It was 4:30 p.m. by the time we got on the road. Me, Melinda, and Jane.  The sky over the southern San Joaquin Valley was heavy with rain clouds. I drove. The road was slick.  The San Emigdio Mountains were topped with snow.  “You sure are quiet,” I said to Jane. Normally she was ruling the conversation. She called it a “Janeopoly.” I figured she was plotting out her novel, Puro Amor.  Not long ago she told me she could write entire paragraphs in her head and remember them for transcribing later.

An hour or so later we zoomed down the Hollywood Freeway, took the Highland Avenue exit and headed west onto Hollywood Boulevard, on our way to Book Soup. We were nearly late for the reading.

The bookstore was small, cramped, packed floor-to-ceiling with shelves. The reading area was an aisle essentially, a few folding chairs leading to a podium.  Bunched in the crowd were some writers from TNB, several of whom I’d never met. Kimberly M. Wetherell, filmmaker and writer, wore black glasses, her red hair a fire of loveliness. She mentioned that I was no longer two dimensional—no longer just words on a screen. I said something about being a figment of her imagination.

Duke Haney, author of Banned For Life and Subversia, stood in a corner wearing a black newsboy cap and a leather jacket. He was talking to Rachel Pollon, another TNBer.  She stood about half his size and got shy when I asked her to talk on camera.  “Meet Hank,” Duke said, pointing to another tall guy.  Hank stepped forward and handed me a photo of a face with the word “awesome” on it.

Lenore Zion had long, curly hair—different than when I last saw her.  She looked younger.  She asked what I had been up to. I mumbled something about 2010 being a year to write off and later bought her book, My Dead Pets Are Interesting.

Greg Boose came up and offered me a friendly hello.  He was taller than I expected, and handsome. His wife, Claire Bidwell Smith, was taller than expected, too. Both have striking eyes the color of the sea.  Greg asked me how long I was staying in town. I wanted to say a week. I wanted to say I had a suitcase and was looking for a nice padded bus bench.  “Probably headed back tonight,” I told him.  “Though maybe I’ll just stay and find my way back in the morning.”

Joe Daly, TNB’s music editor, came over and introduced himself.  His hair was shaggy, he was unshaven, he looked like rock and roll.  For some reason I had expected his hair to be short.

I met Ben Loory, too.  He has a gentle soul and a contemplative smile. Later, when he read a story of his called “The Well” and said he might cry, I almost started crying myself.

I didn’t get to meet Victoria Patterson. She read an essay about farts in literature, and her hands were shaking as she read.  It was hilarious.  Everyone laughed and held their gas.

Then there was the master of ceremonies, Greg Olear, author of the new novel Fathermucker.  A dark sweater covered his “Brave New World” T-shirt.  He gave me a guy hug and we made small talk.  I met his wife, Stephanie, too—not a writer, but a ferocious singer.  Steph was all hugs. She talked to a college friend from Syracuse, and they laughed about old times.

 

 

WATCH: GREG OLEAR/TNBERS AT BOOK SOUP

VIEW: JANE HAWLEY PHOTOS FROM BOOK SOUP

 

After the event, many of us headed over to Mirabelle, a nearby bar and restaurant. Brad Listi carried a sack of books and asked what I was up to and where I’d been. I didn’t want to dish out my sob story right then, so I just talked opportunities, my new book of poetry, the interest of an agent in my novel Anhinga, and so on.

Inside the bar, Jane came suddenly to life. She talked and talked and I grew quiet as she and a new friend walked to where Ben, Duke and the others were hanging out. Greg was at the bar drinking a beer. He ordered me some water.  I listened to Stephanie and her friend talking about their college days. I was content.

Melinda was quiet. She used to write (Lenore recognized her from her defunct blog), and she does have a voice. But now, for the most part, she just comes to my Random Writers Workshop, where I prod people like her to write novels and dream big. Jesse from the workshop was there, too. He downed a few drinks and talked shop with Ben Loory.

We were there for about an hour before heading home.  Jane fell asleep in the back of the car and began snoring. Rain poured over Interstate 5, turning into slush as we hit the Tejon Pass, the hump over the San Andreas Fault that marks the downward slide into the Central Valley.

“You okay?” Melinda asked. She could tell I couldn’t see the lines on the road.

“I’m fine,” I told her. “Just gotta see the lanes. I don’t mind driving in storms.”  I was smiling a little, eyes  straight ahead. I felt strangely at ease, like I was passing through a kind of personal storm, releasing it, washing it away on the rain-slicked desert road.

As we rolled back into Bakersfield, Jane woke up. By now it was one o’clock, and still raining.  I pulled into Melinda’s driveway.  We got out.  Jane said a quick goodbye, ran to her car, and drove away.  A pile of leaves in the neighbor’s gutter had caused a flood in front of Melinda’s house. I grabbed a hoe from the garage and started moving the pile. Melinda watched me briefly, then went inside, to bed.  I stayed outside and pushed and pulled and hacked at the pile of leaves and branches until a stream was created.  I stood alone in the rain and watched the water flow down the street.  Rain came down against the lawns and streets of Bakersfield in the night.  It was quiet otherwise, no signs of life, and I stood alone in the rain, content to know that the flood was gone.

 

I’ve Been Busy

By Erika Rae

Memoir

The other day as I was standing in front of the mirror plucking my eyebrows, I was hit hard with a thought: I don’t have time for this.

I leaned back and stared hard at my twin in the mirror.

“I see you, Gemini,” I told her. “But you’re not on the schedule. Sorry.”

I put down the tweezers and walked away.

Now, before you judge me, ladies, I do realize that I need to make time for myself. As the end of my thirties approaches faster than a train filled with Gideon Bibles on the way to the Branson hotel circuit, I acknowledge that if I want to look presentable, I have to make an effort. I must wash and dry my hair. I must change my jeans every so often. I must wax certain places. I must not make a habit of replacing sex with homemade baked goods. If you’re a guy reading this, I can liken it to the necessity of brushing your teeth before you go on a date and thank you so much for reading a full five paragraphs of this post.

The thing is, I don’t have any time. I know a lot of people complain about this. As far as I can tell, this characteristic appears to have been carried on by natural selection, and particularly by those who carry large amounts of German and Scotch-Irish stock, plus the DNA from one illusive yet profoundly legendary Cherokee. That is to say, “lack of time for anything” appears to be one hell of a dominant trait. And lest you think I’m writing this to complain, let me stop you right there. I love it. I love being busy and having something to work toward.

Here is a snippet from my daily schedule, which I write religiously at the dawn of each day:

12:50-1:00 – Clean lunch dishes.
1:00-1:05 – Change “Ashtray Babyhead’s”* diaper. (Multitask challenge: count his toes – he’s falling behind in math)
1:05-1:10 – Make soy latte
1:10-1:15 – Put Ashtray to bed for nap (Multitask challenge: Set 4-year old to work writing the letter “H”)
1:15-1:25 – catch up on essential emails
1:25-1:45 – ISP/Billing
1:45-2:15 – Write 500+ words on memoir
2:15-2:45 – Edits to resume for client
2:45-3:00 – Edits to one Scree article
3:00-3:15 – Check in with publishers for TNB features
3:15-3:30 – Fold laundry
3:30-3:35 – Scrub bathroom sinks (Multitask challenge: come up with topic for next chapter)
3:35-4:05 – Work on book trailer for Devangelical
4:05-4:10 – Refill latte

I would have started the schedule earlier in the day, but it basically can be reduced to teaching my second grader history, language arts and science (we do online charter school), making breakfast and showering. Sometimes in between those things, I get crazy assignments that I have to tuck in here and there. A few weeks ago, I had set up the TNB feature for Oriana Small, author of the porn memoir, Girlvert. Perhaps you saw a picture of a girl with her fist stuck in her mouth on the TNB Headline banner. Yeah, so she was my feature. You’ve always wondered what we TNB editors actually do around here, haven’t you?

Problem was, her excerpt didn’t come in a format that I could just paste into the highly sophisticated TNB interface we TNBers have come to know and love, so I had to type it in word for word. So there I am, in between feeding Goldfish to my two youngest while frantically tapping in eight glorious pages of:

I took the piss into my open mouth with a smile. It was totally ridiculous. I was thinking, Okay, done. Now I’ve tried piss and I can say with truth and conviction whenever someone asks me about it: It’s not that big of a deal.

Then to the kids who are now pulling on my sleeve: What’s that sweetie? You need some more orange juice? OK, here you go. Now where’s your Cookie Monster dolly? Mommy needs to get back to work.

