Authors: Claire Vaye Watkins
It did not. Instead it was Rita, Lonnie’s girl, her carroty hair tufted into berms by body soil, the green-black at the tips the last of her grown-out dye. A relief, even though Rita hated Luz now—probably everyone here did. Rita’s tiny eyes, fringed by pale lashes, squinted behind the grating, then went for a second up, where a thick swath of tar had been slathered atop the complex wall. From the tar jutted sharpened sticks and spearheads of broken glass. That was new. Rita stowed something in her billowy skirt—a weapon, they didn’t have to guess—and opened the door.
She embraced Ray, who nodded overhead and said, “Bit overkill, don’t you think?”
Rita rolled her eyes. “I know, right?” Then she saw Ig.
She took a small step back. Rita did not come to Luz—Luz did not expect her to—only stared, vaguely horrified, at where the child clung to Luz, grunting drowsily like some lesser primate.
They hadn’t seen Lonnie or Rita in eight months. It might have been eight years. Rita had been stocky, plump as a flounder, big shelf of an ass and gigantic breasts that led her around, made her seem powerful. Luz had always been afraid of her, even when they were supposedly friends. But Rita was thin now, so thin that her tattoos seemed withered. The half-sleeve art nouveau Holy Mother on her right
forearm, cherry blossoms and thick gashes of Sanskrit up the inside of her left, Johnny Cash giving the finger from the bicep, a fish skeleton fossilized along her neck, supposedly traced from an ancient urn, all sagged a little, except the asterisks signifying assholes on the spit of bone behind each ear. Even Rita’s signature bullring drooped now from her septum as though her cartilage was fatigued. She’d removed the disks from her ears and the lobes now dangled in melting
s that, Luz noted vindictively, Ig could have put her fist through.
What was Rita before the water went? (Before they
the water, Rita would’ve said, and Luz once, too.) She should have been the drummer in a punk band in a scene so far underground, it would never see the light of day. She should have been barefoot, murdering the double bass pedals on a cover of “Too Drunk to Fuck,” cracking her cymbals, pulverizing her sticks and chucking the splinters into the crowd. She should have been spitting blood on the boys who deposited plastic cups of liquor at her feet. But it had been a dude unloading on the double bass, her boss spitting the blood, Rita depositing the liquor and doing his grocery shopping at the nice Ralphs in the Palisades, Rita driving him to and from LAX, wiping his chow chow’s ass.
“You look like run-over dog shit,” Rita said to Ray. “Are you drinking enough water?”
Another tired joke, but Ray laughed generously. That was his way.
“Come in,” said Rita. “He thought you’d be down.”
Inside the complex, Luz saw that the trees that had once stood in the corners of the courtyard had been ripped up, which did not necessarily surprise her—pretty much all the trees in Santa Monica had been hacked down, even the landward planks of the pier had been scavenged for firewood, the carnival unmoored out on its island of pilings, the Ferris wheel unmoving, unwheeling. Rather, it was the holes where the trees had been that unsettled Luz, dark, expectant as
graves. There were never so many hazards in the world as there were today. Love made you see them all.
“What is?” asked Ig.
“Holes,” said Luz.
“Oles,” said Ig.
At the center of the courtyard was the dry swimming pool, its lip glistening black with grind wax. Ray paused over the enviable glob. Chalky sky blue, a color named such before the sky went bloodred with ash, and that before blood went xanthic for want of iron. Luz waited, squeezed Ig to feel the baby resist. Beneath their shoes were the spots where Lonnie’s grandfather, the Persian Jew slumlord of Koreatown, had scattered huge hunks of rock salt along the wet concrete, wanting to mimic the popular pocking of American midcentury driveways. But the salt took forever to dissolve—no moisture—and instead of the subtle stippling of Pasadena, it left behind craters the size of unshelled peanuts. Among those craters, heartening and forgotten imprints where Lonnie’s oma had laid leaves from neighborhood trees atop the wet pour: melaleuca and magnolia and camphor and jacaranda and sweet gum, all the citizens of the so-called urban forest long since charred to carbon.
