10.23.2011

excerpt from BLOOD RIVER


     Blowing through the desert at 85 miles per hour, Teri kept her eyes on the road.  When she slowed to 55 mph the world seemed to shift and tilt, pale colors coming into sharper focus.  I thought of a flight attendant gripping a microphone saying ‘this is our final approach, please stow your tray tables’ and all that shit, but it occurred to me that we might be landing in a dimension I knew nothing about, unprepared with stun guns and a few magazines of .40 ammo, our Glock 23s and a shotgun.   I had a feeling this wasn’t a .40 caliber world anymore.  Teri slowed down so she could make a left turn and braked nearly to a crawl to get over the first thick ridge of hardened clay that formed a barrier.  We cleared the clay ridge and looked west over an empty prairie plain, sagebrush, scraped clean with wind that had been blowing for eons.  Teri eased the big Chevy into the rutted road moving the steering wheel with little flicks of her wrists.  After a mile and a half of bumping along the clay, Teri slowed, rolled the window down.
     “Smell the sagebrush?” She said.
     “Beats that fucking putrid rest stop bathroom stall stench.  Jesus.”  I shook my head and opened the door staying strapped in the leather bucket seat.  “Teri, I know that gas station -Navajo-tourist-stop is right around here somewhere, but I’m just not seeing it right now.  My eyes blurred up when we screeched to a halt on that runway back there.  Tell me when we get there.”
     “We’re there.”
     “Come on, I gotta pee.”
     “The world is yours, Mat.  Do what you gotta do.”
     Forging out to a stand of brush that hid my doings, I took a leak.  Then I took another look around.  Off in the distance a third of a mile stood a low bungalow, half of it was pale ochre, the other rust red.  A man sat on a stool wearing a wide brim hat and a bright turquoise shirt.  No privacy anymore, I thought, nowhere to hide your moments of necessity.  I walked through the soft clay dust and got back in the Chevy.  Teri steered the big SUV another seventy five yards in the direction of the hut, stopped it a hundred yards away and shut it down.  She motioned to get out and we walked past a scattered collection of tin cans, skeletal remains of barbecue grills, microwave ovens, a vacuum cleaner that had sucked its last dust and a torn half panel of what looked like a small billboard with the pasted photo of an Indian man with a wrinkled face the texture of fault lines viewed from five thousand feet in the air.  When Teri stopped, I stopped.  She raised her hand at the man, who remained still.  Finally, slowly, the wide brim lowered into a nod of acceptance, and Teri touched my left arm just above my elbow.  Walking toward the man, I could see his eyes now, deep-set in thick folds of bronze skin, his hands folded in front of his large belly.  Held between his thick clasped hands, a thin wooden shaft with brown and white feathers tied at one end. 
     “There are cold drinks in the refrigerator,” he said.  Teri went inside and the man called out, “Bring the folding chairs next to the water cooler.”  In a moment Teri came out holding three cans of Sprite and two brown folding metal chairs.  I set up the chairs and we sat and all three of us popped open the cans.
     “You have come from Flagstaff?” the man said.
     “Yes,” Teri said.  “This is Mat Arroyo, my partner from the Yuma office.  Mat, this is Sicheii.”
     “Grandfather,” I said.  I smiled at him.
     “You know Navajo?” he said.
     “A few names is all.”
     “Teri, I see your father in my dreams many times these days.  He says you are protected and the land, it is no longer the sacred place.  The big birds are everywhere.”
     “Airplanes?” Teri said.
     Sicheii nodded with his wide brim felt hat.  When the brim dipped below his eyes it was if the sun had gone down, the light gone from his soul until he brought his head up again and the brilliant black of his eyes focused on me.  He pointed to the west with his thumb, over his shoulder.  “That way.  At night mostly.  They don’t have lights but I can hear them.”
     I looked at Teri.  “Airplanes are landing out here, on the Reservation?” I said.
     Sicheii said yes, his brown brim flapping up and down.
     “If you want ice,” Sichee said, “there is some in the freezer.  You have to pick it out with the hammer in the top drawer by the toaster.  There are glasses.  I don’t use the glasses anymore.”  He laughed and grinned, the wrinkles spreading around his dark eyes.  “I don’t like to wash them.”
     “Hey,” I said, “I don’t wash dishes as much as I used to, either.  You’re sure the airplanes are landing?  Or just cruising the edges of the canyon.”
     Before Sicheei continued, Teri unfolded the USGS Topographical map and showed it to him.  “Sicheei, how far are the fire lookout towers from here?  According to my map, there are two along the canyon rim, but they look like they’re still several miles from here.  Do you know?”
     “Two, maybe.  Many years ago I used to ride out there to the canyon.  Not for a long time.”
     I said “Does anybody from the Rez go out there?”
     “First, Mr. Arroyo, I hear the engines of the planes.  After midnight.  They have come in right over this house.  Then the engines stop.  Later they start up again, and they rev them up to high speed when they take off.”

     Teri looked at me.  Then she spoke in Navajo.  She explained to me that she wanted to speak to Sicheei in his native words so she could be sure what he was talking about.  Later on in the Tahoe she would explain to me what was going on.  Sicheei motioned to me, then out to the land, and I took a walk.  At the Tahoe, I spread out another map on the back seat and tried to pinpoint the position of Sicheei’s house.  Fifteen miles from his house, was the eastern end of the Canyon.  The Colorado River separated the Navajo reservation from the National Park.  Teri would know the road conditions and roughly how many houses might be in between Sicheei’s house and the Canyon.  Scanning the sky over the horizon, only white clouds were moving, and there weren’t as many as when we’d been coming down into the rest stop.  Fewer than when we’d left the stop after the Highway Patrol had secured the area.  Across the rich red prairie, the breeze freshened and the sage and white fir, blue spruce and Douglas fir offered a pure fresh scent.  Underneath the tinkle of spruce, beat the low notes of rubbery creosote.  Off to my left was Sicheei’s pile of rusted metal.  To the right, north, the Colorado tumbled down steep canyons from Utah, dammed at Page and Lake Powell and continued its epic journey through the carved desert.  Down in Yuma the desert offered plenty of dump sites, municipal sites where locals alternately dumped and went looking for gems in the piles of refuse, and the random remote sites where refrigerators, stoves, old cars and mattress springs went to die.  Often, I’d come across piles of bottles, cans, remnants of nights stewed in alcohol, syringes, ripped open packs of cocaine, heroin, long since given up their street-valuable contents to raiders, law enforcement and cartel thugs.  What I saw, now, off in the distance, wasn’t the reflection of a can or bottle, a windshield or a flying machine.  It was low, on the ground, the reflective glare of binoculars.  There . . . fading now.  Again.  And gone.  I didn’t see it again.  Someone glassing the area.  My face, the Tahoe, in the field of some 7x40 or larger binoculars.  I didn’t move.  Possibly a rifle scope.  Slowly, I folded the map and moved so that the Tahoe shielded me from where I’d seen the reflection.  Teri was walking toward the Tahoe, and I positioned myself so that she could see me, but still hidden from the position of the reflection of glass.  I held my fingers around my eyes, like two lenses, until she saw me.  She scratched her left shoulder, the signal that she saw me and what I’d just signaled had registered.  Her pace didn’t vary, she gave nothing away.  When she got to the Tahoe she handed me a cold can of Sprite and put a double plastic bag of ice under the front seat and got in, closed the door, waited until I’d strapped in and closed the door.
     “Binoculars?” she said.
     “Yeah.  Three o’clock.”  Teri looked out the windshield.  “Sicheei says the planes have been coming for three weeks.  Only at night.  He’s driven out there a couple of times but he doesn’t want to go out there again by himself.  There’s no phone in his house.”
     “Did Sicheei say anything about finding anything out there?  Junk, debris, like someone had dumped stuff out of a plane?”
