FEATURED FICTION | winter 2002
Arabella heard the high-pitched whine of motorcycles coming along the old canyon road. They sounded close.
D was outside, working on one of his bikes, a '96 Fatboy he used for road trips. He had spent most of the last two days driving himself nuts, taking it apart trying to figure out why it was backfiring and missing. They had talked for hours, hours, about the problem. Every so often he would come in to report the latest. He would stand in the sunny trailer kitchen in his oily jeans and leather vest, his pale blue eyes darting this way and that, his lean jaw out, pounding one fist into the palm of the other hand, talking, talking. "So what then, hon?" she would prompt. She knew it was better to keep him talking than for him to get all broody and paranoid, because then, watch out.
So then he had rejetted the carb a little leaner. The pushrods were loose, so he readjusted them. The bike ran great for about an hour, time enough to go to the store for more beer, then started missing again. He checked the pistons, they were okay. He rejetted it to run richer. Wouldn't start. Rejetted it leaner again. Okay for a ride around the block, but it still didn't seem to be at full power. He checked for manifold leaks. Last she'd heard he was checking the timing.
By now he was driving her nuts. But he got like this toward the end of a binge. One time he spent three days painting silver pinstriping on his other bike, starting over each time he missed a stroke. D could have been an artist, if he'd been born in Italy or Spain instead of in some piss-poor place down the mountain from Donner Pass. By the age of twelve, after watching his folks chew each other up and spit each other out at least twenty times a week, drunk or sober, D knew all that could go wrong between human beings. He shifted his allegiance to things, and that bike was the thing he loved most in the world, a custom Screamin' Eagle Deuce, with a Twin Cam 95 V-Twin engine.
It was around midnight now. Arabella had washed her hair and was channel surfing, feeling jittery. She had heard coyotes howling earlier and brought in her dogs, two black Labs, Sally and Ditch. The wind chimes had her on edge, jangling away, articulating the rhythms of the airstreams that gusted through the coastal canyons after the sun set and the cooler air sifted down. Now it was motorcycles, a couple of male voices. Probably here for a buy.
She was wearing a tank top that said, "D's Body and Fender Shop" and jeans, her black boots, a skinny chiffon scarf in a rainbow of stripes around her neck. Her skin was itchy.
She was waiting for the right moment to cut in with another bump. Then something to sleep it off. They had been tweaking for days. D had everything she needed, and then some. All she had to do was ask.
D was new. They had met just before the holidays. She was still shaky from rehab, having jagged days, nightmares, humongous cravings. She hadn't felt that bad in years, not since after the accident, when she was sixteen and went through the windshield near dawn after a long foggy night at the clubs on Sunset. Then she had stayed in a coma for weeks. (Her mother always talked about it in this dramatic voice, "Arabella was in a coma for weeks, she came back from the dead.") It was cozy enough for her, she was feeling no pain, just morphine and voices and a sense of almost being where she belonged. In a coma was fine with her. Coming out of it was a bitch.
D was riding high when they met. "Hey, babe, come with me to Vegas," he'd said a few days after they were introduced. "My business is up to three thousand percent because everyone is so fucked up at Christmas." D cracked her up. They snorted meth for five days straight. She didn't have to spend a dime, so every time he cut her out a line, she did it. They smoked some, too. She was in love.
Now it was spring. The arroyos were damp, the grasses sent pollen into the air, the daffodils planted near the mall were nodding yellow in the breeze. Yesterday the drive along the old canyon road on her motorcycle had been juicy with fragrance. On this particular night a full moon as radiant as candlelight was rising over the lip of the canyon. She went to the screen door of the trailer and looked out. One of the bikes was shining in the moonlight. It was one of those new stainless steel Harleys. That was next on D's wish list. He said they cost around $30,000.
There were three men clustered around D in the circle of light from his world lamp, all in leathers with dark hair. She couldn't see their faces, but their voices were growing loud. When the fight started suddenly, it frightened her-- all those big guys rolling around on the ground.
She thought of a couple of weird phone messages he'd gotten recently. "Jose is back." JOSE. IS. BACK. AMIGO. When she asked D about it he scowled and told her to vamoose or he'd give her the back of his hand. He'd been paranoid for a while now. Days? Weeks? He kept his Magnum in the back of his jeans. She figured it must have had something to do with his time in Chino. Had he known any of those men there? she wondered as she stared out at the fighting men through the flimsy screen door.
Arabella had abandoned context early in her life.
She was never good at finding her way from one place to another, and she couldn't seem to make it to any planned event on time. Beginning in grade school, she learned to dart into a room almost invisibly, surprising teachers who already had counted her absent. She thought there should have been a name for what it was that kept her from doing what other kids did so easily.
