1: The Vision
You might have thought I’d had enough of cars. I’d just spent the entire day checking exhaust pipes and mufflers down at the S.C.S.B.–it was too long to say Southern California Smog Board–but here I was, trudging up the side of the Hollywood Freeway, looking out for rattlers, trying not to slip, and hearing, smelling and seeing cars. Vehicles. Automobiles. Cars stuck for miles, bumper-to-bumper cars stalled in stagnant, yellow air. Everywhere.
Scrambling to the top of the hill overlooking the freeway, I tried to catch my breath. This would have been difficult anyway had I only had the climb to deal with, but what with the heavy dirty air pricking my lungs, I felt nauseous and light-headed. Why the hell hadn’t I pulled out my gas mask for the climb, especially since I always wore it when I rode my bicycle? Then I remembered I didn’t want to call attention to myself, in light of what I was going to do.
Still, I had to wonder at the size of the problem. As far as I could see in both directions along the Hollywood were bumper-to-bumper cars shimmering in the heat. It had never been this bad. It had taken me ten minutes to scale the hill and they hadn’t even moved. But their occupants didn’t seem to mind. Peering through my binoculars, I studied a Gary Good-Looking on the phone with his agent, or he seemed to be because he kept checking his “L.A. Actor Diary” (that’s what was written on the cover) and talking into the void where his mobile hands-free kit must have been hidden. A mousy, pre-maturely grey man was busy e-mailing something to someone somewhere in the skyscrapers up ahead in Downtown L.A. Then there was a lady doing her make-up, a man shaving, and another man with a finger up his nose while using the other hand to fiddle with his radio; and finally, there was a pretty twenty-five-year-old brunette with her index finger loosening up the wax in her left ear. These were all California drivers presumably, but none of them had remembered to turn off their engines while they weren’t going anywhere. And one to a car-in automobiles laid out with all the extras like CD players, faxes, televisions, computers and GPS systems–they stretched out for miles.
What was stopping me pulling out a machine gun and chewing these morons up?
A sunny, radio voice drifted up from one of the few open windows:
“…Just in, this hour’s KXJY’S “Be Alert” tip: Heavy traffic on both East and Westbound lanes of the Hollywood due to a double fatality near the Sunset off ramp…and now this…”Start your morning with “Bongo’s” super cereal: scrumptious, crunchy, nutritious…”
I couldn’t bear to breathe the foul air anymore so I reached into my backpack and removed a green Army surplus gas mask. Most times, I’d always be wearing this mask. Once in awhile, however, I would remove it to remain inconspicuous and see what other people endured on a regular basis. I donned it quickly and stared down at the open window.
One thing I couldn’t stand was sunny radio voices advertising product, any kind of product. Actually, I couldn’t stand the fact that any unneeded product was being advertized at all. Especially when the sunny radio voice hadn’t even changed register after the announcement of the traffic fatality. I pulled out my binoculars and peered in at the occupant behind the wheel. The fifty-something man’s neck was thick under his “cobra” tattoo, his hair was short and his belly spilled over onto his wide black belt. I dismissed him as just another cataleptic blockhead whose mind was filled with drivel. Another functionary on his way to work or the mall: drive/work/make money/consume on credit/more driving-the new rat race.
I aimed my binoculars at the smog-filled sky. It seemed that the smog had suddenly become denser than usual, or were those dark brown smoke clouds set off from the generic yellow? I fancied hearing a distant whir of something or other from the haze. And then I saw two helicopters emerge as if in a film, the first one emblazoned with foot-high letters: CEDAR HOSPITAL HELI-CARE and the other one from a TV station big into self-promotion: CBA SHOCK NEWS: “We’re there before it happens!”
“What ghouls,” I couldn’t help thinking, these people who had pushed ambulance chasing to new lows, but then I remembered they were only trying to make a great living out of a bad situation, just like all the other people down below were doing. Maybe, by checking people’s catalytic converters and mufflers, I was doing the same thing, even though I wasn’t making a great living, but that’s not what I was in it for, was I?
