Copyright © 2002 All Rights Reserved
I awoke to a cacophony of sound, the clattering cry of wild parrots. They greet the morning like a woman being pursued by a rapist. I was up and into the garden before my eyes were open, with a cigarette in my mouth and hands searching my pockets for matches, or a lighter.
It was a rare gray morning in Venice, dull and powdery. It was incongruous, torn from the pages of a period piece set in Elizabethan London and flung carelessly on top of wild Venice Beach. There was a strange humidity that had swooped in off the ocean with the clouds. I could feel the sweat from the night before still sitting on my skin, my hair slick with wet when I ran my fingers through, an overbearing humid that bodes no rain, that will take its slow sweet time in moving off to anywhere. It had the parrots in a riot. They were always obscene no matter what the climate, but this humidity had flipped some sort of primal switch in them, some instinctual remembrance, a sudden poignancy for lush canopies that the high electrical wires were failing to satisfy. And so they bitched in high order, startling the world awake and me with it.
I heard stirrings in the main house. Poor Adrian appeared at the back door with eyes puffy and wearing a tight t-shirt that said Porky's across her tits, and nondescript panties. She smiled at me crookedly and stumbled down the stairs to the garden table, motioning for my now lit cigarette.
"What is up with the parrots?" she croaked. She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them.
"The sky is falling." I motioned toward the clouds.
"Wow." She stretched. "That's easy on the eyes."
"Hey, you're not wearing your sun glasses."
"Neither are you."
She sniffled and exhaled. "Well I'll be damned."
She stretched again. She was pretty when she stretched. We sat dazed and pondering the murk.
I had only been living in this particular spot for a month or so, but before the end of the first week Adrian had become Poor Adrian in my mind. I considered the dimples in her knees. She rented a room in the main house with her boyfriend, a beefy surfer and full time drug dealer. He was dark and squat like a retaining wall, like a harbor buoy at nightfall, with eyes pursed into a perpetual squint by the Venice sun and years of smoking product. My second night there I was out at the table tossing back a few with everyone. Adrian and her boyfriend had gotten into it, first muffled intense whispers in the shadows of the big rose bush, then louder and stomping back and forth to the kitchen to get more drinks. It made me feel very uncomfortable. I wasn't sure what I should do. I had no point of reference, not really knowing anyone yet. Everyone else just sat around the table trailing fragments of disjointed conversation around, pretending to be actually listening to themselves. I did likewise. The next morning she had one eye swollen closed, blood dried on her lip. When I started to ask if she needed help, she stopped me before I could get the words out of my mouth.
"Please don't," she said. "Don't say it."
I tried again.
"Please, just don't." She held her fingers to her temples, like a gypsy pretending to read the future. "Just don't."
After that she had transformed into Poor Adrian.
She finished her cigarette and stubbed it out on the pile, uncurling her legs and standing. "Looks like we get a vacation from paradise," she said.
"Si, Senorita." I tipped an imaginary hat. I was feeling thicker than usual in the head, my eyes dull and my neck wobbly.
Adrian walked back into the house with a half realized wave of her hand. I decided to have another cigarette, then changed my mind part way through and tossed it on the top of the pile. I pulled my pockets inside out and watched the sand sift out of them. To live in Venice is to live in sand. It is everywhere, less a force of nature than a living entity; it has an intellect that you must contend with. When I first moved in I had come at the sand like an opponent, opening the big French doors of my cabana wide every evening when the air cooled, attempting to exercise it from my belongings for another night. In the morning it was always back, as if it had crawled down my throat and slowly bled itself from the pours of my skin when I was sleeping. Wherever you looked, there was sand, in every bite of food, on every inch of your body. Finally, after a number of angry days, I had given up. I had raised the white flag and lowered my guns. A truce was formulated, a plan of cohabitation was hastily implemented: Venice Beach Buddhism. It began as a fluctuating mixture of acceptance and resignation, but once I was converted a subtle transition began to occur. One day I awoke and realized that I had become one with the sand. The only time it bothered me now was after I'd been in the ocean. I'd put on my shoes and feel the wet grains grinding up and down against my skin, leaving my ankles raw, and chaffing at my legs where my shorts clung as I walked back from the water to the boardwalk. Even then it was only a mild nuisance, like the cajoling of a friend who could take things too far every now and again.
