19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
- from Kerouac’s “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”
They found Franklin’s body in the tar pits on Thursday. It had been a month and he was preserved like an insect in amber. I went to go see Colin on Sunday. His mother was making funeral arrangements and she set the paperwork aside to make me a mimosa. The champagne was flat but it was okay. It was sunny out, the sky wide and bright and clear, but there was a cold bite in the air. It was November. She had unplugged the phone.
Walt was asleep on the beach when I went down to Santa Monica that afternoon. I sat next to him and he stirred and looked up at me with bleary bloodshot eyes and pulled his shirt over his back to hide the long, red burn scar. It had been there as long as I’d known him but he always pretended none of us knew. Of course we did. Walt didn’t like to say a thing about anything. We packed a bowl and smoked it, cupping our hands to protect the light from the wind. The ocean looked endless. I said “Colin’s lost his shit.” Walt made this hmm sound, a buzz through his thin, pursed lips. His eyes were closed. When dusk was heavy over the water he told me in a whisper all he wanted was to go back to Hawaii.
When I was ten in Texas my father’s company drilled a well that started to gush. It started to gush for real so we went out to see it. You can’t possibly know what it’s like until you see it. There is blood that runs in the earth. You are the same all the way down.
Julian came down from Seattle and I went to pick him up in the freight yard. I got there before his train did and while I was waiting for it to come I realized I’d never seen Julian get off a train before, only get on. It was fun to watch him get on. I always used to drive him to the yard and stay to watch him get on. When the train came in, brakes wailing, I looked for him as best I could but it was just all of a sudden he was there, having leapt from somewhere I couldn’t see, jogging over the gravel in the freight yard. The sky was very blue. When Julian came up through the hole in the fence to the hill above the yard where I was parked he was freckled and tan, soot dark in his red hair and dusted on his clothes. When he hugged me tightly he smelled like sweat and metal. He was very jittery and very alive.
It was wonderful to see Julian because it had been a long time. He didn’t work the way I did. Julian didn’t work the way most people in L.A. did so it was refreshing just to look at him. In the car on the way to Walt’s he put that Turbo Fruits song on, the one that goes “Mama’s mad ‘cause I fried my brain!” The second line goes “Brother’s dead and it’s killing me,” and we both got very quiet. It was maybe 3:30 and the sun was low in the sky. It was all smooth haze over the freeway. We let the song play to the end without speaking and then Julian put on something else. He said “That’s a good song. Isn’t that a good song?”
I didn’t say anything and Julian found some classical station on the radio. They were playing Bartok. It was one of those beautiful violent Bartok pieces. We were stopped in traffic and I lifted my hands from the wheel and pulled the strings up with me. I found the beat. I felt it, I counted. I conducted. The pulse of it was the pulse of my heart, that quick sad pulse, plodding toward something tremendous, something beautiful and terrible. I tried not to think about it anymore.
Julian had a scar under his eye the shape of West Virginia. It was newish, still raw. His face was drawn but in a good way, a handsome healthy way. The fat, the well-fedness, the fake youth had gone from his cheeks. When he took off his sweater I saw, on the rounded, smooth muscle of his arm, a homemade stick-and-poke tattoo of Brunelleschi’s dome.
It was the end of the song and there were these four big chords and I let them go on before I spoke. “Don’t ask him about Hawaii.”
“He was in Hawaii?”
“Followed someone there.”
“I don’t know much about it.”
The next song was Shostakovich and I wondered how I knew this. Julian said, very quietly, “And Colin, how’s Colin?” He was looking out the window when he spoke and there was this tenseness to him that was tangible.
“How do you expect?” Julian didn’t say anything. “He’s exactly how you expect.”
“Awful what happened.”
“He was just gone. Franklin. One day then the next. You know. You know he was missing for a month before they found the body.” Someone behind me merged over the rumble strip and drove for a while in the breakdown lane. “What gets me is they still don’t know what happened. They don’t know if he just got taken or what. Or by who.”
Traffic was still stopped and the haze still heavy and the sun lower and all the cars lined up like cattle going to the slaughter and that line from that Keats poem started to circle in my head like vultures: Who are these coming to the sacrifice? Who are these coming to the sacrifice? Who are these coming to the sacrifice? And Julian said what I had been thinking for a month, for a cold and vacant month, empty as the desert, infinite as the ocean: “That’s L.A.” That’s L.A. That’s California. California was waiting to seize you; you would turn around and the dark would be there. It was a matter of time. In L.A. you have the ocean before you and the mountains at your back always, shoving up every second higher and higher. Everything works to keep you in. After Shostakovich was Tchaikovsky. Julian fell asleep and I turned the volume down. The beat was harder to find but I found it. Asleep he looked very young.