She was named after a street sign in the Garden District of New Orleans. Her mother had spotted it on a brief visit to the Big Easy. Her account was one of Arabella's favorite stories. "It was a crisp sunny day in early March, a few months before you were born," her mother would begin. She always told the story the same way, as though reading a storybook before bedtime. "I took the St. Charles streetcar to the end of the line, it was the cheapest entertainment in town. The houses looked like Gone with the Wind. The trees sparkled with those carnival beads they throw at Mardi Gras. Then I started back, and hopped off to walk in Audubon Park. I saw live oaks, and in the pond there was a wading bird with a long pale gray neck. I had indulged in gumbo and bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and it was repeating on me something fierce. But for a few minutes, sitting in the park in sunshine, surrounded by deep blue pansies, I felt peaceful. Content, like you're supposed to feel when you're expecting."
So that was it. The most peaceful moment of her mother's life. Before Arabella came along to screw things up.
Her mother always said, "Arabella, you're from some other planet. I just don't know which one." When she was little her mother pasted a galaxy on the ceiling of her bedroom. Arabella liked to lie in bed looking up at glowing images of the planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars. Venus, Neptune, Uranus.
In junior high she started sneaking up the coast to West Hollywood on weeknights. She wore her own made-up outfits, with long feather boas and dozens of long necklaces and silk scarves. She dyed her brown hair burgundy, cut it in various lengths, cut designs into it, shaved it off altogether. The other girls copied her style. The other mothers were furious. They wanted their daughters to look preppy. Arabella's mother said she had them looking sexy, like "creatures from the blue lagoon."
Her mother had pushed and pushed, but she never could get Arabella interested in studying. School was so duh. Arabella lived for nighttime. The Sunset strip shifted from shoddy to sparkling at sundown. She would smoke some pot and drive to the top of the ridge and stare at the coastline as the lights began to come on. It was like the night sky, first one star visible, then another, then, suddenly, a universe.
Later, after a visit to Bennie Sunshine set her up with something interesting to smoke, or maybe a hit of acid, what she liked most was dancing. Giddy circles, holding someone close, that cozy feeling against someone's skin, the heat and smell of them. And the release, pressure gone. Peace.
Arabella never could remember much about the accident. She remembered breaking up with her boyfriend, the one with the Porsche, the weekend before. She remembered the feeling that she was sixteen, she had all the time in the world. She remembered heading out to Sunset after school, dancing and dancing, smoking a lot of pot. She remembered a screeching sound. Then there was a long gap she later learned was a coma. After the coma came months of feeling as if she were underwater and all the people around her hospital bed were strange sea creatures coming at her with outstretched tentacles.
She had nightmares about gasping for air, drowning, and woke up in an afterglow of terror. The doctors said her hypothalamus, the fight or flight center deep inside the brain, was injured. It was on high alert.
Out of the hospital finally, months after the accident, Arabella still could feel a halo of pain around her head and spinal column. She saw a painting once, by Frida, the painter Madonna loved, with her backbone exposed. It was like that.
The rehab made her feel really stupid. She couldn't connect. All she could sense was limits. Time. Space. Being stuck in one skin bubble, while everyone else was stuck in separate skin bubbles. She couldn't feel good, not for one minute of the day, not even when she first woke up, or when she was eating ice cream. Being alive hurt.
She wasn't fun anymore. She lost all her friends. The kids at school called her a "retard." She could not think what to do next when it was right in front of her face. Her mother called her "discombobulated."
"The frontal lobe," the doctor said, "is the seat of memory, judgment, impulse control." Hers was damaged. Tough luck.
Whole parts of her mind were shut down forever. She had to discover on her own which areas were still open. She had to fight her way throught the labrynth and figure out how to live the way she was now. No speech or physical therapist could help with that.
She dropped out of school a few weeks before graduation. She was flunking everything. She had to learn how to give up. She was shocked at how long that took. Years.
After that there were lots of new kids to hang out with. It was easier than she'd thought. There was a whole world out there that was invisible until you went looking for it.
She could snort huge amounts of coke. It made her feel up when she was depressed. She started selling her jewelry, her feather boas, anything to make money. Her mother figured out what was up and sat her down for a talk. Arabella said drugs were the only thing that made her fool better. "You mean feel," her mother said.
"No, fool. Fool you all." She was furious at everyone, still walking around like everything was okay.
On the second anniversary of the accident, she almost OD'd on coke. She had a fierce headache. Then she felt like her chest was about to explode. When her temperature hit 105 degrees, her mother took her to the emergency room.