It’s a crazy life. And no, I don’t always finish the task I set out to do in a set time frame – the point is that I pay SOME attention to it during that time period, and then revisit later. After the children go to bed. After the husband gets attention and the dog gets fed. Maybe I’ve plucked my eyebrows by then. Hard to say.

But the MAIN reason for my conspicuous absence as of late (other than the fact that I’m ghostwriting a memoir for somebody…oh, that) is that I’m starting a magazine.

SCREE!

I’m really excited about it, in case you couldn’t tell. I have two partners: the lovely and talented graphic artiste, Carissa Carter, and my tech guru of a husband, Scott. We’ve been working hard at it for months now. The concept is the celebration of the scramble on the way to summiting your venture. Scree is the name climbers use for the loose rocks and boulders you have to cross before you reach the top of a high peak. It’s immense and it’s challenging. Just like my magazine. Just like my life.

We’ve got some incredible features lined up, including some of TNB’s own.

Slade Ham talks about what it’s like to be pushing toward his goals as a professional comic.

Joe Daly spotlights the next big front man in rock n’ roll in the band Dom.

Brin-Jonathan Butler discusses his push uphill as he creates a documentary about world champion Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux.

Kimberly Wetherell talks about being on the brink of successfully producing her first feature film, Lullaby.

Rich Ferguson writes about what it’s like to push toward that ever-illusive goal of actually becoming an urban legend (as well as his poem under the same name).

Nick Belardes even makes a brief appearance dressed like a Russian cosmonaut, excuse me, Commanaut.

There are many others, too. We’ve got an interview with a trending robotics company. A steam-punk electric tandem bicycle inventor. A fashion designer. An award winning photographer. And more. All people working toward the common goal of hitting the top of whatever it is they’re aiming for.  In a way, it’s like reading about next year’s super heroes before they hit it huge and are on the front page of Wired or Rolling Stone.

But it’s not about fame. It’s about the struggle. The push to be the best. The things that drive a person to keep going and make it all the way to their dream. It’s epic. And it’s just a little bit in all of us.

The really cool part is that we’ve finished design on the hard copy and have held the first proof in our hands. It’s a magazine. It’s real. It’s a real magazine. We’ve been working on this for so long now and we’re finally on the brink of letting it go. The web site is close behind the scenes, but to the public it currently looks like this:

http://scree.co

So, yeah. I’ve been busy.

But man, it feels good.

 

 

* And, no. My toddler is not actually named Ashtray Babyhead, thank you very much, Rich Ferguson, for naming him to the TNB community. (Sweet Wittle Ashtway.)

 

It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.

None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.

The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.

When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.

I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.

After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.

I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.

After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.

Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.

I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.

“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.

Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.


(Photo: Dolls found in mortuary mansion closet)

Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.

When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.

The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.

I think I might have worked off an entire cup of coffee in that lone jog,” he later said, grateful he came to Bakersfield and broke bread with a host of tireless poets.

In 2006, the year I turned 30, I graduated Magna Cum Laude with my BA in English, my fourteen year old daughter was repeatedly attempting suicide and failing in school, and my four-and-a-half year old ADHD twin boys were rapidly being kicked out of every daycare center in the city – all of which was the death knell for my failing marriage. Around this time, I created a MySpace account to stalk my daughter, who, I discovered, had a clandestine account herself. On my profile I listed writing and reading as two of my hobbies and one day I got an invitation to read a blog written by some “author” named Brad Listi. Everyone was an author on MySpace, it seemed. Most of them were trying to sell me something and the ones who weren’t tended to write boring blogs about finance or essential oils or some other subject I had no interest in.

I was, as a matter of course, rejecting nearly every “author” who invited me to read his or her writing – but for some reason, I went ahead and accepted this Brad Listi fella’s invitation.

 

Look at this earnest face.

Look at this earnest face.

Mom’s scalloped potatoes in a creamy grey milky sauce looked like something you’d see coating a Paper Mache monkey, or what I would later realize in an “oh wow” moment, covering the android Ash in “Alien” during his barf and whacking scene (Actually, the scene reminded me of both Mom’s potatoes and spaghetti).

The grey goop sat in a steaming rectangular CorningWare dish with little polka dots of pink spam poking toe-like at every angle. Mom’s cooking was always a sort of building caved in on itself. Splashes of pink in food could have been anything. Anyway, she had cut the spam into brick shapes. Odds and ends. Curves. There was never any real order to her cutting anything. I couldn’t even say her bricks were stackable, which is why they looked like toes.

A big heaping spoonful on my plate meant watching a soupy gooey mess slop off the potatoes, not much unlike flesh caught in a flash fire and falling apart. I figured if potatoes could scream they would. But they didn’t. And neither did I. Not for the first fifteen years of my life anyway.

Seconds, please?

When I think about Stevie Wonder sitting at a grand piano tink-tink-a-tinkling those keys and singing about whatever is on his mind, I imagine he still sees beauty. There’s still a gorgeous world, right? You know, Mary Ingalls, she imagined beauty too while standing at the window in her family’s little house in Walnut Grove, or on a street corner, just gazing, like pretty stars were everywhere (and big angel wings on everyone). It was all beautiful.

I know it’s just TV. But the blind can see beauty. Yes’m.

Then you take something like food. If you’re blind to the nuances of its varied bland tastes practically your whole life (until you’re a teenager) then you’re really messed up. The good thing is, when I was around fifteen, food became epic as the fast-food nation craze in the Eighties saved my ass. And I have to say, thank God my parents’ relationship fell apart in the Eighties. Mom’s cooking disappeared and Carl’s Jr. was the Buddha. And thank God for Asia Market, because as greasy as that little store’s kitchen noodles were, it was my first foray into exotic foods. Moo shoo salvation.

Back to the Seventies.

Sure, those years often revolved around TV dinners. Little foil trays filled with goodies cooked in the oven. There was lots of Swiss steak. Mountains of it. Talk about another soupy gooey mess. Mom made her version of it too. Only, I’m not sure anything covered it but some weird gravy and onions. And the meat was tough and probably ripped right off the cheek of some cow (Pops was always finding a deal, and he carried lots of big knives and a gun).

Come to think of it, Swiss steak was a real delicacy in our house. As plain as it was and as canned as the mashed potatoes were, it was just a fucking treat. I gobbled the shit like it was straight from some old fat European cook dumped right on my plate (I’m a quarter Swedish. Mom was half. So maybe she loved the Swiss! Wa-la! Wasn’t like she was going to get to sleep with one).

And yes, her delicacy smelled a little like dog food. But that could have been because our fat sheltie’s dog dish was always a big splattered mess under the kitchen table. Every dinner smelled a little like Alpo. Or the generic equivalent.

It was great preparation for the years I worked in a dairy.

Now, Mom’s corned beef hash made me gag. I wouldn’t touch the shit. Give me her crummy attempt at chorizo and eggs anytime over that plate of dog crap. I’m half Mexican… Warning: Never let a white Midwesterner from Iowa cook your family’s Mexican food. You will be fucking screwed up for years. Although, why the hell Pops never complained is beyond me. He ate the shit like he was the dog getting a plate of mom’s salty spaghetti. Our dog, Candy? She wouldn’t touch the corned beef hash either. Poor thing. Probably what killed her in her sleep. I loved the little bitch. But I don’t even know what was in the hash mash, and I refuse to describe its texture, so let’s move on.

A real family delicacy down in the south side of Bakersfield where I grew up could really fill the house (and the neighborhood) with a foul smell. You think Mom’s corned beef hash could turn away a starving army? Or that her chorizo was all that could give an entire ghetto of my Mexican cousins the shits? Try a hot steamy cookie sheet filled with hot dogs carefully sliced down the centers (because Mom took care in slicing her wieners) and then heap (I mean fucking heap) mounds of fake mashed potatoes on top. Take that shit and slam it in the oven for an hour, so that no juice is left in those dogs (By this time every particle is in the atmosphere scaring the little cholos back inside their houses). Then, pull those dogs out of the oven and put those bad boys on the dinner table. That’s where we all sat, Pops at the head in his big wooden chair (us on benches). Once in a long while he blessed the food (Don’t remember what he said because I was usually holding my breath). And then chow time.

You’ve never seen such burnt potatoes slide eagerly down so many throats. I mean, we would have eaten that shit raw Mom’s cooking was so bad.

Oh, man, Pops. He sat there in his shorts (never wore a shirt) with his big brown hairy belly smashed against the table, and he would slop on half a bottle of ketchup. Leaning forward, he ate those bitches like they were some kind of fancy French eclairs some fat fucking Frenchman would buy all warm and tasty on the way to the Paris Metro. And there Pops went, eating three helpings, and the dog whining cause she didn’t get any, and me eating my food, trying like hell to crane my neck to see the TV because the “Wonderful World of Disney” was on and this was a bonafide Sunday evening treat.

