"Mechanical constructions designed for pleasure have a special melancholy when they are idle. Especially merry-go-rounds."
Ash came in late, on the 10:30 train. I was sure Rebecca would stay home and sleep, but instead she got a sitter for our infant daughter, let her dark hair down for what seemed the first time in months, and emerged from our tiny bathroom in the jeans she hadn't been able to wear since her Cesarean.
"My CD," she said happily, handing me the New York Dolls disc she'd once howled along with every night while we did the dishes, and which I hadn't even seen for over a year. Then she stood in front of me and bobbed on the clunky black shoes I always loved to see her in, not because they were sexy but because of their bulk. Those shoes, it seemed to me, could hold even Rebecca to the ground.
So all the way across the San Fernando Valley we played the Dolls, and she didn't howl anymore, but she rocked side-to-side in her seat and mouthed the words while I snuck glances at her. The last time I could remember seeing her in this mood was on her thirty-first birthday, over a year ago, right before her mother died and the homeless person's political action committee she'd been serving on collapsed in the wake of 9/11 as charitable donations got siphoned to New York and she finally decided to give up on the rest of the world long enough for us to try to have a child. I had thought maybe this Rebeccaarms twitching at her sides like folded wings, green eyes skimming the night for anything alivehad vanished for good.
As usual, even at that hour, traffic snarled where the 101 and the 110 and the 5 emptied together into downtown Los Angeles, so I ducked onto Hill Street, edging us through the surprising crowds of Chinese teens tossing pop-pops in the air and leaning against lampposts and chain-shuttered shop windows to smoke. Rebecca rolled down her window, and the car filled with burning smells: tobacco, firecracker filament, pork and fish. I thought she might try bumming a cigarette from a passing kidthough as far as I knew, she hadn't smoked in yearsbut instead she leaned against the seatback and closed her eyes.
We were pulling into Union Station when she turned the volume down, caught me looking at her in the mirror, and said, "A flowered one."
I grinned back, shook my head. "He's a new man, remember? Official, responsible, full-time job. Brand new lakefront bungalow. He'll be wearing gray pinstripes. From a suit he bought but hasn't worn."
We were both wrong. And of course, the funniest thingthe worstwas that even with all that green and purple paisley flashing off the front of this latest vest like scales on some spectacular tropical fish, I still didn't see him until I'd driven ten yards past him.
"Hey, dude," he said to both of us as he approached the car, then dropped his black duffel to the curb and stood quietly, leaning to the right the way he always did.
He'd shaved off the last of the tumbling dark brown curls which, even thinning, used to flop over both his eyes and made him look like a Lhasa apsos. Even more brightly than the new vest, the top of his head shone, practically winking white and red with the lights from passing cars. His shoulders, big from the boxing classes he tookfor fitness; he'd never gotten in a ring and swore he never wouldballooned from either side of the vest. His jeans were black, and on his wrists were leather bracelets studded with silver spikes.
"Ash, you, um," I said, and then I was laughing. "You don't look like a nurse."
"Wait," Rebecca said, and her hand snaked out the window and grabbed the side of Ash's vest, right where the paisley met the black polyester backing. Then she popped her seatbelt open and leaned to look more closely. "Did you do this?"
Ash's blush spread all the way up his head until he was red all over, and his tiny ferret-eyes blinked. It was as though Rebecca had spray-painted him.
"What was this?" Rebecca said. "Was this a shirt?"
"What do you mean?"
"Look, El. Someone cut this shiny paisley part off
curtains, maybe? Something else, anyway. And they stitched it to the rest. See?" She held the edge of the vest out from Ash's sides.
Ash's blush deepened, but his smile came more easily than I remembered. "No wonder it cost a dollar."
Rebecca burst out laughing, and I laughed, too. "Been way too long, Ash," I said.
Still leaning, as though he were standing in some invisible rowboat in a current, Ash folded himself into our Metro's tiny back seat. "Good to be here, Elliot." He pronounced it El-yut, just as he had when we were twelve.
"You get all dolled up for us?" I said, nodding in the mirror at the vest, and to my surprise, Ash blushed again and looked at the floor.
"I've been going out a lot," he said.
Both he and Rebecca left their windows open as I spun the car out of the lot and, without asking, turned south. With Chinatown behind us, the street corners emptied. I couldn't see the smog, but I could taste it, a sweet tang in the air that shouldn't have been there and prickled the lungs like nicotine and had a similar sort of narcotic, addictive effect, because you just kept gulping it. Of course, that was partially because there wasn't enough oxygen in it.
"Where are you going?" Rebecca asked as we drifted down the white and nameless warehouses that line both sides of Alameda Street and house the city's other industries, whatever they are.
"Don't know," I said. "Just figured, between that vest and your mood, home wasn't an option."
Rebecca twisted her head around to look at Ash. "Where's all this out you've been going?"
"Meditation classes, for one," Ash said, effectively choking Rebecca to silence. She'd forgotten about Ash's professed Zen conversion, or discovery, or whatever it was. He'd told us about it in a particularly cryptic phone call that had struck both of us as dispassionate even for Ash. Yet another 9/11 by-product, we both thought at the time, but now I actually suspected not. Even back in our Berkeley days, Ash's sense of right and just behavior had been more
inward, somehow, than Rebecca's.
Also less ferocioushe hadn't actually believed he could effect change, or maybe wasn't as interested, and was therefore less perpetually disappointed. And now, as we floated between late-night trucks down the dark toward the freeways, a series of quick, sweet feelings lit up inside me like roman candles. I was remembering Friday nights lost in Oakland, gliding through streets emptier and darker than this in Ash's beat-up green B-210, singing "Shoplifters of the World," spending no money except on gas and double-doubles from In-N-Out. We always got them animal style even though Rebecca hated the grilled onions, because it never got old knowing the secret menu, declaring it to cashiers like a password.
"I've been going to music, too. Lots of clubs. My friends Rubina and Liz"
"Long Beach," Rebecca said over him, and I hit the brakes and paused, right on the lip of the on-ramp to the 10. Whether out of perceptiveness or meditation training or typical Ashy patience, our friend in the back went quiet and waited.
"Rebecca," I said carefully, after a long breath. She'd been taking us to her sister's almost every weekend since her mother died. She'd been going during the week, too, of late, and even more than she told me, I suspected. "Don't you want to get Ash a Pink's? Show him that ant at the Museum of Jurassic Tech? Take him bowling at the Starlight? Show him the Ashy parts of town?"
