“I feel like someone’s put a torch to me,” Lu sighs, from the floor, as if there’s something appealing about that notion. I lie down on the cool, scarred hardwood next to her but don’t touch, my toes an inch from her ankle, stretching into her and away at the same time. I suspect she really would like to be on fire, that she would be pissed if I put her out. We are a pair, not a couple, mostly because I am still (stubbornly she says) straight, still like boys despite the improbability of surviving them, and she may be too wild anyway, even for me. We are in Oakland, during a string of rare ninety-degree days, because we are out on a pass of sorts and because it is necessary for us to be here, as opposed to the city across the Bay, where in our world people and their lives simply come apart and we can’t seem to do a thing to stop them.
It’s August, and too hot to touch skin to skin, too hot to even think about outside. Outside is where you go when you are being punished, at least until dark; then inside is punishment, jungly and fierce. Equatorial, like Papua New Guinea.
She pronounces it Pa POO Ah. Irian Jaya, she tells me, is its other half. She starts meandering around peninsulas and archipelagos—Indonesia, Malaysia—and comes creeping up on Burma and the Irrawaddy.
I say, “Stay out of Vietnam.” Sixteen degrees north of the equator but still scorching, from what Mick’s letters said.
She says, “I know.”
When she sits up it will be to smoke a cigarette and work on a drawing of a forest in deep green, brown, and black, with a few white smudges standing in as rabbits. She will say this forest is in Yugoslavia, though Yugoslavia no longer exists. When I tell her that, she will show me one of her maps, of which she has many. She collects dog-eared . . . things.
“Oh yes it does, Cookie. It’s right there.” She’ll flick that map with an index finger, a sharp snapping sound. “See?”
It is hard to argue when it is in black and white like that. Black and white and blue. She claims, when she is not drawing or painting, to be a geographer. When she is not drawing or painting, dope sick or high, or trying to figure out how to get high. She’s never actually been anywhere, except here and southern Indiana, the long black-tar highway in between. She left when she got old enough to fight off the inbred uncles, steal a car. I came later, from the north, and at first she was jealous of my wholesome, perfect family. Of how I led my personal Lewis and Clark expedition to the edge of the continent, obliviously determined to beat the crappy odds and discover the Pacific on my own.
There was an intersection of sorts. A convergence. Or maybe an eclipse. And now it is nighttime. We fall asleep on the floor under the creaky ceiling fan. Even sheets weigh too much. The air trying to come through the windows smells like wild animals. Random gunfire in the distance wakes us up. Gang wars. Little boys with Uzis. Lu growls, but softly.
“You want to bring the outside in, but you can’t,” I say, “Not even you.”
“We could take out a wall.”
“What about winter?”
“What about it?” What she means by that, I know, is that winter is not certain, if nothing is. Besides which, these walls, not a one of them belongs to us.
On the subject of fire, she continues to deny ever having set one in the bar. The burned spot in the faded linoleum, burned and melted through to the wood underneath, was someone else’s handiwork. She doesn’t say whose, but I bet she was there. That happened a long time ago, maybe fifteen years, way before me.
“I hate that Andy keeps telling that story,” she says. I have not mentioned the fire, but she has reminded herself, and I know exactly what she’s talking about. It’s a sore point with her, being falsely accused. Andy is the swamper at the bar, queer as Liberace but not quite as glamorous, a long-haul regular and witness to years of bad behavior in what he calls the Lesbyterian Church. He tracks all of us, me included now, and although nelly and sweet and generous, he is a terrible gossip, and not above making things up. I don’t know why the fire story bugs Lu so much, maybe because she has never lied about all the stupid things she actually has done, as she generally doesn’t give a rat’s ass what people say or think.
When I first saw her, she was loudly berating a blind girl from her usual location, leaned James Dean–style against the wall by the jukebox, cigarette perched on her lip, smoke narrowing her possum-brown eyes. She pointed at me and demanded to know what year it was. I thought maybe it was some kind of a test, but I didn’t know if there was a trick to passing it, so I just said. 1985. She did a little math, turned back to the girl. “I’m thirty-six years old,” she announced, poking a finger into her own chest. “Look at me.” To a blind girl. I was behind the bar, still new and not a little nervous, and everyone else who was in there at the time was appalled, or acting like it. I thought it was funny. I knew that girl. She was a pain in the ass. Got drunk every afternoon and tripped over the dog. Poor animal had a haunted look, bruised fur. I had to draw the line at rustling a blind girl’s dog, but boy was I tempted. Lu would have done it, I bet, if she’d thought of it and had someplace to keep it, but she was on the street more often than she was off. Or camping in someone else’s living room.
