Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Neighborhood Watch by Marcus Tremain


  In an age of hard times my father was a hard man. His muscles and sinew were taught with not an ounce of fat on his wiry form. His face chiseled by the winds, his eyes deep set in his skull were dark and joyless and no matter how often he shaved there always seemed to be the suggestion of a five o’clock shadow permanently etched upon his jowls. He had not always been like this though it was hard now to conjure the memories of his warmth and laughter. Something had broken inside him when mother had died.

  Once I asked my father what had truly changed from his life before the war. I expected him to talk about the lack of running water, heating sewage or the many comforts of my early youth. For instance young though I was, I still remember piping hot water flowing into steaming baths and the warmth that seemed to penetrate your very bones. He stopped and looked through the open window pausing in concentrated thought.

“Listen what do you hear?”

Somewhat puzzled I answered “Nothing, what do you mean?”

“Listen again”. This time I remained motionless letting the stillness wash over me. I heard bird song, then from a great distance a dog barking intermittently and finally the hum of insects each separate sound clear and distinct as I plucked them from the rhythm of the environment outside.
He lent back into the well-worn leather of his armchair.

“What I notice now is the silence. I never realized until it was gone how deafening the old world was.”

I wondered if it wasn’t only the absence of the cars, planes, leaf blowers and the deafening cacophony of noise from all the machines of that age that he was referring to or if the silence was also due to the passing of mother.

  I left the house at first light and headed towards the old golf club father called out “Mind where you step son” as he always did. It was a bit of an in joke between us something we shared in a relationship of mostly nonverbal communication. The street where we lived was essentially abandoned. Several houses were already partially collapsed rubble and debris spilled onto the front yards now entangled with thorn bushes and weeds. I watched carefully for movement there were a lot of squirrels in the trees here and they made for good eating. That wasn’t my target today though I had sweeter things in mind. 

  I soon approached the old school on my right where the town major now lived. The old golf course sat behind a tall metal fence now completely covered by vines and topped by taller trees and bushes. I needed to follow the bend for some distance before I found the gap and squeezed through like I had done a thousand times before. I put my backpack on the ground and pulled out the .22 revolver that father had given me for hunting. I lay down flat on my stomach and waited. I had been there motionless not less than 30 minutes when I saw the ears of the first rabbit come into view. The distance was not great and ammunition was a precious commodity in the community our defacto currency in fact so I hesitated and suddenly it was gone. I sighed and sat up, sometimes you could just feel it would not be your day I was thinking of switching my target back to easier game in the form of squirrels when I saw her. 

  I don’t think I will ever forget the moment, there was an almost dream like quality to her movement as she seemed to glide towards me. She was blond and tanned in the manner of most who spend their time in the California sun. She looked near my age possibly 19 at the most, but it was her smile that caught me and demanded all of my attention. Onward she strode with a confidence I had rarely seen in one her age. She held out her hand 

“I’m Daisy” Her nose creased in apparent annoyance “You do speak don’t you?” Her voice broke the spell long enough for me to reply “Sorry I’m John I don’t think I’ve seen you around before”

“No I’m just passing through” She smiled somewhat mischievously this time.

“Passing through?” I asked somewhat incredulously.

“I’m here with my father for the market tomorrow he’s a trader from up north.”

I gave a half smile of comprehension.

“You must have traveled a long way.” I said weakly. She appeared to be aware of the effect she was having on me and smiled again this time with the hint of a pout.

“You been far?”

“When I was very young with my father, but I can’t say I remember too much about it now.”

“What do you remember?”

“Been down to the beach and along the coast. Up Topanga canyon there’s a guy who’s got an off grid place and we all go up there a couple of times a year to listen to the radio.” I seemed to have caught her interest.

“What news did you hear?”

“Well it was a while ago now, but I hear that there’s a new President. Says he’s going to reunite the states bring back power and water to every home in the country”

She snorted “They all say that, but not one of them has made a move out of Washington since the war, a lot of hot air if you ask me.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

“I suppose you’re right, the old timers say much the same.”

“Well they’re right about something then.” And she laughed. It is a sound I can still hear when I close my eyes, a sound bereft of malice the closest thing to innocence in this changed world. 

“Nice meeting you, but I’ve gotta go help father, see you around.”

I waved at her retreating form still slightly in shock, watching her graceful movements as she drifted away. It was sometime before I finally stood up and made my way back home.

