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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Back on Hollywood Boulevard
by Mary McCluskey
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The bar on Hollywood Boulevard where Bukowski used to drink is boarded up but Jake points it out anyway. Simon looks blank.
     "The poet for chrissake," says Jake.
     Simon shrugs. He's an engineering major. Poetry is not his thing, not why he came to Hollywood. He's hanging out of the car hoping to see Gwyneth Paltrow. Jake doesn't tell him the odds of that happening. He should explain that it's the old actors that haunt the place; he feels their ghosts slinking around the Boulevard and over on Sunset. He shows Simon the mural of Marilyn and James Dean and some of the other old-time greats: Bogie, Bacall, and another blonde chick, he can never remember her name. On the Hollywood Boulevard wall, near Wilcox.
     "Cool," says Simon, handing him the joint. Jake takes a quick drag but gives it right back. Got to keep your head together driving around here. It's a friggin' suicide mission finding a parking place. He spots one, makes a fast jolt to the left. He turns the old Lincoln with a screech of gears, so as to get there before some tourist from Cleveland with his fat wife, her orange head bobbing beside him, takes the space.
     "Jesus Christ, man," says Simon, sweating. His Napa Valley middle-class nerves on edge but he's grinning like a fool, looking up and down the street, his eyes round and all sparked up, ready for the party.
     Jake loves the Boulevard. This late, it's crowded with the dress extras, the bit players, the wannabe kids. But it's Simon's first visit and Jake wants him to see the real LA, the true places. They've been to the West Side but shit there's clubs like that in Berkeley; San Fran has stuff like that. The clubs with the fine girl students, chicks with long legs, hot clothes. He wants to show Simon the underbelly. Life. The Goth club on Melrose freaked Simon but he's trying to stay cool. Jake knows it's bullshit. All these fake Goth dudes go to Cal State Northridge. The real scene is at the club they're heading to now, right on Hollywood Boulevard.
      Jake stomps the minuscule roach out on the sidewalk and leads Simon in. He swings his shoulders a bit. Two years at Cal, Simon is striding in like he's the Big Man on Campus. He's wearing his new gear; he thinks he looks cool. When he sees the others, he shrinks. Jake laughs out loud. The girls are so damn fine here. Blondes, starlets, chicks who are right here in the moment, know they belong. A few Goths, wearing serious makeup, controlled disgust flashing from their eyes.
      You need plenty of grass to walk into these places. You need to look the part. Simon has this too-enthusiastic freakin look, rubber necking round, looking for movie stars. Jake knows how to look cool, head up, contempt on your face, look like the place bores you to fucking tears.
     They lounge by the wall near the entrance. The place is dark except for the strobe lights aimed at the dance floor. It is jammed with bodies and hot. Jake swivels, nudges Simon in the direction of the bar where a girl is standing. She's leaning backwards, elbows back on the bar, breasts displayed. Her pelvis pushes out. Jake lets out a long, groaning breath. Look at that beauty: no bra, no panties. He can see right through her dress. It's some kind of chain-mail material, big open weave; you can see her breasts, the curve of her belly, shadows. Damn. His groin aches. She throws her head back as some punker with yellow hair whispers into her ear. Simon can't look away.
     "Shit, man, let's get a drink," says Jake.
     He has his fake ID in his pocket. It has fooled every barkeep and club bouncer for three months, but every time, every damn time, he sweats it. The bargirl glances at it, she probably can't even see it in this light, and brings them beers.
     "Some dude died here last summer," Jake says, to shock Simon. "Knifed."
      Simon's eyes flicker for a second, but he doesn't really believe it. Though it is nothing but the truth. Jake knows Simon thinks he's crazy. But hell he was raised here; this was his turf, before his lame-assed parents moved out to the San Fernando Valley for safety, schools, all the rest of the bullshit.
     He used to skateboard down from Argyle, straight down the hill to the Boulevard. He saw Batman at the Chinese, skated all the way, his brother behind him, and their friends from the apartment house. A posse of wild boys, dying to see that movie, they'd waited so long for its release. Good days. The family didn't have much money then. Dad had some problem with a job, but shit, they had fun. More fun than the San Fernando deadbrain Valley, for sure.
