Like Tar Across My Back

Christine Coe

It is definitely not the season for leather the night I buy the coat.Intense heat scorched and blistered the San Fernando Valley all week, and layers of tobacco colored smog and humidity cling like gel to dirty stucco, burned lawns and people threaten to asphyxiate every one. I close my eyes and fantasize about a military helicopter rescue, Hollywood style, straight out of the bog.

Helicopters hover nearby, their blades whip the air with a terrible urgency. It is not the rescue mission of my imagination but an LAPD reconnaissance. Search and destroy. I should be comforted by a squad of men in black who vow to protect and to serve. Iʼm not. They prowl the dark streets just as viciously as any other creature out there. The night is full of madmen…

A bottle of Neil’s favorite Riesling waits for him beside our bed, with a plate of Gruyère cheese and poppyseed crackers. The little black seeds intrigue me. I love to capture them between my teeth and pop them. My mother knew of a man in Germany who made his own Opium during the war. He was very wealthy.

I bite into a cracker and swish my tongue around fishing for seeds. An expert at this, I can deposit a dozen at a time to the front of my mouth. A series of multiple miniature explosions, the crunch is gratifying and bitter. Yet there is not even the faintest trace of calm.

It is 3:00 in the morning, the “witching hour” as they call it. I don’t know who “they” are, but “they” must be married to crack addicts.

Sirens bellow, faint and far away, but the shriek grows loud, angry, insistent. The muscles in my back and limbs tense like an alert cat, listening. Waiting. Fear is caustic.

Neil is still out there, somewhere, prowling around in the night outside my window, beyond the peach cinderblock wall and the fragrant scent of Night Jasmine, past blocks of manicured gardens and white columned houses. It is so insane that he would swap our world for the one he runs to.

Then again, people think that drug addicts come from the ghetto. That they don’t live on streets named after dead poets, or trees. But our white Cape Cod has an elm tree out front and there were daffodils in the yard last spring, and the sun killed the roses but they’ll bloom again come winter. It’s that way in Los Angeles. Roses whither in summer and bloom in January. Norman Rockwell houses don’t mean that Norman and his family live there.

Neil’s haunting grounds lay east of the 405. Go west and you escape an area full of overcrowded, run down apartments inhabited by transient tenants and trash. Stay west, because east is filthy and foul. It is graffiti and guns and drugs, and jaded cops that take sinister pleasure crawling around their beat.

The area is deluged with street after street of competing Latino gang members. Young punks loiter in front of metal gates that imprison every deteriorating house and decayed building. One entrepreneur has his very own “In ’N Out” being run from a torn screen in a front bedroom window facing an alley way. Cars pull up every so often with their headlights off and an arm reaches out of the gash in the screen to shake the hand of each driver before he pulls quickly away.

My focus sharpens and the image becomes clear. Two barrio clowns named Joker and Puppet step out of the shadows as my husband pulls up. He hands them a twenty, they hand him a rock. White like the color of snow and piss.

Neil drives away from the barrio to smoke. Technically, barrio translated means neighborhood; in reality it means cesspool. Which is why the cops love it so much: It is full of prey. Neil knows this so he takes off. He parks under the magnolia trees on Walden Lane. The police don’t anticipate drug addicts on streets ending with “Lane.”

Neil takes a cheap little glass vase from his pocket. The kind you find on the counter at 7-Eleven with a cork in the bottom and a cheap nylon flower the size of a pea coming out of the top end. I used to wonder who bought their girlfriends such ugly gifts. They aren’t meant for girls but a much more seductive lover.

He pulls the cork and flower out, tosses them in the ashtray of our red BMW and stuffs the glass with a piece of copper scouring pad and the piss colored rock.

I am infamous for concocting scenes in my head and acting on them, but this vision is not the product of my Hollywood scriptwriter imagination. The reason I can see Neil out there so clearly is because I have seen him out there. I don’t know why, I guess it was a loud cry for help, but he once tricked me into going with him on a run.

He picked me up from work one night and took a detour. When I realized we were east, not just passing quickly through but actually entering one of those infested neighborhood streets, I pushed the automatic door locks and panicked.