  As the sun set I looked down the street at two old cars crouched like giant insects as the last rays of sun hit their rusted hoods touching them with fire, but for a brief moment in time seemingly alive and watchful before receding into darkness. I always marveled at the thought that these metal beasts once moved at speed through the shining highways of my childhood. The last vehicle I had seen was nearly ten years ago and was part of a long military convoy heading to refuel at the Long beach refinery on the way to the border of the Republic of Northern California as it was now called. It had been a few years since I had seen a plane either and that too was military and as I gazed at its sleek silhouette I found myself wondering whether father had worked on that very plane during his days as an engineer at Lockheed Martin. Although unlikely everything seemed possible now. That was the most unexpected lesson that love had taught me that everything either was or could be connected. The random nature of the universe was at last defied and all things were joined by a silver thread. But for a series of unlikely events that caused a man and his daughter to travel a thousand miles or more to this little insignificant speck in the abandoned metropolis that was once Los Angeles I might never have known her. The wonder of that was akin to a spiritual revelation in my young mind.

  My father was in the kitchen sharpening a row of knives on the counter top. His movements were precise almost robotic. Without looking up he said matter-of-factly
“No Rabbits today?”
“Only saw one, the range wasn’t right”.
“Squirrel stew again then it is” he said with the suggestion of a smile the closest he ever got to laughter these days.

  I lay there that night thinking of her drinking in every fleeting memory. At least I knew her name and that she would likely be at the market the next day. I reached under the bed and pulled out the old tin where I kept my valuables such as they were. 30 rounds of .22 ammunition and another 10 rounds of various calibers I had collected in trade over the years. A couple of furs from some coyotes that I had shot a few years back not much even for those sparse times, but likely enough to make a few trades and hopefully enough to make an impression on Daisy’s father. In the morning I waited for my father to finish breakfast going to the Sunday market was one of our weekly rituals, but he waved me on “Got a few things to take care of this morning I’ll catch up later, if you see a good hammer though reserve it for me”. I couldn’t wait to get out the door and before it slammed he called out again. 

“Don’t let those traders fleece you son, especially the northern ones”.

“I won’t dad” I called back.

I couldn’t believe my luck not having him tag along would make things so much easier. The closer I got the more nervous I was. I was almost at the old school house that faced onto the farmers market when I hesitated and then froze. Somehow I could not summon the will to move forward. Straining my eyes I could not see Daisy and guessed her stall must be somewhere near the end.
I don’t recall at the time what I bought or even what I paid. I put the purchases in my bag feeling somewhat pleased with myself when I felt a tug on my arm I looked behind and there was father staring at me.

“Come with me now” he said his voice barely a whisper. I was about to argue, but one look at his face stopped me. His face was dark with anger and with an intensity that I had never seen in him before. He didn’t wait for my reaction striding purposely away.

I looked at daisy and she shot me back a puzzled look. I gestured an apology with my hands and turned to look at father, but he had already gone.

  I was angry at father I knew how he had suffered over the years, but I had never wanted anything like this before. As I hurried home that anger intensified into a fury. He at least owed me an explanation. I flung open the front door and slammed it behind me. It took five minutes or so before I realized the house was empty. My father didn’t socialize. Oh he nodded to the neighbors and made small talk in between jobs, but never spent longer than he needed to appear polite. I didn’t take long to figure out where he had gone and somewhat calmer now I went to see if my hunch was right.

  I stood at the corner and looked down Wilshire in the direction of the sea. Once a mighty road that lead into the heart of what had been one of the greatest examples of urban sprawl was now a carpet of green punctuated with slivers of dark asphalt and strewn with the rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles. I strained my neck and stared upwards at the steel tower before me wrapped with vines, green growth exuding from the gaping holes that had once held giant sheets of glass. A bird flew out of a six story window and a squirrel leapt lithely onto a ledge a floor below. A few blocks down there was the bar. That’s what everyone called it not the Phoenix as the owner named it. I saw him sitting at the bar a lone figure staring into his drink. This is where he would always disappear once a year and like most things though we never discussed it I’d worked out that was when mother had passed. That wasn’t today though and it was another indication that whatever was eating him up was serious. I ordered an ale and sat two stools down from him. Not wanting to break the silence so soon I inspected my glass the dark amber liquid was heavy with sediment. We both sat for maybe ten minutes neither of us directly acknowledging each other’s presence.  Then he turned his head and spoke to me.

“Son I want to tell you a story” his words were ever so slightly slurred. I rarely saw him even close to being drunk. He always drank alone at night long after I had gone to bed.

“Many years ago now” he waved his drink in my direction

“When you were still in nappies” he gave a half smile then carried on

“I was driving to work. I remember that it was a beautiful day, as perfect as it gets in this part of the world. I had the window down, the radio on and the music was playing. I was cruising along, I was in the zone.” He paused a moment then looked back at me.