"Starlight's gone," Rebecca said, as though she were talking about her mother.
"Oh, yeah. Forgot."
Abruptly, she brightened again. "Not my sister's, El-yut. I have a plan. A place in mind. Somewhere our vested nurse-boy back there would appreciate. You, too." Then she punched play on the CD-player. Discussion over. Off we went.
All the way down the 110, then the 405, Rebecca alternately shook to the music and prodded Ash with questions, and he answered in his familiar monotone, which always made him sound at ease, not bored, no matter what job he'd just left or new woman he'd found and taken meditating or clubbing or drifting and then gotten dumpedgentlyby. Ash had been to more weddings of more ex-girlfriends than anyone I'd ever met.
But tonight, he talked about his supervisor at the hospital, whose name apparently really was Ms. Paste. "She's kind of this nurse-artist," he said. "Amazing. Hard to explain. She slides an IV into a vein and steps back, and it's perfect, every time, patient never even feels it. Wipes butts like she's arranging flowers."
Rebecca laughed, while Ash sat in the back with that grin on his face. How can someone so completely adrift in the world seem so satisfied with it?
We hit the 710, and immediately, the big rigs surrounded us. No matter what hour you drive it, there are always big rigs on that stretch of highway, lumbering back and forth between the 405 and the port, their beds saddled with giant wooden crates and steel containers newly gantried off incoming ships or headed for them, as though the whole city of Long Beach were constantly being put up or taken down like a circus at a fairground. As we approached the fork where the freeway splitsthe right headed for the Queen Mary, the left for Shoreline Village and the whale-watching tour boats and the too-white lighthouse perched on its perfectly mown hilltop like a Disneyland cast-offI slowed and glanced at my wife. But Rebecca didn't notice. She had slid down a little in her seat, and was watching the trucks with a blank expression on her pale face.
"Rebecca?" I said. "Where to?"
Stirring, she said, "Oh. The old pier. You know where that is? Downtown, downtown."
Just in time, I veered left, passing by the aquarium and the rest of the tourist attractions to head for the city center. Not that there was much difference anymore, according to Rebecca. Scaffolding engulfed most of the older buildings, and as we hit downtown, the bright, familiar markings of malls everywhere dropped into place around us like flats on a movie set. There were Gap and TGIF storefronts, sidewalks so clean they seemed to have acquired a varnish, fountains with statues of seals spouting water through their whiskers. Only a few features distinguished Long Beach from the Third Street Promenade or Old Town Pasadena now: a tapas bar; that eighty year-old used bookshop with the bowling alley-sized backroom that seems to exude dust through the wood and windows, even though the windows are painted shut; and, just visible down the last remaining dark blocks, a handful of no-tourist dives with windowless doors and green booths inside for the more traditionally minded sailors.
"Go straight through," Rebecca said. "Turn right at the light. God, it's been years."
Given her tastes and the sheer number of days she'd spent with her mother, then with her sister, ever since we'd moved down to L.A. that seemed unlikely. But Ash's patience was soothing, infectious, and I waited. And as we edged farther from the downtown lights, through sports cars and S.U.V.'s skimming the streets like incoming seagulls and squawking at each other over parking places, Rebecca shut off the music and turned to us. "My dad used to take us here," she said.
I hit the brakes harder than I meant to and brought the car to a lurching stop at the road that fronted the ocean. For a few seconds, we hung there, the lights of Long Beach in the rearview mirror, the ocean seeping blackly out of the jumbled, overbuilt coast before us like oil from a listing tanker.
"Your dad," I said.
"Left, Elliot. Down there. See?"
I turned left, slowly, though there was no traffic. Neither tourists nor sailors had any use for this road anymore, apparently. "It's been a long time since you mentioned your dad." In fact, I couldn't remember the last time. She talked about her school commissioner motherstable, stubborn, fiercely loyal, nasty Scrabble player. Also her recovered junkie sister. But her father
"I've never heard you mention him," Ash said, detached as ever, just noting.
The frontage road, at least, did not look like new downtown Long Beach or Third Street, or Downtown Disney. To our left, the scaffolded buildings loomed, lightless as pilings for some gigantic pier lost long ago to the tide. To our right lay the ocean, without even a whitecap to brighten its surface. Few other stretches in the LosAnDiego megalopolis were still allowed to get this dark. We'd gone no more than a few hundred yards when Rebecca sat up in her seat and pointed.
"Right here. See?"
I punched the brakes again and brought the car to a stop. Just behind us, a signless, potholed drive snaked between the black iron posts of what must once have been a gate. Beyond that, a parking lot, then the old pier, lit by too-dim streetlights on either side. And beyond those, right at the end of the pier
"What is that?" Ash said.
It seemed to hover above the ocean, a dark, metallic, upside-down funnel, like a giant magician's hat. Beneath it, dim and scattered lights flickered. If there were ocean rather than pier beneath it, I would have assumed we were looking at bioluminescent fish.
I glanced toward Rebecca, whose smile was the wistful one I'd gotten used to over the past year or so. When I reached over and squeezed her hand, she squeezed back, but absently.
"What's the smile for?" I said, and turned us into the drive. Past the gateposts, we emerged into a startlingly large parking lot that sprawled in both directions. A handful of older carsan orange Dodge pickup, a '60s-vintage Volkswagon van, a U-haul trailer with no lead-vehicle attached to itclustered like barnacle shells near the foot of the wooden steps that led up to the pier. Otherwise, there were only empty spaces, their white dividing lines obscured but still visible, rusted parking meters planted sideways at their heads like markers on anonymous graves.
"There used to be a billboard right next to that gate," Rebecca said, staring around her. "A girl dressed in one of those St. Pauli Girl waitress uniforms, you know what I'm talking about? Breasts like bouldersyou felt like they were just going to pop loose and roll right off the sign and smash you when you drove under them. She was riding one of the merry-go-round horses and holding a big beer stein. Her uniform said Lite-Your-Line on it, and in huge red letters over her head, the sign read, LONG BEACH PIER. GET LIT."