I watched my pockets growing lighter, the sand slowly sifting onto the ground, feeling no ill will, no frustration. By evening the sand would be back in my pockets, but it was alright, everything was simpatico. I decided to take a walk down to the Pacific, to see what it looked like with clouds hung over it.
The house was on the far side of Main Street from the water, bordering on the barrio, with HUD apartments right across the street. At the same time it was only a few blocks down from trendy Abbot Kinney with its flavor of the week antique stores and bars where you could spend ten bucks on one drink. I walked in the opposite direction from the Abbot, to the local Mexican market that always smelled of fresh chicken carcasses, where ten bucks got you a day's worth of food for a family of five. I got a bottle of Old English out of the cooler and waited at the counter for a pack of smokes while the clerk sawed a chicken carcass in half, and then in half again, drawing it across a jig saw that was always left running. The saw chomped through flesh and bones indiscriminately. There was a rhythm to the process if you watched it enough. It almost felt like you were witnessing some sort of Santeria ceremony the way it worked with the heat of the store to lull you, and the heavy eyed clerk, and the tiny Mexican women who ordered the birds, into a magnificent trance. Almost always, when I went into the store, there was another chicken being drawn and quartered, and another anonymous and tiny old woman holding her hands up from below the five foot counter to receive its remains.
After the ritual was completed the woman gathered her bag of chicken and hobbled from the deli counter back in front of me to check out. The rest of her items had already been laid out next to the register when I arrived. There was some laundry detergent, and some flour, both of them brands I had only seen in here, labeled in Spanish, and probably shipped up from the southern reaches for the sake of familiarity and cheapness. Everything smelled of the chicken in this place, even the laundry detergent. The old woman lifted out a worn and time bleached pocket book, judiciously measuring out the price that was rung up in coins and food stamps and a single crumpled dollar bill. She handled the money with a reverence that was missing in most places I had been.
"Hola," I said, when I got up to the counter. "Como Esta?"
"Nothing." The clerk nodded. "Smokes?"
"Yeah, Camels, light, box."
He rang up my beer and my smokes.
"Going for a swim, man?"
"Maybe," I said.
He shook his head. "You're fucking crazy man, loco."
"You should close up shop and hit the beach."
He shook his head and laughed.
"It's beautiful out. It's all cloudy," I said.
"I know," he said, "and it's August."
Just then the bell on the door rang, announcing a new customer. It was a guy I had seen a few times on the boardwalk and around town. He had ex-con written all over him, with one of his eyes blind and gone milky and clouded over, and prison tats, Spider webs on the elbows which I knew meant drug addict, with his hair all slicked straight back that lets you know he'd done time, because they all wear their hair like that in there so as to not look like punk ass bitches.
The three of us, the clerk, the con, and myself, nodded at each other in unison.
I grabbed my beer and my smokes and walked out into the gray.
Some people in Venice say that it isn't safe to swim in the ocean. Halfway out from the boardwalk into the sand there are enormous cement ducts. They are as tall as two men, and grated over with rusted fences like the orally challenged mouths of giant adolescents braced over and set out to weather the elements for twenty years. When the aging sewer system of the people of Greater Los Angeles gets taxed to the breaking, the overflow comes rushing down underground channels, and flushes out through the vents and off into the Pacific. The water is poison--people say like a curse, there is an air of voodoo in it, of mystery--it gives you sores on your shoulders, sick to your stomach, prostate cancer, offspring with extra legs.
