Cecelia Chapman

Noon at the top of Hill Street, shadows crawl at my feet. Crows watch a one-eyed cat tease a snake dragging its skin down into the valley. Down to train tracks slithering through bruised yellow haze towards purple mountains. Down to three motorcycles screaming on a shadowless highway. Vultures riding heat waves over fist-size rocks, scrub brush, scorch marks everywhere. Straight down the backside of Hill Street to the four-house oasis below, to a dead-end street almost black in shadow in the sizzling white-out of the valley floor. There are moments when you feel it might be bad to be somewhere, but you know it is better than where you were before.

"...got your message...isn't this Richard's number? There's one apartment right now, furnished. Drive to the end of Hill Street. It's behind the white house in the garden. Door's open, keys by the sink. Bring the rental agreement in after the fourth. The landlord lives in the green house, but call the office if you need anything. Or me. I hope things work out... with Richard anyway..."

Exotic trees and tall palms throw rippling shade over the bottom of Hill Street. A faded green house and a bleached-white-as-bones house face each other, between them a pink house and peeling lemon house. Garden engulfs the cottage-apartment behind the white house. Fruit and nut tree orchard out back. Old trees plunge sideways into State Park gully border. Animal tracked ravines reach up to scorch-marked, flat-topped hills. A man walks down the street with a pregnant girl in a long lace dress. She starts to turn into the pink house.

The man stopped her, pulling roughly on her arm, she tripped.

I coasted to the bottom of Hill St., stopping in front of the white house. Beside it the pink house garage yawned open, big pillows stacked to the ceiling of the back wall. Bat-like hammocks hung on the porch. Green house melted into garden where boys' voices argued with a woman. She told them what to do and there was silence. A girl in a fringe vest sat on the steps of the yellow house. She waved, a long languorous wave, revealing she wore nothing beneath her vest.

Four hours ago...canceling morning plans on my husband's cell phone when I can't find mine because I want to stay a while longer in bed with him and finding the message 'Rickie bby got yr gift on cll me' ...packing, taking the sleeping Richard's phone outside on the street where I am calling in sick to work, and feeling so shaky I think I might be sick, calling a friend who rents apartments, leashing the dog. Leaving.

The cottage-apartment was cool, clean, one large room. When I looked in the bathroom mirror to see if I was the same person, and what my face looked like in this state of mind, I saw the girl in the lace dress holding a cherry pie standing in the doorway behind me.

"Welcome... " She handed me the pie. "I live in front, I'm Nikki, you're Kara? ... I love this little place." Nikki moved from window to window, to kitchen counter to sofa-bed talking in a doll-baby-whisper, sporting only turquoise shorts under an antique lace dress with torn edges, as if spider webs fell onto her skin. "I love it here, but we're moving into the city. Roger's running for district supervisor. His best friend, Ben lives in the green house. You should see Ben and Marg's house. It's decorated perfect. Marg's an artist. I want to be like her. Rog and me, we'll have a really nice house, lots of kids, he'll be mayor or even governor, maybe president. That's what he wants. Where's your husband? A circus family lives in the pink house. They go on tour a lot. Their friends rented the yellow house. They move in today too! Someone's been starting fires everywhere, Ben called the police. We're having my twentieth birthday party in three weeks and you're invited! Take all the fruit you want from the garden...come over anytime... "

I give my dog water, then lie down on the bed. I pull off my wedding ring. Rolling a thin cigarette of herb, I think about who 'me' is, I think, 'Do I have the face of a person everyone tells everything to? Why did I introduce her to my new husband?' And I think about how I saw it coming, screaming at me, like the three motorcycles down the highway. I see the newness of marriage trapping me, the role engulfing me, absences alarming me, my indecision solving my confusion. And I pass into uneasy sleep.

Until a giant wasp sat on my head. But when I opened my eyes there was no wasp. My dog was barking by the fence and would not listen to me. So I went out into the garden, where I saw a spaceship behind the pink house. It looked like a giant tea ball strainer and sounded as if three mad wasps were trapped within.

A fast woman in red leather short pants and work boots leaps into the garden, gold-streaked braid blurring around her. The buzzing stops and three men in leather jump out of the spaceship dropping bikes behind them. She snaps the whip at the fence, at me, where I stand watching, "Soooooooooo.... you like the Globe of Death?"

"I thought..."

Flicking all the braided rawhide into her hand, she introduces herself, "Carla." She is dignified. Like a very old man she is wearing a starched khaki shirt tucked into her shorts just so. Then pointing to, "Mingo, Coco and Che a sus servicio!" Carla shakes her head, braid twitching like a wildcat tail on a stalk. She jumps and twists in mid-air. Laughing she runs out of the garden to the front street where I hear the voices of their arriving friends .

The yellow house porches are huge empty stages filling with people who hang hammocks and stretch out on mats and pillows. Folded across tables in the driveway, old men watch me unpack my car, cigarettes in knotted fingers, surrounded by smoking barbecues, boiling pots, guitars, mounds of leather, burlap sacks, horses, hay.

