Idaho – November 1979

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Far, far below: a patchwork quilt of green and dull brown. In my ears, the muted roar of jet engines. My parents, Grant, and I are on our way to Idaho for my cowgirl aunt’s wedding. My grandparents bought me a ticket, because it was time that I took an airplane.

The stewardesses push the drink cart towards our seat. My father’s eyes light up. He orders a gin and tonic. When the stewardesses move on, he snickers and slips the tiny glass bottle into my mother’s purse. You’re not supposed to take them off the airplane. A few minutes later he flags down a stewardess and orders another one. She gives him a dirty look as she hands him the bottle. I’ll give them to my friends at work, he whispers to my mother. It’s his first time on an airplane, too. He hasn’t drunk any alcohol in years, except for wine at church. That doesn’t count, because it’s the blood of Christ.

Grant babbles and hums in his deep musical voice as he bounces up and down on my mother’s lap. Recounting a tale only he can understand. The other passengers laugh. He is nine months old now. He has so much to say, but no words to say it yet.

I lean my forehead against the cold glass window and watch the fabric of the Earth turn to ripples of white and gray. The Rocky Mountains. My heart flutters. Most of my aunts and uncles moved out West right after they graduated from high school. Their faces are blurred in my mind. My mother’s address book is filled with their current and former addresses. They move around so much. Newport Beach. Santa Ana. Costa Mesa. Bend. Hailey. Sometimes they come back at Christmas, but never at the same time. They call instead, and the phone is passed around to those few who stayed behind. Every year their voices become more distant and unfamiliar. One summer, I wrote letters to them. A couple of them wrote me back once, and then I never heard from them again.

We are the last to arrive in Ketchum. Hugs and laughter. Loud, excited talk. They are all together again after so many years. Those who now live in these parts say howdy instead of hello. They wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and flannel shirts.

Howdy! I reply.

In the hours before the wedding, my mother, Grant, and I hang out in my California aunt’s hotel room along with the other women. My cowgirl aunt and her best friend sit behind me on the bed, while another aunt writes out place settings in calligraphy. A hand reaches out and snaps my bra. The room goes silent. I look behind me. My cowgirl aunt and her friend giggle. My mother shakes her head at them. I blush and look down at my hands, too ashamed to cry. I know that I don’t need one, even though I am eleven. My mother only bought it for me, because all the other girls in my class are wearing bras. She hopes it will make them tease me less. My cowgirl aunt has always been beautiful and popular. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be a dork with no friends.

For the wedding, I wear a red empire waist dress and brown clogs. My mother says that this type of dress is good for thin girls. She rubs some rouge into my cheeks to give my pale face a little color. The church has a large glass window that looks out to the mountains. Most of the pews are empty, because the gathering is only close family and friends. The photographer is a friend of my cowgirl aunt and new uncle. His postcards of Idaho scenery are for sale in gift shops around Sun Valley. He has thick blonde hair and a weird name. A cowboy name. His movements are slow and careless, but there’s a crafty glint in his eyes. He puts his arm around people when he talks to them, even if they’ve only just met.

The reception is at a famous hotel. Just before we enter the building, the photographer takes my hand and leads me to a tall pine tree. He places my hands on the branches. I should feel happy that he wants to take my photo, because I’m ugly. But I don’t like him. My parents stand behind him and smile. My mother looks sad. My father looks proud. The photographer gives my father a dirty look and steps in front of him. Smile, pretty girl.

I lift the corners of my mouth, pressing my lips together to hide my crooked teeth.

Inside the hotel, the photographer takes my photo again next to a metal sun. He moves closer to me, blocking my parents out of sight, and aims the camera at my head. One eye behind the camera. The other eye staring deep into mine. Cold determination. My stomach churns.

I sit across from my parents for dinner. Every few minutes, someone taps a fork on a glass. Everyone joins in, whooping and cheering until my new uncle grabs my cowgirl aunt and gives her a kiss. For dessert there is something called cherries jubilee, which has alcohol in it. The waitresses light the glasses on fire. This burns up the alcohol, I am told, but I can still taste it. Sharp, bitter. People must only like it because it makes them feel good.

