The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2016 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books or order a copy at amazon.com.
To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.
— Joan Didion, “Los Angeles Notebook”
The hot afternoon wore on.
— Maritta Wolff, Sudden Rain
I RIDE THE EXPO LINE into downtown from Crenshaw, where our apartment is — with its bedroom window overlooking Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The heat is worse here than anywhere in the city, the wind incessant. At night the helicopters and sirens shriek like kettles. There are searchlights on our floors — pale, suspicious ghosts. Then a bus rattling the one window so we think it might break. The guy beneath us, who everyone calls Guy, works on the oil derricks out in the middle of the bay — he’s gone for weeks at a time. When he comes home, sending the cockroaches scurrying, he tells us even the sea is boiling.
On the train the AC pumps so loud we have to turn our music way up just to hear it. It’s a relief though — if we breathe through our mouths and close our eyes we could be in a museum or some cold library. Also don’t touch anything. Everyone is sweating, bare limbed. When the train lurches I rub against scratchy thighs — a bit oily. This would be unacceptable if I weren’t headed downtown to the bookstore, where uglier, nastier things will brush up against me. Downtown will be the human stench — their burnt leathery smell, sometimes sharp and smelling of patchouli, sometimes unmasked, the bare earthy sourness between belly folds and underarms — the backs of legs, the unwashed hair, the acrid stench of human roasting.
When the doors open at 7th and Metro, I climb the stairs with everyone else. The air in the tunnels is already breathy — like being in the belly of some slumbering beast — but outside the sidewalks are blistery. It’s the kind of heat that socks you right in the face. The wind would almost be a relief if it didn’t drive everyone half-mad. The women on street corners, breasts spilling out of their tops, fight with anyone who looks at them sideways — I’ve seen them push people in front of cars. And then there are the men who lie on the sidewalks, shoeless, feet dark and crusty, pulled up almost to their stomachs like a baby in utero. They look at you, really eye you, faces pockmarked and dogged — these are the broken faces of those who sleep, eat, live here, down in the dirt — weary of change because change never brought them anything good.
My job at the bookstore is to buy books. It’s a new and used store, and we get most of our used books from the public. We wear gloves because when it’s hot like this the bugs come out — and because books are never stored anywhere pleasant. It’s always the garage or shed with rats and mold. The silverfish are first, and we squash them with a stapler. Then, spiders small like ants or sometimes so large we see hair on their backs. For some reason the big spiders — some the size of a silver dollar — are not very quick, only moving when the shadow of the stapler comes down and splat. It’s the baby cockroaches we watch out for; they are quick — quick enough to run up a gloved hand, onto a bare arm.
After work my husband and I don’t go home. We wait until it’s cooled down. We are expert waiters. First while working on bachelor degrees — two community colleges — then it was off to San Luis Obispo for him while I continued at UCLA. When he took a year off, got a job at a fancy pizza restaurant, we waited while paying down credit card debt one month at a time. Then it was waiting through CSUN, the three years he spent driving the impossible 405 — up and down, back and forth. He waits now for a raise, a better job. And me, waiting for my writing to take off, for that one publication where something might change.
So we’re good at waiting, and we wait as long as possible before going home. We don’t want the hot chicken skin smell coming from Ralphs, how it rides the thin wind easier than anything. We don’t want to open the door to the stale air, the cheap paint and carpet smells. To find American cockroaches — bigger than their German counterparts, they crawl out from the pipes to die under the furniture. We don’t want to see the ring of Ajax around the bed, or where our couch used to be. Once, after a long day, we came home to find them hiding between the cushions — only hiding isn’t the right word. They were reigning, lording, over the couch. That couch is in the alley now.
Instead, we drive to Pasadena or out to Santa Monica, to the groomed lawns, the immaculate properties that come with privilege. In these neighborhoods we close our eyes, listen to sprinklers. When was the last rain? Look at this picture of Lake Shasta, look how the boats sit clustered in the center of what appears to be a dry salt bed. All of California is bright red on the weather maps — it looks painfully chapped. Maybe there will be rain in the spring.
