The Unburdening of Rodrigo Champion

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Fog, fat and sinister, fell hard for Los Angeles. Out of nowhere and just after midnight, the eastern curl of the city washed gray. Fifteen minutes ago, when Rodrigo emerged from the white, hot mouth of the kitchen he worked in, dishwater hiss and glow, into the dark breath of the parking lot, visibility was sharp as a blade. But now the stoplights hung like buzzed orbs, Rodrigo piloting his car through the thick — his skin damp with perspiration as the air outside, undulating in blur, muting the slow, vehicular sharks gliding by, brake lights like smoldering eyes, swimming backward, away, tense and afraid, as if aware that the trunk of Rodrigo’s Camry was delicately stuffed with three-hundred-and-thirty-three pounds of plastic explosive.

Maybe they could smell it.

Rodrigo could. All sweat and death, the hope of hurt, righteousness and idiocy trading blows in the ring. Well, maybe they couldn’t smell it like Rodrigo could.

He knew everything had a scent. Fear, danger, desperation, of course; but even awe, disappointment, nostalgia, betrayal, predation, false form. Codes the average citizen couldn’t translate. Rodrigo didn’t know what made him different, had learned long ago that there wasn’t any point in asking. But different he was behind the wheel of his dented Camry, beige and so often brushing against repossession, reeking of magnificent mistake, pant-shitting horror, nerves struck like matches, the distinct, pungent scent of perpetual failure, and motor oil, a trademark of Composition C-4.

Rodrigo dragged caution over the river and past the bones of the train depot, where tents touched condos in a neighborhood absolutely sick with space. A text message found him, eyeing the fauxhemian high-rise of his client, Maxwell P. Birkenstock, heir to a cork-based footwear fortune, and his pedigreed fiancé Kelly St. Cloud, the nauseating Crayola façade of the building ducking into the low clouds with embarrassment: come on up I’ll buzz you in.

So, this was modern affluence? White and bright, once again, some burning distraction or a concept of sterility. Max lived here, in this great concrete box with glass and brass and rugs like stitched snow. Rodrigo didn’t know much about Kelly, other than that she hailed from somewhere called “Cinci” and smelled like salvation. He’d also heard her parents made their money in the diamond trade, but couldn’t remember exactly how. It was possible they murdered people.

“Hi Rodrigo!” Kelly’s head poked out of the kitchen, her bright tinsel-blonde hair pinned up in an elegant bun, a mint face mask clinging to her face like a second skin, smiled wide at Rodrigo, disappeared in a blink.

Meanwhile, Max rambled on about some new dazzling development in the fantastical sciences, as he often did, for hours, preaching new technologies he wished to be an authority on, and desperately wished to understand.

The grand development, Max announced, was this: a new company — they called themselves The Divestment Group — was paying subjects good money to extract from them a particular feeling: a previously unnamed emotion, a cocktail of remorse, longing, and disappointment, which manifested as a harmful gas within the bloodstream, creating pressure and unease. They’d just suck these vapors right out of you with a special machine and hand you a check.

The Divestment Group hadn’t discovered this seemingly magical unburdening themselves, of course; scientists had been researching these vapors for some years, even invented the extraction machine, a sort of vacuum for emotional detritus. But the scientists quickly discovered the dense, lonely vapors were almost worthless, could not be transformed into energy nor resource. The only way to monetize their discovery — as all scientists must — was to simply charge for the service, like laser hair removal or tire rotation. One dogged entrepreneur went bankrupt and mad attempting to convert the vapors into heat. Wouldn’t that have been the dream? To bask in the warmth of abandon, the broil of loneliness?

Though it wasn’t solely loneliness that produced these uncomfortable vapors — vapors that led to muscle aches and bone spurs, insomnia, chronic assholishness — no, the cause of the densest of vapors, and thus the most painful and cumbersome memories, were moments of nearly knowing someone. Those loud instances of just barely entering one’s orbit of intimacy. Strangers, dates, co-workers, sometimes entire, ebullient brushes with connection made in a passing glance. People felt it, when it happened, that they were close to…something. Maybe they couldn’t put their finger on it, or articulate it to their therapists or bartenders, but there in the passing they felt it, the spent potential of human connection, the bright of almost seeing, of almost being seen, the flash and then the fade, dots of color blurring in their eyes, and now the stark absence of light.

The scientists named this phenomenon “cosmic friction.” A professor of Tangible Emotion Dynamics at UC Riverside discovered that these almost-connections, what he called “shifts in intimacy tectonics,” created such drag, such scrape, that the built-up tension of what could have been could not, would not, naturally be released, forming the most concentrated, vile vapors.

