Freezing Cold and Scared to Death of Sharks
Exterior: Bus - Day
Front left seat: Driver, probably has a name like Tito. Probably been driving this bus since seventy-two. Probably watched more dirty affairs start up in his rear view than any other man in America. Probably seen at least one homeless man masturbate. And it would have been closer than it appeared.
Elderly Woman, directly behind driver, clutching purse. Probably been riding this bus longer than Tito’s been driving it. Hates white people, can’t blame her. We haven’t been very good to people like her. Probably started in the back, took her forty years of fifty-foot hoses and even more rabid dogs to get up front and damn it she’s going to stay there. She’ll die on this bus if they let her. She’s earned the right.
Fat Mexican Teenager With Scantily-Clad Teenage Mexican Friend, behind Elderly Black Woman. Most likely going to meet boys at the pier and smoke grass under a lifeguard stand. Only they won’t call it grass. They’ll say dope or weed but they won’t say grass. Nobody says grass anymore. When I was twenty we said grass. And we bought lids, not bags, and nobody put embalming fluid in it or soaked it in cement cleaner or laced it with ecstasy.
What happened to those pre-ecstasy days? We never needed it to dance around and be stupid. We wore deck shoes and slap-bracelets and listened to Toto and fell in love with Jake Ryan, and we hated Heather, all three of them, and we never heard of ecstasy. Then one day we all turned thirty and kids are smoking glow-sticks and stealing Morphine from their poor old nannies who need it to keep from writhing around in pain because the cancer in their breasts and livers and spleens and ovaries has spread to their lungs and hearts and brains and toes.
But why should I care? Live here long enough and everything looks like some failed attempt at a B-movie. And I’m on the bus right? And if you can take one thing away from life it’s this: Nobody gives a damn about the people on the bus.
Where are we? Yes, three seats back from the front, situated diagonally with regard to those Mexican stoner chicks, is the poor scared School Girl. This girl can’t be more than fifteen, and here she is alone on the bus with the rest of this depraved mad casserole. Her mom probably got pregnant in high school, the big football hero, he said he loved her, you know the rest. Daddy sells Chevys in Malibu but doesn’t even send a card. Doesn’t even know May tenth she’ll get her license. Won’t even let her drive around a dealer Chevette. I feel your pain sweetie. I really do.
Behind her is the Mumbling Bum. Like the schoolgirl, he gives off an odor of innocence. Sometimes this odor is hard to detect, given this man’s array of many odors, but I blame Reagan, not this poor guy. I read there are so many homeless people on the streets because when Reagan shut down the Veterans’ Psych Hospitals they didn’t have anywhere to go. And twenty-five percent of the homeless people in this country are veterans. So when you see a guy with a sign that reads:
HOMELES VET NEEDS HELP CAUSE REAGON
FREDE ME AND I’M KIND OF CRAZY
be nice. He might be telling the truth. Some homeless guys are lazy and dishonest, sure, but some fought to try and end the cold war, and when Reagan got credit for ending it he put them out on the street. And now people spit on them and tell them to get jobs but really, who’ll hire a man who can’t bathe? He can’t take a bath unless he gets a job and has some money but he can’t get a job and make some money unless he takes a bath. And that is one certain kind of bitch. Life requires you bathe and have some reason to bathe but never provides a means of bathing. And as dirty as the world is, we’re all expected to be clean.
Of course, across from the Mumbling Bum is that Fat Asian who’s also on every bus in the world. He’s the guy who puts his newspaper and gloves on the seat next to him so nobody, no Elderly Woman or Fat Mexican or Mumbling Bum can sit next to him. I bet if that School Girl needed a seat, however, he’d eat that paper and wear those gloves.