Some of us just say fuck it, and we swim anyway, as long as it's not raining. When it rains, it is just a matter of time before the ducts rip open. Even the roughest Venice surfers wait a couple weeks after a storm.
Under the clouds I came to the boardwalk, and found it was a desert in the haze. I opened my beer and it echoed off the buildings. I had never heard the boardwalk echo before. It had never been that silent, that empty. It was a small moment. It was one of those moments when you are acutely aware of how alone you are. You put your hand to your forehead and are struck with the body memory of people left far behind you. It makes your eyes get imperceptibly wider in the act of taking it in, your mind that whispers, Oh my life, to you, like it has found something on the sidewalk, and picked it up and is brushing it off.
I held my hand to my forehead, standing in the empty board walk, and felt at the lives I'd lived rushing by like the invisible snapshot frames of a movie. I sipped at the head of my beer, and then swallowed of it heavily, feeling the warm blossoming pain of my kidneys' protest, still aching like swollen cherry stones in my lower back from the drinking I had done the night before. I didn't want to go near the water just yet, I didn't want to feel the sand under my feet, so I started wandering down the boardwalk, feeling a heaviness that began in my chest and slowly settled in the base of my spine.
I allowed myself to get lost behind my eyes for a while, walking past the novelty bodegas and tattoo parlors, many of them still closed with fences that rolled up and down like window shades drawn tight across their doorways and held in place with large and multiple locks. I was thinking nothing, moving into a nowhere space. I'm not sure how long I was walking, when the distant sound of a commotion woke me from my reverie.
I looked up and saw a small crowd gathered up ahead. There were 10 or 15 of them, grouped into a bunch in the middle of the sidewalk. Through the warping distance of air I could hear the humming undercurrent of their voices, the occasional echoing cry, of surprise perhaps, or anger. I picked up my pace moving towards them, feeling curious, and also wary. As I got closer I could make out features of individual people in the mass.
It was a widely mixed group. I saw some women in matching jogging outfits--spandex, a guy in a white button down and tie, a young kid with a skateboard. It wasn't until I got right on them, became one of them, that I was able to see what was drawing their attention.
There was a man on the ground in front of us. He was shirtless and skinny. You could see the bones of his ribs outlined starkly underneath his skin. He was wearing a pair of pants and he had them on backwards, the button fly hanging open from his lower back. They were mangy with dirt and the ever-present Venice sand. He rolled around and flopped across the ground like a fish on the deck of a trawler, dragging himself about like a raccoon half dead and trying to get off the road. Around his neck there was a dog collar, with a leash hanging off of it. He yanked himself about with his own hand on the leash, his face a grimace, his mouth a foamy pit. He groaned a continuous and a babbling mass of words--angry and nonsensical, raising at times to helpless shrieks. His body was covered with cuts and scrapes, from the sidewalk, as he dashed himself about on the cement and sand, fighting with all his might against his own hand which tossed him to and fro.
"--right on the boardwalk. We're right on the boardwalk." The man in a suit next to me spoke in hushed tones into his cell phone. "You'd better get someone down here."
It was like a strange dance that went on and on, a ritual of pain, of degradation.
"We need someone now," the man said into his phone. "This is real here. This is a real situation which is happening here."
The man picked himself suddenly off of the ground, and onto his knees, both hands raised into the air, the metal leash trailing out from his hand like the gleaming filament of a spider's web. "Jesus," the man shrieked. "What are you looking at. Fuck you and your silences. What do you see?" Out of nowhere there was a piece of glass in his hand, and he began carving into himself with it, deep wounds being opened across his chest, the taught rope muscles of his abdomen. One of the women shrieked. All of us knew then, we knew what we were seeing.
"No," someone said. It may have been me.
But no one moved. No one did anything.
"Stop it," he screamed. "This life."
"You need to get someone down here now," the man of the phone was saying. "He's going to do it."
