The Golden Gopher
written by Susan Straight and narrated by Alison Johnson

Downtown

Nobody walked from Echo Park to Downtown. Only a walking fool.

But in the fifteen years I’d lived in L.A., I’d only met a few walkin' fools. L.A. people weren’t cut out for ambulation, as my friend Sidney would have said if he were here. But the people of my childhood weren’t here. They were all back in Rio Seco.

The only walkin' fools here were homeless people, and they walked to pass the time or collect the cans or find the church people serving food, or to erase the demons momentarily. They needed air passing their ears like sharks needed water passing their gills to survive.

But me—I’d been a walkin' fool since I was sixteen and walked twenty-two miles one night with Grady Jackson, who was in love with my best friend Glorette. I’d been thinking about that night, because someone had left a garbled message on my home phone around midnight—something about Glorette. It sounded like my brother Lafayette, but when I’d listened this morning, all I heard was her name.

Grady Jackson and his sister were the only other people I knew from Rio Seco who lived in L.A. now, and I always heard he was homeless and she worked in some bar. I had never seen them here. Never tried to. That night years ago, when he stole a car, I’d wanted to come to L.A., where I thought my life would begin.

But I had thought of Grady Jackson every single day of my life, sometimes for a minute and sometimes for much of the evening, since that night when I realized that we were both walkin fools, and that no one would ever love me like he loved Glorette.

I came out my front door and stepped onto Delta, then turned onto Echo Park Avenue. My lunch meeting with the editor of the new travel magazine Immerse was at 1:00. I had drunk one cup of coffee made from my mother’s beans, roasted darker than the black in her cast-iron pan. When I went home to Rio Seco, she always gave me a bag. And I had eaten a bowl of cush-cush like she made me when I was small—boiled cornmeal with milk and sugar.

All the things I’d hated when I was young I wanted now. I could smell the still-thin exhaust along the street. It smelled silver and sharp this early. Like wire in the morning, when my father and brothers unrolled it along the fenceline of our orange groves.

All day I would be someone else, and so I’d eaten my childhood.

When I got close to Sunset, I saw the homeless woman who always wore a purple coat. Her shopping cart was full with her belongings, and her small dog, a rat terrier, rode where a purse would have been. She pushed past me with her head down. Her scalp was pink as tinted pearls.

At Sunset, I headed toward Downtown.

Downtown, receptionists and editors always said, “Parking is a bitch, huh?” I always nodded in agreement—I bet it was a bitch for them. If someone said, “Oh my God, did you get caught up in that accident on the 10?” I’d shake my head no. I hadn’t.

And I never took the bus. Never. Walking meant you were eccentric or pious or a loser—riding the bus meant you were insane or masochistic and worse than a loser.

I had a car. Make no mistake—I had the car my father and brothers had bought me when I was twenty-two and graduating from USC. They wanted to make sure I came home to Rio Seco, which was fifty-five miles away. My father was an orange grove farmer and my brothers were plasterers. They drove trucks. They bought me a Chevy Corsica, and I always smiled to think of myself as a pirate.

I was like a shark too—or like the homeless people. I needed to walk every day, wherever I was, traveling for a piece or just home. I needed constant movement. And every time I walked somewhere, I thought of Grady Jackson. Now that I was thirty-five, it seemed like my mind placed those rememories, as my mother called them, into the days just to assure me of my own existence.

I’d have time in the Garment District before lunch. One thing about walkin fools—they had to have shoes.

I had on black low-heeled half-boots today, and flared jeans, and a pure white cotton shirt with pleats that I’d gotten in Oaxaca. It was my uniform, for when I had to move a long way through a city. Boots, jeans, and plain shirt, and my hair slicked back and held in a bun. Nothing flashy, nothing too money or too poor. A woman walking—you wanted to look like you had somewhere to go, not like you were rich and ready to be robbed, and not like a manless searching female with too much jewelry and cleavage.

Down Sunset, the movement in my feet and hips and the way my arms swung gently and my little leather bag bumped my side calmed me. My brain wasn’t thinking about bills or my brother Lafayette, who’d just left his wife and boys, or that Al Green song I’d heard last night that made me cry because no one would ever sing that to me now and slide his hands across my back, like the boys did when we were at house parties back in Rio Seco. When we were young. “I’m so glad you’re mine,” Al sang, and his voice went through me like the homemade mescal I’d tried in Oaxaca, in an old lady’s yard where only a turkey watched us.

No one I knew now, in this life, at all the parties and receptions and gallery openings, felt like that—like the boys with us back home, in someone’s yard after midnight. Throats vibrating close to our foreheads, hands sliding across our shoulder blades. Girl, just—Just lemme get a taste now. Come on.

