Here is the latest story I have been working on, as promised. It still doesn’t have a title. (Can you help me find one? And why are titles so hard? For me, titles are always the last and most difficult thing I write.)
For Re Harris, with gratitude.
When Leigh settled into a car, usually on the passenger side since she doesn’t own a car herself, she immediately rolled down the window–just a crack to let in a little fresh air and make sure the mechanism worked, just in case of emergency, because you never know: the car might plummet over a cliff, carbon monoxide or freon gas could leak, and the window might be the only escape. Who knows when you might feel the sudden urge to vomit. So when Leigh got in she immediately cracked the window at least an inch, even if it was raining, although it rarely rained in LA.
But it rains in San Francisco. The car sped north on Highway 5, away from LA, and Leigh stuck her hand out the window into the hot wind, palm stretched toward the low ochre hills dotted with burnt-looking bushes that looked exactly like the tumbleweeds in old cowboy movies, only these were still rooted. Tumbleweeds without the tumble? Well, those are just weeds, Leigh thought, and dabbled the wind with her chipped fingernails, wondering how long would it take to walk from LA to San Francisco, imagining a covered wagon rolling new ruts in the rusty dirt.
Leigh turned toward Victoria in the drivers seat. Victoria had the noble profile of a sphinx and the stoic, mildly amused expression of someone accustomed to being looked at. In high school, while standing in line to get senior portraits taken for the yearbook, Victoria had taken Leigh aside to fix her hair. “Remember, this is your good side,” she said. She pushed Leighs’s chin gently to the left, licked one fingertip, and ran it over her eyebrow. “Never look straight into the camera lens. The trick to appearing self-confident is letting them look at you while you’re busy looking at something else.”
Leigh mumbled something to her profile but Victoria just rolled her eyes. “I can’t hear you over the wind,” she sing-songed. “The air conditioner is on, you know.”
So Leigh rolled the window up. She and Victoria had been best friends for over ten years. Victoria liked to tell the story about how she took pity on the new girl from Eugene, Oregon whose hair hung in a horsey braid all the way down to the weird pockets of her jeans, embroidered with bright orange footprints, a suggestion that had been too compelling for one bunch of girls who had gleefully kicked her ass during recess. Leigh had purchased those pants with babysitting money because Teen Magazine had declared embellished jeans to be the hottest California fashion. From then on, Leigh had always let Victoria lead.
Leigh repeated: “It looks like the surface of Mars out there. I wonder if anyone has ever walked on that land.”
Victoria flicked her eyes out Leigh’s window. “A biology professor once told me that all the dirt you’ve ever seen has passed through the body of a worm at some point. It’s all worm crap, far as the eyes can see. Feces, everywhere. That should make you think twice about going for a walk, right?”
“I guess.” Leigh pushed the search button on the radio. She was in the mood for country or bluegrass, something to go with the landscape, but all she could find was a Christian talk show so she put in a CD instead. Victoria only listened to classical music, so Leigh did, too.
Victoria pulled her sunglasses down over her eyes. “Light a cigarette so I can have a drag, will you?”
“I’m almost out. Did you bring any?”
“Of course not. You know I don’t smoke.”
Leigh lit the cigarette and handed it over. Victoria took a long drag and held it elegantly over the steering wheel, passing it back to Leigh when the ash got too long.
Leigh had even followed Victoria to college but quit to work full time. When Leigh dropped out of school, Victoria had sulked and complained that it was a huge mistake but she offered the fold-out sofa in her spare room. Victoria never understood how anyone could actually work at a place called the Snappy Temporary Agency. “That’s not a job, it’s a joke,” she liked to say. To her, Leigh’s job was a farce, an “Insecure Position” at a “Soft Firm,” a “Momentary Activity” performed eight hours every weekday, but even Leigh had to admit the irony when the agency folded.
A few hours ago, Leigh had placed the last of her things into a box, taped it shut, wrote her name in sharpie, and stood to survey the backpack and three medium-sized cardboard boxes that contained everything she owned: towels, bedding, clothing, including three cheap suits and a wad of panty hose, a handful of jewelry stuffed into the bottom of a makeup bag, and some personal items. Everything else in their apartment belonged toVictoria, even the shampoo because of the time Victoria accidentally used Leigh’s cheaper product and it gave her a rash. Looking at those boxes, Leigh realized how small her life was but she could not decide if she felt freed or burdened by the sparseness.
“I can’t believe my whole life fits into the trunk of your car,” Leigh said.
“I know. Sort of scary. Can it breathe in there, do you think?”