That was the first time her mother got her into drug rehab, and she hated being there. It hurt just as much as after the accident, when she had to learn to walk and talk all over again, how to feed herself, how to think. What a waste. But she tried. She went to a group and she sat every day for hours with the book they gave her that would help her learn what she needed to know to take her high school equivalency exam. One of the counselors was big on credentials. With a G.E.D, she could get a job. They let her out unsupervised one Saturday morning to take the test. She knew she had seen some of the answers, but she couldn't bring them into her mind. She only got through halfway before time was called. She flunked, big time. Failing made her hate rehab all the more.
After she got out, she discovered meth. It was cheaper, and lasted all day. What a deal. With crystal she was on top of the world.
Her mother got her into rehab again. The second time, it was even worse. "How many teeth do you think you'll have left a year from now?" one woman screamed at her during the group. "After two years? If you're still alive." Arabella hated her. She hated them all. The next time, she decided, she'd rather go to jail.
On meth, Arabella was fearless, She would ride her bike at full speed in heavy rain along the canyon road and not think a thing of it. When her mother drove over to see her in the canyon, on a clear day in a decent car, she would beg Arabella to take it easy. It's a blood-curling drive, she would say; you can't see who's coming, you don't know what's around the corner, there is no shoulder, no guard rail, just a sheer drop. Arabella shrugged her off.
One night Arabella was camped out with the dogs at the lake, she was sitting there stoned in her white van, when Sally and Ditch started growling deep int heir throats, and she heard her mother's voice, calling her. You have to come now. It was like a dream. Her mother's voice, so clear, made her focus, and that made her realize there were three guys looking in the side of the van she had left open to the night breezes. She grabbed the frantic dogs by the chains around their necks. All three men were young, drunk, talking Spanish. One said to her. "He wants you, be cool, he can have anything he wants, we're trying to recruit him." A young face slid into view. He was dark-haired, about twenty. She smiled at him. That's when she realized her mother wanted her to leave now and come over the mountains to the ocean. Her mother wanted her to be safe. She wasn't afraid. As if in a dance where it was time to speed up the tempo, she quickly yanked the door shut, started the engine, settled Ditch, the bigger dog, on the floor of the passenger seat, and took off. Sally jumped into the back and kept watch out the window.
Arabella reached her mother's house as the new sun turned the dark shapes of the palm trees gray.
By the time she met D, she liked to think of herself as a biker chick. She had a Honda. She could fix the engine herself. She wore motorcycle boots, jeans and boots. Her prize t-shirt said "Harley's Northern Most Outpost, North Pole, Alaska." A bluegrass musician she knew brought it back to her from Fairbanks one summer. The back had a polar bear, three pine trees and a biker entering an outhouse, his Harley parked in the snow. The lettering dripped into icicles, it made her think of ice. It was like a secret tattoo.
Arabella could see beneath the surface with D. She could see blood coursing through the pulse points in his neck, the delicate bones beneath his wrists, the love buried somewhere very deep, she knew it was there, like hidden veins, somewhere. His outer skin was just a tough crust. He was softer. With her.
D had done time for dealing in Chino. While he was there, the powers that be decided jail should be no-frills, so they took away the weights, the music, the books, the courses toward a junior college degree. Every possibility of a future. After that, it was all about staying alive or killing the other guy. That's all he had to say about Chino.
Arabella's mother was worried about this new man. He was the worst, she would say. He was a dealer, out on parole. He did drugs himself, day and night, he might even be cooking the stuff. She wanted to save Arabella from D. She called D a "feral dog." Arabella laughed. She could see D baring his fangs and leaping at her mother.
Her mother reminded her how she almost died, then came back to life. Arabella hated to hear about it. She had to wear some geeky outfit to a courtroom and listen to the doctors describe the state of her brain so the bills would be paid. The way she figured it, her brain was like tapioca with electrical outlets. Always changing, always plugged in. D was an endless supply, he kept her high for days on end. He would get her where she wanted to go. Pleasure central.
For her mother's fifty-fourth birthday, shortly after she met D, Arabella made a special email card on a computer at Kinko's. She pasted a picture of herself on her bike against a blue sky with clouds rising majestic in the distance. She pasted haloes in a line, going upward. Up there somewhere. Where she belonged.
Arabella at the screen door heard D yell, "Run!" The dogs were howling and scrambling around her legs and then they were outside jumping at the men. She heard a funny popping noises. She smelled jasmine, or at the ghostly echo of fragrance, jasmine, and then her mother's voice popped into her mind: That's all she wrote.
