A bullshit name on purpose. I spoke her name in our dryer moments to make Chloe fake jealous, because she knew Lala personally and had in fact concocted the name.
“Lala would’ve scooted over here five minutes ago to kiss me.”
“Scoot over here if that’s what you want,” Chloe said.
“Lala wouldn’t say that.”
“I would.” I moved closer by half a cushion. On the TV, a starlet cocked a revolver. “I’m going to kill you now,” she said to her star leading man in top hat and tails.
“You won’t, Gloria my darling,” he said. “I won’t let you. I love you, Gloria.”
Gloria swayed across the dark-papered Paris hotel room, swinging her hips starlet-like, and raised the barrel to his brow. “How much?” she said. “How much do you love me?”
Chloe said, “Let him eat lead. No calories in that shit.”
“This much,” he said, opening his arms, smacking her hand. The picture cut to a slow-motion track of the spinning airborne gun. The man’s hand reached into view, caught it by the grip, and—wide shot—aimed at his Gloria.
“Damn bitch hesitated,” Chloe said. “Never hesitate, bitch.” Chloe’s script would have read: Man confesses his love. Man eats machine gun lead. Three thousand holes. Pop-pop-pop-pop.
Gloria laughed as the man squeezed the trigger. Pop-pop. Pop. “Blanks,” she said. “I know you too well. Now, let us dispense with this diversion.” He backhanded the gun through the open veranda door. “Honey, you still get to me,” and they smooched through the fade-out.
“Bitch,” I agreed, and clicked off the TV with the remote. “The last thing I said to her… to Lala, is ‘Do you enjoy being an asshole?’ I didn’t mean it.”
Chloe said, “Enough.” She’d already begun to jam her feet into her hiking boots. She kicked out one of the coffee table’s legs, the one already broken a dozen times before, delivering magazines to the floor, and she hiked out the door. She revved the engine a few times, then backed out fast, chirping the tires. The tank was half full. If she pleased, she had enough gas to drive between the Sahara and Tropicana well into the afternoon.
I called Lala’s unreal San Diego number so it would show on our bill. A recording said the number was no longer in service or I had dialed incorrectly, please dial again. I tried five more random 619s until someone answered. “Lala,” I said. “It’s me. Thinking about you.”
“Sounds nice but.”
Into a gym bag I stuffed two days’ ration of clean clothes, called for a cab, then called the cab company again, told them to pick me up instead at Mel’s Pub and Mini-Casino, because if Chloe came back, if she’d changed her mind about going, and found me packed… I dropped my phone conspicuously on the couch and walked the three blocks to Las Vegas Boulevard then four blocks west, to Mel’s. Heat rose from the pavement, inducing fifty floor casinos to shiver. Window AC units buzzed white noise in cheap rooms. A man watched me from a dozen flights up. When he lifted his arms, stretching to the top edge of the window, I waved to him because I thought he was waving to me. Then his shirt rose off his body, magic or illusion, over his head, slowly, levitating up and up. As he closed the curtain, I caught sight of a woman behind him folding the shirt.
At Mel’s, I sucked in the cool, smoky air—no oxygen pumped in here—and, understanding the obstacles I’d created, bet my only hundred on red. A loss would have sent me home. I won and had an ice water before the cab came, honking.
“Drive slow,” I said to the driver. “Need a minute to think about chasing after Chloe.”
He adjusted his mirror to catch my eyes.
I said, “I need a minute to think about her. I tried to lose all my money, so I could quit.”
“She’s perfect, kid.”
He could’ve been my age, qualified to comprehend bullshit. “Sorry. I’m feeling lucky at the Palace today. Almost my lunch break. Got to get you there quick.” He made a dice-shaking gesture.
“Then drive like lightning, sir. And good luck to you.”
“Same to you, kid.”
I bought a ticket to San Diego.
The bus was mostly filled with serviceman and seniors retiring back to mobile homes. To keep the sun from hitting me directly when we started west, I picked a pair of empty seats on the left side. To keep stragglers from sitting with me, I dumped my bag in the window seat. Opposite mine, on the right side of the bus, a father and daughter sat silently, weary with budget travel. The father, eyes closed, looked fatigued, like he’d been drinking all morning, even with the kid to care for. The girl, in the window seat, wore white jeans with Peace patches over both knees and pink-framed eyeglasses with flip-up sunglasses. She had short, straight blonde hair. Her T-shirt said, “I lost it all in Las Vegas.” She shared her seat with a stuffed bear, Circus Circus embroidered into its belly.