“Ha. Maybe we should drill some air holes.”
Victoria took a long drag and exhaled out the corner of her mouth. “I still don’t understand where you think you’re going.”
“I’ll stay in the hostel until I find a job, then I’ll get a place. You can come visit.”
“You need a better plan.”
Leigh cracked her window, remembering the day at work when she had returned from lunch to find her boss, who had worked for the agency for twenty-five years, sitting at Leigh’s desk; normally a stiff, tidy woman with a pressed pantsuit and a tight bun, she sat gripping the arm rests. Leigh greeted her, wiping her mouth to catch stray dabs of peanut butter. Her boss leaned forward to stand but then froze with her face over her knees. She sat there gasping at her low-heeled loafers. “Are you okay?” Leigh had asked, and when her boss finally lifted her face, Leigh noticed for the first time the multicolored streaks of dyed hair like thin plaster on the scalp, the craze of veins in the whites of her eyes, and the faint mustache that seemed to have just sprouted on her boss’s upper lip.
“I just found out Snappy Temps is closing its doors for the last time,” her boss said and her face got softer and looser with those words, as if she were made of wax. “I am so sorry, so, so, so sorry to tell you this, Leigh, because I know that you’ve given everything to us. You’re a fine employee but I’m afraid we have to let you go. We’re all getting let go.” Leigh wouldn’t have been surprised if a button from her boss’s blazer had shot across the desk and landed at her feet: the woman’s deterioration and the collapse of Leigh’s career were swift and final.
That day, Leigh didn’t rush home to share with Victoria what already felt like old news, a punchline that had taken so long to arrive it was no longer funny. Instead, she sat at the Metrolink station watching the tidal flow of busy people. On the wall there was a map: straight lines and primary colors delineating an orderly system, a design that promised no stress, no deviation, and no chance of getting lost. One ghostly gray line indicating an Amtrak train shot left and up off the top edge and Leigh wondered where it went, imagined an old-fashioned steam train pulling away from the station and her, running along beside it, dressed like a hobo. In her daydream she swung her satchel into an open box car and scrambled in.
She’d never been to San Francisco. All she’d need was some cans of chile con carne, a can opener, a fork, and a woolen poncho.
Victoria said that no single heterosexual woman with half a brain would consider such a move, that it was sexual suicide, but she offered a ride as a going away present: their last hurrah. It would be an opportunity to test drive her new car, a graduation present from her parents and a reward for getting into medical school. The car was sleek and powerful and Victoria drove fast with one wrist propped at the top of the steering wheel, gold bracelets sliding up her tan arm, pale curls sparking under the sunroof, her gaze settled calmly on the road ahead. She didn’t need to turn to look inside the cars she passed or quaint roadside shacks selling fruits and almonds and, every mile or so, she’d add another thought to her last: a story about how she’d charmed her professor of Human Anatomy when she said, “I never metatarsal I didn’t like,” a hilarious replay of a recent date with an investment banker, and a Benjamin Franklin quote about failing to prepare and preparing to fail.
Late last night while Leigh was bumping around in her room packing boxes, Victoria had taken an online Medical Specialty Aptitude Exam and got the usual results. No matter how hard she tried, pathology, nephrology, and thoracic surgery topped the list and psychiatry, pediatrics, and family practice fell to the bottom. Maybe her clinical rotations would change that result. At least they’re on the list, she told herself, but she couldn’t convince herself to choose something less than #1. When her father was disappointed in her, he never said so but she could see it on his face: he’d look up at the sky and smile as if someone up there might be listening, someone who might get the joke. As the car neared the top of the Tehachapi Mountains she said, “Life is a series of tests, Leigh. If you pay attention, jump through the hoops, and clear the hurdles, then you get the rewards.”
Leigh smiled and nodded but she didn’t seem to be listening.
“Roll up the window, would you? It’s hot out there.”
“Okay,” said Leigh.
At work, it had been Leigh’s job to administer the typing test. After they filled out the papers on the clipboard she handed them, she’d lead applicants over to a computer in the corner and tell them to open the file titled “Typing Test: Aesop’s Fables.” It only took a minute but she always took a walk down the hall so she wouldn’t make them nervous and when she got back, she’d read the result aloud: “That’s 40 words per minute minus 7 mistakes, which leaves an adjusted speed of 33 words per minute. That’s only a touch less than average.” Then she’d smile her nicest smile and add, “Maybe that was a warm-up. Would you like to go again? We’ll record only the highest result, don’t you think?” When they thanked her, she’d hold up her hand to stop them, saying that kindness is always a good investment.