We go to a happy hour — any happy hour, as long as it’s air-conditioned, with cheap strong drinks. At Islands, we drink tropical cocktails and eat what the bar menu calls “street tacos.” A fight breaks out in the parking lot between a man and a woman. The woman pushes her flat open palm in the man’s face. She curls her fingers a little, scraping at the skin. The wind scatters leaf litter and debris around their tousled legs. This feels surreal to us, like it’s happened before. Pinch me, I tell my husband. I’m having déjà vu.
We toss and turn at the apartment, one or both of us taking a sleeping pill. Then we wake and my husband heads west on the Expo Line to his design job and I head east to downtown. We ride the trains with their roaring AC and bare limbs and smells of sweet yeast — too much human flesh. One day there will be more than this, we tell ourselves, Just wait …
At the bookstore again, the fans are switched to high. We keep the windows closed. Sometimes we hear the wind whistle against them. We take our lunch breaks indoors because outside nerves flash. There have been two suicides downtown this week. They go into the tunnels, jump in front of the Red Line train as it pulls into Pershing Square. We see paramedics and police lights from the store. The customers get skittish and stay away. The regulars who come up from Skid Row smell worse on days like these. We check the weather forecast on our phones 12 days at a time. Winds again, record digits.
Just after lunch I see a woman in her 40s crossing Spring Street with her mother. They’ve braved the heat and wind and borrowed a dolly, and as I look the wind picks up, sending the mother’s skirt twisting. The mother says her daughter’s husband has died suddenly, would we like to look at the books? And then they come, 10, 12 boxes, and we go through every box. Here is his Boy Scout manual, his books on space and rocks, annotated in the margin in a careful hand. There are army and philosophy books, big coffee-table books on movies and Monet, travel books on Southeast Asia and Europe with tickets and receipts stuffed between the pages. A collection of encyclopedias, made worthless by water damage and age — Czechoslovakia still on the world map. And relationship books, too — How to Satisfy Her, How to Be a Better Husband. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kama Sutra. Books on Photoshop and how to build a web page, Twitter and the stock market. We are sweating and when we reach the bottom and silverfish crawl out we do not jump. We step on them casually.
There are the usual classics: Hemingway and Nabokov and a few slim volumes of Rilke, which we put aside to buy. All in all we can’t offer much, I think it’s less than 60 dollars. The widow starts crying immediately. She too has sweated through her blouse; I can see the beige Maidenform bra with its tiny bows at the shoulders. It’s the wind, the damn wind, her mother tells us over and over. We offer water, find a chair. The widow sits and cries while we pay the mother, who folds the receipt to fit as if her wallet were a tiny coffin with a zipper. They donate the rest of the books and we throw most of them away. Some go up to the dollar room. It’s a sad thing, when you can survey a life — its systematic orbit — in one afternoon. Will this happen to us I wonder? It must — but what will we have if we wait too long, letting weeks slip into months. Has it been a year already? Where did 2015 go?
I take the Boy Scout notebook home with me. In a young unsure hand the dead man has charted the stars. I ride the train thinking that tonight there will be a brief reprieve from the wind. My husband and I will sit on our deck, facing eucalyptus trees where feral green parrots have gathered, chased out of San Diego by the fires. We won’t mind their noise; it will drown out the buses and music and brake sounds that rise up from the boulevard. We’ll drink iced cranberry juice with vodka, tense at anything that crawls or flies. Guy will have come home from the derricks; we’ll hear Sade from his apartment below. Every once in a while he’ll croon along, When am I gonna make a living, Ohhh …
We’ll point out Andromeda, Ursa Minor to each other, guess at Jupiter — the sky clear and large and infinite. We’ll talk about starlight, how it travels millions of years to reach us — how short and long time can be. Then the neighbor’s dog will begin to bark, and a whole chorus of dogs will soon join in. We’ll feel it in our sinuses, a slight tickle. A rustling high up in the treetops, a hot thin swell that slides over and under, round and round, another Santa Ana on its way.
Liska Jacobs has been nominated for the Kirkwood Literary Prize in Fiction twice, selected for the New Short Fiction series, and is a recipient of a Squaw Valley Community of Writers’ scholarship. She is currently pursuing an MFA through the University of California, Riverside.