     “No.  He didn’t see anything.  No signs of any big fires, either.  How far away would you say those binoculars were?”
     “At least a mile.  With the sun in that position he wasn’t looking at me.  At least not at that moment.  The angle of reflection would mean he was scanning southwest, or due south.”
     “Can you get a bearing?”
     My day pack was stowed behind my seat.  From one of the outside pockets, I pulled the compass and set it on the spot where I’d seen the reflection.
     “323 degrees.”
     “Set it.”
     The GPS took the coordinates and the Tahoe humped along at the designated heading.
     “You’ve known Sicheei a long time,” I said.
     “Almost my whole life.  Actually, more than my whole life.  According to my father, Sicheei blessed me when my mother started showing.  Two, three months.  I can’t even see a woman showing at three months.  Not that I ever look.”
     The horizon was accepting the evening light, a pale shade of rose fading up in the west.  It was a beautiful time to look at the Canyon.  For now, I swept the landscape with my eyes, 180 degrees, back and forth, slowly, as Teri maneuvered the big SUV.  When Teri was speaking to Sicheii, I had checked the pump action Remington 870 and stocked the ammo case strapped to the stock.  The binoculars I used were high quality Nikon and they brought the distant red rock into sharp focus. 

     Teri wore her Oakley wrap-arounds and driving gloves, grappling with the weight of the Tahoe like a bull rider tugging on the reins.  Every time I thought she’d taken one too many unpaved roads on a high speed bump and run, she’d proved me wrong.  A blind corner on a dirt road was time for Teri to put it into a slide, get some air, test the suspension, kick up a fantail of desert dust.  Her hope was one day to drive in the Baja 500, or the big daddy, the 1000. 
     The binoculars were up against my eyes, ranging across the landscape.  I kept them there and spoke.  “The Remington’s loaded and the stock pouch is full.”
     “Sicheei hasn’t seen smoke all month.  The planes fly low and the way he described the sound, I’d say single engine.  Fast single engine.”
     “So we’re looking for a vehicle, somebody moving around on the ground with binoculars.  Maybe some kind of an airstrip.  A camp or a trailer.  What happens, typically, if someone is on the Reservation without authorization.  You call someone?  Approach them by yourself?”
     “People wander out here sometimes for bird watching, maybe photography.  It’s okay to travel on the rez as long as you don’t camp, hunt or hike.  Basically you can drive around and photograph.”
     “Population.  Density.  About how many homes are out here, out to the rim of the Canyon.”
     “Not many.  The closer you get to the Canyon the lower the water table is and you won’t be able to drill a well.”
     “So what are these planes doing out here?”
     “Hell if I know.”
     “Sicheei say he’s seen any vehicles out here roaming around?  Campers, trailers, people?”
     “He’s not as alert as he used to be.  He’s starting to listen more to the spirits and not watching the land.  I love him.”
     “All alone out here,” I said, “what’s going to happen to him?  He’s got some mileage on him.”
     “He’ll wander off.”
     “The old way.”
     Teri nodded, her Oakley’s reflecting a pink glow now from the setting sun.  She gripped the wheel at 10 and 2.  “This is about a mile.”  We got out of the SUV.  Teri stood at the hood and I took the back.  The binoculars revealed nothing.  I looked at Teri, who had her back to me.  Slowly, she turned and looked at me, over her right shoulder, her Oakley’s black and shiny.  I reached into the Tahoe and pulled out a can of Sprite and took it to her.  She snapped open the can and while it was close to her lips, she spoke.
     “Campfire smoothed over.  Fifty yards, ten o’clock.”
       The campfire was hidden, but visible.  Black rocks and smudges of charcoal surrounded it in the dirt, smothered and ground in.  Sicheei’s house was a mile away, a bump that blended in to the landscape at this distance.  “Sicheei would see it,” I said.  “Unless a barrier hides it.”
     “They’re not going to be landing planes this close to his place,” Teri said.
     “Let’s take a look,” I said, pulling open the door and reaching for the shotgun. 
     Inside of a low ring of rock, grey and black charcoal embers were mixed with the soil and doused with water.  The soil was cold.  Teri kneeled down to inspect the ground a few feet from the fire ring.  I watched the area in the distance for anyone moving, metal reflections, cans, bottles, debris.  The last light of the afternoon sharpened the shadows, casting a relief pattern in the rocks giving a crisp glow to sage and conifer shrubs that wiggled in a slow wind.  I was standing erect, a full target for a shooter, and a bullet would pierce my skull before I heard the sound and recognized what was coming.  The bullet-proof vest would hold off the penetration of a high-caliber weapon from a distance, and a head shot took great skill from two hundred yards in a slight wind.  Factors, calculations, angle of incidence, all of the judgment calls made on the fly in the wild, gave little hope for what I knew we were most likely dealing with.  Drug cartel weapons men were among the best in the world, but most of their work was close-in, ten yards, twenty at most with fully automatic weapons.  Spray and pray.  A well placed head shot from two hundred, three hundred yards was the exclusive domain of experienced hunters, military snipers. 
     Teri stood up, looked around at the parched desert glow of sunset, nodded one time and kicked a small rock with her left boot.  When we got back in the SUV, I sat in the driver’s seat.  Teri closed the door on the passenger side.
     “Couple of 9mm casings,” she said.  “And a .308 Winchester.”
     The Tahoe slid forward, and I steered past the burned out fire pit and headed west towards the Canyon.
     “I could see a 9 mil fired without Sicheei hearing it when the wind is right,” I said.  “.308 makes some noise.”
     “We don’t know if this airplane stuff is connected with our guy.  Could be but we’ve gotta decide if we . . .”
     The impact sounded like a heavy metal skillet banging into the driver’s door and the next shot put a spider-web of cracks through the windshield, the back seat taking the bullet with a slapping thud.
     “Goddamnit, keep your head down,” I yelled.  Teri sandwiched into a folded torso so her head was below the dash.  The steering wheel pulled lightly and I jammed the foot pedal all the way down until the wheels started to spin and I backed off.  The Tahoe shot into the slanting sun’s rays while I heard the boom of a third shot that missed.  Teri kept her head down while I fought the wheel of the big machine as it leaped and skidded around the corner of a thin edge of dirt road that looked recently scraped.  Instantly, I pulled the vehicle off of the red dusty path, thinking it might be the runway and then I saw a smudge pot on the left side, then another forty yards ahead. 
     “This is the landing strip, Teri.  I’m pulling off the road again.  Hang on.” 
     “Don’t go to Sicheei’s house,” Teri shouted. 
     Warning shots, intent to kill, misplaced drunks doing some critter hunting, it made no difference and I was driving over what appeared to be a runway now, the last few yards before it emptied out into the low grass and shrubs.
     I glanced at Teri hunched over with her hand on the console.  “You okay?”
     “Yeah, just keep going.  Get out of this shooting gallery.”
     Stunt drivers and second unit production crews spent millions to capture scenes just like this on film.  Then they called ‘Wrap’, and everyone slapped each other on the back and met at the catering truck.  No chance.  This was live, in your face, and the Tahoe had taken a hit.  The windshield was intact, minus a piece about a third of an inch just under the rear view mirror in the middle of the vehicle, but the shooting had stopped.  
     “Hold on I’m going to do some spins and kick up some dust.”  Doing a rough mental fix, I figured the shots from the northwest, from the door shot and the windshield shot.  If I could put some dust in the air, enough of it to cloud a sight picture, I could put distance between the shooter and be out of range in a matter of moments.  Even an experienced shooter with a rifle scope and high powered cartridges would be hard pressed to make a hit from three hundred yards.  Possible, but doubtful.  The thick steering wheel pulled easily and turned forty-yard radius NASCAR-type donuts sending up dirty cover until even I couldn’t see.  Punched it over the rev limit then, and the beast propelled down range until we were out of the target range.  A half mile ahead a low stand of trees provided more cover. 
