Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) Classics (2000-2011)
| HOME | FICTION | POETRY | SQUID | RANTS | archive | masthead |
Fiction #322
(published March 22, 2007)
How to Win a Staring Match with a Building
by Adam Greenfield
Sidney Hirsch was a great basilica of a man who moved about the few busy city blocks of his existence with a magnificent resistance. He seemed to stutter as he walked, which was, to those who saw it, equal parts fascinating as it was sad, giving off the overall impression, as he came lumbering around corners and into the liquor store, that here is someone, with a longshoreman's cap pulled down tight over his ears, with a corduroy blazer, patches burning at the elbows, who is trying to inflict upon himself the past with the least amount of effort. That is, by ignoring the present, and existing merely for himself in a time and a place of his own making and thought.

The Gaylord Hotel, the lonely, stone pensioner's palace he called his home, was in the 1940's a lively spot, but had, in the intervening years, decayed into something a little less spectacular. In fact, it had come full circle, as things in the city must do given the close quarters, and the bar downstairs, the mighty HMS Bounty with its feckless Reuben sandwiches and mercifully priced well drinks, had become hip and chic yet again.

From his eighth floor apartment, where he'd lived since 1969, he liked to think he had seen it all, or enough anyway. He once saw a bank robber fleeing up the sidewalk, red dye hissing out of his pocket, hundred dollar bills falling like a ticker tape parade. He saw Sophia Loren being helped out of the back of a chauffer-driven Rolls Royce by a man with a patch over his eye. Lucky pirate. On St. Patrick's Day, 1978, he saw a nude girl run into the middle of the street, stopping traffic with her body, and screaming in a beer-doused voice, "I'm not wearing any green!" And then there was the car accident, and the woman's body that was thrown thirty feet and her head that was only tossed twenty, its eyes still open when the ambulance came. He could see it clearly from his perch. Eight stories. Eighty feet. Less than a football field. With the right binoculars it was a negligible distance.

The knock at the door roused him from his trance and he turned from the window to open it. It was Louis, his younger brother, fifty-two, if you can call that young. After fifty the age status of siblings flitted away. There was really no advantage to being younger or older, wiser or not. They were just brothers. That was all.

Louis entered without a word and took off his jacket. He looked around, the same room for more than thirty years, and thought to himself that after this long it was more remarkable that nothing changed than if Sidney had decided to paint the walls lime green or had installed a stripper pole against the far wall. There was something to be said for consistency even though it depressed him like hell to think of what that something might be.

"Brother," Louis doffed an imaginary cap in greeting.

Sidney sneered at him and noted with glee that Louis' hair was really starting to go. In a few years he would be as bald as their father was at seventy.

They sat down at a small table by the window where they resumed a chess game in progress. They played like this often, slowly, carefully moving the pieces and the conversation, fulfilling familial duties that neither one had the heart to let go fallow.

"You didn't move any of these pieces, did you?" Louis scratched his scalp, staring at the board.

Sidney shook his head.

"No, my dear Louis. You know I wouldn't do that to you. You know I don't have it in me to cheat you."

Louis laughed.

"You used to, though, you know? You remember, Sidney? You were always a terrible cheat when we were kids. Remember when we would go to the house in Sarasota and we would play that game with the stones in the backyard? You know the one where you threw. . . "

Sidney interrupted him.

"Louis, you know how I hate to talk about that stuff. The past. I'm at the age where all reminiscing does is tire me out. And yes, I do remember that game and I do remember cheating you. It built my self-esteem to no end, by the way, beating you in everything all the time. I think that more than anything else helped me get into Harvard. I put it in my college application and circled it with red ink. Did you know that? It's got me where I am today, in fact."

Louis laughed and moved his queen. A strong move for him this early in the game, Sidney thought. Challenging and aggressive.

"Ooh," Sidney mocked him, "little Louis exorcising his long lost demons. Come get me, Louis. Let your queen fornicate all over my front line of defense."

Louis laughed again and looked at the poster on the wall over the bureau. It was an old campaign poster from Robert Kennedy's '68 campaign, the one that ended across the street from Sidney's apartment at the Ambassador Hotel.

Louis clicked his teeth and started to say something, but Sidney interrupted,

"Are those false teeth? Jesus Christ, Louis, how shitty have we become?"

