“I couldn’t get away…”
Ryan had gotten a job one summer, cat sitting for Crazy Margaret. Crazy Margaret was an old woman who lived in a cluttered Spanish style house three blocks away with a bevy of cats. She was known for her thick, raspy voice, enhanced by constant smoking, and her incongruous uniform of turbans, patterned house dresses and fancy gold or silver heels, as though she were poised at any moment to board a cruise.
Lia and Ryan walked over to the house the day Margaret was due to leave for San Francisco. They had to remember to call her Miss Margaret, and not “Crazy Margaret” for “crazy” was an appellation given to her years before by some of the older kids which she wasn’t supposed to know about.
Pushing open the green gate, the girls stepped into Margaret’s wild, unkempt garden. Cat eyes sparkled in broad daylight. Calicos, Siamese, and ordinary black, grey and white cats slinked and slithered, or darted and leapt from all directions. Margaret must have owned at least twenty of them.
“Miss Margaret?” Ryan’s tone was all honey.
“Right this way babe, come on in. My steamer’s just about packed.” A husky, sing-song voice rang from inside.
An old, thin woman, dressed in her own signature high style: emerald green turban, black polyester short sleeved jacket and pants, tall silver heels. Her body was very thin, yet steel strong; her face caricatured with wrinkles, the scarlet outline of her mouth running errantly over her lips, as though painted by a child.
“This is my friend Lia.” Ryan introduced.
“Lia! A lovely name, for lovely girl.” Margaret beamed, grasping Lia’s hands with hers, which were wrinkled and spotted and warm. She held Lia’s gaze a little bit longer than most people would have, and smiled more broadly, like a firecracker exploding, than most people would have smiled, and Lia liked these excesses, these peculiarities about her.
Lia’s eyes stayed trained on her. She was fascinated, never having seen anyone like Crazy Margaret before. There was something birdlike, some remnant of elegance about her, despite the heavy stench of cat pee in the air, and the scars of past glories, now faded, that clearly marked her face.
“How bout a little fruit salad? Ummm? I’m going to fix you girls a treat.” Margaret batted her lashes and smiled her broad, too long smile.
The girls eyed one another with arch expressions, trying not to giggle. Lia felt ill at the very thought of eating in such an atmosphere; dirty dishes piled in the sink, cats slinking and creeping over every surface, including the kitchen counters and table.
Margaret opened the refrigerator door. All Lia could see were half opened cans of cat food, a six-pack of beer and a loaf of white bread.
Margaret hummed quietly as she reached into cupboards almost as bare as the fridge. She fluttered swiftly, just like a little sparrow. With a quick jerk of her arm, she manipulated the can opener, flinging open tins of leechee nuts, mandarin oranges, and pineapple. As Lia wondered what in the world a leechee nut tasted like, Margaret continued to whirl about them, oblivious to the filth of her surroundings. She popped open a bag of marshmallows and tossed two great handfuls into the bowl of fruit. Ryan and Lia eyed each other again, now a little intrigued to know what the concoction would taste like.
“A girl’s gotta have a treat every now and then. Besides, it’s mostly fruits. It won’t hurt your figures.”
Margaret set two mismatched bowls heaping with fruit salad down in front of them, each mound topped off with a maraschino cherry. “Damn, I forgot coconut. Ah, well, never mind. Bon Appetit!” She cried.
Curiosity got the better of them. The girls dug into the fruit. As she bit into juicy chunks of pineapple and syrupy lechee nuts with their peculiar taste and texture, Lia thought, this isn’t half bad. Later, the moment would be tinted by a sweet serendipity that would make it seem as though Margaret had served ambrosia.
After the girls finished their salad Margaret pulled each of them by the hand, forcing them to their feet.
“Come on, upsy-daisy. I’ve got ten minutes before my cab. Let’s have a little dance.”