Keeping my binoculars trained on the helicopters, I continued to wade through the parched rye-grass on top of the hill. Finally, I came to a clearing and realized what all the commotion was about. A new Volkswagen beetle had been completely demolished, while five other cars lay piled up around. Extra firefighters and paramedics had been lowered by ropes down from two helicopters to join the one fire truck able to get through. The firefighters were cutting the victims out of their cars; the paramedics were going to work on them. There probably had been a time when this type of scene would have attracted a large crowd, but now people were either too busy or too far from the action to get out of their cars. What amazed me was how any one car had picked up enough speed to have a high-speed crash at all let alone kill anybody. Maybe there had been a break in the bumper-to-bumper action when speeds actually climbed to 60 M.P.H.: I could just imagine two frustrated hot shots deciding they had to go first, one passing the other and both ending up dead. Not to speak of the other lives they had left behind and ruined. Wasn’t the mean speed on the Los Angeles freeways down to about 19 miles per hour over any 24-hour period? That’s the number that was fixed in my brain anyway. Wasn’t it absurd? All one had to do was eat Bongo’s breakfast cereal; after all, that was the important thing, or at least that was what the media wanted to sell. A little death mixed in with a little breakfast get-up-and-go; keep the listener happy.
I despised them all.
Two more news teams ensconced in helicopters had now joined the first two. Why so many? Didn’t they have anything better to do? Wasn’t there any other exciting news to cover? As the stretchers carrying victims were being raised up to the Cedar chopper, an excited female newscaster in a pantsuit was being lowered down from the CBA helicopter at the same time. The ropes weren’t too far apart given the proximity of the two choppers. Maybe she was trying to get an interview literally on the fly, her piece of journalism already hyped in her mind for that evening’s paper as: “Suspended crash victim tells all from the brink of the grave”. It almost seemed as if she was disappointed as victim and ghoul passed each other quickly on their ways up and down.
On the ground, firefighters had now finished cutting into the mangled wrecks and were spraying water on the remains of the cars. Steam welled up from the hot pavement and overheated engines. I cast my eyes over the other cars. As was to be expected, none had moved in the long time I had been there, but no one seemed to mind. Only those closest to the action were obsessed with someone else’s tragedy. They were sitting and standing on their RVs or trucks and cars, or rubbernecking from their sun roofs or standing as close as the firefighters would let them without getting in the way. This was also to be expected. But what struck me the most was people like the typical junior accountant pouring over clients’ tax forms and watching news of the tragedy from his car television. Then, a commercial for what looked like “Drof Cars” came on and the accountant went back to his tax forms.
I couldn’t stand any of them. It was time to do what I had come for.
I pulled my binoculars away from the junior accountant’s TV screen and scanned the dozens of tacky billboards that lined the length of the freeway. It was one crummy wooden sign after the other: motels, cars, airlines, hot dogs, paper foil, toilet paper–buy me, get me, use me, what was wrong with people?–until my eyes came to feast on the real life billboard image of a skimpily-dressed model some five hundred yards away. Her long legs were wrapped around a miniature “Drof” sports car and underneath the billboard was written: “GET DROFFED! GET DRIVEN!” For a full minute, I forgot everything as I stared into her blue-green eyes piercing through the yellow. Those eyes were why she was up there and a thousand other hopefuls weren’t, because here I was, a vigilante if ever there was one, being drawn, as if by magnet, into the beauty’s whole being. I could feel my mouth open and take short quick breaths as I shivered and began to sweat.
After what seemed like an infinite amount of time, and through sheer force of will, I shook myself out of her spell as my whole agenda cascaded in on me. Wasn’t she just another beautiful woman prostituting herself on a billboard, with her face and image yellowing day by day in the dirty sunny air?
I had to act.