I can go on. But I just wanted you to know why I boycott spam, or anything that claims having been scalloped, or chorizo from even the best Mexican restaurants, and most skinny noodles (Mom cooked Fideo and it looked like some poor soul’s brains had been cooked with the meninges melting away into a noodle stew).

Ah, the delicacies. I sure hope it’s dinner time for you. Word to your mother.

Performing is always tough for writers. I mean, we’re not typically stage-trained theatre experts amped up on auditory performance steroids when reading our prose. The reality is, most writers are just average Joes like me. We stumble, stutter, are monotone, and really are quite boring when we get up in front of people and open our mouths. I don’t know why this is, and have been guilty of it for years. I’ve droned on like a pontificating robot. I’ve blathered, buzzed, and really was in need of a good oiling of my vocal joints.

An hour passed. I sat in the quiet of my office and ordered a bus ticket.

Within two hours I was dragging my suitcase down a street that paralleled Interstate 15. I walked past Palace Station where OJ was caught and thrown in the slammer. I turned east on Sahara Avenue and made my way through the hundred-degree heat over the freeway. The Sahara Hotel loomed in front of me. I’d stayed there for several days when I moved back to Las Vegas. Then I was at John’s house, living in his spare room. Now here I was walking back to the Sahara, pulling my suitcase along a dirty street and looking down at piles of broken glass on industrial rooftops.

That night I sat on the edge of my bed and stared toward the window as darkness flickered with casino lights and hummed with the monorail’s monotone singing.

In the morning I packed my suitcase for the last time. I walked out of my room. No hint of remorse for having quit my job. I simply began my journey as some journeys begin—an invisible string tugged my ass along.

The elevator had a musty odor. The doors opened and I passed the Sports Book and the lobby. The casino was nearly empty. In a few corners sat sleepy drunks. They streamed money into machines. Just a little slower than usual. Rusted automatons.

Outside, an endless sidewalk stretched along a horizon of heat. I started walking and stopped at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas boulevards. The air was hot. I wore a black backpack that I’d stuffed with my laptop and clothes and dragged a black suitcase that looked like an old pregnant Labrador about to spew a giant litter of cloth puppies. It sagged, but I had a good hold of its flimsy plastic handle.

About that time the transient came.

God said his angels are all around us. They look like people. For all I know street performers are a breed of angels meant to watch us when pretending they’re desperate to be seen. They stuff their big feathery wings into jeans pockets. They tuck ripples of pink-skinned wing muscle, all feathery and silky into raincoats and cloaks, and, though they may be a little below us, carry invisible swords and magical timepieces that compress our paths into mere moments.

Those are the holy jugglers and poet rappers of the Word. The men of sleight of hand flashing jokers, and ministering minstrels with guitar cases open like bloody mouths eating dollars. They are the homeless locust eaters watching us come and go and breathing on us their angels’ breath and God light.

Before the light could change there came the transient talking up a storm. Talking fast. “You’re going somewhere special,” he said. “You’re going somewhere special with bags like those! Hot enough for you? I’m going to see destiny. She’s this way,” he said.

He stepped into the street before the light could change. He looked sun-worn and carried a bag of plastic bottles. His eyes were wild with uncertainty and the cosmic insanity that fills the universe at such moments in the desert. His clothes were urban, old; they fit him like a sloppy dishrag sliced to fit with a dirty butcher’s knife.

My destination was the bus station downtown on Main Street next to the Plaza Hotel. It was the dirtiest place I’d seen in Vegas, with its broken down restroom and shit-coated urinals corralled by strands of yellow tape.

My shoulder was already sore just dragging my life to the corner. Already forgetting about the transient, I stepped into the crosswalk just as the light changed. I crossed Sahara and gazed through car windows at empty morning faces. I looked up at a boarded casino dressed in black awnings. Just past that I saw the Stratosphere Tower. There flew a helicopter, while down on the street a motorcycle with a big moustache riding it roared past. I saw security guards wandering to work. I saw druggies hard up for the question of life to smack them in a fix of morning clarity.

Across the Sahara I made my way down the long snake of Las Vegas Boulevard. I yanked my bag along, which flipped over more than once as I dragged it. I barely missed the toes of bus riders waiting on shaded benches. Hard faces stared into the heat, past me and my bags. Some looked up at the Stratosphere Tower, at its moving amusement park machinery more than a thousand feet above them.

Further along I stopped to rest at an abandoned swimming pool. I snapped a photo and went on my way. My hand and shoulder ached as I walked up and down parking lot driveways and street curbs. Near one casino, the same transient sat on a small cement ledge. If he had angel wings I couldn’t even see a ridge of feathers beneath his shirt. He grinned at me and watched me pass into the heat. I finally took a longer rest by a wedding chapel, only to be passed again by the giggling transient. He rattled his bag of bottles and laughed as if spooking some ghost he saw inside of me.

Abandoned pool on Las Vegas Boulevard taken on day I quit job.

I didn’t have any water and didn’t want to sit in the bright light. So I continued on the sun-baked sidewalk. I reached Charleston Boulevard and crossed it, heading into the old Huntridge District. I cut along streets, and passed through a transient park where bodies littered benches in multi-colored rags, and carts made their slow way, pushed by dirty hands. One group of transients sat against a wall by a fountain. Even in the heat they wore heaps of clothes. Their innermost layers, I imagined, were fused to cracked and caked lesion-covered wings, and to scabs where needles had burnt pools of coagulated blood onto drug-hot arms.

I dragged my bags slowly through, looking to see if the transient from outside the Sahara had made his way here. I looked to see if he was dancing a jig, or had miraculously transformed old plastic bottles into a puppet show of tales of the Vegas underworld: dancing demon can-can 7-Up mermaids, Coca-Cola devils of casino executives, big boss radio Fanta clowns with explosive-painted faces and forked tongues riding a carousel of Papa Johns pizza boxes and McDonalds fast-food toys—all lit on fire from the burning desert slot machine handles pulling reels of endless flames.

Several streets further, outside a Bank of America, my mouth was parched. I had nothing to drink so I just licked my lips and headed up some steps to where I pulled some of my last cash from an ATM. Heading back toward the street, I saw one of the most lonely of women and so smiled at her, the Queen of the Sin City Transients. I’d seen her many times before as she sat on a bench like it was her throne. Surrounding her were bags of food from trashcans, generous well wishers and back alley refuse piles. She was plump, rosy-cheeked and had the brittle hair of a sunburnt aged maiden of fire. She held a carton of soup and drank deeply as pigeons wandered past her feet. Piles of blankets and a cart sat nearby. I was a sweaty mess as I passed. I looked over but she ignored me, except through the farthest corners of her eyes, as little girls do.

I looked back, half expecting my transient friend to be there bowing at her feet and rattling his bag of bottles. I imagined a cloud of fire springing up at her feet, orange reflecting in her once shadowy black eyes, and her waving a wand, casting demons into the desert and demands to be carried out at midnight by fallen angels.

The bus station was close. I scooted on a sidestreet to Fitzgerald’s Casino, where years before I watched green-haired old ladies laugh and spin penny slots. Now the penny machines were even more gimmick-plagued. Their seats were filled with anxiety-ridden souls. It was a New World casino order, where penny slots tricked old ladies out of hundreds of dollars rather than the mere ten bucks they were used to losing. Those days of free martinis and enough cash left over to get a new green wig had gone.

Now I walked among a new generation of forlorn faces. With them I finally sat dehydrated and thankful. I ate at a McDonalds with a blank stare before eventually making my way to find brief refuge in the Plaza Hotel. There, I sat on a bench and changed my shoes and socks and prepared myself for the bus ride to California.

*This piece was written entirely on an iPhone

Cellrunner

By Nicholas Belardes

Writing

I am a cellrunner. There’s no doubting my obsession and ability to plug in as I head out on a city bus to write and steal juice from the bent steel city.

Resembling a modern day sci-fi novel sub-character with my spiky mini faux hawk and buggy black square glasses, I look out the bus window into the urban juiced-up decay. I tighten my backpack and the laces of my dirty petroleum shoes. I’m hungry to step off.

The bus brakes wheeze. Neon surrounds the projects. Billboards light piles of bricks and bottles. Casinos shine on dirty streets and faces of addicts whose cheeks turn yellow in street corner lamplight. I can see it all as I step off the bus and fumble for the writer’s equivalent of a laser blaster converted to look like a suped-up .357. At least that’s what I imagine as I pull my iPhone out of a black pocket in my Vans backpack and text blast, forming paragraphs that don’t originate from pen and ink or a laptop.

