Road to Lodi
The woman was lying in a large wheelbarrow. Around her waist was a striped cotton
sheet. She lay face down, and I only knew that she was a woman because of her hair.
There was a row of these wheelbarrows lined up against a concrete wall, and after
I saw her I looked into each one; but all of the others were empty except for straw and
Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again.
The train tracks were to my left, running straight ahead and straight behind as far
as I could see. Just past the tracks, the ground dropped steeply into the river.
Where I walked, the grass was paperwhite and dry.
The store was cool inside. I'd never been there before--I'd never walked so far before--but
I walked without pausing toward the recessed staircase in the middle of the floor
and went down. Halfway down I saw something on one of the steps. I picked it up. It was a chile pepper, crooked and wrinkled and dark blood red. There was another
on the next step down, and another, and another. When I reached the basement I had
six or seven chiles in my hand. In the basement, crates and boxes were stacked higher
than my head, and the only light came from a bare 60-watt bulb in the ceiling.
I met my old friend there in the basement. He asked me how I liked the chiles. I
was confused. Then I remembered he had promised to give me some the last time we'd
hung out together. He seemed happy. He asked me again how I liked them. I couldn't
figure out why he'd left them on the steps instead of handing them to me, but I think
I smiled and said that I liked them fine.
"It's maybe not the best method of writing," she said, "but you really ought to try
writing in soft pencil. There's something about it that pulls you into writing more,
even though the graphite wears down quickly and you can't make the words look the
way you want them to on the page. The pencil wants to be written."
I told her that I found it difficult to write with pencils, or in any kind of longhand.
I told her I preferred to type with ten fingers because it was balanced, so I didn't
get distracted by the action of writing when I was trying to focus on the content of writing. She nodded her head and didn't say anything.
On the radio a few days ago, I heard that a man in Lodi drank gasoline, a lot of gasoline,
and then put an acetylene torch to his mouth. They didn't say what happened after
that. I thought of that Buddhist monk. I thought of the old men who wander my road during the day, endlessly walking from one end to the other, in their shabby clothes
and shuffling, falling-over walk. I thought of Lodi.
"The man was 43," the radio said.
I saw the old store where I used to work. They had just finished remodeling and the
place looked so different from when I was there. I didn't go inside, because I didn't
want to talk to people and tell them about my life since I left. It looked darker
inside. I think because of the new finish on the wood.
She told me the little white dog lapped up blood from the floor, and said that because
she was curious, she knelt and lapped some too, and then kissed the dog and tasted
the blood from its lips. She told me this so matter-of-factly.
"And then there was the time," she said, leaning back and almost starting to laugh,
"when I told the women I worked with. I told them about that. I didn't lead up
to it or preface it or try to justify it, I just told them. And I told them that
I was sexually attracted to dogs, which is true, although I prefer the larger ones. I told
them that I had sex with dogs. Five times so far, but I didn't tell them that.
There's something about dogs, something in the way they kiss. They give you full
attention. Of course, when they're having sex with you, you might as well be a box of wood
screws, but at least they're focused. And I told them this and they all just looked
at me. They didn't say anything." She tipped back her chair and cackled.
I thought of Richard Brautigan's description of the sun as a fifty-cent piece someone
had doused in kerosene and lit a match to and handed to him, saying, "Here, just
hold this for a second, I'm going to get a newspaper," and never came back. I thought
of old men sitting against the concrete wall in the shade of the overhanging blackberry
bushes, drinking port wine and gin.
Lodi was so ugly. I really think it's the ugliest place in the world. I looked at
it as I walked by, and there was nothing but ugliness. Long streets and ugly half-brick,
half-wood houses. Trash in the gutters, trash on the lawns, trash by the concrete wall, even trash under my feet. Cigarette filters and broken lighters and empty
matchbooks. Wrappers from loaves of white bread, candy bars, condoms. Pages from
direct-mail catalogs. Half-emptied bottles of peach iced tea.
I wanted to know how old she was but I didn't want to ask her, so when she got up
to go dance in the street, I opened her wallet and looked at her driver's license.
But it was in the old format, before they made birthdate and expiration date so
prominent and red-lettered, and it was an old, tattered license anyway, and I couldn't find
the year she was born. I saw something that looked like "1926", but I knew that
couldn't be right. I looked up. She was playing her violin.