     “If he’s got a night vision scope,” I said, “we’ll be visible, maybe not in his target range.”
     Teri unfolded herself.  She didn’t say anything.  I slowed down when we approached the stand of spruce and maneuvered the vehicle between a few saplings on the edge of the small forest, until the trees were too dense to continue.
     “Just one shooter, you think? Teri said.  Her hand was on the radio mike, but she didn’t key it up.
     “Two hits on a slow moving vehicle, unknown range.  Possibly .308.  Doubt it’s the 9mm. 
     “The suspect in custody could have lied and said north rim to throw us off.”
     “Then why give us anything near the Canyon?  Could say they’re off to Gallup.  Kingman.  Anywhere.”
     “He gives up his buddy and we find him, that’ll be in his favor, he thinks.”
     “Planes and guns, Teri.  And a big stash of cash and weapons coming across the border.  Preliminary indication?”
     “We’re outgunned.  We don’t know how many shooters there are, but we do know what we have.  It’s not enough to take down multiple shooters.  We can radio in our position and call for backup.  Hold it down in here.”
     “Is there a way we can get to Sicheei’s house and get him out of danger without putting the focus on him?”
     “When it gets dark, but night scopes can track us.”
     “That’s a tough shot if we’re going evasive at 50mph.”
     “They know he’s there.  Up until now he wasn’t a problem.  Old man living alone.  If these are cartel men they know he’s got no phone and they know his habits.  They see a black SUV pull up they know it’s Marshals.”
     “Teri, I couldn’t live with it.  We got to get him out of there.”
     “I’m going to radio.  We stopped at a roadside stand and we heard about planes coming in at night.  You agree?”
     I nodded.  “Tell the truth.  That’s why you’re a Marshall, Teri.  You know the territory better than anyone in the office.”
     “Unit one to base.”
     Hissing and popping.  No response.  I looked up out the windshield.  The tree tops were only fifteen feet high but the sightline to the repeater could be blocked.
     “Unit one to base.” 
     “Hold on,” I said.  “We may have to move out of these trees.”
     “Unit one to any unit.”
     The topo map and the GPS synched up, showing we were approximately a mile and a half now from Sicheei’s house and approximately two miles from the rim of the canyon.  Darkness was settling in making it difficult to see the ground without putting on the headlights.  It would be a challenge to get around the stand of trees, moving towards the direction the shots could have come from, and making it in the open another mile to his house. 
     “You’re a better driver,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it, doesn’t bother me.  Get in there, get us out of here.”  I climbed in the back seat and looked at the torn rear seat back, reached in as Teri crawled over the console into the driver’s seat.  The fabric of the back seat was torn in a small hole.  My knife split the fabric enough to reach in my hand, but the thick springs were about an inch below the surface making it hard to move my fingers around.  Teri said she’d wait a moment while I tried to find the bullet.  The heavy foam of the seat back didn’t have much give and a bullet would even pass all the way through if the shot was from somewhat close range. 
     “I can’t get to it.”  Just when I’d strapped the seatbelt over my shoulder and punched it in the lock Teri cranked the vehicle into reverse and started backing out of the trees.
     “Go,” I said.  “I’ll keep trying the radio.”  Outside of the trees the space opened up in a wide swale of rock and low sage that took on the look of a gray marshmallow pie in the dusky early evening light.
     We kept our heads low.  No binoculars, I held only the Remington and I knew Teri had her Glock strapped in on her weak side for cross draw.  The SUV shuddered over rough terrain but moved through paces like a thoroughbred heading for the barn.  Teri varied her speed from death-defying to Oh Fuck―occasionally spinning tires until they locked into traction.  I gave her headings from the GPS so she could keep her eyes on the horizon, dark now in the southeast.  So far no shots, but I urged Teri to do evasive maneuvers, swiveling the steering wheel both ways so our path was S-shaped and random.  Our speed reduced, but so did the target acquisition ability of a marksman.
     We picked up a dirt road about three quarters from Sicheei’s house and Teri stayed on it all the way to the bungalow.  Teri kept the vehicle running, jumped outside and went up to the house.  I couldn’t see any lights.  In the direction from where I’d seen the reflection of binoculars two hours earlier, darkness had taken over.           

4.23.2011

THE FLAGS AT FENWAY

     The man asking the questions put his pen down.
     “That’s okay,” the man asking the questions said.  “There hasn’t been enough time yet.”  
     “Let’s have another drink,” the man asking the questions said. 
     The former major league ballplayer nodded.  
     The man asking questions tried again.  “You remember how the flag blew out in right field at Fenway?" 
     “Flags?  I don’t remember flags.” 
     “The hitters would take aim on that short fence and try and knock one out?”
     “Maybe.  I don’t think that much about it.”
     “You always pitched away to left-hand hitters, when the wind blew out.”
     The former major-leaguer turned and looked at the front of the bar.  Rain was beading up on the window.  He kept looking at the window, the rain making the light dim and gray, and the former major-leaguer wrapped his long fingers around the beer glass on the bar. 
     The man asking the questions kept going.  “You said once, ‘I’ll take a chance with the Monster over the right-center field alley on a windy day’.  You remember?”
     “What I said doesn’t matter anymore.”
     “All the hitters, Williams, Jeter, Yasztremski, they thought that wall was easy.”
     “Really, I don’t think about baseball anymore.  Let me buy this round.”  The bartender put two beers down.  Overhead light threw shadows on the grainy stained wood of the long dark bar and behind it they could see their faces in the mirror.
     A small boy came up and asked the ballplayer if he would sign his name, the man turning and scribbling on the note pad but he didn’t look at the boy.  The boy went away.  The ballplayer emptied his beer glass in two or three big gulps and laid a bill on the bar.
     “Listen,” the former major league ballplayer said, “I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything more.  It’s there, but I don’t want to go there and bring it out, you know?”
     He nodded, the man asking the questions. 
     Almost five years now since the former big-leaguer had pitched off of a mound, in a game.  He could see a batter’s eyes and into their fear and threw hard bullets that flew with late action, smacking the mitt and striking hitters out swinging.      
     “You put it all behind you” the ball player said.  “Every time.  Each pitch, the game, and now, the whole thing.  It’s hidden and I won’t let it out now.” 
     “Was it the surgery?” the man asking the questions said.  “Is that it?”
     “No.”
     “You worked hard, to get back.”
     “Yes.”
     “You made it back.”
     “Uh huh.”
     “You made it, all the way back.”
     “My arm made it back.”  The ballplayer closed his eyes and rubbed his left arm around the elbow. 
     “Your arm was always good.”
     “Better than before, that’s how good it was.”
     “The way you left the game, do you regret that?”
     “You leave when it’s over.”
     “Your fastball was faster than when you started.”
     “The game leaves you, it passes you by.  If you don’t know when it’s left you, it’s worse.”
     “You don’t watch any games now?”
     “Don’t have a television.”
     “You ought to hear what they’re saying.”
     The ballplayer shook his head, pointed a finger at the bartender.  The waitress came around the bar and held his arm while he whispered in her ear.  She nodded and went away and the bartender put two more beers on the bar and waved his hand.
     “They’re on the house,” the bartender said.  Both of the men thanked the bartender.