My only problem? Battery power. Cell juice. I’m down to sixty-seven percent as my fingers work the touchscreen.

But like some old addict once told me who sat with steely eyes and neon rims: “Seek the juice and you will find it.”

No need to write and write until your cell battery drains. You’ve got to be obsessed with recharging, always have an eye along the gutters of the horizon line for a place to chargeto cellrun if you have to.

Go ahead. Stand plugged in and write like a madman while you’re taking juice. Electricity burns into your phone.

God knows I need it.

I take a walk down a melting city sidewalk, enter an outdoor mall with big fancy facades and valet parking and immediately scan for outlets. I find them on treescoiled and tied to the bases, hidden behind mall planters and along the walls where light-up signs should be plugged in. I see them in moviehouses where stand-up video games or neon-glowing kiosks used to stand. They’re obvious in most Starbucks, and hidden in some. They’re in casinos and fast-food joints, along strip mall walls and by stages in parksif you can pry a lid and get to the holy juice. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, they’re right under your ass. Just look beneath your chair wherever you are.

I’m a writer and this is what I do: I take a bus or a long walk out into the juiced-up urbanscape. I have a cord and plug in my pocket. I have confidence and anxiety that in a world where batteries fail and diminish almost as soon as you charge them, I can juice up to one-hundred percent, fingers whizzing across the touch screen.

And then it’s magic, right? Words form. Paragraphs. Storylines. Characters. This mobility allows me my own inner escape velocity where I’m strapped into an iPhone rocket that soars where writers with cumbersome laptops have wet dreams of being free.

It’s no different than what Matt Baldwin wants to do: bust out some memoir for The Nervous Breakdown from an iPhone App. Probably from the top of a mountain. Or while harpooning the great white novel with a cellphone in his teeth. I tried and failed. But Matt hasn’t given up: “Yeah I’m going to email Brad and Greg about it. See what they say. Would be awesome if we could input directly.”

I can take my device to rocky crags on the seawall in Dana Point, where one slip is a smashed leg between tons of boulders. I tap out a novel chapter and watch the surf send maddening swells that smash fishermen against rocks. I sit by a Ferris Wheel in an upscale mall, plugged in if I have to, or walk down Las Vegas Boulevard and tap out a novel, knowing I can duck into a casino and maybe stand around in the lobby, connected to the very same juice that’s sucking money from drugged up slot junkies. They can’t get away from spinning video screens where even Trekkies pay homage to virtual Bones.

Laptop junkies are like cellrunners of a minor variety, sitting in libraries, airports, coffeehouses, restaurants, and car washeswherever they can get a free hotspotand surf the net and write their caffeine-buzzed B-movie scripts and novels. They can play World of Warcraft and eat a scone.

But they’re confined, and more addicted to pseudo-social environments and fancy paperboard cup holders with green logos. They want to check in on Foursquare, and Yelp about the barista, and gulp away their Saturday mornings before smoking out over lunch saying, “I wrote my novel today while some pretentious yuppie soccer mom gossiped about her kid’s perfect teeth and bloodlines. It was a bitch.”

A true cellrunner can take to the streets with an iPhone, a cord and a plot.

A true cellrunner doesn’t need anything but to get out of the house, to write on the go, and shove that cellphone in his pocket and look for the next outlet.

More juice, please.

He can walk and write and look up at jets and clouds and type a novel while walking down stairs and slipping in a doorway. People will think you’re texting your girlfriend that you don’t have. But you just keep writing.

I became a cellrunner in Las Vegas, starting in those very same Starbucks, sitting like another lonely writer masturbating to my own shitty prose along with twenty other desperate men in the same emo-run coffeehouse on Rainbow Boulevard that’s just like the emo-run coffeehouse on your street. I couldn’t write on my Samsung Instinct. Sure, I always wanted it charged. But I wasn’t cellrunning by any stretch of the word.

When I got my iPhone that all began to change. I wasn’t writing on my phone yet. Just texts and emails and worthless Facebook updates. But I immediately got obsessed with finding places to charge my phone.

My epiphany began on a lonely day at the movies.

I’d just seen some forgettable flicks at The Orleans where I moviehopped and sat texting as Jake Gyllenhaal forgettably swashbuckled his way through CGI Persia of the ancient world. I left the theater and spotted an outlet by a wooden bench. I didn’t think twice and jammed my plug into the wall, attached my phone, and sat there juicing up where some old Ms. Pacman game probably once sat sucking electricity like some kind of energy whore.

Afterward, I juiced up wherever I could. My sonnenreise was just as acidic and energy filled as a land of lemon blossoms. But this meant a new kind of fragrant awakening: real mobility and an addiction to seeking out juice when cell power reads only thirty fucking percent. Gotta keep it up. Gotta juice up. Gotta find the outlets when you can, where you can, and stay mobile and keep writing. In Las Vegas, Bakersfield, Irvine, Laguna Hills, Huntington Beach. And in Dana Point, where I asked a man who carried plastic bags filled with worldly goods if I could juice up under his seat in McDonalds.

He gave me a look of wonder then said, “Sure. I was just leavin’.”

“The worker said it’s the only outlet, man.”

“Oh yeah. That is the only one, guy.”

He looked like he hadn’t bathed in three years. But somehow he knew about the secret juice beneath his chair. He glanced at his friends and they all stepped into the coastal fog hovering outside the door.

I got on my hands and knees on the dirty floor, plugged in and started to write. When I was juiced up I continued to tap right into the fog and out toward the sea.

*NOTE: This piece and my last two posts have been written entirely on an iPhone.

Jumpers

By Nicholas Belardes

Memoir

I saw the horrific billboard on Las Vegas Boulevard and instantly pushed it out of my mind.

Riding with John, we drove past, in slow motion. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. Who could? It was far easier to bring up the porn billboard with the girl on it holding a cupcake saying, “Wanna taste my muffin?”

“Absolutely incredible billboard,” John had said staring up at the cartoon version of a bald cupcake.

Now I was walking toward the Sahara Hotel. Couldn’t get a ride from work. I could handle the walk I told myself. Just had to get over the freeway. Only now I was lost, headed north on Western, having cut under the freeway, past a Metro Police vehicle that pulled into the dirt behind me, just to check me out.

Hoping for a street to slice past the girly joints to Industrial, I had no such luck. I was stuck on an hours-long walk, just to traverse a freeway, and ended up on Wyoming Street and having to double back down Industrial, southward, and into a neighborhood of streets as ugly and lonely as any American island of lost streets could ever get.

Trying for a shortcut somewhere along the way, I took a walk down a sidestreet only to end up circling through past a gym as boxers in full gloves jogged past. They glared like they wished I was twenty years younger. Fresh sparring meat. I ducked tail and pushed back out to the main thoroughfare to search for a way through to the Sahara Hotel, which I hadn’t been able to see since first looking at it from right across the freeway. Now my only landmark was the Stratosphere Tower. And even that I found was now far to the southeast. From where I was originally it stood north and a bit eastward.

I took a long look down West New York Avenue and thought to hell with that. Looked like an endless string of drug deals going down in the dusty dank of the sweaty summer street. I plodded onward to West St. Louis Avenue and found a lonely long walk past a transient in pigtails leaning on a fence. She gave me the eye like she wanted more than a Shirley Temple and a fix of street crack.

I left her to her stares and eventually came up to lines of decrepit apartments, the kind you would find in any small desert town, with clothes strewn over rod-iron balconies, and mamba and cumbias blasting through open windows. Outside, there were kids toys, smoking red-eyed Mexicans in trucker’s caps, and the smell of greasy refried beans made from fresh pintos. Ahh, I told myself, I’d found the dens of the housekeepers, dishwashers and drug dealers of the finest hotels on the Strip.

When I got to Fairfield Avenue I made a right and looked up at the awful towering machinery of the Stratosphere Hotel. Its gargantuan height pushes over the broken industrial cityscape like a rocket ready to blast off into some Eighties-themed casino space station. There, I imagine heavy metal Earth hits rule, and guys Like Reno Romero shred to Alpha Centauri interstellar activists whose pointy ears bleed from amp feedback as they protest the cancellation of intra-celestial Dio tributes.

I walked down Fairfield along the back edge of the tower and kicked up dust as I crossed a gravel lot. In the near distance I saw another row of apartments. Their balconies faced the tower, and pot-bellied men, down to their last greedy nickel, eyed me and the tower through drunken eyes, as if we both held some kind of secrets they considered pulling a gun to find the answers to.

