Old. Glory.


Untitled (Surreal Abstraction)

Benjamin F. Berlin, Untitled (Surreal Abstraction), 1939, courtesy of LACMA

This happened awhile ago. Like it seems is the case with everything: now is nothing, the past is everything. At the time I was working, and the job was high in the hills, off Mulholland, easy. I stayed up the night before, a few beers, Letterman. Toward the end of the show a thin man blew saliva bubbles from his mouth without the help of any instrument, without even soap, and as the bubbles wobbled through the air he strung them together like a floating necklace. The audience clapped. Old Letterman shook his head, a little disgusted but still laughing. I heard the guy in the next apartment laughing, too, which annoyed me, and I fell asleep on the couch. In the morning I awoke early, did two sets of pushups and situps. I went outside and picked a grapefruit off the shared complex tree. The sun was shining after weeks of gloom. I chewed the grapefruit’s flesh for breakfast. Some mornings, the world is just waiting to be plucked and eaten, it reminds you of being a kid during summers – you leap out of bed, ready to wander, explore, conquer. That’s how I remember childhood, anyway.

At work I parked in the temp lot and nodded to Delgado, my foreman, smoking beside his pickup. “A beaut,” he said. We considered the expansive circuit-board city below. We were more than a little amazed at civilization. Maybe even surprised. That somehow it kept functioning. The sky was clear. Airplanes lined up to the east. A blimp wobbled toward the coast. Delgado blew a ring of smoke. We were clearing a small canyon before bringing in dozers to grade it. To build a new mansion on a hill. Good pay, a month-long gig.

Delgado and I walked into the portable building. Instead of the usual donuts and coffee, plastic orange chairs were in tight rows and a frowning blond lady sat on a stool. She was attractive but her clothes were too loose to let in the imagination and she made me feel uncertain. Another man stood in the doorway, I couldn’t see him well, the outside sun was behind him. He seemed to point at his watch. The lady nodded and explained to us that she was our legal representative. “Take notes, gentlemen,” she said, “there’s a test after,” and she turned off the lights and flipped on a TV. It was a video about respecting diversity in the workplace. It explained that using racist language was grounds for firing. Obviously it had to do with how we’d treated the black kid Steve a week earlier, but he’d been laughing about the thing we’d hung in the doorway, it was a prank, a friendly hazing. We thought he was one of us. People don’t tease their enemies. We were all young or anyway not so old men, fit, many races, we got along fine. The blond lady seemed to eye me in the dark, as if it were my fault. I felt annoyed and beside me Delgado rumpled an egg-fart and I excused, exiting the portable, and headed to one of the blue movable bathrooms those sites always had.

My cell phone rang after I flushed. There was no paper to dry my hands. Outside, in the sun, I checked the phone. My father had called. No message. I tried back but the line was busy. He was in a sick folks’ home in my desert hometown. We hadn’t spoken in a month. I felt annoyed – why couldn’t he just leave a message? Was it an emergency? I considered the portable, the woman, the video. The shadowy man had come out and stood in the doorway, watching me. I needed a cigarette. I walked to my car and drove to a Shell station off Topanga. Fifty bucks to fill the tank. The year before it’d been twenty-five. I looked at the receipt and this guy in a Prius snickered. Violence seized up in me but I held it in. I sat in the car, feeling something like longing, and instead of returning to work, I headed home.

It’s a long drive through the desert. I stopped at a burger joint in Indio and ordered waffle fries and crossed the Colorado River well past noon. The river was a bog of red mud and had a light waft of refuse, of spoil. I made it to my desert city early evening. One the way into town I drove past new housing developments, all the lights were off, the homes were empty, the streets quiet. A digital billboard, the first I’d seen in Arizona, flashed a message.

This is YOUR country. Protect it. Pray for it. Fight for it.

I was hungry and went to an old favorite, Alfonso’s Carnitas Jaliscos, for a platter of tortillas and asada but the restaurant was gone, turned into a Salvation Army. “How long’s it been this way?” I asked the salesman. Surprisingly, it was Alfonso. He explained that today was discount day, blue-sticker items were half-off. I bought a wrought-iron red rooster. A gift for my dad. “Alfonso,” I said, “what has happened to your wonderful restaurant?” On the wall he’d had this famous photo of a US president eating off a plate piled with everything you could imagine. Alfonso shrugged. “Hey, Al,” someone said, an employee in the storeroom doorway, pointing at his watch. Almost time to close. I nodded and let him be.