     The man that was asking the questions talked about new downtown ballparks; sight lines and suites, wide stadium promenades with sushi bars, imported white wine, playgrounds for kids who were bored by the fourth inning and wanted to slide into a pool of water, shops with MLB logo gear, boutiques where women and men could do almost all of their Christmas shopping with discount cards issued to preferred fans who had Gold American Express and sometimes they had valet parking for season ticket holders, if you bought the right plan.  Yankees were in town, you’d spot Jeter and Mariano Rivera in the hot spots, leaving in limos in the late hours.  The moneyGod, the man that was asking the questions said, the money.  Wouldn’t it be something if Mays, DiMaggio, Hank Aaron had a little of the television money coming in today?  Amazing, he said.  Too much, really, he went on, and just the club house amenities, my God, wide screens and rap music.  Hell, the writers even get carried away, the man asking the questions said, like they’re on the team payroll.  He laughed, swigged some beer and put his glass on the shiny dark bar with the stains and sharp grain like the good wood of a bat.   
     The waitress, she wore a tight black skirt and tank top and she was forty five or forty eight years old, and she held the former major league ballplayer’s arm again and whispered in his ear.  The ballplayer stood up.  Looking past the bar, he took a step behind the bar chairs. The waitress leaned in to the man asking the questions.
     “Mr. DeFrezzio has a phone call.”
     DeFrezzio, moving along the row of chairs at the bar now, gave a nod to the man asking the questions and disappeared into a narrow hallway.
     The waitress used a towel to wipe down the bar, and then straightened the high-backed chairs. 
     “Does he come here a lot?” the man asking the questions said.
     The waitress smiled.  “You want anything else?  Got some meatloaf left.”
     The man asking the questions said no.  After paying the rest of the bill, the man asking the questions stepped outside.  He could see DeFrezzio.  DeFrezzio had on a long tan coat, his hair slicked and sticking out under a newspaper he held over his head.  He was getting into a cab. 
     The sidewalk was wet.  The cab pulled out and headed uptown.



3.29.2011

IN THE GYM; an excerpt from 'Split Decision'

     A concussion is a rare injury in boxing.  That’s why fighters wear padded leather gloves, to prevent a sharp blow to the cranium that causes swelling of the brain.  Football players wear helmets, but when they hit another hard surface like another helmet, bang, they’re down.  Hit hard turf, take a forearm shiver, there’s not much give.  Ten-ounce gloves provide protection to cushion punches.  Different thing altogether with a foot.  Unpadded, all bone, the crushing power of the gluteus and the hamstrings and the quads unleashing whip-snapping force against an unprotected skull, and you have a brain crying out, why? why? and down you go. 
    In the gym the fighters wear padded headgear surrounding the face and chin so you can pound round after round getting ready for fights.  The minute you walk in to a gym, your body knows what its in for.  Leather on leather.  Sweat.  Canvas rings.  Bags, mats.  Bottles of Gatorade and tubes of liniment.  It’s enough to stop you in your tracks, your brain getting the message, saying “No, no, no way.” 
     Or you thrive on it, and need it, and that’s what Phuong said when he walked in to Max’s.  “Yeah, baby.”  His nostrils flared and his lips curled.  And even though he was a day or two from a doctor clearing him for a couple of minutes on the speed bag, and a longer wait to get in the ring and dance and move and take a shot to the head, he inhaled it. 
     Phuong watched.  I followed his eyes, looking at what he looked at. 
     The ring.  Canvas stretched into the corner of the gym so two sides were against the walls with the short apron extending beyond the ropes in the front, Max up there working the pads with a fighter, Max yelling Move your feet, move your feet.  Phuong turned. 
     The speed bags.  Three tear shaped leather bags hanging from black iron rings, one banging into rhythm from a fighter in a grey sweat suit with his hood on.  Phuong grinned.  No problem, boss, my hands good, watch this, and I had to grab his arm, pull him back.  No, no, not yet, tomorrow we go to the doctor, tomorrow.  Phuong raised his arms to his chest and made fists and perfect punches at half speed, twisting his hands at impact, bringing the power to a focal point, half-speed perfect, bringing his hand to his chin and he dropped a big, slow, open-palm right hand on top of my hand and patted me on the scalp, rubbing his knuckles on my thin spot.  For luck, boss, for luck, he said.  I’ll take it, I said. 
     The heavy bags.  Thick leather tubes that took a big body blow or a jab and moved a few inches, rocking back then forward and you slapped it again and worked downstairs hammering a rib cage, imagining the pain from a liver shot that could drop an opponent and end it right there.  That’s where it started, with the heavy bags, where you put your feet into position and torqued and twisted to full power. 
     Phuong brushed his spiky top knot and swung his head back and forth.  Hip hop blasted from a tinny box on the apron of the ring and somebody said Get that Snoop Dog CD in there and somebody clicked off the radio and shoved in a CD and turned it up loud.  Phuong walked to the side of the ring.  Max and the heavy-footed puncher stepped off.  Phuong climbed up on the apron and I ran over saying, No, no, and he was under the ropes and into the ring, moving along the edge of the canvas, leaning back, bending the ropes, moving his head to the beat until I climbed up and grabbed him, moved him to the side and under the ropes and back down on the cement floor.  Max stood wiping his hands with a towel.
     Max waved and I waved back, and I herded Phuong around the ring and out toward the back of the gym.   Max yelled out something, but I held my arm up, turned around and said, “Just a taste, just getting familiar with the place.  We’ll be back.”  We headed out.  Phuong wasn’t ready for an interview and questions and all the stares and looks he was going to get standing in there in front of Max.  His visceral reaction was enough for now. 
     We stood in the back small parking area, the sun high, a hint of smoke in the air, Phuong’s eyes sharp, focused.  It wouldn’t be long, now.  Not long.  That was important, that he wanted to be back in the gym, that he wanted to bang, he wanted to punch.  The hard work was about to begin.

8.11.2010

PALMS

 
     “There’s some heartbreak here, old wounds,” I said, staring at the palm of her hand.  “You’re recovering, in transition.  Spiraling.  In and out of love.  The cycle is endless.”  She had to be twenty-something.  Black t-shirt, Baby Doll in sequin script.  “You need to jump off the merry go round.  Get your shit together.”  I watched her.  Cleavage to the max, jet black hair, pure white skin, eyebrows arched over hollow eyes. 
     “Fire, burning,” I said.  Sandalwood incense drifted up the Venice beach boardwalk.  “I’m feeling smoke, not like curling trails from the end of a joint.”  She gripped my fingers.  “Walls burning, an entire room of a house.  Catastrophe.  I’m feeling catastrophic fire, fueled by your love desire.”
     She winced, one eye shut.
     “Fire.”  I rubbed my thumb across her palm in a tight circle.  “I’m really feeling it.”       
     “Last fire for me,” she said, “was in the fireplace.  Two years ago.  Me and the cat watching American Idol.  The little Asian kid couldn’t sing but he won over that crowd.”
     I looked around.  “Water.  Ocean.  You’re traveling to water.  Big water.  Open water.”  She glanced at a big diver’s watch on her left wrist.
     “Flooding.  Tsunami.  Big, rushing water.  Diving, scuba diving, off the coast, in a boat—rocking gently, you dive in, cold, wet, deep. . .big, really big water.”  I squeezed my eyes closed.
     She shrugged her shoulders.  “My toilet flooded last week.”
     “That’s what I’m talking about.”
     “How long have you been doing this?”
     “This?”
     “Yeah.  Set up here in Venice Beach.”
     “Today.”
     “Today?”
     “Today.  My first day is today.”
     “Your first day is today?  How many fortunes have you told?”
     “Today?”
     “Yeah.”
     “Two.  One before you.”
     “And me?”
     “And you.”
     “What were you doing before today?”
     “Selling used cars at Hodge Chevrolet.  Down in Torrance.”
     “You sold used cars?”
     “Sometimes I sold new.  Mostly I worked used.  Lot of Hondas.  Some reason, people trade up from Honda, they go Chevy.  A nice Accord, ‘98, 22 to 25 miles per gallon.  Five, maybe six grand depending on the mileage, above or below a hundred thousand.”
