by Roger Leatherwood
Walking home from the theatre starting at 11:40 at night, I’d be 20 minutes out when I passed the hillsides and into the canyon with the single four-lane connecting the suburbs, through the open land and sky that opens up over the far-off desert over San Diego county.
Singular cars drive past, a Thursday night away from downtown. Along the incountry where the railroads laid their track a hundred years ago, freight trains still run at night through here, often a dozen cars or more running empty back to terminals in LA or farther north, in approximate echoes of the freeways traced to get the commuters to the industrial center built where the water could be piped in from the bay. Inland and away.
Slow walking at night, with no buses (they’re 55 minutes apart at this time of night). To go home and only have the smell of rye and sweat, perhaps the shape of my father still on the futon couch, the TV off and a highball glass with the ice melted and his dress shirt in a ball.
Night sky horizon lined with iceplant along the hillside, I would walk off the side of the road through the dirt path where a sidewalk may one day be laid and down out of sight, ten feet below the road level. I face the far-off hills across the expanse where another road half a mile off travels slowly up towards La Jolla on the other side, marked by the occasional headlights from night trucks. And I would open my shirt and unbutton my pants, lay half naked in the iceplant open to the cold air slowly cooling and facing up at the large night. The smell of chlorophyll beneath me as I lower carefully into the low-soft greenery flattened below my knees and heels.
For ten minutes a car might come by up above, invisible and anonymous and down at the bottom of the gorge along the ancient creek a floating headlight on a freight train would weave like a low-flying UFO back and forth, weaving through the bottom of the gorge. Alone and naked in the dark I would watch it gain noise and presence hundreds of yards below and snake through the flat canyon bottom, rolling quietly and mechanically through the empty landscape, under the blind sky below my invisible body up there in the dark, in the black, on the way home, in the ivy, 20 minutes out from the Balboa intersection. Killing all the time the night holds.
The sense of place, that sense of the sun, the sense of my body and how this all interacted in a mathematical equation that was part chemistry, philosophy and mathematics first boiled and reduced at the beach. Two summers of bonfires and waves crashing harmlessly on the long strip of white beaches of upper Clairemont and Ocean Beach. Sand and bikinis and wading into the warm water and beating against the current that brought in gallons of water in ribbons and seaweed and pressure and friction as we frolicked waistdeep in soaked cutoffs and underwear and discarded shirts, the girls wearing bras or tanktops to hold some semblance of chasteness, not quite convincing.
These early formulas of sexual awakening and interactions with the female of the species outside the confines of walls or watchful parents are inflected by soda in wet bottles stuck in the sand and a single joint shared among six people, and the mysteries of nature are defined by fumblings in the fading sunlight over the sound of waves with our bathing suits running up our thighs. Sex is not the hairy groins of our youth or the throbbing porn cock. Sex is the explicit and exquisite texture of sand on her nipples, my licking around and then spitting out the salt, giggling, being pushed away. And pulled aside behind the large logs near the concrete breakwater a half hour later, for a little more. Closer but never complete, near but wait later we have all summer all the time in the world.
The most fun I had was a week of time, in the canyons behind our house, the carved gashes in the landscape between the desert and the beach region of San Diego county, where the silt filled in the bay a thousand years ago and the settlers built to take advantage of the wind and the access. Houses and small buildings lined the crests, looking over, the strip malls a block in serving each little neighborhood. Behind the large school ard the grassy hill was smooth and steep, leading down to the brush and chaparral broken into hard dirt and the creek that hid rocks slick with algae, salamanders and funny-shaped insects, rope swings and abandoned shopping carts and single car tires, jack knives and old Playboy magazines stashed in the crotches of trees.
Me and my brother found a refrigerator box down there one summer day, not a weekend or a weekday necessarily, no school and no schedule, discarded by some inconsiderate neighbor or pulled behind a bike until it flew off and down caught by the wind. It measured six by twelve, the largest single expanse of pressed cardboard we’d ever seen and when pulled up to the top of the hill behind the empty schoolyard and ridden down with two handfuls of the upper flap it slid like a stingray over the dry green grass in a fast wave of ecstasy the 60, 70, 80 feet down to the dirt path fading along the bottom.
The cardboard carpet was a magic appliance, a ski ride down the waterfall of grass and gravity, faster, longer easier than nodding off to sleep. It slid like a jet rough enough to be dangerous and smooth enough to have us not care. We pulled the board up and down 100 times in a row, 200 times, separate and together, from morning to when it got dark and came home exhausted, laughing, ravenous, bruised and ready to do it again tomorrow.
And for three days we rode the hill on the refrigerator box, all day and slowly wearing down the flaps, then the corners, the bottom side and then we folded it around to wear out the inside. Once two older kids walked up from the canyon and we stopped so they wouldn’t take our magic cardboard away. When it got dark we stashed it below the manzanita trees by the creek, up on the other side where it was out of sight and hard to get to.
