As I cross Alameda and head toward Main, in the near distance, I see an unkempt man on his back, passed out on the sidewalk. He’s pissed his pants. Legs tucked up, his knees pointing to Venus, an hour before she’ll appear.
Next to him, in an upside-down cage of a shopping cart meows an anorexic excuse for a cat. As I walk past, navigate the littered sidewalk, the cat paces side to side, rubbing its fur off the bars. Like everything else on this planet, it cries to be free.
Dad says, “Don’t make eye contact they’ll want something from you.” I’m barely seventeen, but I’ve never met someone who didn’t.
I’m part of a social science project we’ve titled, “What Went Wrong in America.” What better place to research than a city named after angels?
From the front porch at the back of the universe, we must appear as a dying star about to enter a black hole. You’re not supposed to be here, in the streets, unless you’ve run out of purpose.
Granted, they’re wayward asteroids out here, the ones streaking pastLa-La Land seeking otherworldly distractions, interplanetary tourists, slung out of orbits, sporting odd names like Omaha, Nebraska, Spokane, and Boise. They appear out of nowhere, as I do, aliens, at the expense of the inhabitants. They create digital photos on smartphones to prove what they see on TV.
Los Angeles is one of a handful of petri dish cities on our planet. A environ where advertiser’s test market strength, how to move money from the bottom to the top, regardless of product. Sociologists say it’s due to the thatch of ethnicity in LA, and the brambles of homogenous demography.
The city has often been compared to a metaphorical, mongrel-mutt down at the SPCA, a little of this, a little of that. Certain cities have created control groups, existential experiments, to see if something is going to sell. If it doesn’t, then it spreads to other cities, counties, and states. Just like any other social disease.
I choose not to stick out, so I haven’t bathed in days, a week if I’m being honest. Dad says, “If you’re going to do something, do it right. Go all in.” I’ve even wiped the stink of aftershave from my shaved face.
It must be the chill in the air that makes my eyes water. I’ve watched plenty of horror movies.
As I glance at my watch, I notice I’ve been walking for over an hour. I’m too sick to take notes about all the cardboard condos and see-thru Visqueen houses. Army/Navy surplus tents, make-shift dens, the occasional desolate family room, sticky damp under blue weathered plastic.
I’ll be honest. It’s the same smell as the shithouse up at the state fair in Sacramento. Capital Cow Town is what we call it. The city is all about politics, a place where hardly anything gets done but collecting taxes.
I look straight ahead as I walk. But it’s difficult not to see. Bankrupt armies have won battles to liberate real estate. The legions don’t seem to care if I’m here. They’re too distracted with the business of surviving, or worse, dying.
There’s the ever-present smell of shitty weed, a sure sign of escape. Vomit, and slip and slide that looks a lot like food, broken whiskey bottles that crack under my shoes, empty needles, and tiny scorched aluminum bowls. Vegetables and fresh fruit are ghosts. Everything consumed here ends up between two yellow, stiff sheets of white bread, hold the mayo, please. All of this takes my breath away. Hell, what am I saying? This adjunct emptiness takes away all of my senses.
I’ve seen enough for my essay, much more than I expected. It takes a while to get my bearings. I’m headed back in the direction of my pickup. I’ve completely lost track of time. It’s easy to do when you lose your way.In layers of swelling darkness, the universe begins to feast on the weakest shadows. That’s how blackness makes everything invisible.
My throat feels tight. It’s like when you and your childhood buddies choke each other dizzy and high until you become unstable, stumble, and nearly pass out on the lawn. Sometimes you end up on your hands and knees, look up and amaze yourself with all the sparkling pinholes in the expanding blackness.
The last you recall before you’re in control again is the laughter, and the sound of wind escaping the planet, the rush. And then, for one split second, you are one of the stars. Only today isn’t fun. It’s horrifying.
Based on what I’ve seen, I should be afraid, but I’m not. I’m disgusted.
Somehow, I find my truck. I unlock the door and get inside.
I freeze in place. Everything freezes. I think, is this how the new world ends?
After the longest time, maybe a minute, I start the engine and exit the parking lot. I head out for one of those L.A. freeways. I don’t remember the directions; I’ll trust that my GPS knows its way back.
Soon I’ll re-enter the atmosphere, an alien.
Dan’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in the Apple in the Dark, Aphelion, BlazeVOX, Bull, Cleaver, Coffin Bell, Door=Jar, Entropy, Dark City Magazine, Gravel, Lowestoft Chronicles, Mystery Tribune, New Flash Fiction Review, Poetry Northwest, Spelk, and Your Impossible Voice. Best of the Net Anthology Nomination, Coffin Bell, 2020.