"No, I was going. . . "

Sidney interrupted again,

"Don't say it. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to talk about anything. Can't we just play chess? I'm tired, I feel old and part of the charm of that is I don't have to care anymore about why anything happened." He sighed and grumbled. "Fuck it all." He stood and walked over to the window, lit a cigarette, let the sun hit him head on.

"Ok," Louis said as he leaned back in his chair, hands folded behind his head, "we don't have to talk about it, Sidney. We don't have to ever talk about it."

"Thanks," Sidney turned back to him, sat at the board, and moved his piece.

After Louis left, Sidney sat in an easy chair by the window. He lit another cigarette, twisted a few strands of his thick gray hair around his finger, and then sighed heavily. He sucked on the cigarette as he stretched his legs out, putting his large bare feet up on the windowsill. He stared down at his rounded belly that was finally starting to stick out coquettishly over his waistline. Stan, the bartender, had called to tell him that a bunch of hot, blonde twenty-year old PR ass had just come in and did he want to come down and have a look. He patted his stomach and picked some loose tobacco off of his tongue. Actually, he couldn't think of anything he'd rather do less.

He cracked the window a little, just enough to feel the cool fall breeze and to hear the TGIF traffic down there going all frantic, and thought, as he had almost every single day over the past thirty-eight years; how do you win a staring match with a building?

Well, for one thing, you don't go chasing hot PR ass whenever you feel like it. Staring at a building takes time and dedication, an almost obsessive belief that your opponent is not inanimate, that it's real, and if you were to get up and buy a round downstairs in hopes of a drunken handjob, a Friday night girls' double-dare, if you were comfortable with the humiliation of that best of all possible outcomes, then you were guaranteed to lose. That's blinking first.

If you listened to your brother, a successful CPA with a family in the Valley who still wasted every Saturday afternoon he could be out at the batting cage with his son, or at the park with his daughter, or even making love with his wife in the cool shade of his air-conditioned rec room, if you listened to the good sense he tried to pour into your ear, because he thought there was still some hope, because he remembered how you used to be different and has been trying to tell his wife that for years, but had since given up and told her he came into the city every weekend to volunteer at the Children's Hospital on Sunset. If you listened to him and gave in to compassion, then that was blinking first.

How do you win a staring match with a building? He took a sip of water and creased his forehead. The building, the Ambassador, across the street was quiet, too. Boarded up, like him, lonely and losing track of time. They watched one another again, and Sidney, while he waited for his enemy to crack, thought once more of 1968. . .

. . . Sidney and his girlfriend, Katie had been full time volunteers for the Kennedy presidential campaign in '68. They believed in Kennedy with all their heart and soul, thought that this was a man who could change the world, a man who embodied, in a real and practical way, everything their liberal educations had taught them to love and cherish: human rights for all, kindness, fairness. Here was the enlightenment brought back to earth in human form and they were at the core of it, traveling on the second bus, the one with the campaign staff that trailed RFK throughout the country, supporting him and the legacy of his brother in every way they could.

But really what drove Sidney, what really got him moving, was Katie. She was the one, as a cute Radcliff political science major, who caught his eye at an anti-Vietnam rally, who smiled as she handed him some literature about the CIA killing babies by throwing them out of helicopters and other equally soul-stirring atrocities. They talked forever that day in Harvard Yard, leaning against an old elm tree; about politics, love, and art, and how sometimes those things were the same and reveled there in the crispness of fall until dusk settled, sharp and filtered, more a sound really than a change in the light.

What he remembered most about that day was thinking that for someone so sincere and optimistic she had the saddest eyes he had ever seen. She could break the heart of any day, and to prove it, he took her home at seven and was in bed with her by nine and in love with her by the morning and forever after that.

That first night, as they lay pressed together, sweating and resting from their exploration of one another, she told him in a soft voice that all she wanted out of life was to make the world a better place, and that a lot of people said it, but she meant it. She told him that she was leaving school early, dropping out to campaign for RFK and did Sidney want to come with her. It was an easy decision for him to make because from the moment he had laid eyes on her; on her skinny runner's frame and her sandy brown hair that looked like desert shrubbery, he was already gone.

Life in early '68 was perfect. Seeing America from that bus filled to the brim with youthful optimism and idealism made it all seem not only accomplishable, but also inevitable. Their hearts overflowed at rallies in Iowa, coffee shops in Rhode Island, bowling alleys and union meetings throughout the Southwest. Everywhere they went, people thought like them, believed in the things they believed in, and seemed to be in love with life for the same reasons they were.

