An excerpt from Coldwater Canyon (Civil Coping Mechanisms, October 2018)
She’d be coming out the east side of the building. Shep knew because he’d been here before, because she’d been here before. He had followed her on two buses, from her stop on Colfax—just a couple of miles from his home—all the way to the casting office on Ventura. He’d watched her crouch in the parking garage’s stairwell to check her makeup, her headshots and resumes tucked in a manila envelope under her arm, watched her make ethereal faces into her compact, practicing her poignant stare.
While he waited, he tried to imagine what those offices looked like inside. Were they Hollywood-slick, with real plants and glass tabletops, or was she sitting under buzzing fluorescent lights, the walls stuffed with asbestos, brushing the balls of her feet rhythmically against stained berber carpet? He liked to imagine Lila in these quiet moments, daydreaming her surroundings, wondering at her thoughts. His gaze floated up to a billboard with a male model holding a bottle of Tanqueray, his hair slicked back and skinny tie flying three-dimensionally beyond the billboard’s edge.
“I know you’re bored, Lionel. I never promised you excitement.” The dog lay on his side on the passenger seat, his tongue lolling slightly out the side of his mouth. Shep scratched his belly, and the dog kicked his leg in a jerky, circular motion. While he waited, Shep tried to ignore a drilling ache in his own belly, one he’d woken with that morning. He rested his hand on the spot as though holding the pain back from spreading through the rest of his body.
When she emerged a half hour later, it took him a moment to notice that she was in some kind of distress. She looked wan, with a new pallor, her jaw quavering. Her hands were trembling as she opened and closed her mouth, seemingly making a deliberate effort to breathe. The manila envelope slipped from her fingers onto the pavement and she quickly crouched down to scoop it up before it blew into a puddle on the sidewalk. She clutched the envelope to her chest and took a few more deep breaths, then rose slowly, carefully, on her too-high platform heels.
Shep started the car and waited until she was half a block ahead of him before pulling out to follow. From behind, she looked so much like Lorene, though her gait was quick, her steps clipped and narrow, not like Lorene’s at all come to think of it. Lorene always walked like she knew people were watching, like she was performing a walk. He remembered the first time he’d seen her outside Wilcox High. He was a senior, ditching last period with Marty Cumberland, who would be killed not two years after graduation, flipping his dad’s tractor off the side of highway 136 while Shep lay in a bunk in Saudi.
It was just a few weeks into the school year. They were smoking under the bleachers during a free period, he hanging lackadaisically with his hands gripping the aluminum bars while Marty re-packed the bowl, when the double doors at the back of the gym opened, cutting the afternoon’s lulling prairie stillness. He signaled to Marty to hide the pipe under his backpack. Then she appeared in gym clothes, cotton shorts and Wilcox Wildcats t-shirt tied in a knot at her hip. Even in tennis shoes she walked with purpose, her hips in a controlled swing, her backpack hanging from one shoulder, blond bangs swept low over her right eye. She pulled a tube of lipgloss from her bag and gently dabbed at her lips without consulting a mirror.
Marty pulled the pipe back out and flicked his lighter, satisfied that no teacher was coming, but Shep just stared. She must be a freshman, he thought, because he was certain he’d never seen her before. A black Chevy pulled up at the curb and the girl waved. She leaned into the window to greet the unseen driver before crossing over to the passenger side and climbing in. The truck pulled out of the parking lot, and Shep watched it all the way until it passed the water tower to the north, where it faded out into the dusty horizon.
“You see that?” he said to Marty.
Marty shook his Bic lighter and flicked it again, trying to get a flame. “Yeah, nice tits,” he nodded.
Shep shook his head and resumed swinging from the aluminum bars.
The similarity must be in his head, he reasoned now. Lila didn’t seem to be quite so aware of her beauty, not as blazingly confident. He hesitated to take note of her backside in the filmy sundress she was wearing, which threatened to fly up with every gust of wind. She kept her fingertips grazing its short hemline, clamping down with her palm every time the breeze picked up. She didn’t usually dress like that. When she wasn’t dressed in her work uniform, he usually saw her in jeans and t-shirts. He wondered if some fat cigar-chomping agent or casting director had told her she had to be sexier, and fumed a little on her behalf. Still, she was more beautiful than Lorene had ever been, if such a thing were possible. She’d taken her long, dirty blond hair down, and it blew about her tanned shoulders as she walked with her head down.
Suddenly, Lila stopped as though stricken. She ducked to her right and disappeared into an alley. Shep pulled over and without thinking, stopped the car, Lionel barking in protest at being left behind as his master got out and approached on foot, thinking she must be sick or hurt or worse, not thinking of what he would say or do when he caught up to her.
He peered into the alley to find her crouched down on her haunches, her back to the wall, sobbing. Her eyes were squeezed shut as her shoulders heaved.
Shep froze, realizing that there was nothing he could do here. She wouldn’t recognize him surely, and he couldn’t risk revealing himself. Besides which, he had no way of consoling her. He knew what this, what he, looked like. Even if he came to her saying, “shhh, shhh, it’s alright,” as he would to a child, even if he said her name, good god, especially if.
Her crying tapered off, and she breathed roughly for a minute, wiping her face with a disintegrating tissue she’d fished out of her purse. Shep knew he should leave, that she would scream if she saw him there, snooping down the alley at her private despair. Was it the audition? Had they been cruel to her, or was it something deeper, a longstanding torment of which he knew nothing and could never hope to understand?
