By CHRISTOPHER SORRENTINO
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUXCopyright © 2005 Christopher Sorrentino
All right reserved.
Here's a red and white VW van, parked and baking in the sun on this clear and warm May day, and the young woman seated in the front passenger seat, the van's sole occupant, stirs uncomfortably, her clothes sticking to her, her scalp roasting under the towering Afro wig she wears. She is, she hopes, inconspicuous. She lifts her buttocks from the seat, rearranges herself, sits. She moves again, leaning across and over the stick shift to roll down the driver's side window, letting in a warm draft redolent of exhaust and cut grass and what she thinks may be roasting frankfurters. Her nonprescription eyeglasses begin to slip down her nose, and she removes them to blot the perspiration from her face with a Kleenex. When she again looks up, a small boy meets her eyes. He walks beside a woman, his mother she guesses, toward a Chevrolet sedan, struggling with an oversize paper bag that appears to contain some cheap and colorful reward for enduring, with a minimum of fuss and fidget, Mom's afternoon of shopping. They stare at each other, the boy's head following his gaze as he hurries to keep up with the woman-definitely his mother, the young woman sees now; the boy is her diminutive masculine echo in nearly every way-and then his arm is tugging the woman's, Mama ... Mom ... look ... The young woman quickly replaces the eyeglasses and moves to the rear of the van, where she sits cross-legged on the metal floor and reaches for the paper: the funnies, "Dear Abby," the movie listings, and her stars for today, May 16, 1974.
The horoscope for Pisces is mysteriously oblique: "Rumor has it that others have a bonanza in the works, vast unearned rewards. Truth is some people work hard, get paid. Some loaf, don't use a lucky break."
She reads on, flipping the pages of the newspaper, dotting her index finger with saliva and turning the pages from the bottom, giving each a little shake as she separates it from the ones remaining so that it won't wrinkle up. And then there's a disturbance across the street. Its sounds at first have the lazy quality of shouts carrying across open distances, the slightly rude hollering of Sunday afternoon intramurals, and she pays no attention as she reads. But then she clearly hears Yolanda's biting tone: "Get the luck off him, you motherfucker! Let him go!"
She cranes to see her comrade straddling the back and punching the head of a young black man who wrestles with General Teko in the parking lot of Mel's Sporting Goods, where Teko and Yolanda went to pick up a few things for the search-and-destroys. This is a strange sight, totally unexpected. And a little dispiriting; she had just wanted to go shopping, get out of the safe house for an afternoon, get a little fresh air. She cranes and stares, her jaw dropping. Three other men rush out of Mel's. Two of the men lift Yolanda off the young man's back, and she thrashes and curses, kicking at shins, trying to stomp on her captors' insteps. The young woman drops the newspaper and, feeling for it on the floor with her fingers as she begins to scramble toward the front seat, picks up a .30-caliber submachine gun. Bracing herself on the door frame, she points the submachine gun out the driver's window, wanting to hit the top of Mel's building across South Crenshaw. She wants bullets zipping over the heads of her comrades' attackers. She squeezes the trigger and the gun just jumps out of her grip, and she gasps, pulling her hands away. She sees the greenery planted on the center divider rocking, sees shards of concrete spinning through the air to land amid the traffic that glides down Crenshaw, oblivious, and hears her own gasping exclamation of surprise: they'd told her the gun wouldn't buck. Inhaling deeply, she picks up the gun again, aims, squeezes and holds the trigger. The thirty-round clip emptied, she picks up the M-1 carbine. At 850 rounds per minute, she's gotten their attention across the street. Teko and Yolanda break free, begin the dash across Crenshaw while their four assailants head for cover. She fires. She fires. She fires. She knows this weapon, can strip it and reassemble it blindfolded. She hears glass breaking, the sound slapping back at her across the distance, a small, contained noise, like something carefully controlled, ultimately disappointing. The doors open and she slips to the rear as Teko and Yolanda jump aboard.
There's pride in her voice as she asks: "How'd I do?"
"The fuck took you so long?" says Teko.
* * *
A day shy of a week ago Cinque had them split into teams for the southward migration, and these three had driven the length of the state, Highway 99, breathed deep the wet smell of soil and manure in the night, stared into predawn tule fog near Fresno. It hung outside the van windows, thick five-and-ten Halloween cobwebbing hanging sinisterly still, inscrutable, and they crawled through it. Yolanda hunched forward over the wheel, her long face a skull mask of tension, and Teko reached over to wipe the condensation from the inside of the windshield with his jacket sleeve. Near Bakersfield Yolanda had at last pulled off and crawled into the back, telling her to drive. Ass numb, fingertips bone tired on the wheel, she'd merged with I-5 at Wheeler Ridge and then pushed the van onto the Grapevine for the long uphill crawl (Teko sputtering angrily about her driving) and then the stunning rush of the drop into Los Angeles County; how heartening to cross the threshold of another world after the scary hiatus of being in between. The roads acquired names, Golden State Freeway, Hollywood Freeway, Harbor Freeway, each a sort of vivid promise.