As I passed there was a scream. A long howling scream. One that was both terrifying and death defying at the same time. I’d heard a few in the distance, but this was closer, and I found it odd as I eyed the men on the balcony watch me suddenly look up at the jumper falling in full sprawl from the dizzying heights of the tower.

I rounded a corner, still within eyeshot of the derelict apartment behind the tower, and walked on a cracked sidewalk that looked like it hadn’t been repaired for sixty years. Just across the street was a bright green strip of grass. That surrounded a brand new condo that jutted upward into a shiny steel tower. A woman walked nervously on the grass as her little white Maltese sniffed around prudishly. I sensed the woman knew it was dusk, about the time those pot-bellied men creep from their rusted balconies, looking for wallets to lift and little dogs to kidnap and sell for easy Sports Book cash.

Soon I found my tired way to Sahara Avenue. A security guard on a bicycle pedaled past, heading toward the freeway overpass that I tried to find a shortcut around. Maybe he worked at the Palace Station, or some girly joint along the way.

I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard and was nearing a McDonalds when I heard a faint scream and saw a young couple looking up. The girl held a pink camera that surely couldn’t capture the person leaping off the edge of the tower.

“Would you?” I asked the man as I passed.

He looked at me with red eyes that could barely focus from a face of sunburnt skin. His hair was a greasy mess. “Already have,” he said.

I continued past, thinking of the terrible billboards advertising JUMPERS, and knowing full well, that some idiots on 9/11 would be up there, pretending they were in some virtual reality where nothing but smoke and flames would determine their final path through life, a long leap into the acrid air.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

Image by Nick Belardes

The bellhop had one eye. He didn’t wear a patch. So I just gazed at the scar.

As if he had a little of Oedipus in him, he looked at me sadly. “Right this way, sir,” he said. “You’ve been waiting.”

“Not very long though,” I said, gazing past him into the Sahara Hotel Sports Book. There were several rows of tables and chairs, and a wall full of TVs. A few days before, a group of Algerian nationals had gathered. They hooted at the television in unison, taunting as if Landon Donovan would never score a goal. Now the Sports Book was nearly empty. Except for one Asian man. His head nodded toward his chest as if he just went ahead and died there.

“Right this way,” said the bellhop. His uniform was golden. It shined against his deep black skin. His hair was slightly receded. He looked like he’d been working the casino for so long that he might have known Elvis, who himself stood in ghostly iconic history in a nearby black-and-white photo that hung poster sized behind the front hotel desk.

The bellhop followed me into the elevator.

“Sorry to trouble you,” I said.

He fumbled with some keys as I punched the nineteenth floor.

“Ain’t no trouble,” he said. “We’re just short staffed is all. I can’t do everything. So some people just gonna have to wait.”

“I hear you,” I said.

The elevator felt old. The building sighed, sagged. The smoky casino had carried itself into these steel walls. When the elevator stopped, my twenty-eight-dollar room was only a few steps away.

Down the hall was a set of rooms where a minor league baseball team was visiting Sin City. Their organization must have struck a deal for cheap rooms. It was just a straight shot down Las Vegas Boulevard to the Las Vegas 51s homefield. There, a parking lot held a ghost town of washed up casino signs. Golden Nugget, Moulin Rouge and Stardust all lay in rust and decay with piles of others. Unlit bulbs in the thousands rimmed the dozens of signs, evidence that history’s lights wink and go out in the bleak asphalt desert.

The bellhop and I walked to my door—right around the first bend from the elevator. I pulled out my plastic room key. I’d taken it down to the lobby once already and got it replaced. But the latest key didn’t work either. “Here,” I said, swiping the key, only to hear a beep and a buzz and see a red light flash. “Just temperamental, maybe.”

“That ain’t no good,” said the bellhop.

I tried not to look at the scar where his eye had been. But who can help staring into mystery? My eyes shifted. I saw a man who had suffered. Behind him I imagined the real Oedipus. He stood down the yellow hall with black holes for eyes. He looked for his mother but could only fumble past two prostitutes scarred with tattoos, suffering all Jesus-like themselves as they disappeared into a room.

“I got a master key,” said the bellhop. He pulled out a metal card shaped like my plastic room key. He swiped it and the red light flashed. “Isn’t that something,” he said swiping his master key again.

I saw beads of sweat on his dark brow. He leaned forward, shook the boxy keylock device attached to the door.

“You’ll get it,” I said.

They oughtta replace some of these,” he grunted.

I’d taken a walk. McDonalds across Sahara Avenue stood next to a black-painted abandoned casino. Another casino wrapped in glitter and Big Mac big screens was really a second McDonalds around the corner on the Strip. Giant cranes stood near that. They hung over tall buildings with shiny grey-blue windows that reflected a decayed urban sky, where even dusty smog seemed to break apart and drift to the earth. It fell from above those of us who walked beneath all the scaffolding on porn-covered sidewalks with nothing more ahead of us than promises of helicopter rides, girls in pits dealing cards at the Riviera and Peppermill pancakes.

My feet hurt from all the walking. The dollar-menu burger had long drifted its way through my gut to more hunger pangs. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to get inside my room and gaze out the window down at the streets, where the sleek monorail station was a soft whoosh, and the tower where Latoya Jackson lived in a high room upon infinite desert comfort stood over it all.

“I gotta get maintenance,” the bellhop said.

Pancakes weren’t sounding so bad. And the Caravan Cafe was just an elevator ride and a quick walk past rows of empty slot machines anyway. “I’ll get something to eat,” I said.

“It’ll be fixed by the time you return.”

“Ain’t no thing,” I said.

“You just don’t know about these machines.”

“Not your fault,” I added as I imagined both of his eyes gone just then. Behind him I saw Oedipus laughing. I saw the casino; his mother; the city mother. His lover. She was a big glittering sagging bitch with her finger wagging for a few more rings.

As I headed back to the elevator I imagined him in his golden uniform ascend through the floors and sail over the casino, across her glittering eyes and neon breasts.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

I held the restaurant door open for a young couple. “Thank you, sir,” the young man said. I followed, walking in late.

It was more than twenty minutes past noon. Twenty minutes past the time I was supposed to be there. At the service I’d lingered, said goodbye to a couple of pastors.

There were crowds of people in the restaurant. A bottleneck at the hostess station.

She already had a table so I slipped through. “Just walk straight in,” she’d texted.

I was looking down at a pair of shoes in front of me when I looked up and spotted her across the room. Dark hair. Skin like the half-hidden woman sitting among other women in Paul Gauguin’s painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Her head was tilted too. Had she just stepped from the rolling edge of a paintbrush soaked in lovely brown tones? She leaned a little to the left. Not talking. Maybe she just did. Or was about to. Her hair was as black as island darkness. Her lips were a splash of red-brown even from so far away.

Making my way past booths and tables I sat down next to her daughter. The girl wore a fabric pink flower in her just braided brown hair. She hugged me, gave me a kiss. “It’s been a long time since you gave me one of those,” I smiled.

She gave me a drawing. On it there were squirrels, trees, a beaver, a river, beetles. She’d colored it. I pictured her imaginirium surrounded by crayons and stuffed animals.

Across the table her mother’s lips looked as soft as I remembered. I looked at them and thought of a drink from a fountain, grapes, the moment thirst is broken by wetness. Flashes of dew drop kisses. Sprinklers wetting summer grass. Lips warm and soft rubbing across dry fingertips.

The girl’s mother pushed a small white plate of fried zucchini toward me. “You need to eat your vegetables,” she said.

A few days ago she knew I went on a twenty-mile bike ride. “I hope you stayed hydrated,” she’d written.

I spoke to her daughter and ate the zucchini. The girl nuzzled. “Will you make me a picture of the ocean like you did of the desert?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, soon having a stare-off with her mother across the table.

“Where did you learn that?” her mother said, returning the glare and then smiling.

“From you,” the girl whispered.

“I’ll draw you pictures of ocean life,” I soon said to the girl. I imagined sitting on a beach with a pad of paper, holding a sand crab flipped onto its back. My pen strokes would capture every detail.

Later we left the restaurant. I glanced at her mother’s dark shoulder. A ridge of delight. Taut muscles. Sweet curves so soft you couldn’t find a cloud more heavenly. In the Gauguin painting the very same island woman shows just a hint of shoulder.

And there she was, head cocked to the side, thinking—just like in the painting.

Just like in the painting where there are plants and animals and a wash of exotic uncertainty.

Just like in the painting where a mysterious blue island statue casts an eerie glow opposite from the woman.

