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Authors: Claire Vaye Watkins

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BOOK: Gold Fame Citrus
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“I’m blotto,” she said, rubbing her forehead on his warm bicep.

“I know,” he said.

“And thirsty.”

Ray knelt and set the growler between his feet on the pitched concrete. He took one of Luz’s dirty feet in his hand and put a shoe on, then the other. Luz wobbled and steadied herself with his fine broad back. When he finished, Ray dug a ration cola from his backpack, the only drink anyone had plenty of. It was warm and flat and thick with syrup—donated because the formula was off, was the rumor. But it was wet and this alone was reason enough to love him.

She sat and drank and Ray stood—he did not like to sit much—and consulted his list. Ray’s tiny notebook, looted from the back of a
drugstore, was the old-timey reporter’s kind with the wire spiral at the top, such that before writing in it he should have licked the tip of his yellow golf pencil, gouged to sharpness with the Leatherman he carried.

Luz snooped in Ray’s notebook whenever possible, skimming his secret poems and skate park schematics and lists. Ray was a listmaker. He did not live a day without a list; Luz had never made a list a day in her life—their shtick. His lists went:

– matches
– crackers
– L
– water

Or:

– shitting hole
– garage door
– L
– water

Or:

– candles
– alcohol
– peanuts
– L
– water

Or:

– axe
– gas
– shoes
– L
– water

Or:

– charcoal
– lighter fluid
– marshmallows for L
– water

Or:

– Sterno
– eyedrops
– calamine
– kitty litter
– L
– water

Or, often, only:

– L
– water

“Hey,” said Ray, batting her with his notebook. “I heard of a guy who has blueberries from Seattle.”

“Seattle,” she whispered, the word itself like rain. “Can I come?” She had never been on a procurement mission, as Ray called them.

“You want to?”

Luz squealed in the affirmative and finished her ration cola. Then they set off, hand in hand, Ray’s eyes as phosphorescent as the day she witnessed him birthed from the sea.

Ray had the blazing prophet eyes of John Muir, and like John Muir, war had left him nerve-shaken and lean as a crow. The ocean had restored him. The way he told it, a city of a ship bearing the emblem of the motherland deposited him in the riverless West, at San Diego. He was released—honorable discharge, had medals somewhere—but the whole way back he’d been jumpy, sleepless, barely keeping the darkness at the edges. Nothing soothed him until he heard the white noise of the breakers. So instead of going home to the heartland he liberated a surfboard from someone’s backyard and made his home in the curl. He had a mind to surf through all crises and shortages and conflicts past and present. He would make a vacuum of the coast, nothing could happen there, even the things that had happened before he was born. He was surfing the day they pronounced the Colorado dead and he was surfing the day it was dammed, a hundred years before. When some omnipotent current ferried him northward toward LA, he allowed it. He surfed as that city’s aqueducts went dry. He surfed as she built new aqueducts, wider aqueducts, deeper aqueducts, aqueducts stretching to the watersheds of Idaho, Washington, Montana, aqueducts veining the West, half a million miles of palatial half-pipe left of the hundredth meridian, its architects and objectors occasionally invoking the name of Baby Dunn. Ray surfed as concrete waterway crept up to Alaska, surfed as the Mojave and the Sonoran licked the bases of glaciers. He was surfing each time terrorists or visionaries bombed the massive unfilled aqueduct canals at Bend and Boise and Boulder and Eugene. He surfed as states sued states and as the courts shut down the ducts for good. He surfed as the Central Valley, America’s fertile crescent, went salt flat, as its farmcorps regularly drilled three thousand feet
into the unyielding earth, praying for aquifer but delivered only hot brine, as Mojavs sucked up the groundwater to Texas, as a major tendril of interstate collapsed into a mile-wide sinkhole, killing everybody on it, as all of the Southwest went moonscape with sinkage, as the winds came and as Phoenix burned and as a white-hot superdune entombed Las Vegas.

Then, one day, Ray emerged from the thrashing oblivion of the Pacific at Point Dume, and there was a chicken-thin, gappy-toothed girl sitting in the sand beside a suitcase and a hatbox, crying off all her eye makeup.