Behind Fat Asian sits the quiet guy, me. The guy on the bus who has to ride the bus because you can’t get ahead in L.A. You pay twenty-five hundred a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Six-fifty for a pack of smokes and four dollars a gallon. Ten for a six-pack of Miller Lite and twenty-two a month for a bus pass. You come out here thinking you’ll act or write or model, and they beat you down and you never do anything. You get a job at a stamping plant making ten dollars an hour to stand next to a big machine and push a button and make a bumper or toy car or industrial metal cabinet and you go home at five and drink with some guy you met out here who calls himself an actor but he waits tables at Miguel’s on Pico. And that’s your life. You could hold it in one hand if you wanted. You could throw it up in the air and let it disperse, and it wouldn’t be enough of anything to dust half the shoulders in the room. But it’s yours, you have that. Ridiculous as it might be, you have it there in front of you like a windshield. And you have to keep looking through it. And here you are, one of those poor old bus people. There are two kinds of people in the world: people on the bus and people off the bus. And here you are on the damn bus.
The seats behind you are empty, save one lone coughing maniac. And he keeps coughing and spewing on the back of your head. And you don’t need this after being fired from the stamping plant half an hour ago. So you decide to hell with going home to sit alone and read because cable hits ninety a month if you want any good channels. Go down to the beach. Eat some cheese fries. Drink a beer. Forget life for a minute and just enjoy some sand and wind.
* * *
So what do I do? I pull the cord to signal to the driver that I’d like to jump from that damn bus and ride my feet down the sidewalk toward water. Walk in the direction of girls with dyed hair and funky boots. Most I can make of it, if anything might matter at all, if the world might end at any minute, which I read is possible, you might as well be near chicks in short skirts and pretty sunsets. God forbid you die in some basement surrounded by flaky concrete and mildewed copies of National Geographic whose box is perforated with the distinct teeth marks of rats. And there shouldn’t even be rats here. Rats are for New York. L.A.’s for teenage blondes and hot cars and greasy transvestite hookers. But not rats.
Before I can debark, though, I have to wait for a morbidly obese woman to climb the four stairs, and this could take all day. Those few stairs just inside the door of a bus must look like Everest with a handrail to fat people. And don’t think I hate fat people. I’ve put on some pounds since college. But you would think somewhere between the scale winding all the way around zero and back up to twenty or thirty, and needing to purchase two airline tickets for only one flight, these super-obese people would realize a change needs to be made. But they don’t. They just put their snow-boots on and brave the treacherous steps inside the bus.
Finally, when she can’t make it from step one to step two, the driver kindly asks her to step down.
“Why don’t you let me come down and give you a hand, Miss Newman?”
Great, he knows her.
Between breaths she says, “Thanks, Tito.”
No way. His name is actually Tito.
Now Tito is behind Miss Newman pushing into her back-fat, and she’s huffing, and I’m standing at the top of the Himalayas where she’ll plant her flag if she can make it, and she looks at me and says, “Son, give an old woman a hand.”
So I do it. I reach down, grab her hand with my left and with my right I grab the pole behind me, and I pull and Tito pushes like hell and Miss Newman, well, remember that scene in Indiana Jones when the big round boulder comes flying down the track? I catch a flash of that and the next thing I know I’m slammed against Tito the bus driver’s seat, and she’s waddling to the back of the bus without saying thank you. Tito gets on the bus, takes his hat off, wipes the sweat from a handkerchief he’s pulled from his back pocket, looks at me and says, “Son, it’s against the law to sit in a city bus driver’s seat. I could have you arrested for that.”
I just mosey on past old Tito and head for the beach and the pretty blondes and the sun.
Oh, and about those little white kids who tried to mug me. The world is full of these little kids. These fourteen-year-old suburban weaklings who think they have to mug people or break windows to leave their mark on the world. But I was only half-mugged. These little bastards run up on me while I’m waiting for the bus, because I can’t get ahead out here, and pull a gun on me and demand my wallet and watch. I don’t even have a watch.
I had this watch my grandmother bought me when I was twelve or thirteen, but I lost it years ago, when I was still young. And these three little kids want the damn watch.
“Give us your watch.” One of them says.
“Find it.” I tell him. “You find my watch, and I’ll give it to you.”
“Don’t act tough, old man. Just give us the damn wallet and the watch.”
