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Monday, January 18, 2016

A Tent That Smells Like Piss


Shards of light burst through the darkness.  Aurora, the mistress of dawn walks through the Night and into the clouds.  As her radiance blossoms across the park, not all the creatures below are happy.  To Alan, a new dawn means another cruel and pitiless day.  Glumly, he watches the sky fill with a demonic, burning red essence.  Like flames from a terrible goddess hurling bolts of fire through the heavens.  An hellish annihilation rather than a new beginning.  

But when Alan's parents were alive, a new day was wonderful.  They would watch Aurora's arrival from their breakfast table facing the back porch.  Back then, the world had meaning.  A place where happiness was normal.  Back then, mornings smelled like pancakes and fresh laundry.  Everyday he woke up thinking, Something good is going to happen to me today.  But this was before his mother was diagnosed with cancer.  This was before they left her in the hospital to linger and die slowly in the cancer ward.

A terrible cacophony of alien birds screeches overhead.  Enormous, evil looking black birds circling the fiery sky.  An ill omen.  Alan shivers and buttons his thin, denim jacket over his worn flannel.  Today finds him with one glove, no money, no breakfast and a tent that smells like piss.  Yet here they are.  California.  The dream.  But in the late night talks with Trish, the dream was always warmer.  

The park.  Alan and Trish have lived in the park for two nights.  Once, they had about $180 between them.  Then they got ripped off in a meth deal.  Alan chased the dealer but another kid with a skateboard stepped in the path.  Alan never felt a thing.  Just woke up to Trish's screams.  When he could focus his eyes again, Alan watched fog wraiths dance across the sky.  

With a $130 left, Trish bought the piss tent while Alan was feverish and shitting his guts out.  The dumpster feast behind the 24 hour Chinese restaurant was a terrible idea.  The tent is held together with duct tape and mismatched poles.  The endless fog that rolls through the park points out all the leaks.  Drip, drip, drip all night long.  And no matter how many cigarettes they smoke, the piss smell is like a spirit that never leaves.  Alan looked, but never found the fucking train kids that ripped Trish off.  

With $55 left, they finally found a reliable drug dealer.  Alan's not sure where San Jose is, but San Jose meth peels your eyelids back into your skull.  Life becomes a movie and the story is amazing.  The last $5 went to cigarettes and donuts.  After two days of smoking meth, they came down with no food and no money.  As the meth dwindled to specks of crystal dust, life became tedious and grim.  California is not a kind land.  

Maybe they should have stayed in Oregon.  Alan is from the coast and found Portland the big city with all the excitement he always dreamed of.  He had friends there, a place to crash and did ok selling weed at the mall.  That was where he met Trish.  Trish came from Idaho and been in Portland almost as long as Alan.  A few months.  Usually a single female can get on welfare programs without much hassle.  It's a good racket.  You can spend your food credit on soda and sell it for half price to the Asian guys by the port who supply the gas stations and minimarts.  $400 food credit becomes $200 cash.  

But Trish is too young to use her real ID.  No one cared what happened to her.  Trish did what she had to do.  When Alan found Trish, everything happened at once.  He lost his virginity, he fell in love, he got into a brutal fistfight with his roommate and almost killed him.  For that one he spent three days in jail and got kicked out of the apartment.  But when he got out, Trish was there.  Alan told everyone Trish was his girl.  This felt right.  A new, pure feeling filled Alan's heart and he swore himself to her as they coupled like frenzied animals over and over again.  Life was finally happening.  

But everyone else laughed.  The guys Alan split ounces of weed with knew Trish too.  They had their rude opinions.    

"Dude she works the port!  A trucker fucker!"  

"She's a crank whore.  C'mon Alan!  Stay away from that skeez."

"Trish?  The crazy fat bitch that cuts herself?  Fuck that shit!"

That was when Portland became too small.  

All his life, Alan was the piece that never fit in.  He intimately understood what it felt like to have jagged edges never matched the crowd.  What he saw in Trish was a chance.  A new life.  And Trish accepted him.  She trusted him.  She loved him and love is all.  Trish listened to his dreams of California when they crashed at the abandoned warehouse.  She bandaged his knuckles after he beat the shit out of the old man who showed up to the warehouse with a camera, condoms and Zima.  Trish even knew where to sell the camera and credit cards for cash.  And now they're in California.  Together.  

Maybe this isn't so bad, muses Alan.  The strange birds wing away and Alan digs around his denim for a cigarette.  Then the tent flap peel opens as Trish rips apart the duct tape latch.  Her sleepy face peers out in the dawn light.

