Cul-de-sac

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Forty-Two

 

I was unemployed for three months. I came back to work at the oil refinery for one day and told them I was going on vacation for ten days starting Friday, and they said, “Holy shit.”

But this is also the story of three roommates. Stacey. Lindsey. And Rae.

 

Friday morning, 6 a.m., I got on an airplane with Rae. We flew out of Newark, bound for Los Angeles. As we boarded, one of the flight attendants let Rae go, but stopped me at the door, and served all of first class its orange juice and coffee. I didn’t care, I thought it was pretty funny. But the people behind me began to murmur. And then yell. And then scream. The flight attendant with the coffee went back into the kitchen and got more. She came back and filled more cups. A riot was about to break out. But then we were all let go, and we filled up the rest of coach. Rae said, “What the hell happened to you?”

 

I thought: What has happened to me? Well, first I wasn’t even born yet. I was unborn. One of a one hundred million sperm. But also, I was an egg. But then my father and mother got together and there was a flash of light, and I was a fetus, and then a baby, and then a toddler, and then a kindergartner. I had grass stains on my knees. I had blood in my mouth because a string had been tied, tooth to doorknob—the door slammed. A new tooth grew in. I got my 27th bad haircut. I got bitten by a brown dog. I got bitten by a yellow dog. I fell down the stairs. I pushed my little brother down the stairs and got in trouble. I traded my bike for a pair of Reebok Pumps but they were broken and then a sixth grader stole my Spiderman comic book. I read some books. I wrote a story in colored pencil. I wrote another story in pen. I got the chicken pox. Grandpa died. They gave me an award because I liked to read, I was pimply faced and fifteen, I went to get the award and Ronald McDonald was there, and so was Grimace, and so was the Hamburgler. They were giving the prize to kids second grade through eighth grade. I had to have my picture taken with Ronald McDonald. Ronald McDonald shook my hand. I lost my virginity to Ronald McDonald. No, I’m remembering it wrong, I lost my virginity to Grimace. No wait, Birdie, no wait, Wendy from Wendy’s. No wait, it was Melissa. It really was Melissa. We thought she was pregnant because her period was almost two months late, and then she got it so we both were able to go on through high school without a problem, and we were both able to go off to college, except I didn’t do that. I got a job with a shovel. I played in a band except we didn’t do the things you have to do, like hit the road and record professional sounding demos. My friend started selling acid out of his house and opium too. One evening he sold some opium to some kid and then everybody smoked a bunch and we were just sitting there in the crypts below the underworld of the dark side of the moon, and there was a knock on the door. The kid was back, he claimed he’d smoked the opium and it was fake and he had a gun and he wanted his money back. So he got his money back. I met Rae. We went to the movies. Swam in the ocean. We moved to 173rd street. I got a job, lost a job, got a job, lost a job, got a job, gained weight, lost weight, gained weight, lost a job, she got a new job, gained weight, lost weight, she got a better job, I got a steady job, we got married, we bought an apartment, painted one of the rooms pink. Coworkers found out I had psychedelic drugs and asked to come over to my house to take some then another coworker mentioned I had a pink living room and the original coworkers rescinded their offer to come over and get high. Whatever you want guys. A wedding invitation came in the mail. Stacey and Mike. We bought plane tickets. We hailed an Uber. We went through security. While trying to board the plane, the flight attendant held me back. I said to Rae, “What happened? The rich people had to get their orange juice and coffee. That’s what happened.” She said, “Oh, haha.” We sat down and held hands as the plane took off, thundering down the runway, blasting up into the sky, headed west across four time zones, over the heads of three hundred and twenty million people, most of them asleep.

 

I was reading a book. Then the flight attendant made an announcement. “Because it’s only seven a.m., out of courtesy for other passengers, please shut the blinds on the windows so people can sleep.” The blinds all went down. The blue sky was gone. The clouds below gone. Dim darkness. I went in the overhead bin and dug out my book light. It was the best seven dollars I’d ever spent. I sat down and flipped on the book light. In the book I was reading, the main character was just about to lurch onto a beach and masturbate in front of a young woman. It’s a very famous masturbation scene. Maybe the most famous one in all of literature. Or at least the most famous masturbation scene written on a beach. Or if not any beach, at least an Irish beach. There’s fireworks going off and his orgasm is described as raining gold hair threads, and all green dewy stars falling.

 

The plane landed. We got off, went to El Segundo. Drank. Laughed the day away. Night fell on Sunset Boulevard. The Church of Scientology was just across the street, a compound of blue buildings and houses, L. Ron Hubbard Way. I almost thought our Airbnb would be in there. That would have been funny. “How did you get mixed up with that cult?” I’d be asked, and I would say, “They are terrible people, manipulative, but…the Airbnb at the cult center was so nice, it was only $40 a night, three bedroom, two bath, little jacuzzi in the living room, sky lights, Bose stereo, HBO.”

