The warm summer rain thundered down on top of the car, sheets of water slid down the windshield, sprinkling me as I lay in the backseat, my hands tucked in between my knees. Looking out the car window into the thickness of darkness, I saw tendrils of Spanish Moss swaying in the wind. The last of the tropical storm continued to sweep through the southern part of the state, leaving broken tree limbs and powerlines scattered up and down the rural highway….
We rolled into Los Angeles on an empty tank of gas in the middle of the night. I gazed out from the backseat of the car, my head light and fuzzy. The Hollywood hills dazzled with their glittering lights and palm trees. We sped past a flurry of liquor stores before coming upon a small church. Pulling into the parking lot, Maribel coasted into a spot near the back of the church. “I hope we’re in a safe part of town,” she said cautiously as she peered out into the dark night. “We’ll be alright,” I replied, getting out of the car. The rush of hot air hit me as I placed my sore feet on the warm concrete. Chelsea opened the passenger door and got out, rubbing her eyes. “I need to piss,” she grumbled. “Go in the bushes,” I said, pointing to a patch of ferns nearby. Maribel looked around nervously, a steam of headlights drove past us. Nighthawks cruising the Sunset Strip in search of something. As I gazed at the headlights, my tired body became overwhelmed with a weird buzz. Arriving in Los Angeles in the middle of the night was a strange rite of passage for me. I smiled and lit a cigarette, finally free.
A photo I took while living in the East Bay. 1998.
My head burned and my joints ached. I sat up, searching for the glass of water I had left on the floor beside the futon. It wasn’t where I had left it. I got up and walked slowly towards the kitchen, my bones in my foot cracked as I stepped over a tangle of clothes and blankets strewn across the black and white checkered floor. I stopped in the bathroom on the way to the kitchen to rinse my face. I let the water run cold, and examined my reflection in the streaked mirror. I had just turned twenty and appeared a little worse for wear. Gnashing at my dismal appearance, I grabbed a few napkins that were left on top of the toilet seat. Back up toilet paper for the days when money was especially scarce. They had been bought, presumably, at the corner store down the street. I recalled seeing a display of marked down Valentine’s Day stuff. I grabbed a napkin and ran it under the water, gingerly wiping my hot face.
After fetching a glass of water, I wandered back towards my bedroom. My two roommates had spent the better part of the evening watching a Godzilla marathon on one of our four broken television sets. Several small Cisco bottles littered the floor, along with an array of empty 40 oz bottles. A small kitten tumbled across the floor in a flash. Stale cigarette smoke lingered in the air. A pit bull barked outside. It was the same as every other night. Scowling, I walked over to the bathroom and shut the door. The bathroom served as a pit stop for my constant wanderings back and forth between my bedroom and the rest of the apartment. It was my own personal solitude chamber, albeit a dirty one. I spent hours in the bathroom. On my days off from work, I bathed for whole afternoons. Other times, I would shower until I scrubbed myself painfully clean. A junkie’s version of self flagellation.
I grabbed the wet napkins from the bathroom and made myself comfortable on my futon. Picking up a pen, I began to write to a good friend in Ecuador. A few minutes later, my head began to burn up again. I reached for the napkins and placed them on my forehead. Warm water trickled down my temples. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, my head was as hot as coals. Wiping my runny nose with the back of my hand, I made my way towards the bathroom. Someone had taken a shower and steamed up the mirror. I took an old towel to the mirror and wiped it clear. “Fuck me,” I said, bringing my face closer to the mirror. I hurried into the living room, where my roommates appeared to be thoroughly engrossed in a Godzilla film. “Guys, look at my face. I am burning up,” I said, walking in front of a flickering TV. Jack had passed out in the moldy la-z- boy. Too much Cisco for one evening. Shamus sat at the end of the couch, bicycle parts strewn about from a project he had been working on earlier in the day. They lay unfinished by his feet. I walked over and stood in front of him.“Hey, check out my face,” I said, pointing. “This isn’t normal.” “What are you going on about?” he replied wearily. Brushing back a shock of wet hair away from his eyes, he glared at me. “Sorry to have interrupted whatever it is you got going on here, but I’ve got a serious problem that needs tending to,” I responded, rubbing the skin around my nose. I sat down on the couch, sinking into the middle of it. “What is it?,” he asked, sitting up. “I am sick. I need to go to the hospital,” I exclaimed, reaching for my boots. “It’s like two o’clock in the morning. Are you sure you need to go to the hospital? The subway isn’t even runn…” I need to go! Look at my face!” I grabbed his hand and placed it on my face. “I am burning up. My face is all red!” I shouted. “You are slightly warm,” he said calmly. “Yeah, I am hot as hell,” I replied, getting up from the couch. “Alright, alright. Let me get my shoes,” Shamus replied curtly. He grabbed his sneakers from the closet, and within a matter of minutes, we were out the door.