When I got dropped off I hugged the girl and tried not to cry like I did in church.

I always do that.

Cry in church.

I looked over at the girl’s mother, said goodbye, closed the car door and turned away.

The lawn was wet. There were drops everywhere. Just moments before there must have been rainbows. I imagined them in the clouds, floating above an island of uncertainty and beauty.

As I found my keys I caught a glimpse of their car driving away.

Is your creative nonfiction worthy of the big lights? Ever think your life could be transformed into a dramatic scene performed by real actors dazzling a live audience?

Now’s the time to dust off your playwright skills. At least two ten-minute one-act plays written by TNB contributors will hit the stage this December at the longest actively running community theater in America.

Nick Belardes’ Random Writers Workshop in Bakersfield, California has teamed up with indie bookstore Russo’s Books and Bakersfield Community Theatre (BCT) to provide a great new opportunity for TNB contributors.

I need a place. Just one room. I prefer furnished. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is Chinatown, Las Vegas.

Looking on Craigslist I find an ad for a furnished room. I want to live within walking distance of Asian food, neon foot massage signs, and the angry faces of smoking Chinamen.

The ad says to call May.

I dial. No answer. I leave a short, polite message inquiring about the furnished room. I say I’m an interested party and not much else.

A few hours later I get a call back from a Chinese woman. She sounds confident, mysterious. I imagine my phone quickly filling with incense. “Hi, this is May. You interested in room?”

“Yes, a furnished room.”

“You want two bedrooms? I have two bedrooms.”

“Just one. In Chinatown.”

“Ohh. Chinatown. Why you want room?”

This is the second time in two days someone has asked me why I want a room. The day before, a woman named Mindy was on the other end of the phone and said the same exact words. Her voice was distrustful, disinterested.

“Because I need a place,” I said to Mindy.

“Speak up. I can’t hear you. Will you speak up?”

Mindy hung up. I leaned back in my office chair and wondered if anyone overheard my call come to an abrupt end.

Now May hangs on the other end of the phone waiting in anticipation for me to answer. I feel that whatever I say will be part of a mysterious puzzle of locks hiding treasure beneath the Forbidden City. “I just moved here,” I say.

“Ohh. You just moved here.”

“I want to live in Chinatown,” I say again.

“Ohh.” Every time she says this I hear her voice trail off, hiding five other sentences. “I have a place not far from there. You catch bus. Close to Chinatown. Ok? Where you work?”

I tell her I work for a radio station.

“Where you come from?”

“California. I’m in Las Vegas now. I live with a DJ.”

She explains the rent, says that doubling it is what it would take to move in. “You like that? Ok?” she asks. I imagine May in a slinky Asian dress talking into an old rotary phone. The smoke-filled room casts shadows on her aged face. “When you want to move in?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Ohh.”

“Can I see it tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow… Listen, I will give you number. You ask for May Wong. May. She no good English. You speak very slowly. She meet you there.”

“But your name is May.”

“She another May. You call her. You show up. She show it to you. But speak slowly. She no good English. I call her right now.”

I get off the phone, wait a few minutes and call the second May.

“Yes?” There is an uncomfortable moment.

“May Wong?”

“Yes.” There is another silence. “See house?”

“Yes.”

“Nine… a.m.?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“Bye?”

The home is just around the corner from a mansion with an amazing horse statue guarding a giant metal gate. The streets are wide, quiet, with big single-story homes and half-circle desert landscape driveways that probably look like emoticons when one’s peering at them from the sky.

John is with me. He’s the DJ. He carries a blue bag filled with work papers and notebooks. “You don’t mind if I tag along for the walk through?” he asks.

I’m all for sharing the adventure. We soon wait outside for May Wong to show up in a Mercedes. I ring the doorbell. It’s loud, a “ding dong” fit for a castle. I step back. No one answers though two cars are parked on the side of the house. The front doors have two different colored locks: one silver, one brass. Both wooden doors look like they’ve been dragged through gravel pits and rail yards.

Ten minutes later May Wong calls. “See house?” she says.

“I’m here.”

“Wait.”

“Yes.”

“Three minutes.” She hangs up.

“She’s going to be rolling up in that Mercedes any minute,” John says.

Down the street I see a tiny red hatchback that looks like a Smart Car. It pulls in. May can barely see over the steering wheel. She scoots it into the shade beneath a seventy-foot-tall pine tree.

“I should have taken that shade,” John complains as we watch the car roll to a stop and tiny May Wong step out. She carries a green handbag and a little pink coin purse with cartoon characters on it. She pulls out a set of keys.

“Hi May,” I say. 

She ignores me and walks to the double doors. She fumbles with the keys and the silver lock for a good thirty seconds before finally pushing open the left door.

John and I follow her into a dark foyer. Off to our left is an extravagant living room filled with statues and paintings. One of the statues is missing a head. I scan quickly for old wooden chests and gaudy birdcages filled with gremlins. She bypasses the room and takes us past a living room that has a giant TV, couches and a coffee table covered in newspapers and magazines. We step into a hallway. Its walls are covered with photos and paintings. It’s alongside a kitchen where a huge rice cooker and three blenders sit on the counter. I wonder if any of them work.

May continues down the hallway. She stops, turns and gives a half smile and motions to a door. She fumbles with the lock and can’t get it to work. Walking away from the door she heads further down the hallway and looks around a corner and starts talking to someone. “Kevin,” she says then immediately starts talking in Chinese. She disappears around the corner but I can hear them talking.

Kevin’s voice is sleepy. He’s in a room and has been woken up. He says something in Chinese to May.

I look back at John who is far down the hallway behind me. He’s taking photos of pictures on the wall.

May appears from around the corner and motions to another door. She opens it and I step inside a tiny furnished room. There’s a big window with a view of the back yard. I gaze toward a yellowing weed-covered lot and an empty cement swimming pool. A faded blue diving board looks brittle in the heat.

“You like?” May says.

“Sure,” I say.

May then shows me a laundry room, a garage and then a bathroom obviously occupied with Kevin’s things. It’s a mess of bottles. Towels lay piled on the floor.

I wonder if there are rooms at the other end of the hallway. “You have other rooms?” I ask.

May gives me a curious look but shuffles down the hallway to the other end where there is a clean bathroom. There are also two doors. One has a lock on a brass handle. She opens it. It looks just like the other room she showed me. I’m happy it’s far from Kevin for some reason.

“You like?” she asks.

I look at the other door. There are combination lock dials on it. “Who lives there?”

“Mimi Lin,” May says.

“Ohh,” I say.

She leads me back down the hall, past black and white photos of a Chinese woman. The photos look old, from the Fifties. The woman in them wears cat eye glasses. Her hair is shoulder length. There is a mysterious gaze in her eyes.

“You like?” May looks at me curiously. Her stare is long, almost pleading.

“You mean do I want to move in?”

“Yes.”

“I have to think about it.”

“You call Mimi Lin.”

“Who is Mimi Lin?”

She points back down the hallway to the room with the combination locks.

“Is she the owner?”

“Yes. You call.”

“What’s her number?”

She can’t say the numbers but shows me her phone. I see Chinese characters. I see my phone number. I’m one of the only two people May Wong has spoken to in the past two days according to her phone list.

I write down the number she says belongs to Mimi Lin. There is something fishy about it. Something familiar.

That night I get a call. It’s from the number. I don’t answer. I realize I’ve gotten calls from this number before. I listen to a phone message. “Hi, this is May.” It’s the first May. The old mysterious May. She doesn’t call herself Mimi Lin, though it’s the number May Wong gave me for her. “Do you like the house May Wong showed you yesterday? Please give me a call. Thank you.”

I hang up in wonder. Is Mimi Lin, the woman behind the mysterious combination locks, really May?

That night I take a walk down Spring Valley Parkway, and then onto South Rainbow. As I head past Ravenwood Park I decide to call Kike. She’s my mysterious Chinese friend whose old piano teacher died from a heart attack after a lesson one day. She was blamed for putting a curse on the teacher. She claims her grandfather’s ghost regularly visits at night to tickle her feet. She lives with a gypsy.

She often assists me in making crucial life decisions.

We make small talk as I walk down the burning streets of west Las Vegas before I finally bring up the possibility of living in Mimi Lin’s house.

“We all have choices,” Kike says.

“There was a decapitated statue in her house,” I add.

“Ohh. Then you have to beware of what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes a normal home can be one of sacrifice and spirits.”

“Sacrifice?”