"Alan?" she yawns.  "Baby, where are my boots?"

Alan looks around.  All he sees is an empty bottle of Boone's Wild Cherry and a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket filled with gnawed bones.  

"God damn it!" yells Alan to the pitiless goddess overhead.

********

"I'm sorry Alan!" whines Trish for the millionth time.  "I shouldn't have left them outside when I pee'd!  I shouldn't have bought the tent without asking!  I'm sorry!"

Alan is enraged.  He knows one of those skate punk motherfuckers he argued with earlier over where to pitch their tent stole Trish's boots.  And probably just for fun.  Real winter boots from Idaho!  Now his girlfriend trails him in wet, muddy socks as they walk aimlessly through city streets.  Alan feels like punching someone.  The business man, the smug hippie, the student waiting for the bus.  Who fucking cares?  He hears Trish sniveling behind him so he slows his pace and looks up helplessly at an endless gray smear of clouds that piss down freezing rain.  Even the fiery goddess has abandoned the sky.  Fuck it, Alan sighs for the thousandth time today.

"Look Trish.  I'm not mad at you ok?" he says turning around.  

Her luminous, dark eyes search his face.  Searching for what?  Back and forth they scan.  All Alan has to offer Trish is failure.  All of the talk about the Californian dream was bullshit.  They are alone in a hostile city, freezing and starving.  The wind shakes his bones.  Alan grinds his teeth when he remembers how he laughed off Trish's concerns over his thin jacket.

"I'm from Oregon Trish!  You think California is gonna be cold to me?  Shit...It'll be like a paradise.  You'll see!" he promised.

Alan holds Trish in their paradise.  Her cheeks are cold from wind, rain, fog and tears.  Snot seeps from her nose while she shivers in her wet socks.  It's November.  The trees weep dead leaves and the weather grows colder as the days grow darker.  In his arms, Trish melts into a hysterical ball of tears.  Her sobbing turns to manic hyperventilation.  She gasps and starts making pathetic, grunting sounds.  Alan pets her hair knowing if this continues, Trish will either run blindly in one direction or pass out.  And when she comes to, Trish will start cutting herself.  Pedestrians eye the pair wearily as Alan tries to sooth her.

"Hey, hey Trish...C'mon now" he breathes in her ear.  "All we gotta do is beg for some change and call your grandma.  With a little cash, we'll be fine.  Get you some boots and food."

"I don't want boots!" Trish screams.  

"Ok.  What you want?"

"I have to tell you something" sniffs Trish.  "You can't get mad!  Promise me Alan!"

"Sure" he agrees.  Anything to calm her down.  "I promise."

"I have some money.  I have sixty bucks.  I want some meth.  Not boots."

"Wait.  What?!" demands Alan.

"Remember a week ago?  Like when we were supposed to leave on the bus but you got sick?"

"Yes" says Alan while his empty stomach twists and bubbles acid.  His muscles unconsciously tense for another one of life's cruel blows.  

"I saw this guy" blurts Trish.  "I knew him from like before.  He's safe.  Easy and quick and-"

"YOU!" explodes Alan as his control vanishes, "ARE A FUCKING WHORE!"  

He can hear her sobbing as he walks off.  He gets about two blocks in a sea of unfamiliar buildings and blank faces and stops.  The shame of his words stain his heart.  He looks back and Trish is still miserably following him.  From Portland to San Francisco.  One broken thing dragged behind another.  But the thought of her...all the old men she called 'friends'...Alan whirls and rushes her.  For one second Trish looks surprised.  But her face quickly hardens to stone.  It is the look of someone used to getting hit and is no longer afraid.

"Give me the money!" snarls Alan.

"Why?" screeches this unknown Trish.  "It's my fucking money!  I got it!"

"Give it to me!  You need those fucking boots!"

"I don't want boots!" screams Trish as pedestrians scatter around them.  "I want DRUGS!"

Angry, black and horrible words fill Alan's mind.  He snarls like a whipped dog and looms up in front of Trish, his fist raised.  Alan trembles with impotent rage as he fights the urge to puke.  Trish stares back defiantly.  Alan can see the creature in her eyes that pushes the world away.  The crazy part that will never ever fit in.  He looks at Trish who stands there with her eyes closed as she waits for the blow.

"Fine" says Alan rubbing his face.  "But then we find a phone and call your grandma.  You need those damn boots Trish.  And food."

**********

"Did you find him?" asks Trish from her sleeping bag.

"Yup" says Alan sliding himself into the piss tent and duct taping the flap closed.  Trish stares at him expectantly as he rubs warmth back into his frozen, ungloved hand.  Alan shrugs.  "He doesn't have any crank.  Just coke and weed.  Oh and heroin."