"You want to hear me go off?" the man shrieked. "Give me some more." And the shard dug deeply into his throat then, a pure font of blood gushing out around it. "Mother fucker," he screamed, "I need a little more." And then he was up on both feet and you could feel it happening as if he were lifting off the ground, as if he were levitating above us, his arms hung outward as if on strings. You could feel when the spirit left him. The sound of a body hitting the pavement--unnatural to see it drop without a hint of hesitation.
The man in the suit dropped his phone onto the ground, in mid-sentence. We stood mute. No one moved. No one took a breath.
The water was the color of gun metal under the clouds. The sand was damp and cool, and I could feel a wind off of the water.
Slowly one of the women approached the body. She bent down and began stroking the hair. It held us all spellbound, how it felt right, her hand running itself across the rough tufts of hair, and you would never expect, how right it felt, it knocked the breath out of you.
The police appeared on the scene pretty quickly, pushing us back, just because that was their nature.
"Give him air," I heard one of them say. What did that mean?
The paramedics were there soon after the cops. We parted for them grudgingly. As soon as the first one touched the body, a surge of anger ran through the crowd. Starting in murmurs, but then suddenly people were yelling.
"Leave it alone!" someone called out from the back. And the entire place erupted in anger.
"Don't touch him!" they screamed. "Don't you fucking touch him." Where did it come from? Who knows? Who understands these things?
The police had out their billy clubs. A call was put in to head quarters for back-up.
"All right, all right, break it up everyone. Let the man do his job."
The crowd started backing away out of instinct. Bunching together like a herd of buffalo. Then, out of nowhere, an object went flying, and hit one of the cops in the head. It was the guy with the cell phone. I saw it happen right next to me, too quickly to understand what I was seeing. In one smooth motion he had picked up a rock and let it fly. The cop fell and the group erupted. As if on cue a whole battery of blue uniforms appeared, seemingly from out of nowhere. The crowd exploded as one, all of us running in different directions. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them jump on the guy with the cell phone. It made me sad that he didn't get away. I don't know why.
I cut up a couple blocks and ran south down alleyways that paralleled the boardwalk. I ran for a long time, my mind holding onto the site of the shard digging in, of the body falling without resistance to the ground. When I finally stopped running I had no idea how far I'd gone. My side felt like it was going to rip open. I limped back onto the boardwalk with my arm pushing into the pain, leaning over it.
There was no sign of the cops. No sign of anyone. The boardwalk was empty again. I walked down towards the water, feeling the cool damp sand, waiting for the wind to point me somewhere.
I saw the first drop fall into the gray ocean. It marked itself with a tiny depression in the surface, just starting to spread a rippled halo when the next wave crashed in, obliterating any trace. I don't know how I got into the water. I was swimming for that rain drop, for the place where it had been erased by the swelling white water. The downpour started and I was treading water, feeling the waves breaking over my back. There was no one in sight. I was alone with my folly, glaring at the looming sewer ducts, daring them to do their worst. The giant mouths grinned eager in reply, seeming to draw themselves wider, their cell bar orthodonture drawn tight and prepared for the onslaught. In the distance I heard a crying scream, in that instant before the first thunder strike. It was the parrots of Venice exclaiming their displeasure, three generations and ten thousand miles displaced from the lush canopies of home, calling out thunder warnings amid the hum and crackle of the electrical wire desert, the urban tombstone ruinations, the terrible waste of it all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is very busy these days. He is the Director of New Media @ Web Del Sol
; he is the editor of Magazine Minima
, a journal of microfiction; he is the editor of 07(group), a journal of New Media Art at Web Del Sol; he is editing for the publication Rivendell. Oh, and did we fail to mention that he is 3am's
New Media editor?
His multimedia art, fiction, and poetry have recently appeared, or shortly will appear in: Poems that Go
, In Posse
, Double Room, The Voyeur
, The Del Sol Review
, Minima and Artifacts