Then I looked at the email again and thought maybe the address of our Airbnb was in the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, a great hospital, just across the street from the Scientology Center, that looked like it was going toe to toe with L. Ron Hubbard’s cult. Oh yeah, you gonna call that science? Check out this science! How fun would it be to find out your Airbnb was in some hospital ward, management needing to fill beds for the night, cover an impossible overhead.

 

Our Airbnb turned out to be in a shitty apartment building. A collapsing crack den, doors kicked out, a river of water falling through the ceiling. I slept with a butcher knife. In the morning, I woke up and saw the Hollywood sign looming out the window.

 

Lindsey and Casey arrived. I’ve known them going on fifteen years now. Rae has known them longer. She went to art school with Lindsey in Rhode Island. After college, Lindsey and Rae stuck around Providence, shared an apartment three ways with Stacey. Then Rae moved to New Jersey. Lindsey went to California. Are you getting all this? Are you making a chart? There will be a quiz at the end. Casey and Lindsey reconnected in California. They were married right around the time I met Rae. I crashed my car into someone on an icy day, unrelated. However, I did not flee the scene. Casey asked me what kind of suit I was wearing to the wedding. I showed him my suit and then he didn’t feel so bad about the one he was going to wear to Stacey’s wedding.

Lindsey and Casey live in Reno, Nevada now. Lindsey still has her own business, selling vintage clothes online. It’s really good, if you want the link, just ask. Casey works at the museum of art in Reno. They have a dog that weighs seven hundred pounds. Wait. Six hundred pounds. Wait, five hundred four, three, two, one hundred and forty something pounds. A Bernese mountain dog named Holiday. I asked, “Like the Madonna song?” Casey said, “A combination of Billy Holiday and the Holiday Inn.” Oh wait, no, he said Doc Holliday. The famous gunslinging dentist from the O.K. Corral.

I always have fun with Casey and Lindsey. One time, I think it was 2009, they came and saw us in New York, just before they were relocating again, from Rhode Island to the west coast. We were out at a restaurant in the West Village and Lindsey said to Rae and me, “It would be so great if you guys could come along for the trip. That would be so much fun.” I said, “Okay, we’ll come.” Lindsey said, “Imagine that? Imagine how fun that would be.” I said, “We’re coming.” Rae said, “Yay!” Lindsey smiled, “Oh my god, in a perfect world!” I said, “Really, we’re coming! I don’t have a job!” Rae said, “I’ll take the days off!” Lindsey said, “I’ll have to ask Casey.” Casey was outside, smoking a cigarette, I think. Or he was in the bathroom. Lindsey got up from the table and me and Rae were alone. She looked so happy and excited. I was too. It’s always a good idea to hop in a car and drive across America. Lindsey and Casey came back and Casey said, “Seriously?”

Next thing we knew, we were all crammed into a manual transmission Honda. Stick shift across the USA. Casey and Lindsey had hoped to do their trip across America in a straight shot, Route 80, three days. But I led us south, meandering, to Graceland. The Loretta Lynn Museum (where they even sold Loretta Lynn bottled water), and then Lindsey said, “Hey the schedule is fucked, let’s go to Kansas City.” Whenever we would arrive somewhere for the night, it would be just minutes shy of food being over for the night at whatever local bar we were at. In Missouri, Rae and I ran to the bar, sat down, just to be told we’d missed the food by ten minutes. The bartender asked where we were from, and we said New York City. He laughed, shook his head, he was just one of twenty million idiots dressed solely in denim. “What do you do out there in New York City?” I told him I was a welder, and Rae said she designed quilts. The beers came. I said, “What do you do around here?” I thought that was what we were doing. Asking each other what we did. He said, “Just live.” For a long time after that, I thought about what it was like to think that you were just living. Life. Its many splendid moments. Each moment of existence a new room to enter. Memories made and stored in your mind. What do you do for fun? Just live.

We went to Gallup, New Mexico to visit El Rancho, a hotel on Route 66, where the rooms were named after Wild West stars. Rae and I stayed in the Ronald Reagan. Lindsey and Casey stayed in the Lee Marvin.

Lindsey has more talent in her fingernail than most people have in their whole hands or something. She looks like a leading lady from an Ingmar Bergman film. Blonde, blue-eyed. Casey is wise beyond his years, laid back, hilarious, great reader and writer. He can run the 40 yard dash in 5.65 seconds, he used to be able to do it in 5.375.