Women cook. The girl in the fringe vest is flinging herself through the tables. As she is wiping them down, arranging the chairs, the fringe twists out leaving an image-trace around her. Naked children run through the tables with baby rabbits, pieces of ribbon tied in their hair flutter behind them. Nikki passes by, now a crimson thong under her lace dress, laughing with a tall bare-chested young man shouldering a poncho, surfboard, and pack. Three dogs trail him.

Back at the cottage I find a barefoot man in hacked jeans peering in the door.

"Hey there, I wasn't sure if you moved in. I'm looking for Nikki! I'm Roger."

"I saw her down the street..."

Roger leans in the doorway, rubber fox-eyes sliding all over, around, the room, my ring-finger, me. He watches me, then walks past me, into the apartment, his hand grabbing my waist, as if he has known me for years, pulling me towards him, his body hard against mine. He does not offer to carry anything.

"I don't like Nikki just wandering around, she's very pregnant... So what's brought you to Eden? Kara, right? If you need anything let me know." He walks through the tiny apartment glancing at my few belongings, and immediately I see that I do not really interest him, but still, he looks at me as if he would sit down on my sofa-bed and tell me everything about himself. "I teach in the college in the morning and work in a law firm in the afternoon, sometimes late, but Nikki is always in the house. I guess they told you...Ben and Marg live in the green house. They have three boys and a little girl. Let's talk later, maybe have a drink, come on over... Tonight? Great." And he returns to the doorway, as if that is the safest place for him to be, in a place where he can enter and leave quickly, and he disappears, like a chameleon, into the garden.

Leaving the apartment, I walk out into the orchard. From there the apartment seems a fairy-tale cottage in a lush garden mirage, trembling, quivering in heat waves, maybe all that's left after an apocalyptic nuclear blast. Two red-head boys with back-packs and boxes run past me leaping the gully. Roger dog-trots behind the girl in the fringe vest. A man in speedos runs through the orchard. A couple lay smoking cigarettes on a mat under low oaks.

And coyotes lay too, nearby, disinterested in man, but aware, in the sandy bottom of the creek. One yawns at me, ears turned out like a bird. One scratches his back on a bush, feet scrambling in the air. Another signals his friend and they all look up at my dog in the same moment. Then my dog falls into the gully, rolling over and over, crashing all the way down through bush to the bank of the creek, falling into the shallow water, chasing the coyotes away. When my dog thrashes back up the bank with half a rattler's body, the tail, hanging from his mouth, I check him for marks and can't find any. I throw the cell phone into the creek and walk back.

When the third visitor knocks I try to hide in the bathroom.

"Hello. You're Kara? I'm Marg. Welcome. It's nice in here. Have you seen Roger... or Nikki? I saw Roger's car..."

This was the voice I heard telling the boys what to do. A kitten face, red-lip voice. The white, silk halter-top strained to do its job. I didn't say that I had seen Roger dog-trotting in the orchard, I was getting tired and wanted to be alone. But it seemed nothing I wanted was going to happen that day and the day was not over.

"Hi Marg, have you seen Nikki?" Leaning in the doorway, Roger grins, he seems dusty, his shorts brushed with loose dirt.

Marg wrapped her hand around Roger's arm. They left without another word.

A few minutes later my fifth visitor stood at my door.

"OK, Carla here! Ola!... I am looking for Roger. You seen him? He been saying he want to come tonight and talk to new voters! You come! You like this dress? Big invitation to all peoples here! Dance, music, especial food. You like the Globe of Death? Tomorrow Masters Family Circus! Three ring! Big top for Santos! I have especial whip act with Senor Masters... You come, you my guest, you get in free...bring Roger, tell him I come here! Bye."

I watched her walk all the way out of the garden, braid swinging to a rhythm I didn't know any more. Suddenly the thought to cut my hair possessed me, and I cut it to its roots with five snips. Seconds later a bear-man peered in my door growling.

"You moved in! I was looking for Carla..."

"Carla was just here..."

"I'm Ben. How do you do? You cut your hair?"

"I'm Kara. Your accent confused me..."

"British and Southern schools. I hardly grew up here..."

"...it is a beautiful garden you..."

"...my parents. They traveled, collected plants."

"Why the name 'Black Cat Ranch'...?"

"Gran-Daddy Ben heard talk about a black jaguar being out here. He knew there was water. He was a seer, a prophet, he could find water anywhere. When he found this spring he spent all his time developing the orchard and grounds. Tore up a lot of old oaks, under everyone an Indian skeleton. They just sat down and died under the tree. Daddy Ben spent all his time re-designing the houses between trips, painting, putting on porches, trim, he built the pool and the house gardens. Life is about flowers and fruits, I have four children, one for each house when I pass on. Hope you like your stay here, we call it Eden. There's a fresh spring-water pool behind the yellow house, filled automatically early morning." He held up keys. "I told Carla I'd give her the pool-house keys."

Later, under a hot-pink sunset, I rearranged my luggage in my trunk. While thinking that in the morning I would decide if I would stay there, I heard the bear-growl voice and the red lips voice in the pink house garden.