I looked around to see if anyone was watching or if anyone could see me. Satisfied they couldn’t, I reached into my bag and pulled out a state of the art Nikon camera with a giant zoom lens. I aimed it full at the model’s face, and began snapping pictures, moving it slowly around her image and searching for the best angle as my motor drive whirred and clicked. When I’d shot one roll of 36-and the equivalent number of digital photos for good measure-I put my cameras aside. I looked around again to see if anyone was looking. Then I pulled out a black attaché case from the bag. Piece by piece, I quickly assembled a high-powered rifle, again with zoom lens. I cradled the rifle in my arms and peered down the lens at the model’s face. I set the cross hairs in the middle of her forehead and pulled the trigger. Just five hundred yards away, a large wooden hole appeared where the mannequin’s face used to be. Bits of wood and dust rained down on the people and cars below.
Hidden behind a tree trunk, I again scanned the commuters with my binoculars. No one had seemed to notice. Those right under the damaged billboard did roll down their windows and glance up at what had dared dirty their cars. Those far removed from the billboard were mostly concerned with either their own particular bubble or whether the traffic was going to move. Maybe they thought my gunshot was a car backfiring?
By now, the helicopters had moved off with their cargo of dead and wounded. A truck that had crept its way along the right shoulder of the freeway was using its crane to load the car carcasses of these same people onto its flatbed back. It eventually moved off along the same shoulder it had come from. The only thing keeping people from creeping along to work were the police and firefighters who were still busy writing down reports from eye-witnesses. However, eventually they too moved off and everything returned to the 10 M.P.H. bumper-to-bumper status quo.
2: Annoying Things
After some time and noticing no one coming my way, I scrambled down the hill to a clearing where I had earlier left my bicycle before embarking up the freeway slope. It was an opening in one of the few woodsy areas near the Hollywood Freeway Southbound. My bicycle was attached with a case-hardened lock and chain to a tree and I had removed all the accessories, including the seat. I couldn’t help noting that even though “Angelinos” hadn’t exactly embraced the bicycle as a means of transportation, certain lower elements definitely liked to steal them and strip them down for parts. What were they going to do with those parts? Melt them down and sell the metal? I didn’t want that to happen to my customized 21-speed man-powered vehicle, especially since I had equipped it with all the extras necessary to deal with Los Angeles traffic.
I tightened my toe clips, fitted my gas mask and sunglasses and put on my helmet. At 6’2″ with a long torso and wearing anti-smog paraphernalia, I was a big man perched up high on a light alloy frame and I didn’t go unnoticed. My sunglasses hid troubled blue eyes which mirrored a gnawing angst that had set in when I was a boy and would probably never leave me. Maybe that was because of my name: “Skeeter Thomas”? I apparently was named after some early sixties singer-I think she was a woman but ‘Skeeter’ could be a guy’s name, too-who had sung a big hit about why the world wouldn’t stop turning because she had lost her lover. Was I the lover or the lamenting woman? Whatever it was, there was something not quite right and unfortunately, it had always been like this. I had noticed early in life that whenever I took one course of action, I was always conscious of the redeeming features of a totally opposite way of doing something, so that I could never really be at peace with myself. That is, I might see two sides of the same coin as equal and be very disturbed at having to choose between them. For example, right now I imagined my bicycle to be a gazelle and I was on top wearing a gas mask and helmet to protect myself from the murderous machine-beasts that lumbered alongside. But at another moment in time perhaps, on a stretch of open highway in the Nevada plains for example, I might be behind the wheel of one of these same tank-like beasts that would now appear to be the gazelles as I and beast roared along at 100 m.p.h. plus. It depended on which side of the fence one happened to be, and I must say I was man enough to look in the mirror and realize where the problem lay. I was not going to deny that some of the most die-hard, anti-car ecologists might also be closet speed-demons who enjoyed the thrill of a Viper roller coaster ride as much as they liked racing down hills on bicycles that went faster than cars and did those hairpin turns at breakneck speeds. I could not deny that cars could carry several people at a time and were infinitely safer than what I was riding, but then again, at another place in time, their drivers could be tempted to get up to speeds which were infinitely more lethal than anything I could attain alone on my custom-made bicycle.