Seawatery, gulping air and clutching his board to him, Ray approached her. What was the first thing he said? Luz could not now remember, but it would have been sparkling. She did recall his hands, gone pink with cold, and his pale aqua prophet’s eyes, and herself saying in response, “I haven’t seen anyone surfing in years. I forgot about surfing.”

His hope naked, Ray asked, “You surf?”

She smiled thinly and shook her head. “Can’t swim.”

“Serious? Where you from?”

“Here.”

“And you can’t swim?”

“Never learned.”

They sat quiet for a time, side by side in the sand, hypnotized by the beckoning waves.

“Where are you from?” she said, wanting to hear this wildman’s voice again.

“Indiana.”

“Hoosier.”

“That’s right.” He grinned. He had an incredibly good-looking mouth.

“Why’d you come here?”

“I was in the military.”

“Were you deployed?”

He nodded.

“What did you do?”

He shrugged and snapped a seaweed polyp between his fingers. “You’ve heard that dissertation.”

He said his name and she said hers and then they sat again in quiet. At their backs, gone coral and shimmering in the sun’s slant, was a de-sal plant classified as defunct but that in truth had never been funct. They’d heard that dissertation, too.

Luz asked, “You going to evac there, Indiana?”

“Nah.”

“Where, then?”

“Nowhere.”

“Nowhere?”

“Nowhere.”

He told her about the sea and his needing it and then, when she suggested Washington State, he said California had restored him, that he would not abandon her. And eventually he told her too about the younger sister born without a brain, only a brainstem—so much like brain
stump
—that she was supposed to die after a couple of weeks, but she was twenty-one now and a machine still breathed for her, which made Luz think
iron lung
even though that was not quite right. The wrong mote of dust could kill her, said Ray. One fucking mote. And because of this his mother was always cleaning, cleaning feverishly, cleaning day and night, cleaning with special chemicals the government sent. She didn’t want Ray around. “It’s too much for her,” he said. “Anyway they’re screening pretty heavy in Washington now, and the only skills I have I never want to use again.”

“You’ve got charm,” she said. “Charisma.”

“I think they’re maxed out on charisma.”

“You can surf.”

“You know, I put that on my application.”

“What happened with it?”

“An orca ate it, actually.”

People always claimed they were staying, but Ray was the first person Luz believed. “So what are you going to do?” she asked.

“Some people I know have a place. Even if they didn’t, Hoosiers aren’t quitters. California people are quitters. No offense. It’s just you’ve got restlessness in your blood.”

“I don’t,” she said, but he went on.

“Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.”

He was kidding, but still the word stung, here and where it hung on the signage of factories in Houston and Des Moines, hand-painted on the gates of apartment complexes in Knoxville and Beaumont, in crooked plastic letters on the marquees of Indianapolis elementary schools:
MOJAVS NOT WELCOME. NO WORK FOR MOJAVS. MOJAVS KEEP OUT.
A chant ringing out from the moist nation’s playgrounds:
The roses are wilted / the orange trees are dead / them Mojavs got lice / all over they head.

But Ray smiled and his kind mouth once again soothed Luz. “We’re stick-it-out people,” he said, but what he really meant, she knew, was they could be Mojavs together.

Ray brushed a hank of hair from her eyes and said, “You look like I know you.” Had he seen her before? Luz said maybe and sheepishly described the decaying billboard surveying Sunset Boulevard, her in sweatshop bra and panties, eyes made up like bruises, crouched over a male model’s ass like she was about to take a bite out of it. Get those
freaky teeth, the art director had not even whispered. One papery panel peeling off now, so her bare legs looked shrunken, vestigial. “The zenith of my career,” she said. “Minus a commercial for wine coolers.”

Ray said, “No, somewhere else,” then Luz kissed him.

After, there was more silence between them, but it did not feel like silence. It felt like peace.

Ray asked, “What about you? You going to evac?”

They took you by bus. Camps in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. No telling which you’d end up at and anyway it didn’t matter. It was temporary, they said. The best thing you could do for the cause. She knew better, but she was scheduled to go anyway. The suitcase beside her was filled with novels and wads of designer clothes, the hatbox heavy with her savings. But she hated crowds, hated every human being except this one beside her. She suddenly and fiercely did not want to get on a bus tomorrow. She wanted to fall in love instead. Frightening herself, she said, “I was.”

