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On Mateo Street

What Has Gone Missing

Sucker Punch

Ron Burch's first novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is an executive producer of a DreamWorks Animation TV show.   He is also a produced and published playwright. 

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You're drunk on Mateo Street from the cheap red wine that the gallery owners hand out in plastic cups. You were invited down here by a friend, who didn't show up, to check out an art opening that has sprung up among the abandoned warehouses and auto repair shops, near the corral for the city busses and other commercial endeavors that seem to involve large trucks. 


In the gallery thin haired men in three hundred dollar jackets and Nike tennis shoes gather in groups and drink white wine while ignoring the photos on the walls of men setting themselves on fire. You lose interest among the schmoozing and go outside, ready to go home at 9pm on a Saturday night. 


You are out of options. You are old. And you are alone.


Across the street a crowd gathers in front of another lit up doorway. You cross Mateo, dodging cars on the four-lane road, and head up the street. You pass two young women probably in their 20s, one African American in a school uniform and one with a black bowl cut in a thin dress. As you pass one says something to the other who laughs. 


Near the door, the young crowd turns to look at me as you go in. It's not a gallery; it's just a club. From behind a long black curtain you hear a band playing. On the walls are old life jackets and pieces of paper with scribbles on them. The sleeved-tattooed woman selling tickets, looks you over and asks if you're a cop. Nah, you reply, giving her ten bucks. She slides you a ticket and you go through the black curtain. 


The scene reminds you of your youth, of the original scene, of drunk misfits and oddities, of mosh pits and hammering guitars. 


You throw yourself into the pit among the young men who are staking their manhoods against each other. They look surprised to see you at first but then bang away as if you're nothing different even though you are clearly the oldest one here. There is no one else within 20 years of your age. 


As you bang into the crowd of 20-somethings, flinging themselves around to the buzz saw guitar chords, you know you're here because you don't have anywhere else to go. 


That's the truth. 


A young crew cut in a new Black Flag t-shirt and torn jeans slams into you, a leer on his face. You knock him on his ass and keep moving as his friends laugh. You swing your elbows, an old dance that you haven't done in a long time. The girl with the black bowl cut pushes her way through the crowd toward you. You see her coming but you keep moving.


She stops in front of you. What the fuck are you doing here? She talks to you as if she's your cousin or old college friend. You're too fucking old to be here, she screams to be heard above the crowd. 


And, yes, she's probably right. You are probably too old to be here but you don't know how to tell her that you don't really know that. That while your body may have aged against your will, your mind, your spirit, you interior life still feels young, and it moves to the music that moves her. 


But you know that she is basically asking you to leave. You notice that most of the kids around you are watching and that they don't want you here either. This is their place.You had your place years ago.  You are invading their private domain. That's what their looks tell you, their folded arms, and frowns. 


She stares at you, waiting for an answer. And for a second you feel guilty because maybe she is right but you reply, Fuck off, because, frankly, you don't give a shit what they think because that is one of the few gifts of age.


You move back into the middle of the mosh pit where Black Flag crew cut waits for you and as the next song starts, you head for each other, arms swinging, ears ringing from the loud feedback that happily explodes inside your head.

I let her sleep on the couch. She knocked on the door after 1am or something like that. I was asleep. I hadn't seen her in six months or so. She had worked at the same restaurant before she got fired for stealing frozen steaks from the walk-in. 


She looked pale, almost white, her hair was shaved off, discolored rusty teeth and scars, so many scars I didn't think a person could have. She could have been a ghost if she had more to her. Her eyes were sunken beneath dark circles. She was thin, too thin. I need a place to stay, she said. Help me, she said, help me.


The stories I had heard about her weren't good. She had raided her parent's house, yanked the plasma TV right off the wall, threw laptops and desktops into boxes, scrambled through jewelry boxes for diamonds and anything that seemed shiny.  Her parents kicked her out and she went to visit an old boyfriend in Europe somewhere but quickly left him, following the drug trail, fucking anyone she could for a quick rush. When the drugs ran out or the guy got tired of her, he'd kick her out and she'd sleep in the street until another guy wanted to fuck her and she could get his drugs. I had heard she'd gotten arrested in Greece for hooking but I never knew if that was true.


Let me sleep in your bed, she said. I can't, I replied. I'll make it worth your while, she said. I'm clean now, I replied. Oh, she said as if it didn't mean anything but I knew it did.  I could see her putting it together. No drugs but a place inside to stay with a push over like me. I once liked her. I once took her out on a couple dates. We had sex. She seemed kind of bored by it but it meant something to me at the time.


I'll fuck you, she said. I don't have drugs, I replied. I didn't want it to be that way. I don't care, she said, running that bony arm, clustered with blue veins, along her nose. I just need to get fucked. It's better if you stay out on the couch, I said. Do you need food? I'm not really hungry, she said. She scratched at her arms as if trying to get rid of fleas. Take a shower, I said. I'll make you something.


She undressed in the living room in front of me. Maybe it was seduction or maybe she just didn't have anything to hide anymore. The veins in her body stuck out like wires.  Her belly was emaciated, down to muscle, her public hair dark stubble. It's in there, I pointed and she stumbled in. She could have been on something. I couldn't tell. I heard the shower turn on as I went into the kitchen and tried to figure out what I had worth eating in the fridge. I microwaved some bologna and put it on the butt ends of some hard buns I had left over. 