Ash laughed quietly as I pulled into a spot a few rows from the van and pick-up, and Rebecca got out fast and stood into a surprising sea wind. Ash and I joined her, and I had a brief but powerful desire to ditch our friend, never mind how good it was to see him, take my wife by the elbow and steer her to the dark, disused stretch of beach fifty yards ahead of us. There we'd stand, let the planet's breath beat against our skin until it woke us. The whole last year, it seemed to me, we'd been sleeping. Or I'd been sleeping, and Rebecca had been mourning, and something else, too. Retreating, maybe, from everything but her child. Shaking free of something old, because she had not been sleeping, even before our daughter was born.
"I think this is the only place I remember coming with him," Rebecca said. "For fun, anyway." She moved off toward the steps. We followed. Ash's vest left little purple trails of reflected streetlight behind him. His gaze was aimed straight up the steps. Rebecca had a deeper hunger for these spots, I thought, these night-places where people washed up or swept in like sharks from the deep sea. But Ash could smell them.
"You came here a lot?" I asked. I considered taking Rebecca's hand again, but thought that would be crowding her, somehow.
"More than you'd think." She mounted the stairs. "Some days, he hadn't even started drinking yet. He'd wait until we got here. Buy my sister and me three dollars each worth of ticketsthat was like fifteen rides-and plop us on the merry-go-round while he"
The hands closed around us so fast, from both sides, that we didn't even have time to cry out. One second we were alone at the top of the leaning staircase and the next there were filthy fingers clamped on all of our wrists and red, bearded faces leering into ours. The fingers began dragging us around in a sickening circle.
"Ring around the funny," the face nearest to me half-sang, his breath overwhelming, equal parts bad gin and sea salt and sand. "Pockets full of money. Give it. Give it. Give it NOW!"
Then, as suddenly as they had grabbed us, they let go, a hand or two at a time, fell back a step, and we got our first good look. If we hadn't been on a glorified dock at the edge of the Pacific, a hundred yards that felt like fifty miles from anywhere I knew, I think I might have laughed, or wept.
They stood before us in a clump, five decrepit men in ruined pea-coats with their noses running and their beards wild and their skin mottled with sores red and raised like octopus suckers. Probably, I thought, Long Beachlike the former People's Republic of Santa Monica, and every other Southern California town I knewhad passed and enforced a new set of vagrancy laws to keep all that fresh sidewalk pavement free of debris. And this particular quintet had scuttled down here to hide under the great steel magician's hat and sleep with the fishes and pounce on whatever drifted out to them like marine snow.
"Here," Ash started, sliding a hand into the pocket of his vest, just as Rebecca stuck an arm across his chest.
"Don't," she said.
It shouldn't have surprised me. I'd watched her do this before. Rebecca had worked with the homeless most of her adult life, and felt she knew what they needed, or at least what might be most likely to help. But I was always startled by the confidence of her convictions.
"Nearest shelter's on La Amatista," she said, gesturing over her shoulder toward the frontage road, town. "Five, maybe six blocks. They have food."
"Don't want food," one of the men snarled, but his snarl became a whine before he'd finished the sentence. "We want change."
"You won't get ours."
"Change." The five of them knotted togethercoiled, I thought, and my shoulders tensed, and I could feel the streaky wetness they'd left on my wrists and their breath in my mouthand then, just like that, they were gone, bumping past us down the steps to disappear under the dock.
For a good minute, maybe more, the three of us stood in our own little clump, and there were unsettled feelings seeping up through my stomach, and I could neither place them nor get them quiet. Finally, Rebecca said, "The most amazing merry-go-round," as though nothing whatsoever had occurred.
I glanced down the pier toward the magician's hat, which was actually the roof of an otherwise open pavilion. There were lights clustered beneath it, yellow and green and red, but they seemed to waver above the water, connected to nothing, until I realized I was looking through some sort of threadbare canvas drapery suspended from the rim of the overhang like a giant spider web, generations in the making. Between us and the pavilion lay maybe fifty yards of moldy wooden planking. Shadows of indeterminate shape slid over the planks or sank into them, and on either side of the streetlights, solitary figures sat at the railing-less edges and dangled their legs over the dark and fished.
"Is this safe, Rebecca?" I asked.
She'd seemed lost in thought, staring after our would-be muggers, but now she brightened again, so fast I felt myself get dizzy. "We'll let Ash go first. Drive everyone back with the vest." She flicked his front with her fingers, and I felt a flicker of jealousy, couldn't believe I was feeling it, and made myself ignore it.
Of course, Ash did go first. The lights and the pavilion and the curtain floating on the wind drew him. Me, too, but not in the same way. Rebecca waited for me to return her smile, then shrugged and stepped off behind our friend. I followed.
"They used to sell t-shirts from a stand right there," she said as we walked, gesturing at the empty space to her left. "Army camouflage. American flag prints. They sold candy popcorn, too. My dad always bought us the Patriotic Bag. Red cherry, blue raspberry, vanilla."
"Are there such things as blue raspberries?" Ash asked, but Rebecca ignored him.
"Lot of patriotic stuff, come to think of it. I wonder why. Bicentennial, maybe?"
If she was asking me, I had no answer. Periodically, one of the streetlamps buzzed or flickered. No moon. Our footsteps echoed strangely on the wet wood, sounding somehow lighter than they should have. Not one of the fishermen glanced our way, though one twitched as we drew abreast, hunched forward to work furiously at his reel, and yanked a small ray right up into the air in front of him. It hung there streaming, maybe a foot across, its underside impossibly white, silently flapping. Like the ripped-out soul of a bird, I thought, and shuddered while the fisherman drew the ray toward him and laid it, gently across his lap. It went on flapping there until it died.
We'd all stopped in our tracks at the fisherman's first movements, and we stayed there quite a while. Eventually, Ash turned to us and nodded his head. "I've missed you, Rebecca," he said. "You, too, Elliot." But he meant Rebecca. He'd always meant Rebecca, and had told me so once, the night before graduation, on one the rare occasions when he got high, just to see. "Count on you," he'd told me. "Worship her."
Tonight, Rebecca didn't respond, and eventually Ash started toward the pavilion and the lights beneath it. We followed. I walked beside my wife, close enough for elbow contact but not manufacturing any. Something about the flapping ray reminded me of our daughter, squirming and jerking as she scrabbled for a hold in the world, and I wanted to be back at our house. In spite of the calmer, sadder way Rebecca had been this past year-maybe even because of it, though I hated thinking thatI loved our home.
"What made the merry-go-round so amazing?" I asked.
