ogging in place, rubber thumping and pumping on tar, a woman waits for the groaning, straining security gate to spring, to swing open. She tucks the magnetic key card back into her performance nylon ripstop pocket, marsupial style, but with Velcro.
Controlled breathing: in and out, repeat as necessary. Huff, puff. With a swoosh and a whoosh, she's through, a blur of bright royal blue jacket with day-glo green safety stripes over black tights, a uniform of sorts. The headband is optional but the ponytail is not. Streaky blondy, maybe dyed. Highlights.
A new Mercedes wagon - Herr SilverDiesel - sneaks in behind her and zooms by before the gate swings back and clangs shut; somebody's visitor, snaking her cycle. It also splashes her slightly, tearing through a puddle. Her compressed mouth tightens even more, neck sinews straining like suspension cables, which they are. This wouldn't happen if the Homeowner's Association had kept the gatehouse guards, the security personnel, who were cut to save money. (Plus, it was hard to even find anyone at that rate who could pass the urine test.) Downsized, as they say. More accurately, outsized. (Stripped of badges and guns, fired, replaced by infrared clickers and plastic cards. No more guard leaning back in the rolling chair, and they've put reflective plastic over the guardhouse windows - to fool the intruders? One wonders. The mirrored surface, the same smoky tone as her angular sunglasses, her extreme sports eye-shield, has begun to bubble and peel unattractively.) The offending wagon picks up speed and squeals around a bend, much too fast. The speed limit is 10, and there are still private police, "rent-a-cops," to ticket offenders, which she wishes they would do right now.
This is her complex: many matching houses, single-family homes, if you like, and more condominiums sitting at just slightly odd angles, akilter, on not insubstantial untrod lawns, situated amid winding paths to numerous swimming pools, Jacuzzis, tennis courts, and two championship golf courses. The pools are being skimmed by jumpsuited, straw-hatted workers with billowing, gauzy nets, which are not primarily, but often enough, entomological equipment. Along the road there are narrow suggestions of sidewalk, painted beige to match the buildings, the general scheme being stucco with brick-red tile roofs. Call it "Southwest Ubiquitous." Haut Hokey Haciendas. And they may be inviting, these Pueblos, these Nuevos Rancheros, but beware the stucco, more dangerous than cactus, as scrapingly skin-rending as a coral reef!
There is plenty of activity at this early hour in the American Desert, before everything begins to bake into antimatter, to borrow a mot most apropos from a noted Californian essayist. Platoons of maintenance workers in straw cowboy hats and plaid-print shirts and blue jeans mow and weed-whack, clip and rake and bag, los caballeros herbos. A few specialists wield roaring leaf-blowers, herding billows of dust and debris. There are other, less specific, maintenance workers - make that maintenance people - looking more important, relatively, who are whiter, and pith-helmeted, in carts, or logo-capped in regular trucks.
Pounding down the matte black private street 'twixt flat white curbs she nods her head, as if in assent or executing some order, and twitches her pulse/lap timer wristwatch wrist as the sprinklers gurgle, then whistle and spray, rising up from the grass like periscopes, also on a schedule. She passes a young child on one of the lawns, leaning forward at an angle, on a leash - not a leash, a harness - reaching for the rainbow-making spray of a sprinkler. His grandfather (presumably) jerks him back. Obedience training, perhaps. A wizened old woman wearing many diamonds, much makeup, and a leopard-print bodysuit whizzes by in a golf cart shaped like a Ford Mustang, laughing theatrically into a cellular phone.
Here and there, at decent intervals, there are other spandex people, like a casual army in stretchy motley, jogging slowly or speed-walking or helmet-biking, many with headphones and intent expressions that suggest that they are receiving orders, perhaps from extraterrestrial intelligences in not dissimilar garb. (Indeed, in stranger-than-fiction truth, the Nike sweatpants comet cult, featuring quarter rolls, castration, and group suicide, was headquartered not so far away from here, in San Diego on the shore of the great Southwest. They thought a space-bus was coming for them, and maybe it did. "Heaven's Gate." That suggests San Pedro, but that's a different city, a different cult, a different space-ship.)
A woman in non-athletic pink stretch pants and a billowy blouse walks a cat, a heavily liver-spotted old man in a cardigan stands over a tiny dog on a leash, waiting, plastic bag in hand.
