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Authors: Claire Vaye Watkins

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BOOK: Gold Fame Citrus
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Ray often went up to the ridge with the notebook he kept in his pocket, but Luz had not been back. Some things were beyond her, such as opening the door to a seldom-used library walled with biographies of Francis Newlands and Abraham Lincoln and Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea and William Mulholland and John Muir (whom she had her eye on) and capturing the small gnawing mammal inside.

She went back to the starlet’s closet, dumped a pair of never-worn espadrilles from their box and brought the empty box to the yard. “I think there’s a prairie dog in the library,” she told Ray.

Ray stopped his hammering. “A prairie dog.”

Luz nodded.

“How’d it get in there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you put it in there?”

“More or less.”

“When?”

“Can you get it out?”

“Leave it,” he said, turning back to the half-pipe skeleton. Ray was not a reader. He used to read the newspaper every morning, but now that the newspapers were gone he said he was through with the whole reading and writing thing, though Luz had read the secret poems in his notebook.

“It’s not . . . humane,” she said, offering him the box. “Plus it’s probably crapping everywhere.”

He sighed, unbuckled his tool belt—some long-gone handyman’s—took the shoe box and loped into the house. She followed. He paused outside the library door. “How big was it?”

“Like, a football? I think it was rabid,” she lied. She was beginning to feel ridiculous.

He slid the library door closed behind him. Luz listened. The canyon was hot and still and so was the house. Then came a clamorous ruckus from the library. Ray said, Shitfuck. He said, Jesus.

He emerged like a wildman character making an entrance in a play, vexed and slamming the door behind him.

Luz asked, “Where’s the box?” Ray raised a silencing hand and strode from the foyer into the cavernous living room. Luz followed. He paced madly for a minute before seizing upon the sooty black poker by the fireplace and returning to the library.

Luz sat on the second step of the staircase and waited. There was
more ruckus, a crash, the screeching of a desk chair shoved along the exposed concrete floor. Swears and swears. Then quiet. She wanted to open the door but would not.

“Did you get it?” she called eventually.

The door slid open a sliver and Ray’s red and sweaty head poked out. “You better not look.”

Luz put her face in the basin of her hands, then immediately lifted it. She gasped. Ray was before her. Aloft at the end of the poker, the throbbing body of the prairie dog, impaled. Its mouth was open and its forepaws twitched once, twice. Ray hustled outside.

Luz stood, queasy and overheated. She hovered above herself and saw that she was undergoing one of those moments in which she was reminded that Ray—her Ray—had, as part of his vocation, killed people.

She turned around and lurched up the stairs. She did not want to be around when he returned. Halfway up, she tripped. The floating stairs had always unnerved Luz and now they enraged her. She kicked the leaden galoshes from her feet down to the living room with some effort, staggered barefoot to the darkened bedroom, peeled off the suddenly chafing mermaid gown, climbed into the massive unmade bed and wept in the sandy nest of it.

She wept briefly for the creature, and then at great length for all her selves in reverse. First for Luz Dunn, whose finest lover and best friend was a murderer and perhaps always would be, then for Luz Cortez, mid-tier model spoiled then discarded. Emancipated at fourteen, her father’s idea, something he’d prayed on, amputated from him and from child labor laws. Then, finally and with great relish, she wept for Baby Dunn. Poster child for promises vague and anyway broken, born on the eve of some symbolic and controversial groundbreaking ceremony, delivered into the waiting blanks of a speech written for a long-forgotten senator:

Conservation’s golden child arrived at UCLA Medical Center at 8:19 this morning, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Dunn of San Bernardino, California. Eight pounds, eight ounces, the child has been adopted by the Bureau of Conservation, which embarks today on an heroic undertaking that will expand the California Aqueduct a hundredfold, so that Baby Dunn and all the children born this day and ever after will inherit a future more secure, more prosperous, and more fertile than our own. We break ground today so that there will be fresh water for drinking, irrigation and recreation waiting for Baby Dunn and her children . . .

