Authors: Steve Erickson
It becomes obvious Sahara has stood us up. I circle the car around to the front of the club and the sign is off, the lights are off; and so we just start cruising east on the Strip, me behind the wheel and Viv in the back seat where she always rides. A block from the Cathode Flower below the Chateau Marmont, at the corner of Jacob Hamblin Road are the hookers sitting on the low white wall that runs along the parking lot on the north side and hanging out on the south side around the bus stop in front of the deserted sushi palace. We head toward Hollywood until we can see the faint red shine of the eastern backfire, and then turn around and go back.
All the little clubs and bars along Sunset are just about to close when who do we see stumble out of one of them, shaking herself loose of some guy in the process, but Sahara! I pull over and both Viv and I hop out of the car and grab her. It’s hard to know with Sahara whether she’s just a little blotto or so remote that nothing registers very quickly, but either way she looks at us with more confusion than concern. In the back seat the only thing she says is, They’re burning tonight; and then she slips into unconsciousness, right in Viv’s arms. Viv whispers sweet nothings to her, trying to get her attention as I head west past the hookers, past the now dark Cathode Flower, down the Strip out the other end into the woods of Beverly Hills. I can distinctly see the flames of what must be the second ring, and sure enough we hit it around Benedict Canyon where the old resort used to be. The Black Passage is open so I drive on through, walls of fire lining our way. The heat of the flames revives Sahara somewhat; she stares at them in a daze. In the rearview mirror of my car I can see both her face and Viv’s, the bright red firelight flashing across their eyes, Sahara’s dull and Viv’s alive with anticipation. Viv’s got that slightly crazy look like she wouldn’t particularly mind if I turned the car the fire’s direction and just headed right into it.
With the fire at our back everything feels open to us, every thing is possible. … Crossing into the Mulholland Time Zone from Zed Time I reset the clock of the car ahead eight minutes. On the radio I can still get the tail-end of Station 3’s broadcast, a ghostly Indonesian voice drifting into the car. Sahara, who Viv has now undressed, is in a stupor—alabaster embodiment of all possibilities—and I’m inspired to turn off Sunset and head south past Black Clock Park through the rafters of the old freeway that used to run down the spine of California, from the age-blasted Spanish missions of the north to the Mexican border. As we drive, the frontiers of the west side are dark. In the rearview mirror Sahara’s head lies against the back seat, her eyes half closed, staring at the roof of the car while Viv sucks her breast.
Viv’s still at it by the time I hit Century Boulevard and the dark abandoned LAX. I steer the car off the boulevard and through a hole in one of the terminals where the sliding glass doors used to be. I drive through the black gutted airline terminal past the darkened ticket counters and dead metal detectors, along the hallways where passengers used to stream back and forth to and from their flights, and every once in a while the high beam on my headlights slashes across the darting figure of someone who lives here. Sahara surfaces just long enough to regard her breast in Viv’s mouth and then pass out again. Over by the arrival gates I see small fires burning and a line of naked women parading up and down the empty motionless baggage carousels. Drive out through the gate toward the runway and I’m following the runway to the ocean where the planes used to fly out over the beach when, in the quiet of the night, under the smoky moon with the fading flare of the backfire to the northeast of me, I hear the sound of both women asleep.
At the end of the runway there’s nothing to do but stop the car awhile, unless I want to drive into the sea. I roll down the window and listen to the waves. I push back my seat and forget about the two naked women behind me, watching and listening to the ocean, until Sahara comes to. What is this? she slurs, less fazed by her nakedness than sitting out on the end of an airplane runway with the ocean in front of her. The look on her face says she hasn’t the faintest idea how she got here or who I am. Nothing quite registers until she inspects Viv more closely, whose own nakedness throws her until she gets a better look at Viv’s face. Let me out of here, she demands, so I get out of the car and go around to the passenger side and open the door for her; she staggers nude onto the runway under the ashen moon. I get back in the car and watch the ocean some more while Sahara runs off into the dark. …
Soon I start the car and turn north. I pass Sahara, stumbling down the airfield naked, and soon I’m leaving the airport behind me and heading up the coast, surprised to see lights in some of the Marina high-rises, since I didn’t think there had been any electricity in this part of town for years, when I’m ambushed, as usual, by my arch nemesis, My Conscience. I turn the car around and drive back to LAX, cruising slowly onto the landing field. Soon she’s in my headlights. She’s crawling around on the ground now in a haze of alcohol and panic; let’s just say she’s not as ethereal as she was in the footlights of the Cathode Flower. I stop the car. You coming? I call to her, and the bracing ocean breeze at four-thirty in the morning has apparently sobered her enough to convince her it might be a good idea. She scurries back into the car, first into the front seat then changing her mind and climbing into the back, next to Viv who just goes on sleeping through it all like a little white bird.