Only, he didn’t say damn. He took the Lord’s name in vain, which stuck me as unnecessary and made me angry. And I was coming home from being fired and wasn’t altogether concerned with getting shot in the ass over a watch I lost when I was twelve. And he called me old, only I’m not old. Thirty isn’t all that old when you finally turn thirty. And these little punks will be thirty soon enough only then I’ll be forty-five and established, and they’ll be paying twenty-five hundred a month to live in somebody’s attic. And maybe some kid half their ages pulls a gun on them at a bus stop. It’ll happen. I know enough about karma to know those kids will be mugged someday, only they won’t make the connection.
When I jump off the bus these two rich suits are riding up the sidewalk on their Segways, those little man-scooters that supposedly can’t be tipped over. And they’re wearing helmets and kneepads, and they must think they own the sidewalk because they make me yield to them. Maybe they do own the sidewalk. Maybe the big engineering firm they work for built and designed it. But here I am, a grown man jumping out of the way of vehicles driven only by doctors and architects, into the damn bushes and there I am on the ground and I have a vision.
I mean it. It wasn’t a dream, and I’m fairly sure I didn’t get knocked unconscious. I’m there on the ground thinking people on sidewalks should just walk, not ride these machines invented with the sole purpose of completely replacing the act of walking upright, which, I’ve read, was a fairly important advance in human evolution, and not something that should be made obsolete. Then I have a vision. I’m not asleep. I’m not dreaming.
* * *
I’m checking into this hotel back east in Cleveland maybe, or Buffalo, and this man in a tuxedo grabs me and drags me out of the lobby and throws me into a limo with all these frat-boy types who must be having a bachelor’s party, and there I am. The only one not in a suit and sober, and these guys are having fun but they keep making jokes about me like: Bobby didn’t even wear a suit! Bobby doesn’t own a suit! Bobby’s poor! Bobby doesn’t have a family!
But my name isn’t Bobby, that’s just what they call me. So they drive me to Mulholland, even though I wasn’t in L.A. when they threw me in the limo, and it’s dark all of a sudden, and the city looks all brilliant like it does in movies or dreams or visions, which is what I’m having. The lights sort of gather around the horizon, they group and swirl, move like this school of sardines I saw in National Geographic. Then I’m in the middle of them. I’m surrounded by the view of a city from the top of a mountain. All these white and red and yellow lights, out of focus because even though I’m with them they’re still far away, and I bounce around like I’m inside a spherical trampoline, only at the same time I feel like I’m still in the limo. Then these lights kind of pick me up, so I’m over Mulholland and I can see the limo, and they fall back to the horizon, dumping me over the side of the hill. I roll over cactuses and cacti, and scrape myself all to hell until I slam against this big rock. Then everything is gone. It’s completely dark. What, in a cavern, is called total darkness. I read about it in a story. The dark underground will make you go blind if you spend more than a few days there. A black so black it can kill you. And there I am, right in the middle of it.
And a rattlesnake fades in like and coils, and he’s the only thing I can see. But he never strikes, he just stands there, or sits there, or coils there, and I just stand there and we stare at each other. Me and this snake. Staring back at each other.
He lunges like he’s about to strike but he doesn’t open his mouth. He examines me, his head shaped like shovel, and he looks me up and down, then sticks out his pronged tongue to smell me. The tip hits my nose and it tickles. He does it again and it tickles so much it wakes me up.
* * *
I’m in the bushes next to this nice apartment building where Venice meets Santa Monica. There isn’t a snake. There isn’t a limo. There’s no hotel or tuxedo but only dirt and sand and those little prickly things you get stuck in your jeans when you fall headfirst into the hedges of some really nice building.
I climb out of that planter and head to the beach. It’ll be sunset soon, and this is one of those days Santa Barbara’s marine fog hasn’t lifted fully so there are actually clouds out over the Pacific, and I feel like watching a sunset with a few clouds in it.
I’m sitting on Venice Beach, having been denied entrance to the bar I wished to attend, since I didn’t have my wallet, and this petite gymnast type is doing cartwheels and flips and handstands all over the beach. And I want to be sitting at the Venice Whaler drinking a beer and eating my favorite cheese-fries, but those little kids at the bus stop got my wallet and ID. Not my money, just my wallet.