Luz would have liked to leave Ray beside the dry pool and show Ig the spot Ray had shown her, near the laundry room that had been their room, where the fossil of a spruce sprig was flanked by two gentle divots: Oma’s fingerprints, from where she’d laid the spruce. But to go to the sprig would be to go to the laundry room, would be to go to the chemical and supposedly orchid smell of an ancient half-gone box of dryer sheets, would be to slide down the greased wormhole that scent can be, to their first time, to go to Ray’s bedroll, his canvas duffel, his nine Red Cross candles lined up on a shelf beside his can opener, which she could not stop counting the night—their last in
this complex—when she woke Ray and told him, I kissed Lonnie. I let him kiss me. And touch me. We—
—Did you want to?
—No. It just happened.
—I don’t know. I was fucked up and flattered. I liked that he wanted me.
—Everyone wants you. It’s your job.
—Not anymore. Not like that.
—I want you.
—I know you do.
—Do you want me?
—Yes, Ray. Of course I do. It wasn’t about that. I liked that he liked me.
—Did you like it?
—No. I don’t know. Liking didn’t really come into it.
And later, because she could not resist:
—How did you know?
—You said, “I know.”
Ray, disgusted: You came to bed smelling like him.
Luz had to pull it together now. They were here for a reason. Ig squirmed to be put down but Luz told her to shh.
Rita retrieved a wreath of gold keys from the folds of her skirt and unlocked the red door to the apartment she shared with Lonnie, back in the far corner of the complex.
Ray said, “You’re locking doors now?”
Before, all five doors opening onto the courtyard were always wide open or taken off the hinges completely—all except for the storage room, unit B. No locks at the compound, no structure, only frolicsome joy and jam sessions, pranks and all-night debates, raids of merry looting and after these a Christmas-morning vibe. Anyone and everyone was free to come and go, so long as they were committed to the cause and traveled light. No rules was a rule, no labels, and no hierarchy, stressed Lonnie, who owned the place.
Now, all five doors were re-hinged, shut and outfitted with shiny new deadbolts. Rita jangled her keys. “Ch-ch-ch-changes.”
But Lonnie’s apartment was as it had always been, owing to Lonnie’s pathetic Oedipal preservation of the décor meticulously assembled by his mother, the shikse feng shui guru. Here were her star charts, her compasses, her astrolabes of brass and some of lacquered wood. Here were her gnomon, her trigrams, her incense coils gone scentless. There, her dragon head medallions, her color wheels, her innumerable bouquets of plastic bamboo, jabbed into vases half-filled with iridescent glass droplets. Here was her coffee table Zen fountain, now merely a bowl of rocks. Here, here, here, swallowing everything, dense drapes, drapes upon drapes, drapes atop drapes, drapes intertwined with other heavier, darker, mausoleum-making drapes.
Rita directed Luz and Ray to an L-shaped sofa in the darkened living room. She left to find Lonnie. Luz sat on the floor with Ig. She took tortoise Ig from the starlet’s orange crocodile birkin-turned-diaper-bag and presented him to human Ig with some other toys—not the kachinas, she had thrown the kachinas in the ravine. Ig did not bother with the toys. Her coin eyes rolled in their sockets, looking for Rita.
Luz, jealous, leaned down and whispered to the child. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
“I wouldn’t lead with that,” said Rita, returning.
Lonnie loped in behind her, wearing some kind of orange-gold robe, itself once a drape, Luz was sure. The robe was cinched around his narrow waist with a chain of sterling silver conchos, each faceted with a gob of turquoise. Lonnie had dressed this way on occasion, the solstice or the Fourth of July, a joke or a near-joke. But there was no joke in it now. He stood in a way that begged to be described as regal. His head was shaved though his black eyebrows were as intense as ever. A long, dense goatee hung from his chin, sculpted square and unmoving, facial hair of the pharaohs. Luz wondered fleetingly where he got the razor. A stupid question, for Lonnie was the great procurer; why they’d come.
“Brother,” he said, pulling Ray into an embrace. He waited for Luz to stand, too. When she did he grinned and hugged her chastely.
“You’re kidding,” Lonnie said down to Ig. “I thought for sure she was fucking with me.” He knelt and Luz fermented inwardly at the thought of him touching the baby. She’s not a baby, Ray would have said and indeed had been saying. To which Luz would reply, She’s a relative baby, meaning maybe that she was closer to being a baby than a girl, or meaning maybe that they just got her and so she was newborn to them. Ray would have said, too, Please behave yourself—was in fact at this moment saying it with his breath and his posture and his darting eyes and the taut filaments of his facial muscles, all of which served to remind her that Lonnie was the only person who could help them, and that she should be gracious, or do her best impression of someone gracious, despite the fact that in any other context she would have hated him.