On weekends in my younger days, my late teens and twenties, I’d go for drives. I traveled with a sleeping bag and listened to old country-and-western music on AM radio and when I was too tired to go any farther, I’d put down in a park or a clearing off the freeway or somewhere out in the desert. Waking up those mornings was precious, a quiet and immense experience. Nowadays in our country, sleeping in parks or in the desert is grounds for arrest. I wonder if anyone else is bothered by this, a lot of the time I feel alone in my sorrow. That early evening I drove to a Holiday Inn where I’d had a formal school dance years before, but the concierge denied my memory. “Never any formal events here,” he said. I walked into the ballroom – filled with treadmills now. “Right here, I danced with that girl.” I insisted. “Her palms were dry and she smelled a little of – of –.” The concierge waited, watching me. “She smelled of sex,” I admitted. I told him that the girl was Irish-Mexican and fun-loving, that she had a drinking problem and her siblings never liked me, but the concierge didn’t care and my voice trailed off. I walked outside and stood beside a fountain. It wasn’t gurgling, the water was sludgy, trembling with pollen scum.

I drove around and parked on a sidestreet and lay down in the backseat and shut my eyes and slept. When I opened my eyes again it was hot and bright, desert dawn, and my head felt swollen with allergy. I remembered a drugstore on River Road, near the dry riverbed that wound through the city. I drove back and forth and couldn’t find the road, couldn’t find the riverbed. I passed a new outdoor mall with people in a red-tiled courtyard, sitting at tables with colorful umbrellas and wearing sombreros, drinking margaritas. A computer store had a line of people winding around outside it. They looked sweaty and angry and excited all at once. My pocket buzzed and I took out my phone: my father had called again. I’d missed it again. Still no message. I called back. Busy. I headed toward his convalescent home on the edge of town, but I was still lost, so I pulled over at a bus stop. A college kid wearing headphones and a hunched Mexican lady sat under the awning. A basket covered with a red cloth rested in the lady’s lap. “Hey,” I said. The kid ignored me. I asked the lady if she remembered the drugstore. When she frowned, the corners of her mouth were lined with dirt.

I squinted and read the bus stop sign – I was higher than I’d realized, up in the city’s foothills. A deep smell of corn and pork hit me. “Is that food, lady?” I asked. “Tamales? I’ll pay.” The woman’s face widened but not at me: I looked back down the road. A parade had appeared. Motorcycle cops were doing figure-8s, leading a procession of outraged citizens who held up signs, chanting. The college kid stood up, excited, and took out his cell phone. He videotaped it all, laughing. “Why’re they marching?” I called from inside my car.

The kid shrugged. “Guns? Gays? Amortization? Some bullshit, who cares.”

Children held flags. I watched the parade grow closer, pass within a few feet, rush by.

Then I started the engine again and made for my father’s. I was having bad luck – I had been for a while – and it was rough. I felt like I’d had good luck as a kid, like I’d been blessed, and life would always work out. I felt the same about the whole state of things, the whole country we lived in. You think it’ll even out but it doesn’t. Sure enough, after a mile, lights flashed in my rearview. Motorcycle cop. His helmet gleamed. “Your seatbelt,” he said. The belt had been torn out a year before and I tried to explain but I didn’t know exactly what’d happened – I’d once loaned the car to my boss Delgado and something happened with a dog and its leash, something got caught and had to be severed. The cop didn’t care. He held out his hand – license, registration. “You’re Josh Wilson,” I said. “We went to high school together, Amphi? Remember that homecoming game we won? Fifteen years ago?”

He smirked at me. “Nice try, bud. I’m not from this city, and I’m definitely no Josh Wilson.” He ran my information, which is a thing people do in this fucking world. I tried calling my father again, no answer. I tried the home’s direct line. It kept ringing. The cop came back frowning, his hand on his gun. He said I had an outstanding warrant in the state, criminal trespass. This was true. Years before I’d broken into a historical site in the middle of the night, but I’d totally forgotten about it, I’d been eighteen, a little drunk, I’d wanted to sleep somewhere with history. A park ranger had cited me and I moved to California before the court date, forgot all about it, thought the past was done and gone. I almost explained but I knew the cop didn’t care. So instead I complained, “When did everything get so rigid?”

The cop read me my rights, cuffed me, gently shoved me into his squad car.

As we drove the city, I complained about all my bad luck.

“Tell it to the judge,” he said.

“He’ll just listen to lawyers,” I said, “and they use a whole different language. Greek.”

The cop said, “This is America, no one speaks Greek.” At the jail, the booking process was quick. They gave me a private cell. In the next cell a man who sounded like my father was crying and an hour later I realized it was just a TV show, no one was actually in the cell. A man in a brown suit appeared and said he’d represent me. I told him I didn’t care for strangers meddling in my business. He paled. “Do you know what kind of trouble you’re in? Your life is on the line! You can’t afford to be casual!” I shrugged. “How can you be so flippant!” He was almost screaming at me. Then he went through his papers again. After a minute, he blushed. He’d thought I was someone else, and he couldn’t help me after all.

