& Other Delusions of a Free-lance Writer

Chapter 6: Split Ends

I WILL HAVE to admit it. I, too, had had my doubts about the LA train depot. I hadn’t been there in years, and my recollection was of a rather unsavory place--run-down, dirty, and possibly dangerous. But my former seat mate was absolutely right. It was not only safe--no looters, rioters, muggers, dope-pushers, or prostitutes did I spot anywhere--but it was clean as well. Apparently it still had usefulness in the State of Obsolescence Guaranteed, and it had been renovated.

Not so at the Oakland depot. There the proud old terminal building is no longer in use. Windows broken, boarded up--dirt, dust everywhere--though structurally it looks sound for another two centuries. Instead a smaller structure, contemporary temporary in design & style (moudular oddular) is used for ticket purchasing and passenger waiting. Completing the effect of full decline is a barbed-wire, chain-link fence surrounding the current facility, making it look like a low-budget penal institution.

But in LA the brown and white Spanish tiles of the old terminus were polished and the floors gleamed with wax. Fresh schedules were posted, and in back of an open information window was a living person--my train would be about ten minutes late, she said with a smile. As I was already two months late on this trip, I could live with a ten minute delay. The high ceilings of the old building resounded with the bustling activity and noise of those who were coming and going, clutching suit cases and weighted down by big boxes and bulging bags. Here the past had been repaired, cleaned, polished, made new--a novelty in a nation of higher and higher technology.

Ten minutes later, as I boarded the train to San Diego, I could see why. The station here was serving business commuters. Down the Central Valley the train seemed to be serving anyone and everyone--vacationing students eyeballing the land first-hand, farm workers hopping from one small town to another in search of work, kids visiting grand parents or estranged parents on farms, a fair number of "poor folk" or economy passengers making the commute from San Francisco or Oakland to LA, like myself; and, yes, Australian actresses and angry black men who have suffered too much abuse. In short, an interesting crosscut of humanity. But here in LA the typical southbound passenger was dressed in a business suit and carried a brief case.

As we glided out of the station, a tall, blond-haired, slightly balding guy in a grey pin-stripe--slightly boyish-looking in spite of his age--sat down in the seat next to me. We exchanged friendly hellos, and he opened a somewhat aging tan leather brief case, got out a Wall Street Journal, and began to read.

In the seat in front of us were sitting a young woman with a mass of bond curls--I had noticed her trudging through the terminal with a white suitcase--and a somewhat older guy who looked like he might be her boss. I could see her face in the reflection from the side window as she stared out. She looked nervous, fidgety.

"I don’t know why I’m doing this," she said, turning to the guy who looked like her boss. "My hair looks awful; look at these split ends," she said tugging on a clump of blond curls to show him.

"Where did you meet him?" he asked, ignoring her hair but leaning close to her face, almost as though he were going to kiss her.

"Oh, at a party, Reeby’s party. God is he strong. He picked me up and carried me around the room."

Her seat mate looked unimpressed by the feat--maybe even a little stand-offish for a moment because of it. But he wore that superior look about him as though he understood her far better than she understood herself, and he probably did.

"Oh, I don’t know why I’m doing this," she said again.

He looked at her.

"Well, it’s just for dinner and we’re meeting . . . do you know Nancy and Bill?"

"No," he said dully, as though offering a negative assessment of Nancy and Bill as dinner partners.

"Well, they’re very nice people. Nancy’s in advertising and Bill’s an executive at some big computer thing."

Her seat mate was silent.

She turned and stared out the window again. In the reflection I saw the red lips and the blond curls and the eye-shadow and makeup of the store-bought doll--the perfect purchased image of lush female invitation. Yet it did not work. It did not work at all for her. The eyes were hard, metallic, seeking; the mouth nervous, twitching; the lips tight, in a line, as though bitten by angry incisors. I began to feel almost sorry for this creature who was so much image and so little herself.