“What the fuck are you doing bringing me through here!”

Neil ignored me and rolled down the drivers side window. I clamored to the electronic controls to put it back up.

“I’m going to get raped!”

He smacked my hand back and rolled his window down further, bringing the car to a stop. Joker and Puppet walked over.

“Neil, god dammit! Get me out of here NOW.”

They looked in the car. Glared into my eyes.

“No es peligroso gavacha.” Harmless white bitch. Neil said, laughing.

“What are you doing?”

Neil ignored me.

“Don’t you ever, ever make me your hostage.” He had found his favorite parking spot and I sat watching helpless as he lit up under an elegant magnolia.

The rock glowed orange like the tip of E.T.’s finger when he points to the deep region of space. The brilliant border diminished gradually, the light extinguishing. E.T.’s heart-light going out. Then the smell of burnt metal. Caustic like fear.

The Riesling cork splinters as I tug on it. Neil always uncorked our wine. I hold it to my nose and sniff it the way he did countless times at Chateau Marmót. It smells like violet roses on a breezy day at the Marina. It tastes like effervescent tears.

The bottle is heavy, but much more convenient than a delicate glass. My lips meet the smooth rounded edges of the opening like a kiss. I leave them parted there for a long moment, trying to remember the sensation of Neil’s warm mouth, then let the sweet floral notes flow through me like bubbling relief. On streets named Vintage one drinks wine.

I think about this. How easy it would be to drink the whole damn bottle. Then what? Open a second. No. Better to take it and hit Neil on the back of his head. I imagine the arc of the heavy bottle. A nice wide arc. Down, then swoop up and crack on the underside of Neil’s screwed up brain.

I refuse to use Riesling like liquid crack, so I pace the room like a frantic bird flitting about knocking into walls, windows and mirrors. Go into the closet and cower, chest heaving in and out like mad. Heart beats wild, revs up to a manic crescendo. Fall over and die.

I look down at an Angel. Tyra on the cover of the new Victoria Secret Fashion Catalog modeling a leather coat. Her expression is neither sweet nor seductive, but intense. Fierce. She appears nude under the coat, but it conceals the most intimate areas of her body.

I buy it on impulse. Pay extra for Priority. The description warns that each trench coat is unique and may have individual marks. They are not blemishes, the ad claims, but natural scars that contribute to its character.

When it comes I try it on, look into the mirror. Remember Tyra’s expression.

Two months later the weather is cooling. Burnt orange leaves off the elm up front cover my dead lawn. Some of the branches are already naked, revealing mistletoe that infects the tree. My neighbor said we should remove it. It is some kind of systemic fungus. But it fits in perfectly with my image of a Courier and Ives Christmas, and I think I will keep it one more year. The tree has survived this long, I reason, perhaps it has somehow reconciled itself with the disease.

Thinking about the upcoming holidays is exciting. Neil has been able to hold down a job for a few months now and maybe we can celebrate like we used to. We have lights I want him to put up early. He hasn’t put them up in years. Maybe this time…

Maybe not.

“What do you mean you never got a check?”

I hold the phone far out in front of me, as if it were a dead rat I hope to dispose of.

“But my husband paid the last three checks through bill pay. Maybe that’s the confusion. It’s being paid directly from his company’s account. You need to look under Renez Construction.”

The voice that comes out over the speaker is placid. James White is not disturbed by defaults. As a private lender he has been meticulous about drafting mortgages with a rate of 10 percent on property with plenty of equity. He has his shield.

“I donʼt know what to tell you. Your husband didn’t send a check under any name. I can give you one month to get current. One month or we start the proceedings.”

“Thank you Mr. White.” Feigned appreciation for the generosity of a millionaire who is holding my home ransom.

Breathe. You can do this. You always do. There is a way out of this mess. Find it.

Before I hyperventilate I find my knitting needles. A magazine article on women and cardiovascular disease recommended the practice as a response to stress, which, the article states, is killing women, in record numbers.