It was that particular loneliness that really got the pistons pumping. It was that loneliness of potential that, if converted to heat, could boil the sea.

Now The Divestment Group was here, with handsome payouts in exchange for your cosmic friction. However, a sinister question emerged, as it always does: who was bankrolling the operation and how did it benefit them, the removal of these seemingly useless vapors? No one knew. Max said there was, “like, one lone journalist obsessed with tracking down the mysterious dude behind it all.” But, he noted, she was not getting anywhere.

If The CEO had ever used his own company’s services, he would have divested himself of the memory of a young bartender, a young bartender whose name he never learned, but whose face was easily etched into his mind for all of time, for it bore such close resemblance to that of his son’s, his son who six years previous had his skull crushed between a boat and a dock. Had he divested himself of this feeling, he’d also include that his trips to that particular bar became soothing and joyous, and that he never mentioned his silent therapy to the bartender, and that when he one day entered to find a new employee in place of this bartender, this bartender who had up and moved to some other metropolitan city, it hurt with a pain so sharp that The CEO became quite angry with himself, and even angrier in the years to come, when he found himself missing this nameless bartender almost as much as his real son. But he didn’t use the services of his company, for he didn’t want to divest himself of this. In fact, he wanted more.

“So,” Max snorted a long line off the glass table, “I wanna check it out, see how it feels, see what their deal is, see if anything nefarious is going on, you know?” Rodrigo fiddled with his windbreaker, staring at his non-slip shoes on the exquisite rug below him, the bleach and inferiority clinging to his work Dickies.

“Max, listen.” But he kept talking, rubbing his nose, tapping a ring on his finger against a bottle of Stella. “Max. Max!”

“Yeah?”

“I need to borrow some money. Unless you want to buy a half-ounce from me tonight, I need to borrow some money. Some cash, I need some cash, now.” The air felt very still, reeked of suspicion.

“Is everything okay, Rodrigo?” Kelly floated from the kitchen and gracefully stepped into sitting cross-legged on the couch beside Max, still masked, forking parmesan covered Brussels sprouts into her mouth.

“Listen, I’d rather not say. I don’t want…I don’t want you to become accomplices.”

The two of them shot giddy looks at each other. Accomplices!

Now he had to tell them; if Kelly weren’t here he could’ve just robbed Max, the dumb idiot, standing in his way now with a carefree grin, weaponless and cowardly, his last fight some echo on a grade school playground. But she was, so he told them.

Of course, they had questions. Like, how did Rodrigo come to have three-hundred-and-thirty-three pounds of plastic explosive in his Camry? The short answer was this: in the drug trade your co-workers often get shot in the head, leave things behind, leave things in your possession that aren’t safe to throw out, definitely can’t be turned in to any so-called authority, and need to be rid of your control as soon as humanly fucking possible, Maxwell.

And the money? Rodrigo was a drug dealer, sure; but also a family man, and both the dishwashing tips and last powder profit went straight to rent, groceries, and diapers the day before, so here he was with a little less than half an ounce in his stash, and maybe three dollars scattered about the Camry. He needed a burner phone, a new tail light, and enough gas for a round trip to Modesto where he could unload the C-4. In Modesto, he knew a man who’d take it.

“How do you know him?” asked Kelly. Which is how the young, bright, not even close to happy couple came to learn the story of Rodrigo’s grandmother: the immutable Starlita Champion of Sinaloa.

Decades ago, Starlita Champion was the — get this — star champion of the Coyoacán Coyotes, rabid shortstop and queen of crushing baseballs into oblivion, some of her loftier projectiles getting shot down over the border, they say. She was 6’4” and swung a bat carved from obsidian. She played for the Amazon y Azteca League, the only liga de mujeres, with a minimum height requirement of 5’10” and a more “full contact” approach than the northern pastime. Her glory was unparalleled, and she was known throughout the golden land of Mexico — a symbol of strength and machisma.

At the height of her career, Starlita met a dashing American photographer, Rick Dillinger, who traveled the world documenting what else but war and women. Under contract for Playboy, he directed a challenging photoshoot wielding the power of the Aztec female form, an idea blessed by the star of his spread, his lover Starlita. Many of her fans were scandalized, shocked, their Catholic hearts aching with undersexed hand-wringing at the sight of their heroine in such a compromising position. In the centerfold: a tattoo on her ribs, taunting, death to capitalist pigs!, drawn in a clear and elegant script. This, along with a smattering of appearances at Coalition for Dismantlement meetings, prodded the CIA to agitate and discredit Starlita, who they saw, correctly, as a budding, powerful terrorist.