Slipping from Ocean Time Zone into Oblivion Time, I reset the car’s clock back eleven minutes. Sahara grumbles about the situation all the way up Pacific Coast Highway; when her hostility toward me is finally exhausted, she goes into a monologue about her life in general—all the usual stuff about her mother who committed suicide, her homosexual brother who died last year, the rock band she’s trying to start in Los Angeles. … Soon Sahara’s mystique lies all over the car in tatters. Viv, in her fashion, entirely misses the depressing part of the evening and wakes silently with the first light of sun; one minute I look and she’s asleep and the next minute she’s awake, sitting up in the seat quietly watching the ocean out the window, still perfectly naked and content to remain that way for a while. “Stop and get some juice” are her first words of greeting, and I pull over to a little market. I get out and peer at them together in the back seat. Would you like something to eat? I ask Sahara.
“Bastard,” she mumbles in response, under her breath.
“She’ll be OK,” Viv coolly explains. “I’ve assured her that when the time comes, she and I will have our revenge.”
They’ll have their revenge! In their eyes I’m responsible for the whole plot. I could point out it was Viv who defiled Sahara all night in the back of the car while I was just the chauffeur; but what’s the use? There’s no use being reasonable here: “What’s reason got to do with it?” Viv would say. It’s as useful as arguing about the shape of a circle. “What’s round got to do with it?” The thing for me now is to just get them their food, get back in the car, and take them somewhere I can leave them to their unholy alliance. The thing for me now is to just quietly spend the rest of my life watching over my shoulder or out the corner of my eye, on my guard for the inevitable coming vengeance, and not waste two seconds trying to be reasonable about it, since I’ve finally learned, halfway or so through this life of mine, that with women there’s no percentage at all in reasonableness. And ever since I got this through my thick head I’ve gotten along with them a lot better.
Right now Viv can see all these thoughts flashing behind my eyes and, smiling, she reaches up through the car window and kisses me on the cheek. … So I’m not so surprised to get back to the car three minutes later, with their juice and an armful of those little processed sweet rolls in plastic packs, and find the back seat empty, and the two of them nowhere to be seen, their clothes still in a pile on the seat as they have been all night. I turn looking up and down the coast highway for a glimpse of them—but nothing; you tell me where a naked stripper and a sculptor dressed only in white garters and white stockings could disappear to, because I’ll never know. Later when I find Viv I’ll ask her and she’ll just give me the same little smile she gave me when she kissed me through the car window. I suppose, all things considered, it was pretty shrewd of me when I went in the market to take along the car keys.
Couple of years ago, the newspaper I work for asked me to write a piece on the city’s “spiritual center.” I begged them not to make me. But, unavoidably coerced, I finally turned in an essay on another strip joint not far from the Cathode Flower, down on La Cienega Boulevard in the barren stretch where all the little art galleries used to be along with stores that sold Dutch clogs and designer hot dogs. It was across from the theater where Bertolt Brecht wrote plays for Charles Laughton before Brecht was run out of Hollywood in the early Fifties; last time I was there all I saw were the remains of the lingerie shop, lingerie of all colors and configurations blowing along the sidewalk like old newspapers. At this strip joint I had befriended a forlorn blonde stripper named Mona. “Befriended” is a misnomer, of course, since our friendship never existed outside a five-minute conversation now and then in the dark, and of course Mona was not her real name; I never knew her real name. She was from Stockholm and never seemed very happy. I always thought she was beautiful and sweet, but it was dark, after all. One night, as I knew would eventually happen, Mona was gone, as all these girls are eventually gone—and they don’t leave forwarding addresses, a rule that used to apply to strippers in particular but has recently come to apply to everyone in Los Angeles. … Now about an hour past dawn, after Viv has disappeared with Sahara, I turn off Sunset and head east through the Palisades thinking about Mona. The ocean is behind me and I take another turnoff toward this bluff I know where there’s a view of the whole bay, from the smoking ruins of Malibu to the paramilitary outposts of Palos Verdes. The sky is filled with the smoke of last night’s backfire along the second ring, and from the bluff looking east I can see two or three of the wide scorched concentric gashes that circle Los Angeles, with old Hollywood in the bull’s-eye.
