After being released from the halfway house, I moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles, determined to beat the big city. I was twenty-one or two now, which in the house had been ancient, old, wise, and guys had sought me out for advice on who might be hiring down at the river and hot tips on how to deal with lady troubles, but out here, I was young, an everyday roustabout, not even a day player, just bereft, unknown. Often, you could find me in a threadbare tee-shirt, my jeans torn, slouched in the doorway of a Seven-Eleven or an In-N-Out, always looking rain-dampened and wind-blown, always wondering where everyone else was, and why no one ever invited me along.
I could hardly say what was inside myself then. I knew I had will. I'd simply gotten in a car and driven west, thinking whatever happened would be important somehow. And yet, a risk accompanied this move, I knew: I'd lived out here once before, and it had not gone well for me. Since then, I'd been locked away in that halfway house, treating my brand of crazy with shrinks and social workers and talk therapy, following suggestions, direction, not drinking or drugging, not stealing or fucking, swallowing the pharmaceuticals they gave me; all of which had stabilized me—I no longer obsessed over killing myself; I felt good, ready for a new challenge. Driving across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I'd promised myself I wouldn't go back to any shrinks again—ever—and, once my pills ran out, I'd go cold; I wanted to be happy on my own. In the house, guys would've called my self-will a problem, but in L.A., no one was watching me.
I'd heard signing up for a mere one class at community college allowed you to live in low-rent university housing, and so I signed up, got the receipt, and moved into a double dorm-room with four other men, all of whom had exercised the same loophole, and all of whom, like me, dropped their one class within the first week. We had a bunk-bed, a couple single mattresses scattered on the floor.
The fifth man, a swarthy pirate type who believed in dirty vengeance, slept either on our couch or on the couch of a French couple down the hall. He owned a stabbing knife he'd often brandish when my mouth got the better of me. Do you see this? he'd ask. You do realize I don't sleep at night.
He wore a bushy black mane tied up in a loose ponytail, had the usual pirate scruff around his mouth and jaw. If he had been one hundred percent right in the head, he would've made a fine seer or palm reader—he was intense—could've been a tinker or city councilmember, a jailer or warden—he was patient, stubborn, lazy—a principal or headmaster, a photo- or cinematographer—he was watchful, inward, distrusting—and yet he was hopped up on a diverse assortment of pharmaceuticals—MAOIs, SSRIs, and dextroamphetamines—so many he rarely slept. Late into the night, I'd hear him snickering and cooing into a rolled-up magazine he kept clenched in his fist. The Pirate was always coming and going, always talking about the French couple down the hall and their tiny car and a trip north on the Pacific Coast Highway they'd been planning for some time. We never knew where he was at mentally, what he'd find funny. One minute, he'd be up on a coffee table, crouched like a surfer, arms spread wide, glassy stare focused on some unknown horizon, and in the next, he'd be splayed and supine, studying the ceiling.
You got to understand how familiar he felt. Not safe, but familiar and, in that familiarity, comfortable. He was like every guy I'd known in the house—pharmaceutically altered but still crazy—only now I had to adjust my way of thinking, reconnoiter the way I operated. There was no night tech here, no common bond of recovery, no shared set of morals or sense of consequence, no brother in the next bunk to intercede if suddenly this pirate began stabbing me in the night.
I learned to sleep as light as a new mother, in increments of minutes rather than hours, listening as I dreamed for a rustling of clothing, a knife unsheathed, and then I stopped sleeping altogether. I'd leave the dorms and wander into the Westwood nights, following people from the boulevard to the library or back to their apartments or into the Rite Aid, where I'd creep behind, basket in hand, picking up tweezers, cotton balls, Q-tips, hydrogen peroxide, and Cadbury Eggs—never buying anything. I was lonely, afraid to go home.
At some point, I found myself returning over and over to this one cellar on Landfair Ave. There were no women here. Just a bunch of math nerds from the university. Like the rest of us, they'd hunkered down for the rainy months and were spending their evenings wagering on nine-ball, three-card Monte, and fast chess.
The Pirate started showing up. He'd stand around the chessboard with the other men, egregious as an open sore, watching me through the smoke and darkness from across the room. And then one night, his friends, the French couple, appeared. She was quite pretty I remember, and her guy, in his own way, was quite pretty, too. He bounced on the balls of his feet, cocksure the sun would rise in the morning and he'd still be beautiful. Even when his girl sauntered over to me and leaned in close, a very alluring look in her dark French eyes, he smiled confidently.