In high school Franklin had a fake ID but it didn’t matter anyway. In high school you’re all about flavored vodka because it’s sweet and mixes well and you can’t taste it. I remember raspberry. I remember smoking those cigarettes that leave the taste of sugar on your lips. I remember thinking it was what adults drank, what adults smoked, and walking home drunk thinking I was an adult. I was not an adult. In college I started drinking whiskey and ginger ale and I realized I was not an adult. It’s not about what you drink. Taste doesn’t mean anything.
Walt was living out of cardboard boxes on the fourth floor in Silver Lake. Julian took a shower and ironed his nice clothes and then the three of us went for ten minutes to the wake in the Hills. Colin wasn’t there but his mother was and we said our condolences one by one. It was a closed casket thing and my eyes wouldn’t come off it. None of us ever saw the body. I don’t think Colin ever saw the body. Julian chewed his nails. There was a thin crescent of dark grease beneath each one. Most of the people there I hadn’t seen since graduation. We said hello, and then we said “I’m sorry.” There was nothing else to say.
It was only seven but very dark when we got back to Silver Lake and we packed and smoked a bowl with the lights off on Walt’s couch. Seattle, said Julian when we pried, was fine. Finer than fine. It wasn’t really Seattle because it was a squat in the woods near Tacoma, but it was lovely because Tacoma was lovely. It even sounded lovely. It sounded like snowmelt running in the river, Tacoma. It sounded like the rumble in the earth, like the blood running, Tacoma. Did we like his tattoo? We did. Sure we would come up sometime, we said. Julian looked at Walt and I with those big blue eyes like he didn’t know who we were.
At Mita’s after the funeral she got Mexican catered and it was spread out on a white-clothed long table just inside the door and they were milling around it inside, twenty people maybe, thirty, all in black. When they broke apart you could see for a second the punch in the hollowed watermelon and the earthenware pottery piled high with spicy guacamole and the tricoloré pico de gallo and corn chips, white and yellow and blue corn chips, sharp-edged, salt crystals gleaming under the track lighting. Inside they drank Dos Equis and they held foil-wrapped steak burritos the size of small babies that oozed rice and refried beans. Inside they drank horchata and rum. If they were mourning inside I couldn’t see. I wondered if there were people crying in another room. I could taste pico de gallo, that sterile taste, and I wanted to go inside and get some but I could hear them laughing and their glasses tinkling and that Geiger-counter ping of the silver spoon against the earthenware and I did not want to go inside, but I felt like I had to, and so I did. I looked at all the food and I realized I did not want any. People said my name and I shook their hands and they smiled at me and I could not bring myself to smile back. I didn’t want to speak to anyone but sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. You have to do things that disgust you. That’s how you grow up.
When I came outside Colin was there, which was a terrible idea. He was sitting on the end of the diving board with his feet in the water. Walt and Julian sat together in a folding chair by the pool, Julian at the foot and Walt leaning against the back, knees bent up. They held a beer apiece. Julian had combed his hair. The sleeves of his black sport coat were two different lengths. Walt said Colin hadn’t moved all night and didn’t want to speak to anyone, not even him. I took a sip of his beer and it just tasted like metal. Julian blew across the lip of the bottle and it made a low, infinite kind of sound. A chill went up my back.
When I went up on the diving board behind Colin I bounced it and he made no attempt to keep himself from falling but somehow he didn’t. I crouched behind him and eased my fingers into the tight knots of muscle in his long back. His spine made the curves of a shallow S. He smelled like whiskey and cigarettes. I said “You okay honey.” Colin shook his head. There are some people you can never get it right with and I could never get it right with Colin. I never knew what to say to him. I’d made a lot of mistakes.
Julian went back to Walt’s alone on the bus and Walt went home with someone he once emphatically swore he’d never go home with and I took Colin home because he was drunk. Everyone was asleep in the house. Out through the wide window in Colin’s bedroom I could see the ocean. It was still endless. When Colin got in bed I leaned over him to kiss his forehead and he held my wrists for a long time and looked into my face like he wanted me to tell him a secret. His eyes were dark and wet and saw nothing. When I didn’t say anything he said “How long’s it gonna feel like this?”
“How should I know.”
He let go and I leaned back and crossed my arms. The moonlight dusted silver over the outline he made in the sheets. He was very pale. That was a pale November. There was nothing else to say.
