by Al Billings
Desperate for companionship, my widowed mother married a jug-eared German stiff with unctuous rectitude, a prying snoop clogged with his own self-importance. Equally stubborn, they quarreled incessantly, battling each other for control, a pissing contest accelerated by the Santa Ana winds that whipped out of the foothills and raked our neighborhood with tinderbox fingernails. On brisk afternoons, pork ribs and sauerkraut sizzled in the oven, only to curdle in my stomach during dinner table shouting matches.
I was an unhappy little punk with a quick mouth, an adolescent dreamer bursting with artistic frustration. I wasn’t a novice; the clipper ships embossed on the lid of my first watercolor tin had long ago weighed anchor for the uncharted seas of painterly abstraction. But my bedroom window framed a suburban purgatory studded with palm trees and disapproval. I lacked the courage and maturity I needed to deploy my own creative gifts and I had no guides or mentors to help me negotiate the path I felt compelled to walk.
I could see that my mother was beginning to regret her new marriage, but I knew she was far too proud and stubborn to admit it. The German saw me as competition for her attention and wanted me gone. Lyndon Johnson had just sent the Marines into South Vietnam, and he hoped fervently, but unsuccessfully that I’d soon be drafted. One night I closed my bedroom door, dissolved a packet of methedrine in water, filtered it through a cotton ball and injected it into a vein in my right arm, letting its harsh authority supply the confidence I couldn’t seem to capture without it. My mother walked in, caught me syringe in hand, and burst into tears. Unable to accommodate both the German’s demands and my wayward behavior she asked me to leave. So I moved out to Muscoy, a weedy, wind-blown neighborhood strewn along an alluvial fan west of San Bernardino, where Highland Avenue pointed west to Los Angeles and disappeared amidst the abandoned shacks and beer joints that dotted the upper reaches of Fontana.
Wedged between Lytle Creek and the highway that tilts up through Cajon Pass, Muscoy embraced a motley gaggle of retirees, blue-collar drones and a handful of crackpot heirs to the Confederacy. Date palms and Italian cypress punctuated sandy lots clotted with goat pens and rusted car bodies, Palestine conquered by West Virginians.
A realtor rented me a poultry coop rudely converted into a one-room studio apartment, a hovel tucked behind a few small cottages and a vacant antique shop called the Red Barn. Although the operation had been abandoned long ago, rusted strands of chicken wire still dangled from rotted fence posts and a clutter of galvanized feeders lurked beneath an overgrown carpet of fescue. An errant breeze could raise a cloud of feathers and a thunderstorm re-awaken long-dormant chicken manure that filled the air with eye-watering ammonia.
I found a bed in the leaky shed next door, a rickety Victorian monstrosity with a moth-eaten canopy, and I rounded up a few chairs, dented pots and end-tables. A local thrift store furnished silverware, throw rugs and curtains. On a high shelf along a south window, I let the sun burnish a row of antique glassware I’d slowly collected over the past few years. On clear mornings, dawn’s intrusion set them ablaze and brushed the walls with incandescent warmth.
Free of the noxious conflict that filled my mother’s house I gorged myself on silence until it ran down my cheeks like pomegranate juice, and I relaxed enough to walk the fields around me and inhale the briny tang of pepper trees anchored in soil the texture of crushed almonds. The cows next door at Henry’s Dairy moaned softly, four-legged Buddha huffing mantras thick with raw milk and dung. At night, drifting asleep, I surrendered myself to the clatter of freight trains tap-dancing up the grade to Cajon Summit.
I commandeered another coop that backed up to the dairy and filled it with large plywood sheets and gallons of cheap house paint that I bought with money earned by unloading eighteen-wheelers for a labor contractor. Chunking images onto the plywood as fast as I could spit them out, I flung swirls and rivulets of dripping pigment across each piece, rubbing, gouging, and blindly groping until the entire barn glistened with inchoate frustration. When I ran out of house paint I poured industrial enamel onto old washing machine lids and hub caps. The dripping slop trickled into the pea gravel and chicken litter that crunched under my feet.
