Stephen D. Gutierrez
All rights reserved.
Walter was a sophomore in college and he needed a place to live, so he took a small studio apartment on The Esplanade in Chico, a grand street that had seen better days, especially on Walter’s end. Down the street at a quaint distance, the big mansions still stood serenely, occupying acres of manicured lawn and cultivated trees and ornate statuary. And in the best a wrought-iron garden bench sat in the rose garden by a green pond. But in Walter’s ratty complex, bungalows, left over from the period when WWII vets studied at Chico State, crowded a small lot that weeds poked through and that filled with stagnant water after rain fell. Over the crippled fence in the parking lot, a mere two or three slots provided for tenants and wayward guests dumb enough to visit them — who would live here, Walter thought, wondering what the fuck he was doing here himself — a hamburger stand adjoined the property.
The neon sign glowed long into the night. It blinked uncomfortably close. Walter spent many nights sitting in his armchair under the pale reading lamp, brooding. “Man, it has come to this,” he told himself, despairingly. But he was happy being by himself. Inevitably, he got up and looked out the window and saw a scene so desolate he sat back down again with his book in his lap, open.
Outside was rot, and he knew it. Right in front of his window, rusted-out railroad tracks squeezed a line between the sidewalk and the median strip that ended at the loading docks abutting a fruit and nut distributor, a huge warehouse with a dingy aluminum roof. Within view, a shady bar stayed open till two in the morning, with cars doors slamming and country music pouring out at jerky intervals. The few trees provided somberness to the surroundings, as if depressed by the neighborhood too.
Behind him the landlord lived in a house that was big and spacious compared to the shacks around it. It had wood siding, long boards defining the rectangle of the house, and was painted a sickly yellow with brown trim. Clean windows sparkled in the sunshine and offered some relief to the dismal grounds.
The biggest room went to Ryan, the landlord, and three others, including a basement, were split between two students at Chico State, and a guy named Rick. Walter hung out there once in a while after paying the rent but kept to himself mostly.
They were good guys, the guys in school. They smoked some pot and existential philosophy interested them, and they cared about sports teams from the Bay Area, San Francisco fans all the way, so exasperated Walter. He loved the Dodgers. He adored the Lakers.
“You still cheering those losers on, man,” he liked to say about their teams.
“Yup.” And they came back with the same.
Ryan maintained the place for his parents, proud owners of this magnificent lot, and did double-duty as resident aesthete. He wore thin neckties and peglegged pants after a summer in Paris polishing his French and learning that bread and wine were, well, essential. He tried not to be obnoxious but they made fun of him anyway.
“What time do the French eat, sleep and shit?”
He shrugged off American crassness with a secret understanding playing on his lips — you were so, so boorish — and rode off on his motorcycle for a little wine and cheese at Le Bistro. When Walter got particularly lonely there was only one thing to do. “Let’s get to it, man. Let’s do it.” He headed to his little green desk in the corner.
Extinguishing all but the desk lamp that bent at his elbow, he sharpened eight #2 pencils, selected one, and began.
It is two years since I have had a nose job but I feel better now. I feel acclimated in the world. Despite my propensity for staying away from people still, I believe I am making progress in my desire to integrate into society. I am less self-conscious about my nose and overall oblivious of my looks at times. At times I still want to kill myself though and that is not good. Methods include the good oldfashioned bullet to the brain or the more appealing gassing myself to death. This I would accomplish by kneeling in front of the oven, and, having stopped the seepage of gas from the room by placing towels beneath the kitchen door and in all crevices like the leaky window, succumbing to the mild sedative I would take beforehand to calm the nerves and prepare for death.
They would find me on the floor in the morning. But I won’t do that. Of course not. I will write of something cheerily now.
Pussy con carne. On cheese toast. The big dick next door.
Walter played until he found what he was looking for.
Big Rick the cowboy next door.
Walter cleared his mind for the next passage, concentrating on the tiny light bulb glowing in the dark and plunging in when ready. The cars whooshed down the busy street in front of Walter’s place. He should hang out a sign that said: Walter’s Place. Writer at Work.