When I was home lately, I had trouble working. I looked at old things like my mother’s clothespins and a canvas bag I used to wear across my shoulder when we picked oranges in my father’s grove.

But walking, I was who I had become—a travel writer everyone wanted to hire.

I’d written about the Bernese Oberland for Conde Nast, about Belize for Vogue, about Brooklyn for Traveler.

I passed vacant lots tangled with morning glories like banks of silver-blue coins, and the sheared-off cliffs below an old apartment complex, where shopping carts huddled like ponies under the Grand Canyon.

I looked at my watch. 8:45. I smelled all the different coffees wending through the air from doughnut shops and convenience stores. Black bars were slid aside like stiffened spiderwebs. Every morning in late summer, my mother and I would brush aside the webs from the trees in our yard, the ones made each night by desperate garden spiders. Here, everyone was desperate to get the day started and make that money.

My cell rang while I was waiting for the light at Beaudry.

“FX?” It was Rick Schwarz, the editor.

“Yup,” I said.

“So what does that stand for?” He laughed. He was in his car.

“It stands for my name, Rick.”

He laughed again. “We still on for 1:00? Clifton’s Cafeteria?”

“Sounds fine,” I said.

“So—I don’t know what you look like. You never have a contributor’s photo.”

“I look absolutely ordinary,” I said, my body lined up with a statue in the window of a botanica. “See you at 1.”

I stood there for a minute, the sun behind me, tracing the outline of the Virgen de Soledad. These people must be from Oaxaca, because this virgin, with her black robe in a wide triangle covered with gold, her face severe and impassive, was their patron saint. I had prayed before her in a cathedral there, because my mother asked me to do so each place I went. My mother’s house was full of saints.

Across Beaudry, I could see the mirrored buildings glinting like sequined disco dresses in the hot sun. My phone rang again.

“Fantine?”

“Yes, Papa,” I said. I tried to keep walking, but then he was silent, and I had to lean against a brick building in the shade.

“That your tite phone?” he said. My little phone—my cell.

“Yes, Papa.”

“You walk now?”

“I’m going downtown,” I said. “Does Mama want something? Some toys?” I could stop by the toy district today, if my nephews wanted something special.

My father said, “Fantine. Somebody kill Glorette. You better come home, oui. Tomorrow. Pay your respect, Fantine.”

Then he hung up.

No one ever called me by my name. I had been FX Antoine for ten years, since I decided to become a writer. Only my family and my Rio Seco friends knew my name at all.

That was why I’d always loved L.A., especially Downtown. No one knew who I was. No one knew what I was. People spoke to me in Spanish, in Farsi, in French. My skin was the color of walnut shells. My hair was black and straight and held tightly in a coil. My eyes were slanted and opaque. I just smiled and listened.

But Glorette—even if she’d worn a sack, when she walked men would stare at her. They wanted to touch her. And women hated her.

Glorette had skin like polished gold, and purple-black eyes, and brows like delicate crow feathers, and her lips were full and defined and pink without lipstick. She was nearly iridescent—did that fade when blood stopped moving? Now she was dead.

I bit my lip and walked, along Temple and down to Spring Street, where crowds of people moved quickly, all of them with phone to ear, or they spoke into those mouthpieces like schizophrenics. And the homeless people were talking quietly to themselves or already shouting. Everyone was speaking to invisible people.

My father’s voice had lasted only a few minutes. I don’t talk into no plastic and holes, he always said. Like breathin on a pincushion.

He’d said Glorette was dead.

I stopped at the El Rey, one of the tiny shacks with a dropdown window that sold burritos and coffee. My father, when he came from Louisiana to California and began working groves, learned to eat burritos instead of biscuits and syrup. I wanted horrible coffee, not good coffee like my mother’s, like Glorette’s mother’s, like all the women I’d grown up with on my small street. All of them from Louisiana, like my parents. The smell of their coffee beans roasting every morning, and the sound of the tiny cups they drank from even after dark, on the wood porches of our houses, when the air had cooled and the orange blossoms glowed white against the black leaves.

But the man who handed me the coffee smiled, and his Mayan face—eyes sharp and dark as oleander leaves, teeth square as Chiclets—looked down into mine. I put the coins in his palm. Pillows of callus there. I sipped the coffee and he said, “Bueno, no?”

So good—cinnamon and nighttime and oil. “Que bueno,” I said. “Gracias.” He thought I was Mexican.

Then tears were rolling down my face, and I ducked into an alley. Urine and beer and wet newspaper. Glorette was dead. I closed my eyes.