"The guy who designed itRooff, I think?he's like the most famous American carousel builder. Or one of. He did this one in Rhode Island or Vermont, when they broke it up and sold off the horses, they went on Ebay for twenty-five thousand dollars apiece. But this one
In the quiet of the next few seconds, I became aware, for the first time since we'd reached the pier, of the sounds. That wind, first of all, sighing out of the blackness to crash against the fortified city and then roll back. The ocean, shushing and muttering. The boards creaking as fishermen shifted or cast and seagulls dropped out of the dark to perch on the ruined railings. And, from straight ahead, under that darkly gleaming steel hat, an incongruous and unidentifiable tinkling, almost musical, barely audible, like an ice cream truck from blocks away.
"You should have seen their faces, Elliot. You would have loved them."
I blinked, still seeing the ray. "Really?"
"Rooffthe designerhe made them after his business partner died. His best friend, I guess. To keep him company, or something. I met this older man from the Carousel Preservation Assemblage who"
"The Carousel what?" I said, and smiled. It really was astonishing, the people Rebecca knew.
"I met him at that open city planning meeting down here a couple years ago. The one about the development of the rest of downtown? The one I came home so upset from?"
"That would be every city planning meeting," I said. My smile faded, and the musical tinkling from the end of the pier got just a little louder.
"Anyway. These horses, Elliot. They were just
the friendliest horses I've ever seen. They all had huge dopey smiles on their faces. Their teeth either pointed out sideways, or else they were perfect and glowing. Their sides were shiny brown or black or pink or blue. Their manes all had painted glass rubies and sapphires sticking out of them, and the saddles had these ridiculously elaborate roses and violets carved into the seats. Hooves flying, like they just couldn't stand to come down, you know? Like it was too much fun just sailing around in a circle forever. The Preservation guy said Rooff installed every single one of them, and every cog of every machine down here, by himself, at night, by candlelight. As some kind of tribute to his friend or something. Said he was a total raving loon, too. Got involved in all kinds of séances trying to contact his friend after he died. Wound up getting publicly ridiculed by Harry Houdini, who broke up one of his little soirees, apparently. Died brokenhearted and penniless."
"Your kind of guy," I said. And I thought I understood, suddenly and for the first time, just how badly Rebecca's father had hurt her. Because he'd been her kind of guy, too.
"Yep," said Rebecca, and her face darkened again. Her mood seemed to change with every breath now, like the pattern of shadows on the pier around us. "Anyway, this is where we came. My dad'd plop us on the merry-go-round, hand the operator a fistful of tickets, and there we'd stay while he went and
well. I'm not going to tell you."
Ahead, Ash reached the hanging drapes, which, up close, were stained and ratty and riddled with runs. Without turning around or pausing, he slipped inside them. Instantly, his form seemed to waver, too, just like the lights, as though he'd dived into a pool. I stopped, closed my eyes, felt the salt on my skin and smelled fish and whitewater. And smog, of course. Even here.
"Why won't you tell me?"
"Because I'm pretty sure you're going to get to see." She passed through the drapes, and I followed.
I don't know what I was expecting under the hat, but whatever it was, I was disappointed. The space under there was cavernous, stretching another thirty yards or so out to sea, but most of it was empty, just wood planking and the surrounding shroud flapping in the wind like the clipped and tattered wings of some giant ocean bird. Albatross, maybe. At the far end of the space, another white curtain, this one heavier and opaque, dropped from rafters to dock, effectively walling off what had to be the last few feet of pier and giving me uneasy thoughts about the Wizard of Oz behind his screen. A mirror-ball dangled overhead, gobbling up the light from the fixtureless hanging bulbs suspended from the rafters and shooting off the red and green and blue sparks I'd seen from down the pier.
Spaced around the perimeter of the enclosure, and making the tinkling, bleeping noises we'd heard from outside, were six or seven pre-video arcade games, and stationed at the one directly across from us, elbowing each other and bobbing up and down, were two kids, neither older than seven, both with startlingly long white-blond hair pouring down their backs like melting wax. I'm not sure why I decided they were brother and sister. The one on the left wore a dress, the one on the right, jeans. Of Rebecca's grinning horses, the only possible remnant was the room's lone attendant, who was hovering near the kids but looked up when we entered and shuffled smoothly away from them, head down, as though we'd caught him peeping at a window.
"Come here," Ash said, standing over one of the machines to our left. "Look at this."
We moved toward him, and as we did, the attendant straightened and began to scuttle over the planking toward us. Despite his surprising grace, he looked at least a hundred years old. His skin was yellow and sagging off his cheeks, and his hair was white and patchy. His shoulders dipped, seemingly not quite aligned with his waist, and his fingers twitched at the fringes of his blue workman's apron. It was as though nothing on that body quite fit, or had been his originally; he'd just found the shed exoskeleton and slipped inside it like a hermit crab. I couldn't take my eyes from him until he stopped in the center of the room.
"Hey," Rebecca said to Ash. "You're good."
"Sssh," Ash murmured, "Almost got it. Shoot." There was a clunk from the machine, and I stepped up next to him.
"We had one of these at the 7-11 by my house," I said.
Simple game. You stuck your hands inside the two outsized, all-but-immovable gloves on the control panel. The gloves controlled a sort of crane behind the glass of the machine. You tried to maneuver the crane down to the bone-pile of prizes encased in clear, plastic bubbles below, grab a bubble in the jaws of the crane, then lift and drop it down a circular chute to the left. If you got the bubble in the chute, it popped out to you, and you claimed your prize. I couldn't remember ever seeing anyone win that game.
"Let me try," said Rebecca, and slid a quarter into the slot and her hands into the gloves. She got the crane's jaws around a bubble with a jiggly rubber tarantula inside and dropped it before she got it anywhere near the chute's mouth.
"I'm going again," Ash said, jamming home another quarter.
Behind us, the attendant wriggled two steps closer. His hands fumbled at the work apron, and I finally noticed the change-dispenser belted around his waist and rattling like a respirator. The thing was huge, ridiculous, had to have housed fifty dollars worth of quarters, and could probably accommodate ten years' worth of commerce on this pier, given the traffic I'd seen tonight. The man looked at me, and a spasm rolled up his armsor maybe it was a gesture. An invitation to convert some money.
"Fucksickle," Ash said, kneeing the machine as another plastic bubble crashed back to the pile.