Unfortunately for the craven cucks at the CIA, this strategy only served to stoke her fire. When they went full-blown motherfucker on her and bombed an airplane carrying her traveling Coyotes teammates, killing 22 innocent women, she began to taste blood in her mouth every second of the day, became ruthlessly active in the American resistance. She formed Coyote 22 — the leading resistance faction of the time, known for cunning counterintelligence and brutality — and they armed six local militias and bombed fourteen buses before one of her lieutenants betrayed her.

“No!” Kelly gasped. Rodrigo continued.

After verified informant and turncloak Coyote Rosalia Cortez sold out the cause, ICE abducted Starlita Champion, beat and shackled the legendary baseball player, and detained her at an ICE black site near the Salton Sea. By this time, the prospect of an eventual Rodrigo — of any hypothetical nietos, really — was becoming increasingly unlikely. But lucky for Rodrigo: from that barren, fishbone wasteland, an odd love bloomed.

His name was Carter Garcetti and he was one of four ICE agents guarding Starlita’s stretch of the black site, four tents and a latrine in the northern quadrant. This particular site was reserved for detainees without any future, no plans for punishment, at least none documented. A limbo in the foul desert. The thick stench of boredom set in as powerful as the wretched scent of the long polluted lake. A bond formed. Starlita whispered to Carter stories of baseball and Mexico, Carter regaled Starlita with stories of breaking broncos in El Paso. For the first time in his life Carter questioned the invisible forces that put him in this place, the perceptions he had of the people he corralled like cattle. Through a fog of apology and remorse he saw Starlita as a beautiful and fully formed human being. They laid together, and all this he confessed to her through salty, stinging tears, his head in her lap, her hands stroking his hairs, his breath sweet with milk she’d brought to his tent after the sun set, his sobs quieting as he fell into a deep, loving sleep.

Then she drove a tent spike through his fucking temple.

She got the idea from the Bible.

He woke just long enough to open his eyes as the life spilled out of them. Reports said it took three men to unpin his skull from the ground.

When they found him, Starlita was missing, as were his keys, sidearm, and documents, some of which included the whereabouts of known informants.

Underground she went, slowly building a ring of modern vice to support the larger goal, an amassing of arms, connecting up the coast a daisy-chain of resistance groups: the League of Loneliness, out in Riverside; The Wet Scythe, a group of agricultural terrorists in Pomona; the Valley-based Coalition of Dismantlement, of course; and even Cinderella United, a roaming group of murderous teen girls on banana bikes.

A few years later a corpse appeared on the steps of City Hall with a message carved into its stomach: Coyote 23. The body was soon identified as Rosalia Cortez. No arrests were made.

“So is the man in Modesto… your grandma?” Kelly asked, in earnest.

“The man in Modesto is called Casper, and he knows how to move a trunkful of explosives,” Rodrigo offered, though on the whereabouts of Starlita, he refused to say any more. He had given them enough. Now, the money.

“Did this really happen to one person?” Kelly hung like a cornice of snow from her perch on the couch, short breath and wonder seeping from her mouth.

“Yes, of course. They might as well have. Everything that happens, happens to everyone.”

“Bullshit.” Max wore a smug smile, but it wasn’t his.

“I believe you, Rodrigo.” Kelly relaxed.

“Of course she believes you, she watches all that…shit…on television.”

Rodrigo could smell the second-hand sting of Max’s words, the tops of his ears buzzing a bit, hot and rigid, as he eyed Max’s casual posture, selvedge jeans, his immaculately white Vans slip-ons, ankles crossed on the coffee table, wondering if he cleaned the shoes nightly, with an ornate grooming brush from a boutique shop in the Junction where the combs cost twenty dollars and the clientele scoffs at parking tickets, or if he simply bought a new pair every few weeks. The putrid scent of resentment wafted from himself toward Max, the notes of disrespect apparent in the air between the couple. Max wore Kelly like a letterman jacket, and nothing else. Rodrigo wondered how decoration was sufficient for some men. Maybe even the goal.

“I don’t care if you believe me. Will you give me the money?”

And Maxwell P. Birkenstock indeed gave his drug dealer, Rodrigo Champion, enough money for a new tail light, a burner, and the gas to make it to Modesto and back.