They rendezvoused with the others at a nondescript tract of patchy grass and few trees. Still, walking and stretching in the warming sun of late morning, they were grateful for the birds and insects and barking dogs of spring. She and Cujo held hands, squeezing, squeezing each other's palms, kneading messages to each other to be read deep in the flesh. They had time for this indulgence as the team leaders met in Cinque's van, the red-and-white VW with the matching curtains. They thought about buying churros from a man selling them from a pushcart, the warm sweet smell inhabiting the still air, discussing this, but Gelina reminded them that Zoya would make them pool and redivide the money again even after this purchase, so they laughed and said forget it.
They said, "Oh, that's right, Christ, forget it."
"Oh my God, never mind then, I forgot."
And laughed, Zoya eyeing them suspiciously.
She's off-balance; her wig is slipping; she slides around on the bare metal floor in the back of the van, bumping and banging into everything and thinking that one crappy carpet remnant would make a world of difference back here. Teko is driving very fast, weaving in and out of traffic, turning frequently. She sees that they are driving through a neighborhood of low bungalows right now, where the short driveways have only two thin strips of paving on either side, for the tires to ride on, with unloved grass sprouting in between. Tacky. Strange. She thinks.
Yolanda says, "So would you mind telling me what the hell happened back there, Teko?"
"Fucking junior pig. I only wish I'd blown his motherfucking head off," says Teko.
"OK. But this is not what I asked."
"Because that is the absolute worst. You know? The absolute worst. Here is a beautiful strong young brother doing the dirty work of the Man."
"Mm-hm. But, so tell me."
"This brother from a heritage of chains, three hundred motherfucking years of the Man dangling chains off him, and he tries to chain me up like a-like a-" He raises and shakes his wrist, the cuffs there dancing.
"Like a three-speed, Drew."
There is a silence. Without looking, she knows Yolanda sits with her arms folded.
After a moment Teko says, "Where the fuck am I going anyway?"
"Well, you sure got me there. Let me have a little look."
"Well you sure don't sound, geez! What. You on the rag? Or what?"
"Ruthellen." Yolanda twists her neck to read a street sign as they pass. "No, I'm not on the rag, Drew. The hell happened back there?"
"Ruth ... Ellen." He pronounces the name as if he could do something with this.
"You know, what we need is we need to get rid of this fucking van."
Then Teko brakes abruptly as he encounters a line of waiting traffic at the top of a rise.
"Shit," and he's turned around to see about backing up.
"Well, you want to get rid of this van how about this red car parking right here?"
But Teko's shifted into reverse and has begun moving when he notices a car approaching from the bottom of the hill.
"There's that little fucking junior pig again!"
"You're kidding me. Well, maybe you had better waste him." Yolanda looks at him out of the corner of her eye. There is more than a trace of sarcasm in her voice.
"Ah, as leader of this fire team I personally oversee expropriation and commandeering of goods and materiel." Teko wags a finger at the red car, a Pontiac LeMans.
"Uh-huh," says Yolanda.
Ignoring Yolanda, Teko addresses her for the first time since the ride began. He says, "Take the carbine," and points to the other car, the one that climbs toward them.
There's a High Noon aspect to this that doesn't escape her. She's holding the rifle before her-"at port arms," it'll later be described-as she approaches the car below. She's made strangely happy by the mere sensation of walking downhill; it's an old elation, unquestioned, its source a mystery. She feels tall; maybe that's it. The distant car is her strange, thrumming opponent; she doesn't look at the man inside, but at the face of the car: the headlight eyes and radiator grille grimace. As she advances, she thinks she will aim dead center of the windshield and wonders how many rounds are left in the banana clip. Behind her, she hears Teko's goofy greeting: "Hi! We'll be needing your car right now if you don't mind. I don't want to have to kill you!" She takes another step and then another. She slips her finger inside the trigger guard and raises the gun to sight down its length. Within the car there's an abrupt flurry of motion as the occupant throws his arm over the seat back, looking to the rear as he rolls back and out of sight. She returns to the van, but Yolanda calls her to the Pontiac.
"This is Arthur, and, Ruby? Ruby. Arthur and Ruby are letting us have their car for now." She indicates the LeMans. "Would you please tell them who you are?"
She smiles, broadly, as she's been told, and removes the eyeglasses. Neither crude disguise nor subsistence rations nor the rigors of combat training have altered a face everyone has come to know.
Speaking slowly and clearly, she says, "I'm Tania Galton."