We headed north on Adeline, towards Shattuck Ave. Trudging across a grassy intersection, we made our way into a realm of flickering street lights. The craggy sidewalk gave way to newly poured cement. After walking seven or eight blocks, we came to the Black & White liquor store. A couple beggars exchanged wilted one dollar bills for a couple of beer cans. Their thin wrists reached for their only salvation through the closed roll-down security gate. The Middle Eastern man behind the metal gate nodded at us. The liquor store was a one stop shop for late night vagabonds who wanted to purchase alcohol after all the other shops were closed. They notoriously sold to underage teenagers such as myself. “You guys need anything?” The man asked, his heavy Lebanese accent rolled off his tongue. “No thanks,” I responded glumly.
The small emergency clinic was partly obscured by dark trees. We entered through the automatic doors into a dimly lit reception area. A rush of cool air hit us as we entered. A middle aged women with glasses peered at us through a small window behind the receptionist counter. “Can I help you?” she asked flatly. “Uh, yeah. I need to see a doctor right away,” I said, “I think I have a fever.” I shuffled towards the reception window. “Sign in here,” she pointed to a clipboard with a booklet of papers attached to it. “Do you have insurance?,” she asked rather sternly. “No ma’am,” I responded, filling in my name and address on the medical form. “You are here for a fever?” she asked.
“Yeah, well, I am burning up pretty badly,” I said, writing. “My face is all red. I think I may be bleeding from my pores,” She put down here pen and glared at me through the glass. There was a moment of silence before she slid the glass to the side, doing away with the barrier between us.
“Why do you think you are bleeding from your pores?”
“Because my face is all red.”
“Are you wearing any makeup?”
“I am pretty sure you are wearing makeup. It must be your foundation.”
“I told you, I am not wearing any makeup.”
“You must have put something on you skin. People don’t just bleed from their pores.”
“I didn’t put anything on my skin. No blush or anything! I think I have Ebola…”
“Ebola doesn’t cause people to bleed through their pores,” she said tersely. “It can cause bleeding from mucous membranes, but I highly doubt you have anything serious.”
“I disagree,” I shot back, arms crossed. She looked incredulous.
“Have you taken any drugs this evening, Ms. O’Brien?”
“Please answer the question.”
“What is this? Is this a police interrogation?” I asked, exasperated. Just then a nurse entered the room. “Ms. O’Brien, could you please come with me?” she said. I turned to Shamus, who sat on a bench with his eyes closed. “I’ll be back, I said.” I followed the nurse down a short corridor and into a small, sterile room. “Please sit down. Someone will be right in to take your temperature. I will be right back,” she replied and left the room. A few minutes later, I had my temperature and my blood pressure taken by an older Russian women. “Your temperature is 98.5. It is perfectly normal,” she said. “You do not have fever.” I nodded, and after answering a series of questions about my health, she left the room. I waited for about twenty minutes before the doctor entered. “Why don’t you take a seat over here,” he pointed to the hospital bed. I walked over and sat on the bed, the disposable white bed sheet crinkled under my weight.So I understand you are here because you think there is blood coming out of your pores?” he asked, examining my face. He touched my chin and peered closely into my eyes.Um, yeah. I woke up from a nap and my face was red. I pretty much freaked out because this has never happened to me before,” I replied, embarrassed. He asked me to open my mouth, then shined a small light into my eyes. He then lightly grabbed my right arm and gave it it good look. He stepped back from the table let out a heavy sigh.I can tell you one thing, you are not bleeding from your pores. Your face is perfectly fine. The thing you need to worry about is that junk you are shooting into your arms. Do you use sterile water when you rinse?” he asked, taking off his sleek black glasses and rubbing them on his coat. He was youngish and slightly handsome. “Hmm,” I hesitated. “I use tap water.” He nodded, his brow furrowed with disapproval. “You ought to be using bottle water. Tap water has all kinds of bacteria and pathogens in it, especially here in California. You can get an infection, not to mention other diseases, if you aren’t careful.” He waved for me to follow him back towards the reception room. “You really should be aware of the dangers associated with the lifestyle you are living. You are young and have the rest of your life ahead of you. Be careful.” I stared at him and nodded. The receptionist called me over to try and get a payment, but I ignored her. “Let’s go,” I said, walking towards the large glass doors. “Young lady, please come back here,” the woman stammered, standing up. We left the coolness of the clinic and walked into heaviness of the night.