But secretly, in his heart, Sidney loved that life because it brought him closer to Katie, and the closer he got to her, the closer he came to knowing himself and know where in life he belonged. If it was possible to say that a person could be a home, that a warm pair of arms and the smell of a wool sweater, fabric beading and cuffs fraying, if it was possible to live in those feelings and stay close to a delicate, exhaled breath, then Sidney had his peace and thought of nothing more than their life together. She could have her campaign as long as he could have her.

All that changed, though, in June. They had just come off primary victories in South Dakota and California. Los Angeles was supposed to be their victory lap before sweeping up the nomination. A new world was upon them. RFK spoke a little after midnight. He was being interviewed as he walked through the kitchen. When you listen to the tapes you can hear RFK talking to the reporter and then another man suddenly cursing him. You can hear the shots. Play it over and over, as Sydney still did from time to time, play it and rewind. The building stares back, unflinching. Play. Rewind. Hear the end of everything.

Katie went to pieces when RFK was killed as Sidney knew she would. They were already back in the bus getting ready to move on to the next city, but saw people running as the word trickled back to the staff. "Oh, no." "Not again." "It's happened." It was pre-ordained, he later understood. There was no other way to explain it, to rationalize it to one another as they lay shaking and scared two days later in a motel room on Sunset Boulevard. By that time the campaign was already a distant memory, the man a body, the grave a monument. Two days. That's all it took to immortalize a man, to fossilize a life.

They never saw RFK lying there in the kitchen with the halo that was a trick of the light hanging fragile around his head, but they got close. Sidney could remember being in the lobby of the Ambassador before the assassination, the chandeliers casting down crystal light like soft summer rain, tuxedos and evening gowns, plush carpet designed in a way that tried to represent a forest, but only made them laugh when they had first walked in, contemptible of the middle class and its moribund allegiance to the status quo. Those were the things he remembered about the hotel, about that night.

Afterward, he held Katie tightly as the report came over the radio and then later as Walter Cronkite caught himself repeating history and went white as a sheet on the evening news. Life wouldn't be the same, Sidney told himself, Katie wouldn't be the same.

And she wasn't. He began to lose her after that, bit by bit, piece by piece. Her once straight body was now stooped and curved, her eyes accented by large dark circles above and below, the ellipses of exhaustion. She didn't eat or talk for three days, and when she finally spoke to him, it was to tell him what he already knew. Crying in a cheap diner on their last morning together, her hands shook around a hot cup of coffee. She wouldn't look at him as she explained that she was drawn to a better world like it was a calling from God. She didn't expect him to understand, she said, forgiving him, or maybe just helping him try to forgive himself. In another age, he would have driven her to the monastery gate and bid her farewell, told her to pray for him and to think of him when there was time, and that would have been that.

Sidney tried to make it work. He plied every trick of the trade, including self-pity and anger, venom and all manners of triteness.

"I left everything for you," he hissed at her.

"Don't," she begged him, her voice shallow and nearly lifeless.

Their food lay there, cold and rubbery, as he tried to be justified in his anger, tried to summon up a reason to hate her and be glad that she was leaving. But it wouldn't come.

He drove her to the bus station and she bought her one-way ticket to Andover. Sidney cried and begged her to reconsider, to take him with her, to not hurt him as she'd been hurt. She cupped his cheek before she boarded the Greyhound and gave him a smile, her first in a week, since the assassination.

"I told you, Sidney. I told you what I wanted out of life. I wasn't just making that up. Those weren't just platitudes and emotion and a girl being all weak and silly. I told you what I wanted to do, Sidney, and now I have to go and do it."

She walked a couple of feet toward the exit door and then turned around, a thought creasing her forehead, leaving a dimple like a toe print.

"You never told me what you wanted, Sidney. What do you want?"

"You," he answered, unhesitatingly.

She shook her head and smiled as she shifted her heavy bags.

"Uh-uh," she bit her lip, "that isn't enough."

And then she was gone. Through the gate. Gone. Just like that.