Kike lets out a breath. I turn up the volume on my phone. “Let me tell you a story. I don’t like to remember this. When I was seventeen years old I was very sick. My family drove me to a home in Long Beach. I didn’t know why I was there. While I sat waiting, a witchdoctor suddenly brought forth a white chicken and a big empty tin, like a popcorn tin you might get for Christmas. The witchdoctor had a knife. Anyway, in a twisting motion he cut the head off the chicken.

“He drained its blood into the tin and added some ashes. Then he took toothpicks and jammed them under my fingernails. He pulled them out and squeezed my blood into the tin to mix with that of the chicken. He spit into it too. Then he poured in some alcohol and set it on fire to release the evil spirits as well as commit the sacrifice in exchange for those evil spirits sickening me.

“Then it was time for me to be renewed. Cleansed. He then grabbed a water bottle. There was no fancy container. Water is water until you bless it. Then it becomes holy. He poured out some into a cup. He blessed it and spit in it. I was terrified. But he held out the cup. Everyone looked at me. And so I had to drink it. I gagged. I wanted to throw up. But I knew they would have just made me drink more. So, I held the cup and drank.”

I soon get off the phone with Kike and continue my walk. I think about a friend at the Cannibal Islands who told me about meeting an old woman hanging laundry. The old woman revealed a story about a criminal getting eaten by those who discovered his crime. I’m thousands of miles away, but I wonder about that sacrifice cleansing an entire island. I think about Kike’s bleeding fingers, the chicken’s stained feathers and Mimi Lin’s statues. I think about her locked door and the photos on her walls.

I look toward the edge of the city into a pink dusk and a rainbow of desert mountains along Red Rock Canyon that jut above rooftops.

Later, walking through the darkness I wonder why I am even in Las Vegas as I continue to ignore calls from Mimi Lin.

Image from Flickr.

“I don’t have to tell you the contradiction,” Rik says about the phallic name of the place as we walk in.

Pho Hung, a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Las Vegas, has three statues and a waterfall just inside the front door. We slip past the sounds of dripping water and find a twelve-foot-tall fertility-inspired centerpiece covered in fruits and vegetables. It towers above rows of tables and chairs.

We sit near the end of a table and stare at the giant plastic garden before some butterflies across the room catch our attention. They’re on a wall in what looks like a framed poster. It’s at least six feet across. “Are those butterflies real?” I ask.

Rik jumps up and heads to the glass-encased frame. “It is!” he says. His voice is naturally dramatic. He’s a DJ. But he could easily be a radio actor, or the softly evil voice of the strawberry-scented bear in Toy Story 3.

We haven’t even ordered yet. But I walk over too and see that it isn’t a poster. Inside the glass frame, dozens of butterflies, every color imaginable, lie frozen in time. The center column is filled with moths. Not little moths, but huge moths. Gargantuan moths. The kind that could terrify a kid on a jungle night if one were to flitter in front of the moon.

“Let me tell you about an iridescent blue butterfly I saw at a Darwin exhibit on the Berkeley campus last year,” I say. I search the rows for a blue glowing butterfly. “It was neon come to life. It was a sky. Or an ocean. Never seen anything like it.”

Outside, Chinatown in Las Vegas is booming. Spring Mountain Road is filled with endless Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Strip malls are decked out in Asian décor. There’s a tattoo parlor next to an Asian food restaurant next to a Boba shop. You can get an apple slushy, grab some goodies from a Korean grocery store, then swing by the Asia-themed Starbucks on your way to a casino with spinning slot videos based on the movie Jaws.

Everywhere you can get a foot massage. $19 for thirty minutes. Their “open” signs flash. Their neon signs beckon. Near a donut shop there’s a handwritten note on an empty storefront. At least one strip mall owner is sick of the local foot fetish. NO FOOT MASSAGE. NO HAIR SALON.

Rik’s been in Las Vegas ten years now. His hair is graying like mine on the sides. He has a beard but no moustache. He’s soft spoken; a big guy. He wears a GUINNESS shirt a lot.

He’s from Mendota in California’s Great Central Valley. It’s further north than Bakersfield, a town that now boasts nearly 10,000 inhabitants and nearly 40-percent unemployment. That was his childhood playland—the cantaloupe center of the world—until he was in his early teens.

Before Vegas, his family moved from Mendota and lived in Fresno, once home to Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist/novelist William Saroyan. Many people, myself included, have been taught to believe that John Steinbeck was the big Central California writer because he lived in the Salinas Valley and wrote Grapes of Wrath. But Saroyan preceded him as king. He wrote the short tale, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, (1934), which was taken from the 19th Century song of the same name. He also wrote The Human Comedy, (1943) and won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, among many other writings.

*     *     *     *     *

Rik’s eyes search the restaurant from behind dark-rimmed glasses. “Have I told you my William Saroyan story?” he asks.

Then, suddenly, the conversation shifts.  We get caught in small talk. It’s several minutes before we get back on the topic.

“I told Bonnie my Saroyan story,” he says. He’s talking about our mutual mentor, Bonnie Hearn Hill. She just released Taurus Eyes (2010), the second book in the Star Crossed Series. He gets on the subject of her husband, Larry Hill, whose short story collection, Saroyan’s Bookee was published in 2008 on Mark Arax’ imprint. Arax recently wrote the widely popular nonfiction work West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (2009). But that’s another story.

Larry, who is in his late 70s, is a wonderful writer. Don’t believe me? He recently won the 2010 Bellevue Literary Review Prize for Fiction for his work, Cocido, which I hear is online, but I have been having a hell of a time finding it.

I tell Rik I met Larry in an art gallery in Fresno. I explain that the entire room was filled with his paintings. A masterful abstract expressionist painter, Hill’s eye for beauty ties a peculiar modernism to lost generations of abstract artists. Splashes of color you might see in your mind but would never think to recreate, Hill can put to canvas.

Meet him and he’s quiet at first. But you immediately get the sense that he’s lived. I mean really lived. I’ve seen it in his paintings and in his eyes. “He’s an inner artist,” Bonnie says later in a telephone call.

She tells me she’s the opposite. An outer artist. Gabby. (Like me at times. I guess I capture a little of both worlds.)  She tells me that around fifty years ago Larry Hill was at Jackson Jones Liquor Store in Fresno. She said he and Saroyan reached for a bottle of wine at the same time. A magical moment. “He worshipped Saroyan,” Bonnie said.

At Pho Hung, Rik recommends Hill’s story “Tranquillity” that’s set in the Central Valley town of the same name. He points out the strangeness of the two L’s. I later get a glimpse of the book and start thumbing through a few pages. But Rik winds up taking it back.

I later write to Larry Hill and ask him if he’ll tell me his William Saroyan story. Apparently, he and Saroyan were both avid gamblers (as was my dad), and they shared the same bookee. But more important was Hill’s adoration for Saroyan, and the strange liquor store experience.

He writes back within a few days:

Hi, Nick.

It’s 1963. I’ve quit my teaching job ($4,000 a year) at Fresno High to try working full time as a commercial artist. Got a new home (Trend Homes by Spano, $12,000). Decide my birthday party needs a bottle of red wine (about a half gallon of Gallo Chianti, the kind in a husk basket because I think it will look good with my books on their plank and cinderblock book case.

I drive a couple blocks to Jackson Jones Liquor on the corner of Shields and West, park an old gray Chevy sedan I’ve named Moby, walk in, head straight for the wine display. Wow. Only one left down there on the bottom shelf. Just about to grab its dusty neck, when a huge hairy-knuckled hand beats me to it. Really it’s a tie, but I give in.

“All yours,” I say, “Mr. Saroyan.” For I’m looking straight into the fire and ashes of the legend’s face. First encounter with the man I’ve chased, spotted and missed in the Mecca Pool Hall, Blackstone Billiards, Ryan’s Arena, The Fresno Public Library. At The Big Fresno Fair, the Stockton, Pleasanton and Del Mar Race Tracks. Duke’s Place, Janofsky’s Pub, The Old Fresno, Duggan’s Yack and Snack, Darby’s Tavern, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the Bike Shop on Shields and Wishon, The Fresno YMCA (the day Abe Davidian was shot to death down the block), and twice in San Francisco on what proved to be bogus  leads.

He’s off to another display. No smile or thank you. Off before I can thank him for his body of work. Off before I can share a story about one of the bookies we have shared. One who’d cheated us. One we busted. One like Papa Joe who forgave us the juice when we were busted. God knows I’ve been told the stories. But, man, it would be great to hear one from him.

No such luck. I choose another bottle of wine. Unadorned. Probably not even a cork. Fuck it. I don’t care any more.

“Can I see some I.D.?”

