Below you will find the results of my having joined a writing group in Los Angeles during the early 2000s. This story is about 12 years old, and is an attempt to convey a specific mood through seemingly disparate tones. I hope you enjoy.
He sprawled onto the hood of his parents’ car and pretended to fall asleep. He hoped people would see him, lying there. They would sneer at his eccentricity while quietly admiring his nonchalance. He would become an anecdote.
An hour passed and witnesses did not arrive, so H____ sprinted to the edge of the parking lot and climbed the chain link fence. From that perspective, the car seemed to have dropped from above – a mercury drop on a surface, slick and featureless. He envisioned himself lying on the hood, arranged perfectly, and dressed well.
The next morning, H____ was unexpectedly promoted to crew chief.
The reason? “Dave quit.”
Donny and Derek manhandled the DeepFri with special scours. It resembled an interrogation. Vanessa, a prior graduate of H____’ high school and mother of two young girls from two different men, scrubbed the toilets. Rick, the retiree who did payroll once a week, did not assist a disappointed H____ in trying to open the safe.
After the 8am snarl of factory workers unraveled, H____ popped into the cigarette lounge and turned on the radio. After a brief and unexpected series of events, he discovered himself in the coveted role of fourteenth caller. H____ won fourteen hundred fourteen dollars and fourteen cents as well as fourteen tickets to see Green Day. Moments later, while dashing home in his uniform, he happened upon a white plastic bag containing nine dollars worth of rolled quarters.
H____ picked up a Swapper from Mike’s News. Whenever he encountered free local publications, he deliberately started arguments. His strategy was simple: he would stuff all the hand-stapled newsletters into his pockets and dash out the door. Mike would leap over the counter, yelling, “Stop! Thief!” like in the comic books. The famously athletic Mike would overtake H____ on the sidewalk, blocking his path like a swinging gate.
“One per customer.”
“Fuck it, where does it say that?”
Mike was a rehabilitated alcoholic who had embraced a spacey form of Fundamentalist Christianity. Knowing this, H____ would shout profanity during their encounters. Mike would soon forget his Stealing The Swappers and concentrate on shutting him up.
“I said one per customer. I said it just now and I said it before.”
“Fuck it, where does it say that?”
“I’m saying it now. I just said that and I said it the last time.”
“Fuck it, where does it say that on the wall?”
“I’m getting sick of this.”
“Then write it on the fucking wall.”
These tactics lost their significance last spring, when Mike passed the shop down to his sons. Jesse, the youngest and largest, inherited his father’s linebacker build and propensity for violence. Unlike his father, Jesse had no faith and therefore remained unintimidated by foul language.
One per customer.
H____’ s Father had met Danielle at UMASS, where he worked and where she taught a performance art seminar. Danielle wore expensive, tight fitting sweat suits made from velour. They came in odd colors – banana or throaty purple. She pierced her belly button and lined her eyes with coarse mascara. For Thanksgiving, Danielle and H____’ s Father took a train to Bates College for a fundraiser. During the trip, they collaborated on a strange story – H____’ s Father scribbled one page. Danielle took the next and so on. Later, they had the piece bound.
Manoj, the young man at Taj Mahal Fine Dining, had specifically instructed Danielle to season a whole chicken with special yogurt sauce and let it sit for seven hours. She had bought a free-range bird from Wild Oats and followed the yogurt sauce recipe to the letter. However, she could only allow the flavoring to sop for forty minutes as her belly dance class had run late.
Devouring the boney Tandoori Chicken required two hands worth of effort and the yogurt sauce flicked onto the Swapper’s thin newsprint pages. Still, H____ found a Best Offer Ford Tempo as well as a composite One Of A Kind Motorcycle made from Triumph, BMW and Kawasaki parts.
The owner of the bike had recently died. Liza, old girlfriend, was an exhausted woman with bleached tattoos leering over the cut of her jeans. When cruisers rolled past, she hid her bottle behind her back and waved. The cops honked in return. She marveled that the motorcycle itself was Not Somehow Involved in her man’s passing. The Owner Of The Bike suffered a fatal heart attack at a movie theater, after a vampire suddenly jumped through a plate glass window. Not only that, he had caught a ride with his then- girlfriend’s brother. The bike wasn’t even near the scene of the crime.
She recounted how he had once tried to pull a wheelie in front of some girls. The bike flipped back on top of him and he broke his foot. H____ mentioned that the clutch was supposed to disengage if riders fell off their bikes, instantly halting the vehicles and preventing such accidents. Liza nodded.
The Owner Of The Bike had single-handedly assembled the whole contraption and, although it ran extremely well, repairs were difficult. He had gone so far as to author a manual for future care and preservation – a black spiral notebook with sparkly American flag decals on the cover. It contained surprisingly clear instructions and a diagram he had drawn in blue ink.