She turned back to her seat mate. "I am just so nervous," she said as though talking casually with a girl friend. "You’d think I’d never gone on a date before."

I heard a shuffle of paper as my seat mate put away the Wall Street Journal and got out something else from his brief case. He seemed to be listening to this strange conversation now too.

"You wanna take something," her seat mate asked. "I have some Tri- . . . ."

She looked confused.

"I don’t know. Do you think I should?" she asked tugging at a clump of blond curls again and staring with alarm at the ends. "Will it make me sleepy? I don’t want to fall asleep."

"No, it won’t make you fall asleep," he said, leaning towards her face again as though he were going to kiss her. "It’ll just relax you. I’ll get you some water."

He stood up, waddled down the aisle to the front of the car, and returned presently with a small white paper cup.

It was the first time I could see his face directly. It was plump without being exactly fat and wore an expression of limited omniscience--the face of a god in the realm of, say, accounting or business finance.

"Do you really think I should?" she asked, like a small child not knowing what to do.

I heard my seat mate clear his throat harshly, as though something disagreeable were stuck there.

"It’s mild," her boss-father-would-be-lover-seat-mate assured her. "Just take one."

She took the cup and a pill, swallowed, and seemed to relax, staring silently out the window for awhile. We had just passed through San Juan Capistrano and the train was now traveling parallel to the beach. Between tracks and water there were only a few rows of houses.

Her boss or father--whatever the relationship was--now glanced back and forth between a newspaper that he was half reading and the red-lipped goddess to whom he had just given a pill. He looked curious as a scientist conducting an experiment.

"What depressing little houses," she finally said breaking the silence in a loud voice. "Don’t you think they’re depressing looking," she said.

"Oh, I don’t know," he said knowingly. "They probably cost, oh, at least a couple hundred grand."

"Well, I don’t care what they cost," she said, now sounding like a spoiled-rich, Beverly Hills brat, "they’re depressing looking. I wouldn’t live in one of those if you gave it to me. I’d burn it down."

Her seat mate looked at her with raised eyebrows, my seat mate cleared his throat as though it were full of fish hooks or bones, and I looked out the window to view the offending houses. I saw casual, comfortable beach houses. They did not induce depression in me, but maybe I had been living in a trailer too long to judge between that which was casual and that which was creepy. Anyway, they did not look like they would leak.

"Where’s this guy live," her--let’s just call him her boss, okay?--asked rather bluntly.

"In La Jolla," she said, her features changing from those of depression to those of elation. "I hear he just bought a giant Spigler with a knock-out view of . . . ."

It had been awhile since I had rated a dwelling in terms of its size or its "view." All the places I had lived for the last ten years had been sufficiently small as to be cozy, and all had had "knock-out" views in all four directions--five if you counted the stars at night. But I don’t think she would have been impressed by cabins, shacks, and trailers.

Okay, she wasn’t my type, my trailer wasn’t a mansion, but I did not hold this against her.

Vive la difference. And all that.

But what did surprise me briefly was that such a creature still existed. Had not feminist propaganda exterminated this species ages ago? I felt like the archeologist who, after digging in the desert for forty years for Pithocus X, discovers one having a scotch & soda in a bar.

"My stomach’s beginning to hurt," she began to whine like a sick child. "Does Tri-whatever-it’s-called make you sick to your stomach?"

"Not usually," her seat-mate responded, now sounding like a family physician, "not if you eat something with it. Want me to get you some crackers or something?"

"No," she said, "I don’t want to spoil my appetite. We’re going to this really far-out place that Rick Johnson and his wife . . . ."

The mention of food reminded me that I had brought along a bottle of wine and some cheese. I got out the wine and poured some into a plastic cup. The cup was split at the top--I had crushed it during my hasty retreat from the young Germans in the morning--so I filled it only half full. Not exactly high class, but then I was on a budget that precluded most restaurants recommended by Rick Johnson and his wife, and even the train’s snack bar.