Through the open bathroom door, I could hear her singing in the shower. When we worked at the restaurant together, after the place closed, the staff would go to karaoke and get wasted and sing songs about love and happiness. She always had a good voice.

I knew I could go into the bathroom. Take a washcloth and lather it up with soap and scrub her back and her legs, make her feel good, better than she's probably felt in awhile, soap her neck and run the soap between her legs and ass. She would like that. So would I. 


But I went out back and had a cigarette, watching the light from the bathroom window shine on the cracked cement of the small porch of this house. I heard the water shut off and I stubbed out the cigarette on the cement floor and went inside. She came out with a white towel wrapped around her mid-section, droplets of water sliding down her skin. 


I'll put a pillow and blanket on the couch for you, I said. There's a sandwich if you're hungry. I started to go in the bedroom. Hey, she said. I turned to her. You miss me?  Yeah, sure, I said and went to my bedroom, locking the door behind me.


In the middle of the night, I thought I heard the bedroom door knob trying to be turned.  Maybe there was knocking or maybe I was dreaming. I'm not sure.


In the morning, I woke up and went to the kitchen to make us coffee. Her towel was thrown on the chair but the couch was empty. My TV, just a tiny color one, was gone along with her. 


I wasn't surprised. You know what you're getting into when you open a door to something like that. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. 


I sat down at the dining room table and ate the cold bologna sandwich I had made her last night. It was still good. 

A friend of mine was fired today. He did not know it was coming nor did I. I heard about it first, to be warned, to be there for him because something like this is never easy. I waited in my office, adjacent to his office, where hours had been spent listening to him sing, listening to him do his favorite voices:  Jerry Lewis, Nixon, JFK, the icons of his youth, burned comically into his brain. 


I heard him go back into his office from the meeting, his door click shut and his office was quiet, the most quiet I have ever heard from there before, Jay, the chatterer, the laugher, the class clown and stooge, was silent and small. But before I could make my way to his place, he brushed through my door, shutting it behind him, and slowly easing his way into a chair. I'm sorry, he said, I don't mean to interrupt. He looked tired even though it was still early in the morning, still early before the onslaught of the day's trouble, of crises and meetings, of concern and fear, of ways to keep us on edge and hungry. It's okay, I said. I know you know, he said in a low whisper, leaning on the long desk. 


He asked me why it happened but I didn't have an answer. I was not informed myself as to the reason why but only told that it was happening. There was no reason, no cause, nothing as far as I knew. What did I do? he asked but more to himself than to me sitting across from him. He looked like a man who realized that his boat was sinking and knew he had left the pump on the shore. I have two kids in college, he said, my wife is sick (this I didn't know), my house isn't paid off, what the fuck am I going to do? He ran a fleshy hand over his bald spot, moving hair that wasn't there before crunching his head between his two meaty fists as he stared down the table. 


What did they tell you? he asked again but I didn't have an answer. I shrugged and looked out the window, here up on the 24th floor, overlooking the green hills and irregular houses perched on them. He still stared down at the desk. 


This is how it is when life sucker punches you. When that thing, whatever it is, flies out of the corner and lands on your back and you did not expect it. You are not prepared and you are not willing. You twist and turn to shake it off but there it hangs like a heavy gargoyle, weighing down on you and making you feel foolish at the same time. And you realize that this thing has been sitting in the dark corner for awhile. You could make it out sometimes in the dark or when it moved slightly, you could see it on the periphery but you didn't know if it would ever strike, if it would venture out at the command of another to take you. You did not allow yourself to be afraid because there is so much fear now in this world. It is manufactured and built and shined up like a brand new car that they park in front of you so you can see it. So you can fear. They advertise it freely, boldly, and we cower to it yet at the same time want to be part of it. Want to get into it so we can be united with the others in our world who barely hold back the fear, who can't even dare to look in that dark corner for what they might think they see and not forget. 


And here it was, this gargoyle, with garish eyes and sinewy limbs that were stone and not stone at the same time, with its arms around my friend Jay squeezing him and squeezing him until he didn't know what to do and he looked to me for help. I could see it in his eyes, help me, but I didn't know what to do. I wished I could have taken that thing off his back, to beat it down to the floor senseless, to free my friend but I didn't have that power.


Instead, I cooed words into its ear, its monstrous head tilting at my voice, his dark eyes narrowing as saliva dripped down its chin, this brute of a beast, its hands gripping my friend tightly as I whispered into its ear and the beast released its grip slightly and Jay could breathe again and while I could not knock the thing off my friend I did what I could and gave him some hope, some belief that it would get better and he would not have to carry this beast on him for the rest of his life and I wish I could have done more, I wish I could have made him feel better, to let down a friend is to let down yourself, or so it feels, and he nodded and said, Yeah, we'll have drinks sometime and I nodded even though I knew it would never be true as and then it hit me. This will eventually happen to me here.


Jay stood. I better call my wife, he said. Yeah, I replied and he crossed to the door, opening it quietly, disappearing around the corner into his office next to mine, his door, clicking tight behind him as he faced this thing on his own and I dared not look behind me.

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