I glided alongside the cars near the right shoulder, glancing from time to time in my rearview mirrors, as I often kept up with or passed slower-moving vehicles. I had picked up a habit of mentally ‘tagging’ one car and would base my own speed on that of the particular car. As the car started and stopped along the way in heavy traffic, I would only have to maintain a leisurely pace, and would usually reach my destination faster.
This destination was home where I went directly, everyday after work, and where I now lived alone with my sad memories and hopes for a better future. I had bought a four-bedroom bungalow with Janet in the Hollywood Hills some five years ago, and we had lived there happily for three and a half years. I remembered how we had both dressed in white because we imagined ourselves to be virgins–at least for each other–and had, along with a priest and best man and maid of honor, cycled all the way up Malibu Canyon. We had brought all our provisions and gear with us that day, and, in a debauched and lively ceremony overlooking most of Los Angeles, had exchanged wedding vows. Then we had gorged on a huge meal, and while the others were sleeping it off, we went off to one side to screw each other silly before giving in to sleep ourselves. At the end of this brutally hot and sunny day, our wedding party packed up and cycled down the mountain where we each went our separate ways. We newly-weds returned to our bungalow where I carried Janet over the threshold and right into bed.
We continued to remain avid cyclists who took our bicycles to work every day, work being at least twenty miles away for the two of us. However, I would always wear a gas mask but Janet wouldn’t and if we ever fought about anything, this was it. Janet would compare me to an old fart who felt obliged to spoil her cycling fun by going off against the dangers of air pollution. Janet used to say she wanted to “feel the wind in her hair”! “Well, fine,” I used to say, “let the wind dirty your hair-you’ll only have to shampoo it afterwards-but get it out of your lungs!” Consequently, she did finally succumb to my request that she wear some sort of protection, even if it was only one of those paper masks that surgeons wear. Nevertheless, after three years of daily bicycling to work, she began to feel dizzy; several weeks later, she started feeling severe chest pains. Quickly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she entered Cedar Hospital where she spent her final weeks in agony.
I will remember those awful days for the rest of my life.
It had only been one year but here I was, finally able to reduce her story down to its bare essentials.
Oh my God, I can’t believe it! The police just came and went. Some crackpot shot down my billboard. The head part! He just blew it clean off with a high-powered rifle from a long distance away and took off. Why would he try to do that?! That’s what the police want to know. And why me? They asked me if I had any enemies, and if someone wanted to tell me something or teach me a lesson. They were worried because a gun was involved. Did I need any protection? Did I have any clues? I didn’t-I had no idea who it could have been. What kind of weirdo would want to do that? As for protection, I had my own. Myself. I had done martial arts for five years. I could defend myself, but I had to admit that the cops who came scared me more than the guy who did the shooting. One was cute, though-you had to give him credit-but who was protecting who? And they were boring, just a couple of guys doing their jobs. At least, that’s how they put it, and they were right. Let’s face it, being a cop is a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it. That’s for sure. As for my billboard, I guess I have so many all over the place; maybe a decapitated billboard is of more interest than one with my face on it?
The next day, near my house, I was standing in line at a bus stop. As usual, I was wearing my gas mask. I had left my bicycle and attaché case containing my hidden rifle at home so I could walk and take the bus with everyone else and observe what was going on.
Not exactly. This was the Hollywood Hills and it did have a rudimentary bus system for the working poor who didn’t own cars and had to work for minimum wage for the car owners. At least, that was how I saw it. I also noticed that most of these poor people were fat, like the one waiting in line in front of me. At one time in the twentieth century, poor people had been skinny because they didn’t have enough to eat. But now they were fat because they ate too much bad, cheap food. Chi-chi shops with organic and high-quality food were outside the working poor’s price range.
This particular fat man wore the de rigueur proletarian plastic visor cap-one size fits all-advertising a Mexican lumber company. One thing I couldn’t stand were proletarian visor caps, unless they were used for sports where one needed the visor to ward off the sun. If one was a street or construction worker, why not wear a proper hat that covered one’s ears as well as the rest? This particular fatty was dressed in a bright yellow polyester suit with a green parakeet tie as if he were some greenhouse gate keeper in Brazil. He lit a fresh Marlboro with the butt of the old one, and then stamped it out. I bent down and picked it up, made sure it was extinguished, placed it in a nearby trash basket, and then stared at the man. For about twenty seconds.