And the third day, that day I remember, a Saturday, the board was gone. We looked around up and down the ravine hoping it had just been pulled a few hundred yards away by someone who didn’t know the fun of taking it up the hill but it was nowhere. And my brother and I tried to make due sliding on our stocking feet and a smaller box we found but no sheet compared to that refrigerator ride and never was a large enough piece of cardboard to duplicate it and it was the funnest goddam thing I think I ever did and nothing since, not wading in the waist-high waves at La Jolla, not drinking brandy in the cafes of Paris, not the licking or the fucking, not laying in the iceplant nude, or the mechanical movement through the canyons, filled me with such existential peace of being one with the canyon universe, in my world of nature flying free down the hill, sunlit wind, the smell of dried grass and pressed chlorophyll, on my jeans at the knees and along my hips, stained beyond repair. We went home and my mom wondered, for a moment, but her words faded in a haze of Miltown and the smell from her bedroom that reminded me of an aquarium gone to seed.
My second job was at a Jack in the Box, a typical fast-food gig most people had right out of high school or just before they were kicked out of the house and had to start dealing with gas money and replacing those shoes that were suddenly worn, unfashionable or the wrong size. The first one was a couple years before, delivering papers on a bicycle which was thankless and harder than any adult ever realized or remembered and no one got rich or fell in love. No wonder they preyed upon 14 year olds who never did it more than one season before finding better ways to kill their summer.
My shift was the graveyard, from eleven at night to six, dead of night and after dinner and before the breakfast cycles but firmly covering the bar crowd, the late at nights, the concertgoers dumped onto Midway a couple miles up and the homeless before such a thing existed in amounts large enough to notice and then to take entirely for granted.
I was at Store 13, Clairemont Mesa Blvd. along the Pacific Highway running above the beach along the inside of Mission Bay, a quiet stretch late at night surrounded by residential, built for the war. Open 24 hours but we were lucky – we weren’t near downtown or the bases or any college campus. The railroad tracks ran along the highway as well, a remnant of the settling of San Diego late in the last century and typical of a harbor town, something I wouldn’t come to realize until I was out near Kearny Mesa and walked through the canyons and lay naked in the iceplant seeing the train’s glowing eye snake through the bottom of the gorge heading from points far east, always from or to agricultural lands.
Train traffic was infrequent along the coast and only at night did long runs of freight cars seem to roll along the tracks through the area, unhindered by traffic or citizen. The lazy wooden gates with red flashing lights bobbed down at the intersections marking their passing slowly with a metallic racket that mixed the vibrating of asphalt and heavy iron like a hammer and nails wrapped in a beach towel slinkying down an endless staircase. About once a week a long train of cars would slow to a crawl across the boulevard in the dark past the grass partition and before the sidewalk and volleyball field that fronted the beach beyond. Going as slow as possible but not stopping, two engineers jumped the engine and ran across the road and into the restaurant to place an order – five of this, five of that, sodas, a couple coffees and fries and anxiously looked at the rolling train across on the tracks while we cooked it up.
There were no other customers in the store at two or three a.m. when they came by and we’d ask them where they were headed.
“Up to Sacto.”
“You’re hurrying up, can you?”
“The train isn’t stopping,” Dan, my co-worker, would point out.
“Not allowed to stop. They have the sensors.”
And they laughed with us. The train was 20 or 30 cars long, a mismatched collection of cattle cars, logging plankers with open racks, yellow and rust-colored box cars with a panoply of graffiti freckling the sides that marked the wide course of travel and provenance. Lights on hotels from across the bay reflected in the still waters past the grass. The moon was behind us, not directly visible.
“What’s on the train? Cattle?”
“Nothing. We’re rolling empty. ”
“The cars are delivered to different terminals,” the redhead explained. “They split them up. Each one gets a different load.”
We cooked an extra burger or two and gave them a whole bag filled with fries, plenty of time. “What if you don’t make it back on?”
“We’ll catch it. It’s only traveling five miles an hour.” Indeed we handed them the bags and the two workers ran back across the street to mount the train on one of the freight cars near the end. I didn’t know how they got the food to the front engine where their buddies were presumably waiting.
I got off work before the trains from the other direction early in the morning came by, this time headed south. I didn’t think about the trains again until the theatre job, another late night thing that allowed me to get out of the house during the endless midnights, filling my head with dreams from Hollywood, the dark air of the future, the chugging of progress. And teasing me with the quiet abyss of time and domesticity that stretched open into the night that in my young teenage years ached to escape, exposing my body to the cold and the trains that traveled through the landscape to parts unknown at the wrong speed, too slow to catch, too far away to follow.
Roger Leatherwood worked on the lower rungs of Hollywood for almost 20 years before returning to UCLA for his MFA and to print fiction, where at least the stories he could tell were his own. His feature “Usher” won numerous awards on the film festival circuit, and his writing has or will appear in Skive Magazine, Crack The Spine, Oulipo Pornobongo, Nefarious Ballerina, European Trash Cinema and others. His novella Times Two, a long-form memoir about the different birth stories of his two daughters, is available from Amazon. Visit his website here.
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