“Of course you don’t know what I mean because that was then and this is now and now is a very different world son. Still you can understand at least that it was a moment when things felt so good that you were untouchable, just riding a sweet wave. I passed an intersection and all I could hear is some arse hole tooting his horn. I don’t know if I had cut him off or what he was shouting about. I do remember I shouted something back as he accelerated past and gave me the finger. So I got into work trying reclaim my mood, then I saw his car, a brand new BMW parked in the lot. I was at my desk most of the day then I saw him come out of the conference room. He looked straight at me with the biggest smirk on his face. I’ll never forget that expression until the day I die. Next day I’m told I’m being made redundant. My boss didn’t even have the balls to say it to my face. Twenty years at the same company then they throw me on the scrap heap. The next part of the story you know all too well. We had taken on a lot of debt and your mother had quit her job a year before to be a full time mum to you. We had no choice, but to move to that shitty apartment downtown. Then she got sick.”

 He slammed his glass down on the counter.

“One moment in time and everything changes and suddenly your whole world spins on a dime.”

It took awhile for me to gather my thoughts. I’d always been hungry for knowledge about the family and the past. This though wasn’t the time I wanted to hear it.

“Why now dad? Why tell me now? What possible connection does this have to anything that’s going on now? Why did you have to embarrass me in front of Daisy?

He looked at me solemnly.

“You love her don’t you?”

“Yes I think I do.” I said with some force. He turned away again and gestured at the barman for another drink. I waited sometime for him to continue until I realized that I was now dismissed in his eyes.

“I’ve tried Dad I’ve really tried.” I got up quickly as I felt tears welling up in my eyes and I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me like that.

Although my mind was in turmoil thoughts of her gave me clarity and purpose and I slept deeply that night.

  As soon as it was light I snuck out of the house. I took care to bring my usual canvas bag with the revolver so that it would look like I had gone hunting when father found me gone. Perhaps in a way I was hunting I smiled to myself. I don’t know what had gotten into father, something had triggered him, but I couldn’t figure out what. Most likely he was sleeping it off and wouldn’t be awake for some time. When I got there I could see that the wagons were still unhitched from the horses. Two of them were almost brand new with freshly painted wood, but several of them were old trucks their original wheels substituted for wooden wagon wheels, their engine blocks removed and their metal chassis stripped down to minimize weight.

  The traders were just emerging from their wagons and stretching in the cool morning air. There was no sign of Daisy though. I felt momentary panic until I saw her father his distinct bald patch marking him from behind. The curtains were drawn at the front of their truck, but there was no sign of her there either. I didn’t feel comfortable asking her Dad and I couldn’t just stand there loitering either. I don’t why, but driven more by instinct than logic I made my way through the gap in the fence and into the open field in the old golf course and then I spotted her. She smiled as I approached 

“Thought I might find you here” she said still smiling, “But what’s up with your Dad?”

“Damned if I know never seen him like that before”

“Sign of the times, parents tend to get a bit protective these days I guess”. I didn’t reply just smiled sheepishly back at her.

“I always wonder how places like this survived, I mean what keeps people here when everyone else left?”

Suddenly I felt I was in comfortable territory as I replied

“Same as everywhere else I guess. Water. There are underground springs which bubble up into a small creek near the old golf Club. When it comes down to it that’s the only real essential”

“So how did you end up here anyway?” She asked keeping her eyes unnervingly focused on mine.

“My uncle left for Australia just as things were getting bad and he gave his house to my dad for safekeeping. That was a few years back now and we’ve not heard from him since.”

“And your Mum?”

“My Dad lost his job and we had to move to another part of town. Turns out it was the epicenter of the epidemic. It was all we could afford then. She didn’t last long once it took hold.” She nodded sadly, but didn’t seem surprised and waited for me to continue.

Then partly to change the subject I asked her “And your mother is she back home in northern California?”

“Oh I’ve no idea where she is. She ran off with some guy before things fell apart. She could see the writing on the wall long before anyone else I’ll give her that. I doubt she even cared for him he was just a convenient way out. I’m sure she is still alive somewhere she was always pretty good at taking care of herself.”

“Tough on your dad”

“I’ll be honest with you I think it hurt his pride more than anything else. Sure he loved her in his way, but he was married to his job and back then no one seemed to stop and think about the here and now everyone was just chasing a dream”.

“Never thought about it like that before. If it weren’t for mother passing I sometimes wonder if dad might not have preferred this life.”

“We were both too young to remember much, but I like the life on the road. I think I might have been bored living back then.” I looked at her longingly and she pretended not to notice.

“I wish I could join you, nothing really changes here.”

She smiled that smile of hers again and softly stroked my cheek.

“Then why don’t you?”

“I couldn’t just up and leave Dad.”