When she smiled at me I said, “How’re you doing, miss?”
“Fine. You?” She flipped down the sunglasses with her middle finger. She might have been seven or eight.
The father opened his eyes.
“How’d you do? You win?” I said.
“Came out even,” he said. “But she cost me fifty to win that bear.” He closed his eyes again, like he had been talking in his sleep, neither amused nor disappointed.
“I like your T-shirt,” I said to the girl.
“Don’t. It’s dumb.” She went to staring out the window. I did the same, wishing for Chloe. Lala would not make me ride in this, I thought. I watched the desert dash by. Yucca yucca yucca.
I woke with the girl in my window seat, my bag dropped to the floor. I’d slept two hours, Barstow now minutes away. “You’re a heavy sleeper,” she said, sunglasses up. “I kept saying ‘Hey’ but you kept sleeping. You drool, too.”
“I dreamed about you and didn’t want to wake up, even with the embarrassment of spittle. You’re apparently very, very interesting.”
“You don’t know me.” The stuffed bear had been left in her vacant seat. The father slept on, open-mouthed.
“I know plenty. Your bear told me everything in my dream.”
“Like what? Huh?”
“Like, let me see. Like you live in a beige L.A. condo with purple gargoyles, and your dad over there is a trillionaire who busses you all over America to all the greatest cities, like Las Vegas and Dodge City and Boise and San Juan Capistrano and Missoula. And your mom is the Princess of Canada, so she’s always doing her royal duties and can’t go on these trips. And you, miss, are the shortest woman Vegas has ever seen. And they’ve seen plenty. You know? You are the shortest person anyone has ever seen.”
“I’m not that short.”
“Are too, don’t argue. And the bear is so happy to have you as a traveling companion he wants to kiss you.”
“Ohh.” She climbed across me and reached past the father for the bear. She bumped him but he didn’t stir. Standing in the aisle, she kissed and kissed the bear, crushing its face to hers, making big smacking sounds.
An old lady turned in her seat. “You cute little girl.” The girl gave her a savage stare as she sat with me again.
“Old bag,” I whispered.
“No kidding. What’s a gargoyle?”
“A fake monster that protects you. You got any cards?” I said.
“Don’t gamble. Too young,” quoting the father, I assumed.
Our bus eased off the interstate in Barstow. “Look where we are. Barstow. I think I’ll get off here for the day.”
She squeezed my arm, anxious like I’d told her for real I had rats in my bag. “That’s a bum. Well, what else did the bear say?”
“In your dream, dunce.”
“The bear. Yes, the bear, madam. He said your name is Gloria Hawaii… and Geometry Botch is his name. However, I suspect he may be using a nom de plume.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’ll allow that pronunciation. Anyway, Geometry Botch said he’s king of all the universe, except for the larger Canadian provinces which legally belong to your mom. This is okay by him; he’s not a lover of tundra or hockey. And he said you’re his frightfully witty and short—don’t interrupt—supershort companion from Venus, and you two have extra adult-looking heads on your spaceship. You use this spaceship to sneak into casinos near the Big Dipper, where the Intergalactic vice squad doesn’t hassle you. You pop your brains into these heads and pop them on your neck. Pop pop. And you gamble for years… since years in Big Dipper Standard Time take about three Earth hours. But you know that? Well, one time Gee-Bo, as his friends call him, said you won so much cash you danced up huge storms, and your knees spun and your fake heads spun but didn’t come off. They spun like tops. Everyone got so mad at you because you made a billion black holes. They chased you, but you got your brains and made it back to your ship, then you went for burgers in Chicago. Massive chili burgers. This big, bigger than our bus.”
“It’s all true, Noony.”
“I know, lady. Bears tell no lies.” Together we eyed Geometry Botch, teller of truths.
She got serious again, squeezing each of my fingers separately, and she whispered, “Noony, I bet Gee-Bo didn’t tell you about him.” She pointed at the father. “He’s not my dad.”
“Really?” We still whispered.
“I’m so serious. He kidnapped me. Two years ago, from my back yard. I didn’t know him until he stole me. For sure he isn’t my dad. He takes me on the bus all over the place. We have apartments in Lincoln, Nashville, Flagstaff and Pomona.”
