I met Mia in high school. She was a cheerleader with the short black skirt and I was a jock. I liked her right away. She was intelligent and mature, had a regal feel about her. I was a wreck and a prankster. But we had a lot in common. We both liked books and music and would have these long conversations about bands like U2, and why they were heady, and why bands like Poison were shit. And how when we read Robinson Crusoe we were Robinson Crusoe. We were on that island. We liked art and football and thought breakdancing and baseball sucked. Our favorite color was green. We liked Hostess lemon pies.

My landlord, Mr. Harvey, was a slumlord. He was somewhere in his 70s, had long bony fingers, hairy eyebrows, wore second-hand clothes, and ran a shabby ship.

“He’s bush league,” one of my neighbors told me shortly after I moved in. “I can’t stand that old fart.”

The inside of the apartments were not that bad. The one I lived in had new paint, carpet, and nice clean sinks. I’ve lived in worse. Still, the apartments could have used some aesthetic improvements. For instance, the garage doors were different shades of brown. They looked ridiculous and faced the street for the whole world to see. The first time I pulled up to the property I was like: oh, fuck no.

A simple fix one would say.

Not a roof job.

Just paint.

I didn’t care if the paint was neon pink or periwinkle. Just as long as the doors were the same color. And the same went for the paint on the trim around the windows. They were peeling and faded from the sun beating down on them for god knows how long. Probably hadn’t been painted in twenty years. Hell, the whole complex could have used a fresh coat of paint.

I saw one of those home you-can-fix-it-yourself shows once and the woman that was running the show said that paint was the cheapest way to make a big difference to your property. Be it an entire house or a room. Paint it a different color and poof: an instant new look. But he refused to take on this simple task.

One day I was hung over and feeling a bit punchy and I told him that the garage doors looked horrible and that since he had a couple of vacancies that he might want to paint them to make the place more attractive to potential tenants.

“Curb appeal,” I told him, like if I was a real estate agent. “You have a lot of competition out there, sir. You need to make this place pleasing to the eye. Looks like a checkerboard.”

He looked at me with his old blue eyes like if I was crazy. I sensed this and pushed my stance further to prove to him I was perfectly sane.

“Really,” I continued. “It’s a renter’s market. There’s choice up the ying-yang out there. Of course, this depends on how much cashish you’re willing to dish out. But still.”

“Well, that’s very observant of you, Mr. Romero, and I value your opinion. But right now there’s more pressing issues concerning these apartments. It’ll get done. I can assure you of that.”

I guess one of the more pressing issues was the parking lot that was hammered with large dents and potholes. There was one pothole that was no longer a pothole but a small crater. And when it rained the crater got larger and deeper. Over the six months I lived there I saw a handful of people trip over it. I once saw a woman do a face plant. She thrashed on the ground, kicking her legs wildly and flailing her purse. Poor thing. She never saw it coming.

“Oh, my god!” she yelled as I lifted her up. “What the hell just happened?”

I wanted to tell her that she ate tons of shit in a crater because the landlord was a cheap old man. He didn’t give a fuck about her safety or the aesthetics of his property so he could save some money to buy more stale clothes at the Salvation Army and gas up his decaying1972 Ford Squire. But I didn’t tell her that.

So I lied.

To her face.

“Oh, you just tripped up on this pothole.”

“Pothole?” she said looking down at the crater with befuddled eyes. “It’s a swimming

pool!”

Another pressing issue was that the complex was infested with ants. By nature the desert is infested with ants. That’s where they live. That’s where they steal, sting, and work. Big ants in a variety of colors. Black. Red. Purple. Yellow. For the most part they stay in the desert where they won’t be messed with by ratty-ass desert kids. I’ve seen these little bastards in action. Pouring soda or alcohol down the holes. Blowing them up with firecrackers. Blow torching the lot of them via lighters and hairspray.

But these ants were ballsy and seemed to be hopped up on coke. They created whole cities just outside our doors. They were relentless workers and what were once nice grounds dotted with bright desert flowers were turned inside out. Calls were made to Mr. Harvey and after a week or so we saw him creaking around with a giant plastic tank full of poison of some sort strapped to his back. Like the ants, he worked tirelessly covering every inch of the grounds. He penned us a letter and slipped them in our screen doors. Well, at least those of us who had screen doors.

Dear Tenants:

Thank you all for voicing your concerns regarding the ants. Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad! Those suckers really tore up the place, but I’m confident that my homemade brew will kill them all or at the very least will send them underground. Don’t worry the solution is not harmful to your pets or the native animals of the desert such as squirrels, crows, roadrunners, rabbits, and the occasional coyote. If you have any questions please feel free to contact my secretary and I’ll get back to you shortly. Thank you.