She came back over and over to flirt with me, but could never get my name right.
“Bailey is a dog’s name.”
She demanded a nickname. I had lots of those.
“My brother used to call me Cupcake,” I said, and she promptly forgot that too.
“Cookie,” she said, five minutes later. In a way she invented me. I could not have invented her, as I did not have the experience or the capacity. When I got to know her the bit that she let me, though, sometimes I called her Loopy, sometimes Sloopy; sometimes she answered. She and Mick would have been just about the same age, and something about the way she leaned on that wall wanted to remind me of him, but I didn’t let it. I could already see it would be complicated enough without that, and probably hurt.
I am not very good at tracking years, but in this episode I know there have been five of them, and so far Lu and I are both still alive, for reasons maybe God knows, and maybe he doesn’t. We are housesitting in Oakland for one of the regulars who’s gone off to Thailand for a few weeks. “Probably to molest little boys,” Lu says.
I shush her. “How come you always think the worst of everyone?” She just looks at me, her mouth pulled off to one side of her face, part of her lower lip between her teeth. I turn my head away and she blows softly on my cheek, her breath black licoriceish—she’s been eating it by the pound. Hardly drinking, no drugs for three weeks, the first two at Harbor Lights. Enough time to detox without dying, but not a chance in hell of even that first, let alone twelfth, step. I can’t believe she hasn’t jumped out the window yet. I hold her in place with my incredible will. She lets me. For now.
We are here because it is unfamiliar territory. Not perfect, but Lu doesn’t yet know any of the local kids, the ones on the streets a little further east, who tenaciously hawk powdered oblivion, at bargain prices, to passersby. San Francisco right now is a minefield, and my current roommate isn’t all that crazy about me anyway, let alone my inconstant running buddy.
Those first months at the bar, right before Wendy died, she and Lu were crashing at a friend’s place in Glen Park, maintaining: Lu still driving a cab sometimes and Wendy cleaning a few houses, but they were not telling the whole truth. Wendy still looked like she’d just stepped off the porch at Tara—all girl all the time. She smelled exactly like magnolia blossoms, in memory if not in real time. They didn’t tell that she’d fallen backward, wrecked on rosé wine and Mexican Quaaludes, off the deck, and ruptured some critical organ. Too high, too scared to take care of business. Terrified of the emergency room at General: the iodine smell, triage. People utterly ass-out, moaning and raging. Because once you went there, you were officially fucked. Wendy finally died of hoping it would all, somehow, sort of, like it always had, work itself out in the end. When she was gone Lu came to me, and I tried like hell to figure out a way to keep her.
Pinball was one way, and the guy who came to collect the money usually left a bunch of credits on it for me. For us. We had totally different styles, Lu and me.
She bashed the hell out of the machine, tilting it then swearing at it, as though it had intentionally done her wrong. “Motherfucker. I oughta—”
“Cut its legs off.”
“Then how would we play?”
“We would sit on the floor, like little children. You could teach me how.”
“Ha ha. Out of the way. My turn.”
My action was all in the hips, and mentally coaxing the ball to within reach of the flippers. It was an old one, Spanish Eyes, the score racking up by tens in a little square window behind the back glass, the clacking noise like dominoes falling. The gunshot crack of a win or a match sent us into a minor frenzy. A double match: we were untouchable.
I rarely had many customers before three or four, so when we were all bashed out, we’d move to the pool table. Lu kicked my ass on a regular basis, but she taught me how to sink one or two on the break, how to leave the cue ball where I could make the next shot.
“Hit it low, Cook. Get under it, but keep it on the table. Soft now, you’re not trying to kill anything.”
We never snookered each other, since that would have been cheating. When folks started filtering in, Lu faded out. I hardly ever saw her go.