"Now, now," I said, reaching for both his and Rebecca's shoulders, wanting to shake free of the change-man's gaze, and also of the mood I could feel rolling up on all of us like a tide. "Is that the Middle Path? The elimination of desire or whatever"
"Don't you mock that," Ash snarled, half-shoving me as he whirled around. His face had gone completely red again, and at his sides his fists had clenched, and I wondered if some of the assumptions Rebecca and I had been makingabout whether he'd actually been in a boxing ring, for exampleweren't years out of date.
Startled, shaking a little, I held up a hand. "Hey," I said. "It's just me. I wasn't"
"Yes, you were," Rebecca said, and my mouth fell open, to defend myself, maybe, at least from my wife who had no right, and then she added, "We both were. Sorry, Ash."
"I'm used to it," he said in his normal, expressionless voice, and wandered away toward the next machine.
For a while, Rebecca and I stood, not touching, watching our friend. I hated when Rebecca went still like this: head cocked, hands in her pockets, green eyes glazed over. At least right now she was doing it during an argument, and not over breakfast coffee, in the midst of reading the paper, just because. Daphne, having sickened of being chased, turning herself into a tree.
Finally, I blew out the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding and said, "You're wrong, Rebecca. You both are."
"Oh come on, Elliot. Even when he's not around, what do we talk about when we talk about Ash? His vests, and his inability to land a life-partner, and his refusal or whatever it is to hold a job, and the crazy situations he seems to wind up in without even trying, and"
"There's a difference between enjoying and mocking."
That stopped her, and even unlocked her, a little. At least she re-cocked her head so it was facing me. "You enjoy us too much," she said, and followed Ash.
I was angry, then, and I didn't go after them immediately. I watched Rebecca approach Ash, stand close to him. They were at the back of the space, now, both seeming to lean forward into the towering white curtain, almost pressing their ears against it. Briefly, it occurred to me to wonder where the blond kids had gone. Fifteen feet or so to my left, the attendant shifted, stared at me, and the change-dispenser rattled against his waist. I started forward, got within five steps of my wife and my oldest friend, and became aware, at last, of the new sounds.
Actually, the sounds had been there all along, I think. I'd just assumed that the murmuring was coming from the ocean, the bursts of rhythmic clatter from the arcade machines. But they originated on the other side of this curtain. For the second time, I thought of the Wizard of Oz crouched in his cubicle, furiously pulling levers to make the world magical and terrible. More magical and terrible than tornadoes and red shoes in green grass and dead or disappearing loved ones and home had already made it.
Ash glanced over his shoulder at me. I stepped forward, uncertainly, and stood behind him. Reaching out slowly, he brushed the curtain with his fingers, causing barely a stir in the heavy material.
"Crawl under?" he muttered. "Just push through?"
He bent to lift the curtain's skirt, and my wife turned briefly toward me, so that I caught just a glimpse of her face. Her lips had gone completely flat, and all trace of color had leeched out of her cheeks.
"You know what's back there, don't you?" I said as the attendant rattled closer and Ash disappeared under the curtain.
"It's why we're here," said my wife, and followed him.
What struck me first as I struggled through the curtain and shrugged it off was the motion. Even before I made sense of what I was seeing, the whole space seemed to tilt, as though we'd stepped onto some sort of colorful, rotating platform. The color came courtesy of a red neon sign that hissed and spat blue sparks into the air. The sign was nailed to a wooden pillar that had been driven through the planking of the pier right beside where we emerged. I didn't even process what it said for a few seconds, and when I did, the words meant nothing to me anyway.
LITE YOUR LINE LITE YOURS
"Change?" murmured a voice, right in front of me, and I jerked back farther still, bumping against the curtain and feeling its weight on my back.
The girl who'd spoken couldn't have been out of her teens. Her skin glowed translucent red in the tinted neon like sea-glass. Her eyes were brown and bright, her lips full but colorless and expressionless. Her brown hair swept up off her scalp and arced in a slow inward curl to her shoulders, but where it brushed her black turtleneck, the tips had turned white, like a breaking wave upside down.
Before I could say anything, she was floating away, the smoothness of her movements terrifying until I realized she was on rollerskates. Her wheels made bumping sounds between the planks.
"Hi, Dad," Rebecca whispered, shoulders rigid, arms tucked tight to her sides, and I shuddered, my eyes flying around the space.
Mostly, what I saw were machines. Ten stubby, silver pinball tables jammed together end to end at awkward, irregular angles like Dodg'em cars between rides. Hunched in identical poses over the glass tabletops were the players, and none of them looked up. They just kept pulling what I assumed were the ball-release levers and then pushing and patting at the flipper controls on the sides. Straight across the space from us, his ass to the drapery that hung from the magician's hat and divided this space from the night and the open ocean, a fiftyish, red-haired guy with tufts of wiry beard sprouting from the cracks in his craggy face like weeds through pavement bent almost perpendicular over his machine, whispering to it as his fingers pummeled the buttons. I could just see the ripped, faded American flag design on his t-shirt when he rocked back to jack another ball into play.
"Oh my God, Rebecca. That isn't"
"Huh?" she said, still rigid.
Of course it wasn't really her father, I realized. I'd seen pictures. And anyway, she wasn't looking at the red-headed man, or any of the other players. She was watching the electric board that hung, like the Lite Your Line Lite Yours sign, on another wooden pillar across the space from us. It was flashing the numbers 012839. Every few seconds, the numbers blinked.
Abruptly, a bell dinged, and the display on the electric board changed. #5, it read now. And then, Congratulations! You're Liter! Then bumping sounds as the rollerskate girl swept the room, removing quarters from atop each player's machine, and dropping a single red poker chip at the feet of the red-haired man.
"Change?" she said to us, gliding past without looking or stopping, and abruptly Ash was out amongst them, assuming a place at a table kitty-corner to the American flag man's. On the board, a new number flashed. 081034. The lever-jerking and button-tapping resumed in earnest. American flag man never even looked up.
I watched Ash glance at the numbers board, down into his machine, across to American flag man. Then he was pulling his own lever, nodding. There were now five players: two stick-thin older women in matching bright red poodle-skirts, twin sets, and bobby socks, who might have been sisters; a kid in skater shorts with some kind of heavy metal music erupting from the sides of his headphones, as though everything inside his head were kicking and screaming to get out of there; American flag man; and Ash.