“You got a problem, hombre?” the man finally wheezed in Mexican-accented English. It was funny how people with real problems liked to project them onto me.
The traffic was moving by at an extremely slow pace. In the yellow haze, a bus belching fumes out the back pulled up in front of them. The fat man moved to get in first but I pushed in front of him. “Hey!” he yelled as I ignored him, removed my gas mask and assailed the bus driver:
– When are you going to do something about these fumes?
The bus driver, whose dark brown uniform was stretched tight over his sweaty neck and torso, gazed down loftily from his perch behind the wheel. He was afraid of looking at me directly and therefore hid behind a nasty sideways glance. I didn’t appreciate this lack of eye contact and began scribbling on what looked like a parking ticket. My action seemed to help him loosen his tongue as he barked out:
– I told you yesterday, Bud, the Smog Board’ll take care of it.
– And didn’t I tell you yesterday,
I snapped back,
– I am the Smog Board!?
The bus lurched and stopped in the non-stop traffic. I flashed my badge from the Southern California Smog Board and placed the ticket I’d just written on the dashboard in front of the bus driver. In surprise and anger, the driver began blasting his horn at an illegally-stopped car next to a painted red curb. The driver of this vehicle was on his cell phone.
– Why don’t you lean on pendejos like that?!
he whined indignantly. To get in his face a bit, I leaned over him, pulled open his window and yelled at the other driver:
– Move it!
The offender gave me the finger and went on talking. The bus barely crept by as I jotted down the offending car’s make, model and license number.
– That’s what I mean! Those people are the problem, not the bus company!
With one hand on the wheel, he started waving his other hand in the air wildly, his head jutting forth angrily at the wrongdoer who wouldn’t move. Respecting the authority of my position, yet unable to admit that he was wrong, all he could do was flail away at the injustice of it all. I just shrugged and sat down behind him. His blood pressure couldn’t have been any higher than that of the lawbreaker outside. He continued to mutter away as I pulled out the “Metro” section of the Los Angeles Times and happened to read the following title: “ROAD VS. RAIL: NO CONTEST”. Then, underneath, in small letters, there it was: “Road Lobby Jubilant as Rail Companies back off”.
I was already boiling up inside as I began to skim the article. But when the bus picked up a little speed and another great black cloud of smoke billowed out from behind the exhaust pipe, I was beside myself. I jumped up and began hammering on the glass behind the bus driver. He glanced quickly in his rear view mirror then looked ahead smugly as I gestured wildly at the smoke.
Near the outskirts of Downtown L.A., I stepped off in front of a long, warehouse-type building that extended the entire block. Along its roof the structure had huge fans through which noxious, yellow exhaust fumes escaped into the atmosphere. I felt ashamed to admit that this was where I worked.
My office was central to this structure and looked out onto a large garage where people brought their cars to be inspected. In comparison, however, my office appeared small and was simply furnished with only a large calendar completely filled in with appointments and telephone numbers on one wall.
I shared this office with Jim Reed, a grey man with ferret-like features and a love of routine. Jim had his nose buried in the same section of newspaper I had skimmed before and didn’t look up. I grunted something to fill in the void, and then opened the small fridge we shared in the corner, pulled out some milk, poured it into a small saucepan and heated it up on an electric hotplate. I didn’t believe in using microwave ovens.
– You’re late,
Jim noted as if this were a dry fact rather than a rebuke.
– What do you expect? The bus was caught in too much traffic!
– Boss says employees of the Smog Board are never late.
Of course, we didn’t really have a boss-we were our own bosses-but that’s how we kept ourselves in line: I was boss to him and he was boss to me.
– Not only are these busses late. They’re stinking up the place, Jim! What are we supposed to be doing here?
I knew I should have taken my bike.
– Why didn’t you take your EV?