“What did the doctor say?” Shamus asked, walking slowly beside me.“Nothing really,” I said, touching my face. “He told me to quit using drugs.” “That is probably the best advice he could give you,” he said, lighting up a cigarette. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk under a humming street light.“Sorry to have dragged you out here in the middle of the night,” I paused, “It was stupid of me.” He stared at me blankly. We walked on in silence.
The sound of dogs barking punctuated the silence of the early hours of dusk. The sound of palms rustling in the wind was comforting. Gazing up towards the hills , I marveled at the incandescent lights flickering from the homes perched on the edges off the cliff. Small lights twinkled in the darkness. I wish I lived up there, away from the concrete jungle down here.
It was nearly four o’clock in the morning by the time we made it back to our apartment. I took off my heavy boots and went to the bathroom. When I entered the bedroom, Shamus was fast asleep on the futon. I set on the edge of it and took a couple sips of water. I noticed a ball of crumpled napkins that I had left on the floor the prior day. I picked them up and examined them. They were red and soggy. I squeezed the ball, and a trickle of bright red dye ran down my arm. I began to laugh. I held my head in my hands, and my laughter quickly turned into quiet sobs.
The night was balmy and thick and I had a hankering for whisky. I longed to sit on a leather stool on 6th Street, and wanted more than anything to taste the sweet whiskey at Maggie Mae’s. The old saloon was iconic and I had heard numerous stories about the place. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I pondered my plan while my fellow comrades busily counted handfuls of change and one dollar bills. They stood together like wretched hunchbacks under the humming street lamp, one with her hands held together as if she was praying and the other picking the coins from her sweaty palms. The neon glow glittered across the pennies and nickels as they were carefully sprinkled into an old canvas water canteen. The sky was burnt violet, a cloudless eternity of stars and the faint glow of a nearby city.
My palms were sweaty as I reached for the car door. “Let’s ship on out,” I croaked as I ducked my head and climbed into the back seat. The old vinyl was always hot no matter what time of day. Empty Taco Bell bags littered the floor mats. The overflowing ashtray smelled of stale days long past. I spent a lot of time back there gazing out the rear window as cities and landscapes passed by in a flurry of colors and shapes. My various stages of inebriation often led to long naps where I would drift in and out of blurry dreams and wake to meet my only true friend, the black night. Much like the hounds I was use to riding in, I grew a great affection for the back seat.
“Who’s driving this beast tonight?” Cyndie asked, fumbling with her backpack. The car belonged to Maribel and she didn’t want anyone else behind the wheel unless she was too intoxicated to drive. Then she would let Cyndie drive or sometimes a stranger. I was only seventeen and had no experience driving cars, hence my penchant for the back seat.
“I’ll drive but I don’t want to get stuck downtown. Last night was crazy,” replied Maribel as she opened the driver’s door.
“Why not bring one of the guys with us? They can all drive.” I said lazily, my arm hanging out the window. I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror and turned away.
“Them all are probably sick of us by now. We’ve been stayin with them for nearly a week. I think we should be fixing to leave soon.” Cyndie added. She always seemed to be alarmed, even in the midst of a mundane conversation. She changed her shirt and climbed into the car.