"What planet is this?" I murmured, and a bell dinged, and the rollerskate girl circled the room once more while Ash rocked back and laughed and dropped another quarter on his machine-top for the girl to collect.
Closing her eyes, Rebecca surprised me by taking my hand. Then she leaned in and kissed my cheek. "This is where he came. Before he walked out. It's been just like this for
God." She shuddered. "He'd put us on the merry-go-round, and he'd come in here, and he'd spend his hours. One quarter at a time. Most days, he wouldn't even take us home. My mom had to come get us."
Another ding, and the kid in the skater shorts flipped his hands in the air and moonwalked a few steps to his right, then back to his machine to pop a quarter in place just as the rollergirl passed and dropped a red chip at his feet. One of the women in the poodle skirts laughed. The laugh sounded gentler than I expected, somehow. The board flashed, and a new round began.
"Ever played?" I said, holding my wife's hand, but not too tight. Whatever tension there had been before between the three of us tonight, it was fading, I thought. Around us, the canvas outer draping undulated in slow motion as the sea breeze pushed against and through it. There was another winner, another burst of quiet laughter from somewhere as some lucky soul got liter, another new number flashing. One more sad-magic night with Ash and Rebecca, so long after the last one that I'd forgotten how it felt.
A good while after I'd asked, Rebecca sighed and leaned her head against me. "I miss our daughter," she said.
"Should we call?"
"Look at him," Rebecca said, and we did, together.
He was bent almost as far over his machine as the red-headed man now, and when he played, the lights inside it and the red neon from the LITE YOURS sign reflected off his skull, and his vest beat and twitched with the rhythm of his movements, as though we were looking straight through his skin at the mechanisms that ran him.
"Poor Ash," I murmured, though I wasn't sure why I felt that way, and suspected he'd be furious if he heard me say it.
"I'll bet you a bag of Patriot Popcorn I can win before he does," said Rebecca, and she straightened and let go of my hand.
I thought of the fisherman on the empty pier behind us with the ray dying in his lap, the gaggle of beggars, and beyond them, the too-bright streets of downtown Long Beach. "And where will we find Patriot Popcorn, wife of mine, now that the Gap has come?"
"I think I know a place."
"I bet you do," I said, and let her go. On every side of us, at all times, at least one person was laughing.
"Change?" said the rollergirl, gliding past, but she executed a perfect stop even before Rebecca got her hand to her pocket. She took my wife's dollar, nodded. Her turtleneck clung tight to her, and there were tiny beads of sweat along the mouth of it like a string of transparent pearls. The tingle that sizzled through me then was more charged than any I'd felt since adolescence, but sadder and therefore sexier still, and I had to bend over until it passed. Whether it was for my wife, the rollergirl, or just the evening, I had no idea.
When I next looked up, Rebecca and Ash were side by side, both bent over their individual metal machines, fingers pushing and pumping while the lights on the metal board flashed and the rollergirl rolled and the ocean breathed, in and out. Not wanting to distract themand also, for some reason, not wanting to playI stepped just close enough to see how the game worked.
Inside each machine was a ball chute and a simple, inclined wooden playing board, with metallic mushrooms sprouting out of the center and impeding orif you were skilled enoughdirecting the path of the ball. Across the top of the playing board were ball-sized holes numbered one to ten in plain black lettering. The object was to sink one ball in each of the holes corresponding with the flashing numbers on the big board. When you dropped a ball in the correct hole, your machine dinged and the number lit up. First person to light up every required number got a visit from the rollergirl and a red chip dropped at his or her feet as the quarter antes were collected for the next round. Then, with no pause, no stretch-break, no breath, the big board flashed again and the game resumed.
I settled into my spot between Rebecca and Ash, close enough to touch both but a step back. I was watching my wife's frame rattle as she bounced up and down in her big black shoes, leaned left and then right, and I thought of the new, permanently puffy space on her stomach where her scar was, and where, she said, she could no longer feel anything, which for some reason always made me want to put my hand there. To feel the dead space, where the life inside her had been. I watched her watch Ash between games, heard her gleeful-competitive murmurs.
"Feel that, Ash? That would be my breath on your neck. That's me passing you by. Again."
Ash kept shaking his head, staring into his machine and seeming to drag it closer to him with those outsized, outstretched arms. "Not this time," he kept saying. "Not tonight."
And I found that I knewthat I'd always knownthat Rebecca was in love with him, too. That I was merely the post she and Ash circled, eyeing one another from either side of me but never getting closer than they already were. The knowledge felt strange, heavy in my chest, horrible but also old. As though I hadn't discovered but remembered it. Also, I knew she loved me, in the permanent way she'd loved her mother, who she'd stayed with, after all. Not that she'd had a choice.
In the back, the man in the flag shirt lit his line, closed his eyes, and slapped the sides of his machine with the heels of his palms. Then the kid in the headphones won again, did his dance. Occasionally, one of the poodle-skirt women won, but mostly they didn't, and their laughs punctuated each round, regardless. Rebecca bobbed, swore, taunted Ash. Ash leaned over farther, grim-faced, muttering, the machine bumping and dinging against him, almost attached to him now like an iron lung. Between and amongst them, the rollergirl skated, collecting quarters, strewing victory chips. At one point, tears developed in my eyes, and I wiped them away fast and thought of the perpetual sprinkles of dried milk that dotted the corners of my daughter's lips like fairy dust. The stuff that brought her to life.
It was the poker chips, I think, that finally alerted me to how long we'd been standing there. My eyes kept following the rollergirl on her sweeps, tracing her long fingers on their circumscribed, perfectly circular path from machine-top to black change-purse at her waist, white tips of her hair barely caressing the slope of her shoulders. And at last my gaze followed one of those chips as it fell to the floor amidst maybe a thousand others strewn around the ankles of the flag-shirt man like rose petals after a rainstorm.
My head jerked as though I'd been slapped.
"Change?" the rollergirl said as she breezed past me on her path through the players. Had she said that to me every time? Had I answered? And where was the music coming from? I could hear it, faintly. I was moving to it, a little. So was Ash. A gently bouncing fairground whirl, from an organ somewhere not too near. Under the dock? On shore?
