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

At Olive, I rounded the corner, and a film crew with three huge trucks and a parade of black-shirted young guys with goatees was swarming 8th Street. They didn’t notice me. They were filming the tops of apartment buildings, where a young man was looking out the window of a place he would probably never live. A place probably meant to be New York or Chicago or Detroit.

There was no neon in this light. There was only a façade of black tile, and a door, and a sign that read, Golden Gopher. It didn’t open until 5 p.m.

The security guy noticed me now. A brother with cheeks pitted as a cast-iron pot. His badge glinted in the light from a camera. “Excuse me,” he said.

“You’re in the movies,” I said, and I moved away.

Even I couldn’t walk for another two hours. I looked for a Dunkin’ Donuts or somewhere I could sit, and suddenly realized how much my feet hurt, how much my head hurt. I never felt like this in Belize or Oaxaca, because I’d be back in my hotel or in the bar, listening and watching. Now I was like a homeless person, just waiting, wanting to rest for a couple of hours.

I sat at a plastic-topped table and closed my eyes.

Hattie was twenty-two then, and Grady was eighteen, and I was only a freshman. He’d pulled me by the arm into the doorway of the club, past a knot of drunken men. One of them put his palm on my ass, fit his fingers around my jeans pocket as if testing bread, and said, “How much?”

Grady jerked me away and up to the bar, and a man said, “You can’t bring that in here. Underage shit.”

A line of men sat at the bar, and someone knocked over a beer when he stood up. Then his sister spoke from behind the counter. She said, “Grady. What the hell.”

Hattie was beautiful. Not like Glorette. Hattie’s face was round and brown-gold and her hair straightened into a shining curve that touched her cheeks. Her lips were full and red. Chinese, I thought back then. Black Chinese. Her dress with the Mandarin collar.

She pushed three glasses of beer across the counter and someone reached past my neck and took them. Smoke and hair touched my cheek. I remembered. The bar was dark and smelled of spilled beer and a man was shouting in the doorway, “I’ll fire you up!” and through an open back door I could hear someone vomiting in the alley.

“I wanted to come see you,” Grady said. Sweat like burned biscuits at his armpits, staining his T-shirt. “See L.A. The big city.”

“Go home,” Hattie said. “Right now, before somebody kicks your country ass. Take that Louisiana girl with you.”

I looked at Hattie, her contempt. She thought I was Glorette. I said, “I was born in California. I’m gonna live in L.A. myself. But I’m not gonna work in a bar.”

I thought she’d be mad, but she said, “You probably not gonna work at all, babyface.”

Grady pulled me back out the door, and this time the hand fit itself around my breast, just for a moment, and someone said, “Why buy the cow?”

Then we were driving again in the Dart, and Grady was murmuring to himself, “They got a bridge. She said.”

He drove up and down the streets, and I said, “The full moon rises in the east. Papa said. Look.”

He drove east, and the moon was like a dirty dime in front of us, and we took a beautiful bridge over the Los Angeles River, which raced along the concrete, not like our river. Grady said, “We can’t get on the freeway again.”

“Why not?”

“Shit, Fantine, cause I stole this car, and you ain’t but fourteen. John Law see me, I’m goin' to jail.”

He drove down side roads along the freeway, past factories and small houses and winding around hills. The Dart ran out of gas in Pomona.

We were on Mission Boulevard, and Grady said, “You wanted to come. Now walk.”

I walked slowly back toward 8th. It was nearly 5:00 and the sun was behind the buildings, but the sidewalks were still warm. I was carried along in a wave of people leaving work. Homeless men were already staking out sidewalk beds in alleys. Back at the bar, the blackness was like a cave, tile and door so dark it was as if someone had carved out the heart of the building. The film crew was gone. A pink curtain waved in an open window where they’d trained the camera.

A bucket slammed down on the sidewalk, and someone began to wash off the tile. A homeless guy. Green army coat, black sneakers glistening with fallen foam from his brush and rag, and black jeans shiny with wear and dirt. His hair was thin and nappy, and a brown spot showed on the side of his head, like the entrance to an anthill.

Grady. No. Uh-uh. Grady?

He’d had ringworm in Mississippi, when he was a kid, and he’d always combed his natural over that place. Grady. His hand moved back and forth over the tile, washing off fingerprints and smudges. He was missing the end of his right ring finger.

I couldn’t do it. I pressed myself against the building across the street. Hey, Grady, remember me? I wish I could get to know you again, have lunch, tapas or sushi, and then take a couple weeks before I tell you Glorette got killed by somebody in an alley, and she still only loved a guy who left her.

I watched him for ten minutes. He washed the tile, wiped down the door, and polished the gold handle with a different rag. Then he stepped back and turned to look at something above my head.

I didn’t move. His eyes crossed over me but didn’t pause. He went inside, and he never came back out.