I had just turned thirty and was living with a free-basing Cajun bricklayer or I imagine I would have tried to take Lu home with me. As it was, I was on call. About the fourth time, I got the hang of it.
“Hey Cookie. I need a ride.”
“Not going to the projects, Lu.”
I picked her up and drove her across town, our destination the projects at Hayes and Buchanan—the same ones, as it turned out, the boyfriend frequented, though I never saw him there. Maybe there was a different entrance for the high that would fix whatever sickness ailed him.
“You worry too much,” Lu told me. “I’m not going to get you into anything I can’t get you out of.”
She opened the door and leaned out to puke. I pulled over and she cussed me. “God damn it, Cook.” She dragged her sleeve across her mouth and pulled the door closed. “Drive like I taught you.”
Once she’d copped and eased back into herself, there was no one I’d rather be around. When the ghosts were asleep or off somewhere playing poker, or even the rare weeks or months she was actually, comparatively, clean, she’d bust open the front door of the bar, light streaming in behind her, and wrap her arms around me. Hold me in a full body clench, drenched in Marlboro and brandy fumes, and just a tolerable touch of panic. She said she’d been born with that panic, spent a lifetime stuffing it. Slept with a .357 under the pillow, when there was a pillow.
Some days—the steadiest ones—she’d go to the zoo, draw the animals, capture their essence in a few stark lines. Wildflowers were another favorite, sprouting crazy-legged from stumpy, misshapen vases, the colors startling and otherworldly. Later on she did a series of her cat in various poses, on an assortment of perches around the only room she had in years that she could call her own, and in each one he looked shocked to see her there, as if they’d never met, or maybe only in a dream.
The boyfriend also had some charming tendencies; one was a peculiar schedule only he could fathom. Day One of the mystery rotation: beat me up, steal my money, and disappear. Day Two: stay gone. Day Three: run out of drugs and money and come home. Expect soup. Homemade. Vegetarian.
San Francisco in the eighties, the odds were pretty good of choosing a loser if you were drawn to edgy like I’d turned out to be. I have no idea what I wanted that edge for. Maybe it’s just the way I was. Or maybe I thought it would give me a chance to fix something that had only the remotest chance of coming unbroken. Whatever it was, every time I showed up with a fat lip or a black eye or fingertip-shaped bruises on the backs of my arms, Lu would offer to shoot him for me. I always turned her down, out of some sense of irrevocability, or not wanting to have to drive all that way to visit her in San Quentin. “One of these days, Cookie, I’m just going to do it. I don’t need your fucking permission.” She’d stare me down, waiting for a sign of weakness, a sign I’d had enough, but I wouldn’t give it to her. Thought I could save him is what I thought. Repair him, damaged as he was.
He was not the first of my affairs—not by a long shot—to be full of ceaseless surprises, but Lu didn’t fit that mold. No, Lu was my stand-up guy and all the secrets were already out. She wasn’t going to come up with some dark episode or previously disguised dreadful personality trait; that shit was pretty much already on the table. And we wouldn’t be lovers, as there was my ongoing addiction to boys, which she only cared about the times they hurt me. She just wanted to hold me and look after me, chase the other girls off. After my tour with the bricklaying cokehead, that was good enough. And even though our hearts worked in tandem I never expected anything resembling consistency, flat knowing I wasn’t going to get it. By the time Lu infiltrated my life, I’d done enough time with the shell-shocked and war-wounded, the alcoholics and the drug addicts, to count her showing up clinically alive a bonus.
“Hey you. Looking good.”
“Don’t lie to me, Cookie.”
“No. Lie to me. Buy me a drink.”
I lent her money and everyone told me I was crazy. Well of course I was. The years since I’d left Montana had fallen well short of a pure, unadulterated youthful-type trajectory, and my soul was every iota as snakebit as some of the worst ones. Climbing out of the ditch was a hit-or-miss process, and even though I was semiconsciously working on it, down was a hell of a lot easier way to go than up. Lu was my reflection some of those days, and sometimes, when I was sober enough to pay attention, it scared me half to death.