What was I saying? Oh yes, Los Angeles. Last Friday. We walked past the Scientology Center again, and we went out drinking, some place off Sunset, I don’t remember. We were drinking gin gimlets outside on a porch. Lindsey and Rae used to drink gin gimlets at The Red Fez, and one night, 21 years old, Rae was so wasted she fell over backwards, no bend in the knee. So that was Rae’s nickname with Lindsey and Stacey for a while in Providence. No Bend in the Knee. We talked about Stacey and her husband-to-be, Mike. Told some fond stories about them, recalled some wonderful experiences we’d all had together.

A year with a wedding in it is a lucky year. The night before a wedding is always my favorite night of that lucky year. The anticipation of the party to come. The pledges on the way. The singing and dancing and confessions and tears and even the aftermath the body knows is coming from the lovely poison dispensed on the nuptial day. There’s nothing better than a lottery ticket with the word LOVE written on it. You may kiss the bride. You were once my little girl. Now please stand, release the doves, an endless ring, till death do we part, loops of gold, a child loose on the dance floor, an elderly man drinking his espresso, smiling, watching the colored lights spin and the young ones leap through the air. God, even if not mentioned, is watching, and happy. Please take these flowers with you. Our honeymoon begins now, with this final toast to you and your good fortune, this year.

And then Lindsey said, “Did I ever tell you the story about when my car was stolen?”

I loved that story! I had heard the story before, when Stacey and Mike were together with us all in Glenwood Springs, Colorado (coincidentally where Doc Holliday died), the previous October, but I said, “No I haven’t heard that story how does it go?”

Lindsey said, “Okay so, Casey had just gotten a new car. And we were both driving home from the dealership. He was following behind me. It was the first new car we’ve ever had and I was so proud. Then there was a traffic light, and I slowed down, and Casey slowed down behind me, but the car behind him slammed into the back of our new car!”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah. And I couldn’t see the damage, but the sound of the collision was so bad, all I could picture was the car being totaled, all crushed up and crunched in. I was so upset. A cop was parked maybe a hundred feet ahead of us, and I waved to the cop and I thought he saw me wave, but I guess he didn’t. Casey pulled off to the side, and I pulled off to the side and so did the guy who crashed into Casey. But then, the guy changed his mind and he pulled out onto the road and drove up to Casey’s window, leans over, looks hard at Casey, and just guns it up the road, past the cop, away he goes.”

“Ughh.”

“All I could think was, No! I slammed down on the pedal and chased after the guy.”

Casey said, “Now, I didn’t even know what was going on. I thought the guy had taken the onramp to the highway, and they were just gone, but they’d driven past the onramp. I was really worried about Lindsey. I thought, well, this is it.”

Lindsey said, “But! I’d just chased the guy down the road and then his shitty little gray car turned into a residential community and I chased him through that. But he made a mistake. He turned into a cul-de-sac. And I was blocking his way out. He spun around to get past but my car was in his way. Now we were head to head. I saw his stupid looking face. I saw a white dress shirt hanging on a clothes hanger in the backseat. Some drunk office guy, or a restaurant worker. I picked up my phone and called 911. I didn’t know where we were but the dispatcher asked for the man’s license plate number and I could see that! I read her the license plate number.”

“Oh my god.”

“And he revved his engine! He tried to go around the right side of me, but I turned and blocked him. And then he backed up! And went around the left side of me and was gone out of the cul-de-sac.”

“He got away?” Rae said. “Dammit.”

“He didn’t get away! I chased him deeper into the development and he made another mistake. He turned into another cul-de-sac.”

“A second cul-de-sac. Fucking A.”

“We were face to face again. He was revving his engine again. Trapped. I started to hear sirens. So many sirens. They were everywhere. I was screaming, I’d beat him! He slammed on the gas and got past me again, but I didn’t care. The cops were here. He didn’t stand a chance.”

Then Lindsey looked crestfallen, “But when I came out of the cul-de-sac, there were so many cops. A million cops. And I said, ‘Did you get him?!’ But they were like, ‘Who? Who? We didn’t see anybody.’ He’d gotten away!”

“That’s such a sad story.”

“Yeah,” Lindsey said, “And then when I got back to where Casey was, I saw there was like, no damage whatsoever to the car.”

Casey said, “Nothing. Just nothing. Alright, a little scratch.”

“That’s just how life is,” I said.

“It is, I know, right.”

Lindsey said, “So but then the police did eventually catch him and they called me up and I went to the police station and they had a lineup. Bunch of guys all in a row and I was nervous because I thought there was no way I’d get it right, I’d pick the wrong guy. But then I saw his face and I knew it was him. That same face that’d stared back at me in all those cul-de-sacs.”