This burst of stylized, ritual activity is like the parched life in some African lakes which thrives for just a few rainy weeks, sprouting and blossoming and reproducing in a flash, before drying back to a barren, cracked bed of crusted and flaking dirt. It also resembles, closer to hand, the indigenous fauna: a few scraggly ground-squirrels, burrowing owls, lean jackrabbits and the stray malnourished coyote, which move mainly by night, excepting the concrete-colored iguanas and various lizards and skinks, cold-blooded, sucking up the heat, and the ubiquitous ants, whose kingdom this is. There are also the roadrunners, which are so tough that they just don't care. Noble creatures, truly, able to run twenty miles per hour all day. Avian carnivores; an odd mix, like people. Kind of cuckoo. Difficult not to admire a bird that positively prefers venomous prey, scorpions and snakes, the way some people like lots of jalapeno peppers and hot-sauce. Lizard caliente!
All will be quiet long before mid-day, still and orderly in the stifling heat. This is that storied Southern California where it really really never rains. Of course that's not completely true, but it is true that it rains grasshoppers here about as often as water. It's already hot, even at this hour. Hot enough to fry an egg, as they say. Hot enough to burn an egg, and also hot enough to make toast, if you like. There is a whisper of wind, a slight breeze as refreshing as a blow dryer in a sauna. Sunny side up?
Rounding a curve, our girl crosses the path of one of the courses, and passes a bunker wherein stands a man wiping his well-fed, balded brown head with a handkerchief, scowling over a ball in the sand. Ovoid. She is also scowling, but not in sympathy - just habit. Two others in this party stand scowling on the green above, guts protruding like pregnancies, but the fourth, thin and pale, with a largely unsuccessful back-to-front comb-over, sits in a cart, half-slumped over the steering wheel, following her progress with a face as blank as sand. After she passes she hears one scream "God damn it!" If they were younger, it would have been "Mother Fuck!" This is natural, and normal, like the quacks of the ducks, squabbling in the various water hazards, and, occasionally, the swimming pools. Ill-tempered beasts.
She sees the Mercedes returning, bouncing over the speed bumps, and notices that it's somebody delivering newspapers, which are stacked on the front seat. A strange delivery vehicle. Her place is well inside the development, and the value of the three dozen or so vehicles she has already passed, not including the ones for maintenance, the background boys, would mount easily over a million dollars. The lowest common denominator here is quite high. Perhaps the owner of that Land Rover delivers newspapers, too, but to an entire city. Distribution is the key.
There is the pocking rhythm of tennis balls, merging with the similar beat of her faster steps, from the hidden courts, sunk behind shrubbery, and she hears a gate creak, and laughter - a deeply tanned, gray-haired man in tennis togs and his daughter, coming from the court, rackets in hand. Not his daughter - fathers don't typically stick their hands that far up their daughters' tennis skirts. Coy giggles, a daughter would not be so demure. Just ahead are some big trucks, someone moving in or out apparently, not that she cares or is even marginally curious. She knows no one here, and doesn't care to.
She continues, toward one of the trucks, which is open, dark and empty, with the long, ribbed aluminum ramp extended. There's a small, dark guy in forest-green "work" clothes bouncing on this, smoking a cigarette - menthol, she notes to herself, with nose-wrinkled distaste, her old kind. Avoiding him, she almost collides with another guy, coming around the front of the truck. This one is in brown polyester slacks and a ribbed white singlet, an undershirt, and around his dark neck hangs a gold horn on a chain, which matches his two gleaming upper incisors. His hair is long and jet-black under a little fedora, and he seems to be wearing ballet shoes. He bows slightly, apologetically, extending an arm to let her pass. She spins away, eyes averted, and as she pads off, he shrugs and laughs, leaning back and grabbing his crotch, shaking the pucker after her. They snicker in Spanish - she senses this. If French is the language of love, Spanish is just the tongue.
Her mouth is working, and she's chewing the inside of her cheek, wondering who to call about this, who to notify, in addition to the Association. There was no company name, but she could find out. She passes another, similar truck, giving it a wide berth, and finally, after much ado, she's streaking through the home stretch.
Slowing down as she comes to her own garage, she forgets to sidestep at the right moment and the spray begins, soaking her ankles and feet. Irritated, she moves away from the water and digs through her pouch for the remote, pushes the button, and runs in place as the groan starts and the chain clanks and grinds, dragging the door up.
The cooler, confined air hits her with a familiar plash - the smell of home, eucalyptus and violet sachets, and any number of specific air-freshening and dedicated cleaning products, many of which line a shelf here, an antibacterial arsenal. She takes a clean towel from a white enamel cabinet and wipes her face even though it's dry, (an old habit dying hard, sweat here being instantly sublimated.) She also wipes her ankles and shoes. The rubber strip squeaks on the clean, painted concrete as the door seals her into the garage's twilight.