The girls mirrored each other with expressions of mock horror. With their carefully painted lips and handmade X t-shirts they were confident they looked cool, so that should they happen, by whatever unlikely circumstance, to cross paths with D.J. Bonebrake, Exene or John Doe, they’d be prepared. They couldn’t dare be caught dead dancing around with Margaret, even if only behind the tall walls of her dirty, mad cap house.
Except Margaret wasn’t having any of their reticence. “You lazy bones are gonna make me late. Have a little dance with ole Maggie for goodness sake. Come on….” she insisted, yanking at their arms. The girls felt they had no choice.
The trio stood in a circle in Margaret’s courtyard holding hands. First slowly, then with increasing velocity they began to spin, faster, faster, round and around.
Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posy. Faster, faster, we all fall down!
Lia lost herself in the free spark of the moment; something about careering around that way, the three of them ageless and giggling made her so happy.
From the very start, listening to X was the only thing Lia ever experienced that she could compare to the feeling of that afternoon at Margaret’s; of just spinning and spinning. Without a word to anyone, or the pursuit of approval, the girls rode that music, faster, faster—until it stopped.
The Wages of Sin
Unlike any other boy their age on whom Ryan might have developed a crush¾Neil changed everything. He took up space; encroaching on territory that had once solely belonged to Lia. Take for example, the book for Exene.
One the eve of their second experience seeing X in concert, the girls had decided to make a book of drawings and poems for Exene. They planned to stand at the side of the stage, or at the door in the alley behind the theater at the end of the concert, waiting, begging if necessary, some roadie or bouncer to let them see her. Failing to secure an audience, they hoped then that some stranger would faithfully deliver their humble offering to Exene.
Yet, Ryan had been lax in her responsibility to the project. The fact that the book for Exene, full of drawings and original poems lauding her talents and the inspiration she gave them was no where near being finished in time for the concert was a fact that filled Lia with a quiet, simmering rage; because Lia took these things seriously. Between the two girls, it was Lia who’d read To Kill A Mocking Bird and Wuthering Heights several times over, and scribed stories and poems of her own.
The plan, in any case, had been to fill the empty artist’s book, expressing to Exene their feelings in the honest, raw, and poetic way she expressed her feelings in the songs she wrote and sang with X.
Lia didn’t know what was worse—the fact that the Ryan had only completed one poem, or that what she did offer was a nauseating tribute to her relationship with Neil, usurping precious lines from X to allude to their sweaty, obsessive infatuation. “I am the hungry wolf, and run endlessly with my mate…”
“What’s your deal Ryan? We’re running out of time. I can’t do the whole book by myself.”
“I’ve run out of ideas already. I’m not like you. Poems don’t just come to me you know.”
Lia sighed. She knew Ryan was just making excuses. Flattering her in order to get herself off the hook.
“We have four more days. If we work steadily….”
“I don’t think it’s gonna happen Lia. I already promised Neil…”
“That’s all you ever say. All you ever do. Neil, Neil, Neil. Just forget it then.” Lia slammed down the phone, not knowing how to reverse the current, to stop everything that mattered from flowing right past.
For three years music had been their highway. All things new and old for them had been a fresh discovery. The Clash, Go Go’s, Rolling Stones, Doors, Ronettes, Supremes, English Beat and Ramones, and at the pinnacle of everything X wore the golden crown.
When once upon a time an impending concert would have been the only event monopolizing their attention for weeks at a time, (certainly not history, math, or sports) Ryan, the more precocious of the two¾had been distracted by the affections of one Neil Jimenez; the raffish, prematurely weathered young man with whom she claimed to be in love.
These people ought to know their place, she thought. Then quickly she shook her head.
“Damn me. Where does this come from?”
Her voice a hoarse whisper.
Karen Green sat on the floor in Ryan’s room, fingering the book the girls had made for Exene. It was filled with poems, abstract drawings rendered in black and red crayon, headless figures sketched in charcoal, and ironic phrases decrying the perversity of love, and the dark abyss of a future they might not live to see.
The words scribed in their journal tended towards the morose and poetic, ‘Exene is light and life and beauty and pathos, guarding us at death’s door,’ or flippant and immature, ‘life’s gonna suck no matter what you do, so party while you can!’ but all of it sincerely felt¾streaming like fractured light from their bursting, expectant hearts.