“Fine, you little dick-herders.”
And I give them the wallet, but insist, as I feel I must, they should continue looking for that watch.
“As I said, you find that damn watch you can have it.”
They take off running, the three of them like eels navigating the sidewalk, and this fat woman sitting on the bench I was headed for when I was accosted looks down at her shoes when I look at her as if to say,
“Thanks a lot, you straggler.”
Which is what I should have said and would have said were she not such an imposing force on the universe. Instead, I let her sit there in shame and think about watching me get my wallet stolen by three little punks who I can only hope are currently searching for my watch. I let her be one of those people who watches others get kicked around, but, alas, who cares anymore?
What those little bastards didn’t realize is I haven’t kept my money in my wallet since, well, never. I’ve always kept it in my front pocket. Not for any reason, just because that’s where I like to have it. So what did they get:
My license, which was a bad picture anyway. Just like yours is and theirs will be and everyone else’s is.
My Blockbuster card. But I have a late fee so it’s basically unusable. Damn near five dollars to rent anymore anyway, so to hell with Blockbuster.
My Bank Card. Ha. Even if there was money in my account they’d never guess my pin. It’s 0946. The year and month of my father’s birth. Thank you.
My coupon for a free carwash by Larry’s on Hawthorne, but that’s in Torrance.
And I am not going to Torrance.
And they got my Nautica wallet, which was worth twenty dollars at most. It was a nice wallet, but empty and really just a formality. So enjoy it. You didn’t get the two hundred in my pocket.
So I’m sitting on the beach. Enjoying the sand and the wind and the tide. My friend Roger used to get on me about not paying enough attention to the tide, so today I pay attention to the tide. And the waves. And that girl flipping around in the big sun. I finally realize what it all means: Nothing is more important than some hot little chick flipping around in the big sun. I watch her. I love her. I fall in love with her and take my shoes off and draw little circles in the sand with my feet. The sand beneath the surface is cold, and I shiver and somehow smile. Now I’m smiling, and I don’t know why. Then I realize why: sitting barefoot in the sand while hot little chicks flip around and the sun sets and the sky turns all that orange and purple and huge is a reason to smile. There are reasons to be happy, and here I am, right in the middle of one.
And she comes over. She tells me she saw me watching her, and I probably blush.
I say, “I was watching you.”
“I know you were,” she says, “I just said that.”
“I know you did.”
I can’t even see her. The sun behind her has blocked her face, and she’s mostly a shadow, and I think I’m having another vision. Two in one day, sure. But I’m not. She’s here asking me to swim. This perfect shadow has asked me to swim and soon I’ll be swimming.
“Come swim with me.”
“I’m sorry, I, um, I don’t know you.”
It’s getting dark now. That orange has reddened, and the purple’s gone, and there’s a mist in the air, almost like a feeling, or maybe I’m making too much of this and it’s just a Friday night on the beach.
She says, “I don’t know you either. Come swim with me.”
This isn’t happening. It can’t be happening. This doesn’t happen to me. I’m still knocked out in the bushes. I’m face-up in that bush with prickly things clinging to my jeans a few hundred yards behind where I think I am. And I figure, as long as I’m unconscious I might as well ask her name.
“It’s Mary. Mary Klide.”
I start thinking about how to spell Clyde. Like Bonnie? Two Ls? A C? A K?
“So, I’m Mary. What’s your name?”
Mary Clyde sounds like a fake name to me, so I make one up.
“Joseph. But my friends call me Joe.”
That was lame. She won’t possibly still want to swim. She thinks I’m some fat loser who comes to the beach after being robbed of a watch I never owned. She knows I ride the bus to work. She knows I got fired from the stamping plant this afternoon and don’t have much of a savings and can’t possibly buy her dinner. She knows I only buy the generic macaroni for seventy-eight cents a box because the Kraft is three dollars and I don’t have three dollars to spend on macaroni. She knows sometimes I open the refrigerator and look at my pickles and think, boy I’d like a pickle, but I better not have a pickle because I might want one for lunch tomorrow, and who knows when I’ll be able to afford more pickles. She knows the two hundred dollars in my pants is most of what I’m worth. She knows I’m alone. She knows I used to have friends out here but I haven’t talked to them since they got jobs as gaffers and grips. She knows more about me than I do.