Other people stepped in now that the door was open. Two actors from The OC. Three young women wearing heels and carrying briefcases. A guy in a suit.

I crossed the street and went inside. This was not a dive. It looked like Liberace had decorated, with chandeliers and black pillars and even little lamps with gopher shades in gold. I squinted. The jukebox played Al Green. My eyes hurt from saltwater and darkness, and I didn’t see Grady Jackson.

The bartender leaned forward and said, “You okay?” He had a two-tone bowling shirt on, and a porkpie and side-burns.

“Does Hattie Jackson work here?” I said. The bar was cool under my fingers.

“Who?”

“She’s about forty. She was a bartender here.”

A young woman—Paris Hilton—blond but with cool black roots, and a satin camisole—came up behind the bar and squinted. “She means Gloria, I’ll bet.”

Gloria was in an alcove to the side. It was like a little liquor store, and she was arranging bottles of Grey Goose and Ketel One. Her nails were red. But her lips were thin and brown. She looked old.

“Hattie?”

“Gloria Jones,” she said to me. I leaned against the wall. My hips hurt, somehow. She knew me. She said, “When I came here, you had Pam Grier and Coffy and all them. My mama named me Hattie after the one in Gone with the Wind. Who the hell want to be a maid? I changed my name long time ago. After you was here with my fool-ass brother.”

“Was that him? Outside?”

She nodded. “Comes to clean, and then he walks again. He got five, six routes a day. You know. He goes all the way along the river till Frogtown. Comes back later.” She pushed the bottles around. “I don’t get much tips over here. People don’t buy this shit till they ready to go to a private party.”

“You’ve been here all this time.”

She shrugged. “Seem like not much longer.” She wore a wig. The hairs were perfect. “After my senior year. I was fine as wine, but even the hookers in L.A. was something else. Hollywood was crazy. I came downtown to get me an apartment and wait for the right movie. Did the dancing place for a month.”

“The dancing place?”

“Over on Olympic. The men dance with you for ten dollars and they gotta buy you them expensive drinks. But they smelled. Lord, they all smelled different, and some of them, the heat comin' off their underarms and neck and you could smell it comin' up from their pants. Even if they had cologne, just made it worse. I couldn’t do it. I came here, and I was behind the counter forever serving drinks. The guys would tip me good, all the old drunks, and I went to the movies every night after work. Now the theaters are all Spanish. I just get me a video after work. And I sleep till I come in. I live next door.”

I didn’t know what to say. Her eyes were brown and muddy, as if washed in tea. “They were filming your building today.”

She shrugged. “Always doin' somethin'. Now that Downtown is cool again. Grady can’t even get his food in the alley now. Miss Thang at the bar like a hawk.”

“He comes back for dinner?”

Gloria looked around and nodded. “I used to take my plate out there early, before we got started. Take me two enchiladas and rice. Hold a extra plate under there and gave him half. Used to have Mexican food in here. Not now.” She glanced out over her counter. “Now the little old actors be out in the alley. Think they big time.”

I walked away from her alcove, past the bar, the bowling-shirt watching me with a puzzled look—What is she? Brazilian?—and out to the alley. It must have been just a place to dump trash before—but now huge couches covered with velvet and pillows lay at each end, and the OC boys were already collapsed on one, with two girls. It was cool to be in a dive, in an alley, drinking Grey Goose martinis.

“Where does he eat now?” I whispered to Hattie, to Gloria, as she marked off bottles on a list.

“In the other alley. Next door,” she said softly. “At 6:00. Every night, I take me a smoke break out there. And I take my purse.”

I waited for Grady there. I ignored the other homeless men, the drunks from down the street who stumbled past the Golden Gopher, the snide comments of one girl wearing a slinky dress who said, “Uh, the library is on 5th, okay?”

I saw him turn the corner and lope slowly toward me, steady, knees bending, arms moving easily at his sides. He stopped about ten feet from me and said, “Fantine?”

I nodded.

He said, “I been waiting for you. All this time.”

His hands were rimmed with black, like my father’s when he’d been picking oranges all night. His eyes were tiny, somehow, like sunflower seeds in the deep wrinkles around them. All that sun. All those miles.

“You told me you was gon come to L.A. And you left for college. I married Glorette. I married her.” His four top teeth were gone, like an open gate to his mouth. “Didn’t nobody know. We went to the courthouse. Me and her.”

I said, “Grady, I came to tell you—”

“I knew you was somewhere in L.A. Me and Glorette went to the courthouse after Sere Dakar was gone. He played the flute. But he wasn’t African. I seen his driver license one time. Name Marquis Parker. He was from Chicago. Call his-self Chi-town sometimes. Told me he was goin' to L.A. and play in a band. Glorette was havin a baby.”

“He’d be seventeen now,” I said. “Her son.”