From what she was able to glean from the journal, it seemed there was a divide between those kids who understood, who felt in their very bones the pathos, rage and beauty Exene sang, and those who did not. For it appeared she had become their muse, the dark icon the girls identified themselves with more and more before Ryan disappeared.
Karen Green touched at the thick pages of her fourteen year old daughter’s book. Bitter tears dropped from her inconsolable eyes like eager skydivers. She shook her head in disbelief. Before the disappearance she’d seen her daughter everyday, and still she had no clue as to who she really was.
At a time when all she wanted was to scream her own brand of punk, Karen Green did not need to be encumbered by unthinkable thoughts. Yet, there they were; shining up at her like Ryan’s green eyes in a dream she’d had of her the night before, in one of the fleeting snippets of nighttime when sleep deigned to meet her there in the darkness.
Why Ryan and not Lia? They had been together that night, and frankly, Karen Green did not believe Lia’s tale: that she’d worried about getting home on time (though it was still very late, past 1 a.m. when she did arrive, and her parents had been furious and sick with worry) that she’d begged Neil to drive her home, and he’d finally capitulated, blindly navigating the narrow landing strip of highway from Imperial Beach to Coronado to drop her off. Ryan, according to Lia, had been the forward one; swimming in a bra and panties with Neil in the pool that night.
Inside the smallest, most furtive chamber of Karen’s heart, where half written notes of truth lay under lock and key, was the ugly, unvarnished truth: why Ryan? Ryan, who had the doting, generous heart to be a good mother, if she did not end up a lawyer, an actress or a nurse. Why not Lia? Sweet Lia with her dimpled smile and good manners.
It wasn’t cruelty that made Karen think this way, but only a matter of truth; the natural grain of things; a design quite beyond her construction really. Didn’t it all boil down to a fact of custom and preparation; because weren’t black people inured to this type of thing anyway? Didn’t they have the built in mechanisms—wailing and flinging their arms about at church on Sunday, Blues music and Lady Day warbling her smack sweetened melodies—to handle tragedy and pain, so nobly, with such dignity and grace? Karen Green didn’t intend to be harmful in thinking these thoughts. She loved Lia. It was just that she was confused and unable to make sense out of any of it.
“I wonder how it is for them.” Karen whispered as she and Bruce lay in bed, wide awake at two a.m.
“The Payne’s. You know, to be on the other side.”
“I don’t get you.”
Karen propped herself up on her elbow, facing her husband in the darkness.
“I’m sure they’re sorry and all. But sooner or later, this will fade for them. The truth is, they don’t have a care in the world. Their kid is home where she belongs and that’s all that matters.”
Bruce reached for his wife.
“We don’t have time for that. We’ve got to stay focused Karen. Ryan will be home where she belongs again. She will.” Though his words were optimistic, Bruce was not entirely convincing.
“God damn them.” Karen hissed.
“Something about it…Something about them going to sleep peacefully each night just gets me. I just feel like, how dare they? How dare they get off scot-free?”
Karen traced her index finger along one of the pieces of artwork in the journal. It was a piece of newsprint cut into the form of a headless woman—she could tell by the curves in the figure—the breasts, curvaceous hips and rounded thighs, that the figure was meant to be female. Written over the newsprint, along the belly of the cutout, headless woman were words in red ink:
Your cold lips bring
kiss of death, to match a heartless heart,
but I remain unfazed,
‘cause triumph takes its time.
My wounds have stopped their bleeding,
my tears have all run dry,
I’ll survive your duplicitous affections,
‘cause true punks never die.
Karen couldn’t quite make out the handwriting, so that it became indiscernible as to whether the words had been written by Ryan or Lia; the two of them swirled in an inseparable, two-tone, Tastee-freeze swirl. Beneath the cut out, newsprint figure, was a quote attributed to X. The words infuriated Karen because she did not understand, ‘Then I died, a thousand times. Maybe you don’t, but I do. I’ve got a whole in my heart, size of my heart. He hung me with the endless rope.’