“He hides me from the police when they come to make him pay his parking tickets.”
“Parking tickets? He treat you good?” I said, and she gave me her hardest stare. “You’re kidnapped. Is that the case?”
“Can you take me home?” She was serious.
I wasn’t convinced. “What’s in it for me? Do I get a ride on your spaceship?”
She made that frustrated sigh children make when they have to make one last, unnecessary effort. She stood on the seat, leaned close, put her mouth to my ear. “My picture was on the news on TV.” And I believed her completely, seeing the grainy copy of Gloria Hawaii’s second grade photo with her sunglasses flipped up, the head of a stuffed bear peeking up at the bottom of the frame, the newscaster’s pleading for information before skipping to a story about soccer riots. Do I remember that story? I thought.
I looked at the father to see if he was sleeping or pretending to sleep. Gloria Hawaii breathed close to my ear. I opened my bag, saw my toy gun and handcuffs, and zipped the bag shut again.
At the bus station the driver called out, “Ten minutes,” and most of the servicemen and incontinent debussed. A few people, like the father, slept on. He snuffed hard. Old people up and down the bus snuffed. I thought about breaking out the window and running, or strangling the father unconscious, or sticking Gloria and her bear back in their seat and forgetting. However, the plan I chose was to take her off the bus and, after the bus left, call the police. The police would pick him up at the next stop, and I’d do a couple news interviews, maybe get on TV myself. Chloe would love it.
I carried my bag and Geometry Botch. She took her jacket, nothing else. We went into the bus station. I bought bottled sodas and we took a bench away from the crowd.
“This is exciting,” she said, her sunglasses down, incognito.
“No. Yes, I guess so.”
“I’m being kidnapped all over again.”
“Shit.” She drank half her soda and smiled at me with the bottle still at her lip.
I thought about calling the police before the bus left, on the chance the father did wake, but the two payphones were taken by a pair of teen runts in leather jackets. They were talking to one another, laughing at the same moments. I said, “Quit playing with the phones.” They pretended to not hear me.
I said, “Where you from originally?”
“New Jersey,” as if there were also an Old Jersey.
“What’s your real name?”
“Gloria Pluto Venus Mars San Juan Capistrano.”
The bus driver went inside the bus, started it, then stepped back down, soaking sun. I saw the father through the tinted windows, sun hitting him directly. He’s going to wake up and I’m going to jail.
Passengers filed back, the driver punching tickets.
“Bus is leaving,” I said.
“Hmmm?” She seemed confused.
“We just wait until the bus leaves. He’s still asleep. When he’s gone, we’re safe. Two minutes.”
She picked up her bear and jacket. “No. Wait. Give me some money.”
“I don’t… Why?”
“Please. Money.” I thought she wanted to know if I could care for her, so I opened my wallet and gave her ten. Her hands shook. In her eyes I found sincerity. She would certainly cry which would cause a scene which would delay the bus which would surely turn horrific. I’d be pummelled by the sailors and soldiers, professional pummellers. I gave her the cash, the full hundred thirty.
“Now will you please calm down? Sit. He’ll be gone in a minute. And then it’s all over.”
“No! Come on, Geometry Botch.” She kissed me on the cheek. When I caught her arm she bit my hand, bit it hard, and swung the bear at my face. The plastic nose hit my lip. With that, she was free and out the door.
“Wait, Gloria.” She pulled her bus ticket from her jacket and tucked my cash into the front pocket of her jeans. The bus driver pretended to stamp the bear’s ticket. Inside the bus, she woke her father by climbing onto his lap. They laughed, and she punched him with the rear end of Geometry Botch, where no plastic nose might bruise his lip. He let her pummel him, tossing his smiling head from side to side with each blow.
I said, “What about the TV?” but I’d been duped. It was over that fast, except for my hands not working and my heart wanting to not work. She had her game; I had Lala. I think. What I felt was sorrow at the quality of games I had to play. I didn’t cry, but I mustered up some noises that could have been cries. People watched me making these noises, they only watched. I rubbed my eyes red. The bump on my lip was nothing.
Because the phones were still taken by the leather runts, I took my bag, headed out, and tried to remember what I liked about Barstow. I liked a taco stand though I’d bever tried their tacos. I liked a car repair shop where I pretended to know the mechanics by name. Rick, Julio, Albert. I liked the old turquoise hotel with only one car in the lot. I walked, imagining myself lost. Without much conviction I thought, Lala wouldn’t let me get lost.