Later that week, Sidney, just back from lunch and a beer, stretched out on his crumb-filled bed to meet his destiny, a mid-afternoon nap, and listened to the voice on his radio ramble through the local news. There was a liquor store holdup in Koreatown, a report on the best haunted houses to visit this Halloween, and then, right before the sports, a story that made him sit up suddenly, quietly, so as not to miss a word. He picked up the radio in his big, dry hands and held it close to his face as the voice spoke to him about the Ambassador, giving him a clue as to how he might finally win that staring match.

Later that afternoon Sidney made a quick call to Louis to let him know he was leaving. He told him he was sorry for being grumpy for thirty-five years, and begged him not to say I told you so.

"I wouldn't do that to you, Sidney," the voice on the phone sounded tired and relieved, the voice of someone who just got a call saying their lost dog had been found. "But why now? I mean after all these years. . . "

"Something I just heard on the radio. They're thinking about tearing it down. The hotel. They're talking about tearing it down and turning it into a school," Sidney was holding the phone cord so tightly that his knuckles turned white, wishing it was his brother he could squeeze, hug, hold. "Can you believe it? After all these years they're talking about tearing it down." He paused. "I feel like I'm waking up for the first time in thirty-five years, Louis. I feel so stupid."

Louis cleared his throat.

"Where are you going?"

Sydney shrugged his shoulders as he moved in front of the mirror above his cheap bureau. He touched the circles under his eyes and gingerly patted his gut like it was a twenty year-old child he was meeting for the first time.

"I've died a thousand times in this room. I need to get out. That's where I'm going. I'm getting out."

He hung up the phone and then made a few calls to friends from a different life, a lot of quick explanations, excuses, promises to stay in touch. All for a little information.

All in all, it took about 4 hours to track her down. He half expected, talking to Judith Rosenberg, an old friend from the campaign trail, to find out that Katie had never really left L.A., that she was living two floors below him in the Gaylord, that she too couldn't get the whole thing out of her mind, but for different reasons, and oh, how they'd laugh when he showed up at her room pretending to be room service with a steaming hot Reuben sandwich and a Hallmark card that said Sorry this century has us beat. And Judith. What of her? Another dedicated Kennedy girl. She had been with the campaign longer than Katy and he put together. How had she managed to keep it together? How had she managed to invent a life for herself in the suburbs, children, a career in maternity? She was glad to hear from him. She didn't talk to many people from those days. She told Sidney that last she heard Katie was living in Arizona. She had a number and an address. She didn't offer to stay in touch, though. He understood that happiness is very susceptible to the gravitational pull of hindsight.

The next day he packed his bags, rented a car and set out for Arizona.

The freeway was a sunset all of its own; red, glowering, a myth of geographical proportions. It was its own horizon. The 10 West sunset. He stared ahead, far ahead, dimly aware of the time, fully aware that it didn't really matter.

The car radio was tuned to NPR, and when he couldn't stand it anymore, when all that self-congratulatory nonsense got him so mad that a migraine would have felt like a blowjob, he switched on some country music because it made him feel like he was traveling, not just headed toward a destination, but really moving around because it felt good and he was free.

It was a repetitive landscape, but maybe that's what people found so soothing about the desert. Here and there, along the highway, there were fast food restaurants and truck stops and he wondered, looking left and right across the dusty plateaus that seemed to dead-end into nothing but granite horizons, where the hell the people lived who worked at these places. They had to live somewhere, but then he imagined that perhaps the shoddy restaurants were their homes, the truck stop gift shops their schools and churches. People have made do with less.

He pulled the Chevy Impala off the road at a nameless exit. It just had a number, as if the destination didn't even merit a name.

At the top of the off-ramp he had to make a choice between going left toward a Wendy's or right toward Burger King. He was stumped, because he had actually never eaten at either one of them before, never eaten any fast food at all, for that matter.

He finally decided to make a left. Wendy's. The little girl on the sign looked so much friendlier than the words "Burger King" getting crushed between two hamburger buns.

Inside, the restaurant was nearly empty. A few bored employees chatted to one another behind the counter as they dumped bags of stringy French fries into enormous vats of yellowish grease. Hamburgers popped and sizzled on the grill and the shake machine groaned from either too much use or not enough action. It was hard to tell which. The smell of the place was heavy and sickly. Over everything was the plaintive voice of George Jones, crooning for a city he loved more than he could any woman.

"May I help you?" the woman behind the counter asked him. Her nametag said Wendy.