Confused and disgusted, Karen gave up trying to understand. She threw the journal across her daughter’s empty, lavender schemed room, where it hit the wall with a short smack¾and shuffled into the kitchen to fix herself a drink.
A Shangri-la of hooded eyes,
lips shimmering pale pink gloss
One Saturday, long before a divining scepter struck their lives, the line at Ryan’s had been busy for more than an hour. Lia gave up trying to telephone and walked the four blocks over to her house. She had not anticipated a scene. The Green house (never a standard of immaculate housekeeping) was in complete disarray. Records were scattered across the living room floor; The Clash, Black Flag, X, along with empty soda cans and ashtrays full of cigarette butts.
Lia had only smelled marijuana once before; the first and last time she baby sat for a very high strung woman living in a dubious row of flats in the more modest part of town. The woman had openly declared her need to get wasted that night, and had begun by locking herself in the bathroom for ten minutes before the arrival of her date, while Lia and the woman’s pretty little girl, Isn’t she lovely? Her dad, the bastard, was a Hawaiian I should have resisted but could not, were left to get acquainted. The smell that hit Lia’s nose as she stepped into the Green home instantly re-created the smell of the marijuana wafting out from under the door of the woman’s bathroom. For some reason she recollected then, that the woman had been pretty enough to be a model, belonging as she did to that ilk of tall, tan and blonde woman particularly favored in that region. It was precisely this fact, coupled with the evidence that luck had done her a bad turn, that there seemed a palpable sourness in the woman’s demeanor, in the way she at once fretted over her appearance, (constantly running her fingers through her long hair and peering into a compact; her lips pursed as she fussed with their outline in a shade of pink frost), and cursed the fact that she had a date to begin with. Well, damn it, if he doesn’t get over here soon, I’m staying home. I mean, I can hardly be bothered. I might have to just keep you on to watch Sienna while I get stoned enough to forget him entirely. When a short, fifty-ish man with a receding hairline and thick fingers finally arrived, Lia was able to read quite plainly then, every evidence of the woman’s dissatisfaction.
As the scent of burning bushes heralded her arrival, Lia learned that Mr. and Mrs. Green, perpetually stodgy fixtures on the living room couch, had actually gone away on a day trip to Los Angeles.
As soon as Lia walked in, Ryan pulled her into the bathroom.
“I totally hit it off with this guy Seth last night when I was sitting for the Baxters.”
“Who is he?”
“Mrs. Baxter’s nephew or cousin. Whatever. He’s totally cute and his favorite band is Black Flag!”
Lia nodded approvingly.
“Is he new here?”
“No, he doesn’t go to Coronado. He lives in Oceanside.”
Presently Ryan scampered away for a session of eye shadow application and hair curling.
When Ryan emerged from her room wearing too much makeup, Lia realized she would require hindsight to make sense of everything, because presently, as Ryan introduced her to Seth, she felt a palpable sense of aversion from the boy, which made her feel he did not like her, yet how could he dislike me when he doesn’t even know me and is meeting me for the first time?
“What’s up?” He nodded stoically. He was a tall, beefy kid, built perfectly for football. He had large blue eyes and a Robert Mitchum cleft in his chin and would have been almost pretty if he hadn’t been so sullen; his mouth twisted into a scowl, his azure eyes shrouded by drowsy lids with dark circles like menacing shadows.
The boy did not step forward in a friendly manner after Ryan had made the introductions, but stood at a safe distance with his hands jammed inside his pockets, and raised his chin to her, as though she represented some rival criminal faction.
Feeling uncertain about what to do next, Lia drifted into the bedroom where she smoothed her hair, re-touched her lipstick and generally reaffirmed that she was still cute. She then wandered outside, first standing nervously with her arms folded across her chest, and then assuming a deliberately more casual pose by sitting on the front steps. She hadn’t met the other boy who evidently was still in the back room getting high, yet Lia held out hope; perhaps he’d be more friendly.
