The Natural History of Asphalt:
A San Fernando Valley Suite
Cover Photo. Layers of the San Fernando Valley, 2013. © Jean-Paul deGuzman
I coast through green light after green light: Sunday, and the San Fernando Valley is a plain of empty parking lots, with the Tongva gone, bones beneath the macadam. Their women of ochre-smeared faces dance and feast in the underworld. Their men hunt ghost deer. All the juniper-berries they desire. All the yucca and jackrabbit. While passing Our Lady of the Holy Rosary on Vineland, I imagine the merciful wood which bleeds, as incense fills the stucco architecture. I am driving deep into the Valley on a sunflooded morning, and as I pass the neighborhoods and boulevards, I read the blue placards and street signs that, like a eulogy, vainly reassure the dead with praise and commemoration: Pacoima, Cahuenga, Tujunga…
This motel room I rent is where I boil Top Ramen on a kitchenette’s stove. This is where I sit reading Ritsos and his doxology: praise the sun that cannot be burned. Nightfall, I pace the room: the television newscaster recites the daily famine and fads with the encouraging pitch of a Pilates coach. Hours later, I pull back the sheets, and I stretch out in bed. This is the room with a red door, where every night I struggle, as my Mistress of Insomnia mounts me, pins my arms in between her thighs, then stitches my eyelids open, thread spooled from embers, needle chipped from ice.
It so happens I’m fed up with being a man. We’re boxed in at the corner Pupusería where no one eats the fried cassava or tortillas stuffed with pork rinds; instead, we drink beer, our paunches pregnant with ulcers, cirrhosis and debts. I look at them as they enter dressed in their work uniforms, eyes bleared from the previous night, hands blackened, callused from changing tires, setting cinder-blocks, washing dishes spotted with the grease of steak dinners. Besides the ten or twelve hours of eating shit, no one rinses his mouth with water. The waitress doesn’t look me in the eye as she walks from table to table, setting down bottles, retrieving empty ones. Her breasts have swelled these past weeks; she seems disgusted with the whole affair. The men laugh, offer to trim her bush, give her a lube-job, they praise her asset, so she retreats to the kitchen where the chat with her mother-in-law is an escape from the clicking billiard balls, the men bragging and gesticulating at the soccer match on the television. I get up to piss and, teetering above the urinal, I stare at my prick as it spurts a warm gush; it’s nothing formidable, and I wonder what it would be like to have an aperture into the heat of me, to bleed or weigh the heaviness inside, while the men careen on their commute to minimum wages. What would it be like to stuff the notepad into my apron and walk back into the kitchen? What would it be like to look another woman in the eye, far from the men drinking and discussing trifles?
I find peace in the junkyard behind the motel; although the sky is a hard azure, a breeze rises and dissipates the heat. The patter of paws, as a cat scurries over the hood of a Cadillac and leaps atop the cinderblock wall. The breeze gathers momentum, and the poisonous bushes rattle, a beer can rolls over the weeds along with a sheaf of newspaper, and the chassis of a dozen junked American models from the 60’s and 70’s commence squeaking, as if stretching their corroded frames for one instant. I close my eyes, feel wind rush through me, intuit the paved solitudes it will speed across, leaving this chaparral and dust a brief caress, a truant feather of felicity.
It knocks me out of bed: an earthquake, like a tumbling of roughrocks down a canyon, a spitfire of magma and lightning that spewed forth the tarantula and rattlesnake. The room wobbles, plaster and beams bend, nearly snapping. And then it stops with a clanging of pipes. I am forsaken like a bastard, and air scalds my lungs. Sprawled on the floor, I want to recall where I became enamored with dust when the orchids and pollen of my boyhood are still fragrant in my dreams, but I can’t hear myself think because the car-alarms puncture the night, and the sirens beckon me…
From the dust path behind the lodgings, the motel urchins shout. After flushing the toilet, I look through the bathroom window. They have found something neither spoor nor afterbirth nor carrion. I slam the front door and walk behind my lodging. With sticks they poke at the meat-clump shivering in gelatinous aftershocks like a beached jellyfish; some of the brats kick up dust with their sneakers or spit filaments of mucus on it. The children have encircled the glob and they ignore me as I peer over them. It is a clench of coiled fibers and purplish rills of flesh, one meshed within the other. I pick up a twig as well, shove myself between two children, and commence prodding the flaps and bloody pocks in order to see if it might reanimate. The boys and shrieking girls around me compete for chances to puncture the pulp, as if it were a piñata; this continues for a minute until the commonsensical grandmothers and cousins who care for the children enter the path and shout at them to come back inside and eat supper. I remain on my knees. Because of the children, the thing is dust-clotted and grayed with a splattering of dark crimson splotches. A moment later, twilight finds me slapping dust from my pants as I stretch and turn back to my lodging with my left palm, which clutched the twig, still trembling.