The typing exam had been her favorite part of her job. When she got to work she’d always warm up by taking the test. On a good day she could do 60 words per minute although she always made a few mistakes and never made it all the way to the end of the fable to the moral that always followed but she told herself if she ever did, she’d buy herself a little present to celebrate, a manicure perhaps, nothing extravagant but a treat nonetheless, and so it became her daily ritual, a devotion, a secret thrill to take the test and she sat like a pianist, straight spine and limber fingers, utterly focused on the words growing like inchworms on the computer screen, progressing a little more every day, feeling a shade brighter and an ounce more solid.
There were hundreds of fables, each with its own pithy moral, and she never knew which she’d get. But whatever it was, she’d keep it in mind throughout the day, ruminating, and when an overloaded printer caused a jam, she’d mutter, “Little by little does the trick,” and after appeasing an angry customer on the phone she might hang up, smile at the ceiling, and say, “Much outcry, little outcome.” Her co-workers had begun viewing her as the sage of the workplace. They’d prop themselves outside her cubicle to complain about their children or spouses or clients and she’d nod and smile like a happy buddha: “One in the hand is worth ten in the bush,” she’d tell them, or something like that, and for the first time in her life she always had a little scrap of wisdom to share.
It had been her goal to reach a clean 60 wpm but then the agency closed. Victoria called it a blessing. “When one door closes, another door opens, as you would say.”
Leigh had dried her eyes on her sleeve. “But when you say it, it sounds like a joke.”
“Better than sounding like a cliché, right?” When Leigh didn’t smile Victoria handed her a tissue and added, “Oh, come on. Let’s get our nails done. I’ll treat.”
Their car climbed the grade and plummeted down towards Bakersfield. The orange sun burned low on the horizon and it had been miles since either of them had spoken but that was okay with Victoria. They had been friends for so long that conversation was often superfluous; really, they had said all they needed to say.
Last Wednesday in therapy, Victoria had surprised herself by crying. One second she was talking about how she had driven past the house she’d lived in before her parents got divorced and how surprisingly small and dingy it had seemed; the next minute she was bawling about Leigh’s sudden decision to move. Dr. Robinson had comforted her with words like evolution and progress and reminded Victoria that she and Leigh had been growing apart for years. “Sometimes friendships are better from afar,” she’d said. “Who knows, maybe this is the best way to preserve your friendship. Sometimes people look better from a distance, if you know what I mean.”
Victoria glanced at herself in the rear view mirror then smiled at the road ahead. Now, she could reclaim the spare room. She’d have the walls painted a clean coat of white. She’d put the television in there and invite new friends over to watch movies. When she got back to LA., she had a party to go to. Leigh would never be there to open the door when Victoria forgot her key but she wouldn’t miss the rude early morning whine of Leigh’s alarm clock or finding dark stubble on her razor or the constant temptation of cigarettes and peanut butter and chats. She’d miss Leigh with the diffuse, irrational nostalgia one might feel for the memory of a childhood home, a home she had outgrown years ago but hadn’t noticed.
When they stopped at a gas station, Leigh offered to pay.
“Are you joking?” Victoria chided. “You never have any money!”
“Oh come on, I can afford a tank of gas. It’s the least I can do.” But when Leigh swiped her card at the pump, the display instructed her to see the attendant.
Inside, Leigh trotted a couple drinks and a big bag of potato chips up to the counter. The young woman at the register was about Leigh’s age, maybe younger, with a doughy face and faded pink streaks in her hair. “We need to fill up on 7.” Leigh leaned against the counter to watch the girl swipe the card. “I really have no idea why my card didn’t work outside. I should have enough money in there.”
The girl’s blush matched her dyed hair. “Oh, no. It’s just the machine. I’m sorry, it’s been doing that all day.”
“Thank god.” Leigh gasped with relief. “We’re going to San Francisco.”
The girl’s gaze trawled up to Leigh’s face and then she turned to look out the flyspecked window to where Victoria stood stretching by her gold car. “I’ve always wanted to go to SF hear some music and go dancing. All we have here are dive bars and juke boxes.”
Leigh followed the girl’s stare out to where Victoria stood in her yoga pants. Victoria was doing some complicated yoga pose holding one ankle behind her back and leaning forward, frozen like a golden statue, bangles flashing in the sun. “You should go. Just make a plan and go for it.”
“I tried once. Crappy car broke down near Coalinga. Had to have it towed.”
“Maybe that was a warm-up. You should try again.” She smiled her most encouraging smile. “You could catch a train. Wouldn’t that be cool? And kind of romantic?”