As she headed out the front door, Lia had seen peripherally, Seth grab Ryan by the arm, and drag her towards the back of the house.
Five minutes later Ryan stepped out onto the front porch looking sheepish, while Lia eagerly anticipated the next step in the plan.
Ryan stood close to Lia, and spoke in a low voice.
“See, we were gonna ride bikes down to the water, but there’s only two bikes here.”
Lia did not immediately see that she was being sketched out of the plan. She simply paused at this information, wondering what exactly Ryan was trying to say.
Ryan could only think to repeat her self, as though this would help bring more clarity to bear. “I mean, I didn’t know you were coming. I’d have told you to ride your bike over. See, there’s only two bikes here, and...”
“But didn’t you say there was another kid here? Isn’t he coming with? I mean, couldn’t they just ride each of us on the handlebars?”
Presently, the other boy emerged from the back of the house. He staggered into the living room on two thin legs, wearing nothing but a pair of blue and white Quicksilvers. The boy’s rosy, plum cheeked face was obscured by long bangs that fell like a curtain against his bloodshot eyes.
Ryan introduced him to Lia brusquely, as though she were in a sudden hurry to shoo them both away. His name was Charlie.
“Good to meet you Lia.” Despite his altered state, Charlie seemed affable, certainly more so than Seth.
Going back to Lia’s question about the bikes, Ryan continued.
“Seth is going to ride me on one bike and Charlie’ll take the other...I mean, that’s what we’d planned…”
But Charlie changed the plan. “Dude, I’m sooo wasted. I think I’m just gonna stay here and munch on some pop tarts if you don’t mind.”
It ended up with Seth riding Ryan on the handle bars of her bike, while Lia struggled along on Jeff’s bike, whose gears she could not manage to adjust to her liking, and was too big and had a boys bar along the top which she straddled gingerly.
At the water’s edge the odd water rat scurried from behind the shelter of a rock, and a group of young black and Latino sailors popped open beers and danced shirtless and carefree to the voice of a black singer streaming from a tinny sounding boom box. Seth scowled in the direction of the sailors, muttering, “I hate disco.”
Like so many other times, Lia had come along to witness one of Ryan’s escapades. Though she sometimes felt left out, like a spectator at a sporting match, a first hand viewing always brought more satisfaction than a recounting of the facts later on. This time though, she really wondered why she’d bothered to come along at all, because even Ryan looked bored—disinterested, when Seth rested a heavy arm on her shoulder. Ryan only sighed heavily, anxious Lia knew, about the exposure of her Achilles heel; her false, orange-pink “flesh tone” make-up, moved to soup as it began to melt against her face; her carefully painted kewpie doll masque collapsing from the blood heat of the unusual, ninety degree day.
“Those huge ships are so ugly looking.” Lia did not know the half of it, when it came to the unsightliness of Ronald Regan’s tools of war, she only hoped to re-inflate a stagnant conversation that had lapsed into complete silence.
Like a lazy dog tempted unto all fours by the promise of a bone, Lia’s voice set Seth in motion. Cutting his eyes against the sunshine, he glared at her from the narrow slits he’d made of them.
“When I was only eleven years old, this nigger in downtown San Diego stabbed me in the gut for nine dollars. Nine fucking dollars! Man, I’m sorry, but I can’t stand blacks.”
Only later would Lia recover from being stunned long enough to ask why? Why was it her fault? Why couldn’t he see that she’d had nothing to do with it, this stabbing, this robbery?
But that was later. Then, she only felt the heat burning so hot against her back, the palpable rush of adrenaline as she scampered to beat a hasty retreat, clutching dignity like a fistful of sand. She refused to hear Ryan calling after her, “Lia! Lia wait!” She only felt the butterfly wing tickle of Ryan’s finger tips against her arm as she tried to grab her sleeve, and heard the annoying drone of the telephone line pulsing over and over again from when she’d called earlier, and Ryan’s line had been busy for what had seemed like hours.