My mother made angry surprise visits, sneering at my paintings and trying to brow-beat me into applying for work at the post office or the state hospital so she could assure herself and her nosy sisters that I was finally embracing a career path they could approve.
“Your Aunt Mary thinks you’re a bum,” she said. “If your father was alive, things would be different.”
I could see my old man hunched over a beer at the Curve Inn, phlegmy drunk, his ass overflowing a barstool like a lump of unbaked cookie dough. Other than the hot dogs he bought to keep me quiet while he drank, I couldn’t imagine what I might’ve gained from his presence. And I could feel my mother’s decent middle-class life swallowing me whole: the blonde bedsteads, the vacuum cleaner’s coughing snarl, overhead lights glaring like a used car lot and banishing the very shadows that promised me sanctuary. Someone had dumped a pile of old bathroom fixtures out in a pasture next to the dairy. After my mother’s visits, I’d walk out there with an axe handle and smash old toilets into powder.
I had a girlfriend, a pale-skinned redhead whose freckled innocence convinced my mother and her friends that she was the calm, sensible girl they thought I needed. Besotted with each other, we clung together on my creaky bed or drove her aging car along gravelly fire breaks and made love under the shadows of monumental rock formations hulking at the foot of the high desert pass. Mistaking her gentle passivity for compliance, I pulled her into the tornado whirling around me, and she yielded to all my whims and desires without complaint.
But behind her fresh-faced veneer she was half-crazy and profane, the way Irish girls can be, and she was given to bleak depressions that sucked her into a hole so deep that she disappeared within them for days at a time. Overwhelmed by her own sullen mood, she’d insist that a drive through the foothills would revive her, only to lean out of her window without warning and tongue-lash errant drivers like a lumberjack swinging a log chain.
Whenever I had speed, I’d hunker with friends, fiddling with needles and cotton, and she’d lay quietly on my bed, reading, wiggling around until her dress bunched around her waist and we could all see her thighs and a hint of russet pubic hair. One night I sent my friends home in a rush of insincere apologies. Ablaze with speed-fueled anger, I shoved her down on her knees, yanked down her panties and hissed.
She drove home weeping, rivulets of eye shadow streaming down her cheeks. The next morning she acted as though the previous evening’s explosion had never occurred. Wearing a wan smile, she perched on the edge of my bed knitting a scarf, mysteriously rejuvenated, and I sensed that she was anxious to repeat that confrontation as often as she could goad me into it.
Two elderly drunks occupied the house next door, an obese lush with a bulbous nose, and his wife, a wiry hag with skin the texture of burnt toast. They made morning runs to the liquor store in a pea green fifty-two Chevy for quart bottles of Brew 102, and spent their afternoons puttering in a tiny garden next to their house.
One night, sailing past their kitchen window, I found myself trapped in a squall of groans and profanity. I peeked in and saw the old man rolling around on the linoleum floor, weeping and flailing his arms. His cursing wife straddled him, beating his head purple with the bottom end of an empty beer bottle. The next morning he brought me a handful of radishes from his garden. He seemed beatific, and his wife triumphant, as though she’d punished him for some secret crime that only the two of them recognized, and then baptized him in a river brimming with rancid hops and guilt. Every few nights they’d reenact their boozy melodrama. I began to wonder if like them, my girlfriend and I were doomed to live our lives together in a fundamentalist parody of sin and contrition.
A couple from Georgia named Ron and Sue rented the Red Barn and the house along side it. Ron possessed a ripe drawl, a drooping paunch and a coarse butch haircut, a feral pig in jeans and a food-stained sweatshirt. He continually coated Sue with a stream of denigrating sarcasm, as if he were spitting tobacco juice into a cuspidor. Shy and chubby, Sue responded to Ron with a nervous giggle that failed to mask her pain and embarrassment. When he dug into her hard she squinted back tears, and she looked to me like a kidnapped child who wanted to go home.