Inside me? Because I appeared to be singing it. Sort of. Breathing it, so it was barely audible. We all were, I thought. It was everywhere, floating in the air of this makeshift room like a sea breeze trapped when the curtains dropped. Dazed, I watched Rebecca fish ten dollars out of her jeans pocket without looking up. The rollergirl took it and stood a bankroll of quarters, wrapped tight in red paper like a stick of dynamite, on the rim of Rebecca's machine. Both of them humming.
"Rebecca?" I said, then said it again, because my voice sounded funny, slurred and slow, as though I were speaking under water.
"Just a sec," she told me.
"Rebecca, come on."
"Might as well," Ash murmured. "I'm almost there. No hope for you."
My wife glanced upslowly, smoothlyand caught my eye. "Hear that? You'd think he'd beaten me all his life. Or ever. At anything."
"I think we should go," I said, as Rebecca's head sank down over the metal tabletop again and her hands drifted to the ball-lever and buttons. I said it again, and my words got tangled up in that tune, and I was almost singing them, and then I smashed my jaws together so hard I felt my two top front teeth pop in their sockets. "Rebecca," I snapped.
And just like that, as though I'd doused her with ice water, my wife shivered upright, and there were shudders rippling all the way down her body. Her skin seemed to have come loose. I could almost see it billowing around her. Then she was weeping. "Fuck him, Elliot," she said. "Oh, fuck him so fucking much. God, I miss my mom."
For one moment more, I stood paralyzed, this time by the sight of my weeping wife, though I could feel that tune bubbling up again in the back of my mouth, as though my insides were boiling, threatening to stream out of me like steam. Finally, Rebecca's fingers found mine. They felt reassuringly bony and hard. Familiar.
"Let's go," she whispered, still weeping.
"Come on come on come on Yah!" Ash screeched, started to hurl his arms over his head and stopped, scowling as the board flashed the number of the winner and the American flag man closed his eyes and popped the sides of his machine with his palms once more. "I had it," said Ash, already hunching forward. "I really thought I had it."
"Time to go, bud," I told him, pushing my fingers against Rebecca's so both of us could feel the joints grinding together. She was still shuddering, head down, and the rollergirl glided up and swept a new quarter from Ash's machine and reached for the top one on Rebecca's stack and Rebecca swatted the whole roll to the floor. The rollergirl didn't look up or break her hum as she passed.
"Right now," Rebecca said, looking up, letting the tears stream down. "It's got to be now, Elliot."
"Come on, Ash," I said. "Let's go get tapas."
"What are you talking about?" he said, and the big board flashed, and he was playing again. The kid in the headphones won in a matter of seconds.
"Ash. We need to leave."
"Almost there," he said. "Don't you want to see what you win?"
"Elliot," Rebecca said, voice tight, fingers like talons ripping at my wrist.
"Elliot. Run." She was staring up into the magician's hat, then at the American flag man, who didn't stare back, hadn't ever seemed to notice we were there.
Another number on the board, another flurry of fingers and rattle of pinballs, another burst of laughter from the poodle-skirt women. Then we were gone, Rebecca yanking me behind her like a puppy on leash. Low humming sounds streamed from our mouths as we struggled through the white curtain and just kept going.
"Hey," I said, trying to shake her fingers just a little looser on my arm, but she didn't let go until we were through the outer canvas, standing in the biting air on the wet and rotting dock. Instantly, the tune was gone from my mouth and ears, as though someone had snapped shut the lid of a music box. I found myself trying to remember it, and was seized, suddenly, by a grief so all-engulfing I could barely breathe, and didn't want to. Tears exploded onto my cheeks.
Rebecca stirred, let go of my arm, but turned to me. "Oh," she said, reached up, stuck her finger in one of my teardrops and traced it all over my cheek, as though finger-painting with it.
"I don't know why," I said, and I didn't. But it had nothing to do with Ash, or Ash and Rebecca, or Rebecca's dead mother, or our strange, loving, incomplete marriage. It had to do with our daughter. So new to the world.
"Come on," she said.
"What about our friend in there?"
"What if he doesn't?"
"He knows where we live. He's a big boy."
"Rebecca," I said, but realized I didn't know what I was going to say. What came out was, "I don't know. There's something
Around us, the sea stirred, began to slap against the shore and the pilings beneath it. We could feel it through our feet. The reassuring beat of the blood of the earth. There was a mist now, too, and it left little wet spots on our exposed skin.
Rebecca shrugged. "It's just where my dad is. Where he'll always be. For me."
Then we were walking. Again, our footsteps sounded strange, made almost no sound whatsoever. There was still no moon overhead, only gray-white clouds, lit from behind from millions of miles away. The fishermen had remained in their places, but they'd gone almost motionless, leaning over their lines into the night as though every single one of them had gone to sleep. I saw the guy who'd caught the ray, but the ray was no longer in his lap, and I wondered what he'd done with it. Looking up, I saw the blacked out buildings of old Long Beach, seemingly farther from us than they should have been, wrapped in mist and scaffolding like mothballed furniture in an attic. By the time we reached our car, the feeling in my chest had eased a bit, and I was no longer crying and still couldn't figure out why I had been. Rebecca was shivering again.
"Let's wait here for him," I said, and Rebecca shivered harder.
She got in the car, and I climbed in beside her. I turned on the ignition, but waited a while. When Rebecca looked at me next, she was wearing the expression I'd become so familiar with this last, long, sweet year. Eyes still bright, but dazed somehow. Mouth pursed, but softly. "Take me home to see my girl," she said.
I didn't argue. I stopped thinking about Ash. I took my wife home to our tiny house.
That was Friday. Saturday we stayed in our neighborhood, took strolls with our child, went to bed very early and touched each other a while without making love. Sunday I got up and made eggs and wondered where Ash had gone and whether he was angry with us, and then we went hiking up the fire trail behind our subdivision into the hills, brown and strangled with drought. I didn't worry, really. But I started calling Ash's Oakland bungalow on Monday morning. I also called the hospital where he worked, and on Thursday, right when he'd apparently told Ms. Paste he would return, he turned up as scheduled for his shift on the ward. I got him on the line, and he said he had rounds to do and would call me back. He didn't, though. Then, or ever.
After that, I stopped thinking about him for a while. It wasn't unusual for Ash to disappear from our lives for months or even years on end. I already understood that adult friendships operated differently from high school or college ones, were harbors to visit rather than places to live, no matter how sweet and safe the harbor. Rebecca never mentioned him. Our baby learned to walk. The next time I called the hospital, maybe six months ago, I was told Ash no longer worked there.