“Do something for you. Nurture yourself. The act of knitting a scarf is more than a tactile stress reliever. It is a deliberate act of caring for your own well being.”

I chose the yarn because of its name rather than the color. The brand on the tube shaped label is Red Heart, and the style is City Nights. The color transitions through various stages and shades of blue, grey and black.

Knit two, perl three. Dropped stitch. Pull out needle. Unravel.

James is sitting on his vineyard in Napa Valley right now, sipping Chardoney and debating what he wants more. The ten thousand dollars I owe him, or my house. The question of where I am going to get that money brews toxically in my gut.

I skewer the empty loops with my needle and struggle with the twisted yarn. I have unraveled several rows and have to catch up. Is this thing ever going to resemble a scarf? I could knit a noose and take care of Neil’s aorta.

What the hell has he done with all that money? Stop thinking.

Knit three, perl two. Or…no, the other way around. How many times have I gotten this backward. I should count. Count each stitch. Each row. Each year. How many years now? Almost twenty. Two decades that can never be lived again.

City Nights lays in a messy heap at my feet. The tension cuts off the circulation on my index finger so I pull out another length from the web. End of the row turn the needles. I spend more time waiting for the black to fade into grey, anticipate a brilliant blue only to knit my way back into charcoal grey. Why didn’t I choose Azure Skies?

Where the hell is Neil? He should be home by now. We need to figure this out together. Maybe he messed up when he set up the account. You panic Bridget. It’s how you are. Create a scene in your mind and get all worked up over nothing.

I pull at the yarn again, but the heap at my feet tightens around the meager blue specks and City Nights blackens. Chokes off my supply.

What the hell Bridget, are you joking? Be honest. Neil has traded your home for crack.

It was a ridiculous magazine article. Knit a scarf save your heart. What the hell did a scarf save? The knitting needle glides out easily from the loops and the scarf unravels row by row as the phone rings.

An operator says that the call is collect…

The magazine with the stress article is sitting on the coffee table.

It is from a California State Correctional Facility…

The magazine is outdated. January Edition. I should toss it.

“Bridget?” Neil’s voice comes on the line. “Bridget. I’m sorry. I need you to borrow some money from your mom or something. Come bail me out, okay? I need you.”

On the cover Oprah is ringing in the New Year with a glass of champagne. O Magazine. Live Your Best Life Now!

“I’m not going to bail you out this time. I can’t. We are losing our house, Neil. Do you understand that? We’re going to be homeless. We-are-homeless-again-Neil. Merry Fucking Christmas.”

The building dwarfs me from the street. I arch and strain my neck to see the entrance. It sits elevated on a platform of limestone and marble. I stand near the gutter. Look up like a child.

White stone steps loom above me. I am a limp rag doll propped up for the occasion and I must climb this Matterhorn of a staircase.

I have a Zanax in my wallet. I always confuse the name with Zantac, which I take for heartburn. Zanax is for heartbreak. Which I have as well. Acute. I have never taken a pill for it. Anxiety drugs and anti-depressants are for weak people who can’t look at cold limestone steps and superior court house doors. Like my husband’s mother.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I asked her when she pulled up to the courthouse. There is a sign that says ‘No Parking Anytime’ and the curb is red. I have no intention of facing this day alone.

“I can’t.”

“He needs you.”

“I can’t.”

“You have to.”

“I can’t. Don’t you understand? I can’t sit there and watch my son get sentenced to prison.”

“What about me?”

Because he is not just a son. He is a husband and a father and there are lives depending on him.

“Here,” she offers, “take one of my pills.”

“You take it,” I tell her, “take it and come with me.”

I see the whine behind her eyes long before it gurgles out of her throat. She cowers into soft lambskin which conceals her black leather seats. Her tiny size 4 sneaker twitching on the brake pedal.

She shifts the gears from park to overdrive. The seat belt tightens itself around her and the Jeep’s engine prepares for take off. Why does this mouse of a woman have four wheel drive and off road tires? To brave the city streets when she has to leave Toluca Lake with its brick manors and heirloom roses.

She, is fluffy lambskin but I am black leather.