Rambunctious Rick the cowboy without a horse hailed from the Sierra Nevada way up there from one of those mountain towns wherever the hell it was far away from civilization and were by far the orneriest creature Sir Walter the Knight in shining armor had encountered in his own short lifespan. Sir Walter the Knight in shining armor came from East L.A. to simplify it because that’s where everybody always said he came from, no matter he told them the truth he came from City of Commerce which in a manner of speaking was as far from East L.A., his part, as Beverly Hills from Watts. But people wanted to believe what they wanted to believe and he let them if it eased their own minds into accepting their own prejudices because that’s the way the world spun, baby, prejudicially. Now this here Rambunctious Rick fixed refrigerators and stuff like that, even dryers. He always had his hand in some major appliance elbow deep on his knees that were knee-padded to cushion the shock of working on the hard gravel of the driveway at Le Esplanade Apartments.
This was in the years when all shit broke loose at Chico State up the street and around the corner from these here apartments I’m talking about, 1978-1979. The Iranians came to town and stirred things up. But more on that later.
Rambunctious Rick was an asshole. And an asshole was somebody to stay away from, but there was no avoiding him, really, Sir Walter the Knight in shining armor having to pass him on the steps going up to the front door of the big house when he dropped by to pay rent, Rambunctious Rick grunting perfunctorily under the tree out back where he moved his appliances over to work in the shade. It was as if he expected a clarifying nod from Sir Walter the Knight in shining armor to grant him permission to approach that house, but didn’t reckon a reciprocal hello in the bargain. Civility was out of the question. Rambunctious Rick was rambunctious all right, a nut case.
He boarded with three other college guys — he wasn’t a college guy himself but only liked to hang around for pussy, he said, whenever the scene got college-y (“Joe College,” he called it, “with all the trimmings”), with Monsieur Ryan the homeowner’s son cooking up a flambé and inviting a couple of equally sophisticated girls over to partake of his superb cuisine, ooh-la-la. He rented a room there on the heels of his horrible divorce, a woman approaching him with a black-and-blue face once waving a piece of paper at him and screaming, “No more! No more! You son of a bitch!” and Rambunctious Rick laughing and taking the paper and slamming the door on her crying face, her banging fists, and shouting out to the world, “Die, bitch, die!” He got along with his roommates all right, shitkickers all, at heart, from the great central valley and foothill towns and all those smelly little places Sir Walter the Knight in shining armor tried to avoid. He had his own smell to contend with, and it was powerful, mighty strong, bad.
“Down, down, down with the Shah,” cried the Iranian students holding up the signs that said they wanted the U.S. out of Iran. “United States out of Iran!”
Walter paused, stopped entirely, bending his head back and taking off on another train of thought. He didn’t know if he could handle it, but he could try.
“Down, down, down with the Shah!” cried the Iranian students not so long ago on the Chico State campus, snaking in off the street and ending with: “United States out of Iran!”
The cowboys lined up against them: “Long live the Shah! Support America!” livening up the rally that was heavily attended by the sun-drenched student body taking time off from their academic labors, stretching out in the age of Carter’s Presidency.
They sat in lawn chairs or stood milling about on the huge lawn spreading out before the administration building. More Iranians marched onto campus, spookily dressed in black and some of them hooded to show the Shah’s methods of execution and torture, demanding the Shah’s removal and the installation of an Ayatollah Khomeini, the sternest man in the universe. He looked down at the crowd grimly from posters unrolled and shaken in the air.
They all started jumping up on the small stage unusually festooned for the event — U.S. Foreign Policy Discussion at Noon! — and taking turns screaming into a microphone they had ripped loose from its hold in the podium, “Down, down, down with the Shah! He murdered! He tortured! Behind the American power he has done these things!”
“Down, down, down with the Shah!” They in the audience attending to this message, rabid Iranians spreading out in a crescent that resembled the very scimitar of Islam — what? — seconded the general complaint. The Shah was bad. We had supported him and now it was time for him to leave.