A man from my new uncle’s family tells a story about a horseshoe nail. When he sits back down, the photographer calls me over to him. Everyone will be mad if I’m rude to such a fun and nice guy, so I walk over to him. The photographer puts his arm around my shoulders and draws me close. This is what we’re going to do. I’m going to tap my fork on the glass and then I’m going to steal a kiss from you. His grip on my arm tightens.

I look over at my parents. Like everyone else, my mother is looking at my cowgirl aunt and new uncle and cheering. My father is staring straight ahead with that strange empty look in his eyes. His lips are moving. He’s talking to himself again, but no one notices. No one ever notices anything.

The photographer puts his hand on my face and forces my cheek to his lips. A white-hot wave moves through me. I tear myself away and storm back to my chair as the cheers die down.

What’s she pouting about now?

Always needs to be the center of attention.

I grit my teeth and choke back tears. I don’t want him to touch me. Just because they all like him doesn’t mean I have to. I don’t look at the photographer again for the rest of the dinner.

We stay until the restaurant staff tells us that we have to leave, because they are closing. The photographer inches towards me, sliding between people, hand outstretched. I move close to my father and look away. My father smiles down at me and puts his warm hand on my head. He sees me now. I am safe. The photographer makes the rounds, hugging some people, shaking hands with others. He then strolls away, down the darkened path between the tall pine trees. He turns once to look at me and wave.

What a neat guy he is!

So easy-going!

A real character!

The party is moved to my Idaho uncle’s hotel room. He takes out a Mason jar that’s filled with clear liquid. Corn whiskey. Moonshine! He takes a swig and coughs. It’s time to get Grant from the babysitter, so my parents say goodnight. As we walk out the door, the uncles push the beds against the wall so people can dance. My parents walk ahead of me. My mother’s head hangs low. Her shoulders slump forward.

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The next morning after breakfast, we pile into vans and rental cars. I load a fresh roll of film into my camera, a Keystone Everflash 10. It’s a hand-me-down from my grandfather. It has a built-in flash and something called an electric eye. Someone gives me a road map to look at. I watch the road signs and chart our progress to Stanley. There is much talk of a hot springs, but when we get there I’m disappointed to see that it’s just a tiny, stinky pool of water by the roadside. I had imagined a waterfall, or something. Everyone lines up next to it for a family photo. Laughter and shouts of amazement. They are always so enthusiastic about everything. At other lookout points, I take photos of the snow-capped Sawtooth Mountains.

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When we get to Galena Summit, the uncle who moved to California to become a millionaire says, Hey, Julie! I’m going to go look up at the sign like I’m surprised and then you take a picture!

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Then we turn around and drive back to my uncle’s house in Hailey.

Suitcases are loaded. Goodbyes are said. Cars drive away. A silence creeps into my uncle’s place. He paces back and forth for a while, and then he loads some shotguns into his pickup truck. My grandmother and I squeeze into the truck with him and a couple of his friends. We are going to a canyon to shoot off the guns. The mountains that rise above this canyon are a dingy brown. Not as pretty as the Sawtooths. But they are mountains, and I stare up at them.

Can I climb up there?

Go ahead. But go up this side, because we’re shooting the other way. We’ll honk the horn when we’re ready to leave.

My wedge heel fashion boots slip on the loose rock. A stone gouges a small hole in the fake leather. I keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, even though it’s November. The peak is just up ahead already. But when I get there, another peak appears just beyond. The gunshots and cowboy whoops echo off the canyon walls. I am climbing a mountain in Idaho! No other kid I know has ever done that. And I’m doing it all by myself. Higher and higher I climb, but the real peak keeps slipping out of reach. Soon I hear nothing but the wind and my pounding heart. I turn and stare down at the canyon. The dirt road is just a thin line. A gust of wind blows, carrying the faint sound of a horn and someone calling my name. I look once more at the top, and then start back down.

You really climbed up high, young lady!

I thought I was almost at the top a few times, but then it was just another small hill on the way up.

My uncle looks at me from under the brim of his cowboy hat. His eyes twinkle like my grandfather’s. That’s called a ridge. It takes a long time to climb to the top of a mountain. But you did a really good job. He ruffles my hair as I climb into the truck. My grandmother puts her arm around me and squeezes. That’s my tough girl. My face flushes with joy. My mother will probably get mad about the hole in my favorite boots, but I don’t even care. Every time I look at it I will remember.