By the time Julian and I woke up Walt was back, sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper, and he asked me to shave his head. It was just past midday and we were all drunk because Julian had made mimosas and cream of wheat for breakfast when we ordered Chinese in and did it on the balcony. You could not see the ocean. “L.A. is an infinite city,” Julian said coldly. One loose curl of Walt’s dark hair lay limply across my foot. I kissed the top of his head, newly bristled. Maybe it was 70 degrees.
Walt squeezed his eyes shut when I slid the electric razor over the last of the illustrious curls right over his forehead. I thought I heard a wince but it was a car door slamming down the street. I asked “Why’d you want to do this.”
“People love my hair,” Walt mumbled. He said no more. When I was done he picked up one of the curls from the ground and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger to separate the strands of hair enough for the light breeze to take all the pieces away. With the palm of one hand he smoothed the goosebumps on his forearms. I saw his broken heart before me clear as day.
I fell asleep drunk on the couch and dreamt I was underground in a hot room full of crystals. Walt was there, dead-eyed, fresh haircut and suit, and when I spoke to him he started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I held his shoulder and shook him and he didn’t see me and I kept saying his name but it was all empty, wide and vacant as the desert. Then I heard Franklin’s voice, but when I turned around it was Colin, but it was Franklin. It was Franklin but parts of him were missing – fingers, teeth, an eye, chunks of ear and lip and nose and gouges of scalp, skin scraped from his jaw and shoulder and arm. Visible bone gleamed in the dark. I wasn’t afraid of him though it was impossible that he was alive. Even in the dream I knew it was impossible. I said “Can you help me?” My voice echoed and distorted until I wasn’t sure what I had said. I said “Franklin can you please help me?”
“What’s wrong with him?” said Franklin. He came up beside me. Dried blood was caked in his dark left eyebrow, spiderwebbed from a cut on his temple. One eyelid was collapsed over his missing eye. There was a chilling and terrifying beauty in him, like that of a damaged Greek sculpture. Franklin put his hand on Walt’s other shoulder. “Is he okay?”
“No one’s okay.”
“Is Colin okay?” said Franklin. I could not speak. “Are you okay?”
When I woke up with a champagne headache three of my fingers were numb. Julian was sitting in Walt’s dumpstered easy chair smoking a cigarette looking through our high school yearbook. “Look at us,” he said softly, sad smile wrinkling his left cheek. I looked and I saw myself with my arm slung over Franklin’s shoulders and I had to look away.
I drove Julian back to the train yard and when I was watching him squeeze through the hole in the fence there was this quick madness in me and I ran down after him. I followed him across the yard over the tracks and around the parked trains and down the thin shaded corridors between them. My shoes were full of gravel. In the narrow alleys between the trains it smelled like metal and gasoline and I thought of Kerouac, the mirrored lines of boxcars like the alleys of his hometown, the sense of the coming night. It was silent as a grave. I tried to remember the last time I had heard a silence that complete, and then I remembered Franklin’s wake. Julian walked with great purpose for a while toward the head of the train and then he stopped and turned to me and said “Are you coming?” Suddenly I remembered where I was. Julian said “The ladder’s there.”
“I didn’t bring anything.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“I’m – I have a dress on.”
“It doesn’t matter. Go on. Come up. Go up, Temple.”
I held the ladder in both hands. It was cool iron, blue paint peeling. Shoe marks made muddy treads. Flakes of paint and dirt fell at the touch of my fingers and swirled in a shaft of light. I could hear myself breathe. Julian said “Go on, Temple, go on.” There was nothing in my head. The sky was very blue. Haze hung, heavy and viscous. There was an ocean between Julian and I. It was full of everything. There were currents in it, deep and languid, moving like blood. Like tar, like oil. He said “Don’t pretend there’s nowhere else. Don’t pretend you can’t.”
“I’m not like you.”
“We’re the same, all the way down.”
We were not, so I let go of the ladder. “In the spring maybe, maybe for spring break I’ll come up.” I hugged Julian goodbye and I put my face in his neck and he was so alive and I wanted to feel so alive. I wanted some of it to get into my heart but it doesn’t work that way. There was nowhere else. I went back up to the car and sat on the hood in the sun until the train left, and then I got back on the freeway and drove back to Walt’s.