It’s a new girl behind the counter, checking me out.

“You’re kidding, right?” I spread my wallet out in front of her. “I’m thirty-one, for Christ’s sake.” I hold the proof up for her and a few gawking patrons. “Five. Five. Thirty-two.”

From one of the people in line waiting behind me. Big voice. Like thunder. “Cinco de Mayo.”

I find him easy. “Right,” I say, “Cinco de Mayo, Mr. Saroyan.”

“Happy birthday,” he says.

Driving Moby back home, I must have been thinking how I would tell about meeting the Big One someday. I must have put a hundred strokes to it, giving it a little English here, a little follow-through there. Making sure I didn’t scratch. No worry though. I can pass for younger than I am. Saroyan’s so strong he’s scary. No one can kill us.

Larry

*     *     *     *     *

The food arrives. In front of Rik there’s a bowl of steaming seafood soup. I get eggrolls and a plate of lemon grass chicken and vegetables. The eggrolls are already sectioned. Each bite melts on my tongue. It’s my first time in a Vietnamese restaurant. This is my communion. I half expect butterflies to shatter glass, flit about the room, land on my glasses or Rik’s.

“When I was in seventh grade, a teacher gave me a book Saroyan wrote,” he says. “Every two weeks the library would get new books and I would flip through them finding everything Saroyan. I was obsessed with him. It wasn’t normal.” He says his teacher told him years later in a chance meeting that she wasn’t in class on a few occasions because she went to hear Saroyan give talks. She felt bad for not inviting him and carried the guilt for years.

Rik speaks slowly. The words roll off his tongue, bounce into the desert restaurant unveiling a mind’s eye cinematic view of California’s Great Central Valley. Mendota version. Dusty town. Smell of cantaloupes in the air. I can see the dirty purple sunsets along imaginary agri-rows. Melons and vineyards; Rik wandering down Mendota’s sidewalks. Old men riding bikes downtown. Baptist churches with their big-haired polyester preachers of the late 1970s. Every farm town and city is an imaginary dust devil away from the next.

He talks about Fresno next. I imagine drive-thru dairies. Milk in bottles and factory smokestacks. Grape vineyards surrounding a city like barbed wire.

“When I moved to Fresno I lived downtown,” Rik says. “It was 1981. I was sixteen. I had a 1965 Chevy Stepside that my dad got me. Then Saroyan died. I was devastated.”

I half expect Rik to choke up.

He goes on. He picks at his soup. It wafts in swirls of steam like spirit-filled incense. “I knew where Saroyan lived. After he died I drove past his home.  What was amazing was there were boxes of trash outside of Saroyan’s house along the street. All of a sudden I found myself parked next to the curb throwing the boxes into the back of my pick-up.

“And it wasn’t just any trash. It was every Christmas card, postcard and letter ever written to Saroyan,” Rik says. “There were articles too. I took them home and over the next few months I locked myself in my room and read every single one.”

I’m in shock. When I think about this moment in our conversation I imagine my jaw unhinging, bouncing on the table, then onto the floor and up the fertility statue. It gets lost among plastic tomatoes. “What did you do with it all?” I ask.

“I began giving away Saroyan’s postcards. All of it. I gave them to teachers, to friends, to anyone I knew who loved Saroyan.”

“Imagine what the family would do if they had that back. I can’t believe anyone would throw all of that away,” I say.

“Really said something about that family to me at the time,” Rik whispers. His eyes squint nearly shut.

“Do you have any left?”

“Maybe in a box. Probably not. You just lose stuff over the years,” he says.

A few days later I’m in his garage. I see piles of boxes. I want to tear through them, unearth an archive of lost literary history. But I just pass through. The door behind me closes. In my mind I claw at the wood to get in.

 

 

“Shapeshifters,” says the missionary. He’s dressed in a grey suit and grey-checkered tie. He’s black. Looks like he’s in his mid sixties. He sits back in his chair a bit and laughs confidently. The old black dress shoes on his feet he plants firmly on the floor. There’s a Bible in front of him opened to some book of the New Testament.

A large black Rastafarian cuts him off. “What kind of god could make a serpent talk to someone?” he asks. He sits across from the missionary. His large round beret reminds me of the top of the Downtown Transit Center, minus the casino lights.

They look like they just met.

The missionary’s feet don’t budge. I mean, how could he be afraid talking to this giant of a stranger? The entire station is crawling with Jehovah’s Witness missionaries. This is their front line: just off the edge of Fremont Street. A ledge hewn in the chasm. Near rock bottom. A holler or two past the digital bells of cartoon slots and Wheel of Fortune games.

Outside the station, papers and bibles lay scattered on tables in front of transients.

Here on the inside, the missionary smiles at the Rastafarian and his idea of a talking serpent. “The same kind of god that can make a block of wood talk to someone. It’s called a ventriloquist,” he says.

I’ve seen a lot of well-dressed missionaries around the station. This guy wears a yellow shirt. It’s clean. Pressed. White paper napkins stuffed in his coat pocket poke out like a silk hanky. He wears glasses. I see his Bible opened to Luke. There’s a small stack of papers on the table in front of him. I see the word “watchtower.”

“I guarantee if you eat a pomegranate you’re not going to go, ‘Ahh!’” the Rastafarian says. His dreads poke from beneath his beret. He has a pointy beard and yellow eyes.

“It wasn’t a pomegranate from that tree. That was a special tree,” the missionary laughs.

The Rastafarian starts to get up then sits back down. “All pomegranates should have been descendents from that tree,” he says. “They should all be magical. But they’re not. What about the chariot that came down and picked up Elijah?”

“That was a dream. A vision,” the missionary says.

“Can a dead man come back to life? What bones can bring a person to life?” the Rastafarian’s voice booms. Not a single transient nearby stirs.

“It was an unusual occurrence,” the missionary says.

“An unusual occurrence? You don’t have an answer, do you? You don’t want to accept?”

“Accept what? What do you want me to accept? Son, what do you want me to do about that?”

A nearby drunk jumps into the conversation. His words slur. He looks like he’s spent at least forty days downtown on Las Vegas streets. “You have to go back to the beginning. They’ve been arguing this since the beginning of time. Nobody ever noticed that one lady, whatchamacallit. That Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend. She the one come down from the cave…”

“No, that’s not right.” The Rastafarian looks at the bum and laughs. “You know what that proves? You just proved that nobody was there.” He laughs again and turns to the missionary. “What kind of man walks on water?”

“A God who walks on water.”

The Rastafarian stands up and sits back down. He changes the subject. “How come these other people John baptized didn’t get godly powers?”

The missionary is soft spoken. “John didn’t even want to baptize Jesus. He said ‘I’m not worthy.’”

The Rastafarian gets up, turns his back. He has an I-can’t-take-this-shit look on his face, then sits back down while the missionary reads some verses from the gospel of Luke.

When the missionary finishes reading, the Rastafarian laughs. “You would tell Jesus how his own life was. You would do that wouldn’t you if you met him?” He wants to leave but then thinks up another question. “What about the darkness? According to the Bible there was darkness. Where did all that come from?”

“It didn’t come from anyplace.”

“Ain’t that something? So it was always just there. So he was just sitting in the darkness by himself?”

“He was part of the darkness. He could change it. He created it. He said, ‘I’m sitting here alone in the darkness, by myself. I’m lonely.’ So then he created Jesus Christ, I mean, Michael.”

A little black lady walks up to the table as if out of nowhere. She tells the missionary to ask the Rastafarian about wisdom.

“Are you finding any wisdom, any laws in what we’re discussing?” the missionary says. “Or is this just a conversation?”

The Rastafarian ignores the question. “Can you tell me how much the planet weighs?”

“I used to know.”

“Can you tell me how much badlands and good lands there is?”

“You can look it up.”

“What color is topsoil?”

“Dark brown.”

“No. It’s black. There are some things you know and some things you don’t know. I’m just checking. Tell me, what type of guy would have red eyes?”

The missionary thinks for a moment. “Albinos?”

“No, animals.”

“I thought you were talking about humans?” Even the missionary is growing tired. I can hear it in his whispers.

“No, I do mean what type of person. You see them at night. They glow.”

The missionary thinks again. “Someone genetically predisposed. Which way is up?”

The Rastafarian laughs. “Whichever way my head is.”

“The way your head is pointed?”

“No, whichever way my head is. I have two heads. One up here and one down low.”

“I can’t believe you went there,” the missionary laughs. He laughs deeply then gets up. “That puts an end to this conversation.”

The Rastafarian laughs too. He also stands up. “Alright Gerald. I’ll see you on Monday,” he says and walks out the door.