We get through the weeklong autumn heat wave in Sid’s Oakland flat, and whatever atmospheric front brought it in disappears back out to sea. Everyone talks about earthquake weather when it gets steamy like that, in the aftermath of our cool and foggy summers. Last year they were right, but so far this time the heat has not brought on anything major except for Lu’s hot flashes. She hates the idea of them more than the reality. They prove she’s a girl too, but she adamantly denies it. That’s something she left in the rearview in Indiana, back there with the gropey uncles, the cousins she says stank like sour milk and lighter fluid.
A little fresh fog cat-foots east from the City. Lu hugs herself and shivers when I say the part about the cat’s feet. I tell her about the poem and she says, “You’re so smart, Cookie. How’d you get to be so smart?”
“I’m not,” I tell her. “I just read a lot. I have a lot of books.”
“Books,” she says, the tone of her voice signaling something irrefutable, as if she’s just realized a few things are that simple and no one is going to talk her out of it now. I don’t tell her that even in my life nothing is that simple, that when we lost Mick I inherited those books, and only barely had the good sense not to throw them into the ocean when I first got to California, when I realized God had no intention of answering my questions himself—here, in a horizon-to-horizon wheatfield under the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree Montana sky, or anywhere else from what I’d been able to determine.
The end of the week I have to go back to work but Lu says she’s okay, and she has been keeping it together pretty well. Her eyes are clear and the shakes have subsided to barely noticeable. She’s back to dressing like a gentleman. When she’s on, Lu is remarkably fastidious about what she wears, mostly tailored men’s britches and pressed white shirts. Sometimes a French racing cap, sometimes a derby. She’s pretty cute, but that is something I am not allowed to say with my actual voice.
She watches me dress, does a quick pen-and-ink of me standing by the bathtub in my slip, pulling my Friday-night-only stockings on, grimacing at the torture of them, but she doesn’t draw that part. The sketch is all black and white, and then she colors the windows in red and orange with crayons she grips in her fist like she's wielding an icepick. She makes it look like the world outside is burning, then finds a small strip of brown velvet somewhere and ties it into my hair.
Since I close at two and the subway stops running at twelve, Lu has to come and get me after work. We’re both driving one car these days, a car I bought but that somehow we both own and she has christened Alice. Alice is a 1970 baby-blue slant-six, four-barrel-361 freak, a Plymouth Fury Lu just had to have. Since she’s so old and understandable, I can usually keep her running myself.
After we finish stocking the beer, washing the glasses, and sweeping the floor, we shoot a quiet game of pool and then blaze out of town. When I look back from the Bay Bridge, the city behind us is all smoky pink with sodium-vapor light radiating up into the clouds, refracted through the fog. Lu drives, cabbie-fast and maniacally as always, and I lean out the window to shotgun the briny-smelling breeze into my lungs. I look past Lu, west into the darkness, and see incomprehensible, ceaseless ocean, clear to Asia and back. Miles and miles. Really far, and really deep. Lu says, “You ever think about jumping, Cook?”
“Never,” I say, and I’m not really lying. I don’t think about jumping, but I do think about falling, wonder for exactly how long I could make it feel like flying, but I’m never going to get close enough to the edge to do any of those things. Seems silly to have the conversation at all in that case.
“I don’t believe you,” Lu says, downshifting into second to pass a semi on the right, just before the lane ends. He has to brake to let us in and yanks on the air horn. It’s really loud.
“It’s hardly going to matter if you drive us off a bridge.”
“Oh be quiet, Cookie. Have I ever killed us?”
Oakland is still awake when we get back. Even though we’re pretty close to the relative sanity of Berkeley, there are still a few young turks hanging out, waving come-hither dime bags at us, watching just a little longer than maybe they’d watch a couple of white guys driving through. Lu doesn’t look anywhere but straight ahead, doesn’t blink, smile, cuss, or nod. When we get to the flat she throws herself through the door and onto the center of the bed like she’s just escaped a ravenous tiger.
“Jesus Christ. Maybe you need to blindfold me.”
“You’d have to let me drive.” I know what is called for here is not a joke, but it’s been a long night and maybe I think I can make her laugh.
She throws the keys at me, hard. I duck and they hit the wall. “Not funny,” she says, her voice close to cracking. Hearing it surprises me.
“Sorry. I’m tired.” I sit down next to her, pick her hand up, and feel her pulse. It’s going about a million miles an hour. “Criminy.” I put my head on her chest and listen while her heart slows to a semi-normal speed.