His secretary.

Right.

That’s what she was.

What he meant was his wife fresh from some hillbilly town in Georgia. It was hard understanding her. A yodeling mush-mouth. I called her once regarding my shoddy water heater and her responses were nothing but a warbling batch of muddy yeps and yeses. She was a mess with lazy blue eyes, stringy blond hair, toothpick lips, and dirty nails bitten to the quick. Her name was Sherry.

“Hi, Sherry. Nice to meet you.”

“Yep.”

Needless to say, Mr. Harvey’s ant-killing concoction did nothing to the ants but piss them off. They went underground for a couple of days, gathered themselves, and then came back with cold insect agenda and tore the place up to all hell. Ants were everywhere building hills and zipping around in frenzied patterns. It looked like the ground was moving. I felt like I was on acid. We called Mr. Harvey and he came back with the tank strapped to his back and went at it again.

My next door neighbor, who I affectionately called Bowling Balls because he bowled frequently, got the bright idea to strategically place little poison ant pods around the complex to stop the destructive force of thousands of pissed off ants. What an idiot, I thought. The pods did nothing. The ants crawled over them, around them, picked them up and moved them out of their way.

The longer I lived there the more I noticed what a terrible landlord Mr. Harvey was. His secretary sucked wienies and some of our requests and concerns went unanswered. The water got shut off numerous times. Once he didn’t pay his garbage bill (he hadn’t paid it in four months) and they hauled away the dumpster. Some of the tenants threatened to toss the trash on the roof.

Mr. Harvey also took forever to fix things. And when they did get fixed he hired some two-bit handyman who never did the job right. One of them was named Greg. Greg was some weathered drunk with small bat ears and elephant skin. He was also missing a pinky finger from trying to catch his nephew’s remote control airplane. He always showed up ripped and talked to himself while he worked. One time he was so drunk he fell asleep while fixing some broken sprinklers.

It was Greg who painted the garage doors two weeks before I moved out. I pulled up and saw him slinging paint and talking to himself. Mr. Harvey was pitching in wearing painter’s overalls and goggles peppered with paint. He looked ridiculous.

“Hey, Reno,” Mr. Harvey called me over. “Looks good, huh? Too bad you’re leaving us young man. I sold one of my houses. Gonna use some of the money to fix this place up. Get it all shiny and new. It’s a new beginning.”

I looked at Greg who was rolling the paint like a 3-year old.

“Well, good luck, Mr. Harvey. Wish I could be around to see it.”

I packed up and hauled boxes and furniture passed Bowling Ball’s front door, faded paint, and thousands of ants building and burrowing in the hard desert dirt. Two months later I happened to pass by the apartments and two of the garage doors still needed painting.

So much for new beginnings.

Naked

By Reno J. Romero

Notes

“You have to play the gig, Reno,” the voice said, over the phone. It was Johnny. A virtuoso on guitar and a friend of over twenty years. “Get your ass to California.” 

“Okay,” I said, hanging up the phone, already thinking of what I was going to play. 

Johnny keeps weird hours. Wakes up at three in the afternoon and stays up all night long. Musician hours. So, his call came at midnight. I was watching the news and ready to get to bed. But then the call was made. Then the strong arm was applied and now I was fully awake with my guitar in hand and running through some numbers.  

The next day I loaded up my truck and hit the I-15 going south. I got into Victorville around seven-thirty a bit tired, but ready for the gig that was the next night at the Roxbury Sports Bar in Hesperia, my hometown. My time to hit the stage: 9pm. It was on. Six songs. A quick bout. Uppercut, jab. In and out.  

My truck was acting up, so I had to take the Greyhound bus to Vegas. I wasn’t too happy about this. For one, I would have to dish out some cash to heal whatever ailment (s) my truck was suffering from. And two, the haul to Vegas wasn’t for fun. No hanging out with old friends. No extra-spicy chicken fingers at Danny’s. No wine or whiskey. I was going to town to see my attorney where at the end of our meeting she would tell me that I was officially and financially screwed. Yay for me! How neat! Such a wonderful way to start off the New Year!

But this was on me. This is what happens when you make poor personal and professional decisions. So, I had to eat it. And I had to take the damn bus to get this delightful news. I haven’t taken the bus since my high school days, but I remember it being an ugly combination of dingy people, screaming babies, and the pungent stench of decaying homemade food. This bus ride would be no different. Right when I stepped on the bus, I was hit with smudged faces, pissed off babies, and rotting food.