With the car parked I run the radio up and down the dial one last time before finally shutting it off. In the distance below me, a last few tiny fire engines make their way back to the fire stations from the charred ring of earth. Out at sea the hundreds of Chinese junks that sail in about this time each month approach the shore with their mystery cargo. My article identifying the spiritual center of Los Angeles, incidentally, was never published, the only story I’ve written in a long time that was flatly rejected and which I flatly refused to rewrite. The sun has risen just high enough to come crashing through my front windshield when I’m still thinking of Mona who, for all I know, is hanging out at this very moment with Viv and Sahara, or was abducted according to the plan scribbled on a cocktail napkin and is now held captive in the Scandinavian fjords, near the top of the world.
I started talking to myself again the other day. I don’t think I even realized I was doing it, until I noticed the woman in the next car looking over at me in horror. … Since the Quake I haven’t talked to myself like I used to—in the shower, pacing my apartment, in the car or walking down the street, yakking up a storm in broad daylight and never thinking twice about it. The plain truth is I’ve never known anyone else I was so confident would be as understanding of what I had to say, or as patient to let me say it; if nothing else I could always be sure I would at least let me finish my sentence, before interrupting. Some years ago I mentioned it to a woman I was seeing at the time. It wasn’t so much a confession, since I didn’t think it was anything to confess; it just sort of came up in passing: “Well, yes, now and then I talk to myself. No, I don’t mean in my head, I mean right out loud.” We were at the beach, lying on the sand. She grew increasingly sullen the rest of the day and evening, until finally she admitted it seemed to her a pretty distinct sign of instability. In fact she had to admit it seemed to her a pretty distinct sign I was flat-out cracked; and she was right, of course, I’ve never denied it. I’ve never denied the deep fault line running from my psyche through my brain out my door and down Jacob Hamblin Road, straight to Melrose Avenue and the feet of Justine.
Actually it was Justine who got me talking in the car in the first place, though I don’t remember exactly what I was saying to her. I was driving east on Melrose when I saw her rise before me on the other side of Fairfax, having just appeared a block or two behind me and altogether likely to manifest herself again on some other street several miles from here, some time in the next hour or two, if not sooner. She hovered high above the avenue as she always does. … Justine is a billboard. She’s everywhere lately, an eruption of flesh, sprawled across a silk sheet in barely existent red panties and tassels that match her red hair, under a scrawl in red lipstick that reads
. Her breasts, pink luscious bubbles floating over the cityscape, cannot be called merely spectacular, they are supernatural, eternal like the woman herself, who was first revealed some twenty years ago on billboards just like the ones she’s on now, in a similar pose, her body slightly less pneumatic as though she was ripening at the speed of her own legend. Ten years later she reappeared up and down the Sunset Strip, Hollywood Boulevard, La Cienega Boulevard … and now she’s reappeared yet again. No one knows exactly what Justine
, or what she’s advertising
, I assume she doesn’t actually do anything, though there’s a phone number at the bottom of the billboard for anyone interested in finding out. But as the years have gone by, with Justine bursting forth new and better each decade, ever more perfect and ubiquitous, it becomes less and less imperative that she do anything at all but watch over the city as the Red Angel of Los Angeles, from block to block and street to street and billboard to billboard and year to year. Nonetheless, I make note of the phone number anyway.