     He is thinking of this, remembering those old playmates when he looks across the room and his heart stops, because it is almost as if he's conjured him up. LeRoy. His head is shaved and smooth and he has a tiny chin beard, but it's the same face: dark chocolate skin, pitted today. And the expression is unchanged in eight years. LeRoy has recognized him, is waiting for acknowledgment. That weird smile. He's such a big fucking dude. Man. He's the same though. The same.
     LeRoy waves and crosses the room. People are looking at him. They seem to know him; a kind of nodding recognition follows his path across the club floor. He high fives Jake, then twists. Their old handshake. Jake is grinning.
     "Hey, man, wassup?" he asks. Back to street lingo, Berkeley forgotten. Simon beside him is watching this hunk of LA strangeness with bright excited eyes.
     "You looking good, man," says LeRoy. "You grown, dude."
      His mother is white, an ex-high school teacher with a crack problem and he used to talk like an Englishman. Now LeRoy talks like South Central. He's upgraded his accent Jake thinks.
     "Grown yourself," says Jake, laughing. "What you doin? You going to school?"
     LeRoy was smart. Hell, he was smart when he was eight. Skipped a grade, he was put in the special class for the gifted kids. Jake was there too. LeRoy was the only black kid.
     "No man," says LeRoy. "What I need school for? I got my music."
     Jake remembers the guitar. The songs.
     "Yeah? You keep that up?"
     LeRoy gives him a long look and some of the old humor seeps through.
     "You heard of ZT?" he asks, drawling it out. Zeee-Teee.
     Simon gives a sharp cough, alerting Jake. Of course. The rap group. He knows.
     "Hell, yes," he says, and grins. "That you?"
     LeRoy nods, his smile huge.
     "I never knew."
     "Yeah. Skeeter, also, from the old place. And Amber."
     His sister, right? The little round girl, followed her brother everywhere.
     "Over there," says LeRoy.
     Jake looks, then stares, disbelieving.
     A girl the color of a coffee ice cream, hair to her waist, almond eyes, is watching them. No expression. She is a knock out. She is also familiar. From posters, magazines, maybe TV. Something.
     He waves awkwardly and she smiles.
     His chest tightens. Remembering her running behind them through the streets of Hollywood. She came off her board so many times, her mother burned it. Her mother was stoned that afternoon, and she set fire to the board, then threw it in the pool at their apartment complex. They had all watched: staring in silent, fascinated horror that an adult could do such a thing. The manager came out yelling, threatening eviction.
     After that Amber would run behind them during their forays in the neighborhood. Boardless. Always miles behind. She had cried so hard that night, after the burning; sobbing in the corner by the pool. Jake had gone over to her, feeling awkward. Offered to let her borrow his board. It was a Tony Hawk, a good one. Any time.
     "It's not the same," she said, gulping, her breath ragged and torn. No, of course it's not the same. You need your own board; it becomes a part of you. He'd stood helpless, watching this little eight-year-old round girl, snuffling. Patted her back, clumsily. He looks at her now. Shit.
     She comes across the room. He can't stop looking at her. Nor can Simon. Everybody in the room is looking at her.
     "Hi Jake," she says. Her voice is cultured, the school teacher mom remains. No jive talk for her. "How are you?"
     "God you're beautiful," he says. He can't help it; it just comes right out of his mouth. LeRoy laughs. He introduces Simon and Amber smiles so sweetly at him that Simon blushes. She turns and waves over another girl, a black girl with long, long legs.
     "Sharon," she says. "Meet Simon."
     Sharon is wearing a black leather bikini bra and a tiny black leather skirt. She has sparkly stuff all round her eyes and a painted tear. Simon's mouth has fallen open.
     "Sit down babes," says LeRoy. It is as if he's taken over the room. People seem to gather around, pull up chairs, become a crowd. Jake glances at Simon: his friend is so excited it is spilling out of him. But Jake feels it too. They are two white boys in a crowd of black musicians in the hottest club in Hollywood. Damn.