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**These are the very same photos that I took during the trip, except for the last one of myself with my younger cousin standing near the hot springs, which was (obviously) taken by someone else. I still remember the smell of film fresh from the envelope. A smell like things kept forever.**

Return to the Garden

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Midland, Michigan, USA – October 2012

When I knock on her front door, she doesn’t know who I am. “Dobrý deň, Pani.” I hold up the bag of tomatoes from my mother’s garden. She knows that I live in Slovakia now. “Would you like some tomatoes?”

Dobrý deň,” she answers, still no recognition in her eyes. “Come on in.”

I follow her into the dining room. Maybe she just isn’t that excited to see me. We talk about the weather and the changing leaves until my mother comes in a few minutes later. I asked her to wait around the corner for a few minutes so that it could really be a surprise.

I look at her and shake my head. Her face goes pale. “Mom, it’s Julie.”

In my grandmother’s eyes, the turbulence of muddled memory. “No, it’s not! It doesn’t even look like her!”

“You shouldn’t let strangers into your house, Grandma.”

“Oh, I can take care of myself.” She shuffles around the living room and shows me the weapons she has hidden in strategic places – a hammer, a letter opener. And there is her faithful dog Chaz.

Her eyes hold no recognition of me, even as I walk out the door.

A few days later, she calls me. “I’ve got some stuff that needs doing around here.” Her memory is back. I grip the phone and sigh.

“You don’t have to do it,” my mother says, her face full of hurt. “She hasn’t seen you for five years and she calls you up to work?”

“It’s okay,” I say, trying to stifle the resentment. The only way to communicate with Grandma is to work for her. It has been that way ever since I was old enough to hold a paintbrush. “She’s eighty-eight. This is probably the last time I’ll see her.”

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When I show up, she takes one look at my clothes and shakes her head. “You can fill the bird feeders.”

As I carry the ladder across the leaf-strewn lawn, I step in dog shit.

“Oh, calm down. Just clean it off with a stick.”

I fill up the riding lawn mower with gas, take down some tools from high places and replace others.

“Let me drink a coffee and think about other things you can do.” She goes into the house.

I walk down the long cement path towards the sunken garden. The hedges are now trimmed by a landscaping company. It is paid for by my uncle. Grandma nags the workers and eventually fires them, so my uncle keeps rehiring new people. Midland is not a big city. There are only so many landscaping companies.

Her property spans three city lots. It is one of the largest private properties within the Midland city limits. My grandfather crafted it into three sections: a vegetable garden behind the house, an open field for sports in the middle, and a sunken Japanese garden at the very back. An A-frame tea house, a heavy stone lantern, a cherry tree, a stone waterfall, a cement pond. He fell in love with this look when he passed through Japan during WWII. Each of his seven children had their prom and/or graduation photos taken on the bridge over the robin’s egg blue-colored pond.

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When I was small, I would lose myself here. It was no longer Midland, but Japan, or some unknown mysterious land. I crept along the stone waterfall under the bridge. Distant sounds kept me just barely anchored to earth. Laughter and shouts from my aunts and uncles playing baseball. The meaty thuds of horseshoes hitting sand pits. The older generation’s game of preference. I explored every hidden corner of this sanctuary. Behind every bush and tree. Even inside the tiny copse where no one ever strayed. I wanted to see and learn everything about everywhere.

One by one, the aunts and uncles drifted away to the mountains and the far coast. I became too big to fit under the bridge. My brother, my sister, and I would climb up the A-frame, and then afterwards dig splinters out of our feet and hands with sewing needles. As a teenager, during a family reunion, I outdrank my cousin Tom back here. With the help of Great-aunt Monica, we had unlimited access to beer. He puked in the pond. I continued to drink and got sick on the living room couch. This was the first story Grandma told when she met my friends and boyfriends. I probably deserved it.

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I doubt she remembers this now. Such is the physics of our own individual Universe. We explode into being, the boundaries of our existence expand outward for a time, and then they contract until the inevitable implosion. The only thing that remains is I. A bewildering isolation.