"Yeah. . . uh, what do you have?"

She looked at him, sizing him up to see if he was putting her on or not.

"You shitting me?"

"No," he said, matter-of-factly, "I'm not. Do you have a menu?"

She pointed her finger up above her head where the huge full-color menu loomed like the Ten Commandments.

"Oh," he stepped back, crossed his arms, and read the menu.

After a minute she laughed and stretched her bright pink chewing gum out of her mouth and began to twist it up around her finger.

"You really don't know what you want?"

"No, I've never been here before. What do you recommend?"

Her short blonde hair bobbed up and down as she laughed at his question.

"Recommend? You serious, sweetie? It's fast food. It's all the same. Just close your eyes and pick something."

She was a pretty, young woman. No more than 25. Her eyes were blue, but crusted up with too much eye shadow and mascara. Her lips were full and when she smiled they made a perfect semi-circle around her teeth. Her face was very symmetrical, round, but not pudgy. She was not the type Sidney usually found attractive, but then he remembered that he didn't really have a type. That to have a type you needed options. To have options you needed to get out now and again.

"Well," he said, putting his palms down on the counter and leaning over a little to see if he could smell her. He inhaled and caught something vanilla-ish and young. It made his head spin, "funny thing is, I've never actually had fast food. This is my first time eating any of it."

She looked at him askance and then smiled that pumpkin smile again.

"You shitting me, mister?"

"That's the second time you've asked me that, and no, the answer again is no."

"You're so weird," she almost squealed and looked around for a friend to tell. "Ok. Have the Bacon Cheddar Double Melt and some French fries. Um," she looked back over her shoulder at the menu, " and a strawberry shake. That's my favorite."

"Fine," he said, slapping the counter. "Sold." He reached for his wallet and paid her $7.54. "That's not a bad deal."

"Uh-huh," she said, still not fully believing that she wasn't having an out-of-body experience.

When his meal was ready she slid the tray over to him and told him to enjoy. He smiled at her, noting the way her small breasts heaved with the effort, as if they too were straining to serve him, and took the stuff over to a table not too far from the counter where he could keep an eye on her, which, as it turned out he didn't really need to do, because almost as soon as he had taken the wrapper off of the hamburger she came over to his table and slid onto the seat facing him. She put her chin in her hands and watched him with a scientific interest as he prepared to take the first bite.

"Sorry if I'm bothering you, but I want to see what you think. I've never met anyone who's never eaten fast food before. To tell you the truth, it's pretty weird. Do you mind if I sit?" She talked so quickly he imagined he could see the actual words shooting out of her mouth.

"No," he said, "I don't mind at all."

She took a sip of his shake and stared at his lips, waiting for the show to begin.

He took a bite of the enormous burger and caught himself sucking at the juices as they ran down his chin.

"Well," she looked at him anxiously, as if she had prepared the recipe herself, "what do you think?"

"Mmmm," he held up his index finger for her to wait a minute as he struggled to swallow the big bite that was still steaming in his mouth. Wendy offered him back his shake, which he accepted with a garbled "thank you."

"Well. . . " she could barely contain herself.

"Tastes like dog shit."

"Ew," she squealed again and he thought it was all squeals and laughing with her. "That's so gross." She cupped a pale hand over her mouth and he noticed delicate blue veins swirling there in snaky distress.

They stared at one another over the leaking heap of gray meat and moist fries.

"I want to ask you something if you don't mind," Sidney said. "Do you?"

She took back the shake and stirred the straw through the pink and murky sludge of it.

"I don't mind. Just so long as you don't make some stupid joke about my name being Wendy and me working at Wendy's. I've heard that a million times."

"No, it's not that. I was wondering, as I was driving along the freeway, where everyone lives around here."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's just that there's all these fast food joints and things and I didn't see any houses or hospitals or any of that stuff. I mean, how do you send mail? Where do you sleep?"

"You want to see where I sleep?" she said it without any irony at all, and he almost coughed up a wad of hamburger bun.

She narrowed her eyes at him and considered him carefully.

"Meet me back here at six o'clock. Will you do that . . . " she waited for a name.

"Sidney," he told her. "I can meet you here at six, Wendy."

"Good," she smiled again. It really was a beautiful smile; banal but suggesting a full range of unfathomable gestures and behavior, both the obscene and the angelic, and a healthy combination of the two.

