I'd barely thought about high school since I got my diploma in the mail after endless summer school. I left home so fast I forgot to leave a forwarding address. So when I received the notice for my reunion I tossed it in the trash with the same passion I once made my homework assignments into paper airplanes. It molded with my junk mail for a few days, and then I put it above the fireplace next to my game football, hoping this would release some positive memories. I waited for a few days.
Then the outlines formed of a girl who lived between a trailer park and a row of oil pumps. I picture bumpy rides through dark, empty and smelly streets. After a sleepless night I retrieve my yellowed yearbook and inspect the gallery of uncanny expressions. There she is with glassy brown eyes and thick red lips, staring right at me.
The picture leaves me edgy. I try to bury it in routine tasks and mindless activities, turning in early. But I wake abruptly in the middle of the night and confidently book my flight online. My morning after is not so assured. I consult a few of my mates who've been to reunions. We all in one way or another have issues with our pasts. Which is partly what brought us together to found our commune, Society for a Guiltless Future, in Pitchfork Prairie, Nebraska. We believe that in sharing our lives we can churn our sinful ways into the cream of good deeds, no correct bible needed. Or even much advice. Like royals who've kept it all in the family for generations and can virtually taste each other's vibrations and thoughts, we rarely have the need or desire to talk.
So on my way to feed the chickens, sister Augusta, a veteran of city ways who's taken the St. Augustine paradox to such extremes that she changed her name, says, "Jesus loves you!" before I can even muster a question. Patrick is sprawled on his bed beneath posters of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" tour on one side, and Bruce's "Born to Run" tour on the other, tranced into headphones. I wave at him to get his attention. "Keep the faith, bro," he says. "And don't get a name tag!!" He returns to headset hubris.
I pass through the family room, taking one last look at a poster on the wall of a 19th century photo of Jesus tending his flock. He resembles Jeff Bridges in "Wild Bill." There's a talk balloon in the lower right corner: "Jesu Stella In Monte Ora Pro Me."
I fly out on Thursday. Since I book at the last minute the itinerary map resembles my bloodshot eyes. I have to pass through three airports to make it in time, two of which are accessible only by prop jet. And my only choice for a destination is Torrance, adjacent to my home town. I'm set to bob and weave above the treetops with turbulence likely my only in-flight amenity. The plane for my final leg seats about twenty, but there's only two other passengers. Not many eyes for solace on the plunge down. I stare at the wing, mesmerized by its vibrations.
To get into the high school mood I chug both beers on the menu and quiz the stew, probably in her mid-twenties, about her memories of those days.
"Those were the good ole days...was just bout havin fun!"
"Yeah, but we're havin more fun now because we've had more practice, so why even try to remember them?...and were they that good anyway?"
"...no worries or big questions."
"...about what?...who could ask any?"
"...exactly, that's the point...that's why we want to go back for reunions, escape to a moment when we can stop asking questions and worrying!"
"...why not Vegas?...we can leave it all there...even get our mistakes annulled."
"We go back," a passenger adds, a middle-aged male whose eyes had been glued to the in-flight magazine, "because that was before we were real sinners and it helps us stay close to our Christian values!...I married my childhood sweetheart and we go back every chance we get to renew our vows and friendships...we don't even wait for the official notices!"
"I went to my ten year and that was it," the other passenger blurts, a woman in her forties who'd been making a pretty good go at dozing off. "
Almost everyone you want to see doesn't show...only those who want to track down the source of their bloopers, perhaps a blind date in the back seat at the drive-in that led them into the wrong history; or those who've come to impress with the too-correct one." Each stares at the other across an abyss.
"Perhaps the best way is to make a full break...aren't nostalgia and guilt two sides of the same coin?" I add, facing blank stares. We land without incident in a sea of concrete enclosed by tract homes. But no people. Had I landed in the wrong city? The area didn't even look that familiar. Maybe it was the light, or the lightheadedness from the beers. Perhaps we were destined to share some cosmic joke, a trip into another dimension and a life of invisible incarceration. Wasn't this a "Twilight Zone" episode? The terminal is virtually empty. No passengers are ticketing. No one's waiting for a flight. The only sign of life is a waitress cleaning up her station in the corner cafe.