Maybe I’ll be gone by then.

I sit on the stone steps leading down to the garden and watch the languid tumble of leaves to earth.

There are things I wish I had never seen or heard or done or felt in my life. Why did I have to go looking for everything?

The A-frame has been replaced by a simple square gazebo. Violets have overrun the stone waterfall. The bridge railings are loose; the wood is rotting. The only beings that hang out back here these days are deer and partying teenagers. I remember some kind of crisp, pine-smelling bushes, but they are gone, too. The pond is full of leaves and stagnant water. I will ask her if she wants me to sweep it out.

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The Witches

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*This is an excerpt from the memoir, much abridged for internet attention spans. It is darker than my usual posts. Mental illness, people on the perimeter of society. Readers who find these subjects uncomfortable might want to skip this one.*

San Diego, California, USA – Summer 1989

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” He holds out a bony hand. Death’s head grin on his gaunt face. He emits a dank, organic odor. Ancient soil entombed in a cellar.

“Why do you think I’m a witch?” I push open the door and enter my apartment. He hovers in the doorway until I beckon him inside. I haven’t had a conversation in over a week. “You’re the manager’s roommate, aren’t you?”

He bats his eyelashes. “Houseboy. I’m his houseboy. My name’s Karl. Your name’s Julie, isn’t it?” He giggles. “I looked on the rental agreement.”

I grimace. “Sorry. Not a very mysterious name, is it?”

His grin widens into a rictus. He walks over to the window and looks out.

“You want some tea? It’s all I’ve got, except tap water.” My throat tightens. “Money’s tight. I’m only working part time at a bookstore. Haven’t been able to find a restaurant job yet.” I grit my teeth and look away.

He nods slowly. “The witches are making it hard on you. They always do at first.” He tosses his curls and sits at the tiny table. Demure crossing of the legs. “Tea would be lovely.”

I put the kettle on the stove. “What do you mean by witches?”

“This place is full of bad witches. They don’t like newcomers, especially ones as powerful as you.”

I smile, flattered by this bizarre praise. Across the alley, the piano music begins. Hesitant fingers on random keys. Sometimes it’s only a few notes and then it fades to silence. Sometimes the sad, haunting melody goes on a while. Every time it plays, I sit next to the window and listen, nodding my head in understanding. I open my mouth to ask Karl if he knows where it’s coming from. A plane roars overhead, shaking the building, cutting off my thought.

Again the spooky, clownlike grin. “Let’s have tea on the roof.”

We grab our cups and walk down the shadowy hallway. When we get to the stairs, I reach out and pull on the part of the padlock that’s attached to the door. It comes off in my hand. I look at Karl in astonishment. “I don’t know how I knew that it was Velcro.”

His eyes glow in the shadows.

We climb up the narrow staircase and step out to the roof. Before us is a row of apartments, the Five freeway that’s clogged with evening traffic, the airport runway, and, at the end of it all, the sunset’s glow.

A plane approaches from behind. Karl raises his arms and screams as it flies overhead. It’s so low that I can see faces staring down at us.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m stealing its power.” He drops his arms and exhales. “Try it with me.”

We sip our tea until another plane approaches. This time I raise my arms with Karl and scream. I let out all of the frustration that’s been building up since I moved to San Diego. All of the fear. When I drop my arms, I burst into laughter.

“You see. It works.”

* * *

The manager stands at the front of the small room. He picks up a pile of papers and clears his throat. “Our job application and interview process is, uh, innovative. We want to hire a person, not an employee.” He beams with pride as he passes the applications around to the hopefuls, some of whom I’ve seen at other group interviews. Mouths frozen into cheerful grimaces. Eyes full of menace. The forced camaraderie has vanished. This isn’t Palm Springs. Competition for restaurant jobs is brutal.

I wipe my sweaty palms on my skirt and ready my pen.

What is a quality you most admire in people?

Honesty.

What was the last book you read?

It by Stephen King.

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I look out the window and think of what they might want to hear. I hesitate, and then write the truth.

I want to go everywhere.