“Swim with me, Joe.”
I tell her I don’t have any shorts. It’s nearly dark now and she pulls off her bikini top, and her breasts rest like plums between her shoulders. Her blonde hair has the brown streaks of saltwater damage, and I find myself paying more attention to her thin bright lips than her naked breasts. When she smiles something crooked in her eyeteeth makes me want her even more. She turns and runs out toward the water. She’s there like a dream in front of me, and I refuse to let this beauty get away. The beach is empty, and when she nears the water she drops her little surf-shorts and runs bare-assed into the breakers. I drop it all. I leave my money and shirt and run the thirty feet or so to the water and never shudder. I meet her just before the first wave comes down over us.
It might have been the first wave gravity ever called up. It might have been that wave that fell full of bacteria on Pangaea. We might have started a universe right then, while the clouds fell away and screams from the pier blew across the soft white sea-foam.
We both wash in close to shore, and she tells me to follow her out there. Out past the black Pacific swells that bleed green with plankton when the moon gets right. Out to the big water, the water with no end that kind of scares me. She swims out farther than I’ve ever been, and I follow, yelling stop with each breath. She turns to face me, and I look back, and the shore must be miles away. The black keeps lumping up between us, and I never learned to swim all that well, and in each returning swell I catch a glimpse of her eyes, green even in the dark, and I keep swimming until my chest hits her chest, and her warm nipples fall just below mine, and our legs flirt down in the black somewhere, and I kiss her.
She pulls away and splashes me.
I tell her, “I’m freezing. Come here and keep me warm.”
She turns and starts swimming out farther so I say maybe we should just go back in. Then she turns to face me, out of breath about fifteen feet away.
“When I was a girl my sister came out here one night, and a shark bit her.”
“Excuse me?” Now I’m lost. It’s cold, and I thought I came out here for sex and she brings up shark attacks?
“She was twelve. She tried to run away, or said she wanted to. She came out here alone one night and swam out, and a shark bit her leg. They took it.”
I say, “They took it?”
“The doctors. They cut it off. They said it wasn’t right or wouldn’t work anymore.”
“So why the hell are we out here? I’m freezing anyway. Let’s go in. Aren’t you scared?”
She says she’s terrified.
“I’m scared to death of sharks, Joe.”
“So why do you come out here?” And now I’m afraid of sharks too. Now there’s a fear in me that wasn’t there five minutes ago when I was drawing little pictures in the sand with my feet. A fear of sharks I didn’t know when I was riding the bus to and from work everyday. And suddenly I appreciate the bus. Nobody’s ever been eaten alive by a shark on the bus.
“Because it scares me, Joe. Because I’m terrified.”
“I come out here and swim at night because I’m scared to death of sharks, Joe. Now let’s go in. I’m freezing cold.”
She swims in ahead of me without looking back to see if I plan to follow, and when she reaches the surface she tugs her dry shorts over her wet hips and looks around in the dark for her top.
I swim in, dry off with my undershirt and keep thinking something will happen between us. I’ve already pressed my naked chest and naked rest of me against hers, so something should happen, but here I am dressing in front of her, trying to drip-dry whatever part of me I didn’t get with the shirt before it was saturated, trying to not get sand in all my clothes, balancing on a few toes with a sock in my hand, and she runs down the shore. I fall backward and see her silhouette cut left and tear up toward Hartford Avenue. And here I am, half-naked, on the beach.
* * *
They fired me for showing up late three days in a row. So I can’t make bumpers or toy boats anymore. But I’ll get a new job. I always do. And when I get off work I’ll go down to Venice Beach and take my shoes off and look for Mary. And she’ll be out there, out past the breakers where the big Pacific gets black and lonely, freezing cold and scared to death of sharks.