“They offered to let us stay with them as long as we need to. I get the feeling they don’t hang out with too many chicks. Besides, they like our company. Who wouldn’t?” I said, which drew laughter from Maribel.
“I think we she should thank them when we get back tonight and be on our way tomorrow.” Maribel replied, pragmatically.
The car started with a rumble, and we pulled out of the gas station parking lot. We drove slowly past dozens of sand colored ranch homes. Manicured lawns and garbage cans gave way to busy intersections and heavier traffic. I gazed off into the distance and saw the neon buildings and knew we were getting closer to downtown. Our first night rolling into town had been in the early hours of morning as the city was still in her quiet sleep. Only a few frat boys with their plastic beer cups lingered on the street corner, howling drunken words into the early dawn. Maribel had grown perplexed as she made a turn only to find us caught in a maze of one-way streets. She was more confident with her driving tonight. Although we were weary from sitting in the sun all day, there was a sense of excitement in the air. The night belonged to us.
Nicholas waited for me at the top of the stairs, holding a bottle of Tequila. I jogged up the concrete steps, sweating. “I am leaving,” I said, out of breath. “Have you decided whether or not you are coming with us?” He looked incredulous. “You are really going to leave town with those two,” he scratched wildly at the back of his head, something he did when he was agitated. He turned, looking down at the car, its headlights glaring back at him. The sun was in its final stages of setting in the east, its dwindling rays spread across endless creeping ivy which grew, rather ferociously, around every single telephone pole and street lamp on the block.
After several moments of uncomfortable silence, I spoke again. “Listen, I need to go. There is no reason for me to stay here. Either you are coming with me, or you can stay behind.” He took a few steps down the staircase, away from the obscene glare radiating from the cheap plastic overhead lamp. Pulling a pack of cigarettes from his black shorts, he sighed heavily, whacking the pack hard against the palm of his hand. Forlornness began to set in. I wiped my brow and touched his arm, leaning in for a kiss. He quickly turned away. “Just go,” he barked. I began to speak, but hesitated. We stood there together for a few more moments, in the setting sun. “Alright, well, good luck to you,” I muttered. Those were our final words.
I bounded down the stairs, my backpack bouncing wildly against my back. I made my way into the back seat of the rumbling car. “Lets go,” I told the girls. I craned my head around to catch a glimpse of him as our car sped off down the street towards the 402. I slunk down against the hot vinyl seat and pulled a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 from my pack. An immense feeling of relief swept over me. Swigging from the bottle, I gazed out the car window at the flurry of neon lights and purple sky. Cars barreled down the highway as if the gigantic city they were leaving behind was on fire and about to explode. Remnants of trash blew across the busy lanes. A large trailer carrying hogs cut us off, causing me to spill cheap wine all over my skirt. My heart began to beat wildly in my chest. Maribel hit the gas and we sped up, surpassing the legal speed limit. We weaved in and out of traffic until we hit our stride in the center lane, catapulting ourselves into an unknown future.
It wasn’t the searing heat that woke me, but a nightmare. Rattled, I sat up and looked out the car window. We were parked at a rest stop, which sat quietly off the side of the highway. An old blue Toyota pickup sat a few yards away, a lone driver fast asleep in the front seat. The rest of the small parking lot was empty. Terribly thirsty and needing to urinate, I looked around for a water fountain and spotted it near the entrance of the small tan building. I opened the car door slowly. Maribel and Cyndie slept soundly in the front seats, their mouths agape like dead things. Beads of sweat trickled down their faces. The heat inside the car was unbearable. I decided to leave the car door open, letting some air in. The heat felt like an inferno. I ran across the scorching pavement towards the fountain. The water came out warm and slow, a trickle which was barely enough to wash my hands and face with. I washed my feet then walked over to the restroom, passing a faded wooden bench surrounded by flowering dogwood. I pushed against the heavy door and into the dark bathroom. The broken tiles were slippery under my bare feet. The light switch on the wall was broken, and I couldn’t see anything. I grabbed a nearby trashcan and propped the door open, letting a stream of early morning light in. With a slight push, the door to the lone stall swung open. Former vagabonds had left their drunken musings scrawled across the door. The toilet seat was broken, as was the latch to the door. I sat for a few minutes, staring down at my dirty feet. Pulling my panties over my knees, I heard Cyndie’s scratchy voice outside. “Hey Leah, where’d ya go?” “I’m in here,” I muttered, my mouth still dry. I stepped outside and into the glare of the sun. Cyndie and Maribel stood next to the car, stretching. I looked over towards the highway. “Where the hell are we?” I asked, scratching my back.