     “Before you sold used cars, what were you doing?”
     “Immediately before the car gig?”
     She nodded.  I held her thumb with the tips of my fingers, pink polish with glitter on her nail.
     “Well, I sold cars for six months.”
     “That’s a career for some people.  Six months ago, where were you?”
     “I managed a chain of medical marijuana clinics.”  I jabbed a finger pointing north.
     “A chain?”
     “Two.  People want to smoke pot, they come in and talk to the doc.  Mostly I’m outside on the sidewalk.  Bringing in the patients.  ‘The doctor is waiting to see you now. Highest quality, let me show you the way’.  Glossy flyers, clean rooms.  Beats the hell out of that socialized medicine shit.  At least our doctor’s always taking patients.  Basically, you tell the doctor you have some chronic illness.  I mean, they have a list on the wall, posters that tell you what to say.  Symptoms, ailments, pre-menopausal, post-menopausal, migraines, gastric disorders are big, peptic ulcers, duodenal blockage.”
     “That covers a lot of ground.”
     “Shit, one old boy came in and said he ran a karaoke bar a couple nights a week.  Said this dude always came in, thought he was Aretha Franklin.  Not a tranny, just a guy who liked Aretha.  He’d come in and sing ‘Say A Little Prayer’, like every week.  The guy that ran the karaoke gig, he’s talking to our clinician─I can’t say he was a real doctor─he’s complaining about nightmares of Aretha Franklin eating gooey pizza and singing with her mouth full—R-E-S-P-E-C-T—vocals powered with Papa John’s pizza.  Doctor prescribed a standard dosage of M&M.  Medical marijuana.  You want your money back?”
     “’Say A Little Prayer’ and ‘Respect’ are two different songs.”
     “Pretty sure it was Papa John’s, though.”
     “Where was this karaoke night?”
     “Dive bar here in Venice.”
     “The medical marijuana clinic?”
     “Right next door.”
     “On Venice Beach?”
     “Right up here,” I said, pointing north.
     “How far?”
     “Three, four blocks.”
     “Let’s go.”
     “Now?”
     “Yeah.  I’m feeling a little pre-menopausal.”
     She could be perfect.  Busting out in black and white, looking to score, looking for the cool.   I packed the cardboard stand I’d put up an hour ago.  A red plastic milk carton crate, fake Navajo print rugs a hawker threw behind my camper last night, the cracked white plastic chair pulled from a King Taco dumpster in Baldwin Park at 1:15 AM.  The cash box.  With three thousand one hundred and twenty dollars.  I laid the box inside the red crate, stuffed the Navajo rugs around it so I could hold the whole thing under one arm. 
     “Someone can have the chair,” I said.
     “That’s nice.”
     We fell in behind a roller skating dude with ripped brown muscles in a black thong and disappeared in a crowd, squeezing around a gold-plated mime hustling his half-true Michael Jackson act; the real King of Pop was turning white, but his music was solid gold.  Tattoo artists were looking for skin, musicians—legends in their own tunes strumming guitars, vintage RV’s sprayed in pastel graffiti, their generators purring in harmony, off-limits restrooms were wrapped in yellow tape next to make-do port-o-potty stalls and palm trees, palm trees, palm trees—Southern California’s horizon—and we came across the asphalt lot to the sand and the beach and the very edge of the continent, to my car, a ’98 Accord with just over a hundred thousand miles.
     “You pick up this from the Chevy lot?” she said. 
     “Got if from a guy who did.  He couldn’t make the payments, sold it to me for the balance.”
     “No plates yet, huh?”
     “I got ‘em, they’re in the trunk.”  I opened the passenger door.  “You mind driving a little bit?  Something I got to do first.”
     “Sure.”  She opened the door, sat down, slammed the door and rolled the window down by hand.  I put the milk crate stuffed with the blankets and the cash box in the trunk.  I opened the passenger door and leaned in. 
     “Can you wait here a minute?  Just one moment.  Something I forgot.  Just take a second.”
     “Can I listen to the radio or something?  Leave me the keys?”
     “Just one second.”
     There was a jewelry stand on the concrete boardwalk across the wall from where the RV’s camped out, an old beat-up guy selling Jamaican knit caps and smoking accessories.  His eyes were closed when I got to his table.  Bob Marley T-shirts, red yellow and green and black knit hats, a hand written sign said bongs were on sale if you bought two, next to bracelets made of black and brown nuts drilled with a leather thong threaded through.  The old man’s eyes snapped open when I rapped on the table.
     “How much for this thing?”  I pointed to what I thought would work.  Leather thong and a wooden medallion. 
     “Six bucks.”  Dread locks danced down to his neck.
     “Give you three.’
     He took three bills, asked if I needed a bag, but I was around the side and over the brick wall past the humming generators, putting the leather through the hole on the Honda ignition key, swinging it by the thong by the time I got to the car.  I sat down, closed the door, fastened the seatbelt.
     “Cops here are big on seatbelts,” I said.  “Driver’s got to do it too, if they’re driving my car.”  I handed her the key.
     She turned the key in the ignition, but nothing happened.  The dashboard was dark. 
     “Hit the lights,” I said. 
     “Where are the lights?”
     I leaned over, my head almost touching the tips of her nipples poking against her black t-shirt.  A light coconut fragrance.  Could’ve buried my head in there right then, smothered myself and the pain and the shame in those beautiful creamy stacks.  I pointed to the turn lever, the light switch on the end, swung my torso through the coconut haze and back to my side of the car.  She twisted the stalk, trying to get the lights to come on, the dash, anything. 
     “Open the door,” I said.  She popped the door open.  The ceiling lights were dead.
     “Okay,” I said.  “We can fix this.  Battery’s dead.”
     “Can’t we just walk to the clinic?” she said.  “Fix the battery later?”
     “That’s a good idea.  You know, I don’t think I told you my name.  I’m Vance.”
     “Vince?  Or Vance?”
     “Vance.  Like advance, without the ad.”
     “Cool.  They call me Pinkie.  Don’t ask me why.  Just call me Pinkie, or Pink.”
     “Pinkie, I’m not a real big car guy.  But here’s what I need you to do.  I’ll show you.  Get out of the car and I’ll walk you through this.”  We both got out and met in front of the hood.  I told her to wait a second and I opened the driver’s door, found the hood latch and released the hood.  I came back to the front of the car and pointed to wires that were held in place with a Velcro collar.
     “See these?  Hold them in your hand like this.”  I put my hand around the wire, without touching the grimy rubberized coating.  “I’ll try and start the car, you jiggle the wires.  Easy.”
     I got in the car, left the driver’s door open, and looked at Pinkie.  She nodded when I asked if she was ready.  I turned the key, gave her a finger point, and she jiggled the wires.  Nothing. 
     “Try it again,” I said.
     I turned the key the other way, she rattled the wiring in her hands for ten seconds.
     “Might be a fuse,” I said.  “Let me check something.”  I reached in to the glove compartment.  The raised hood blocked Pinkie’s view.  I pulled the .45 Colt out of the glove compartment, slid it down into my lap, pulled out a box of tissues I’d put under the driver’s seat and tore out a handful of extra-soft CVS’ best and wiped down the Colt.  The barrel, the slide rack, trigger guard, very careful with the trigger, the safety, the back of the slide rack with the serrations, finally the grips.  I put the tissues around the gun and put it back in the glove compartment, slipped the tissues off and wadded them up.  Reached under the seat for the half-pint bottle of Jim Beam and jammed it in the glove box.  I wiped down the steering wheel, stuffed the tissues in my jeans pocket and leaned out the window.
     “It’s not a fuse.” I said.  “Should’ve got that battery on sale at Pep Boys last week.”  I got out and met Pinkie standing in front of the hood, told her to lower it for me while I looked around for a jump.  She followed instructions nicely.