I found a seat next to this girl whose name turned out to be Jessica. We chatted for a bit. She’d been living in Vegas only for a few months. A transplant from L.A. Vegas was a new start for her. L.A was a bust. She liked Vegas—was taken in by the buzzing neon, the dusty red stone of Red Rock Canyon.

I turned on my iPod that I got from Santa (thanks, Tori) and settled in as we cut through the pale tones of the desert. I moved to the desert in 1981 and was immediately smitten by its perfect silence, its hard dirt, the spiny joshua trees—spooky and beautiful—sprouting out of the ground in ancient desert shapes. I was born in L.A, but it was the desert that wired and built me. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow” filled my ears, the lyrics a timely narrative.

Come to decide that the things I tried

Were in my life just to get high on

When I sit alone come get a little known

But I need more than myself this time

The bus weaved over I-15 and my mind tumbled through the past year: leaving my house with two bags full of books and clothes knowing I wasn’t going to return to the woman that was living inside. Befriending a chihuahua named Duke that would sing on cue. Seeing a giant rainbow in Thousand Palms rising from behind the San Gorgonio Mountains. Being holed-up and depressed in a smoke-infested hotel room on Boulder Highway with a fridge full of beer and a large pepperoni pizza. A handful of poems I wrote for a dear friend whom I love from head to toe. Driving through the desert in the middle of the night with an eccentric 70 year-old man who goes to law school and rides his Triumph motorcycle through the desert between Lucerne Valley and Barstow. Not being able to sleep for weeks on end and having late night conversations with Zara Potts. “Get some sleep,” she’d type and send over the wire. Writing a telling song in Woodland, California, that would eerily predict my future. A reading I gave in Hollywood, meeting some great folk for the first time, and in the company of a beautiful woman. The time I was having dinner with a buddy in Vegas and some woman walked up to the table and said, “Excuse me. But are you Reno Romero? I’ve been reading your stuff for years. I’m a big fan of The Nervous Breakdown.” Sleeping in my truck for two days in Stockton while rain and bad thoughts pelted the windshield. A gay pride festival I went to with my friend Trish where the boys were far prettier than the girls. Dancing to Al Green with my aunt and cousin buzzing on cheap beer and howling into the night like a pack of wild dogs. The countless nights I thought about my grandmother and wished she was still around. Jogging on the cracked streets of Hesperia—my hometown—not believing I was back after all these years, but feeling a sense of peace in the jagged shadows of some joshua trees that graced a vacant lot.

I was talking to Megan DiLullo one morning and we talked about the past year. I told her that 2009 was a bad year—that I could never have imagined the unforeseen circumstances that rolled my way in heavy waves.

“I don’t know if it was so much a bad year,” she said, in her charming punk rock style. “But it was a hard year.”

A hard year.

She was right.

It was a hard year.

* * *

After my attorney gave me the predicted news, I headed back to my grandmother’s house. It was over. I signed the needed papers and was free. Free to roam. Free to stay put. Free to do whatever I wanted. I was both sad and relieved. I slipped the key in the lock, opened the door, and smelled my grandmother. Her scent hasn’t left the house. I walked into her room and looked at her bed. She died in her room among crucifixes, paintings of Jesus, family pictures, and some books I bought her. I stepped into her closet and brushed my hands over her clothes that we refuse to put in boxes. I tuned her guitar and played it long into the night.

The next morning I went for a jog, taking my old route. Hacienda to Nellis, Nellis to Russell, Russell to Mountain Vista and back down to Hacienda. Just like old times. After a five-star lunch that consisted of Jack In The Box’s dog food tacos and Vegas tap water, my aunt dropped me off at the bus station that was littered with action: two Hispanic dudes smoking a joint in the parking lot. A batch of disheveled Chinese tourists with swollen I-didn’t-get-any-sleep-last-night eyes guarding their luggage. A pissed off American with greasy dirt-blond hair making a scene because he missed his bus to Albuquerque. A pretty brunette staring at a wall of casinos in the distance. Some black dude dancing in front of the terminal dressed in a stained wife-beater and wearing shorts that sat just below his nuts. A young woman peppered with zits nervously smoking a cigarette and checking her cell phone.

And then to make things even more entertaining, the bus was running late. Not one hour, but two hours. Curses and moans filled the room. Faces were twisted and long. Some people walked up to the counter and bitched. The dude behind me—who reeked of booze and cigarettes—sat on the floor Indian-style and watched porn on his laptop. I looked down and saw two chicks eating each other out. Now, I realize there are a lot of men (and women for that matter) that enjoy watching girl-on-girl action, but I’m not one of them. I’d rather eat a trough of liver and onions and then mow fifty acres of crabgrass. I text a friend who’s a big fan of seeing girls fuck each other.