I exit the terminal to smoggy stillness. I think of making a few phone calls but decide to hitch. A car stops, a rusted out woody filled with unidentifiable material in the rear.
"Where you headed," the driver asks. "Pedro anywhere," I answer, hesitating just long enough to flash on a news report that's tracking the use of my credit cards through a string of liquor stores in Kern County. I accept fate. My escort is a salesman who covers all the small towns in the IE. But when I ask him what he sells he changes the subject.
"Took the wrong exit off the FWY a couple hours ago and have been lost ever since. Picked you up to see who's crazy enough to hitch these days. Last time I picked up a hitcher was before serial killers started breeding like roaches and folks left their doors unlocked."
He takes surface streets, like he suddenly knows where he's going, and ends up in a stretch of harbor adjacent to Long Beach. He stops abruptly and drops me off, saying that he just saw the map in his mind of how to get back to the FWY.
I find myself in a maze of warehouses that sweat country music and gear shifts, and wander down a dark side street. I see a dive bar that looks inviting and enter. It's virtually empty. A couple of cowboys are in the corner staring at a woman at the bar who's staring me down as I look for a phone. I spy one toward the rear and retrieve coins to plug it, dialing the number etched on my soul. I let it ring and ring while staring directly at the woman, wondering where the bartender might be.
She continues to stare at me as the phone rings. Still no answer. I sit down at a table near the door and ponder why the phone that was always answered isn't. The woman, who turns out to be the bartender, brings a beer to my table before playing "Maybelline" on the juke. I make it back to the phone and give it another try. In the middle of the stretch of rings I realize there won't be anyone at the other end. I hang up the phone and head out the door, breathing in a curious odor. When I arrive back at the main drag I put out my thumb. After nearly a half hour there's still no takers so I warily start walking west in search of a bus stop or cab stand when I notice a motel ten minutes or so into my quest: "The Manifold Destiny." Looks like the perfect place to relax before the big day. The clerk, who looks kind of familiar, says he has one room left with a strange gleam in his eyes while staring out the window into the smoggy darkness.
I spend the next day like I'd been transported to one of Mr. Serling's twilit spaces.
I decide to attend the reunion, at least the first night, the one the oldsters say is the only one worth attending. Luckily it was held at the Majestic Theater, located on 6th street just down from Pacific, in a hub of activity. This gives me a chance to spot who arrives. I grab an outdoor seat at the Profane Grind a few doors down and spy the few folks who start to file in. I don't recognize anyone. I settle behind a newspaper, wishing I had binoculars. I still don't recognize anyone. Was I in the right place?
While staring out into the street, mesmerized by the flow of traffic, I wonder if anyone is in town I knew from the old days. I close my eyes and open them again, stripping the buildings of their improved facades. It's the neighborhood the way it was, the dive bars, liquor stores and repair shops.
A number appears to me, like an apparition, and I rush inside to the pay phone and dial it. It rings and rings and I'm about ready to call it quits when someone picks up. It sounds like a young girl. I say a name and she appears to gasp for breath. After a few seconds she says:
"I'm sorry but I think you have the wrong number."
"...but I don't see how...how long have you had this number?"
"...bout...thirty years!!!" Then the dial tone, a refreshing throwback to when machines revealed themselves. I listen until that soothing string of drones become nervous beeps.
I take a deep breath and enter the Majestic lobby to patches of conversations. No one patch includes more than four or five persons. The lighting is fairly dim, reminiscent of a school social when it was easier to schmooze a better version of yourself in shadows that hid your rough edges and let you relax. That's probably why confessions are in the dark.