     I moved down the lot.  The old lady in the last RV with the tie-died paint job said she’d be able to jump the car when her old man got back.  “Maybe an hour”, she’d said.  “Maybe more?”  Perfect, I thought.  Perfect. 
     Pinkie was standing in front of the Honda holding a cigarette.  “Think you were right,” I said.  “It’s going to be at least an hour before we get some booster cables.  Let’s walk.  You need a light?”
     “I’ll wait.  Need me a good toke.  Smoke this little guy later.  You say these guys at the clinic are real ganja heads?”  She had a funny way of walking, holding everything up high and tight like she knew what came first was the best she had.  I couldn’t say, trying to drop back a half step and look.  The Venice Beach regulars had a way of looking wind-burned, dried out.  Couldn’t tell if they were in Junior High trying to look tough beyond their years, or prowling for a sailboat ride to Ensenada with bored executives on a mid-life crisis.  Her pockets buttoned down over slim cheeks rustling in the fabric and it all looked fine.  Pinkie.  Some kind of name.
     “What’s your real name, hon?  Pinkie, it’s cute, like an email logon, Twitter maybe, your password so you won’t lose it?  Keep it close at all times?”
     “You weren’t supposed to ask me.”
     “Come on, you figured me out.  You need to trust me.”
     “Not a matter of trust.  It reminds me of things, that’s all.”
     “It’s me, isn’t it?  Sitting there with your hand, telling you that stuff.  Hard to trust a person after that, huh?”
     “I trust you.  I don’t know why, but I do.  You didn’t get all defensive, like, when I got you on that fortune telling thing.”
     “I don’t have many defenses anymore.”
     “See?”
     “That’s something.  It’s a start.  Right?”    
     “An old boyfriend gave me the name Pinkie.  He used to snort coke off my fingernail.”  She held up her right hand, the left still fingering the filter tipped cigarette.  She stuck her little finger my way, and I touched it again.  We walked like that for a few steps, while I nodded to the woman at the tie-die van, getting her to smile when she saw me pulling Pinkie by her little finger.
     “So if it reminds you of bad times, why do you still go by Pinkie?”
     “It’s better than my real name.  I don’t know.  You ask all these questions.  Like, can’t we just go get checked out, score some pot and get high or something?  Shit.  Then I got to find a place to stay tonight.”
     “We’ll work on that.”
     “I had to do a guy last night.  Stayed in his dorm room over at USC.  Right in front of his roommate, like he was trying to sleep next to us while we’re doing shit.  He gave me twenty bucks.”
     The beach crowd had thinned out on the north end of the strand, the meandering concrete beach walk that went from one end of Southern California to another, almost continuous, if you tried to connect the different parts. 
     “So what is it?” I said.
     “My name?”
     “I’ll call you whatever you want.  I just want to know, that’s all.  If you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay.  We’ve confided in each other now, you know.”  I let her finger go. 
    “Helen.”
    “Beautiful.  I had you for Karen.  Michelle, Maggy, I was seeing mid-alphabet, Marnie, Mary Beth, Bethany even.  Helen.  That’s a cool name.  You know, you hear a nickname and you start guessing.”
     “In and out of love,” she said.  “Heartbreak.  Fueled by your love desire.  I liked it.  You were pretty good.”
     We walked past the Boardwalk CafĂ©, the Jewish Center, a bicycle rental shop with old fat-tire heavy-framed two-wheelers that made your legs feel heavy in five minutes if you did more than coast. 
     “The love inferno,” she said, brushing my hand with her little finger.  “Is that nearby?”
     “Come on, that was just some bullshit I had written out.  Smoke, boardwalk, fire, raging blaze, the burning desire.  Cheap tricks.”
     “I wanted to believe it.”
     “You can believe it.  You can believe anything, if you want it bad enough.”  I swung my left hand out like I was turning, looking at something, trying to brush her hand again without setting off an emotional disturbance, giving it away, that I wanted in to those rustling layers of slinky fabric.  Tight, smooth, black and white swirls ready to lick up and down the cone like soft ice cream.  Pinkie, Helen, I fucking wanted to dive in, taste test, test drive, parallel park right up tight against the curb and turn all the knobs and switches until the heat came on and the windows steamed.
     Dr. Yogesh Paliwal looked as white as me, spoke perfect English, and took Pinkie in right away.  The guy outside with mohawk hair wore a skull and bones t-shirt that said “The Dead Never Die”.   Dr. Paliwal’s background was dubious, at best.  Studied in Pakistan, the mohawk hair guy said.  Found out there was a clinical shortage of alternative medical practitioners in Southern California, he said, and he came west. 
     “He’s not from Pakistan, is he?” I said.
     “No.”
     “He’s from New York City,” I said.  “South Bronx, I bet.”  Mohawk handed out some glossy flyers to a couple of guys checking out the pharmaceutical dispensary sign on the peeling yellow wall.
     “Come on in boys,” Mohawk said.  “The doctor wants to make you feel better.”
     Pinkie came out twenty minutes later holding a small brown paper bag.  She took my arm and pushed me back down the strand towards the parking lot.  She shook her head when I asked how it went.  She lit her cigarette with a red plastic Bic lighter, passed the filter tipped cigarette to me and I waved it off.
     “Fucking guy,” she said.  “He’s not even a doctor.”
     “How do you know?”
     “I told him my problem.  Female thing.  Just to see what he would say.  He told me to drop my panties and bend over and he’d check me out.”
     “We should report him.”
     “To who?  The medical marijuana police?  Nobody going in there gives a damn.  Who cares?  A girl goes in there to get some weed and she gets fingered by some gray haired old guy?  Fuck, Vance, this is Venice Beach.  Nobody gives a shit down here.”
     Maybe I’d go back and take care of him later, after we did our business.  After I got the car going, got to where I needed to go, did what I had to do.  But I didn’t need any more attention pointed my way.  Pinkie wouldn’t spill anything, she was getting comfortable with the idea of being with me, with the idea of trading secrets, coming clean.  When we got to the car she got in the driver’s side. 
     “Go ahead and roll one, Pinkie.  There’s papers in the glove compartment.”
     “You got a pipe?  It’s easier.”
     I said I thought I had one in the trunk.  She pulled the trunk latch from under the dash and I went around to the back of the car.  I made some noise rumbling around in the trunk and found the collection of pipes.  Crack pipes, hash pipes, marijuana pipes.  I sometimes smoked grass out of the hash pipes, it didn’t really make any difference, except the glass hash pipe was a lot smaller than my two wooden grass pipes.  And under the trunk, in the spare tire well, were three, fully packed, one pound ziploc bags of coke.  Pure Colombian.  I undid the butterfly screw-on nut and lifted up the panel, grabbed two of the bags and put them in the red plastic crate under the fake Navajo blankets, then got the third bag and did the same.  I packed the blankets around the three Ziploc bags and re-set the bottom panel in place over the spare tire and fastened the butterfly bolt.  I opened the passenger door and sat down.  I handed the glass pipe to Pinkie.
     “This medical grade marijuana they say is twice as strong as the street stuff.  You know, long as I worked that clinic, I never got a free sample?  The weirdest thing.”
     Pinkie packed the pipe with the pot she’d scored, right out of a small glass jar from the brown bag. 
     “Did you have to pay for that?” I said.
     “I put it on a credit card.  I don’t have insurance.  I don’t think insurance pays for that anyway.  Government’s going to change all that, if they fix health care.  I’m glad they’re changing that time-worn old system.  Get the treatments you need, doctors you can trust.  Then you don’t have to go see some dirty old man who wants to finger your cooze just so you can score some dope.” 