 

Isn’t that a good story?

Don’t you like that one?

It’s a shame, I can’t tell you the story right after that one. The even better story. After the cul-de-sac story, I told Lindsey I was a huge fan of her form of vigilante justice (no one got hurt). She said she couldn’t take all the credit. Vigilante justice was in her blood. She told us the true story of one of her ancestors, a pioneer, who’d gotten revenge with a hatchet—but that’s all I can say, because I think me and Casey are writing the screenplay.

The next day was Stacey’s wedding. I woke up hungover and went out on the balcony and looked down at a chop shop that was below the apartment. A dog barked for hours on end. I sat down on a chair and read some more of my book. Now the main character was hallucinating his own trial against the Gods. They knew every sin he had every committed, every sexual depravity. He was caught, dead to rights. But then the hallucination lifted, and he was in a whorehouse and everything was okay.

I put on my cheap suit. Ate a couple chocolate chip cookies. The girls took separate cabs to the wedding, hours early. Rae and Lindsey getting photos with the bride. Casey and I hung back, left just in time to get to the venue. I met Casey in the lobby. He said he felt like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his suit. Every part of it didn’t fit in some varied and unpredictable way. We stood in the shadows of the palms. Someone had a sticker on the windshield of their white Nissan, an assault rifle.

As the cab pulled up to the place, I couldn’t believe it. Stacey and Mike were getting married right across the street from an oil refinery.

I got out of the cab and stared through the chainlink fence at the refinery. Just as scummy as the one I worked at. A yellow fog hung over it. The hum of doom. American flags flapping up high, torn and tattered.

The reactor where crude oil was cracked into gasoline. The rows of million gallon birthday cake gasoline tanks. The pencil towers that boiled the gasoline until it was drawn off at higher elevations as light ends, propane, butane. The refinery went on forever in my line of sight. Pipes twisting and doubling back, connecting it all to heat exchangers, and fin fans, vessels, drums, boiler houses…

I took a photo and sent it to one of my coworkers.

“This…wedding…in Los Angeles…it’s at an oil refinery.”

“Get outta of here! You can’t get away! Hahaha.”

Casey and I went inside. The place was wonderful. A refurbished machine shop. Concrete block walls. The original roll up bay doors. All done very classy. The floor was still concrete but painted black. There was now a DJ booth where the drill press had once been mounted to the wall. The spot where the tool boxes would have lined the floor was now occupied by a grouping of the most comfortable leather couches I’ve ever sat on. The folding chairs for the attendees were where I imagined the metal worktables had once been. An overhead beam, which had once had a trolley and rigging to offload trucks, was now freshly painted, chain block gone, decorations for the wedding hung off the beam.

The bride and groom were married in a nest of ferns, beneath a chuppah, in front of the roll up doors, and I could see the oil refinery behind them during their ceremony. The minister sang in Hebrew. Symbolic wine glasses were mixed together. A lovely and affecting poem was read by the mother of the bride. Two hearts were linked together for all time. Stacey, a graphic designer from Long Island, and Mike, a graphic designer from Philadelphia. They are now residents of Los Feliz, one body, one soul, who enjoy indie rock, tacos, and snuggling. Bound together on the blissful voyage beyond eternity. They kissed. A glass was stomped on. The dances began. The sun was setting through the smoke and steam of the refinery and the light was blinding. A hopeful light, perhaps love’s laser beam. I had to put on my sunglasses, there inside the venue, and I felt like a fat red-faced Jack Nicholson, about to die young. A speech was made. Another was made. Tender hearts celebrated. Artisanal pizzas. Pasta and chicken. I drank so much I got sick.

The sun came up. Our flight was any minute. I got dressed in a hurry. Rae called the car. At the airport, TSA made me open up my suitcase. They took out Ulysses and swabbed it with a chemical to see if it was a bomb. It wasn’t. They gave it back. I went to the public restroom to vomit, but the nausea passed. We got on the plane. It was 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, the stewardess let Rae pass, but stopped me at the door to the plane and served all of first class their coffee and orange juice. I swear. And a different crew! I still don’t believe it. Ask Rae if you don’t believe it happened both times. Her email is [email protected]

When I finally got to my seat, Rae said, “What happened to you?” I didn’t get to answer. My telephone rang. It was the steward at my job at the oil refinery in New Jersey.

Work update: I was off for three months, came back for a week, then surprised them with a ten day west coast vacation (surprise!) and they got me this morning with, “Hey tomorrow instead of day shift come in for indefinite night shift (surprise!).

 

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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