The houses I passed had their windows shut and curtained. All had desert landscaping or dead grass. In some people laughed loudly, and I thought they were behind the drapes laughing with me. Air conditioners buzzed a pacifying white noise.
Ten minutes later I came to the bridge overlooking the former train depot. I crossed this bridge, over the dozens of switching tracks. The worn, gutted building looked as if a train hadn’t passed through in twenty or thirty years, aged because of the small-town graffiti. Green and red and black spray-paint declarations of love and pathetic imitations of city gang markings. A seemingly functional office was unmanned and locked, perhaps Barstow’s hope that one day passenger trains may again have reason to stop. Outside the office, the public phone had been torn from the stucco wall. Frayed, striped wires flowered out from the hole where the phone had been.
Barely visible beneath a white-washed board, the schedule said Los Angeles train would arrive at 1:28 P.M., in twenty minutes. The Vegas train, the train back home, in three hours. I decided to wait it out, stretch out on the shaded bench under the depot platform, give me some thinking time.
Lala was not real because she had no particulars, the insignificant things that make someone real. What color shoes did she wear? Did she like to brush her hair always on one side first? Did she crave food with too much garlic just so she could have garlic breath? Was she afraid of stuffed bears? Gloria Hawaii had the T-shirt, the stare, the TV appearance, the guts. Chloe kicked broken coffee tables with her hiking boots. Gloria Hawaii’s scheme had been to seek attention elsewhere in this extraordinary way only a kid would. I couldn’t correct how I felt about her swindle. My own swindles are what I had right then. Lala, who was not real, had hauled me here.
An old man in an old truck drove up, stopped with his fender over the tracks.
I said to him, “I wanted to make a call, but the phone’s gone.” I pointed to the phone’s former location, where right above someone had written ANARCHY. “There were two punks in leather at the bus station. I bet they did it.”
“Kids come along once a month, break it off the wall,” he said. “I don’t know why they do it. Scavenger hunt, maybe.”
I knew. He knew. They break things for fun, as a release, as a way to feel, a substitute until later when breaking is done equally for cruelty and love.
“No train today. Where you going?”
“I need to make a call first,” I said.
“I got a telephone in the office you can use. Have to call collect.”
In the Barstow train depot I called Chloe. She didn’t answer, not that she was supposed to. Because the old man was watching me through the office window I gave him a thumbs-up, and he looked away.
He waited for me on the platform, suspiciously eyeing the spot where the missing phone had been. “Heading south or north?”
“Don’t have money to go anywhere. Looks like I’m staying. This isn’t a bad town, is it?” We had our hands down in our pockets, shoulders shrugged in feigned chills, as strangers do. The sun was still far from gone.
“Nice, quiet town,” he said.
“I do like it. Probably.”
“Where you staying? You can’t sleep around here. They’ll hurt you.”
“I’m staying at that turquoise place.” Chloe and I had used the turquoise motel the last time, the time before that and every other time. When we needed something besides my Lala.
“Cactus something.” I pointed in a general direction.
“California Cactus Motel.”
“Yep, that’s the one.” I’d passed it an hour ago, when I’d stood in the parking lot and stared at Chloe’s filthy car, “warsh me” written with her finger on the rear window. She was waiting for me in room #4, as always. The curtain parted a few inches, as always. She was waiting with her own toy gun cocked.
I heaved up my bag, but instead of hiking back across the bridge, I crossed track after track, twenty, thirty, then climbed the ladder of a decaying freight car to see what I could see, to see what I might pretend to remember.
The old man finger whistled, a magnificent whistle that startled me and gave me purpose again. The tone echoed and filled the expanse like the whistle of an incoming train, the one bound for LA and then San Diego.
Five hundred people got off that train that wasn’t there, greeting friends, family, lovers, moms and dads, Barstow’s greatest and finest. Sailors kissed wives. Soldiers saluted crying babies. Then the train went on out. The old man was still there on the platform, hands still in pockets. He’d already forgotten me and was watching up the tracks for the next one.
Jerry Renek’s work has appeared in Other Voices, Absolute Disaster: Fiction From Los Angeles, and McSweeney’s. He co-wrote the screenplay to the award-winning short film “Max Neptune & The Menacing Squid.” Jerry is a Witstream “Aristocrat” and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives and teaches in Iowa City.