     More beers appear at the table, then some other drinks. A joint is passed around. Then another one that has an odd flavor, a kick to it. Jake tastes it on his tongue, doesn't inhale. Who knows what is in this shit? He's beginning to feel strange. Amber is stroking his arm with long, gentle fingers. He'd like to be alone with her. The others are crowding him. He pulls her towards him and very softly kisses the side of her face. He's full of a warm all encompassing love for her, for the brave little round girl she was, the woman, almost, that she is.
     These multicultural friends. Hell, he just feels so good, so proud of being this kind of dude. She'd been impressed, Amber, when he told her about his double major, poli sci and film. Hard to pull off. Get all the damn courses in. Film usually impressed the chicks, but not this girl. "You just watch movies?" she asked, laughing. He told her about the course requirements: two languages for Christ's sake, history of film. It's no slam-dunk. She'd laughed.
     "Stuff was always too easy for you, Jake," she said. "Little straight A student."
     She hasn't forgotten, then, his elementary school reputation. He'll never live that down. She said she was modeling. That's why he'd seen her. Did a year at UCLA before some agent persuaded her to come aboard. When she's too old - in about a year, she laughs - she'll go back to school. Jake kisses her hand.
     "Brilliant and beautiful lady," he says. He feels like a poet.
      He looks at Simon. His friend looks different. He has straight blonde hair that falls over his face, pink skin, a soft petal pink, sugared icing pink. He looks like an angel, Jake thinks. A rosy angel. And this SharonÖthis black beauty with her skin against his. True beauty. The strobe lights pulse and Jake feels the pulse deep behind his eyes and low into his groin. Simon is lying back on the chair, smiling, his eyes on the girl. He takes her hand and pulls her onto his knee. She leans against him and licks his cheek. Her tongue is a soft pink snake, the tip so rosy, as rosy as Simon's cheek, blends into it. They have melded together.
     "Shit, I'm wasted," says Jake. Amber touches his hand and smiles.
     "You wanna go somewhere else?" he asks her.
     She shakes her head.
     "Not yet."
      Sharon, on Simon's knee, leans forward to sip at her drink and Jake sees both breasts, twin peaks, a warm brown with nipples like blackberry candies. He is unable to move his eyes away.
     The hand on his shoulder is black with long fingers. The nails dig in to his shoulder.
     "Sharon, kiss the little white boy bye-bye baby. Time to split."
     Jake whips around to look. Strange looking dude. Tall, skinny, mean thin face. His friends flank him. His other hand is on Simon's shoulder. Simon is still unfocused, dreamy smile, looking at Sharon
     "You don't have to go, do you?" he asks, pleading.
     "Oh hell yeah she do," says the boy.
     "Oh hell yeah she do NOT," Simon says, mockery in his voice, mimicking the accent. Then he laughs.
      Jake freezes. Je-sus, you just don't do that. Imitate some dude's accent like that. This guy is not going to like that at all. He gives Simon a warning look but Simon's attention is back on Sharon.
     The hand on Jake's shoulder tightens. Shit, it hurts.
     "This dude's an old friend, Chiller," LeRoy intervenes. "We grew up in the same neighborhood."
     "Sure you did," says Chiller. "Sharon, move baby. We're outta here."
     Sharon begins to stand, but Simon hugs his arms around her waist.
     "Hey, where you going beautiful? I thoughtÖ"
     "Move your narrow ass, bitch."
      Jake sees Simon frown, then refocus. He wants to tell Simon to get himself together, let the girl go, show some sense, but doesn't know how to say it. Not here. Not in front of these guys. LeRoy gives Chiller a level look.
     "Chill man," he says. "Chill now Chiller."
     LeRoy smiles then.
     "Heh, a song. Amber, you wanna write that one?'
     She taps on the table.
     "Chill now Chiller, no man's a killer, this is..."
     "Shut the fuck up," says Chiller. His voice is harsh, his eyes are still on Simon. Jake looks around the group. There are a lot of faces, and they are not smiling anymore
     "We gotta go anyway Simon," Jake says. "Right?" He can hear the fear in his own voice. Simon looks up at last. He nods, his eyes widening, sure, sure. Releases his grip on Sharon, finally.
     "Yeah," he says, standing, brushing at his shirt, straightening up.