“Maybe.” She pushed her pink hair out of her face and shrugged, but her eyes brightened. “Yeah, maybe.”
While she waited, Victoria filed her nails and flipped through her CDs while her rear-view mirror offered a view of Leigh chatting with the attendant. Leigh was laughing and moving her hands like it was a job interview, talking more in a few minutes with a stranger than she had all day to Victoria.
When Leigh finally opened the door and slid into the passenger seat, Victoria couldn’t contain her irritation. “What the hell took so long?” Leigh handed over the bag of chips and rolled down the window and Victoria scowled at the bag: “Junk food. You are what you eat. Do I look like junk to you? ” She pushed aside the bottle of water Leigh offered. “And would you roll up the window, for god’s sake?”
“It’s just fresh air. It won’t kill you, you know.”
Victoria sighed and grabbed the chips. “I won’t miss your neediness, that’s for sure.”
“You need a place to stay, you need to borrow some money, you need some fresh air. It gets old after awhile, you know.”
Leigh said nothing as they pulled back onto the highway. She was thinking about the fable of the two bowls on a riverbank; one brass and one clay. The river rose and carried them both down the stream. The brass bowl asked the other why it floated so far away and the clay bowl said, “I’m afraid you will run into me.” Don’t worry, I won’t hit you, the brass pot said, but the pottery bowl insisted: “If I come too close, we’ll touch. And whether I collide with you or you with me, I’ll be the one who’ll suffer for it.” Leigh always had trouble typing the quotation marks, always typed a question mark instead, and could never decide if it was smarter to go back and fix her errors or continue on, aiming for speed. If Leigh could type 60 words per minute, that would mean 3,600 words per hour,or 144,000 words per week if she did nothing but type. Imagine how good she could get if she did nothing but type.
Victoria lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “I still can’t believe you dropped out. You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
“I guess compared to you I don’t.” Leigh looked out her window. “Maybe the strong and the weak can’t coexist.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? And please, stop talking like a fortune cookie, it’s just annoying.”
“It means I have to leave before someone gets hurt.”
Victoria gripped the steering wheel with both hands. “Do you have any idea how much I’ve done for you? Where would you be without me?” She waved the cigarette towards the gray panorama, the listing telephone poles to the left and low wire fence on the right. “Nowhere, that’s where.”
“Looks like someplace to me.” Leigh wouldn’t admit that this was probably as close to nothing as one could get, a monotonous, flat, cement-colored world made of weeds and barbed wire. Victoria’s eyes glinted dangerously and then the tears surprised them both. Leigh stared for a moment and then reached out to touch Victoria’s arm. “I’m sorry. Thank you so much for driving. The truth is, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” She tried to laugh. “Really, I have no idea.”
Victoria’s face had broken into something that looked like pain or surprise. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m going to miss you.”
They pulled over at the next rest stop where they talked until they were laughing again. Leigh lit them each a cigarette and offered to drive: “I’ve got it under control.”
“Are you sure?” Victoria asked.
“Of course. You’ve done enough.”
The sun was long gone. When Victoria tilted the seat back, pulled a sweater over her head, and fell asleep, Leigh was thankful because then she wouldn’t notice Leigh’s nervous driving. She stacked her spine straight and focused all her attention on the cement illuminated by headlight, straining to see what was coming. With hands on the steering wheel like barnacles stuck to the hull of the mothership, she sucked air from the cracked window to ease her nausea.
The last day of work, she’d typed a fable about a one-eyed deer who grazed near the sea so she could keep her good eye aimed toward possible danger. When the hunters found out she was half blind they hired a boat and shot her from the water: You cannot escape your fate.
Imagined details flashed and shimmied in the headlight: a lone deer trembling against a bleak background, an empty socket, soft body in crosshairs, conspiratorial waves lapping up blood. When her eyes caught and registered the meaning of the words on the big green traffic sign that declared “5 South Los Angeles,” it felt like an old joke, a punchline she’d heard too many times: Los Angeles. Of course. She’d been driving diligently in the wrong direction.
But this time, she knew just what to do. She took the next exit, looped back under the freeway, and pulled over at a bus station.
She left the keys in the ignition. She made sure all the doors were locked though because if something bad happened, she could never forgive herself. She paused on the sidewalk pressing the tip of her pen to paper, shifting from one foot to the other, until she gave up, shoved them into her bag, and boarded the first bus that stopped for her.
Thank you for reading. Yes, it is rather long. See anything that could be cut?
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