Last night, late, I climbed out of my bed, looked at my daughter lying sideways, arms akimbo, across the head of her crib-mattress like a game piece that had popped free of its box slot and rolled loose, and wandered into the living room to read the newspaper. I opened the Calendar section, stared at the photograph on the second page. My mouth went dry, as though every trace of saliva had been sucked from it, and my bones locked in place. I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't even think.
Staring out at me was a photograph of a merry-go-round horse, tipped sideways as it was hauled out of its storage closet by movers. Its front teeth were chipped and aimed in opposing directions below the oversized, grinning lips, and its lifted hooves seemed to be scrambling frantically at the air.
Last Rooff horses sold at auction, read the caption.
I flew through the story that accompanied the photograph, processing it in bits and pieces, while fragments of that tunethe one from the pierfloated free in my head but never knitted themselves into something I could hum.
Once, these vibrantly painted, joyous creatures spun and flew on the soon-to-be-razed Long Beach Pier
The last great work of a grieving man
His final carousel, populated with what Rooff called "The company I crave" after his longtime business partner and reputed lover, Los Angeles nightclub owner and legendary gambler Daniel R. Ratch, took his own life following a decades-long battle with a degenerative muscular disease in September of 1898.
The reclusive Rooff and notorious Ratch formed one of the more unlikelyand lucrativefinancial partnerships of the fin-de-siecle era, building thousands of cheaply manufactured carousels, fortune-telling machines, and other amusements of the time for boardwalks and parks nationwide. They envisioned the Long Beach Pier as their crowning achievement, a world unto itself for "All the laughing people
," in Rooff's memorable phrase at his tearful press conference following Ratch's death
Rooff completed only the carousel and the now-infamous Lite-Your-Line parlor before being fired for erratic behavior and the agonizingly slow pace of his work
He disappeared from the public record, and his death is not recorded.
There was more, but the words had stopped making sense to me. Shoving the paper away, I sat back in my chair. The trembling started a few seconds later.
I can't explain how I knew. I was thinking of Rooff under that hat, hidden by curtains, working furiously in the candlelight, chanting his dead lover's name. I think maybe I'd always suspected, hadn't admitted. But Ash had made it back to Oakland, hadn't he? And we'd made it here?
Then, abruptly, I was up, snatching my keys off the hook next to the kitchen sink and fleeing toward our car, while that incomplete tune whirled in my head and the whole last night with Ash spilled in front of my eyes in kaleidoscopic broken pieces. I don't remember a single second of the drive down the freeways, couldn't even tell you whether there was traffic, because all I was seeing were the homeless men and the sores on their arms and the way their mouths moved as they chanted their rhyme. Then I was seeing the ray flapping in midair, lifted out of the waves just as we passed, as though the whole scene had been triggered by our passing. The disappearing blond children, the arcade machine attendant's graceful shuffle and the sound he made. The rose-petal poker chips. The tinkling machines. The glide of the rollergirl, and the skater kid's moonwalk, and the American flag man. And the poodle-skirt women's perpetually smiling faces. Most of all, their faces, and it was their laughter I was hearing as I skidded into that giant, empty parking lot and jammed my car to a stop and leapt out, hoping, praying.
Even the streetlights were gone, and the dark pier jutted crookedly over the quietly lapping water like the prow of a beached ship. No magician's hat. Nothing on the pier at all. Overhead, I saw stars, faint and smeared by the smog, as though I were viewing them through a greasy window. Behind me, the new old city, safely shut down and swept clean for the night, rocked imperceptibly on its foundations. A wind kicked up, freezing cold, and I clamped my arms to my chest and crouched beside my car and wished I'd remembered a jacket, at least.
Finally, I let myself think it. Sort what I'd been hoping. Which had been what, exactly? That I'd find the auctioneer still here? That the movers would still be emptying the last pieces out of the warehouse, and maybe I could
"What?" I said aloud, and slammed my palms against the pavement and scraped them badly. Do what? Pick up my friend's body like a cigar store Indian, tie him to the top of the car, bring him to our house, which he'd never seen, and prop him on our little porch in our choice of vests? Maybe bring along a poodle-skirt woman so we could make set pieces?
Staggering to my feet, I took a huge breath and let the ocean air cut my lungs. In my pocket, I realized, I'd jammed the newspaper article, and I removed it now, uncrumpled it, ripped it to pieces, and set the pieces flying. Rebecca could never see that article, could never know what I was thinking. It was bad enoughit was flat, fucking murderthat we'd left Ash down here. I didn't even want to imagine how she'd react when she realized what really might have happened to her father.
How did it work, I wondered? Were Rooff's ghosts, or machines, or whatever they were, selective about the company they brought him? Had they let us go, or had we refused? Had Ash known, before it was too late, that he had a choice? Had the rest of themthe rollergirl, the flag man, the kid, maybe even Rebecca's fatherchosen to stay, because it was bright and musical and happy in there, and smelled of the sea?
It was almost light when I fumbled my car door open and collapsed back into the driver's seat. I could be wrong, I thought. I could go home right now and find Rebecca with the kitchen phone dangling from her ear, smiling in the way she didn't anymore as Ash told her where he'd vanished to this time and she spooned minced carrots to our child. But I didn't think so.
Not until I was off the freeways again, just pulling into our little driveway, did it occur to me to wonder where, exactly, Rooff's last merry-go-round stopped. At the edge of the white curtain? Or at the end of the pier? The ray could have been part of it, and the fishermen, and the beggars, too. Or maybe they'd just wanted to be.
I stepped out of the car, felt the stagnant L.A. air settle around me. The rising sun caught in my neighbor's windows, releasing tiny prisms of colored light, and somewhere down the street, wind-chimes clinked, though there was little wind. And the feeling that whispered through me then was indeed magical, terrible, and also almost sweet. Because I realized I might be underestimating the power of Rooff's last carousel, even now. We could be on it, stillRebecca, me, the whole crazy, homogenizing coastbobbing up and down in our prescribed places as our parents die and our friends whirl past and away again and the places we love evaporate out of the world, the way everyone's favorite people and places inevitably do. Until, finally, we are just our faces, smiles frozen bright as we can make them, hands stretching for our children because we can't help but hope they'll join us, hope they'll understand before we did that there really may be no place else to go or at least forgive us for not finding it. Then they'll smile back at us. Climb aboard. And ride.