It’s the newness of it all Irene loves. Even this flat, bleached-out Los Angeles panorama; glinting, burning her pale skin. Greasy little businesses—smoke shops, adult bookstores, payday advance offices all squatting together drably in the strip mall. Worlds apart from the place she grew up; it thrills her adventurer eyes.
Her hands are full; handbag and three plastic bags of nice but cheap red cushions from a nearby store. The reason for Irene’s expedition to this part of the city. She checks her watch. Almost six. There is a bus due in less than ten minutes. She peers left out of the bus shelter. Raquel Welch peers back.
There she is, close by a tiny taco stand. Graceful and elegant on rollerblades, doing spins and casting coquettish glances at all the passing traffic on this busy street.
One Million Years BC Raquel Welch. A suede, tiny flippy skirt and makeshift suede bra stretched across her breasts. But that tattoo on the lower back, the shorn hair and acne… most of all, that bulge tucked under the flippy skirt. Bending over, ‘Oops, I dropped my purse.’ Peepshows for the men in cars who look her way for longer than necessary. Irene can’t help staring. Here is someone who is an In-Between. Like a mythological creature, come to life. Rollerblading in the sun!
The traffic slows for the lights. A gardener’s pick-up truck passing Raquel drifts forward, nudging the car in front with a metal jolt. Raquel breaks off eye contact with the entranced truck driver, spins and laughs. His passengers fall about cackling as she turns back to blow kisses at him.
To the right of the bus shelter is a donut shop. On the opposite side of the street, a fast food place. A person in a chicken costume paces half- heartedly up and down outside, carrying a board advertising their New Fiesta Chicken! The photo shows something like pizza-covered chicken.
A silver Lexus pulls up beside Raquel. The driver is wearing glasses, wispy balding head, Mr Corporate America driving home from work. She gets in and points toward the parking area of the taco stand. Nowhere to hide, doesn’t seem like they care.
A woman carrying plastic bags and a navy sleeping bag, all rolled up under one arm waits near Irene. They smile faintly at each other; one of her bags is from the cheap cushion place too. Also waiting is a ruddy man who resembles that cartoon dog Droopy. He has the worn look of an alcoholic, a bruising sadness exaggerated by the thick moustache which hangs over his frowny lip.
Traffic whizzes by, then pauses at the lights. Car People looking out, bored, mouths pursed like bile is rising in their throats. Irene is grateful that sunglasses are a necessity in LA, something to hide behind. But why should I feel the need to hide, she bristles. Public transport had been easy, convenient and cheap anywhere she had ever lived. But America is a car culture and in this city, public transport is mired in stigma.
‘Nobody walks in LA,’ they say. They write songs about it, laugh about it. Well I’m going to walk, Irene thinks. Watch me.
The silver Lexus passes by, Mr Corporate America alone again, on the phone, ‘What’s for dinner, honey?’
The Bus People are becoming impatient. The sleeping-bag woman opens a large box of chocolatey Oreo cereal and begins wolfing it down. She smiles benevolently and tells Irene she is… hungry… this cereal is awesome…
Then she drifts off mid-sentence and stares into space. Droopy’s hands shake as he lights a cigarette. A Mexican man joins them now, on his way to some restaurant job, buttoning up his valet vest.
Irene attempts to look down the street for a bus. Impossible to see anything over the endless parade of SUVs. Everything is taking on a greyish tinge now, less appealing. A little uglier. Like the time she had been watching a yellow butterfly trembling around some bougainvillea, then onto the grass, coming to hover and land on a pile of dried up dogshit.
On the other side of the street, the Chicken Man changes direction according to the smart remarks Car People shout out to him. Turns his back from one insult to another.
At the taco stand, Raquel Welch spins in circles around a young guy with his trousers falling down, boxers visible. The hip-hop redneck look. He seems angry and distracted.
They share a cigarette. She needs one. Then she attends to business in the next car. He grips a stool, talking to himself, raking his fingers through his sandy hair obsessively.
A homeless couple confront each other outside the donut shop. ‘Don’t,’ she repeats over and over, ‘Don’t,’ while he just smiles. She shoves him but he slaps at her face, softly, one side then the other. She stomps away, pushing her rickety shopping cart before her and he doesn’t follow.
Two more broken men pass while Irene waits, a quarter past six, half six, both carrying trash bags of cans. She wants to tell the second one that someone else has already done this route. His torn bag is almost empty, a lonely trail of soda drips following him.
Irene feels herself tarnishing under the stares of the Car People. She is dressed down, no skin showing. But she is waiting at that particular bus stop. She realises now; they think she is something she is not. If she isn’t homeless she has to be a whore.
Hip-hop redneck begins pacing, pacing, pacing, aggressively up and down, up and down. Irene once saw a tiger at the zoo do this, driven mad by the enclosure.
Where is the damn bus? Her phone is dead. She hasn’t taken her ATM card with her. Not that there is much in there anyway, but she would spend her last cent to flee this corner. She has $2.50 in her pocket, sharing a taxi might get her a few blocks west, to a safer area. Irene considers which of the others she could ask. She looks at the Mexican man. Would he think she is trying to proposition him if she tries to explain in English? Why had she taken German in secondary school?
‘Entshüldigen Sie bitte, can you tell me the best way to escape this?’ BANG! It’s the hip-hop redneck. He punches the back of the shelter and
Irene doesn’t want to turn and she does want to turn.