I told him not to worry, that at no point had I considered him consequential.

An hour later, they led me to a judge who listened to my story. At first he seemed amused but soon he was bored. “Break into a historical site? Quit work in the middle of the day? Is that the type of person you want people to think you are?”

I told him that it wasn’t really how I was, he was just cherry-picking bad examples.

“Oh, you’re a wiseass,” he said. “Clearly you don’t like to follow the rules of society.”

He banged his gavel and said I had to serve a week in jail and pay a fine of two grand.

I rang up Delgado, explained the situation.

Delgado wasn’t worried. “We’re in these meetings all week. You’re lucky, I’d rather be in jail.” Delgado sounded depressed enough to mean it. It cheered me a little. In my cell, I ate a plate of beans and bread and sad lettuce. I was bored and they gave me books to read. The books were boring. I flipped on the television in the cell and watched one of those Hollywood shows with pretty people talking about actors and rock stars. I wondered why anyone watched that stuff, gossip about the lives of strangers – and not real strangers, just actors, people who pretended to be other people. Our country was more interested in artifice than reality, I thought sadly. It was an awful thought, a loss of faith, I almost started sobbing.

But I kept watching the dumb show. One feature was about an actor named Joey something, he’d been big as a teenager, years before. Something had happened to him, drugs, something. He grinned into the camera and his eyes were crazed and he explained he was doing a guerrilla project – getting arrested, then breaking out of jail. It was his ticket back to fame. The interviewer faked enthusiasm to hide his condescension. I felt sad for the actor and better about being in jail for real. After ten p.m., it was lights out, and they woke me at seven for breakfast, and that’s how the next couple days went, I’d sit in the cell, watch TV, glance at the books guiltily. Eat. I stretched a lot and did situps, pushups. I thought about why I was there, my old crime of sleeping in the old part of the city. I’d been a kid, excited about life, I’d been fond of Indians. I wanted to live off the land, away from people – but also to watch sporting events and not pay a lot for gas. I wanted to ride horseback, no saddle, there’s a word for that, I’ve lost it. I wanted everything to be simpler. I’ve always wanted that. Everyone does. But nothing’s simple. Even that TV guy with the bubbles. You watch as the show’s on and you think, Here’s this guy blowing spit-bubbles, and he’s made it, he’s on TV! But you don’t think how weird he is, practicing all those years. You don’t think how he has to try out to be on TV. Or how Letterman pities him. You forget that while he’s doing his stupid trick, there’s a big lit-up sign that’s telling everyone to clap. None of it is real.

After two days, they let me out. “It’s a delayed sentence,” a cop explained.

“So, what, I have to come back?” I was worried. “I have to finish the rest later?”

He shook his head. “It means you never do it, delayed doesn’t mean what it means.”

He handed me my car keys. They’d towed my car to the station instead of the impound lot. The attendant seemed like I should feel grateful. So I acted grateful. I drove first-thing to a downtown Mexican restaurant, sat at the tiled-bar, and ordered a margarita. A guy down the bar nodded to me. We watched a woman slap tortillas onto a griddle. “Those look great,” I said. “I was just in jail, can you believe it? I’m starved,” I said. The guy shook his head. “It’s not authentic, they use vegetable oil,” he complained. When they brought his food, he took out a phone and started taking pictures. “This app,” he said, “tells me exactly how many calories are on that plate.” He frowned at the phone. Then he pushed from the table, annoyed, kept walking, frowning at the phone in his hands, all the way out of the restaurant.

I had such deep hunger, I couldn’t wait, so I slid over and ate his food. The plate was hot and burned my already softened palms. A waitress asked me for money. I checked my wallet. No cash. “Use that one,” she said, pointing to a credit card, “it gets more points.”

It was Thursday in America. I thought about going to my dad’s. But Jesus, he was so old, he didn’t need my drama. He needed to sit quietly on the veranda of his convalescent home and try as hard as he could to remember some lost past where he’d fought in wars and been heroic, things like that. Poor guy. It’d been a bummer of a trip, all around. I thought of Delgado. Hopefully the diversity lesson was done. I’d show back up, say I’d been ill. Maybe they’d dock my pay but that wasn’t so bad, and hopefully I’d keep my job. I had insurance, low co-pay. My cable TV package was expansive. I had beers in my fridge. Home, sitting in my air-conditioned apartment, it all sounded so mellow and nice. I gunned down the highway, passing that digital billboard again – This is your country. It was invisible in the daylight.



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