I’m nearly asleep there when she says, “You want to check my teeth too?”
I sit up. “No. I want to go to bed. But you’re going to have to give me some more room.”
“Were you always this much of a pain in the ass?”
“It’s a wonder your mother didn’t drown you in the horse trough.”
“My mother loves me.” Last time I checked. Which was a while ago.
“So you say.” She turns over onto her stomach and spreads her arms wide across the bedspread, her face mashed into the pillow. She says something, but it’s impossible to tell what.
She turns her head to one side. “Don’t let me go, Cook.”
I take the ribbon out of my hair, tie it twice around her wrist. “There. Now you are in my custody. You can’t escape.”
At five it is just beginning to get light. Sirens and dogs howl somewhere not far from here. I crawl under one of Lu’s outstretched arms and when I wake up hours later she’s gone. All her shit and some of mine—the car, the cigarettes, gone. It’s noon, and the steps and the sidewalk are lined with wilting crimson bougainvillea petals. “What the fuck am I supposed to do with these? Goddammit. Lu.” I am out of words. I pick up a handful of the red petals and hold them until a breeze comes and blows them out of my hand. Inside I press the same one flat into her side of the bed. I’d swear it’s still warm, sweaty in the indent her body left. I pack my little kit bag, put Sid’s key under the mat, and head for the subway.
Alice comes back to me because the tow and impound notice is mailed to my address. I go to the tow yard and talk the cashier into releasing the car into my custody. Lu surfaces about three months later; I hear what she’s doing from Andy, who’s cooking weekends at Harbor Lights and feeding Lu and her new girlfriend leftovers out the back door. They’re both strung out, flopping in an abandoned building on Sixth Street. The whole neighborhood is being torn down, all the residence hotels emptying out to make way for lofts and condos. Lu and her gal are lucky to have a roof; the alleys between Market and Mission are lined both sides with appliance boxes and shopping carts.
I tell Andy to have Lu call me. “Tell her all is forgiven. Tell her there’s nothing to forgive. Tell her something.” A few days later she shows up at the bar right at one, when I open. Rode hard and put up wet, as my brother once liked to say. She stares straight down and mumbles into her sweatshirt. I know I couldn’t raise her stubborn head with a car jack.
“Don’t look at me, Cookie.”
I just want to heal her all up. I have medicine. “You want a drink?”
“I want a gun.”
“What happened to yours?”
“Some cocksucker stole it.”
I sigh, pour her a brandy. Her hands are shaking so bad she has to hold the glass with both of them. I can see fresh track marks on the backs, among the smaller veins and the tiny bones. That piece of brown velvet is still tied around her wrist, hanging on by a few fine threads. She won’t meet my eyes, and all I can think to ask is how she is and know what a ridiculous question that would be, so I don’t say anything. I go back to setting up the bar, cutting limes, making Bloody Mary mix. The place smells a bit more like bleach than booze still since Andy was in this morning cleaning. Light prisms through the beer signs overlapped in the front window, illuminates the settling dust. For lack of something more befitting the occasion, I examine the floor and see how scarred it is, not just in the burned spot but all over. Lu says, “I did not set that fire.”
“I believe you.”
“You’d better, Cookie. No one else does.” I know some people who would call that a burden, a moral obligation, but I am not one of those people. Nina Simone sings softly on the jukebox, about the morning of her life. Lu finishes her drink.
“You got fifty bucks?” she says. Like she’s saying, Can I have a bite of that? I hand her a wad out of my pocket. “I’ll pay you back,” she says, crumpling the bills up even more. “I will, goddammit.”
“I don’t care about that. Just don’t die on my dime.” I pick up a lemon, wonder if I can throw it hard enough to break a window. “Just don’t.” I put it back down, take the big stainless steel bucket to the alcove where the ice machine is, by the back door that leads to the deck and the garden, where by my count seven trees have been planted for dead people in the five years I’ve worked here. And those are only the special ones. We don’t plant trees for just anybody. That would require a second lot. Probably some new zoning. I don’t need ice, but Lu needs space to pull off her ever-astonishing vanishing act.
