Preview: Novel-in-Progress

This is the first draft of the first half of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress. I won’t put the working title down, because I am certain to change it. It is third in the Lenny Strasser series; the first two are The Dust Will Answer and Family Ties, both available print or digital on Amazon, iBooks, and all the other usual suspects. The novels don’t have to be read in order, but they work a little better that way, so you might as well get started now….

Here’s chapter one of number three:

Old piss and new paint: the odor of Echo Park, or at least of the parts of it the city made halfhearted attempts to keep presentable. It was especially strong in what I’d heard referred to as the “Tunnel of Death,” which was a pedestrian walkway under the 101 freeway. A crew must have just smeared a coat of snot-yellow paint over the week’s graffiti, and the bad boys of the neighborhood had already begun reasserting their territorial delusions with stolen spray cans. I had seen the legend “1950” incised into the concrete over the north-side entrance as I had cat-stepped my way in, all senses on full alert. I wondered how it had been here thirty-three years ago when the tunnel had been new and clean. Nothing was new and clean around here anymore, including my soul. I was on the hunt for someone whose name and face I didn’t know. They owed me something they could never pay back, but I was going to present the bill anyway. There was no set currency for the transaction, except that cash wouldn’t do. They could pay in shame, if they had any. They might pay in blood, if they didn’t.

When the tunnel was new the air might have been clean. That was just after the freeway cut the neighborhood in two, the bulldozers grinding through it like a dull chainsaw, and LA hadn’t yet made a religion of traffic. Now the freeway was a church where you could sit in long lonely rows in your car and worship hurry while not getting anywhere very fast. The Tunnel of Death was a concession to the few who couldn’t stuff themselves into a car to go two blocks. If I’d jumped straight up, I’d have hit my head on the ceiling. It was full of a constant throbbing wrought by hundreds of wheels passing overhead. The air stank. Outside, the screech of motors and tires made it almost impossible to talk to anyone, if you had anyone to talk to. I didn’t. Maybe on the other side I’d find a friendly face. That wasn’t likely, but there are things you have to try to do even though you know they’re hopeless. I still believed in justice in those days, and I was learning about vengeance. There was no one in the tunnel, just signs of life in the scrawled illegible names and the reek of lost dignity. I tried not to inhale. Of course I inhaled anyway, and the breath of life felt sour in my throat. It’s a long way across the freeway, and when you get to the other side, all you find is despair gone stale. The sunlight was hard on my eyes when I stepped out. There was no one there. Not even me, I thought.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, my mind adjusted to the emptiness. Sure, there were houses there, and if I listened hard I could hear a woman’s voice bubbling through the traffic noise that poured over the streets like a dirty tide. The voice stopped soon enough; the traffic never stopped. The little houses on the street slumped quaintly in their peeling paint. Some of them looked like they hadn’t been painted in half a century, and wouldn’t be for a century to come. A rotten porch sagged; a roof showed dark rectangular gaps in the shingling. Someday it would rain, even in Los Angeles it rains sometimes, and dirty water would drip out of the ceiling fixtures onto the sagging beds where hungry men and women bred the future. After the potpourri of mildew, sweat, and semen grew too strong to ignore, the mattresses, stained and torn, would be left on the sidewalk for the bums to sleep on and piss their cheap beer into while they dreamed of better days. Chainlink embraced the yards where faded plastic toys lay upside down in the dead grass. Generations lived and died here, fenced in by poverty and disdain. You could walk for blocks here and never hear a word of English. I spoke enough Spanish to get by, barely. Whether anyone would speak to me was another matter. People usually did, and I’m not even sure why. I’m tall but not big, and don’t inspire fear in anyone. Maybe they’re just happy that I try with my crappy Spanish. Someone from outside who takes them at their word, for once.

Not so far from outside, anyway: I lived about a mile away. My house was still in Echo Park, but on the other side of Sunset Boulevard, where there were more hills, more trees, and fewer tears. There was no glamor there either — no one made famous movies about this stretch of Sunset, which was just a road to somewhere else, with too much traffic passing storefronts squinting into the sun like the old men that rested their bones on the bus benches, waiting for the local to heaven. Our hills coddled the memories of three generations of broken-souled artists who had settled themselves into handmade houses on steep alleys that no one could ever find. My neighbors had lived there forty, fifty, sixty years, sometimes longer. Whatever language they spoke, they managed to keep their places clean and painted if not exactly vertical, and there was always someone with a pickup truck to haul old furniture away to the dump. Or maybe they just hauled it across the freeway to the sad streets I stared at now. It was afternoon; I felt the sun on my forehead. Everything was bright and flat and dirty. Now that the woman’s voice had sunk into the general thunder of the freeway noise, there was no sign of human life. I did note three pigeons pecking diligently at a scatter of fast-food wrappers in the gutter, ignoring the sprawl of a dead comrade who lay on his back just inches away. I didn’t know why they would stay here, when they could fly wherever they wanted. Maybe nowhere else would be home. I hadn’t been born in Echo Park, but I had come to feel that way myself after so many years here. But that was before, of course. I wasn’t sure what home meant, anymore.

The tunnel had let me out onto a short cul-de-sac that would take me to Temple Street. There were no temples on Temple Street, except the occasional homemade shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, backed up to the wastelands bordering the freeway. There was one to my left, jammed up against the sagging chainlink fence that guarded the dying trees by the freeway. And just beyond it was a pair of legs in worn work boots sticking straight out into a narrow alley to nowhere. At last, a friend. I walked around the shrine to see who it might be.

I was hoping it would be Carlos. Carlos the bum was the only person who might have seen what happened. If he had been there, if he had been awake, if he hadn’t been too drunk, if he could remember what he saw, it might lead me to the stranger I was chasing down. But Carlos hadn’t been seen in his usual corner for days, since it had happened. Carlos wandered; he was a nomad in the mile-wide desert of his own soul. He might disappear for a day or two, but that corner — the corner where it happened — that was his office, you might say. The people who walked by going to the little storefronts knew him and gave him change. This is how he put it to me once: that corner kept him fed. Carlos was funny: after the first week or so, he stopped asking me for change, though I had always handed him something when he asked. He liked to talk, and so did I. “Money without love,” he said, “is worthless.” He said it in Spanish, of course. “Dinero sin amor no vale nada.” He spoke English, too, and not that badly, but Spanish was home. When we spoke in Spanish, he said, he felt he was inviting me into his house. I never asked him how long it had been since he had had a literal house. There are things you just don’t ask someone if you care for them. Carlos, for all that he was a gutter drunk, was a good man, harmless and kind. I’d never asked. Maybe someday he’d spill it out. It wasn’t up to me.

The old work boots, with their scuffed and bulbous toes, might have been Carlos’s. I walked around the shrine and stared down at the sprawling drunk. The tousled black hair, the short thin beard: it could have been. But it wasn’t. There were bottles of Corona scattered around him. Carlos drank only Bud, and only from the red-and-white cans. One look had told me the man by the shrine wasn’t Carlos.

A second look told me he was dead.