The French woman wore a loose sweater cinched tight at her waist and covering her hips, a pair of fishnet stockings, a long flowing scarf, and held herself with the poise and power of a much older woman. She was something else, I'm telling you. I'll never forget what she said: Who are you?
Well I told her exactly who I was, of course, but her gaze fell to the floor, and her lips straightened with disappointment.
I'm sorry, she said in her little accent. I thought maybe you were French.
Suddenly, a violent discussion erupted around the chessboard. The Pirate shoved the French woman's boyfriend to the floor. He wore his usual pirate attire: a baggy blouse, cargo pants, twenty-eyed boots; everything but the patch, parrot, and hat, really: even the stabbing knife hung from a scabbard behind his back. And he called out now, summoning me. Come here, he said, steady and unrushed. Stand next to me. I want to show you something.
When I didn't come, he warbled across the room and told me in a flat tone: If you don't leave, I'm going to cut you.
I understood by his calm now and the position of his hand behind his back that he'd gotten hold of his stabbing knife, and he was serious, so, very slowly, I walked out of the cellar and onto Landfair, which is on steep hill, and down Landfair into the village. I'm not sure where I planned on going. I certainly didn't know then. I just kept walking. After about a mile, I realized I was headed for Santa Monica and the ocean.
It was maybe four a.m., and once I passed the 405 freeway and got into those long Wilshire blocks, the fog came in from the coast. Somewhere in this walking—it had been more than a few miles—I looked over my shoulder.
The Pirate emerged from the fog, his strides long and certain. He was following me.
I began walking faster.
Here was a corridor of high-rise apartment buildings, condos, banks, and car dealerships. The long blocks had long intersections, some of them a few hundred feet, and I made these blocks quicker now, faster and faster, making them as I looked over my shoulder. There he was—still on my ass, gaining on me; not even looking at the ground anymore, he walked face-up watching me.
I, too, stopped looking at the ground, stopped looking forward, just planted my chin on my shoulder, eyes on him.
By now he'd closed within a block or so, and I knew by the way he walked—hand behind his back, shoulders hunched up, threatening—this night would not end well for me, but he began crossing one of these long intersections just as a bus was shooting through it, and he got swept up under its wheels.
The bus's brakes locked up. Smoke shot off its tires. Sparks lighted its undercarriage.
I didn't know what to do. I thought maybe I'd seen things and none of this existed, that I was just lost in another insomnia-induced hallucination. But, south of the intersection, the bus idled in the road. Its driver had come out. He crawled about on his hands and knees, peeking under the chassis.
For a long time, when telling this story, I thought I was talking about my own luck. A guy had been following me, a guy under the spell of a dangerous-crazy mindset, a guy who wanted to kill me, but, too focused and too fixated to notice a speeding bus, he'd never caught up to me. Instead, he got run over and died. His story ended. And I got lucky. I always do. That was my point. But things for me rarely feel as concrete in retrospect as they do in the moment and, with time, my certainty has faded: was he following me? Or, had he stumbled down Wilshire on a separate mission, independent of me entirely? I know what it's like to be anonymous. I know what it's like to cross a street without looking, hoping some motorist doesn't see me. Of course, these thoughts are the kinds of thoughts I have when I desire absolution without actively seeking it. Only with age have I stopped viewing the Pirate's passing as my own good fortune.
Weird, but true: years later, I saw the French woman again. I was in my late-thirties now, and God knows how old she'd grown. Maybe forty-five, or so. It's impossible to say. She wore the same clothes she'd worn in her twenties—the leggings or fishnets or yoga pants and the cinched-up sweater—only now an elaborate series of bracelets clinked about her wrists. This was in Manhattan, believe it or not, the middle of the afternoon. She smiled in vague recognition, a question on her lips, the doubt of that night hanging between us, or maybe she had new doubts now—I can't say. Her mouth closed, and, once more, that thing happened. Her eyes dropped, she shook her head, having talked herself out of it: I wasn't that interesting. Not enough to speak to anyway. And her question, whatever it had been, wasn't worth asking.
Fuck it, in other words: not my business. We both kept walking.