Night. He pushed the old car hard for the shipyards. Missed an onramp out of San Fernando, dropped onto the streets of Van Nuys. Rushed when he could down the carchoked boulevard. At stops his redlight brakefoot edgy, eager to free the engine from its idle.
Crime scene ahead. Ambulance, stretchers, sheets. He took a hard left on Magnolia, ran deeper into the body of the night. Cop said driving too fast but we’ll let it go this time. A shared forearm tattoo. Brother both victims of the same wargod pressgang that flew home so damn many coffins.
Radio played a soft song but no soft thought at night in the terminal city. Slap knob radio silence. He pushed the old car hard for the shipyards.
His fear suffocation. It always came too soon. Six months, maybe ten and whatever ground he walked upon choked him in dust. Too many cries in his head. Too many calls to die in a desert of strip malls. Routine robbed him of essence.
He took the bypass to Burbank. A scrap of girl stood by the freeway sign. An extended and altogether holy thumb. Brakelights flashed and she entered. He pushed the old car hard for the shipyards.
What’s your name? he asked but she answered that names are inventions. Pragmatic creations to seduce our isolation into surrender. He said okay I accept that. We choose our beliefs in shadows where the streetlights die.
They sat quiet and tires spun a story of distance between boredoms. A tale of traps.
Outside Glendale she pulled a cigarette from a bag, lit it hard and spoke of a Nebraska farm. They wanted her in the farmgirl role but she ran fast for the coast. This city of light and angels she said, full of small places to hide in the darkness.
Yes, he said and told her of his dream to have a heart that didn’t beat the door down every few months demanding answers.
That’s how we roll, she said and he knew she was right. The first time he killed a man he thought he would never stop dying. Stomach pains. God’s deafness. But crusts grew over him with years like barnacles and he found ships of other restless men to bear him to another shore.
Not hunting redemption, he said. Just a sense of place. The girl nodded with wisdom more expansive than her years. She too beheld her choices and longed. A family is not always blood.
On their right Elysian Park at night its secrets shrouded. Where are you going, she asked and he said I’m too tired from running to care. But Long Beach has ships and piers and one of them will have me. A deckhand or a long night swim.
Can we get a Coke? she asked and he said why not and they pulled off on another stale Main St. with its own sort of killing fields. A store illumed and stocked to the top like heaven, the clerk a dark youngbeard still in the thrall of being. Back on the road, tincan condensation on his fingers, he pushed the old car hard for the shipyards.
The girl became a light he could not witness blinded by his faulty wired ambition and she told him of a time she went to church in Nebraska with a father who put his hand under her blouse. To reach into the house of the lord.
That is a man I would kill, said the man. The old car growled.
No need. He passed out in a wheat field of combines.
My daughter ran from my death wish, he said.
Where is she now?
Upstate. Inland. Far from ships.
Three miles of silence in the city of unincorporated dreams. Red yellow white car lights. A ten lane conduit between existence and extinction. Five million axles each day this path. Each a savage homecoming fraught with survival. Week to week. Small sidelined houses and dead roses. Concrete blocks. Sins of the road.
And you? asked the man. Me what? Where going?
San Pedro, said the girl. A night job. She lit another smoke.
Inside her voice dwelled sad desperation. Born of highways and cheap motels. Truckers and backcab beds. To do what you must to cross the tangled wilds of America. To pace through the city of angels in search of blessing. A beaten remedy. Chunks of doubt.
The man sought a ship. Salvation wasn’t his to possess. His choices had ruled that out long ago but he still carried light into dim alleys of his life to see what vagrants slept in cardboard shelters of his past. Awake in the middle of the night to reach for a weapon. To grasp a gunblack savior when midnight trashtrucks hammered the dumpsters.
What kind of job, he asked the girl but she wouldn’t say. Only that it kept her alive in the terminal city. A job condemned, a vacancy filled. A dark angelthing best left unworded in the night as he pushed the old car hard for the shipyards.
They passed Pico Gardens, Boyle Heights. You and I aren’t freight trains, he said. Moving goods. And the girl blew smoke through the cracked vent window into a faithful slipstream. We’re not, she said. But I don’t know what else to do.
Come with me, he said. Why? I lied, said the man. What about? My daughter. What about her? And the girl tossed the last of her cigarette into the road where it short sparked and quick drafted onto the shoulder with other discards in the terminal city.
She tried to soothe my disease, said the man. Baptize it. But I pushed her away.
Go back to her. Explain your love.
Too late. She took a bad injection.
And now you run.
Yes, he said and swerved a lane to catch the ramp to the 710. Now I run. And he pushed the old car hard past rusted trains and concrete rivers. He pushed a final straight shot to the shipyards.
Then take me with you, the girl said and the man said yes. A ship brings relief. Release. It buries ended love and old regret at sea.
The girl nodded knowing and the night moved on down the freeway and spread into a hundred cargoed vessels on their way to a foreign coast. Bound for a port of belief that life must one day hold intent. Out past Signal Hill in the consuming rush to leave the terminal city to its death the man and girl felt the harbor lights brush their eyes and heard the sound of diesels driving props. Submerged in a sea of distant prospects they battled to stay that final breath. Lung’s betrayal or life’s reward. They pushed the old car hard. As hard as they could. Hard as they might for the shipyards.