He went back to his car where he promptly fell asleep and dreamt he was a repo man for a prosthetics company. In the dream he had a family. Wendy was his wife. She had a hook for a left hand. They were deeply in love.

He awoke a little before six, confused, with the high afternoon sun of the desert cascading through the window onto the side of his face like a fan of needles.

A few minutes later, Wendy came out of the restaurant, saw him, smiled and waved. She came over to his car window and told him to follow her.

She used handlebars to climb into a tall, Chevy pickup truck, the kind Sidney had only seen in commercials, with an extended cab and a deep bed for carrying tools and furniture and enough raw meat to last a winter. She gunned the engine, stuck her hand out the window, gave him a little wave and peeled out of the parking lot, up the highway, back the way he had just come.

He followed her, heading back west on the freeway, past vacationing families in wide SUV's, kids peering out the back, alternately flipping him off and waving, schizophrenic prophets of the road. He flipped them off and waved back, even added a few more obscene gestures from the deep reservoir of obscene gestures he had accumulated over the last three decades of his reckless loneliness.

He followed her off an exit and they began to travel down a long, dark road that was by now lit by an open sky and a full moon, the stars raining light down on them from the full collection of its menagerie. He imagined he saw centaurs and bears there spread out on the vast, dusty floor, both major and minor, the constellations blessing this forsaken piece of earth with a shower of blue light, a cocaine slideshow projected on to the dying, vast, dusty floor.

His Impala was a steady animal, hardly breathing as it matriculated down the blue screen highway. The road was loose underneath him from the steady Mojave heat that could melt anything.

With no warning, the taillights of Wendy's truck suddenly disappeared, and before Sidney could speculate about alien abductions or sink holes the size of swimming pools, he felt the road dip down and then open up on to a new vista, many feet lower than the highway, dotted with speckled light from a trailer park that wasn't visible from the road. They slowed down and took a turn-off, cruising into a clutch of campers and makeshift structures, something like a traveling carnival, except that all of the campers were up on cinder blocks, rusted all around, decaying in a gentle way from immobility.

When he got out of the car she took his hand, held it firmly, and then squeezed it, hard, like she wanted to let him know how strong she was, that he shouldn't even try to fuck with her.

They walked past old Airstreams and dilapidated RVs, once beasts of the road, now quaint domiciles of the stationary kind. She pointed to a squat Winnebago with a German Cross painted on the side, votive candles in the shape of Elvis burning in the bedroom window. Inside, he imagined track lighting and a creaky ceiling fan, a crime scene waiting to happen.

"This one's mine."

He loved it in an instant; felt this could be a home. Not just in the comfort of this metallic whale, but here, in this town, folded neatly into the belly fat of the land, out of sight from the rest of world, and with no view of the past.

She introduced him to her mother, Anne Eyestone, who lived in the next trailer over. Anne sported an eager fashion, a look that lurked somewhere between Pocahontas and Adolph Eichman; militaristic, but with an adventurous flare. Abalone jewelry flashed dull blue light everywhere like an ambulance running low on batteries.

Anne was gutsy, but devout. The three of them talked until midnight, spinning yarns on topics ranging from politics to god, eating hot wings and drinking the weird hooch Anne clung to like a GI on VJ Day.

Later, as Wendy walked Sidney back to his car, she pressed her breasts against his shoulder and stuck her tongue in his ear.

"I've got to be honest. I actually brought you back here for my mom, but now. . . why don't you stay with me tonight. I like you, Sidney."

"Really? I'm so much older than you, though."

"That's okay," she said, taking the gum out of her mouth, tossing it somewhere into the darkness. "I like 'em old."

"You're not just drunk, are you?" But she was already grabbing him, hooking her arm around his neck, drawing him in to her breath, to her warmth.

"No. I'm more than just drunk."

He grabbed her and kissed her hard, raced his tongue around the inside of her mouth, across her teeth, recognizing intimacy for the first time in many decades, finding a simple relief in this clamoring of flesh.

He couldn't stay, though, and told her why. Explained how he had wasted the last thirty years of his life keeping vigil over a forgotten monument, holding a torch for a flame long dead. He had to go on to Arizona to see for himself. It was him or that building. He didn't expect her to understand and told her so. Asked her to forgive him with that. The weather started to get cooler and soon the desert changed, became its winter self, blasting them with cold winds that whipped sand across their faces and howled with a deep animal sadness.