"Get the heroin" says Trish too quickly.

"Wait.  What?" Alan asks.  The Universe has revealed too much Trish today.  A revolving door of her faces.  Where did the real one go?  Did he ever know the real Trish?

"Just get it!  Don't worry Alan!  It's totally like the pills I gave you.  You liked those right?  Don't worry about money.  Nana will come through.  She's the only one besides you that loves me.  And I think I have some foil in here somewhere..." mutters Trish as she starts dumping the contents of her bag around the tent.    

**************  

The guy is easy to find.  He hangs out by the fountains pretty much all day.  Sadly, the drug dealer is the only part of the California dream that is working out.  Trish hums to herself as they walk along hand in hand.  As Alan and Trish approach the fountains, they find him in the same area.  Today he's got his arm around a tiny girl who spoon feeds him yogurt.  Also on the bench are three strangers.  

They look too clean to be street people.  Maybe students or suburb kids.  After living homeless, Alan and Trish can easily spot their kind.  Their clothes are always nicer and only ripped on purpose.  But the dead give away is their eyes.  People that live in houses, eat meals and sleep in beds have different eyes.  They lack that animal, haunted stare from always looking over your shoulder.  

Alan walks forward and lets his face go grim knowing they are already sizing him up.  The tall guy in a black leather jacket is wearing a pair of red framed, wrap around sunglasses.  He stares like a curious insect.  Perched on the bench backrest next to him is a thin girl with pink hair.  She also wears a black leather jacket with spikes like the other park kids that aren't hippies.  But the squat, bald guy next to them wears only a Black Flag t-shirt.  He openly glares at Alan.  

"What the fuck are you looking at dingleberry?" asks the bald guy.

Alan keeps moving forward.  It is all there is to do.  The drug dealer is talking to his girlfriend but looks up.  He smiles in recognition.

"It's ok man, relax" he says slapping the bald guy's thick forearm.

As the drug dealer stands, the tiny girl slides over to the girl with pink hair and takes her cigarette.  She says something and laughs.  Obviously relaxed.  But the bald guy and the tall kid just stare.  They project hostility.  The bald kid is the first one to hit, thinks Alan.

"Don't mind them" smiles the drug dealer.  "Let's go over here.  What's your name again man?"

"Alan.  This is Trish."

"Hey Trish!  I'm Melo" he says warmly shaking her hand.

"Nice to meet you Melo" smiles Trish shyly.

"Yeah sorry guys no meth.  That's kinda the other side of the park if you know what I mean."

Alan nods but has no idea what he means.

"We'll take the H" says Trish stepping forward.  "You got powder or tar?"

Alan watches in mute anger as Trish takes over.  The transformation from shy, helpless girlfriend to assertive procurer of street drugs makes him feel vaguely cheated.  Who is Trish?  What are they talking about?  Points, balloons and fresh spikes are an unfamiliar language.  Jesus, Alan wonders, are spikes needles?  

"We got sixty" says Trish.  "Can you swing it?"

"Yeah no problem" shrugs Melo.  "Gimme the money and hangout."

Trish hands over her mystery cash.  They watch Melo casually stroll off and are now alone with the kids on the bench staring at them.  Fuck them, thinks Alan lighting a cigarette and stalking over.  

"Baby, let's wait here" urges Trish.

"Don't worry" growls Alan as he takes a drag on his cigarette.  

Instinctively his hand brushes against his leg to feel his buck knife.  Though Alan has never used the knife in a fight, waving it around has helped.  He breathes through his nostrils and walks casually forward.  Trish meekly trails behind.
 
"You guys live here?" nods Alan showing them he is not afraid of some soft suburban punks on their trip to the big city.

"Where the fuck do you think you are?" demands the bald kid standing up.

"Oh hush Thief" pouts Melo's girlfriend to the angry bald guy.  

Then she turns to her pixie face to look at them.  Alan and Trish see the wildness in her eyes and doubt this kid lives with indoor plumbing, cable TV and down comforters.  The girl smiles slyly at Alan and Trish like she shares their secret joke.  In her purple dress pants, piano key-themed scarf and ridiculously large, blue Mexican poncho, she looks like an insane elf.  Pinned to the poncho is a random assortment of band pins.  Anything from Slayer to Wham! or Subhumans to the The Cure.  Her name tag says: HELLO!  MY NAME IS DREAMY MIMI.  Tangles of braids and dreadlocked, brown hair cascade from a cowboy hat with a sticker that says TRUE STORIES.  For some reason, the tiny girl's smile makes Alan and Trish feel safe.