Is it better to be stabbed in the back or the chest? He walks past the shelter, please go away, turns and walks back towards the shelter. Nobody gives a flicker of interest, as though he hasn’t just rammed his fist against it in some sort of psychotic rage. He paces around the back of the shelter once, twice, three times, eyes swivelly and sour. Then from the corner of her vision she sees him kneel on the ground. She is too afraid to look. There would be no pleading, no reasoning with a person like this. Irene is not a bolshy, brazen girl. She likes to think she is but she isn’t. Standing there pathetically with her bags of cushions. She imagines lying in her hospital bed, trying to explain. She is a silly girl from somewhere else, standing at a noted tranny pick-up point in the heart of LA, dusk approaching. She just wanted stupid cushions and to know that she could be independent. Hip-hop redneck moves back toward the taco stand.
Irene stares, panicky, at the donut shop. Maybe I should just go in there and wait, she thinks. Spend my money on a jammy doughnut I’m too sick with anxiety to eat. More ambisexual people walking in and out, sitting at the few tables. Large hands, painted lips. Checking their jaw lines in small golden compacts, the kind that shut with a Snap!
The Oreo cereal box is dropped in the trash; empty, and the woman rubs her stomach and mutters something… a tummy ache…
Just then a really normal looking middle-aged man appears. Tall and fatherly. Crisp white shirt, pressed trousers, glasses. Stands beside her looking at his smart watch. Irene is taking no chances. It is six forty. Three buses pass, none of them hers, and he sighs and speaks. He finishes his sentences, he is not muttering at someone or something Irene can’t see. He raises his eyebrows in implied solidarity, at the oddness of the people around them. She isn’t imagining it! They are strange and she, Irene is not.
She hopes that he will stay there until her bus comes. Minutes pass, chit-chat, then he moves a little closer and smiles down at her. His gaze has changed. Uncomfortable.
‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ He’s too close now.
He catches her chilliness but he can’t stop himself. ‘You’re very pretty— why don’t we start walking together and if the bus passes…’
Irene turns her back and he strides off.
The sun spills darkening orange across the closing sky. Car headlights are switched on, the whole thing lending a dusty red pall to the boulevard.
Palette of the Apocalypse.
Across the street, the Chicken Man stands waiting to cross at the lights. He has taken off the chicken head and carries it in a headlock under his arm. His face is handsome and without the board he looks stronger, purposeful. Where is he going? Has he been nauseated by the ugly desperation of this street and walked away from the job, finally? Just dropped the board and quit? She wants to cheer him across.
The walk signal flashes and he pops the head on again and walks toward them. A beautiful, unexpected dignity to his every step, a man who still sees himself in the mirror every evening for who he is, not the job he does. He hasn’t quit. He is halfway across when someone flicks a cigarette butt at him, from a car. It sails through the air like a flaming arrow shot by a Roman and glances precisely off his beak.
The Chicken Man stops and trundles awkwardly in the direction it came from. He doesn’t see the bread van turning right, against the red light. The driver doesn’t have time to slow and charges forward. The Chicken Man spins violently upwards like a toy shaken from the jaws of a puppy, then crashes down a few feet in front of them.
A dark splintering sound. Irene hears herself scream and the Oreo lady whimpering behind her. Nobody moves. The Chicken Man lying there, motionless. Like the air around him has been frozen and if they go forward, they will shatter an invisible wall.
‘Quick, call 911 motherfuckers!’ Screech of metal on tar as Raquel Welch skids to a stop beside the injured body. She roars at the Car People. An older woman with tasteful blonde highlights and a suspiciously unlined face grabs her phone from the dash and dials.
The Bus People go into the street towards the poor body. Droopy kneels beside him and feels for a pulse.
‘Still alive. Put that sleeping bag round him.’
He motions the Oreo lady over and she unrolls the sleeping bag and helps place it around him. Men and women step from their cars, gathering around, shaky hands and troubled faces, pleading; is there something, anything they can do?
The van driver, alone. Turned to stone; he hunches over his wheel, replaying the moment. Wishing that magically somehow, he could just take back that second, that millisecond and push his foot down on the brake sooner, faster, harder.
But he never would.
‘We should take the head off, I think.’
Droopy looks to Irene for agreement. She is afraid of what they might see beneath.
‘I don’t think you’re meant to move people in case of head injuries,’ she says.
Then they hear the voice, small and confused from within. Speaking in Spanish. The Mexican man who has been waiting with them approaches and warns the small voice that they are about to lift the head.
Droopy, hands assured and steady now, gently lifts it off, inch by inch until they see the blanched skin of the neck, the trembling lips, then the liquidy eyes, pained. They place Irene’s cheap red cushions around him.
The man mumbles.
‘He say he just wanted a doughnut,’ the Mexican man nods at the donut shop.
‘His name is Jesus.’
He pronounces it hey Zeus.
Another man comes from his car and says a small prayer over Jesus. ‘You’re going to be okay… Jesus,’ Irene assures him. ‘Will you tell him he’ll
be fine, help’s on the way? Will you tell him that?’ she asks the Mexican man. He relays the message, pleasantly, nonchalantly, like he really believes it. Jesus looks at Irene then and the chant from years before returns to her.
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
What if it really is Jesus? Both Islam and Christianity believe in a second coming. That sci-fi notion of the Rapture. All true Christians simultaneously ascending into heaven. If Jesus could appear in a stable in the Middle East first time round, why not in a chicken suit on Santa Monica Boulevard?
The ambulance bears down on them moments later, taking Jesus away. Irene looks around. Would the believers be raptured now?
Traffic rubbernecks past. Nobody is drifting up into the heavens. Men and women return to their cars and drive off.
Irene drops the cheap red cushions in the trashcan before her bus, further delayed by the suffering of Jesus, finally arrives.
They sit close together, all the Bus People, watching the metal gleam of Raquel’s rollerblades drift into the darkness.