A tall, grey-bearded conductor in vest and visor cap--the vestments of this profession do not seem to change--came down the aisle now, pulling tickets from the clips above the seats. We were approaching San Diego, the end of the line.

My seat mate was staring intensely at a small chart filled with numbers and symbols that looked like phases of the moon.

He sighed.

"Ah, just what I need," he said looking at my plastic cup.

"Want some?" I asked.

"No, thanks," he said. "I usually wait till I get home."

"No need to wait," I said. "I’ve got another bottle."

"That’s okay," he said.

"I like to smell like cheap red wine when I get off at the station," I babbled on for some reason. "You get a little more respect or elbow room that way. I haven’t figured out which."

The mass of blond curls in front of us seemed to twitch slightly.

"Good idea," he said, as the conductor approached us. "Any new jokes?" he asked the conductor--it appeared this was routine with them--as that timeless-looking gentleman pulled our two cancelled tickets from overhead.

"Nothing today," said the conductor in a wry, friendly manner, glancing over at the blond who was now holding her stomach. "How ‘bout you?"

"Oh, well, maybe one little one," said my seat mate, clearing his throat and speaking somewhat louder. "Wanna hear it?"

"Fire away," said the conductor, grabbing the overhead rail to steady himself.

"Well, this old guy who’s loaded with money," began my seat mate, "gets married late in life, marries this young beautiful thing. A bond or maybe a brunette--I can’t remember. But anyway she’s got all this hair falling all over the place in little curls."

"So what do you know, he’s always begging her for a blow job. But she finds him repulsive, doesn’t like the way he smells down there, and won’t do it. She has a lover, naturally, and she saves that for him. Well, when the old guy dies she has him cremated as soon as the papers are signed; and no one, not even her lover, can figure out why because the poor old guy was pyrophobic, had alarms all over the house, and cringed at the very word ‘cremation.’"

"So it seemed unusual, if not cruel, to have him cremated."

"Well, the day after she has him cremated she goes down to the funeral parlor with her lover to get the ashes. She is very serious about it, as though fulfilling some holy obligation. On the way back her lover drives the car while she clutches the urn to her breast like a baby. When they get back home to their fabulously beautiful house with a terrific view of the ocean or the hills or something, and they are sitting on the old poop’s favorite couch, her lover is about to ask her why she is so solemn--she still clutches the urn--when she raises the vessel before her, lifts the lid, and closes her eyes, her lips pursed and open. She inhales, her face contorts unpleasantly with the odor of the ashes and then she exhales."

"'Well, there’s your blow job, George,' she says to the urn. 'Sorry, but that’s the only way I could do it.'"

The mass of blond curls twitched and turned back towards the window.

Did she deserve that? I don’t know. Did she understand it? Don’t know that either.

Her attending physician looked outraged. "Does Tri- . . .," she began.

The conductor released his grip on the overhead rail. "San Diego, next stop, last stop, San Diego," he shouted cheerily as he moved on down the aisle collecting tickets.

I saw that what my seat mate had been looking at was a tide chart.

He cleared his throat one more time. It seemed to be clear now, and he went back to studying the chart that was laid out flat on his brief case.

"Hope the surf’s up tomorrow," he said with a boyish grin. "Wanna try out a new long board I got. You surf?"

"Not any more," I said. "Water’s too cold where I come from."

"What about a wet suit?" he asked.

I was about to say I couldn’t afford a dry suit, let alone a wet one. But I dropped it.

"That’s an idea," I said.

The train was slowing. I would be getting off soon. But for a moment I let it all came back, or pile up like derailed passenger cars: garbage math and the Oakland Bridge; old stuff rusting by the back fence; a sinfully hot valley named for a saint; a young woman full of hope and a black man with a dream gone sour; blonds, blow jobs, and surfer jokes. You name it, it was all there, ready for the torch or the recycling bin. In the state that delights, disgusts, dazzles, and dismays.

(Amount due: $1. Surprise, startle author with payment.)

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