Relaxing for a moment, her eyes adjusting to the dark, she tenses, eyes growing even wider, when she sees that the van needs washing. Besides a fine layer of dust, to be accepted if not entirely acceptable, the tires are filthy, with dried mud ringing the sidewalls. She physically shrinks from it, and looks over to her Jeep, which, of course, is still spotless. Who had the van, her husband or her daughters, and why is it so hard to take care of anything? She's glad she can't see her daughter's car, the little red convertible truck thing with cow-print seatcovers, because she knows it's a mess, inside and out. She's seething, seeing red, as she punches the entry code into the security console (red light, no…green light: go!) and passes into the house through the laundry room, unfinished drywall and plywood and lathe, which is also an irritation somehow, in such an expensive place. Cans rattle as she bumps one of the recycling containers, for which there is just not quite enough space, and about which something must also be done. (Even though the cans have been rinsed, there is still this lingering smell, and the suggestion of bacteria collection.) Her older daughter has become fanatic about recycling, among other things.
From this girl's room she hears some kind of country and western psychedelia, not loud, but her hand moves automatically to her temple and her expression is pained, which is by now her stock response to most music, and many sounds. She goes down the short hall to her bedroom and shuts the door with both hands, and, after a moment holding the door closed in that way, as if holding it up, she turns and begins to strip for a shower, which we will not want to see.
Emerging after ablutions and a skin-cleansing salt-scrub, now in another set of work-out clothes, (looser and more cottony, low-tech,) she hears, as well as feels, some old-school pre-school rap music, this quite loud, thumping from her other, younger, daughter's room. Public Enemy. It stops just as she raises her fist to pound on the door, which opens then to reveal a girl who has done her best to emulate the appearance of a corpse, in current "Gothic" fashion, black on white, and who looks up at her without any apparent recognition and slides down the hall toward the kitchen, dragging a German Army rucksack book-bag along the tiled floor. She quite resembles a movie vampire.
Our heroine carries her running garb to the laundry room, starts the cycle, and again rattles the cans in the recycling bin. She is greeted in the kitchen by the girls bickering about the actual mechanics of alien abductions, whether they are effected by some energy beam or ropes.
Toast pops up from the toaster, four slices, which the older girl snatches up. This one, in denim bellbottoms, a lacy "peasant" top, and Birkenstock sandals, takes after her father in that she is somewhat hefty, husky, chunky: not small-boned. They are in agreement: there are abductions, it could go without saying, this settled as the girl scrapes peanut butter from a jar. Mom vaguely recalls some similar argument about crop-circles, which also somehow hinged on livestock, or maybe dolphins. Maybe that was tuna. She pours a glass of water from the filter pitcher, and they're already onto another argument, something about this particular natural peanut butter not being natural enough somehow. Organic, but still tinged in some way with cruelty, connected somehow with the torture of innocents. She looks at the piece of dried fruit she's nibbling on, and she's not quite sure what it is, this mummified something, like flavored leather with seeds. It's not unfamiliar, but also not immediately recognizable. Apricot, or maybe strawberry. Really, it could be horned toad, with the horns removed.
The younger daughter, thin to the point of inviting questions about bulimia or anorexia, is having only cranberry juice for breakfast, which has stained her lips and tongue. She is dressed mainly in black and "industrial" jewelry - bike chain bracelet and a wide leather belt with an automobile seat-belt buckle buckle, GM. She has a pierced eyebrow and nose, which had been a fierce controversies resolved only by the vote of the psychiatrist they took her to - but what were they paying him for if he couldn't make her listen to reason? This after she finally stopped gnawing her nails to bloody nibs. The subject of tattoos shall not be broached; both have clamored.
The Goth girl, is sharp, and sharp-tongued, and spits out at her sister "Why don't you just shut up? I eat normal food and I'm an animal murderer? You're just a stupid vegetarian because you're so fat!"
This is her cue, something similar happens every single school morning, and these are the first words she has spoken, to them or anyone: "Girls. Now. Girls." And this is enough. They glare at each other, but soon they are on their way, off to school, hippie chick and vampire girl. They zip off in the little truck, which will, incidentally, put a greater weight by far of carbon into the atmosphere in the course of a year than the weight of the cans and boxes she recycles. Out of mind, out of sight. They are still young and not so bitter, comrades, and sisters after all, agreeing on many things, most particularly the marijuana they are smoking from a flowery ceramic pipe as they exit the compound. Mother carefully picks up a few crumbs that have fallen on the table, throws them into the sink, and turns on the garbage disposal.