Here that isn't working. Perhaps everyone's still scoping the crowd before circulating. The key it seems is to recognize someone. From my vantage I'm at a loss. I creep toward the patches, bypassing the abandoned information table. I approach the first patch and from about ten feet away see no one I recognize and veer to the left toward another, when someone across the room stares at me. I guess I've come to the right place. I look away from the source and move toward the bar, but stop when music consumes the wall speakers, Commander Cody's "Hot Rod Lincoln," a perfect boost to the social graces.
Many turn away from their groups and begin to look around. Then a few here and there break the mental barriers, ready to exchange versions of their secret histories. They seem overwhelmed with excitement. But perhaps a bit fearful too, suspicious that it will all go bust when the chitchat brings back memories of the same ole chitchat, or that you might not remember someone you should've, or perhaps worse, remember someone you shouldn't, or even worse yet, not seeing anyone you wanted to. As the oldsters say, those you want to see don't go. A lost opportunity to part ways wiser and better prepped for the slippery slope to Sleepy Acres.
I'm frozen between two groups, weighing my options, looking at the faces confronting each other, and realize there's only a few candidates I possibly recognize. I detour back around the table and head to the bar to gather my thoughts, feeling that my keen anticipation might be affecting my vision. Maybe others were having the same problem and that's why they huddled together for so long. Or perhaps they don't recognize many either.
The patches blur into roving tag inspectors who bob their heads up and down, from face to tag, tag to face, and then bail from the blunder with a sheepish grimace and off to the next trial. Every five minutes or so a bulls eye, gushes of familiarity.
I sense this might have something to do with eyesight. We weren't exactly ordering our wheelchairs, but some perhaps were starting to feel the impact of the split focus dilemma, able to see the distant panorama okay yet a little fuzzy on the close-ups. You might correctly spot someone across the room and then at some point during the approach they begin looking like most everyone else. Since glaring imperfections have no place at reunions, the precociously bifocaled must be wearing contacts, or nothing at all.
But contacts are also less than perfect. They appear to clarify both near and far but it's a kind of compromise. The right eye is weak on distance to compensate for the bump in close-up clarity. This glitch might put you in an agnostic state, leave you in a sort of limbo where you can't act, a condition not unlike that experienced by lapsed catholics. You might see your best friend in someone who hasn't the foggiest who you are; or draw a complete blank when the receptacle of your varsity pin comes out of the woodwork and mauls you with affection and you want to go hide behind the nuns in the corner.
My lack of a name tag seems to signal I'm a party crasher, and potential recognizers troll for more efficient results. But then suddenly this reverses and several who've apparently been unsuccessful at recognizing someone converge on my corner and begin staring at me. Since I lack a tag, they don't have to compare the yearbook photo to the thing itself, leaving them free perhaps to reflect longer and more directly on what they think they're seeing. And of course they won't be as shocked when faced with the truth.
"Home room with...you sat up front and were always asking questions?"
"Mr. Drake's home room senior year, at least most of the time, when I wasn't ditchin...most of my questions had already been answered."
"I remember!!...you used to hang out with those grungy punks down on Centre...always makin noise and gettin into trouble!"
"...was never that quiet but wasn't into that scene."
"...were you on the debate team?" a woman asks.
"...spent my days devising ways to avoid anything that contained words!"
She was always reading books with strange titles, making me nervous. She would go on about atheism, whatever that was, and gave me a book once with a weird title, something against Christ. For me then being against Christ was like being against sleep! For a while both were one and the same. I'd perfected the habit of sleeping right through mass.
"...you married that cheerleader up in PV who got into all that trouble on White Point with the football team!!!"
"...never wanted to marry a star."
"...you went away to become a priest somewhere in the Midwest...used to carry a copy of the bible everywhere and preach...we were all sinners, damned to hellfire if we didn't change our ways."
"...no...that's not...I've never been interested in any..."
She didn't look, dress or act like the rest of us. She wasn't catholic. Her parents were Scotch-Irish, came from somewhere in the mountains of Appalachia. They put her in catholic school so she would avoid the heathen ways.
"...you look a lot like some version of Jesus now...especially with the beard."