     Pinkie took the book of matches from me and struck one, held it over the bowl, sucked smoke and held it in.  She handed me the pipe.  Fresh, fragrant, verdant, the sweet smell of mother nature.  The high life was coming our way.  I held the pipe and drew on it.  I held it out for Pinkie.
     “Let me check the back seat for a second.”  I got out and opened the rear door and leaned in, like I was checking something from the floor.  “Check the glove compartment, there’s a bottle in there.  Jim Beam.  Have some if you want.”
     I heard the glove compartment door open. 
     “What the hell is this?  Oh, my goodness.”
     “It’s bourbon.  Jim Beam.”
     “No.  I mean this.”  I looked up.  She was holding it.  The Colt.
     “Shit.  Forgot that was there.  Keeping it for a guy I know.”
     “Loaded?” she said.
     “You know how to check?”
     “No.”
     “Okay, don’t do anything.  Put your fingers on the barrel.  So you don’t touch the trigger.  Shit, I’m sorry.  Point the barrel away from you.”  She put her left hand around the bottom of the barrel, her palm against the bottom of the trigger guard.
     “Good,” I said.  “Easy.”
     “Come on, is the thing loaded?”
     “I don’t know.  Let’s not take chances, okay?”  Pinkie was holding it by the end of the barrel with three fingers, like she was extracting a piece of silverware from the dishwasher.
     “Shit, Vance, what do I do now?”
     “Easy, girl, take it easy.  Put it on the seat.  I’ll put it in the glove compartment.  Set it on the seat.”   She put the pistol on the passenger seat.  I could hear her breathing.  I came back to the passenger door, leaned in and opened the glove compartment door.  I held the bottle of Jim Beam, twisted open the cap, looked behind me in the parking lot to see who was around, faked like I was taking a swig, then leaned in to the car and handed the bottle to Pinkie.  “Take a drink, just a little nip, you’ll feel better.”  She took the bottle, slugged back a huge swallow and put the twist cap on and the bottle on the console. 
     “Don’t want this to be a traumatic experience or anything,” I said.  “Go ahead and put the pistol back in the glove compartment.  Believe me, you don’t want your last experience with a gun to be some memory that stays with you like a mark for the rest of your life.  You just hold it by the handle, don’t touch the trigger, point the gun away from both of us, down at the floor, and set it in the glove compartment.  I’ll close the door, we’ll drink, and we’ll be good.  Simple enough?”
     She followed instructions.  She was good at that.  Fingers wrapped around the wooden grips, she kept the gun pointed down, reached across the center console, and laid it in the glove compartment.  Slow, smooth, quiet.  I latched the door.  Reached out for the pipe, took the Jim Beam and put it between my legs and twisted the cap off, pulled it to my mouth and felt the cool burn on my lips and down my throat.  Stuck the cap back on and lifted the pipe to my lips and pulled a sharp puff of smoke down hard, felt the Jim Beam and the medical grade marijuana fueling my foggy lift off and I looked at Pinkie, scooting towards me in her seat, everything tight and smooth and breathless.  I sank back in to the seat.
     “I think he wanted me to blow him.”
     “Who?”
     “Dr. Palamino, whatever his fucking name was.  That guy in the clinic.”
     “I don’t think he’s even a doctor.” 
     “He said something about ‘orally administered medication’ and he had this grin on his face.  Like I’m supposed to drop down and be a research subject or something.  Find the prize in his pants, something like that.  Can you believe it?”
     “Pinkie, that’s the part about being a girl, I think I’d freak.  Getting hit on all the time.”
     “I had these in junior high,” she said, looking down at the thin line between black and white, no grey area.  “Guys didn’t know what was going on, but they liked what they saw.  You get used to it.”
     “It’s not going to stop.”
     “Didn’t say I wanted it to stop.  I got ‘em, so be proud, I say.  Don’t hog the pipe, man.” 
     I sucked in a breath, held the pipe over to Pinkie.  She gave her lips a little tongue swirl before laying the end of the pipe in there, and I wondered where they learned that shit.  How to turn a guy on with some un-rehearsed gesture, some little thing they didn’t even think about, all the hours of makeup sessions and hair salons and close-up time in front of mirrors, it was some little thing that sent a guy over the moon.  A birthmark, a hickey on a girl’s neck, a run in her pantyhose, hair all piled up going nowhere and everywhere, like she’d just gotten thrashed in bed and needed to sleep, one missed fingernail out of ten, red-glossed blinking digits—hot buttons in the worst way.  Some chick with a couple of extra pounds that somehow all fit perfectly, yet she’s complaining about gym time and diets and dress sizes and all you want to do is squeeze all of it in your palms, polish it, wax it, shine and buff and tell her ‘don’t do a thing, don’t do a thing’, but girls don’t think that way.  Guys do.
     “Nice stuff,” Pinkie said.  I handed her the Jim Beam.  She slugged a swallow.
     “I need to jump this car.”  I need to jump Pinkie’s bones.
     “Okay,” she said.  Hot glittered nails on ceramic pipe, glowing smoking coals of pot, a 1982 Honda Accord.  All hot.  Too hot.
     The woman at the tie-died RV had changed her cammo T-shirt for a light blue flowered dress, limp and clinging to her sagging frame.  But she had cables.  I showed Pinkie how to clamp them on both batteries, red to red, black to black, and I fired up the Honda.  Pointed to the red cable on the Honda, and Pinkie pulled it off.  Then the black, same thing on the old hippie RV, handed the cables back to the woman smiling through missing teeth and the light blue dress ruffled in the breeze.  She winked at me.  I shot my eyebrows up, my salute to age and experience and the wisdom of the sixties and all that ‘where were you in ’62?’ shit that used to be hip and now seemed pre-Vietnam and Nixonian, all the fucked up crap that bogged us down and put us where we are now, some new politician promising how to fix it with global-protectionism and ‘can’t we all just get along?’ diplomacy.  Pinkie grabbed my hand and held on all the way across the sand swept asphalt crunching under our feet, the beach blowing and drifting under whispering palms.
     “Gotta stop at my trailer,” I said.  “Glad you don’t mind driving.  My license is expired.  Sort of forgot when my birthday was coming around.  Nobody sends cards no more to remind me.  Got a guy staying at my place that owes me rent money.  Make sure that pipe is cleaned out and covered up.  This isn’t the time to get pulled over with no plates and a car full of pot.”  She wrapped up the pipe in the tissue from the box under the driver’s seat and handed it to me.  I put it in the glove compartment.  We pulled out through the Rose Avenue gate and turned down Main street going south. 
     “Even if it’s medical?” Pinkie said.  She had sunglasses on, looked straight ahead, both hands on the steering wheel. 
     “I don’t want to take any chances.  Cops don’t care if you have a prescription or not.  Bust you now, ask questions later.  LAPD.”  We picked up speed past Venice Boulevard, turning east on Washington down to Lincoln Boulevard south.  Pinkie drove well, taking each turn, following instructions, exactly as I said.  She drove slowly, too, giving me time to think, each step, like numbered diagrams saved to my hard-drive brain.  I opened the window, took in some ocean breeze.  My head needed to be clear.  I’d taken only one real hit on the pipe, just a half-swallow of Jim Beam.  Pinkie wanted music so I played with the radio dial until we got something that made her slap her palm against the steering wheel.
     “What is that?” I said.
     “I don’t know, baby.  Just feeling it.”   Glittery nails drumming the wheel, she slid one hand down, landed it on my thigh, slid it up and down, letting it rest.  Her fingers fluttered on my thigh, her hot buttons making me come alive, five hard nails digging in, letting up, circling around. 
     “You live down here?” she said.  She pulled her hand away, gripped the wheel with two hands and turned the Accord into Dockweiler State Beach. 
     “Been staying down her for a couple of weeks.”