So Ray took her home, to the gutted Santa Monica apartment complex from which his friends staged their small resistance. They had sex on Ray’s bedroll in the laundry room. After, he said, “I need you to promise me we won’t talk about the war.”

She said, “Promise me we won’t talk about the water.”

He said, “Wouldn’t dream of it.”


Now, dusk was coming to the dry rills of raindance. Luz followed Ray along the berm and, though it scared her, into a man-high rusty corrugated drainage culvert, where the berry man was supposed to be. Inside, a stench met them, fecal and hot. Something scraped about back in the darkness, something screeched. As the light at their backs
wilted, Luz put one hand to her mouth and groped for Ray with the other. This was, she realized, probably not a good place to be a woman.

The starlet’s sandals began to slice into Luz’s heels again and she stumbled. “You okay?” Ray whispered. She nodded though she was dizzy and hot and there was a new pressure on the underside of her eyebones, and though Ray surely could not see her nodding in this semiterranean dark.

Soon, Luz’s pupils dilated wide enough to accept Ray’s silhouette ahead of her. She clung to him with one hand and traced the other along the metal wall of the pipe, flinching at its rust splinters and steadying herself as she lurched over knee-high sediment dunes and dry knolls of sewage. The culvert forked into a smaller pipe where Ray had to stoop. The sounds went human now; voices of people gathered to haggle and score ricocheted down the tube.

Fresh socks here, all-cotton socks.

Ovaltine, whole can, hep!

Luz and Ray continued, the culvert soon clogged with the crowd’s collective fetid lethargy. Wherever the pair walked, bodies blocked their path. Luz would have liked to hear some Spanish, to be reminded of her mother, but even here there was none, influx long ago turned to exodus. Ray lightly lobbed the words
blueberries
and
Seattle
into the darkness and what came back was
Not me, white boy. Deeper, brother,
and then,
Um-hm. Careful. He nasty.

Finally Ray called
blueberries
and was tossed
Here, son
. From the darkness materialized a shirtless, ashy-skinned daddy-o, bald head glistening, tiny mouth gnawing on a black plastic stir straw. Beside him stood a Filipino with scarred hands and a backpack.

The daddy-o held a drained cola can aloft in the darkness. “King County blues. One-fifty.”

Ray took the can and examined it. He handed it to Luz. A handful
of berries padded inside the aluminum. She put the can to her nose and thought she smelled the dulcet tang of them.

“Give you seventy-five,” said Ray.

The daddy-o bowed reverently to the can. “All due respect, son, these is some juicy-ass berries. Juicier than juicy pussy.” He winked at Luz. “Can’t give them up for less than a hundred.”

“Eighty then.”

“Eighty,” the daddy-o said to his partner. He sucked his teeth.

The Filipino said, “Used to be a nigger could make a living in this city.”

“That’s all I got,” said Ray, though it was not.

“All you got, hmm,” said the daddy-o. He reached out to retrieve the can from Luz. She handed it over, but instead of taking the can from her, the daddy-o torqued his long-nailed index finger through the starlet’s tennis bracelet, still strung like dewdrops around her wrist. He yanked, but the bracelet held. Luz pinched her breath in her throat.

“I doubt that,” said the daddy-o.

“Hey,” said Ray, but Luz was saying, “Take it,” her fingers panicking against the mean little clasp.

The daddy-o flung Luz’s own hand back at her. “The fuck you think I am?” To Ray he said, “Two hundred.”

Ray gave the daddy-o two bills he’d brought from the hatbox they stored in the starlet’s drained redwood hot tub, took the can of berries and pulled Luz away. Her head was swooning and her sense of direction had left her. She wanted to flee on her own but was not sure she could find her way back through the culverts. It was all she could do to follow Ray, who kept dissolving into the darkness then rematerializing to tug her along. “Christ,” he whispered, meaning
Christ, be more careful
, and
Christ you’re stupid
, and
Christ, I love you and you’re all I have and therefore you have an obligation to take better care of yourself
.
Luz gazed ahead, needing a glimpse of the daylight they’d left, but she saw only bodies, bodies. Someone trampled the heel of her sandal and she stumbled. She needed to get away from these fucking people, but they were everywhere. Then, mercifully, Ray led her into a dark, clear space.

BOOK: Gold Fame Citrus
7.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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