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.
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.