She glazes out the window over the grinding roar, at the chemical-green lawn and turquoise-blue ponds and sand daubs and bowers of flowers, showers of shocks of blooming color framed by tan stucco planes topped with terra cotta tessarae. To say the sky was always blue would be an exaggeration, but the sky for days, weeks, months, seasons on end was unchanging, grim blue, with far more 747s and commuter planes and helicopters than birds or clouds. A figure raised in the basket of the arm of a "cherry picker" truck trims the shaggy "beards" of the palms, (that's what they're called) leaving them looking exactly like (pale green) badminton birdies.
She can see just a corner, and a cornice, of the "colonial" pseudo-Georgian clubhouse, across the sculpted fairways and roughs and greens, where, sometimes, maybe strangest of all, there is bagpipe music. Piping. Not piped, but live, singly or in groups, a line of Celtophiles in kilts, invariably bearded men in tartan, droning out that highland lonesome sound, the haunted semitones of wild fen and firth, in this strange, imported environment, this hothouse of forced exotics. (Even most of the cactuses, cacti, here are imports, and would die without irrigation.) But we remember that golf originated in Scotland. Not golf, but the hole - that's a fact, and really a fine innovation, a great trick, to create something by adding a void. (And the 18 holes, also Scotian, are the time it takes to finish a bottle of whiskey, neat.)
Beyond, all around, are the dirt and rock mountains that are the very definition of earthtone, this being the landscape that inspired the popular "Sand Art" movement of the 1970s. Sand Art killed the Lava Lamp. She turns off the growling appliance, and gets ready to do a little cleaning before the maid arrives. She takes a few pills - the daily requirements from the regimen, and also an elective treat, washed down with sport-water. Mind those electrolytes!
As she is vacuuming, her husband comes in from golf a little tipsy, fresh off a little morning tipple at the tee, a few drinks on the links. Not the Scotch, just a few breakfasty Bloody Marys, but you know there's trouble anytime it's "just" anything. He is red of face with a little bit of a slur on, mumbling something about something, perched on the edge of the loveseat. Waiting for coffee to brew, she apprehends, and also that there were cigars involved. He is, at this point, just about as important to her as the furniture, also a little shabby, perhaps needing replacement. She'd like to suck him up the hose. He's checking the weather on television, absolutely idiotic, and not just here in the endless summer. He blows his gin-blossom moistly into a plaid handkerchief, which he stores in his pocket.
For all his time in the sun he never really tanned, just baked a deeper red, and for all his golf and tennis and stationary biking and stationary stair-climbing at the gym he remained flaccid and even doughy. Could be metabolism, could be ranch dressing, and ever-drier drinks for dinner. The garage also houses a large selection of television-advertised exercise machine systems, (suggestive of nothing more in the dim light than medieval torture devices.) It's not like he never tried! The new stationary bike and digital treadmill in his bedroom will bear witness, Velcro ankle and wrist weights speak for themselves. He has in point of actual fact expended a great deal of (economic) energy in his quest for fitness, although lately he has been more concerned about the condition of his scalp and the nutrition of his ever-decreasing roots, which require not insubstantial investments, and considerable attention as to placement. Intimate landscaping, if a scalp may be considered private.
She hears him finish showering and head out, off to work. He, the paunchy, has "worked," has had in fact what is looked upon generally as a career, even a successful one, providing various types of insurance, but he has never really actually personally been able to generate any income, and it's a good thing he hired the couple of guys he did, when he did, a damned good thing, as he has on occasion confided to boozy compatriots; that, and, recently, that things are not so great, may be drying up - but such big bellies, so to speak, rarely go completely belly up. Larger sums have ways of protecting themselves, defense mechanisms. Assets may be hidden, rumps covered.
Be that as it may, our lady of the lane finishes her chores, and leaves the house for a little shopping, has the Jeep washed or goes to the gym, but by midday, post meridian, she's returned, tucked back into spandex, shorts now, with a white nylon top, and she's back in her element, back out on the road. While the general activity has subsided, the hubbub ebbed, there are a few people about. She breezes past a man in Hawaiian rayon and khaki cargoes who is obviously a tourist, not obvious just because of his shiny sportswear but because of his look of hurt bewilderment when she ignores his beaming, friendly, "Afternoon!" It's the So.Cal. headsnap: You say "Hi," I look away. Nothing personal, pal. That's not an apology, it's an order. Renting a time-share, no doubt. Welcome to "Whatever." Enjoy the weather. Wish you were there.
Pounding on she passes a team of workers (logohat, logopolo) shoveling peat from a mound in a pickup and wheelbarrowing it across the yards to spread under the bushes. Peat keeps the moisture in, around the roots. An interesting substance, it is semi-decomposed, long-compressed vegetable matter which, by virtue of its special chemical properties, preserves almost intact the bodies - animal and human - that are sometimes found in its bogs, just a bit leathery, and dark, from the tannins. These also impart distinct and interesting flavor notes to celebrated Scotch whiskies.
