California is like a police state now. I'm almost down to the end of my cigarette,
maybe two or three more drags, but I can't go inside; I have to stand out here in
the chill overcast morning to finish it. I walk, because I need to stay in motion,
out into the parking lot and across to Everybody's Talking, the strip club here on Santa
Rosa Ave. All the windows are boarded up and there's a sign by the door: no one
under 21 permitted inside, ID required. The place is like a goddamn militia bunker,
gunmetal gray and monolithic, out in the center of this empty lot. It's been over a month
now since I came back. I feel like a criminal. The DMV took away my out-of-state
license and gave me a piece of paper, told me to wait four to eight weeks. I can't
buy beer. Can't write a check. The woman at the supermarket looked scared when I tried
to explain all this to her, as if it were a test. She kept stalling, looking over
her shoulder. It shows my birthdate, I said, waving the paper in front of her, it
shows that I'm over 21. But you could have stolen it, she said. There's no photograph.
How do I know it's you?
All the mornings are like this: shut-down sky, boarded-up fortresses. The ground
is littered with cigarette butts from all the people before me. Traffic in the street
is constant, even at this early hour. Later today it will be dangerous to pull out
into the rush, and the sun will be hot and high. The police will be waiting in the
shade of 7-Elevens, behind billboards, windows rolled up and A/C cranked and radar
guns at the ready. I'll see the slot-machine frenzy of red, blue lights in my rearview
mirror, hear the hunting horn of the siren, and I'll slow down reflexively, though by
then it won't matter. If I'm lucky it'll be someone else they're after, a different
car, and I'll watch them pull it over onto the dusty shoulder, watch someone else
get out slowly and raise his hands over his head, and I'll think, thank god that's not me.
In the newspaper yesterday there was a story about a woman whose car was bombed.
She was an environmental activist, an important figure, led a couple of thousand
people into virgin redwood forest and chained them to trees. She lost the use of
her legs and the right side of her face. No one at work would talk to me about it. I found
a scrap of paper on my windshield that told me I was being watched. When I pick
up the telephone I hear the sound of someone else's breath. The clerk at the store
where I bought cigarettes would not look at me. At night I smell diesel fuel in the rain.
The heat in the afternoon is overwhelming. I haven't shaved for a week and two
days because I'm afraid of the razor. I'm afraid to write this, even afraid to remember
this. This place isn't the way I remember it. It didn't used to be like this.