– And add to traffic congestion?
Jim and I had been working so long together, we often spoke in code; “EV” meant “Electric Vehicle” and often we would finish off each other’s sentences. We would always talk about pollution because I was the one to bring up the subject. I showed Jim the copy of the traffic ticket I had given the bus driver.
– I’m also giving one to this other clown.
I took a big sip of hot milk and burnt my tongue.
– Shit! Ouch!
I yelled as I handed Jim a copy of the other ticket.
– There’s the license number. This polluter was double-parked. Blocking our bus from getting through. Son of a bitch gave me the finger! So let’s hit him with the max.
I then sat down at my desk, as I did every day, and stared somberly at the framed photo of a thirty-one-year-old woman and a young girl of seven: my late wife and daughter. My little girl was athletic and blond, a perfect fifty-fifty combination of the two of us. She shared the large eyes and exotic features of her mother, as well as my coloring. The top part of her face was like mine and the bottom part like her mother’s including a wide sensual mouth which held a set of bright white teeth that lit up the room as she smiled which is what she was doing in the photo. Her mother had a hint of the same smile, and her Latin skin tones and sensuous curves added to her enigmatic appeal. Jim stared at me as he did every day while I looked at my ex-family-he had been grieving with me for the whole past year–and then mumbled, as he always did when I brought in a “citizen’s arrest”-type of ticket: “Christ! Man doesn’t even wait ’til work before he starts issuing traffic tickets.”
I picked up the picture to look at it more closely. Suddenly, my eyes welled up with tears and my hands began to tremble.
– I saw a terrible accident yesterday.
Jim gave me a friendly pat on the back. He was used to my sudden outbursts of tears since the accident.
– I’m sorry you had to, buddy.
I continued to stare at the picture and remain in my thoughts for a long time. I was oblivious to Jim who considered me for awhile and then slipped out the door to attend to our customers.
Just outside Jim’s and my office and visible to all within was the smog control area. Looking like a regular garage, it was equipped with all manner of the latest gadgetry and state of the art smog control emissions machines. Four cars were lined up in front of each device and there were lines of other cars fanning out in all directions waiting to be checked. Inspectors were talking to drivers, and vice versa.
Jim and I moved to our neighboring stations. Two cars were awaiting us. As we’d done a thousand times, we opened the hoods, then went round the back and attached transparent hoses to the exhaust pipes of the two cars.
– I hear Mayor Right’s backing the road-building campaign. Supposedly eliminate traffic congest-
Our respective patrons each started their engines at the same time and drowned out the end of Jim’s remark. Jim’s client’s car exhaust looked pretty clean compared to the huge burst of yellow-black smog which shot into my client’s exhaust hose. I looked at the paper work and saw that my client hadn’t come in of his own accord. He’d been given a pollution ticket by some cop. Noting my customer’s dirty clothing and one-size-fits-all-polyester visor cap, I was able to size him up pretty quickly: of Hispanic origin, probably Guatemalan, working poor, flabby, cheap food. I felt bad for him, but angry that this man’s car was in such a state.
– Holy Jesus! When was the last time you had this thing tuned up?
I pulled out a screwdriver and started fiddling under the hood. As was not often the case, the Guatemalan even knew a fair amount of English.
– Come on, man, if you try and tune it, it’s not gonna run even.
I continued to work under the hood without saying anything. The Guatemalan became more insistent.
– Hey guy, I know you gotta do your job, but come over here.
The Guatemalan was the one to come over; he peered round to make sure no one was looking, pulled out a twenty and tried to slip it into my hand but there was no taker. I moved around him and chuckled as I spat out clearly:
– For starters, you got no catalytic converter, a ten-year-old muffler, an engine that leaks oil and exhaust that makes my shit look good.
I shut off the man’s engine, removed the clear hose and waved the guy away quietly:
– Do yourself a favor. Get this thing junked as soon as you leave. Have a swell day!