“Man,” said Ron, “Sue’s a good gal. She’ll go and buy beer whenever I send her. She does what I tell her to do. She even lets me fuck her on her period, ain’t that right, babe?”
He flashed me an obscene grin. Humiliated, she blushed and stared at her feet.
Looking for glassware, I’d explored a few of the local antique stores. Ron didn’t act or look like any dealer I’d ever met. I watched him drive off in his battered station wagon and return a few hours later with a hopeless congestion of gutted floor lamps, garden hoses and cracked pottery, filling his barn with effluvia normally condemned to the outer orbits of flea markets and the Salvation Army resale store. One afternoon, he offered me a beer and admitted that he was a sneak thief.
The Red Barn became a cover for Ron’s operation, somewhere to stash the junk he lifted from front yards and garages and hauled across town to a weekend swap meet where no one asked questions. For folding money, he pocketed small costly items from local antique dealers and fenced them through a network of unscrupulous buyers.
I could see that Ron was comfortable in his moral bankruptcy, and I didn’t like anything about him, but he had an easy way of taking me into his confidence. When he asked me to hide a few stolen items, I agreed. I had lost control of my own dreams and yielded to the anger I’d been trying to outrun with paint and methedrine. Before long, I was working for him.
I distracted antique dealers while Ron fingered engraved pocket watches, rare glass paperweights and jewelry. The shops we plundered were musty old houses with wooden floors creaking under the old ladies who ran them, half-senile codgers too trusting and dotty to recognize that we were slowly draining their collections. Some of those dealers had been delighted to help me learn about antique glassware. Remembering me, they ignored Ron, making it even easier for him to pocket his loot and more difficult for me to stomach what I was doing. After several stops, we’d have a few hundred dollars worth of merchandise. Ron paid me cash, and because he’d seen the row of glasses in my apartment, he’d add a few to my collection
A drug dealer I knew began burglarizing pharmaceutical warehouses, and from time to time he’d supply me with a few ampules of liquid Desoxyn, injectable methedrine infamous for its potency and smoothness. I’d binge through them in a few days, letting the drug’s ferocious grip hurl me through the smoggy layers of resentment and confusion that increasingly dimmed my vision. I’d lay off of it for a week or two, but the stolen methedrine seemed to be recycling itself through my veins. I could no longer paint. Knitting peacefully, the red-headed girl watched me implode.
My mother called a truce and invited me home for Thanksgiving dinner. She spent the afternoon trying to mask the tension saturating the house by pretending that we were a normal family, and struggled to fill awkward conversational vacuums with cheese dip and stuffed olives. The German drank whiskey all day, growing more thick-voiced and arrogant with each emptied shot glass. By the time we finished dinner, he was drunk.
Flopped back in a stuffed chair, and pleased with himself, he pulled out a harmonica and slobbered out a boozy rendition of “Ach Du Lieber Augustin,” and then informed me that I was in his house now, that if I ever expected to move back into his house again I’d have to forget my foolish dreams and do things his way. I understood that he was forcing me to take an exam I couldn’t pass, and that I’d never be able to live there again. On the way out, I swiped a bottle of his whiskey from the garage and took a piss on the front bumper of his car.
Ron decided that we should steal the vending machines from a local Laundromat, a night heist that captivated him. He planned it as though he was preparing to execute an armored car robbery. We cased the place a few times and assured ourselves that we could take all three old-fashioned, chest-high machines at once. The whole operation felt cheap and forlorn, and it suited me. Hanging around Ron’s barbecue and drinking beer, we decided that we’d empty the machines in the Red Barn and haul them up the pass to a tiny, seldom-visited pond called Lost lake and toss them in the water.