* * *

Stupid, stupid. I choke back tears as I fumble with the lock on my door. I should have lied and put France or Disneyworld or some other normal place. Everywhere implies indecisiveness, instability. They want someone who’s going to stay for a long time.

I burst into my apartment and slam the door behind me. Hunger gnaws at my insides. I touch the throbbing cysts that have sprouted on my jawline and cheeks. I collapse on the couch and bury my face in a pillow. The piano music drifts across the alley, keeping time with my sobs. It’s choppy, angry. A soundtrack for a discordant life. And then, a soft knock on my door.

I take a deep breath and try to compose myself. “Come in. It’s open.”

Karl peeks in, hesitant grin on his face. “You wanna go and see Rocky Horror tonight? It’s playing up in Kensington.”

I walk into the bathroom, tear off some toilet paper, and blow my nose. “I haven’t got any money.” I clench the snotty ball of paper so hard that my knuckles turn white. “I stole an apple yesterday because I was so hungry. I was walking home from the bookstore and there was a basket outside a shop and I just reached over and grabbed one as I walked by. I’ve never shoplifted before.” My rage subsides. I laugh and shake my head. “I can’t believe how easy it was.”

He shifts his weight from one foot to the other and giggles. “Michael gave me money. I have enough for you too, but you gotta dress up. The witches will be there.” His eyes brighten. “You must confront them eventually. Look what they’re doing to you.” He points a bony finger at the fresh crop of pustules on my face. A whiff of rot hits me.

I recoil. “What’s that smell?”

“Garlic. It’s coming out of my pores.” He stretches his neck from side to side. “I’ve been eating a whole bulb a day. To kill the bad things in me. And to keep the witches away.” He flutters his fingers at me as he flits out the door. “I’ll come and get you at eleven. Show starts at midnight. Wear something…fetish.”

I don’t know what he means by fetish, so I dress in my weirdest clothes. I put on tight black jeans and a black lace top with the accessories that I bought on my last trip with Ali to London – wide black latex and lace belt, black leather boots with metal skull buckles, and leather cap. I smile at the memory of the strange shops on High Street. Dancing all night to some new music called Acid House.

I take off the belt and throw a flannel shirt over my lace top. This is San Diego, not London. I grab my purse and walk to the door. When I open it, Karl is standing there, hand suspended and ready to knock.

“Oh my God.”

He flutters his eyelashes and fingers a strand of pearls around his throat. “You like it?” He’s wearing piss yellow satin gym shorts over white tights. Grimy white sneakers. A black leather jacket over a chest adorned only by the pearls. A tight leather cap with horns on his head.

I shake my head in wonder. “I think you’ve outdone yourself. Wherever did you get that diabolical thing?”

“It’s a Pan mask.” He pulls it off and unfolds it. It’s a full face mask with only slits for eyes and mouth. “Michael wears it when he beats me. I can’t see well enough to wear the whole thing over my face.” He refolds it and pulls it over his curls.

“You’ll be the belle of the ball.”

His eyes moisten. “You think so?”

When we arrive at the theater, the crowd opens up and welcomes us in. Magenta-wigged transvestite maids, bespectacled dorks, and other costumed beauties fawn over Karl and his pearls. I stand to the side and watch this assortment of misfits, wondering which ones are the witches.

Karl offers me his arm. He sashays me down the aisle. We slip into our seats as the theater darkens and a spectacle of gleeful defiance unfolds. An outcast extravaganza. By the end of the show, I’m moved to tears.

“Thanks for inviting me.” I say as we drive home. “I needed that.”

“They were there. Watching you.”

“The witches.”

He nods. “I don’t think they like you.”

* * *

I pull open the heavy wooden door and step inside. A tattooed hulk of a man sits behind a podium next to a heavy red vinyl curtain. Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” is playing at high volume.

“I’m here about the ad in the paper for a waitress.”

“I need to see some ID,” he barks.

I dig in my purse for my fake ID. My eyes slowly adjust to the dim light. When I look up, my eyes land on a framed photo. I gasp. “This is a topless bar!” I put my hand to my mouth and stumble through the door into the bright sunlight.

The man’s raucous laugh echoes in my ears.