She flashed back to the accident. The first thing she remembered after the screech and that long blank space was being in the hospital hearing the murmur of voices discussing her fate, and seeing the faces of the ones she had imagined during her coma, sending her back. Not yet. It felt so good being with them. The pain came later, when she came back to life.
She could see the rabbi with the thick glasses and the blue eyes she had met in a bus station coming home from rehab, he was chanting something, then telling her that victims of violence go straight to heaven. She was disoriented now. Was this a hallucination? She thought of those "Jose Is Back, Amigo" calls.
Since the accident--how many years had it been now?--she had never been able to pull thoughts together into the point they needed. It was like threading a needle in the dark. What she could do before the accident she could never do again. What she could do was stare at the sea, the sky, and feel both a oneness and a nothingness. Sometimes, late at night, high, she caught an inkling of something out there, behind the scrim. Just a glimpse. Or when she was riding on her motorcycle through the mountains, the edges of the Pacific chopping at the shoreline in the far distance, she would sense the curve of the earth, that familiar globe where she and all the others were perched, holding on for dear life, fighting against gravity, trying to find a way to fit inot the expanse of the universe. Then, sometimes, a temporary sense of peace would come upon her.
Freedom was so hard.
This was all going through her mind, as she smelled jasmine and watched the men wrestling with D and the dogs and heard the pop and saw him fall. The next thing she knew she was opening the door and almost flying out into the night, running toward D, towards the men. She had the sense that she was about to become herself, only more so.
The police officer who called Arabella's mother was blunt. He said her daughter had been killed, that it was a double murder, "execution style," a single bullet fired into the back of the head, probably D first, then Arabella. They probably hadn't realized she was there, then they had to kill her, too, he said.
"Why?" Cass asked. She was standing in the garden on a hot April day, wearing an apricot batik shift and sandals, her dark hair in a ponytail. She had been pulled away from watering the oleanders by the ringing of her cell phone. She couldn't believe she was hearing that Arabella was dead.
"Most likely because she was a witness," the officer said. He advised Cass not to go down to identify the body.
"Where is she?" she asked, still confused. "Who is going to do it, if I don't?"
"Her dentist," he said. "it's at the morgue. You don't want to go there."
" She stopped herself. She didn't want to say the wrong thing to the police. "What about the dogs?" Sally and Ditch had been her gift to Arabella after the accident.
"They ran away?"
"No. Dead. They must have been attacking whoever it was."
The next month went by in a haze of disbelief. Cass would pick up the phone to call Arabella twenty times a day. She bought bags of dog food at the store to take on her next visit because Arabella's disability check didn't go far.
Finally, though, she collected the white ceramic jar of cremated remains. She decided she had to be realistic. Clear our Arabella's things. Move on.
Cass talked to Arabella while she cleaned her room. There were lots of coffee cans and cigarette butts. A drawer full of beads and boas and pins and all the things she used to like to wear around her neck. An eight-grade school yearbook with inscriptions in rounded handwriting. "Arabella, Queen of the Night," was the caption under her class picture.
"You won't believe what the policeman said," Cass said to Arabella, as she was down on her knees scrubbing at the floor, tears pouring down her face. "He said you were in the wrong place at the wrong times. What a sick cliché. You would have been so disgusted. Then you know what he said? Even worse. He said, 'That's all she wrote.'"
She didn't tell Arabella the worst: The city billed her $100 for holding Arabella's body in the morgue for twenty-four hours while they tried to find the next of kin. Talk about sick.
She found a stash of photos. There was one snapshot of Arabella at eight, when Cass had taken her back to her own folks' home in Abingdon. It was springtime. The songbirds were waking them up at dawn. Cass took Arabella out early into the garden so she wouldn't disturb the grandparents. Arabella found a bird's egg under an azalea bush. "Mom! What is it? Mom!" It was that unmistakable blue. "A robin," Cass said. Through some miracle, the egg had fallen out of a tree and remained intact. Arabella carried it reverently in both hands to the house. Instinctively, she spoke in a whisper. Arabella was careful, but as she tried to lift the egg to the top of the kitchen counter, it dropped. She cried out. But instead of hitting the floor, it fell into the wastebasket. Arabella reached inside and grasped the tiny egg, but just as she was pulling it out, it slipped. Then the shell was on the beige linoleum floor in pieces, mixed in with clear membrane and a yolk brighter yellow than any chicken's egg.
Arabella was inconsolable. Finally, her mother took her back outside and found the nest in a low-hanging branch. She held her up to see that there were other robin's eggs, other babies to hatch and fly away.