Squatting, Lonnie said to Ig, “Hello, pretty girl.”
No, she hated him here.
“Say hi, Ig,” said Ray. “Ig, say
.” Ig refused. The car ride had
lulled her to sleep, and she had perhaps not forgiven them for yanking her from the buttery backseat. “Can you say
“She doesn’t want to,” said Luz.
Lonnie adjusted his robes and sat at the vertex of the L sofa, Rita beside him. Ray sat at the end of the L’s long leg and Luz returned to the floor. Ig, free to do as she pleased now, crawled beyond the coffee table to Rita—she had reverted to crawling lately—and offered her Ig the tortoise.
“She’s giving it to you,” said Luz.
“I’m good,” said Rita, though Ig insisted and finally Rita let the saliva-softened tortoise corpse rest on her lap.
“This is something of a novelty,” said Lonnie. “How old is she?”
“One,” Luz said, already wanting to keep her young forever.
Rita scoffed. “Big for one.” They sat with that awhile.
“So what’s the deal?” Lonnie asked finally, aggressively caressing his shorn head. “Luz making some extra money babysitting?” Luz did not meet his gaze.
Ray said, “What do you mean?”
“I guess what I mean is the last time I saw you two you didn’t have a baby. Luz was not pregnant, so far as I could tell, you two were not in the process of cooking up a puppy. And you certainly, so far as I can recall, did not have a newborn. Did they have a newborn, Rita? Or am I demented?”
Luz pulled Ig back from the glass coffee table, almost thankful to Lonnie for forcing the question. Did what they’d done have language in Ray’s mind? And what were the words?
Ray’s Muir eyes were dry when he told Lonnie, “We found her.”
Lonnie leaned back and smiled. “I know how that is. We found a Red Cross flatbed. We found a few dozen guns.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Luz said, by which she meant,
We’re not like you
“No, I’m into it. Upend everything. Snatch all the Montessori canyon babies from their cribs. I just wish we’d thought of it.”
Rita muttered that all the Montessori canyon babies were gone.
“Truth,” said Lonnie. “Where then?”
They did not answer.
“Don’t say it.”
Ray rubbed his mouth.
“Jesus,” said Rita.
“Fuck me, Ray,” said Lonnie. “Some serious cats down there. Some serious cats even I wouldn’t want for enemies.”
“I know,” said Ray, which was puzzling because he had never said as much to Luz, so either the genuine dangers of raindance had just occurred to him or—and this was the truth, she knew—he had been thinking it all along, those serious cats had been with him those sleepless nights in the canyon and he’d kept them to himself.
Here comes Luz, don’t make any sudden movements.
She was not a serious cat.
Ray said, “We came here for a favor.”
Lonnie leaned back on the sofa and stretched both his arms to rest atop it. “Naturally. Only reason anyone comes here anymore.”
Ray took a breath. Luz saw how brutally he wished he were not about to say the thing he was about to say. “We’re leaving. Going on the list.”
Rita scoffed. Ig body-slammed her tortoise self on the glass coffee table, shuddering some stones from the fountain and setting them spinning on the glass. Luz retrieved Ig, fetched her nini from the birkin and used it to coax the child into lying in her lap.
Lonnie was still, then neatly took the dislodged Zen rocks into his hand. He looked stunned—even saddened, Luz saw, which was so unexpected and baffling that she kept watching him until she was sure that was the expression. Then she realized: he must have thought
they were coming back. That they had come now to ask his permission to rejoin the complex. Of course. He’d donned his best Krishna curtains in preparation for their groveling. He was a small, needy creature who looked now as though he might utter a disgusting phrase, something along the lines of
I believed in you
. (Almost as unforgivable as the bald admiration he’d whispered before he’d had her, those months ago:
Oh, Luz, in another life!
) Luz rubbed Ig’s back and prayed he wouldn’t make a scene, though she would not have called it prayer.
Lonnie sniffed once and dropped the stones back into the bowl, eyeing Ig as though she were a strange dog come upon them. Luz saw Ig then as Lonnie must have: stunted and off, lopsided head, eyes lolling of their own accord. She had the hot urge to scream that there was nothing wrong with Ig.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.