H____ gave Liza two hundred fifty dollars cash for the motorcycle and another two hundred fifty dollars cash for the notebook. As he pushed the bike towards the end of the driveway, she lugged along a case of Coors Light – a token of her appreciation. She worked fifty hours during the week at Target and, on weekends, she did full days sweeping up at a Bo-Rics. Sunday evenings were open, usually. If he wanted to stop by, she would rub him down in the shoulders and open his beers.
The entire Mills Family – David, Margaret, Nina-Simone and Cesar – had spent a year bicycling across the United States. They started in Burlington, Vermont and pedaled until they reached Palo Alto, California. They picked up litter and Fed-Exed the stuff to the CEO’s of major corporations along with firm but friendly suggestions about recycling and environmental sensitivity. David Mills kept the letters and eventually wrote a book about his journey, which was published by St. Martin’s Press. He was considering a run for public office.
The Ford Tempo had belonged to David Mills’ sister. She had parked it in her brother’s driveway prior to moving to Atlanta. He had not heard back in going on three years. He sold it to H____ for five hundred dollars and gave him a copy of his book.
Finding the exact center of the parking lot took considerably longer than expected. H____ inched the car forward, aligning it with telephone poles as best he could. Unfortunately, upon examination from the viewpoint of the chain link fence, the car seemed off. He later realized that the yellow grid of empty parking spaces created bizarre optical illusions. Finally, he calibrated the Ford Tempo’s location based on the physical gap between an electrical transformer and the sliding doors at Barnes And Noble.
He dropped the keys in a drainage ditch.
H____ didn’t throw the match so much as the match fell out of his hand. His fingertips had grown numb and his elbow hurt from the rigidity and odd angle of his arm. The match dropped onto the center of the oil pan and instantly formed an aurora.
H____ was disappointed the he couldn’t examine this perfect violet and angry red radiance in closer detail.
There was no great explosion of air or heat or any melodrama at all, really. The fire just slipped out and then back in. Soon, the flames began silently darting after one another, playing a silly chasing game.
They stretched upward from the crevices and terrain of the engine block. Soon, the flames had outlined the hood of the car, which still jutted open. They formed loops and, quickly enough, learned to make strange sounds.
His face became damp and tender and flicks of sweat abruptly fell onto his eyelids. H____ bent over and pressed his palms against his cheekbones. His lips hurt and the rubber in his sneakers broiled. He dashed away from the car, towards the bike.
The crackling escalated from an interesting atmospheric effect to a real din. Indeed, he could only be sure he had successfully started the motorcycle from the rattletrap vibrations around the gas tank. H____ became occupied by details – someone would be attracted to the sheer volume rather than the sight of white and orange flames lunging towards the stars in the sky.
Tilting his head back, he caught a swirling collection of light and heat and sound. The car was gone. It had changed in the same way that a smiling showgirl in a chrome cage would change into a tiger.
He pictured his cousin, Ford, who he encountered at infrequent parties hosted by Ford’s parents at their home in Newport. By evening’s end, the aunts and uncles and their friends would have surrounded the grill, shoulder to shoulder, cackling like witches. They would play weird word games and talk about politics and Brazilian movies and public television. Ford and H____ would drift off to the futuristic concrete swimming pool to listen to Jethro Tull and King Crimson and Steely Dan. H____ loved spending time with Ford, who coiled inside a massive jet-black overcoat assembled from cloth panels.
Ford spoke about his hitch in Viet Nam. “The Shit,” as he called it. He discussed basic training, where it took five angry men to cut off his hair, and Special Forces runs in The Everglades. The Instructor was CIA and he urged them to be careful of water snakes. Poisonous serpents bred in swirling nests that resembled clots of seaweed. Incautious divers would disturb the inky masses and be bitten to death in seconds. Bodies would float to the surface decorated with hissing, writhing vipers.
“Saw it happen,” intoned Ford between pulls on a Camel. “Saw it happen many a time. I saw it happen to Rusty from Oklahoma. This kid.”
Later, H____ retold Ford’s vile yarn to his father who was making a rum cake. The Man glowered at him for several seconds, presumably to convey that matters of such gravity were not to be discussed by the young. H____’s Father dropped the aerosol can of Pam and leaned forward.
“The Vietnam War ended, effectively, in 1975. Ford was born in 1975. He never went to Vietnam. He never went anywhere. He’s a year older than your brother is. He still lives at home with his Mom and his Dad who paid for him to go to Oberlin for a year and, when that didn’t fly, he tried to go to Salve Regina and now, I guess, he watches TV.”
H____’s Mother entered. She was taller than his father was.
“Who?” she asked.
“Mensa Ford went to Vietnam!” answered Dad in a trumpety tone.
His Mother’s back straightened.