"I don't care what you do, Ben, get rid of them!"

"Marg, you can't just turn around and tell real estate how to do their job. When Daddy Ben died you said you didn't want to handle the house rentals remember? ..."

"I don't want those... people, those children, around my children. Your baby daughter is running around in the street with naked children carrying dirty animals they barbecue! Yesterday Bobby told her to run through the orchard so he could get a bead on that mountain lion! Your son used her like bait! He quit his job weeks ago. He's roaming around the hills sleeping out in the open with a poncho and the dogs, or surfing all the time on the coast. When he's here he hangs around Nikki all day... And the twins are running around with those homeless kids living in the parkland, probably smoking pot. Do you want that? If you don't do something I'm leaving with the children to go to mother's. ...and that family in the yellow house..."

"They're old friends of the Santos... They paid three months in advance. That's your trip to Europe, so you won't even be here..."

"...the PTA is meeting here for lunch tomorrow to talk about the new school designs! Look at the street! Why can't they rent those houses to people who don't live and eat on the street, and send their children to school, clothed children, and I can communicate, speak the same language..."

A firecracker sizzled. Startled, embarrassed, I locked my trunk quietly and started to move away. A boy grabbed my hand and dragged me into the lemon house where people offered me food, soup. They showed me around rooms lined with packs, hung with hammocks, filled with luggage, tools, cooking pots, guitar cases, sleeping bags, more pillows. Then I found a dark corner and drank something that tasted like mezcal, wood chips and very fine tequila. Children on errands ran through the crowd in endless loops. Many guitarists and one violin played. Che sat in a corner with three old men. He looked up at me, he held a guitar.

The music affected me deeply, too many things had happened in that day. I started, turned to leave. But I was stopped, completely, by the sight of an exquisite flamenco dress. Red polka-dot chiffon, laced low down the back, ruffles fluttered with every breath the dancer took. Children were twirling around the dancer while the dancer talked, touching the ruffles, like butterflies around a flower. It was Mingo, roses tied in his oiled ponytail. Behind me I heard a tussle, the girl in the fringe vest hissed. Carla said loudly, "She keeping her hands all over him. I seen her in the trees. This not good for me. I asking what she thinking she been doing..." I left very quietly and tried to sneak past Roger and Nikki's house. But Roger sat on the porch, waved me in, and poured me a glass of scotch. Nikki finished her phone conversation.

"Yes Daddy, I went yesterday. I'm fine, the baby's fine. We're looking at apartments in town. Rog will have an office and I can have a baby room. Rog! Rog! Daddy says he bet it all on you! Daddy says when he comes back he'll celebrate with you and Ben!! When are you coming back? Oh. Say hi to her. Have a good honeymoon. Bye, Daddy, bye, your baby still loves you!"

Nikki showed me their wedding pictures in a gold-edged leather album like a printed book. Roger talked of his political plans with an eagerness that dismayed me, exhausted me, I was tired and said goodnight.

Crossing the yard to my apartment I heard the whip snap and Carla yell, "You been going after him. You, my frien' for many years. You stay away... you run like crazy, or..."

When I shut the cottage door a few minutes later I saw Roger slumped in his chair on the porch. The house was dark, then I heard the white house front door close. I fell into bed without washing or brushing my teeth or even changing my clothes. The dog had found his spot to lie and slept there. But I never really fell asleep. I lay tumbling in thoughts, rolling, sliding dangerously out of control, then veering madly, painfully, at many targets in my mind for an hour.

When smoke made my eyes water I jumped to the window, the shed behind the pink house was in flames. Cries came from the Globe of Death. Coco and Carla ran into the garden but couldn't get close to the globe. Mingo sprayed the globe with the garden hose. Garden lights went on. Women rushed in with blankets to beat the fire. And then all the people from the two houses surrounded the shed with water buckets and hoses. A police car wailed down Hill St. The girl in the fringe vest pushed through the crowd, ran up to the globe and pulled at the door with her skirt covering her hand. She fell back as it swung open, one of the small boys ran in and carried out the little girl. Marg grabbed her daughter. Nikki, disheveled, distraught, stood next to Bobby, who had a wild look on his face. Roger, standing near me, stared at them.

All at once we saw the fire, a flaming beast, jumping and pawing its way up the State Park ravine, flames licking over everything. Ben was yelling at the twins standing with their backs against the police car. I heard more sirens. The fire raced down the hill and leaped across the gully, onto the tree tops. When it tried to climb onto the houses the people stopped it with their blankets, hoses, and buckets.

Ash fell like snowflakes when I felt a forearm wrap across my upper chest. Swift as a snake, light as a bird. In the language of the body I felt spared a thousand words.

"Gringa, you cut your hair. No more men? Like a Madre de Dios? Come, we go into the fire together, that fire is dead." Che pulled on me, back towards the cottage, through the garden. And I followed.

The sound of helicopters woke me to my first morning at the end of Hill St., State Park hill was black with char that lay across the valley.

Cecelia Chapman lives in Northern California where she examines the way we think and live, and the human hunger for adventure, mystery and illusion in text, video and image.

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