I say, “I am not planting a tree for you, Lu. You can just forget about that.” I don’t say it very loud, and she probably wouldn’t have heard me even if she wasn’t already gone. She’s left a cigarette burning in the ashtray. She knows I hate that. I leave it burning, to remember her by. Lu one; Cookie fuck-all.
The new girlfriend lasts until spring and then dies on Lu’s birthday in April. Lu calls a few weeks later and I go pick her up at Fifth and Harrison at three in the morning. It’s raining but she’s standing out in the open, no coat, saturated like she’s been swimming in the bay. She has a small duffel bag and a pure black kitten in a carrier behind her in a doorway, out of the rain. “I was afraid you wouldn’t see me.”
“I know how to find you. You glow in the dark. Get in here.” I don’t ask about the cat right away, and we all drive back to my flat in the mission. My roommate and his girlfriend are out of town, so I can run a bath for Lu, keep her for a day or two. I put the cat in its carrier in the bathroom to keep an eye on Lu and put her clothes in the washing machine. When she’s done in the bathtub I wrap her in a bathrobe and put her to bed. “You sick?”
“Not too terrible. Been doing some home-remedy detox since Chrissie OD’d. Pot and Valium. I got a stash.” She doesn’t try to hide the abscess scars on the back of her right hand. I hold it and run my thumb over one of them. Smack doesn’t burn like that unless it’s cut with something really weird.
“What the hell, Lu. Speed?”
“I don’t know. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Something new. Chrissie liked it.” She looks at the scars like she’s seeing them for the first time. “That’s what killed her. She was just a kid.”
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“I didn’t know how much, Cook. I think I almost died too. My legs went right out from under me. My heart must have just been stronger than hers.”
“You’re a pro, Lu.”
“You bet I am.” She looks away so I can’t see her eyes. After a minute she reaches into her pocket and holds out a handful of little blue pills. Tens. “You want some?”
“Not now. I’m pretty sleepy. I’d just waste it.”
The cat yowls from the bathroom. I raise an eyebrow at Lu but she just says, “He came to me in a dream. His name is Mick.”
“Mick.” At the moment, whatever it means that Lu named her cat after my brother, accidentally or not, doesn’t register. Not on any scale. That’s how good I am. “Does Mick eat?”
“There’s food in my bag.”
I get the cat, the bag, a bowl, a towel, a dishpan with some torn-up newspaper in it. I say, “We’ve got till Sunday.”
“Time enough,” she says. Then, “What’s that line? That song? About Valium. That Rickie Lee Jackson song.”
“Jones,” I say.
“Yeah, sure, whatever, Cook. But what’s that line?”
“Don’t let them take me back, broken like Valium and chumps in the rain.”
“Chumps in the rain,” she says. “I love that.”
I could just holler, but I might not ever stop, so I close my eyes and play dead instead. When the Valium kicks in and Lu falls asleep, she’s curled around me like a boa constrictor.
Amazingly, she stays cleaned up for a while—two months and a slip, two more, et cetera. It gets so I nearly start trusting her to show up when she says she will, even though a part of me is off in the corner, frantically waving its arms in alarm and asking loudly, “Have you completely lost your mind?” She gets a little room down on Market for her and that cat, a place that’s safe and not blow-your-brains-out depressing like most of them. The guys at the front desk are nice and of course immediately fall in love with her because she’s smart and funny and doesn’t take any shit. She gets a steady gig with National, driving mostly night shifts, but night is her best side anyway, since she’s still really vain and it’s so much harder to see in the dark how the years have worked her over, better than the Cajun could ever have done to me, and lived.
I don’t see her every day, or even every week, but she stops by the bar when she can, shows me her drawings, the old atlases she picks up secondhand, ones that show Zimbabwe as Rhodesia, Southeast Asia as Indochine. We do normal things, like go down to Divisadero for Philly cheesesteak lunch dates, or Valencia for cheap sushi or Vietnamese.
She sits in the backyard at the bar, sketching the skyline, the haphazard tree cemetery, the wild masses of flowers and vegetation that never seem to die back here but only hibernate a few weeks in winter. Nothing like Montana, where winter lasts from October to May or longer, and when the spring chinook starts to blow, you feel like the thaw has been your whole life getting there.