We had been sitting at the bus station for the better part of the day when a blue Chevy Malibu slowed down beside us, stopping. It was a 2-door coupe that had seen better days. The passenger side window rolled down, revealing a middle aged woman. A long tan arm hung out the window. “Y’all OK?” she hollered. Nick made his way over to the car. I hung back, reluctant to talk to strangers. I’d spent most of the day resting against the concrete back end of the bus station. The heat had turned us into zombies. Our bodies moved slowly, interrupted only by the smallest of interactions. Earlier in the day a couple of black kids came by with bags of fast food for us. They’d alerted the fire department that we were hanging around the bus station without any food. Soon after, a firetruck armed with men carrying bags of Krystal Burger came to our rescue. After eating a burger and fries, I nearly passed out from the food coma which only intensified with the afternoon heat. I didn’t feel like moving around much.
I looked over at the woman in the car.
Nick walked over to the open window and crouched down.
“Yeah, we’re alright.”
“Ya’ll don’t look alright,” she swatted at a large bug. “It’s hotter n hell out here. Where y’all from?” the woman asked, peering, her black coal eyes bloodshot.
“Georgia. My friend and I are stuck at this bus station. We are hoping to find a way back to Atlanta,” he said cautiously.
“That’s a pretty long ways away. How’d y’all end up in Tupelo?” she asked, pulling a Marlboro out of her purse. She lit the cigarette, a small child popped up behind her. The girl was blonde and had the face of one of those little girls reminiscent of a vintage Sunbeam ad from the 1950s.
“Uh, it’s a long story and doesn’t matter much. We really just want to get back home,” said Nick. “We pretty much just need money so that we can buy bus tickets and get out of here.” The woman studied him for a moment, taking a long drag from her cigarette. “I think we can help y’all with that. Why don’t ya’ll come along with us and get yourselves cleaned up,” she said, smiling. “No way?” I replied flatly.
She let out a raspy chuckle and looked over to driver’s seat. A giant man sat behind the wheel. “My husband Mack and my daughter Shelby are good people. We ain’t gonna hurt ya’ll,” she chuckled. The little girl grinned. “Do you live around here?”asked Nick. “Oh yeah, right up the road a ways,” her right arm moved as she spoke.” We live a few houses down past where the king was born. Have y’all ever been there? It’s a cute little place,” she laughed, revealing stained teeth. “We could drive y’all up there tonight if y’all like.” Nick shrugged his shoulders. “Sure,” he glanced over at me. I gave him a sharp look. “Let me talk to her first,” he said as he walked away from the car.
“I’m not going anywhere with those people,” I said firmly.
“Look, we have been sitting here all day sweating our asses off. It would be nice to take a ride and get out of this heat,” he said, his penetrating cyan eyes studied my face. I shook my head. “They could be serial killers. That woman is a dead ringer for Aileen Wuornos! They are most likely piss poor, and don’t have any money.”
“So, like what the hell are they going to do for us? They just want to party with us.”
“What else are we going to do? We’ve been here for four days, wasting away in the hot sun. We can’t stay at this bus station forever,” he sighed. “Maybe they know someone who can help us.”
I looked over at the car. The child was trying to get our attention by making faces through the back window. I wiped sweat from my brow and looked down at my boots. My feet ached and I had a throbbing headache. I wanted nothing more than to be in an air conditioned house with some cold beer.
“Alright. We give them a few hours and if nothing comes of it then they take us right back here,” I said, itching my back.
The night was balmy and thick and I had a hankering for whisky. My penchant for Wild Irish Rose was fading by the day. I longed to sit on a leather stool on 6th Street and wanted more than anything … Continue reading