The Powerful Organization of Women (POW!) headquarters was housed in Downtown Los Angeles in an impressive new one-story building with a woman’s fist inside a circle and cross symbol painted in red on the wall. As the symbol implied, this was a very militant feminist group, and one not afraid to take appropriate action to enforce feminist policy. As frozen in time as were many of their hippie constituents of the late sixties and early seventies, this group eschewed the company of men, yet railed against the rudeness of men. Why rail against a group you wanted to avoid? They were basically an “anti” group, anti-this, anti-that, but they offered no constructive solution for anything.
Inside, Jill Gower and Myra Roberts, UberPOW! Fascist Left leaders in their mid-thirties were standing near a podium and were preparing to address hundreds of their constituents. Two detectives from the L.A.P.D., Stan Crantz and Bud Stern, approached and drew them off to one side:
– I’m Stan Crantz and this is my associate, Bud Stern, from the Los Angeles Police Department. We thought you or your constituents might know something about an incident of billboard vandalism? It involves a high profile fashion model for the new Drof sports car?
Powerfully built, Jill Gowers was at least six foot one and her associate, body builder Myra Roberts was only slightly shorter. Sporting super-masculine butch haircuts-involuntarily making sure they did not look like the average women they were supposed to represent–they both towered over the diminutive Crantz and Stern who measured in at about five eight and five ten respectively and didn’t “do gym” as the loquacious Crantz would put it. Gowers and Roberts, on the other hand, did do a great amount of gym, often sharing equipment with some very virulent anti-feminists. As Myra Roberts would put it, “that’s the way of a woman’s world” to which her female companion would facetiously reply ‘Yawohl’! With a sneer on her lips, Gowers raised her whole frame up to Amazon status and inquired of her two inquisitors:
– So this was on the news this morning?
Crantz and Stern could only nod in affirmation. Without waiting for an answer, Gowers suddenly turned around and, nodding to the assembly outside, threw out:
– Why don’t we ask them?
She walked to the podium, rang a bell and the whole room went silent.
– Just a minute, hold on!
Stern called out, anxious to negotiate in private as much as he could. “I don’t need their opinion as yet. I need yours, so-”
Ignoring him, she turned on the PA system and addressed both the officers and the crowd in a loud voice!
– Step up here into the limelight, Officers!
Embarrassed, only Crantz did as he was told. Stern stayed back.
– These fine officers from the LAPD want to know if we’ve taken any potshots at that sexy Drof Motor Company billboard. You know the headless fashion model?! Have any of us decapitated any models? Now, would any of us really want to do such a thing?!
There was general laughter and raucous cat-calling all round. Participants began to whistle and boo. Away from the podium, Stern grabbed Robert’s arm.
– You and your friend want a good laugh? Our people will be down to do a thorough background check on every member of this organization.
They both pulled out digital cameras and took` a quick series of photos of all the people in the auditorium.
– Come on, Stan.
The two cops scurried away to the sound of stifled snickers.
This time the cops didn’t bother coming by like the first time. They called instead. They weren’t any closer to finding the Billboard Shooter-as they called him-than the last time except they thought it might have been a woman. They were profiling all L.A. women who did target practice at shooting ranges. I didn’t shoot a firearm, did I? Did I know any jealous feminist with a chip on her shoulder? Was I still sure I didn’t want protection? It sounded like the voice of the cuter of the two cops. “There haven’t been any other shootings, have there?” I found myself saying.
His voice droned on just like his friend’s, but at least, in my imagination, he was easier on the eyes. Something made me flirt with him even though I didn’t want him. I also told him I was a black belt in karate.
He told me that that was a good thing-that it was smart for girls to know how to defend themselves (at least, he didn’t call me a woman) and that if I didn’t mind, he would call from time to time to make sure I was alright. I said I wouldn’t and he gave his name as “Stern” or something to that effect. I said, “thank you, Mr. Stern”, and hung up.
Towards the end of the afternoon, I got on the same bus as before. At least, I had the same driver. I peered out the back of the bus, noticed no black smoke, and then returned my attention to the driver.
– I see we got the job done today?