Baby Dunn, born with a golden shovel in her hand, adopted and co-opted by Conservation and its enemies, her milestones announced in press releases, her life literal and symbolic the stuff of headlines, her baby book lousy with newspaper clippings:

GOVERNOR SIGNS HSB 4579; EVERY SWIMMING POOL IN CALIFORNIA TO BE DRAINED BEFORE BABY DUNN IS OLD ENOUGH TO TAKE SWIMMING LESSONS.
BABY DUNN STARTS KINDERGARTEN TODAY WITHOUT GREEN FIELDS TO PLAY IN.
LAST CENTRAL VALLEY FARM SUCCUMBS TO SALT: BABY DUNN, 18, NEVER AGAIN TO TASTE CALIFORNIA PRODUCE.
BERKELEY HYDROLOGISTS: WITHOUT EVACS BABY DUNN WILL DIE OF THIRST BY 24.

Now Luz was twenty-five and hung up on the logistics. Had her parents been paid? Was her envoyery prearranged or hatched
last-minute? Some intern of the senator’s staked out in the maternity ward? Some go-getter do-gooder from a public Ivy, recorder in his coat pocket, scouring the waiting room for a photogenic and verbose new parent? How this young gunner must have delighted at finding Luz’s father, big German teeth, a pastor and a salesman, moved by the spirit to join the Rotary Club, to hit the gym by six every morning, to display the apple of his eye in church talent shows, to spend his wife’s financial aid on very good hair plugs. Billy Dunn would not have been in the delivery room, certainly not. Not his business to witness his wife’s woman’s body undergo its punishment. Not permitted by his temperament to acknowledge anything uterine, vaginal, menstrual, menopausal, pubescent. Not here, on the day of his only child’s birth, nor later when Luz’s mother was dead and Luz got leggy and bled purple and shreddy brown, when he could have said what was happening to her and what to do about it, when he could have said, as any man could have, what lay ahead for her. But he did not say, and instead she had stolen a plaid dishrag from the kitchen and cut it into strips with her dead mother’s scalloped scrapbooking scissors—such that the rag strips shared the peppy border of her baby book clippings—and tucked these strips up between her labia. Instead, she had learned from the other girls and from the photographers, often.

Luz, said Billy Dunn, is my cross to bear.

It was this she always landed on: her father pious and a chatterbox, maybe nervous, approached by a statesman’s underling in the hospital waiting room. Saying her name so it rhymed with
fuzz
before her mother, channeling Guadalajara, had a chance to correct him. Random, how she became the goddesshead of a land whose rape was in full swing before she was even born. Baby Dunn.

The ration hour came and went; Luz heard the hand pump screeching and Ray beneath her, filling his jug and hers. She lay in bed a long time, snotty and damp and staring at the dark drawn curtains
and the heaps of clothing she’d mounded all over the room that were the millions of holes that pocked every hillside of the canyon, each with a tiny grainy dune at its mouth. She had thought the holes to be the burrows of chipmunks, but knew them now to be snake holes. Mammals were out. LA gone reptilian, primordial. Her father would have some scripture to quote about that.

After some time, Ray came into the bedroom and set a glass of lukewarm water on her nightstand. He stayed, silent, and Luz said, “Can you bring me John Muir?”

“Sure.” He went out, came back, and set the volume on the nightstand, beside her undrunk water. He perched himself on his edge of the bed and leaned over to touch her, gently.

“Say something,” she said. “Make me feel better.”

“I love you?”

“Not that.”

He offered the glass. “Drink this.”

She did.

He tried, “I think it was a gopher. Not a prairie dog.”

This did make her feel a little better, somehow. She rolled to face him. “What did you do with him?”

Ray bit his cheek. “Threw it in the ravine. I can go down and get it if you want.”

“No,” she said. She would have liked to bury the little guy properly—make a project of it—but she was certain that if Ray went down into the ravine he would never come back.

“Come here,” Ray said, and hoisted Luz, nude and fetal, onto his lap. He took each of her fingers into his mouth and sucked the starlet’s rings off. He extracted the feathered headpiece from her hair and began tangling and untangling it with his fingers, something she loved immeasurably. “It’s Saturday,” he said.

“I didn’t know.”

“We could go down to raindance tomorrow. Try to get berries.”

She sucked up some snot. “Really?”

“Hell yeah.”