I open the door and step into the gutter alone. She is placing her pill inside my wallet as I drape my long leather trench coat on my arm and reach for my purse.

“Just in case.”

“Yes,” I say, “just in case.”

I take on those bleak cold steps that match the morning sky. One at a time. They are blocks of ice under my feet but I only have to set one down at a time. One step. One foot. Black leather boots. Size 6.

At the top I am rewarded for my effort by two massive glass doors that open to greet me with a welcoming committee. A barrel chested sheriff takes my purse and inspects the dark world within it. Oh God, I think, is there a tampon in there? There is usually a tampon in there protruding from a tattered wrapper. Its inner cotton core jutting out like a swollen phallus smudged with an uncapped Maple Sugar lipstick. I try a smile to break the ice. Influence the enemy. He turns his raised eyebrow back down into my purse for further inspection.

A female sheriff with hair shellacked and slicked back into a tight bun waves me through metal detectors. It buzzes and she searches me for weapons. The pockets of her uniform bulge and beige polyester stretches over the side of bulbous hips. I stare at the grooves in the weave that get wider where the fabric is most strained as she waves her wand up and down my body. She pauses at a large ornate clip in my hair. I smile at her but she is not impressed.

“Next time put metal items into the change tray.”

I pull the pewter barrette out of my long hair, apologetic and undone.

“Thank you.” She says in a gelid tone.

“Dike.” My lips form the word suspended in silence.

I take a crowded elevator to the fifth floor. Even though everyone is wearing their Sunday best, you can tell the attorneys from the defendants. Lawyers come from a solid stock of beautiful people and stand like models with their shoulders back and chins uplifted. Defendants have pock-marked faces that look down at their shoes. Their bony shoulders curl inward like a chain link fence enclosing their hearts.

“Department F,” they told me. “F as in Frank.” Or Forgotten, or Fatal, or Fucked.

Inside the room, signs inform you that it is illegal to read when court is in session. There is a section number for everything, including gum chewing. My tongue flattens Dentyne Ice on the roof of my mouth smoothing and polishing spicy cinnamon defiance.

An overweight bailiff has his seat tilted so far back he is almost reclined. His feet are up on his desk and he is reading a newspaper. I look for the section number he is violating. Isn’t court in session when the judge is sitting at her bench? A veteran stenographer is leaning against that sacred altar discussing the upcoming holidays. Downstairs in B Tom is going to Hawaii. Our judge has decided to take a cruise and the stenographer suggests the Caribbean.

I look around for some semblance of order. At another desk a court secretary pulls a package of Crayolas out of her drawer and hands it over to a pudgy little girl. There is a calender on the wall behind them and I wonder if it is “Take Your Daughter To Work Week.”

There used to be a sitcom called Night Court that I never watched because all the court players carried on like they were the bored employees of a retail establishment. Then I thought I knew about the rigorous professionalism of a courtroom. “Suspension of Disbelief” does not include the ridiculous. Now I know, that the writers knew, some courtrooms are not much more decorous than the break room of Forever 21.

I shift anxiously in my seat, my stomach revving like the engine of a Jeep in 4-wheel drive. There is jet fuel in the valves of my heart. When adrenaline reaches a toxic level every vein in the body burns. My brain sends signals to every single nerve that I need to run and fear expands in my mind like a helium blimp. Like the Hindenburg. Bits of flesh explode and burn and fall through the air and there is no way that I am going to be able to listen to a Caribbean cruising judge sentence my husband to prison.

I am sure there is a section number against screaming in a court room, but I can feel anguish and fury building to a crescendo in my gut and I know for certain now that sorrow mixed with terror is fatal and loud.

I take half a dozen Zantacs and then open my wallet to make sure the Zanax is still there. “You have faced the steps and entered the courts alone. Without escort. By yourself. Ruthie couldn’t do that high on pills and holding your arm. Take the damn thing. It will save your life.”

I close my wallet and keep it for the moment I am sure I will probably die.