On a count of three, he turned away from her, resting his face on the white-painted brick for a moment before returning to the car. He heaved himself into the driver’s seat as Lionel climbed all over him, lapping at every inch of his neck and chin. Shep set the dog back down on the passenger seat. He started the car up again and sat with his hands on the wheel, waiting for the engine to stop coughing. A minute later, she emerged from the alley, her face freshened as though nothing had happened, and continued on her way. He pulled out of the spot and followed, painfully aware now that the time he’d invested into following her was giving him an idea of her habits, but no insight into her soul. There was no coming back from it, no way to replace the years.
They came to a red light. Shep stopped at the intersection, and Lila stopped just a few feet to his right on the sidewalk. What was he doing to her? Even taking her obliviousness as a given, this had to be a violation. But who was he hurting?
The light stayed red, and Shep’s thoughts drifted to his return from the Gulf in ‘91. No one had come to meet him at the airfield. He’d looked for his grandmother among all the crying, clutching families, knowing somehow that she wouldn’t be there, surprised by his lack of surprise. He caught a bus to Harner, his pack stuffed between his knees and the seat in front of him. He leaned his temple against the window as the sun melted into the fields.
When he got to town, he found the streets empty. It was dinnertime. He pictured all the families inside at kitchen tables, sharing their days, with the windows closed and curtains drawn to hold in the warmth they generated together. He walked slowly, his thoughts scattered and ungraspable, as though his mind were a deck of cards, with every card accounted for, somewhere, but strewn about the floor in disarray. The air was crisp, but there was no snow left on the ground, and he understood what had him so disoriented: he’d missed winter.
He walked right past his grandmother’s house and found himself instead on Lorene’s front stoop. He was sure she’d forgotten him, probably moved on to some boy in her class. But he had to see her. He had to ask her if he still had a chance. Did the time matter so much, if he could find the words to explain how thoughts of her had kept him alive when it felt as though the loneliness would drown him in his cot, how just closing his eyes and calling up her scent had blocked out the fear of death? He cringed at some of the words he felt brimming at the top of his throat, all the promises and revelations he felt buzzing within. He was sweating with the effort of containing it all.
Before he got a chance to knock, the door opened, and he was met with Lorene’s mother’s pinched face.
“What are you doing standing here like a statue?”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I was just about to—is Lorene home? I just wanted to see her.”
Her face softened for just a moment as she noticed his pack and the fatigues he was still wearing. But she steeled herself again just as quickly.
“She’s not here.”
“Oh…is there a game tonight? Is she at school?”
“No, she’s not at…just go on home.”
“Oh,” Shep nodded, slightly dazed, “Well, do you know where I might find her?” It was dark now, and the moon was just a sliver short of fullness. He had a mind to wander back to the high school anyway, just in case.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, and shut the door.
Shep stumbled as he stepped down from the porch and looked up toward Lorene’s bedroom window. He thought for just a second that he saw the white lace curtain lifted by a finger, but when he looked again, it seemed as though he hadn’t seen anything after all.
Hangdog and heart-bruised, he made his way back to his grandmother’s house. He was wary in a way he couldn’t quite articulate. He’d always felt vaguely like a long-term boarder, benefiting from home-cooked meals, but realistic enough not to expect too much in the way of familial affection from the woman he’d been foisted upon as a kindergartener. He’d often wondered why she kept him, why she hadn’t surrendered him to some other family member, though he couldn’t name any natural candidates. Now that he’d been gone so long, he half-wondered if he was still welcome. Maybe she’d taken in a renter by now, packed up his things and plunked them in the attic alongside his mother’s boxes, relegated to the sealed-off past.
As he climbed the front steps, he was struck by a coughing fit. His throat convulsed as tears trickled from the corners of his eyes. Finally, the coughing subsided, and he spit thick black liquid into the soil beneath his grandmother’s hedges. He kicked dirt over the puddle, wiped hot saliva from his mouth and caught his breath.
The windows were darkened, but he found the door unlocked.
There was no answer, and Shep set his pack down softly in the entryway and removed his boots. He turned on the living room lamp and was startled at the mess. Piles of laundry sat unfolded on the sofa, spilling over onto the carpet. Filthy plates, cloudy glasses and sticky utensils were scattered on the coffee table, and a fine layer of dust covered every surface. He picked up a coffee cup and found a sticky ring underneath, swarming with ants. He sniffed the air. Something, somewhere in the house, was rotting.
“Gran, are you here?” he called louder now.
He found her upstairs, sitting on the edge of her bed. She was in her nightgown, slouched with her hands clasped in her lap, staring at the wall.
Shep lowered himself to his knees in front of her and tried to catch her eye.
“Gran? It’s me. I’m back.”
She didn’t look at him.
Something struck him about the way she was holding her hands and he reached out and gently tried to separate them from each other. Maybe he could help her up, take her down to the kitchen, maybe make her a cup of tea if she had any in the pantry. But the fingers were stuck in their position, the fingers gnarled around each other. Her thumb spasmed, and Shep clamped his palm down over it.
Her head rolled downward slowly toward him. Her eyes were glassy, bloodshot.
“Gran, can you hear me?”
She was facing him, looking into his eyes, but he could tell that she wasn’t seeing him, or at least didn’t fully recognize who she was looking at. He held onto her hands. He wanted to cry, felt that this was the time to do it, finally, if ever there was a time, but he didn’t have any tears in him. He stared at the carpet. He breathed in the rot.
A horn honked behind him and Shep flinched. He drove ahead and scanned the sidewalk, finding Lila a block ahead of him already. What was he doing? Whatever it was, he was at an impasse, unable to stop himself but unable to get any closer either.
The girl made a right turn, and Shep signaled to follow her, but when he reached the intersection, he turned off the signal and kept on going straight. He squeezed the steering wheel tight, his nails digging grooves into the meat of his palms.