"But not that one," Arabella had insisted.
There was such a lot to throw out, it took Cass hours. She talked to Arabella about that morning when she had found the robin's egg. She reminded her about how her grandfather had let her ride on his tractor on a later visit, when she was ten. He'd had his second heart attack while they were there then, and refused the doctor. He drank three Coca Colas, one after the other, and went back to work mowing hay. His next hear attack a few months later was the last.
She talked to Arabella about the times in California they had collected mussels on the beach and lit a fire and steamed them in seaweed and Arabella had made up stories to tell her about secret friends no one else could see.
"We had so much fun together, when you were little," she said, remember that electric laughing girl. "You were such a handful. No one could keep up with you. By junior high you were the leader of the pack."
Cass wound Arabella's sheets with their cigarette burns into a bundle and took them out to the trash. She came back into the room and started in on the posters on the walls. Arabella's favorites. Madonna's "Like a Virgin." Arabella had picked that as a hit before anyone else. She had a special kind of antennae.
Cass found a tiny diamond-shaped bottle filled with clear lavender liquid. She unscrewed the metal top. It smelled sweet. Lilac. She found matching bath powder and bubble bath. She hadn't realized Arabella had kept them. They were from her grandmother in Virginia, on her thirteenth birthday. When Arabella was already hitting the clubs and doing who knows what with older men.
Cass thought of her own mother. She had hated her rules. But maybe they had saved her. What if Arabella had been raised back in Virginia instead of within driving distance of a big city like Los Angeles? Cass remembered getting into plenty of trouble in her day, sneaking out the window after her prayers, wondering which was the truth, her mother's piety or the feelings she had from the boys, the beer, and driving fast in the darkness along the hot roads waving with tasseled corn. From what she could tell from the newspapers, no place was safe. Drugs were everywhere, even Abingdon.
Cass stopped around midday to eat a tuna sandwich and drink a diet Coke on the patio. She stared past the tiers of houses along the beach at the sky beyond. The clouds were building up as they did when she was a kid, signaling there was a thunderstorm on the way.
She had expected something terrible would happen to Arabella. An overdose--she went at least fifteen years doing heavy amounts of at least one drug at a time, LSD, coke, in the end methamphetamine. Or another accident. She was in so many dangerous situations, living on the streets off and on, running around on that motorcycle on some of the most dangerous roads in the world.
But she had not expected this.
Back in Arabella's room, Cass found a purple diary encrusted with seashells and ruby colored rhinestones. She had given it to Arabella on her seventeenth, the first birthday after the accident. She flipped it open and read the first entry. "I get the feeling that life is a waiting room, with long lines, everyone waiting to die, people getting called out of turn. I've already been called." The rest of the pages were blank.
The words gave her a chill. They had never talked about dying, even though Arabella had come so close. Cass always focused on the daughter who had lived through a horrendous accident. She had gone over a cliff, she was thrown over the steering wheel through the windshield and ended up in a grassy spot before the car burst into flames. She was hurt so badly she was unconscious for three weeks, everyone had given up hope but Cass, who sat by her side and focused on bringing her back. "Breathe," she would whisper. "Wake up. You have so much to live for." All during those hospital days she had remembered her young self waiting for Arabella to be born, wondering what she would be like. They had moved to Long Beach from Virginia, and everything was new and overwhelming. He, the man she thought of not as Arabella's father but as the man she was married to briefly, was actually decent to her in those final months. He drove her to the hospital and came back to pick them up a few days later. Then he left.
She had been awed by this daughter who had landed in her life, snatched out of the beyond as if by chance. Even after the accident, the drugs, through it all, Arabella was always exactly herself. But where was she now? Certainly not in that jar. She couldn't help but imagine Arabella still existing, in a strange and powerful way. Would she ever see her again?
Now what? She couldn't see herself taking Arabella back for a funeral service at the Healing Waters Baptist Church. Was she supposed to lose her, let her go? Wasn't there something like that in the Bible? She searched her memory for familiar passages, memorized when she was a girl, long before she was Arabella's mother.
"Lazarus," she said out loud, surprised that she had remembered after all these years. Surely Arabella could hear her. "Lazarus was raised from the dead." She followed the trail of the next dark thoughts almost against her will. "Like you." She tried to keep her voice quiet, as if explaining something to her daughter. "But maybe that wasn't so great, because then he had to die twice. So now, I think it's finally over."
She could almost see Arabella out of the corner of her eye, speeding along on the wind, rising into the sky. That was it, Cass thought. Arabella was rising up, clean and beautiful, transformed.
"I get it," she whispered, torn between anguish and relief.