“He’s old enough to look after himself isn’t he? Besides it wouldn’t be forever. Take the route up north stay a while then come right back when the next traders go south.” She saw my look of doubt then said

“Hey think about it OK. This girl doesn’t make offers like this every day. I’m leaving in around two hours. Meet me by the school if decide you want to come. Either way no hard feelings.” 

She took my hand gently for just a moment then leaned forward and kissed me softly on the lips before walking slowly away. I was physically stunned and it took me a while before I could move again. If ever I had any doubts about what I was about to do they vanished in that moment.

  When she picked me up in the wagon I was surprised to see that it was another trader’s until she explained that her father Jason had to take care of some business first.  He would travel separately and we would all meet up at a small town just before the great Bakersfield desert.
I soon fell into the rhythm of the journey. Daisy taught me how to care for the horses and how to load and unload the wagons as we stopped at several small towns on our slow journey to San Joaquin Valley. We waited a long time for her father to re-join in the end we had to wave goodbye to the traders who carried on north. Not that I minded we made love every night under the stars and woke to the cold desert morning wrapped in the cocoon of our love.

 It was a long time after, maybe three months before I happened upon a trader who had passed through Brentwood. I was sitting at the bar when he came in, it was fortunate that Daisy was at away that evening. At first he didn’t know either Jason or my father by name, but he did know that a trade wagon had been found abandoned on the road its owner nowhere to be found. The strange thing was that apart from a missing horse all the goods had been left untouched. Around the same time a local had up and left some say he was looking for his missing son. 

  Some weeks after that I had been out hunting and it was getting late.
I could barely see anything outside of the immediate glow of the campfire, but I knew it was him even before he stepped into the circle of light.

“Dad?” He didn’t reply just sat down watching me wearily. I sighed and looked back at him watching the firelight reflected in his eyes. I wanted to hug him then, wanted to cry ask him why he did it. Still I did none of those things just sat silently on the cold hard ground and waited.

“I had to do what I did”

“But why?” I asked with all of the desperation and pain filling my voice.

“Things have come full circle son. He was there for a reason… I, you were there for a reason.” He wanted to go on fighting an internal struggle that had begun when my mother lay dead on a dirty mattress on the wrong side of the tracks and had not ended more than a decade later.

“When I first saw him, I knew immediately its almost like he had not changed at all, but you know what hurt the most?” he didn’t wait for a reply, but rambled on.

“That he didn’t know me probably doesn’t even remember what he did. Like swatting a fly that lands on your wrist. That he could end my life on a whim, destroy the only person that I ever cared about and then know nothing of it. Without you son I wouldn’t have made it through. There’s a part of her in you then he was going to take that from me too… “

I knew who he meant of course all the pieces of the puzzle was starting to come together, his conversation with me in the phoenix and his strange behavior before that.

“Dad its not like that..” He couldn’t stop now too many years holding it in and so I let him carry on.

“Its not that I ever stopped thinking about your mother, every night and every day she’s with me, but with time it fades, the numbness spreads and the pain becomes bearable. The day I saw him the wound was ripped open and it felt fresh almost like the first time.” 

There were tears in his eyes now I don’t think I ever remember him crying not on the outside anyway.

“I suppose I should almost thank him for that. She was there with me again I remembered her face, her hair, her voice. Your mother always had a beautiful voice even near the end.”

“There are just some things you can’t walk away from son. I won’t say what I did was right I can’t say he even deserved it.” He was quiet again seemingly reflective.

“Back in those days you’d hear about these things in the news and shake your head. Another crazy who just couldn’t live with the world anymore, one more homicide statistic. These times are forged anew and people now find their own sense of justice. I’m not proud of what I’ve done I just did what I had to do.”

“You killed him then?” He was silent for a moment.

“It was dark, but I’m pretty sure I got him.”

He started coughing then in a prolonged fit that ended with him spitting blood into the dust. It was then that I noticed how pale he was, his skin waxen and drained of blood. He sat awkwardly against the flatbed truck one shoulder was secured with a makeshift bandage of torn cloth. It was as if he had given everything of himself to get here and tell me this and now the strength was flowing rapidly out of him. I reached forward to hold him and he fell into my arms, limp and almost weightless. I felt the wetness of his blood soaked shoulder and he shivered one last time before the life left him. I don’t know how long I held him in my arms sobbing, but it must have been some hours later when Daisy arrived with a blanket and wrapped it around me. We buried him that night in silence the stars bearing mute witness to our efforts.

  We didn’t speak the next day, but she held my hand whenever we were close squeezing it gently to let me know she was there. I looked into her beautiful grey eyes and the look of pity and concern I saw there melted my heart. I don’t think I could have loved her more in that moment. She must have wondered what had happened to Jason and one day I would have to tell her, one day, but not today.