"...that voice, and the eyes...they're very familiar...where did your family live?"
"...didn't you hang out with that girl in North Pedro...Cassie?"
"...don't remember anyone by that..."
"...Louise, that was her name!...she lived over near the harbor...married a guy from Long Beach not long after graduation."
"...knew her sorta for a while, during senior year."
"...you seemed like a cool couple," someone else chimes in. "What happened?"
"Is she here?" someone else asks.
"...haven't seen her for a long time," a woman peeps from the edge of the group. "One of the many who've found their niche away from our wonderful community!"
"...her last name's Salomen, I think...lives up on the hill," someone says.
I slip away from the crowd unnoticed and hit the street in search of a phone book. There's a thrift store on the corner of Mesa that's still open. The gentleman behind the counter obliges. I see three listings for this last name. Only one is on the hill. I head back to the Profane Grind and dial the number. No answer. I dial again, same result. I grab a soda and wait it out. I notice there are still folks filing into the Majestic. I'm tempted to return.
I dial again and get an answer. It seems to be her. I process the sounds in a very long and tortuous few seconds and guess it is.
"Louise?" I ask.
Silence for several seconds. I feel the hesitation and decide to hang up, when she says: "It can't be you!...Fred?!!...thought you were a missionary down in Central America somewhere, fightin for someone else's rights, their fantasies...haven't heard from you since...a few years after graduation?" She seems guardedly surprised.
"...that, that...didn't happen...was off on a spiritual tour of America...looking for how the scriptures really work!"
"...you seemed...well, you always felt that they might...or at least they should!"
"...an itch I had to scratch for a while on the way to..."
"...what's happening with you?...you always seemed to have a bit better grasp of things the rest of us could only genuflect to!"
"...well...when it comes to making sense of that scene we went through, perhaps...but putting a plan into play that works out here in the godless...well, I've made a few attempts at it!"
"...did you ever seriously consider going to the reunion?"
"...nothing to be gained...no plan I can imagine that...just got divorced so probably wouldn't be welcomed by those who've blessed our journeys."
"...does there have to be one?"
Her tone changes, like she's snapped out of a trance. She seems captured by the urge to chat about the good ole days and suggests we meet at the Hamlet Inn up on 25th. I weave my way up the hill, pausing here and there before a house or scene that's familiar, trying to restore it to life. Faint memories run riot in my head, but they refuse clarity and distinction.
I reach the top and look around at the twilight vista, the vast humbling space stretching toward infinity caught between light and shadow, the pointillist spread dotted with hyperreal steeples. I feel groggy, tempted to retrace my steps down the hill and freedom, hitch my way back to the airport and
I'm in the bar looking across the pool table through a haze of shadows toward the front door, time standing still except for the syrupy sounds on the juke, anticipating her arrival. Suddenly a nun appears on my left, mesmerized by the game of pool. The crowd's stares turn into chuckles and then a lean and mean mess of tattoos approaches her:
"You come from a costume party, baby?...why don't we go out to my truck and take it off?!"
She stares at him like she's patiently perusing his soul. After several seconds his expression contorts and he slips away to continue the search begun for him through other means..
I don't want the habit to come off. It's the way it outlines the face. No hairlocks to disturb the look. White flesh tucked into an oval of black, the color of mystery that consecrates the face by sucking in energy and light, leaving an accidental afterglow of spiritual emanation.
Light streaks through the bay window across the beams, painting her face in shadows that continually move from the high winds on the hillside.
"You think it becomes me?"
"...is that why you're wearing it?"
"...it's what I thought you'd want to see...and it's a period of my life you missed when you were out bouncing around the globe playing altruist...used to wear it in my act over at the Pussy Cat Lounge in Long Beach."
"...you did seem obsessed for a while with Mary Magdalene...but you also got along well with the sisters, at least that tall sinister one you swore was..."
"...sinister!!...what do you mean?...we used to have great talks about women in colonial times who loved god and wanted to be free and equal with men but were called godless witches because they seemed hysterical and out of control, though...they were really just ahead of their time, feminists of their day who were burned at the stake."