“In Vegas. The bus is late. Too bad you’re not here with me, vato. I’m watching two chicks munching each other.”

“Shut up! In person?” he immediately fired back.

“No. Sorry. On some asshole’s laptop.”

“Bummer.”

The bus finally arrived and as fate would have it, Mr. Porn sat next to me and cranked up the sticky show once again. I couldn’t do anything, but laugh to myself. What a crazy life, I thought. Truly crazy. Attorneys with bad, yet good news. Memories of men and women. Rainbows and rain. Poems and cheap beer. An unscripted future up ahead. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” came through the earphones as the bus passed Bell Mountain and dipped into the Mojave Narrows where years ago I used to catch snakes and scorpions and kissed Julie Newland on a warm desert night.

There’s a girl in New York City, calls herself the human trampoline

And sometimes when I’m falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil

Well, I say so this is what she means

She means we’re bouncing into Graceland

I got off the bus in Victorville and met a man that just got out of the prison that’s down the road on the outskirts of town. He was kind, was going back home to Seattle where he said he was going to stay out of trouble, do the right thing.

“Good luck out there, man,” I told him with sincerity and shook his hand.

“Hey, you too,” he said, and boarded his bus.

So, the plane touched down. I sat in between some dude that had a little too much of Vegas and some chick with large pretty brown eyes.

He smelled like he was broke.

She smelled good.

I like girls that smell good.

She kept looking over my shoulder trying to read the book I was chewing into.

“Whatcha reading?” she finally asked.

“William Kittredge. He kicks some major ass,” I said, jumping my eyebrows. “You should give him a stab. I’d give you this copy, but I don’t know you that well so you’ll have to shell out your own duckies.” 

She laughed.

I like making girls laugh.

Especially ones with large pretty eyes and that smell good.

I love women, period.

Anyhow.

I had a running joke with a friend that when I arrived we’d get a game of basketball going when our schedules allowed. She’s an ol’ pal and back in our high school days we played hoops.

Varsity.

Jackets and all.

She was a point guard.

So was I.

She had a passion for the sport back then (still does) and even went to college to play. I had a passion for weed and music and doing anything that would keep me out of the house. So, in essence, I sucked. But I was a three-year letterman, so I guess I had a little something going.

“We gonna get this fucker going or what?” I said, lacing up my sneakers.

“Really?” she said, flashing her fabulous blue eyes. “You want some?”

“Shit…”

I hadn’t played basketball in years. This broad runs a thousand miles a week and looks like an eighteen-year old. She’s around twice that age and has heads snapping everywhere she goes. She’s stunning.

But I’m a dude and will do anything to mix things up. Even if that means I’ll be on the shit-end of the deal.

I’m playful that way.

Or a jerk-off.

Being the gentleman that I can sometimes be, I gave her the ball first.

“Ball in.”

It took us a bit to get things going. We were playing on a home court so we had to make the needed adjustments.

I scored first.

Nailed a ten-foot jumper. All net. All Reno. I shot my arms in the air like I was Bono sucking up all that good rock and roll light.

“Oh, lord. Someone’s in deep trouble.”

Then it quickly went downhill from there.

She was, and still is, a great defensive player and had me locked in. She still had solid technique, eyes on the center of my gut, feet shuffling, and the only option I had (other than barreling over her Man-Style) was to try my luck in getting her on her heels, getting a good look, and going for the jumper.

It worked a few times but the jumpers weren’t jumping.

Uh-oh.

Then she started driving on Reno. I forgot my technique and watched her zip by me.

One point.

Two points.

I hit another jumper. And then another.

I was feeling good.

Sweat fell off my ugly face.

The sun was high and casting white light over the valley.

But in the end, oh yes, she got me. Came flying by me like Michael Jordan and dropped in the final point.

5 to 3.

“Home court advantage!” I screamed, sweating like a pig, out of breath, but smiling big because I found some pleasure in her taking me out. ”You cheated! You suck!”

“Kiss my ass, Romero.”

It was a blast. A cool time indeed.

Forrest Gump said that life was like a box of chocolates.

And you know, I think he was right. 

I like chocolate. Especially the ones that See’s Candy cooks up. The ones with the sprinkles.

But maybe life is also like a game of basketball.

A strong lay-up.

Boxing out.

A jumper that needs to be hit.

Being a team player.

Making the pass.

Playing good D and making sure nothing gets by your ass.

Nothing.

Ball in.

Ball in.

Ball in.

I don’t know.

You tell me.

(Anyhow, here’s to girl victory. You fuckers.)