But Grady stepped closer, the ripe sweet smell of urine and liquor and onions rising from his coat. “No. My son. I was gonna raise him. Dakar was gonna leave every time. So I got him in my truck.”

I tried to remember. Grady had an old Pinto back then. “You didn’t have a truck.”

He trembled, and breathed hard through his mouth. “Fantine. All this time I waited to tell you. 'Cause I know you won’t tell nobody. You never told nobody about the car. About Pomona.”

I shook my head. My brothers would have beat his ass.

“I waited till Dakar came out that one bar where he played. I told him I had some clothes to sell. Then I busted him in the head and put him in the trash truck. It was almost morning. I took the truck up the hill. To the dump.”

“Grady,” Hattie said from behind me, “shut up.” She dipped a hand in her purse and brought out a foil-wrapped package. “Eat your dinner and shut up. You ain’t done nothin' like that.”

“I did.”

“You a lie. You never said nothin' to me.”

“Fantine—you was at the barn that night.” He held up his hand, as if to stop me, but he was showing me his finger. “Chicago had a knife. When I got to the dump and went to the back of the truck, he raised up and took a piece of me with him. But I had me a tire iron.”

I looked up at the slice of sky between buildings. Missippi and Cleveland and Louisiana and Chicago—all in California. Men and fathers and fools.

Grady tucked the package against him then, like it was a football. “I was waitin' on Fantine. She can tell Glorette he didn’t leave. I disappeared his ass, and then I married her. But she left anyway. She still loved him. I don’t love her now. I’m done.” He brought the package to his lips and breathed in.

“You left him there?” I said. Sere Dakar—his real name something else. A laughing, thin musician with a big natural and green eyes. “At the dump?”

Grady threw his head up to the black sky and dim streetlamps. His throat was scaly with dirt. “The truck was full. I drove it up there and hit the button. Raised it up and dumped it in the landfill. Every morning, the bulldozer covered the layers. Every morning. It was Tuesday.” He stepped toward me. “He had my finger in there with him. I felt it for a long time. Like when I was layin' in the bed at night, with Glorette, my finger was still bleedin' in Dakar’s hand.” His eyes were hard to see. “Tell her.”

“She’s dead, Grady. I came to tell you. Somebody killed her back in Rio Seco. In an alley. They don’t know who. I’m going to see her tomorrow morning. Pay my respects.” I pictured Glorette lying on a table, the men who would have to comb and coil her hair. Higher on her head than normal, because she couldn’t lie on her back with all that hair gathered in a bun.

We’d always slept with our hair in braids. My eyes filled with tears, until the streetlamps faded to smears and I let down my eyelids hard. The tears fell on the sidewalk. When I looked down, I saw the wet.

Hattie went back inside without speaking to me, and she closed the black door hard. And Grady started to walk away, that familiar dipping lope that I’d watched for hours and hours while just behind him, that night.

I had to call a cab to get home. I went to Rio Seco the next morning in my Corsica. I thought I would see Grady Jackson there, or at the funeral, but I didn’t.

My father said to me, “You goin' to Brazil? That far?” He shook his head. “You never fall in love with none of them place. Not one, no.”

I smiled and kissed him on the cheek. I sat all that night in my apartment, listening to Al Green, hearing the traffic on Echo Park Avenue, watching out my window as the palm fronds moved in the wind.

No one ever saw Grady Jackson again. I asked Hattie the following week, and the week after that, and then a month later. She was angry with me, and told me not to come back to the Golden Gopher. “You didn’t have to tell him,” she hissed.

“But he would have known someday,” I said.

“You know what?” she said, her fingers hard as a man’s on my wrist. “I loved my brother. I never loved nobody else in the world, but every day I saw my brother. I can’t never go back home, but he came to me. And you done took that away. You don’t know a damn thing about me or him.”

The next time I went to the bar, she was gone too.

I knew him. I figured he just started walking one day and never went back to Skid Row. Maybe he walked to Venice and disappeared under the waves. Maybe he walked all the way to San Francisco, or maybe he had a heart attack or died of dehydration, still moving.

That night, when we were young, when Grady left the car in Pomona, we walked down Mission Boulevard, leaving behind the auto shops and tire places, moving past vacant lots and tiny motor courts where one narrow walk led past doors behind which we could hear muffled televisions. Junkyard dogs snarled and threw themselves against chain-link. And we moved easy and fast, me just behind Grady. Walking for miles, past strawberry fields where water ran like mercury in the furrows. Walking past a huge pepper tree with a hollow where an owl glided out, pumping wings once and then gone.

That night, we walked like we lived in the Serengeti, I realized all those years later when I watched Grady disappear down 8th into the darkness. Like pilgrims on the Roman roads of France. Like old men in England. Like Indians through rain forests, steady down the trail. Fools craving movement and no words and just the land, all the land, where we left our footprints, if nothing else.

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