Although he didn’t believe him, Max enjoyed a good story — likely because he was incapable of telling one — and doubly appreciated anything about heritage or meaningful lineage, as he had none. It helped that Rodrigo was the only dealer who ever showed up on time, possessed a consistent, quality product, and listened to his magnificent bullshit.

Rodrigo should have recognized the mysterious scent clawing at his nostrils as he left the apartment as impending betrayal. But wealth has a way of obfuscating extrasensory perception.

If The Journalist had ever used the services of the company which she so militantly investigated, it would be to divest herself of the brief, intense day she had with the man behind the curtains, the CEO of the company that sucked out cosmic friction, the day she finally tracked him down by stowing away on a chemical transport vehicle that carried huge canisters of vapor to a compound hidden deep in the desert, the day she spent with the man who hoarded loneliness, who wanted a painful, gaseous buffer between him and any love in the world, so he’d never lose love again, the man who was indeed the saddest, loneliest man in the world, yes even the flowers hated him. That’s what The Journalist would divest.

Exhaust from the Camry — now en route to Rodrigo’s cousin’s garage — still lingered in the condo’s parking lot when Max began pacing. Nearly an eight-ball in his system now, the paranoia dripping from his nasal cavity throughout his entire being, convinced his phone had documented the evening, transmitted it to the authorities, saying all kinds of stupid shit like:

Wow, how dangerous is that! A trunk like a powder keg! What if he crashes into a family on the highway? Or a school bus? And Coyote 23! Can you believe that shit, Kelly? Ideological murder is still murder! I don’t want to be some kind of, I don’t know, some kind of….accomplice!

And on, and on, failing to realize how much death his lifestyle perpetuated, the things he shoved up his nose, his fiancé’s blood diamonds.

Kelly St. Cloud wanted no part of this ghoulish parade of cowardice, this spineless allegiance switching. She left in a huff, a huff that could crush, if only Max had ever once paid her any attention.

It was easy to follow Rodrigo through the fog. One of his tail-lights was busted.

If Maxwell P. Birkenstock had made it to The Divestment Group before visiting a nightclub, a nightclub where more than a few regulars were also members of a group called Coyote 23, and if he hadn’t left the club with a tall, dark, mysterious woman who ran her hand up his thigh, grabbed him by his tightening jeans, led him out in the parking lot, to the backseat of his Tesla, straddled him and, while he was inside her, slid a stiletto blade into his throat and jerked it sideways, then watched him bleed out wild-eyed and surprised, he would have divested himself of…well, now we’ll never know.

Pulling out of the gas station, burner in cupholder and tail-light legal, Rodrigo saw blue and red lights strobe through the fog behind him. When they pulled him over, cited an anonymous tip and pried open his trunk, they found only a box of diapers and a spare tire.

With nothing to seize, just some junkie’s bad tip, they had to let Rodrigo go.

A few miles down the road he pulled over, abandoned the Camry, and got in Kelly St. Cloud’s Mercedes, its trunk sagging a bit with the weight of over 300 pounds of C-4 as it snaked slowly north toward Modesto. They’d never been alone like this. They’d never been this close; two tired and trying souls, brushing up against one another’s orbit.

“What’s happening, Rodrigo?” she asked, eyes on the road, while he stared out the passenger window.

“Anger becoming action. Loneliness becoming love. Something Starlita once said. Maybe it’s true now.”

From then on, the car was quiet, both of them thinking the same thing without knowing it: the world chooses me, more than it ever lets me choose.

If Kelly St. Cloud’s parents had, say, their assets rightfully seized, and their flouncing favorite daughter was in dire need of some cash, and she found herself unburdening herself of so-called cosmic friction at the mysterious offices of The Divestment Group, this would be the friction she’d divest, this brief closeness with Rodrigo, the last time she’d ever see him, quietly humming up the highway in the thrum of something bigger than them, the bliss of a shared purpose, following a ribbon that chose her, fog thinning fast, calm morning light crawling over the 99 freeway, an hour outside of Modesto.

A month later, Rodrigo watched his daughter chase a neighborhood cat through the yard when the thick scent of sulfur and death filled the air. He was shaken, eyes hot and wet, a choke rushing up his throat, and then, release, ease, the sweet smell of revenge tangling with notes of righteousness, retaliation, reverence.

Rodrigo walked inside his house and lit a candle for Starlita. On the television, breaking news reported an ICE compound attacked by militant terrorists, some grand explosion a few hours north of the city. And then a weightlessness, a hand in the dark, foremothers and heritage sunk into his spine, one branch on one magnificent tree, his place, and some painful vapor sucked out of him as if by magic.

[this short story was originally published in Slimi Magazine]

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