* * *
As they begin to drive and she feels her heart slow she indulges the old luxury of feeling annoyed with her comrades.
"So anyway. What happened, General Teko?" asks Yolanda.
"Nothing. Well. I saw something, a bandolier. I thought we could maybe use it."
"Jesus Christ, that was stupid."
"Oh, shut up."
"What did it cost, two big bucks?"
"Jeez, will you just. Come on, Diane." He pounds the steering wheel with the heel of his hand.
They go on, a soft-shoe demonstration of marital antagonism. Tania wonders if this kind of life intensifies conjugal discord or just frees it to seek its regular expression. She wonders if there was ever a little off-campus apartment for Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Shepard of Bloomington, IN, with jug wine on the counter, Ritz crackers and a hunk of Kraft on the cutting board, and a Mr. Coffee hissing and spitting brown liquid into a steamy carafe, a place where they lived politely, planning their evenings around the listings in the TV Guide, while Teko earned his master's in urban education. She sees the clean shower stall, the carpeted staircase, the burnt-orange Creuset saucepan simmering with Campbell's soup atop the range centered in the island overlooking the living room. A little off-campus nest full of the twigs and string of stifling ambitions. All that clutter coming between the hairy little grad student and his tall wife with the bland athletic good looks and the slightly off-center face, between their hostility. Now it flows like lava, burning clean.
Under her annoyance, Tania admires them. She thinks of Eric Stump, her lover since she was sixteen, her fiancé for some months, and now the deserted cuckold. He was like a radio receiver eternally on and tuned to receive garbled flashes of superior intelligence from distant reaches of the galaxy. Her job had been to monitor the airwaves for sudden bursts of communication that would inevitably be followed by cryptic silences. She imagines the Shepards into a past that resembles her own because it's easier that way to imagine their path out of the familiar. Though little could compare with the sudden violent rupture that had removed her from Eric. Still, she can see the need for its having happened now. She might never have gotten around to it otherwise, because what's there to hassle about when you can watch The Magician at eight o'clock? How can you admit you hate being with someone when you've gone and bought an ADT system to remain locked safely alone with him? When you've had your formal engagement photograph taken, standing posed beneath a portrait of your long-suffering grandmother Millicent?
Once the clutter started rolling in, it was almost impossible to stop it: silver and china and crystal, all at her disposal for a light supper on the TV trays, eaten in silence while Bill Bixby sped around in his Corvette, pulling knotted scarves out of his sleeve.
And even as she picked out her formal Royal Green Darby Panel, Hutschenreuther cobalt blue, and Herend VBOH china patterns, her Towle Old Master silver, her thumbcut Powerscourt crystal by Waterford, she was beginning to think of those things as objects to be set between her and Eric.
She fingers the ugly stone monkey that hangs from her neck. Cujo gave it to her and as far as she's concerned it's the only gift she need ever receive again.
Her parents have released photos of her receiving her first Holy Communion. A photo of her and Eric, taken to commemorate the announcement of their engagement, in which their faces are imprinted with their forced enthusiasm. A pensive 16 magazine shot showing her with knees drawn up to her chest, hands folded across her knees, cheek resting on her hands, eyes staring off to one side-just an ordinary girl with her head full of confusing fun choices.
Her mother had gone to town, to the press actually, describing the pearl-handled fruit knives and forks she'd given her as an engagement present.
They would offer this, the weight of a life of well-intentioned privilege, in evidence against the bewigged specter in the bank captured on dozens of pictures shot by two Mosler Photoguard cameras firing away at four frames per second; against the guerrilla girl, legs astride, hugging the M-1 to her hip before the seven-headed Naga symbol (Xeroxed flyers made from this Polaroid have shown up all over Sproul Plaza, declaring WE LOVE YOU TANIA); against the voice referring to her parents as "pigs"; against all the overwhelming documentation that Tania had devoured Alice, that the girl had simply become divorced from her own self.
"Stop. Stop. Stop. Slow down," says Yolanda.
"Well, which one? I mean. Man."
"Slow down. We need to find another car."
"Already? Like, two blocks, this car."
"Try and, you know. Where I'm coming from, here."
Two men are unloading a lawn mower from a blue Nova wagon when Teko pulls the LeMans up and jumps out, carrying the submachine gun.
"We're the SLA. We need your car right now. This is not an expropriation; we're just borrowing it. I mean, you'll get it back, man."
"Just put our stuff in the car, Teko," says Yolanda. "Stop talking now."
"Sure," says one of the men. "Long as you need it."
"You can, ah," says Teko, "keep the lawn mower." And the men move it off the back of the wagon, double time.
She's about to get in when Yolanda reminds her, nodding in the direction of the two men. "Tania?"
"Oh. Yeah." After straightening her wig, she removes her eyeglasses and smiles at the men. The younger one smiles back.