Late one night we drank a few six-packs and got to work. Ron backed up to the Laundromat doors and we began dragging the machines out the door. We had to make several trips because we’d gotten too drunk to figure out how to haul them all at once. Each time we loaded a machine, we raised a terrible racket, puffing and groaning them across the linoleum floor. Customers came and went, folding clothes and ignoring us, either lost in their own thoughts or too frightened of us to say anything. I could hear the change jingling each time we squeaked back to the barn.
We pried the coin boxes open and poured the money on the floor. Sue kept handing us beers and acting like Ron and I had just shot a bear and hauled it back to the barn to skin and butcher. An erotic current suddenly crackling between them made me wonder if Sue endured Ron’s humiliation because thievery somehow inflamed their libidos. She looked less innocent to me then, and more complicit. We divided up the cigarettes, candy and money. I earned thirty or forty dollars worth of quarters, a sack full of mummified candy and several dozen packs of Marlboros so old and dry that I could smoke an entire cigarette in one drag. We needed to ditch the machines, so I went back to my place and shot some speed to counteract the beer.
Shortly before dawn we crammed all the machines into Ron’s station wagon and headed up the highway to Cajon Pass. Just before the summit we turned west along a gravel road that dead-ended into Lost Lake.
A few months earlier my girlfriend and I had come here to bask in the clear desert light while red-eared turtles plunged beneath the lake’s crystalline surface and trundled through the reeds and grasses along the water line. Now someone had dumped a stripped car chassis near the water’s edge, and an exploded couch leaked stuffing across the rippling surface black-green with motor oil.
I was queasy with beer and methedrine, and the cold, high desert air slapped me awake. The sun began to rise and I could feel it wagging an accusatory finger at me. The boulder-studded ridges around me seemed to turn their backs in disgust. Nearby, a gaggle of chattering ravens hunched on a rotten log, an avian jury debating the severity of my impending punishment.
We shoved the machines into the pond, one by one, and watched them float like bars of Ivory soap, refusing to sink. We stared at them for a few minutes, shaking our heads in disbelief. Ron grinned, pulled an old military Colt .45 out from under the front seat and handed it to me. I wondered if he’d kept it hidden under the seat when we robbed antique stores, but I didn’t ask. “Shoot them,” he said.
I aimed and blasted a round or two into each machine. Ron went next. We had to reload and fire several more times before they drew water, up-ended and sank.
We drove back to the barn. Milk trucks eased along the northern edge of Muscoy and a chorus of barking dogs announced their arrival. Pleased with himself, and unaware of how ludicrous a crime we’d just committed, Ron lit a cigarette and poured out a list of crimes he wanted me to help him execute, all of them cheap nightmares filled with shattered glass and endless nervous stomachs. The sun beat down on his station wagon broiling our meanness into us. I was strangely buoyant then, floating atop my dissolution like the machines bobbing in the pond.
When I got home my girlfriend was there waiting for me. Exhausted, I threw myself down on my Victorian bed. Always fragile, it finally collapsed under my weight. In a rage, I leapt up, grabbed its posts and canopy frame and shattered them one-by-one over the stove’s edge. In a molten blur, I destroyed everything I could grab, kicking end-tables and night stands into splinters. I raked my glassware collection onto the floor and demolished a wobbly bookcase with one grand, sweeping toss. My girlfriend stood in a corner like a plaster statue while I picked up the wreckage and hurled it out the door.
I could hear the cows lowing over at Henry’s Dairy, a bovine counterpoint to my heaving rage. Struggling to catch my breath I stepped outside and sat on a bench near the front door, brushing sweat and tears from my eyes.
Once I’d calmed down, I noticed the old drunk next door bent over his garden, pretending he hadn’t heard me destroy the contents of my apartment. We waved at each other like good country neighbors. He stood up and walked towards me, brandishing a bunch of radishes. Slipping back into my apartment, I bolted the door and shot the last bit of Desoxyn I had left. The morning freight rumbled north along the wash. I stepped outside and followed its progress, until it slid behind a thicket of eucalyptus, tugging itself up the grade and vanishing into the liquid desert horizon just beyond my reach.