“America! America!” They in the audience loyal to the Stars and Stripes shouted right back and right in the middle of their most fervent pitch, “America! God bless America!” this one guy jumped onto the stage demonstrating his knowledge of geography as he chanted, “This is America! This is America!” real proud of himself. And his frat brothers, not to disparage the Greek system of fraternity and service, all of them wearing the insignia of their club, joined him on stage and just about unanimously echoed, “This is America! This is America!”
They hoisted a big American flag and the Iranians got agitated and retook the stage, singing, “Down, down, down with the Shah!”
“This is America!” This fresh-faced son of the Valley spat into the microphone about a dozen times getting his point across in case you had forgotten it, looking real proud to have memorized that fact after some hard studying, pulling an all-nighter maybe, and just when he was about to leave this Iranian woman sidled next to Sir Walter the Knight in shining armor sitting on the brick wall in front of the student union, asking in hushed, overdramatic tones, “How come you are not supporting our brothers and sisters in combat? Are you ashamed of your Iranian heritage?”
“I’m not Iranian,” Sir Walter the Knight in shining armor started to explain when she spat in his face, “You are ashamed of being Iranian!” and she spun around and headed off to the mob gathered on the lawn before the brick administration building, jerking signs in the air and chanting, “Down, down, down with the Shah!”
“This is America! This is America!” The Geography Department spokesman kept saying every chance he got and even a few Chicanos and blacks got into the act grabbing the microphone at the podium and shouting out their message, “And for the Iran people we support… And the Palestine people… And the Native Americans… And everybody in every ghetto and barrio across the land of America no longer the land of the free!”
“Down, down, down with the Shah!”
“This is America! This is America!” The cowboys got behind that chant recognizing a monumental discovery in their time and mixed it up with a few Iranians on the lawn before the police broke it up and sent them home to cool down and have a beer or something, the Iranians a falafel, a few minor scuffles beclouding the day unfortunately. It was so beautiful in Chico in the spring.
Well done. Walter congratulated himself on his performance and lay down in bed with his hands folded behind his head. Next to him, his desk lamp glowed dimly making it impossible to know he was home.
He felt safe and secure on his bed. It’s as if I always belonged here, he thought, alone.
He turned on his side and studied the wall. He tapped it. It was an ugly paneled wall and its hollow sound resounded nicely.
He lay on his back again. He heard a couple of guys coming back from a night out, pulling up in the driveway and getting out of the car in the lined space nearest Walter’s place.
It was Rick and the others, drunk. He could hear them banging around and the sound of bottles clinking together in a bag. They were laughing going up into the house.
“Where’s the ugly Mexican,” he heard Rick say. “He’s such an ugly motherfucker.”
“Ssshhh, you might wake him up.”
“I don’t care.”
“Be cool,” it was Ryan admonishing Rick.
“Let’s get inside and party.”
“Party hearty,” Rick chirped. “Without the ugly Mexican.”
Walter heard them tromp up the steps of the house behind him. They clumped heavily and banged into the door and disappeared into the house, their voices fading, the door closing on them.
Walter sat in the dark with his head in his hand, thinking.
“Jesus, what the fuck am I doing here?” he asked himself. “I got to get out.”
He got up, put on a light jacket, and went outside. The moonlight hit the railroad tracks shining down the rails. He began to walk on one, slowly, carefully, balancing himself with his arms spread like a 6th grader walking the low beam for the yearly fitness test, breathing hard, telling himself, It’s okay, it’s okay, one step at a time and you’re out of here, for good.
Stephen D. Gutierrez’s second collection of stories recently came out with Bear Star Press, Live from Fresno y Los!. Winner of the Nilon Award for his first collection, Elements, he is a past Pushcart Prize nominee and Fiction International contributor. He teaches in the English Department at California State University, East Bay.
This story is included in issue #42: The Artist in Wartime. Copyright © 2009 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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