Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tender Monster Destiny

Tender Monster Destiny

            Hope Street is a street just like any other in Los Angeles, except that its name makes it seem promising.  A useless person sitting in his or her car at a stop light and seeing that they are about to intersect Hope would probably think, Could this be a sign?

            Are there plain white college boys hidden in apartments on this street, writing screenplays for a movie they’re going to make someday for Public Television about their L.A. experience?

            The name makes this street sound full of action and import, a street with a secret, a street that lives out its charm with the clean bend of palm trees and Hopscotch formations drawn on its pavement.

            It was on this street that Joe’s car passed Judy and John Freshflower, the ex-proprietors of a Chinese restaurant that used to be next door to Joe’s store.  It’s Christmastime, and these are Christmases lived covertly in the lives of our imaginings, our imaginings being the sanctuary against what’s real down here. 

            From the age of seven, I knew I wanted to be famous.  I wanted to be the Beatles, so that I wouldn’t have to lay in bed listening to them on the radio, growing anxious thinking of how I would never be able to express in words the way their songs on the radio made me feel nostalgia even for the present moment. I wanted all the other people who were listening to the radio at the same time as me to be listening to songs sung by me, and I would sing songs about their favorite memories, of a father wearing a Santa Claus beard, a hydrangea bush peeking out from under a blanket of snow, going on a game show, drinking beer with a first boyfriend.

I didn’t become famous.  I became a typist in a mortuary.  The antique shop Joe owned went out of business, and he became an old man working at McDonald’s. 

Tender. Monster.  Destiny.  At night when the curve of a freeway overpass moves your body closer to death and waitlessness, the lit-up McDonald’s seen down below seems the perfect beacon.  I’ve been to McDonalds’ throughout the country but I was never an adventurer.  I was an agoraphobic who would tell my hosts when they’d get home from work that I spent the whole day feeling out the city, when really I’d spend the day sleeping the sleep of store-bought pills I got in a 30%-off bin at the grocery store Nora and I used to live near.

       In college, my roommate Nora and I ended up with two cats, Blackie and Rose White. The grass and wildflowers in our back yard grazed the low slopes of hanging clotheslines. We mostly slept over at her boyfriend’s house because our own house lacked panache and never had any food in the fridge.  She’d pull her car into the space next to the trash bin, and Blackie and Rose White would gallop through the weed jungle to     greet us.  Nora and I referred to the cats as our family, though we often forgot to feed them.  Rose White ran away, and one morning I found Blackie curled up behind an old paint can in the garage, dead.

            Judy and John Freshflower owned the Chinese restaurant near Joe’s old antique shop.  What Joe and I had was the surrogate father and daughter relationship that could only be shared by a man who thought he drank too much to have his own family, and the daughter of a woman abandoned by a man who’d said he was just going out for a pack of cigarettes, just like all the fleeing husbands of the nineteen-fifties are purported to have said to their wives.  What Joe and I had with Judy and John Freshflower was the kind of friendship that people sharing the same small square of carpet in a giant city develop.  When Joe would babysit me at his shop, he’d park in a lot overlooking the alley behind his and the Freshflowers’ businesses.  Often, exiting the car, we’d find Judy sitting at the wire table she’d set up in the alley, drinking tea from the blue kettle on the table’s yellow tablecloth.

            One time, she let Joe pass ahead of me a little bit before stopping me.  “Young girl, I would like to show you something.”  This was our first moment.  Judy grinned a big, Americanized grin.  “Are you ready?” she asked.  She pulled back the yellow tablecloth, and there, sitting under the table, was Blackie.

            I did not know who he was then.  I didn’t yet know about time travel.  Then, I was just a quiet eleven year old. I wore my pink satin baseball-style jacket with the denim heart sewn on the back and my name written in cursive letters with fabric paint in the middle of the heart.  Years later, I would go to college in another town, where Kurt Cobain’s ghost never walked me to Planned Parenthood but where the ghost of a happier rock star would tell me, “Hey, take it easy.  You’re young and life is so cool!” and I would never listen.  Years later, I understood what Judy had revealed to me that day in the alley.  Immortality.  Tender destiny.

            The day mom realized dad was never coming back with his cigarettes, she walked to Joe’s shop and invited him out for drinks, his treat.  She was pretty and complex.  He remained her best friend through all of the new boyfriends she met and walked away from.  There was a schizophrenic with a beard, who glued covers of mystery novels to pieces of cardboard and sent them through the mail to our subdued apartment in the valley, where we dutifully threw them in the trash and wished out loud that he would not stalk us.  There was an artist with worn-through long-sleeved shirts and silky hair, who jumped up and down on the Murphy bed with me one night when I couldn’t get to sleep, and ruined holidays with his moodiness.  There was a Vietnam Vet who was homeless when we first met him.  There was a lawyer who used to live in New York in the apartment where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed.

            Joe was the man who drove me to and from school when mom was at work, and who drove me from school to her work, to pick her up.  For awhile, Joe and I had a routine of stopping every Tuesday morning before school at a small bakery, for cheese danishes.  “Does the woman who worked there still remember us?” the little-girl-me who wanted to be famous asks.  We also had a routine of going to a video arcade after school on Fridays, and one of renting movies from the Central Library.

            Tender.  Our longest-running routine was of waiting in a park near mom’s office for her to get off work.  The drive there from my school was a drive through Mexican neighborhoods with colorful tigers painted on grocery store signs and baby girls dressed like morning glories.  This was before mom started working at home.  Joe and I would sit together in the park, not talking, the actual moments as quiet and poignant as memories.

            Monster.  I am now the kind of young women who forgets to feed her cats, letting them run away or die.  When I moved back to L.A., I put my Bachelor’s Degree in a desk drawer, and, not foreseeing any way to ever become famous, became a typist.  Joe’s antique shop went out of business; eventually, the building was torn down.  I dream of that place, but without its electricity or walls, or its merchandise.  On the other side of the shop there used to be a bar called Nardi’s, with a juke box that played lovelorn songs by Elvis Costello and the Pretenders that we could hear through the wall as we sat in the shop, playing card games or checkers.  Now it feels like Elvis is dead.

            Destiny.  At a red light on Hope Street, on our way to a coffee shop where mom waits for us, Joe spots the Freshflowers and decide to pull over. 

            “Joe.  I haven’t seen you since the store got torn down.  How are you?  How have you been?”
            “Not so bad, John.  I was selling things on E-Bay for awhile but I wasn’t making enough money, so now I work at McDonald’s.  It’s…and you?  You guys moved the restaurant over to that marketplace across from the new Target, right?”
            “Yeah, but we’ve been having some trouble.  Actually, we’re closing down in a few weeks.  We’re going to have to find a location with cheaper rent.  But you have to come to the restaurant before it closes, have a meal on us.”

            “I certainly will,” Joe says, but he never makes it to that last meal. Christmas morning, he wakes up with the stomach flu, and once he has recovered, he finds Judy and John absent from the space where their wasted efforts occurred.  What matters, though, is this chance meeting on Hope Street.  Judy is carrying a purse made out of woven white plastic straw, with blue and red and yellow plastic flowers sewn on it.  “I have something for you, young lady,” she whispers in my ear, smiling.  Her purse moves with something alive inside of it.  I open the purse.  Dear god, it is Blackie.  

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