     “Cool.”  She pulled to the right, down the back row until I told her where to pull in and park, backing up behind the pickup with the cab-over camper shell.  The curtains were drawn on the camper windows.  It was parked alone in the back north corner.  There wouldn’t be much noise anyone could hear, crashing of waves, the wind picking up. 
     Pinkie left the engine running, put her hands on the volume and turned up the music.  Slapped her palm against the steering wheel, turning to me, the white V swallowed up in the black fabric of the T-shirt, and it wasn’t the innocent move this time.  Her hair was clean and straight, her nails bright and glossy, lips pale, leaning forward.
     “I need a place to stay for a couple of days,” she said.  “Is it real crowded in there?”
     “Won’t be after I take care of some business.”
     Her fingers rested on my thigh.  She led with her best, lips touching mine, fingers squeezing a muscle that had some power but no sign of conscience.  We kissed like teenagers in a salty dream, where it fills up and spills over and you can’t help any of it, drawn over the falls like a rubber raft without a rudder, going where it takes you on that wild ride.  She was wet and warm and she pulled me in to the fold, into the nest, taking little breaths that sounded like little sighs—you never know—and when we broke away she held me an inch away from her, and whispered.
     “Do what you need to do.  I’ll be here.”  The music had been loud, the song was ending now, the beat fading, and another little beep-beep played on.  Pinkie slapped her purse. 
     “Cell phone,” she said.  “Don’t need that, do we?”  She pinched my thigh up tight and close, smiled and kissed my cheek.
     “I’m going to need some more of that, baby,” I said.  She squeezed again, harder, firmer.  “I get done here, everything’s going to be good, smooth sailing.  Promise.  Every doctor will be licensed, everything will be under control.  No nonsense.” 
     I could feel her little breaths now, the ones that sounded like sighs.  “Don’t stop all the nonsense,” she said in a whisper, as if she was talking to my eyelids.  “Keep a little around, use it sparingly, you know.  Like a precious resource.”
     “I was right, wasn’t I?  Old wounds, heartbreak, the cycle.  Swirling around, love desire.”
     “Yeah.  You had it going.  I never believed that stuff, but I just needed to sit down.  I’m not going to lie.  I didn’t want that hocus pocus.  I’ve had lines thrown at me my whole life.  Like you were saying a minute ago.  But you, you had style, and I was alright with that.  You didn’t fight when I busted you.”
     “Couldn’t.  Shit, couldn’t, with you.  Listen, Pinkie.  Can I call you Helen?”
     Helen.  Helen of Troy.  She wrapped me in her arms, sequin Baby Dolls rubbing against my chest, launching a thousand ships. 
     “Sure.  Call me Helen.”
     “Let me take care of this business.  This guy’s on his way out.  Sun’s going down, we’ll have the beach all alone.  You won’t have to go anywhere. Okay?”
     “Okay.”  Her eyes were filling up, straight on me.  Next to me, between the seat and the door, a golf glove was wrapped in a rubber band.  I put my right hand down and moved it under the front of the seat, Helen smiling with those wet eyes. 
     “One drink?” I said.  Helen nodded.  I opened the glove compartment, pulled the Jim Beam out, twisted off the cap, handed it to Helen.  She took a long pull.  I reached for the golf glove, snapped the rubber band off and had it half over my right hand when she handed me the bottle. 
     “You going to kill that guy?” she said.  Her smile was gone. 
     “What did you say?”
     Her hands were in her lap.  Then one hand moved up to the radio knob, the car still running, her fingers moving the knob around, turning the volume, up, loud. 
     My left hand was on the Jim Beam, right hand half-gloved, Pinkie moving her hand to the shift on the console, the car revving in park, Reggae beat click-throbbing.
     “Turn that shit down,” I said.
     Pinkie didn’t move.  She kept her hand on the shift lever, the glove compartment door hanging open.  The Colt wasn’t there. 
     “Where’s the gun,” I said. 
     “With my fingerprints all over it?”  She pressed the gas pedal, the engine roared, the little Honda shaking, the four cylinder doing what it could, holding in place behind the camper shell pickup.
     “Hey,” I said.  “Okay, let’s work through this.  Work with me.”  Wind was blowing through the windows, smelling like the sea, driftwood and kelp, forgotten forms of life washed up on shore to die.  “It’s not my gun.  Belongs to the guy in the camper, okay?  I’m helping you here, okay?  Trusting each other, right?”
     All the smooth tight skin gave way to the cold blue Colt she’d had somewhere, and now it was pointed at me, the bore bigger when you were looking into it, a black hole that could come to life and end mine.
     “Hey, hey, hey,” I said.  “It’s not loaded.”
     The muzzle hardly moved, she just pulled the slide back, released it in one pure motion.  “Oh yeah,” she said.  “Now it is.”
     “Come on, Pinkie.”  I leaned towards her, keeping my eyes on hers.  “Helen.” 
     “No, no, stay right there.  Don’t move.” 
     “I’ll fix this thing up,” I pointed to the camper shell pickup in front of the car.  “You don’t know anything about this.  Believe me.  Let me wipe it down.  You weren’t even here.  You got it all wrong.”
     “Manager of two marijuana clinics.  Used cars.  I was getting kind of hungry when you got to Aretha Franklin and Papa John’s pizza.  Now I got the munchies.”
     “That part was all true.  I didn’t bullshit you, except the fire stuff, the big water, that shit I told you, goddamnit.  Fuck, you’re getting rough on me now.”
     “Okay, you were charming.  I give you that.  Me?  I’m not so charming.  Got thrown out of my house three months ago.  I don’t know much about staying alive except I gotta stay true, you know, stay out of shit like this, guys getting me to hold guns.  What the fuck kind of scum do you think we are?  Huh?  Venice Beach, there’s a million chicks going up and down all day, everyday, you think we’re all suckers?  Ready for your line of bullshit so they can drop down and kiss your fat ass?  Suck your little dick?”  Colt barrel had a little jiggle to it, like it was getting nervous.
     “This is my camper,” I said.  “It’s all I own.  Okay?  Let me go in there, give him his gun, get what he owes, we hang out and, I don’t know, get to know each other, I guess.  You’re right.  We both been on the streets too long, and we’re too young for this.”
     “No, I’m too old for this.  Maybe you’re too young.  I got to get on with life.  Go on up there, get your money, but you’re not going with this gun.  Go on.  I’ll wait.”
     “You’ll wait here?”
     She nodded her head.  I pulled the glove tight, opened the door, stepped out and felt the wind right up in my face, hard, thought I could feel those little sighs Pinkie was letting me have, breathless wonder dancing on my blind eyes.  The Honda pulled up its windows, stayed where it was, and I heard the beep-beep of Helen’s cell phone, the same time the camper shell door opened.
     Two black uniformed LAPD officers jumped out.  Big guys.
     I heard ‘hands up, turn around, don’t move’ and the black cop, big guy with some cheap aftershave that cut the salt air, wrapped the cuffs around my wrists and turned me around so my back was against the steel wall of the camper and read me the rights.
     “Seth McAllister.  Possession of narcotics,” the black one said.  “For sale or distribution, un-registered firearm, stolen vehicle.”
     Pinkie was talking in the cell phone.  I could see her through the windshield.  The big cop went up in the camper and came back with a folding camp chair.  Green canvas stretched between folding black tubes of steel.  He motioned to me to sit. 
     “Gonna be here a while,” he said.  Pinkie was looking at me through the windshield.  She wasn’t holding the cell phone.
     “You know her?”  One of the cops pointed at the Honda.
     “Met her today,” I said.  Everything can and will be used against you.
     The Honda revved up, cranked into gear, scratched up some sand when Pinkie gave it gas, and it rolled fast out of the parking space and down the asphalt to the Dockweiler State Beach entrance, and then it was gone.
     “Know her name?” the cop said.
     I shook my head.