Glorette—when we were fourteen, we walked two miles to high school, and her long stride was slow and measured as a giraffe’s. Her legs long and thin, her body small, and the crescent of white underneath the purple-black iris that some-how made her seem as if she were sleepily studying everyone. Her hair to her waist, but every day I coiled it for her into a bun high on her skull. All day, men imagined her hair down along her back, tangled in their hands. I wore mine in a bun because I didn’t want it in my way while I did my homework and wrote my travel stories about places I’d made up. Always islands, with hummingbirds and star fruit because I liked the name.

Every boy in Rio Seco loved her. But I talked too much smack. I couldn’t wait to leave. If someone said, “Fantine, you think you butter, but your ass is Nucoa like everybody else,” I’d say, “Yet all you deserve is Crisco.”

Grady Jackson had fallen for Glorette so hard that he stole a car for her, and nearly died, but she felt nothing for him, and he’d never forgiven her.

Grady Jackson and his sister Hattie were from Cleveland by way of Mississippi. Grady. He hated his name. He was in my math class, though I was two years younger, and he wrote Breeze on top of his papers. Mr. Klein gave them back and said, “Write your proper name.”

Grady said to me, “I want somebody call me Breeze. Say, I’m fittin' to hat up, Breeze, you comin'? 'Cause my mama name me for some sorry-ass uncle down in Jackson. Jackson, Missippi, and my name Jackson. Fucked up. And she in love with some fool name Detroit.”

Glorette. We were freshmen, and a senior basketball player who had just moved here was talking to her every day. “Call me Detroit, baby. Where I’m from. Call me anything you want, cause you fine as wine and just my kind.”

But Detroit had no car. Glorette smiled, her lips lifting only a little at the corners, and turned her head with the heavy pile of hair on top, her neck curved, and Detroit, who had reddish skin and five freckles on top of each cheek, said, “Damn, they grow some hella fine women out here in California.”

He didn’t even look at me.

That weekend, I was on my front porch when Grady Jackson pulled up in a car. My brothers Lafayette and Reynaldo had an old truck, and they jumped down from the cab. “Man, you got a Dodge Dart? Where the hell you get the money? You ain’t had new kicks for a year. Still wearin them same Converse.”

Grady looked up at me. “Glorette in your house? Her mama said she ain’t home.”

I saw his heavy brown cheeks, the fro that wouldn’t grow no matter how he combed it out, and his T-shirt with the golden sweat stains under his arms. Should have just called himself Missippi and made fun of it, learned to rap like old blues songs and figured himself out. But Cleveland had already messed him up. I said, “She’s home. She’s waiting for Detroit to call her after his game.”

He spun around and looked at Glorette’s house, across the dirt street from mine, and said, “She think that fool gonna take her to L.A.? She keep sayin she want to go to L.A. I got this ride, and I’m goin. You know what, Fantine? Tell her I come by here and I went to L.A. without her. Shit.”

Then Lafayette said to him, “Grady, man, come in the barn and get a taste.”

My brothers had hidden a few beers in the barn. When Grady went with them, I didn’t even hesitate. I’d wanted to go to Los Angeles my whole life. I got into the Dart and lay down in the backseat.

When Grady started the car, he turned the radio up real loud, so Glorette could hear it, I figured, and then he spun the wheels and called out to my brothers, “Man, I’ma check out some foxy ladies in L.A.!” I could smell the pale beer when his breath drifted into the back. He played KDAY, some old Commodores, and then he talked to himself for a long time. I knew the car must be on the freeway, by the steady uninterrupted humming. I had never been on a freeway.

“She always talkin' 'bout L.A. Broadway. Detroit don’t hear nothin'. He don’t know how to get to L.A. He know Detroit. She coulda been checkin' out a club. Checkin' L.A.”

I fell asleep on the warm seat, and when the car jerked to a stop, I woke up. Grady was crying. His breath was ragged in his throat, I could smell the salt on his face, and his fists pounded the steering wheel. “There. I seen it, okay? And you didn’t. You didn’t see shit cause you waitin' on some fool-ass brother who just want to play you.”

I sat up and saw Los Angeles. The city of angels. But it was just a freeway exit and some narrow streets with hulking black buildings. I remembered one said Hotel Granada, windows with smoke stains like black scarves flying from the empty sills.

Grady looked back and said, “Fantine? What the hell you doin' in here?”

I walked down Broadway, where the butt models showed off curvier jeans than you’d see on Melrose or Rodeo. No mannequins in the doorways of some stores—just the bottom half, turned cheeks to shoppers. All the stereos blasting ranchero and cumbia and salesmen calling out and jewelry flashing fake gold.

L.A. I had come here for college, and that was it. I wanted to live in an apartment with a fire escape so that I could see it all. See more than orange groves and my father’s truck and the ten grove houses set along our street. I wanted to live above a restaurant, to watch people all day long, people who weren’t related to me. I knew everyone’s story at home, or I thought I did.

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide

Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning