I STOOD AT the window of the Kwik Gas and suddenly laughed out loud. The only people on the streets of Wilson at two A.M. were drunks leaving the bar, meth addicts, and cops. I watched a patrol car glide into the curb across the way. A policeman got out to check on a guy who’d collapsed in front of the newspaper office.
What on earth was I doing here?
I’d left L.A. to come live with an old family friend in Wilson, an oil town in the San Joaquin Valley over the mountains to the north. But for weeks I couldn’t find a job. I’d discovered that being an ex-journalist and –movie critic qualified me for nothing. In fact, it made people suspicious. It made them even more suspicious that I’d settle for any crumb-bum gig when my only reference was Joe Balch, Wilson’s leading citizen and largest local employer. Then yesterday the manager at the Kwik Gas hired me for nights—and tonight was my first shift on.
I watched a battered sedan pull up and park outside. There was a kid asleep in the car seat in back.
The woman driving wore a parka over her nightgown. She came in to buy five dollars’ worth of gas and a pack of cigarettes. Not bothering anymore with hello or a smile, I took her money and switched on the pump she asked for. I’d been making some version of that sale for hours—gas and cigarettes, beer and/or candy. Occasionally a quart of motor oil or milk. People who used the Kwik Gas, I’d learned, did not smile or want to chat, especially after midnight.
The woman left and I turned back to the window. Smiling, I tapped my reflection in the glass.
Of Calgary and Paris and L.A.
I was barely thirty-five and my life was a smoking ruin.
A year ago I’d found a woman murdered in the guesthouse where I lived behind a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. I pushed my way into the LAPD investigation and, in the process, fell in love with Detective Douglas Lockwood. The investigation led to near death for me, bloody death for three people—which I witnessed up close—and a political scandal. I’d quit my hip, happening newspaper job because movies and hip tasted like dust. With no idea what to do next, I spent my savings and sold my laptop and car to eat. I was living out of a suitcase, sleeping on a girlfriend’s couch, and resisting Doug’s invitation to move in when Joe Balch said come to Wilson. Joe and his wife, Alice, were old friends of my grandparents. I’d known the Balches since before I was born.
Leaning closer to the glass I checked my face. It was tough to see with the lights of the store behind me.
I’d deserved every minute of the apocalypse, though, and felt like a better person for it. Dire experience had also improved my looks.
Not physically. Physically I was about the same as a year ago. I was still attractive, without being pretty, in a small, athletic way—and still had too much unrestrained personality around the jaw line, although my brown hair seemed wavier and my blue eyes were sparkling again after being so dead and harrowed. The big thing was, I was finally over the worst. I was feeling coherent inside, more stuck together, and my humor was back. That’s really what improved me, I thought: the return of my normal sense of fun.
Engine rumble caught my ear and I looked outside. A tractor-trailer hauling drillpipe went screaming by headed east, probably to Bakersfield.
I watched the semi disappear and flashed on a scene from one of my favorite movies—Sunset Boulevard.
It’s New Year’s Eve, the night Joe Gillis realizes Norma Desmond’s in love with him. He and Norma are lounging on a divan in her private ballroom and she’s bought him a gold cigarette case he doesn’t want to accept. He says she’s bought him too much already. Norma doesn’t get what his problem is: she has tons of money. The way Gloria Swanson says it, she lolls her head back, flaps her wrists inward, and goes, “I’m rrrich.” She describes how rich she is, listing her various investments and ending with “I’ve got oil in Bakersfield pumping, pumping, pumping.” Her wrists flap in a bored way with each pump in pumping. She even sticks one leg up and flaps a bored foot.
Lifting my foot, I flapped it in rhythm and said out loud, “Pumping, pumping, pump—”
“Open the cash register and give me the money.”
The guy was standing behind me pointing a gun at my back. He had on dark glasses and his hair looked like a wig in the reflection.
Anger boiled up so fast I almost choked. This was not going to happen my first shift.
Yelling, I twirled and slapped the gun right out of the guy’s hand. It went flying down an aisle as I raced around the counter:
“Get out of here! Get out of here! Get out of here! Get out of here!”
Caught off-guard, the guy started to back away. I shoved him towards the entrance.
“Go get a job, you freaking loser! There’s a boom on in the oil fields! The price of crude oil is at record highs!”
He caught his sleeve on a rack and spun around. I kicked his leg, snatched the door open, and shoved him out to the parking lot.
“Drilling companies are hiring! Service companies are hiring! Western Well is hiring! Halliburton is hiring! Balch is hiring!”
The guy tripped over the sidewalk, losing his glasses, stumbling for balance. He didn’t see and I didn’t see the cops who’d pulled in for gas. I was yelling and the guy was running and out of the dark two cops were there. Shouting, “Stop!,” they blocked the guy, knocked him down, and had him spread-eagled and cuffed in four seconds flat. The guy was too surprised to resist.
I yelled, “He tried to rob the store!”
The cops looked over as my knees gave way and I sat down abruptly on the concrete.
One cop hurried up to me. “Are you okay?”
I managed to nod, then burst out laughing. I was shaking from the adrenaline, panting for breath, and I could feel sweat dripping down my face. But still, I had to laugh.
The armed robber was a sign. It was time to take my own advice.
WHAT AM I GOING to tell your grandmother, Ann?”
Alice looked up from reading as she heard me cross the foyer. It was her cocktail hour. She was sitting on the sectional sofa in the living room, a glass of red wine in one hand and a letter in the other. A fire was burning in the fireplace and she had a string quartet on the stereo. I walked in and flopped down on the carpet beside the coffee table. A decanter stood on the table with a wineglass for me, and Luz had put out a plate of deep-fried flautitas and hot sauce.
Alice repeated, “What am I going to tell Evelyn?”
“You could tell her that fall in the San Joaquin Valley is beautiful and they’ve started harvesting the cotton.” I grabbed a flautita.