The shifting shadows reveal and conceal at random. They illuminate patches of costume like a faint searchlight nervously scoping the darkened interior from above and then they're gone, leaving the room in near darkness.
"...the males came down with such vengeance that women either became docile wives or went into the convent...marriage repressed them and the convent denied them...but it was nuns who carried the seeds of liberation."
The shadows return for a brief moment and then...
"...said she was a descendant of a Salem witch who escaped persecution...she took me to visit her family who lived on an acreage in Signal Hill."
...the space brightens briefly, like a camera flash goes off. Long black hair springs loose from the lofted habit, tumbling onto her shoulders in flutters of expectation. Except for the hair length, she looks nearly the same...The shadows return and seem to momentarily rearrange the body parts, make the picture abstract. The aftereffects of the brightening?
"...but how can nuns?..."
She turns, her bottomless brown eyes looking right through me, as I hear a noise. It sounds like someone entering a back door. Then total silence and dark. After an anxious couple of minutes a man lurches into the room with both arms spread above his head, screaming something indecipherable. As the shadows reappear I see that he's a priest, or at least dressed like one. My brief glimpse suggests he might not be the type. Louise has disappeared. In a few split seconds I process what seems to be happening and decide to make it toward the front door. As I move slightly in that direction so does the "priest."
"What are you doing here, you...who let you in?!" he screams.
He seems athletic. This gives him the edge and I'm forced to fade left and make it back through the dining room. Still no sign of Louise. I spy a trail of costume parts leading toward the back of the house but somehow expect her to appear. I realize that if I don't soon devise a getaway plan he'll overpower me. I head through the hallway behind the dining room and close the door, thinking this will interrupt his flow and give me a chance to find another exit. Plus I might still see what happened to Louise. Hopefully I won't end up in a cul-de-sac. With the extra few seconds I enter a bedroom and lock the door, noticing another door across the way. It leads into a bathroom and toward an exit to the outside. I hear cursing and loud pounding on the door behind me as I bolt through the door.
I run alongside the house to the front, stopping briefly to reflect on my escape route. I could vanish into Averill Park, hide out in the brush above the creek for a while. But as I turn right on Averill the "priest" leaps across the front yard and forces me to reverse direction. I only have one choice it seems, to sprint down the hill to a well-lighted place. My pursuer is about twenty five feet behind me, yelling at a fever pitch.
"...you one of those Jesus freaks?...I'll kill you!!!"
I spy a helicopter hovering over downtown, searching for someone in the nightly sweeps. I'm momentarily mesmerized by the staccato brightness. As I snap out of it and move toward the light, it starts to come toward me. I look back over my shoulder at my pursuer who's gaining on me. Good time to dust off those moves from the glory days.
On my right is a canyon that splits the middle of the block. I decide to try and lose my pursuer in its dark and tangled recesses. I remember it from High School as a place everyone avoided like the plague. It was supposed to be haunted. The rumor was that a young girl had been raped and murdered there. I leap into the brush and descend down the bank. I'm overcome with a foul odor immediately, and hear movements not far in front of my path. They sound hurried, but then quickly cease. I wonder what's sharing this space with me. I continue on.
The smell suggests a decaying mulch of foliage, perhaps fairly new raccoon or possum carcasses. It makes me conjure the Chiapas jungle. I see masses of people surrounding a church. Some start filing inside.
Then I hear a scream. Was it from the flashbacks? Further down the canyon?
I move steadily on, hearing the faint sounds of the copter returning to the area. Suddenly it's hovering above the canyon, the searchlight caressing the brush no more than thirty feet from me. I crouch behind the shadows, hoping it passes. I try to imagine words that might somehow resemble a prayer. I squint for several seconds, hoping that once I open my eyes this nightmare will be over. But the copter remains overhead. I'm on the verge of making a run for it when it finally dips toward the ocean.