Though her feet are bare in the 50 degree weather, Trish pictures vanilla white ice skates on her feet.  Alan's eyes soften in the myriad of colors and the tiny flowers she wears in her dreadlocks remind him of his mother for some reason.  Alan looks into her eyes and reality slides away.  His heart beat matches the rhythms of the Universe.  The park vanishes.  Before him are two burning stars.  The mad elf wears a white robe and massages the bristling fur of a snarling coyote...Alan staggers under the weight of this vision while dimensions shift randomly like a deck of cards.  When Trish squeezes his hand, Alan suddenly sees none of this is real.  Far away, people are talking.

"What?" asks Alan closing his eyes to mask his confusion.

"I said he's just mad cause he got jumped a couple nights ago" says the tiny girl in a monotone, robotic doll voice.

"Yeah" snarls the bald guy, "by some flannel wearing tweaker hick motherfuckers like you.  Why don't you stand over there so I don't have to smell you?"

The bald guy steps forward and Alan hears Trish suck in her breath.  The knife slides into his grip the same moment the girl with the cowboy hats speaks.

"Melo doesn't have any yucky crank" she says shaking her head.

"Shit" says the tall guy who still hasn't moved an inch, "Melo can get you a white baby if you give him an hour.  They look like fucking tweakers to me too."

"We're not" says Trish softly.  "I mean we've tried it but I just wanted some H you know.  We've had some tough times..."

"It's ok" soothes Dev.  "They just don't trust you because you are lying to them.  Right?  You see, we are all better liars than you two and-"

Dev pauses and cranes her head to look at something on the path behind the fountains.  Then her eyes get big and round.

"Kym!" she whispers.  "Your mom's here!"

"Fuck Dev don't start with me when I'm high" says the tall girl turning around.  "If you're fucking with me...Oh fuck!  Shit!  It's mom and Iona!  Babe hold my purse!"

"No" says the tall guy sitting up straight and taking off the sunglasses.  "No way am I holding your purse."

"Dev!  Take it!" says the tall girl thrusting a bag into the mad elf's hands.  

Like practiced thieves, the elf accepts the bag from the pink haired girl and drops it at her feet.  She kicks it nonchalantly into a bush behind the bench and sits up straight.  Then she takes off the cowboy hat and drops it on the bald guy as two tall, slender women stroll up the path.  As they get closer, the bald guy takes off the hat and places it on the tall guy who freezes right when the women walk up to them.

"Thanks asshole" he mutters the tall guy under his breath.

"Dude Iona's here" whispers the bald guy.  "The less sluttier, yet way hotter sister."

The tall guy silently cracks the bald guy in the ribs with an elbow.  They both sit up straighter and start fidgeting with their clothing.

Foreigners, Alan decides not understanding how these two women could be related the girl with pink hair.  They both have scarves wrapped over their heads and wear plain dresses with long pants.  The old one is all in black.  A bright green scarf is wrapped around her stern face that stares hard at the girl with pink hair.  The younger one with horn rimmed glasses is dressed in deep purple with a fiery, orange scarf.  The girl with the pink hair is in a tight miniskirt with leggings and combat boots.  Beneath her leather jacket, the Rancid t-shirt is ripped stylishly with scissors and reveals as much as it hides.  She looks worlds apart.  But when they all start arguing, Alan can plainly see the family ties.

"Mommm!"  cries out the girl with pink hair.  "What are you guys doing here?"      

"Hey Khadj" says the one with glasses smirking.  "It's Sunday bonehead!"

"Oh..." says the girl with pink hair.  "Grandma day?"

"Yes Grandma day.  Lucky for us, Neela was home and told us where you went Khadja!" admonishes the older lady who goes off in a burst of foreign language.

"It's just hair mom!  Jeez!  I'll just wear one of your khimars!" says the girl with pink hair.  Then she starts arguing in the other language as the one with glasses rolls her eyes and walks over to the bench.

"S'up cowboy?" she says punching the tall guy's arm.  "Nice hat douchebag.  You have fun in Maui with my little sis?"

"It was amazing" confirms the tall guy removing the cowboy hat.  "You were right about the surf.  Crazy fun."

"You guys hit up KP past the lagoon?  That was my spot.  I was so dialed in on that winter right."

"Past Lahaina?  Where you have to hike down the cliff?  That was sweet but the sandbar breaks by the condo were epic."

"Hi Iona!" grins the bald guy.  "You're looking lovely as usual."

"Oh hey Jeffrey" says the girl in glasses.

"Jason."