She blows by a few other runners, slow and ungainly, more like mall-walkers, beneath contempt, and she is out of the gate, out of the enclave, the autoclave, moving along the high enclosing wall, along curved, wide sidewalks designed for golf carts. She passes a skinny old man dressed completely in pink, including his cap, who holds three miniature pinschers on one special leash. He smiles at her with yellow teeth, but she isn't looking, and soon she's at the edge of the development.
Near these places there are always rundown trailers, hard against the wall, where the almost original inhabitants, the pioneers, dwell, often with collections of cars and trucks and major appliances that read like a history, seem like sad museums. People are smart, like rats and cockroaches. Like them, we eat garbage and live anywhere, and are generally, though not necessarily individually, repulsive.
Nearing this heritage area, she passes a similarly-skinned unfortunate pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans. This old woman has a dish-towel and a brush on the handle of her cart, and she is gnawing a Slim-Jim with her remaining teeth. (Jerky is an Indian word, by way of Spanish, meaning, originally, exactly the same thing. There are still Indians, Natives, in these parts, but they don't live native, they operate casinos, which some see as a positive development, some kind of poetic economic justice, but only in the same way that it is, for example, if a prostitute becomes a pimp. Still not pretty. In this, respect the Navajo, who do not exploit vice.)
She crosses a wide street, to the new symbiotic shopping center, like a strip mall pallazo, enclosing a parking piazza, with a grocery store, cellphone shop, pizza chain, video rental chain, drycleaner, upscale casual dining chain restaurant, and a chain nightspot, "Niteclubz," or something like that. Always something like that. In the parking lot, a woman in neon spandex is rollerblading, sweeping around in big, leg-spread circles, a human compass swirling over the freshly painted lines. Two nondescript workers are rolling out turf onto the dividing strips between the lanes and parking slots.
There is also a chain gym, with people huffing and pumping on stationary bicycles, displayed in a big picture window, in which she is reflected and framed. It may be interesting, in this light, surveying this pavement, to consider the phenomenon of penitents in the Middle Ages, flagellants, parades of people who marched into towns and whipped themselves bloody in public, for various reasons including, but certainly not limited to, donations. No pain, no gain. As the saying goes.
She soldiers on, in any event, to where the sidewalk continues through as-yet undeveloped desert, (but slated For Sale, Available To Build) then on to where it ends, and she moves to the road. Far ahead there is another solitary figure, walking, a long-bearded, bronzed man in a bush hat, jeans, and an Army field jacket - this is the walking guy, which sounds like an urban legend but is true all the same, the guy walking slowly between desert towns, often with a plastic grocery bag of who knows what. A pathetic pedestrian plying roads designed for machines.
She turns off, onto a smaller, tarred road, softer, and sticky in gleaming, iridescent spots, which she avoids. There is a desiccated skeleton, of something, crushed and embedded, another unfortunate creature gone from 3-D to 2, which she also skips over. A remnant tuft of fur or feather ruffles slightly in her wake. The road dips after a while into a wide, boulder-strewn wash, where, a few times every few centuries, water rushes with such celerity that it carries boulders the size of cars, of houses, for unbelievable distances, miles and miles. There is a touch of vegetation here, irrigated, maybe, by this memory of water. From the shade beneath a lone, gnarled mesquite tree, a roadrunner watches her progress with one blue-rimmed eye, perhaps approvingly. He sneezes out some salt, not in derision, just elimination, then raises his crest, opening like a paper fan, not in alarm, not as a signal, but simply for purposes of cooling. The naked blue skin around his eye trails to a red point on the side of his cocked head.
She runs and runs, into the waves of heat which float like pools above the road, and there may be some appeal in continuing to follow, seeing her return to the nest, to some nasty climax, an ugly domestic scene; or we might well enjoy a sudden downpour, a catastrophic storm, with bolting lightning and pounding rain, hail, and flash-flooding sweeping away everything in its wrath; we might also like a low, gravelly rumble, growing louder as the earth itself heaves, tearing itself open at one of the many nearby faultlines, growling and gaping underfoot, opening wide and swallowing the whole mess… This is how we think, there is no fault in that, but better we should simply leave her where we found her, on the road, pounding the pavement toward a perspective-line vanishing point, into a stereotypical southwestern sunset, complete with cactus and cow skull.
Copyright © James Francis 2003. Title graphic: "Highrizon" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.