      "Walk you out, dude," says LeRoy. Jake begins to speak, say you don't have to do that, but his eyes meet LeRoy's and something stops him. There's a look in his eyes, this boy from the old neighborhood, it's a warning look, but his eyes are also weary. Not because he's wasted. He looks tired. He is the same age but he could be a different generation.
     "OK. Let's go," Jake says.
     "They need pro-tection?" asks some guy behind Chiller. Then he laughs and Jake feels his blood cooling. He is not high anymore; he is not hot. All of them follow and on the sidewalk it begins, like a joke, like a game.
     First, the guy with Chiller pushes Jake a little into the road. Like schoolboys jostle each other. Nudging, pushing. Then Chiller moves towards Simon as if to nudge him. LeRoy, seeing this, slides forward swiftly, to intervene. His body is between them. It is quiet as they perform these careful moves, sliding along the sidewalk. Jake is aware of Amber beside him, strolling along, arms swinging.
     When Chiller moves towards Simon again, there is a scuffle. It is silent, a slow dance, a ballet - nothing that could cause harm. Simon stops then, stops dead on the sidewalk and turns to look at this stranger playing a game with him. The guy's 200 pounds bounce against him.
     Dominoes: Simon slams into LeRoy. LeRoy is in the street just seconds before the screech of brakes and a hard thump. It is a sound that sickens. LeRoy is hurled upwards and thrown onto the sidewalk as cars screech to a halt around them. A smell of burned rubber is in the air. Amber screams.
      Chiller and his friends move fast, running backwards, hands open at their sides as if pushing on air. Jake sees Chiller's face: it is shocked, there is fear in it. They tumble into a parked car. It is revved up and gone in seconds.
     Jake knows then, as he kneels on the pavement by his old friend, with Amber's screams in his ears, that there is more in this city, this hometown, than he understands. There is more to belonging here than just knowing these streets.
     While people shout and a woman with an authoritative attitude crouches, and others appear, he can only think that they must have gone over this place on their boards. On their way to the Spot, the skateboard shop. Or to the Chinese. Or just to skate along, just to hang. The place where LeRoy could die. For LeRoy's eyes have rolled up into his head and his body is very still, stiller than anything alive should be.
     The ambulance has arrived and a medic pushes Jake away.
     Amber is sobbing, fear edges her voice.
     "Is he all right? Please, please."
     "Move back, lady," says the medic, busy, reaching for something from an assistant behind him. They both crouch. Their hands moving over LeRoy are deft and sure.
     "Is he alive?" Amber screams. Sharon places an arm around her shoulder.
     "He's alive," says the medic, glancing up.
     Jake stands back. Simon, beside him, is perfectly still, staring at the boy on the road. A cop car pulls up, and Jake realizes now that he will have to make a statement. And after that, somehow they have to get home. He doesn't want to drive. He doesn't feel old enough to drive. He wants his dad to pick him up in the car, like he used to do. Pick them all up from the Boulevard. They'd have their skateboards in hand, pile in the car, coming home from the movies: LeRoy, Amber, little Steve, him and Robby. Get home and split up, racing into the old building. In the apartment next door LeRoy's mother calling in that high voice she had. "Le-Roy! Amber!." And his own mother calling them for dinner. He and his brother would race to the bathroom, splash, rinse, yell that they were starving.
     Jake wants it back. He wants to be able to hear his old friends through the apartment walls. It was so simple then. Friendship was simple then. He wants to rewind, then stop it right there.
     The ambulance doors swing open, and the medics hustle forward as the stretcher is pushed inside. LeRoy is strapped down, an oxygen mask attached to his face. His eyes are closed. Amber goes forward to sit with her brother. Her face is streaked with tears.
     "What's your telephone number?" Jake calls. His voice sounds weird, but he doesn't want to lose her again, nor Leroy. He needs to know what happened tonight. He needs to understand it. She quotes a number and he fumbles for a pen.
     "I got it," says Simon. Tapping his forehead. Memorized. Of course. This is one of Simon's intellectual gifts. Simon is sober now. But his face is ashen.
     Amber lifts her hand, a small gesture. Jake watches as the ambulance doors close on her frightened face.

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