"Sure, whatever" smirks the girl.

Alan and Trish stand there.  All the hostility is gone.  Though they have never been around women in head scarves or surfed, the vibe is familiar.  That loving yet embarrassing feeling of family.  The older lady is obviously a mom.  Her mom presence touches something deep and forgotten inside Alan and Trish.

"Hi nice to see you again" says the mom smiling at the tall guy.  He gets up and hugs her.  

"Hi Mrs. Amiri" smiles the tall guy.  "Thank you so much for letting us stay at your Maui condo.  That was so awesome."

"Anytime sweety.  Khadja says your starting school again next semester.  That is the wise choice."

"Uhm, yeah" he shrugs.

Then she hugs the mad elf.  "Devika!  Lovely to see you!  Where is Michelangelo?"

"Oh he had to do something.  Mrs. Amiri, this is uh..." says the mad elf looking at Alan and Trish.

"Alan.  And this is my girlfriend Trish."

"Trish" frowns the lady.  "Trish...Patricia?"

"Yes ma'am" nods Trish.

"Patricia, where are your shoes?"

"Oh I left them over by our, uh stuff.  Over there" says Trish pointing vaguely.

"Well Patricia, I can see you are new to San Francisco.  You should always wear shoes.  And dry socks.  The ground is dirty and the weather cold.  Have you eaten today?"

"Uhm, yeah..." shrugs Trish.

"Mom!" cries the girl with pink hair.

"Khadja!  Manners!  Do not interrupt when people are talking!"

"Sorry.  It's just that-" says the girl with pink hair frowning at her boots.

"We are visiting Khadja's grandmother this afternoon" continues the lady.  "But after our visit, you are all invited over for dinner.  We live in Danville."

"But mom!" complains the pink haired girl.

"Only an idiot passes up a home cooked meal" says the bald guy winking at the pink haired girl.  "What are you cookin' up Mrs. Amiri?"

"Dizi.  Its a lamb stew with chickpeas.  Also grilled eggplant, humus and bread for our vegetarian friends.  You are all invited so please come over to my house."

"Yummy!" says the mad elf.

"Wow.  I'm so there Mrs. Amiri" says the bald guy.  "When you say bread, do you mean that flat bread you fry on that metal square thingy?"

"The barbari bread?  Of course!"

"You guys!" whines the girl with pink hair.

"C'mon we gotta go mom" says the girl with glasses.  "The reservation is at 11:30 and you know mamani won't be late.  Khadj, you change in the car.  See you guys at the house!  Nice meeting you Alan and Patricia."

The pink haired girl is dragged away while she complains loudly in a foreign tongue.  The mad elf starts to cackle and the tall guy retrieves the purse from the bushes.  He digs around until he finds a cigarette.

"Whew" he exhales.  "There goes my buzz.  Kym's mom is a sweet lady but she makes me feel like a little kid.  I guess I never had a mom-mom before.  My mom is totally not like that."

"Not like what?" asks the bald guy.

"I don't know.  Like cooking food or giving a shit I guess."

"Yeah.  It is weird but I kinda like it" shrugs the bald guy.

"Me too" says Trish in a small voice.    

Alan looks at Trish.  She's actually smiling at these idiots.  Her face is back.  Gone are the lunatic moon eyes that blink two seconds before exploding into tears.  No fear or rage in her look.  Just a silly grin.  Just Trish.  Alan lets the knife slip back down in his jeans and takes his hand out of his pocket.  Hell, maybe it's not so bad here.  If they get Trish's grandma's money and eat some real food, life will become brighter.  He has no idea what babari bread is but a stack of pancakes with butter and warm maple syrup would be amazing.

Then, like wind over water, Trish's face ripples into a new creation.  Alan follows her eyes and see's Melo.  Trish is tracking his progress with the concentration of a starving predator.  Without a word, Trish walks past Alan like he's a ghost.  She eagerly trots down the path and Alan feels the familiar rage returning.  

Trish joins Melo's pace casually.  Like two old friends meeting in the park by chance.  Their hands touch for an instant and then they break apart.  Without a pause, Trish strolls past Alan towards their tent that smells like piss.  "Let's go baby" she urges as she walks away without looking back.  

Alan stands alone .  The bench kids are already drifting away with Melo.  They are laughing and happy.  Alan realizes he is standing exactly where the path splits in opposite directions.  One way travels towards the city.  The other path leads to Trish.  Or he could leave the path and walk across the grass towards the trees that sway in the breeze.  Alan watches Trish stomp away in her soggy socks.  Her chubby little fist is tightly is clenched around the drugs.
 
Fuck California.