It was a bright day, clear as ice, when Colin called me and was typically vague on the phone. When I went over he was sitting in the bathtub having taken a nice cocktail of pills found in his mother’s medicine cabinet. He looked at me with unfocused wet eyes and leaned on me, head damp on my chest, when I called the ambulance, folding my hand through his hair. In the waiting room at the hospital my father called and I did not answer and he sent me a picture message of oil seeping, dark and thick, through thin white sand. When I looked at the picture for a long time I realized I didn’t really know what it was. It could’ve been anything. I deleted it. Colin’s mother came and sat with me and wept bitterly for a long time and I rubbed her cashmere-sweatered back with the palm of my hand and she rested her head briefly on my shoulder. She had Colin’s warm dark hair. “Both my sons,” she whispered. “Both my sons.” I don’t know what she meant because Colin was fine in the end and when we could go see him she went in before me and I heard her screaming in the hall, and when I went in ten minutes later as she was leaving Colin was sitting up in bed, arms crossed, playing with the IV in the crook of his arm, looking in an unsatisfied way into nothing. It was midnight by then. Franklin had been everyone’s favorite and Colin’s being the same all the way down, all the way into every cell, did not suffice. He never told me why he’d done it or why he called me of all people.
I sat for a long time in the chair by Colin’s bed as he chewed his fingernails and the skin around them. He did not seem to know I was there. I thought about the picture message my father had sent me for a long time. I wondered why he had sent it to me. You are the only one, the blood in the earth said to me. You understand. I thought about writing back but after a while of trying I realized it was no use.
The snap my phone made when I hurriedly closed it woke Colin up from whatever druggy reverie. He had these tired and heavy-lidded eyes when he looked down at me. They wanted something. I went to hold his hand but he crossed his arms. I said “Hi there babe.”
He put his face in his hands so when he spoke it was muffled. “Why do you call me that?”
“Babe. Honey, whatever.”
“It’s a term of endearment.” Colin kept playing with the IV in the pale inside of his elbow until blood started to well up where the needle slid beneath the skin into the blue vein. I said “Stop that.”
He did not. “It’s because I look like him,” he said.
“Isn’t it? We’re the same. All the way down.”
There was so much ice in me. Of course it was true. “No. No, no. Why would you even think that?”
“How can I not?”
I said “I’m sorry.” I said “What else do you need me to say?”
“That’s it. That’s all,” said Colin. I took his hand and I didn’t want to imagine it was anyone else’s but of course I did. You didn’t know them so you can’t possibly understand. Only their eyes were different. When I looked up and into Colin’s there was so much pain in them I couldn’t even imagine.
“I don’t want to make you anyone else.”
I didn’t say anything for a long time and I ran my thumb over his knuckles until I couldn’t feel them anymore. Outside a siren cut through the night. The sky was a thick, heavy red, the fog still low through the window. When I could speak I said “Gonna take me a while.”
I like to remember Franklin asleep in the early afternoon in April, sun a yellow blanket over the heap of white duvet and skin in his apartment just off the UCLA campus. I had gotten up to get a glass of water and when I came back the clouds had shifted and he was lying in smooth, pure light. I stood in the doorway for a long time. I was not the only one and I wanted so badly to be, then, looking at him asleep with his hair spread out on the pillow, but I never was. I do not like to remember Franklin when we were driving back from Mita’s late in September and he told me I was thinking this was something it was not because we weren’t supposed to hold hands and we weren’t supposed to be anything. I do not like to remember the sound of my voice when I said “You can’t just tell me that.” Most of all I do not like to remember when were stopped at a red light and the glow of it was a thick blush on his face and not looking at me he said “Colin likes you,” as if this mattered, as if this meant anything, as if they were substitutes for each other, as if that were possible. Four days later he was gone. For a long time that was the only Franklin I could remember.
The coroner’s report came back and they said Franklin bled out. He was dead before they threw him in. There were still no leads. Colin came down onto the beach with Walt and me that afternoon to tell us and he slid his hand over the bristles on Walt’s head and sat between us and leaned back with all his weight on the heels of his hands. There was still a bruise from the IV, spreading yellow and brown around the visible veins in the inside of his elbow. He was wearing one of Franklin’s shirts, the thrift-store teal polo with the big wide white stripe. Franklin used to wear it to class with blue jeans and you could always tell from far away because it was so bright. Colin didn’t dress so bright. That was how you could tell them apart. We did not speak for a long time. The ocean looked endless and we all tried to see across it but there was nothing there.
you should read this while listening to a song by zephyrs called “twins" which is my favorite song of the year. this story is basically about my vision of california which is entirely based on bret easton ellis and joan didion novels. i have never been to california.
i am sorry i have not been posting much here. i will try to be better about that.
- dust-rules posted this