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Lebensraum

I got to drive my sister up to Santa Cruz and move her into her new apartment. She now lives in a 10×10’ room which is almost a shed, and she has to walk to a separate house to use a kitchen or bathroom. Well, it’s light, at least, with big windows under the rafters; we do wonder if it’s up to code. It is the first place she’s rented after college, and she doesn’t have a job yet.

I didn’t have a job when I got out of college. I convinced myself I’d live on freelancing, and babysat for a Doberman whose owner was going to lose him if he barked all day and bothered the neighbors. The owner paid $4 an hour for three hours a day. The dog was a big wimp. I wrote three articles for the local birdcage-liner at $75 an article, one travel piece for Sunset and an essay for Salon for a few hundred each. There was nothing left of my graduation money by the end of the summer.

I stood in the door of my sister’s room and watched her damping down the frustration of the drive (we went two hours out of our way on a highway so bumblefuck there wasn’t even a McDonald’s on it) by settling her stuff into her room. She’s a smart kid, but we’re all smart kids; Kellan lives in Santa Cruz too, and he’s unemployed. I might as well be unemployed. We’ve been packed full of all these good skills nobody needs. It makes me mad to think that they won’t use us, when we could be doing so much good stuff.

Sylvie: how about substitute teaching?

On the way back down I stopped in Salinas because of the Steinbeck Center. (Damned if I can find a copy of Of Mice and Men at the Strand.) I had never been to Salinas. The Steinbeck Center was at the end of a strip which looks like it’s getting the Old Town Pasadena treatment, only Salinas is in the middle of fscking nowhere so there’s prosthetic limb stores and bargain discount whatnot all interspersed with dead dusty storefronts. The seeds of the yuppie device stores have fallen on fallow earth. But it was overcast for a change, and quiet. A man was painting the marquee of a tourist trap bar a hopeful magenta and yellow. I could smell the turpentine. The fields were green and right behind the buildings downtown, like a movie lot with nothing more than facades.

Then I got back into the fields of artichokes and brussels sprouts and about six Spanish-language FM stations zoomed at me out of the car radio static. Salinas. What is behind your storefronts?

Need more Salinas. Empty and unscheduled. I’ve broken all my usual behavior patterns and am cleaning the house, trying to purge the remnants of my fouled social connections from it. Trying to save up a little extra Zen for work. I cast about me and find…

… cans of chicken broth. Three, in the kitchen cabinet here in Sunnyside. The labels are yellowed and the graphic design looks a little bit old, but is there any way of telling how old canned food is? It occurs to me that the canned food cartel may be invested in the idea that canned food never spoils. There may be a conspiracy to keep expiration dates off the cans.

… a novel titled Fat Chance, on my bookshelf. Jacket patter says something about fat becoming deadly. How did it get there? I’ve never seen it before. Did the movie crew that recently turned the house upside down plant it as part of their set? Unlikely that it belongs to the landlady; nothing likely to disturb her denial of her deteriorating condition (she is a diabetic and polishes off box after box of Nilla Wafers when she visits) lasts around here. More likely it came from a former roommate, who also left me an Audiobooks version of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.

… iridescent marbles, under the couch. Their plastic pouch has split. I search among them for a seafoam-green and gold bead that broke out of a piece of Chinese-style knotwork given to me by a friend. It isn’t there.

… two coffeemakers. Neither is mine. Time for a trivia contest; I call Kim, my co-caretaker. Which is yours? I ask. She sighs as if harassed. It’s the frst week of school, but she will be making excuses about exhaustion and correcting papers for the rest of the semester, and the next one. I do not think the promised repairs to the decaying kitchen wall will happen this year.

… a Gypsy Kings tape salvaged from the laundry-room giveaway in the Manhattan apartment. Sing along! It isn’t hard. Lai lo lai, lo lai lo lai lo lai lo lai… and then at the end everyone shouts “Ho-ehyyyy!” and says in Spanish I don’t understand, Let’s sing another one, we’re the Gypsy Kings and we’re the only goddamn bastards out there who actually have a pulse left.

… at home in California… a hundred tiny clay pots, shaped with thumbprints, glazed in brilliant colors, made in art class eighteen years ago. Eighteen years, my stepmother says, and jumps a little. I realize I still don’t think of myself as having been alive that long.

So many pots. These spilled out of a mildew-eaten box in the basement. I took them out of the rotting tissue and basement froon like an archaeo-anthropologist, rubbed at the tenacious black spores with toothbrushes. Would I have made fewer of them if I had known I would spend futile hours trying to clean them as a 25-year-old? I ask Dad if he’d be ok with me throwing some away. He gives me a hurt look, but he is the one who has put them in the basement. Mom keeps hers on the desk to put paper clips in.

One of them is lopsided, a whole side of the pot circle flattened. I remember it was not a pot. It was a couch. I used to make ceramic couches. They did not have patterns on their upholstery. I neglected that in my frenzy of mass-production. I made so many pots. I must have taken the other kids’ extra clay to do it. I made so many damn pots, and more than my share of uncomfortable-looking, flat-bottomed couches.

… no screens on my window, still; no brackets to put them in with. Every day more cases of West Nile virus are reported across the country.

… week-old snow peas in the fridge. Snow peas are inedible these days. About half of them have this tough, unchewable membrane on their inner wall, probably bred that way so they’d ship better. One of these days I’ll complain to the growers. Really. Salinas!

… the Shuggie Otis disc an ex-boyfriend gave me. Everything is OK because Shuggie moans he is Out Of His Head and the beats are deeply #1. But it is the totally nutso K-pop Janice gave me that really makes me segie segie na baby, with my arms bent like a robot and my head flopping around.

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