I sit in my car and stare through the grimy windshield. A black box building in the middle of an industrial district. A void in the sunlight. Deep, throbbing music. Garish neon sign. Even an idiot could see that it isn’t a normal bar. I lay my head on the steering wheel and close my eyes.

“Ever seen someone who scared the shit out of you?”

I look up. A blonde woman is leaning on the hood of my car. She’s wearing a black midi top and short shorts, like some 1940’s pinup model. Everything about her is faded, like she stepped out of an overexposed Polaroid photo. Faint acne scars shadow her cheeks. Her eyes are lusterless. Dreams are dead and so what.

She walks over to me, exhaling cigarette smoke over her shoulder. She bends over and sticks her head in the car window. “There was this guy who came into the club once.” She frowns and shakes her head. “No. Not here. I was working at some shithole in Guam. Out in the Pacific you hear all kinds of things about military tests and UFO’s and whatnot. Anyways, one night I was dancing on stage and a guy stumbled in and sat down at the stage. He was wearing a suit. No one wears suits in Guam, because it’s too damn hot. His eyes looked like he just saw the devil. He was shaking and staring at nothing. At first I thought he was a psycho. You see them sometimes in this business. I even leaned over and asked him if he was. Then his eyes got real sad and I felt bad for saying it because then I knew he wasn’t. Psychos never have remorse.” She takes a long drag off her cigarette and holds it for a moment. Her eyes flicker with remembrance, and then fizzle out again. She looks at me. “What did he see that made him look like that? I still think about that sometimes. All the things we don’t know about. Going on behind our backs.” She grinds the cigarette into the pavement with her scuffed heel and walks back towards the club.

I close my eyes for a moment and breath deeply. When I open them, she has already vanished. And somehow I know that I’ll work in such a place and be okay with it. Not now, but someday.

What is happening to me?

* * *

“There are only three printing shops in San Diego with this kind of photocopier. They’re all protected by a special alarm system.” Karl points at a tiny shop. “This one will be the easiest one to get into. I’ve already scoped it out.”

We stop in front of an electronics store on the opposite side of the street. Television sets play the same program, but they’re out of sync by milliseconds. I stare at them. Humans are like that. Broadcasting the same reality, but trapped in the isolation of our egos. Are we all but apparitions wandering oblivious in parallel purgatories?

“What?”

“I didn’t say anything. Let’s go down to the beach.”

As we drive down to Ocean Beach, we discuss the details of Karl’s plan to counterfeit money. “If we do big bills, we can have more money in less time,” he explains. “We don’t want to stay in that place longer than we have to.”

“Yes, but big bills are more conspicuous. Maybe you can do some hundreds for yourself and I’ll do twenties.” My heart pounds. “We have to think of all the things that can go wrong. We shouldn’t be too greedy.”

“The hardest part will be getting into and out of the shop. Passing off the bills will be easy, especially in Mexico.”

I pull into a parking place across from a taco shop and shut off the engine. “Mexico.”

“I’m gonna do this and get the hell out.” He looks out the window. “The other day I went to Balboa Park to look for a john. I was at the Y earlier and didn’t score there. I found a guy right away at the park.” His voice breaks. “He hurt me.”

“Why did you do it? Isn’t Michael taking care of you?”

“Michael would throw me out if he knew. He’s trying to save me from all of that. But I couldn’t stop myself. I was compelled. The witches…”

I open my door and step out. “Let’s get some air.”

We sit on the hood of the car and watch the full moon shining on the waves. Karl lights a joint and passes it to me.

“I can’t believe that I’m desperate enough to consider this.” I clench the smoke in my lungs. Then a long, relieved exhale. “I’ve felt bad before, but I always thought that if I worked hard enough, I would eventually succeed. I’ve always been able to take care of myself. It’s like I’m being punished for being so confident. I had two years of awesome luck, but it’s over. It’s never going to be good again. My dreams are withering up. Maybe this is the life I’m meant to lead. I feel…”

“Doomed.”

I laugh. “Yep. That’s it exactly.”

“So you’re going to do it.”

“I don’t know. Probably. Let me think about it for a couple of days.”