I creep slowly through the brush on all fours, not sure if I should get up. I sense someone is near me, but see nothing. Suddenly I hear a hissing sound. It continues for several seconds, like it might be coming from many sources simultaneously. Family of raccoons ready for the kill?
I move slightly and the sounds instantly cease. I continue, and once I realize nothing's disturbed the silence I move more quickly through the brush until I can see the outlines of a house above. I keep steadily moving toward it and see a clearing in the brush with someone's makeshift dwelling. But no one's in evidence. I keep on, circling the area, all the way into the back yard of the house. No lights are on. I creep along the side of the house, stopping just before I reach the front, crouching behind a large cactus. There's no activity at all on Walker. So I make it across the street and walk slowly and inconspicuously toward 12th. At the intersection I turn right and hear a scream from up the block. The "priest" appears, as if he'd been lying in wait.
"...where've you been?...you're not going to get away from me...there's nowhere to hide!!!"
While he speaks I sprint down the hill, cutting left and right, hoping to disrupt his momentum. At Alma I look back briefly, and turn left. I see activity near a dumpster in the alley behind some businesses. I hear voices, more like random screeches that form into what seems like a chant, and slant abruptly to the right toward them. The chant ceases.
"Join us," a single voice lofts from the crowd. "Do you need help?"
I can't identify the source of the voice, but enter a loose circle. The faces are a shadowy blur, the buildings shielding the area from the nearest street light. I look around and see the "priest" pass by on the left, looking toward the crowd briefly, and then continuing on. I hide behind the shadows, watching a young woman and two men pull objects from the dumpster and place them alongside the building, spilling over into the alley. They could be unpacking a crate of priceless jade, judging from their delicate movements. It's unclear what the actual items are.
I try to identify the objects, moving toward the alley, as the copter appears in the sight line above the trees to the northeast. The staccatoed fright rushes us in an instant, and then the lights begin feverishly stroking the yards and cars, finally entering the space almost directly overhead. The moving strokes make the scene surreal, and as if time suddenly stops in anticipation for some event to occur.
"Who are they after?" I mutter to myself. The members of the group continue arranging the objects, unaffected by the intrusion. A woman blurts out: "What's your sign?"
I think for a few seconds what to say while moving stealthily down the alley, hiding between trash containers. The copter remains directly above the crowd and then dips south. I sprint further down the alley and cut left through a yard onto 9th street, wondering if the copter will circle back. A string of cars speeds by. As the last one passes I take a deep breath and leap across the street with all the force I can muster, stopping briefly on the other side, crouching behind a rustbucket with Mexico plates. I look up, hearing faint copter-chokes off in the distance. Or are they merely an echo?
I sprint to Myeler and turn left, barely slowing. As I near 7th, ready to turn right, I see a figure across the way partially shadowed by the street light. I stop momentarily and then continue as the figure lurches from the shadows, screaming something indecipherable. It's the "priest."
I'm in front of the steps to the church, rush up to the doors, pull the handles with every ounce of strength I can muster. They instantly open together and I enter, locking them behind me. The screams gather intensity on the other side, fading into muffled rants. The "priest" makes no attempt to open the doors. It appears I've found sanctuary.
The smell soothes for a moment and then a rush of rapturous confessions, ponderous processions, marathon masses, mesmerizing icons and quiet reverence.
I ascend the side stairs to the choir loft, the perfect vantage to see innumerable flocks of parishioners appear and reappear in the darkened pews, hear the organ music garnished with coughs and sneezes and children's cries. I feel vibrations of belief.
I notice there's a stained glass window on the left. Strokes of light from outside begin illuminating it, depositing abstract designs that shift erratically, like the display might be wind-driven. I can barely make out the print at the bottom: "Saint Augustine." The light increases in intensity; the movements are more fleeting. The interior space bulges with brightness, as if it might explode at any moment. I'm partially blinded.
I feel my way back down the stairs to the confessional, and wait inside.
John O'Kane's recent books are A People's Manifesto (2014), and Venice, CA: A City State of Mind (2013).