The Zealous Prosecutors and the Timid Dump Trucks are telling jokes about the presumed innocent they are going to slay together as one team on two sides of the field. My husband’s Dump Truck is at the DA’s table laughing about him. “He thinks He’s going to reduce 3 years to AA meetings!” I wonder Zantax controls violence.

After an hour of wasted, tax-funded time, a group of convicts in orange jump suits are led out in shackles.

A translator informs Juan Gutierrez of his crime. He is accused of stealing power tools out of a garage. His defense is that the garage was open. “That was not an invitation,” Judge Carr and the translator say in unison. He gets a suspended sentence. Probation and community service and information on virtual property thresholds when doors are wide open.

Relief flows through me like a million tiny giggles. If an illegal alien can go through someone’s garage stealing hundreds of dollars worth of power tools, and be then be sent home in front of his fuming victim, then surely a man who poisons himself, who pays for his own poison with his own hard earned wages cannot be sent to three years in state prison when his only accuser, me, has never opened her mouth. The attorney’s have gotten it wrong. Judge Carr will see through this farce.

The bailiff unshackles my husband’s feet from the rest of the idiots and leads him to his place at the defendants table. His face is drained and his hair looks washed out against the neon jumper. I remember how his aqua green eyes used to mesmerize me like a charmed snake swaying to notes of seduction, but now they are spent. No longer vivid, the filament broken.

In the early 90’s Neil was a sexy replica of George Michaels who dressed in Armani and used hair mousse and Givenchy cologne. From the Hollywood Hills to Men’s South Central. Armani replaced with California Issue. “I know I’m sexy” confidence replaced by “Loser.” Hair mousse rendered obsolete by a C.C.F. buzz.

The prosecutor reads his conviction history. Simple possession of narcotics. A weekend and a warning. Two months later. Possession. Probation. Again. Catch and release. The game is played out and the state, we are told, is tired. Three years will give the defendant some time to think about his actions.

The Dump Truck for the defense grabs at his collar and twists it to one side and the other as his jaw mirrors the action in reverse like a wind up toy. I think of LA Law and I know that this is where the passionate appeal to reasonable punishment occurs. But as the jaw recedes back into its position above the starched collar it begins to stutter. “This man has kids to support, and a um a b-b-b—baby on the w-w-w-w-ay. We asssssk for a one year reduction.”

A hammer comes down like a tombstone over my life. I watch them escort my husband off in handcuffs. He looks at me and his eyes are helpless like his mother. I want to tear them out of his face. I want to kiss them. I don’t know if I love or I hate. Once upon a time I was his fairy-tale princess. Now I am his prisoner.

From the fifth floor of Van Nuys Superior Court you get a pretty good view of the valley. As in clear. It is anything but pretty. The windows are immense, much like the ones they put in hillside homes on the ‘south side of the Boulevard.’ I think of all the spectacular nighttime cityscapes we have seen dining there with the beautiful people. Now we are Van Nuys scum in flame orange jumpsuits. Pelican Bay convicts. Murderers go to Pelican Bay. And rapists. Their wives have tattoos up and down their limbs and white bleached hair hardened into straw. I can’t do this.

I hear my mother’s harsh voice, “It’s time to leave him. Have you had enough?”

Enough. When he was healthy and vital and loving, I never had enough. When he was generous and spoiled me and called me ‘his queen’ I never got enough. Did the ‘Sickness and Health’ clause cover addiction? If I someday lost my mind, would I want somebody strong to be my tether?

I think about my lilly white protected world. I was not raised to do this! I am not the person that sits in courtrooms and visits jails.

Outside the window cars race along toward intersections and destinations. People on black spotted sidewalks follow their paths and see to the day’s cares. A few streets over, hardworking men are spreading sticky tar out on the rooftop of a building. They thrust long handled blades into buckets of black goo and then stretch and pull it along, layer after layer. Protection against the coming storms.

The sun is overhead now; the glare of each stone step is blinding. So I take them one at a time, forgetting about those behind, not thinking about those ahead. I have no other plan but this, to remain standing. I pull on my black leather trench coat slowly, like tar across my back. The pill is still in my wallet. And I am alive.


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