A young man with long black hair glides across the parking lot towards us. He’s dressed in black. His eyes are piercing blue nuggets. He asks if we live in Ocean Beach. He lives here, but he used to live in Chula Vista. His name’s Juan. He works in a printer shop. It’s one of those on Karl’s list. Not the one we looked at earlier, but another one. The light in his eyes intensifies. He plays in a band called The Doomed. Karl and I say, “No fucking way.” He grins at us. Two other guys join us. They’re in The Doomed, too. So we know it’s real. Karl and I look at each other and shake our heads. The Doomed wave goodbye and tell us to come and watch them play sometime.

“You saw him, too.” I say as we drive home. I poke Karl’s shoulder. “And you’re real, aren’t you?”

He makes a face. “Why do you always question your sanity?”

I stare at the road ahead. “My father has schizophrenia. He hears and sees people that aren’t there. It’s genetic.”

“I’m really here.”

I fall silent. That’s what they tell my father, too.

* * *

I stare out the window at the yellowed lace curtains. And I know that, from the other side, I’m being watched. The piano’s last notes still resonate in the air.

I hear a voice that sounds like mine. “That piano is so spooky.”

Karl sits at my table. He dips corn chips into a jar of hot sauce and stuffs them into his mouth. “What piano?” he says through a mouthful of chips.

“Didn’t you hear it?”

“That’s not a piano. That’s a woman’s voice. Singing.”

As if on cue, the music starts up again. It is indeed a voice, but the words are obscured. I shake my head to clear the fog. “There’s this girl I see in my mind. She looks like me. Blonde and skinny. Bad skin. She wants to be an actress. She’s taking a class at the local junior college, because that’s all she can afford. She has a crush on her acting teacher. He’s a sadistic prick, but he hides it well. When she looks at him she sees a light. Not a soft, fuzzy light, but a searing blue-white one. It nauseates her, but she can’t look away. He’s impressed by her talent, even jealous. He wants to mooch her energy.”

Karl nods his head up and down in time with his crunching. His eyes roll back in his head.

My voice goes on. “There’s an old woman who lives in the apartment building across the alley from this girl. She can see into the old woman’s bedroom from her kitchen. The old woman watches her from behind her thin white curtains. One day, the curtains are open and she sees the old woman sitting in front of her vanity mirror. The old woman turns to stare at the girl. She’s made up her face like some 1920’s starlet. She smiles at the girl as if she wants her approval. The girl can’t deal with all the sorrow around her, seeping into her pores. Do you think we can have portals into someone else’s reality?”

The lace curtains undulate as if in reply. I turn from the window. Karl empties the last of the crumbs into his mouth. “Yes, but we forget about them when we merge with them.”

“She’s braver than I am. I want to be an actress, too.” I walk over and sit at the table. “My grandmother says that actresses are whores.” A surge of despair rises up. “I wish I could kill myself.”

“Why do you care what some old woman thinks? You always question yourself. The more I know about you the less I’m impressed.” He unfolds one of the cloth napkins and wipes his greasy hands.

“Isn’t it like that with everyone you meet? Have you ever met anyone who grows more mysterious every day?”

He blinks a few times and then shrugs.

“I’m sorry. I can’t go through with it. I got a job at the new hotel in the marina.”

He pushes back from the table and walks out the door.

* * *

Karl sits on my floor, rocking back and forth. “Didn’t do the money. I went to Mexico. Tijuana, then someplace else. Met some people. Worked the streets. Smoked some crack. Anubis was following me.” He rocks back and forth. His eyes roll around in his skull.

I take a deep breath. “I’m leaving San Diego at the end of the month.”

“I knew you wouldn’t stay here long.” He nods. “L.A.”

I shake my head. “No. Not yet.”

“Michael says he wants me to leave. He says that I do nothing but babble. ‘No more strays’, he says. He regrets…” He traces his finger around a dark pattern in the carpet. He rocks back and forth. “The jackal. Anubis. Devour dead eat flesh in the tomb. Going back to Mexico. Anubis. Look here. You see him, too.”

“What about the witches, Karl?”

“Witches.” He frowns. He says a few more things that might be words, but I don’t recognize them.

“You have to leave, Karl.” I go to the door and open it.

He glides out. The smell of decay lingers.

“You’re the witches,” I whisper as I lock the door.