They laughed. Ray said, Here, and led Luz from the bed and into the master bathroom. He held Luz’s hand as she stepped naked into the dry tub, a designer ceramic bowl in the center of the room, white as a first tooth. Ray went downstairs and returned with his jug. He moistened a towel at the jug’s mouth and washed her everywhere. When he was finished he left her in the tub. “Stay there,” he said before he closed the door. She stayed in the dark, fiddling with the starlet’s bracelet, the diamonds having found some improbable light to twinkle. When Ray finally retrieved her, he carried her over his shoulder and flopped her down on the bed and only when she slipped her bare legs between the sheets did she realize that the cases, the duvet, every linen was smooth. He had snapped the infinite sand from them.

The sun had gone down and the doors to the balcony were open; she imagined the sea breeze making its incredible way to them. Tomorrow they would eat berries. They lay together, happy and still, which was more than anyone here had a right to be. She could tell Ray was asleep when the twitches and whimpers and thrashes began, the blocking of nightmares he never remembered. She held him and watched the bloodglow pulse in the east, the last of the chaparral exploding.

Luz had gotten, even by her own generous estimation, righteously fucked up. This occurred to her as the sun of suns dripped into the Pacific and she found herself barefoot at the center of a drum circle, shaking a tambourine made from a Reebok box with broken Christmas ornaments rattling inside and shimmying what tits she had. Luz was not a dancer; she had never been a dancer. But here the rhythm was elephantine and simple as the slurping valves in the body—an egalitarian tune. She jigged and stomped her bare feet into the dry canal silt. She worried for Ray a flash, then let it go. He was probably well aware of her situation, as was his way. Probably watching her from the periphery of the circle, sipping the home-brewed saltwater mash she’d been swilling all day.

And why shouldn’t she swill? They had liberated the starlet’s cheery, grass-green Karmann-Ghia, which Ray called the Melon, and descended from their canyon to the desiccant city, to the raindance, a
free-for-all of burners and gutterpunks caterwauling and cavorting in the dry canals of Venice Beach, sending up music from that concrete worm of silt and graffiti and confettied garbage weaving fourfold through the nancy bungalows. They’d set up camp in the shade of a footbridge with its white picket handrails ripped off and Ray had procured a growler of mash and a baggie of almonds and six cloves of garlic the pusher called Gilroy, though nothing had grown in Gilroy for a decade. Happy day, day of revelry and bash, for money still meant in Los Angeles, even in the chaos of the raindance, and—hot damn!—Luz
Cortez
had earned plenty of it, modeling under her mother’s maiden name until her agency fled to the squalid mists of New York, and she too old to be begged to follow.

So vibe on, sister. Shake shake shake. Don’t trip on the fact that even money will go meaningless eventually. Don’t go sour simmering on what that money cost you, on UV flashes scorching your eyes to temporary blindness or pay docked for time in the ER or old men pinching your thighs, your fat Chicana ass, the girlish flesh pudged at your armpits, putting their fingers or one time a Sharpie up in you. Yes, you have been to Paris and Milan and London and all the rest and cannot remember a thing about them. But don’t feed the negativity, though you were always too flabby, too short, too hairy, too old, too Mexican. Ass too flat, tits too saggy, nipples too big—like saucers, one said. Don’t start that old loop of, Take your shirt off, and, Turn around, sweetheart, and, Bend over, and, Put the worm in your mouth, babe, you know what to do. Don’t get caustic, even if you were only fourteen and didn’t know what to do, had never done it before, had never even kissed a boy. Don’t stir up the hunger the hunger the hunger. Don’t think it was all for nothing.

Don’t think. Dance.

Twirl! Twirl!

Because sweet Jesus money was still
money
, and wasn’t that something to celebrate? For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray, the apples blighted even in what used to be apple season, pears grimy even when you paid extra for Bartletts from Amish orchards. Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.

The rhythm went manic and Luz collapsed to the silt crust.

Woozy, she stood and careened stylishly through the party, up to the canal berm, the smooth, sloped concrete patch beneath the footbridge where she’d last seen Ray.

And there he was still, guarding their encampment, the growler of mash in one hand and the starlet’s bejeweled sandals in the other. The heel straps had been giving her trouble, Luz remembered now.

BOOK: Gold Fame Citrus
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