We’re in Saigon Saigon one day when Lu asks about my brother, how old he’d be now, and it takes me a second to come up with the number, which is strange, because this is something I know.
“How old was he when he died?”
I’m pulling splinters off my chopsticks, arranging them in a pile by my plate. “Nineteen. Why are you asking me this stuff?”
“You know you talk to him in your sleep?”
“How the hell would I know that?” I get up, drop ten dollars on the table, walk out to the bus stop. She doesn’t try to stop me.
The next week at the bar she eyes me out from under the brim of her hat, astonishingly aware that there is a line and that she may have crossed it. I think I’m more disoriented by her awful cognizance than by her unerring ability to open up places that by all rights should have permanently, or at least officially, healed over.
“Why did you name your cat Mick, Lu?”
“He reminded me of Mickey Mouse. His little crazy ears . . .”
“You are such a fucking awful liar.” She doesn’t contradict me, but it does occur to me that maybe she isn’t lying. We stare each other down for as long as we can stand it. I will not for a second admit I could be wrong, and she knows for sure that I know it’s a possibility. This is something new to me, being held to account by someone with her ducks, if not in a straight line, at least in a loose formation, and I am not good at it. I want an out, and this time she doesn’t have to give me one.
But she does. “He reminded me of you too. Those crazy little ears.”
“Fuck you, Lu. You and your cat.” I can barely talk, but screaming is a clear and present option.
She comes behind the bar before I can get away and grabs me by the arms just below my elbows, leans her forehead into mine, and says, “It don’t mean shit if it doesn’t hurt, Cookie. Don’t let him go.”
“Don’t. Tell. Me.” I pull away from her and back up against the basement door. “How to remember him. You don’t know a fucking thing about it.”
She stands there with her hands still open, her eyes bright and wide. “I’m trying to help, Cook.”
I laugh, knowing it’s the cruelest thing I can do. “Now that is fucking funny.”
She backs away, hands up in front of her now, unconsciously fisted in a boxing stance, almost a crouch, protecting her ribcage, her belly. “Hey,” she whispers, “it’s me.”
My teeth are clenched. “Fuck you fuck you fuck you so much.” My teeth feel like they will always be clenched now. Like this is permanent, this grinding pain.
I watch her go and try to find a way to blame her. Turn Janis up on the jukebox as loud as I can stand it, unhang the beer signs, and wash the filthy windows so actual sunlight can get in. My jaw aches. I don’t care. Take another little piece of my heart. I don’t fucking care.
Lu stays away for a short while, then sashays in one hot September afternoon like she’s been showing up at exactly this time every day. She brings me a burrito, with one bite out of it. I shove her quarters for the pool table.
She lets me win, but barely, and does it so slyly I can pretend it was an honest game. Then she slaughters me, takes no time to run the table, and banks the eight with six of mine still out there. She lets me break the next one so she can reteach me how.
“Getting sloppy, Cook.”
“I didn’t have you here to keep me honest.”
“Is that what we called it?”
“What else you got?”
Nothing. I’m all out.
In late October, on a Sunday, I am watching the Oakland Hills go up in flames on the TV. The wind has been blowing seventy miles an hour over there, and now the fire is creating its own storm. The sky in the east is completely black with smoke. There is no sun. It looks like a bomb went off and we can smell it here, twenty miles away, and a drizzle of cinders is already beginning to fall on the city. The fire trucks can’t get to all the neighborhoods on account of the narrow, winding streets, and in some places the fire hoses don’t fit the hydrants. Other places, there’s no water. People are caught in their cars and their houses and burn, for real.
Lu calls to tell me she can see the hills blazing across the bay from where she is, somewhere south of Market, in a bar. She tells me the job is gone and the little cat is gone and the little room is gone and she just needs a small loan to get a bite to eat and maybe a tiny fix, to get well.
She says, “I didn’t set this one either, Cookie.” She tries to laugh. I try to laugh with her.
I say, “I know. Stay right there. I’m coming.” But when I get downtown, I can’t find her anywhere. There’s just a small pile of ashes on the sidewalk in front of the bar. I think this must be the last place she stood. I crouch down and rub some of that ash between my fingers, feeling for teeth, pieces of bone.