Had trouble finding the beginning of this thing. This is probably not the beginning, or maybe it is. It’ll be a little non-linear, maybe getting better as I go along. Doing is better than not doing, in most things. We’ll sort it out as we go.
The palm trees were bad. Johnny judged them as he walked. LA was hot and the palm trees were going bad. The canopies were thin and sickly and gave little shade. Johnny paused in the coolness of a shop awning. It was a tiled cafe. Johnny checked the time on his phone, then, with an insulting look at the barren palm tree across the boulevard, which Johnny had rated a lowly two out of ten, Johnny stepped inside.
The bell chimed. The air was hotter than outside but the ceiling fan was cranking and there was a breeze coming through from the kitchen that carried the scent of fried oil and peppers. Behind the counter, the cafe’s only waitress talked on the phone. The waitress was thin, in her twenties, with curly hair and thick frame glasses. Johnny liked the look of her.
“Good afternoon,” she said, and hung up the phone, “How are you?” “I wasn’t going to get anything but I like the look of you so I’ll be truthful. I’m hungry. I’ll eat but I wasn’t going to.” “Until you saw me?” “How’s the cubano?” “Good. Jorge makes it dripping and burnt a little.” “I’ll eat it.” “Is that all?” “What else can I eat?” “What can you?” “Everything. But it’s a busy day.”
Johnny found the end of the cue. The line stretched through three turns of red tape. Johnny staggered forward a place when the woman ahead of did. She wore a cloth around her head and had a toddler in one arm. In the other she held a rolling suitcase.
An air vent blew on Johnny. He looked up. A long line of white string a fluttered from one of the grates in the airport ceiling. “Like a flag,” thought Johnny.
Johnny tried standing on one foot, then the other. When the line move forward, he hopped. Behind Johnny, a woman in a wide brim hat coughed on his neck. Johnny counted the spittle. He felt two drops.
Johnny went into a dream.
In the dream, Johnny was standing atop a giant earthworm in a desert that stretched as far as he could see in all directions. The sun hung low in the orange sky.
The worm was moving, sliding across the sand.
An attendant in a navy blue suit walked along the worm and as she passed Johnny, Johnny reached out a hand to stop her. “Excuse me, but am I allowed to change segments?”
“The worm will decide,” said the attendant. She raised her chin. Bags of pale flesh hung from below her eyes down past her chin. The skin was morbid and plastic.
“Thank you,” said Johnny. He wanted the face to leave. The face remained though, as if on a second thought. “No more thoughts,” thought Johnny, pleadingly.
“Well, if it were up to me…” said the attendant. She laughed. The bags under her eyes rocked like pendulums. “Let’s just say if it were up to me, well, if it were…” She shook her head. “You know. If it were up to me…” She trailed off and laughed again then started walking away. “Up to me,” Johnny could hear her repeating as she climbed over the hump to the next segment of earthworm.
Johnny stood alone watching the sun darken. He decided he’d better walk.
The next worm segment was much the same. The attendant was nowhere to be seen. Nothing extraordinary happened, so Johnny continued on to the one after.
This segment was thick and something deep within beat like a heart beat. Standing higher now, Johnny looked in both directions but could not determine any difference between either direction of the worm. The segments seemed to stretch out towards both horizons.
“What is this life on a worm?” said Johnny aloud.
The security attendant took Johnny’s ticket with a look.
+ + +
Outside the LA airport terminal Johnny spotted the man in the peach suit. The man saw Johnny, nodded, and walked outside and lit a cigarette. Johnny picked up his bag from the conveyer and stepped outside to where the man was just finishing his cigarette and lighting a second.
“Can’t stop smoking these. Come on, let’s go.”
The two men walked to the parking garage and got into a silver Lexus. “It’s my wife’s. How was the flight?” “Everybody sat on the same side of the plane. It corkscrewed the whole way.” “Sounds about right.”
They drove in silence across through the LA streets, then a ways out into the desert. Johnny watched an imaginary man leap alongside the car while the driver smoked and tapped his hand on the outside of the car to a tune in his head.
The castle was new and built in an Art Brut style. “Why a castle?” asked Johnny. “Castles are for the rich. Do you want to be rich?” “Sure,” said Johnny. He didn’t know if he wanted to be rich or not, but didn’t think it hurt to say yes.
“Inside this castle is liquid gold.” “Oil?” “Capsules of molten gold heated by geothermal under the earth. A Frenchman wanted to buy this castle, then a German, and now it’s owned by a Filipino billionaire. It’s a dark history.” “Are we renting a room?” “The movie studio’s renting the whole castle.” “Oh I forgot.” “I’m going to drop you off at makeup, Johnny.
They pulled up alongside a white tent labeled, “Hair and Makeup,” which was shadowed beneath the eastern tower. Beside the tent flap was an iron torch thrust into the dirt with a rubber cable leading away. There was a live gas flame. Johnny gazed into the flame as he walked into the tent. The desert shimmered through the heat.
+ + +