They laid down on the hard earth and continued kissing and groping with urgent lust. A cactus in the background felt like a peeping Tom. He could hear animals out there scurrying around, the tall hills casting a shadow even in the night, their presence just that strong. Heavy petting in the desert made him feel like an exhibitionist.

He forced himself to stop. He propped himself up on an elbow and traced words on her back, making her guess what they were.

"I have to go," she said lightly, guessing correctly.

He nodded.

"I wish you wouldn't leave," she said, sighing lightly. "We don't get to meet many nice guys around here."

He laughed.

"Don't laugh at me," she shoved his arm and started to get up. "You've got no right to laugh at me."

"I know. I know. Come back," he pulled at her, gently, holding on to her hand until she folded back into the nook of his arm like a hose recoiling. "I wasn't laughing at you. I was laughing at the circumstances. You know, me being all old and fat, and. . . "

She interrupted him with her lips, kissed him full on like a train wreck. "You don't get out much, do you? You don't know what kind of people

are out there."

He laughed again, but caught himself before she could get upset and ruin the moment.

"I've got to go, but I'll try and come back."

"I've heard that before."

"Really?" He started to get up, for real this time, and wondered to himself if all that country music had made them all sloppy sentimentalists.

"No," she admitted. "I just felt like saying it."

He twiddled his thumbs behind his back, wishing he had a cigarette, wishing he wasn't such a nervous wreck of a man.

"I'll never get over anything," she moaned, slumping over, huffing like a spoiled child.

And he thought she was spot on, but didn't say it, only hugged her as he turned and walked back to his car.

When he as about twenty feet away she called to him from out of the sweet-smelling night,

"I like you, Sidney. But I don't like you like you, if you know what I mean. Come back some time if you want to. I'll show you where we get our mail. It'll amaze you."

She watched him from the side of the road as he pulled away, waving forlornly, and then shoved her hands in the pockets of her skin tight jeans when it got too cold to have them hanging out. Jesus, she looked good to him. The way a woman ought to. He started to regret all that time keeping watch over that dead hotel.

Blue moonlight flooded the desert floor as he merged onto the highway, taking his place in the fast lane beside a never-ending line of semis and horse-trailers.

Barely 15 minutes since leaving the trailer park, he began to wonder what Wendy was doing. Was she thinking of him? Was she sleeping? Was she on the Internet trying to figure out who the hell Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy was?

To distract himself, Sidney switched on the radio, scanned the dial for news. No more country music. It made him feel weak and womanly.

A man's deadpan voice read the sports scores with past-midnight enthusiasm. Then it was 2:00 am. The voice started over with the news headlines from that day. He talked about tension in the Middle East, a serial rapist on the loose, and a human-interest story about a dog that was addicted to malt liquor. Then, in the same droll voice,

"And today in Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency has decided in a 6 to 1 vote to go ahead with the planned demolition of the Ambassador Hotel, a site made famous by the 1968 assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Current plans have the land going to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which will build a badly needed high school to relieve overcrowding in the District."

He pulled the car over to the shoulder. The anchorman droned on, but it was more a noise now than a language, blood thumping in his ears and through his temples. He turned the radio down and clenched the steering wheel tight, trying to make up his mind in that split second whether or not he felt like salvaging the rest of his life.

"I'll never get over anything," he murmured, and then turned the key in the ignition, pushed down on the accelerator, and pulled a dangerously illegal u-turn in the middle of the freeway. Truckers honked their longshoremen horns at him, flashed their lights, rained down empty Big Gulp cups and used tissues on his windshield as he sped west again, toward a relatively less landlocked destiny and a fervent hope in his heart that he could find that turn off once again.

Share on Facebook
Tweet about this Piece

see other pieces by this author

Poor Mojo's Tip Jar:

The Next Fiction piece (from Issue #323):

Shattering Crystal
by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

The Last few Fiction pieces (from Issues #321 thru #317):

Gunnar Caspbury's Standing O
by M.K. Laughlin

Maybe Next Year
by Wayne Scheer

A Merry Christmas
by Rhonda Parrish

The Blue Sweater
by Jason Polan

Who's the Fairest?
by Errid Farland

Fiction Archives

Contact Us

Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson

More Copyright Info