A sudden cold-front, yet it’s Sunday, and the screen doors are wedged open with a case of Bud. I sit on the two steps in front of my motel room. Left alone, the women nap, and a few boys thrash a soccer ball in the parking lot while their fathers and uncles drink and listen to accordion ballads on a truck stereo. A neighbor whistles, and I walk over, crack open a can he hands me and thank him. His barbeque is ablaze, and sweat stings my sight of a crow circling overhead, cawing three times. A youth hands the father a bag of meat marinated in citrus punch. Slabs sizzle as he spreads them across the grill. Within ten minutes, we’re ripping strips with tortillas, clinking emptied cans into a Glad-Bag. Tomorrow is not forgotten, but the heat is numbing, and our eyes are so red that the final ash is not discerned in the smoke weaving its phantasmagoria.
In my dream of crumbling teeth, I spit them out as sleep asphyxiates me. I finger gums jagged with slivers like brick enclosures barbed with bottle shards that protect the wealthy in the sweltering tropics. When heat rips me awake, I hear the police helicopter’s flak-flak-flak, and the walls shudder as a search beam stabs the darkness, then departs. I lick my teeth,--whole, unscathed. My room is a murky temple where no vowel opens to a conflagration. My questions sound like a rock plummeting through water and knocking at another rock on the riverbed: Is this the dream of financial insolvency? Omen of prolific disease or drought? Of a cot where fever grinds my teeth into relics kaleidoscopic of blear and erosion…a sleep in smithereens?
My tongue like leather, I stumble into the Pentecostal Templo de Dios. Sunday. Conflagration of noon when summer etiolates the paint on these stucco liquor stores and laundromats, and chaparral on the foothills hunkers in for the fire-season. The sound-system crackles with the howls of rapture, as the preacher swats at the humidity of women and children with a crimson bible. The mothers are plump with estrus and the honey of the vowel that opens as the preacher, sweat-glazed and straining, shrieks ¡Aleluya! No one notices me, shivering and pale. No one, but the preacher who spreads his wing-span and commands: Vení…vení, pue’…. One matron bumps into me, and commences to rotate like a cumbersome gas planet. Another begins to babble. Infants, dozens of them, are wailing in the arms of their mothers who shake them in order to cast forth the first light. I kneel, collapse face up. Tambourines rattle awake as my tongue slithers, my gullet unleashing a hundred colors.
Sapling, burgeoning in dust, in a red season of brush-fires: you’re like the children who live in this motel, families of three or four pent up in lead and asbestos, sturdy and unkillable, who shriek and send the crows scattering, and thrash the soccer ball about the parking lot; they grow sinewy, stretch to their full stature only to regard the arid tar-plains, the junkyards where nothing grows, where the horizon opens like a drawn-out yawn.
The bell rings as I open the door; two men dressed in overalls are getting their checks cashed from the Syrian owner; each is holding a twelve pack of Bud. Laughter and boasting will crackle as they sit drinking in a truck in an apartment building parking lot, listening to norteño ballads. I walk to the glass doors humming from refrigeration; my holdings, five dollars. My aim, to slake this thirst that has bludgeoned me since coming back from the Work-Source Center. The heat has been unbearable; nothing has burgeoned from my efforts, from the long lines and paperwork. I leave the door open for a couple of minutes, letting the cold air glaze my reddened forehead, until the owner whistles, and gestures: You buying or what? I pull out two tall cans, pay for them, and walk into the scalding dusk. In the Liquor store parking lot, the two workers have already ripped open a twelve pack. Faintly, from the truck stereo: an accordion, a guitar strumming chord changes in 3/4, and an out of kilter singer numerating revenge and betrayals. A dusty wind rushes across the parking lot, and I look up in perfect silence at the constellations, sense the vastness, the fossilization of dead light, and new water on Mars. I sit, my back against the store wall. One streetlamp crackles faintly. Two yards from me, I notice a vacant lot, and while I take a sip, I see the ant-crawl, the swarm and Pollockesque tracery of black lines and swirls by the mound: persistence, labor so perfect because it is conducted with equanimity. And I sit here, engrandeured in the belittlement of myself under the moon and the wind. Beneath the ants.
I listen to chaparral, to its convocal of flame and dry eastern winds. Rustle of tarantula disturbing the prickly undergrowth, stridulation of crickets, ash coating shrubs as sky darkens to gray then to red.
Chaparral reminds me that poets must burn their poems every so often, as lovers must violate their promises, only to renew them with ardor. I await this immolation the way others wait for rain. The stucco homes, the documents and photographs framed and perched above hearths swirl up in blazes.
There is a dryness now in the air as summer ends. Somewhere, in Pacoima, on the hills above Cahuenga or Tujunga, an older stand of chaparral is embossed with its flammable secretion.