes and smiled, wiping tears away as she looked in the other direction.
A poor joke.
‘I’m really sorry baby.’ I put my hand on her arm but she didn’t turn around.