However, the driver said nothing and stared straight ahead. He was in his thoughts and I remained in mine. I glanced down at my gas mask and then, as the bus crept along in the constant bumper-to-bumper traffic, I stared through it all to what it must have been only one hundred years earlier: rows and rows of orange trees, Mexicans in large hats on wooden ladders picking fruit, no signs and only the odd automobile or tractor to break the silence.
I got off in front of a low-rent, pink, green and yellow futuristic café on Hollywood Boulevard. It must not have been aware of fire restrictions because a group of people inside were sitting round a table in a cloud of smoke. To attract their attention, I rattled my gas mask against the window. In exaggerated fashion, I started coughing and spitting and imitating their smoking. Annoyed, two of them followed me outside but when I walked up to confront them, they retreated.
A little further on, I ran into four more youths wearing loud T-shirts with signs like, “Do the Job”, “Fuck me”, “Your Mother” and “Lick me, suck me, fuck me all night long”. I stared at them aggressively, but they were far meeker than their shirt signs and slinked off. I shook my head, then took a side road and started my long walk up the hill.
3: Anal Retention
Twenty minutes later, I was home. I pushed open the gate to my recently-manicured front lawn and began walking up the garden path. I looked over the fence to my neighbors’ identical-looking, low slung, Spanish-style bungalow. A series of metal garbage cans, all filled beyond capacity, lined their front walk which was parallel to mine. Their garden was in disrepair, and old garbage and clothes were scattered around. As I walked up my own clean front walk, I reached over the low fence and knocked each lid off its can so it would clang loudly against the ground. Two bare-chested men appeared at the window.
I didn’t know these men, even though I had lived next to them for five years. Janet apparently had made their acquaintance some years back and had mentioned me to them because they knew me by my first name. I thought it amusing that I didn’t know them by their first names, nor did I want to, but they insisted on using my first name as if we had been long-lost buddies. It was interesting that the figurative walls separating people in California had all been destroyed when the all-encompassing generic first-name business had come into play. When was that, I wondered? If one went into a bank or insurance company or any other formal institution for the first time, it was “Skeeter this, Skeeter that”. If I called any service company on the telephone, the technician or sales person would “Skeeter” me to death, bid me a nice day, tell me that my “call was being monitored for quality purposes”, and then ask me “is that okay with you, Skeeter?” How would I know? Was I supposed to actually “know” these people who had the temerity to call me “Skeeter”? And did I care to? I realized the people in question were only trying to be sociable so that they could be friendly, hence trusted. But they couldn’t really trust me, nor I them. And that’s just the way it was, and should be. Like love, trust could take years to build up, or it could be instantaneous, but it was not to be commanded or administered lightly by any low prole, Johnny-come-lately vendor.
– You don’t have to do that every week, Skeeter!
The shorter of the two had skeetered me again.
– So when are we gonna clear this shit up, guy?
I guyed the guy back in my “let’s be friendly with the enemy” way including a phony but cozy, conciliatory tone of voice. I then turned away from the men to go to my front door and proudly surveyed my own row of shiny, metal garbage cans clearly marked “glass”, “wood”, “plastics”, or “pure garbage” as well as my lush green lawn on which there was a sign reading, “Kept green with recycled water only”.
– Anal retentive!
The taller of the two had spoken now, and he was not being friendly, the honesty of which I appreciated, especially since I considered this man to know quite a bit about anal retention. As for myself, I was not, and would never be, anal retentive–I ate too many grains and natural fibers for that. If anything, I was anally explosive, especially in my treatment of others and what I believed in, almost to the point of smugness.
Let’s face it, I was smug.
My neighbor was right-at least about that–but I had enough sense of humor to admit to my own pomposity. I had the ability of seeing both points of view in everything, so that when I looked in the mirror every day I could say to myself, “I am an asshole,” and mean it; I was also anally explosive enough to say it out loud to whomever I was close, but since Janet’s death, I had become close to no one. I watched sadly as my neighbors’ window banged shut and the two men disappeared behind the curtains. I opened my front door, walked in and locked myself inside.