The four men huddled cross-legged on flattened cardboard boxes. Each time a car passed on the Interstate overhead, a sharp wall of water spiked into the air and splashed onto the ground. The men didn’t pay attention to the cars, just as they didn’t pay attention to the water. Their level of comfort was directly proportional to their ability to distort perception. They’d accustomed themselves to the braided hum of tires on pavement, how the tires slammed over the seam in the roadbed and the entire overpass kicked. Background noise, tricks of the scenery. Things went easier if you didn’t pay too much attention. All the comings and goings, the passersby, all with destinations elsewhere, north or south, the belly or the heart, anywhere but here. At night, the men worked. During the day, they slept on the cardboard.
They ignored the heavy rain that threatened tonight’s business. What little protection they had from the weather came in the form of stolen umbrellas and two cardboard shipping cartons they’d found in an alley behind Sears & Roebuck. You could fashion anything into a bed, but intact cartons were as valuable as gold. The men used the cartons to store and protect their business attire: skirts, blouses, belts, purses, shoes, wigs, some make-up.
It was the last day of a rainy summer, the tail end of high season. All along the San Diego waterfront, neon signs hawked cocktail bars, tattoo parlors, high and low rent hotels. Every night, ghostly streetlights offered a yellowed illusion of promise, the nightly tide of sailors and tourists hoping to score their particular brand of relief. The pimps and prostitutes, they knew their territory was shifting inland. The Gaslamp Quarter was under fire. It was 1982; a harder hand ruled. Police and politicians had promised to clean up the streets. In the meantime, battered fishing boats rocked in their slips. Oil-topped seawater slapped against the pylons of the piers.
The sea ebbed but never left. Back and forth, back and forth. Tonight, tomorrow, forever. A few miles south, the border fence stopped at the shoreline.
The rain lightened.
Randall, the oldest, lit a Camel and French-inhaled a blue line of smoke. He passed the cigarette to the youngest, Mateo, who took a long drag to relieve the pain leftover from the night before. Mateo had suffered worse beatings, but told the other men he might leave.
Randall began a story, using dramatic gestures for emphasis.
“I wore Givenchy. Simple lines. Not puffy or padded like others. My dress had a slit near each ankle, and I took small steps. Pure elegance, pure grace. You’d have thought I was the Queen.”
The men smiled. Davey-boy and Jinx tried to enhance the gauntness in their cheeks. Davey-boy kept his jaw pushed slightly forward and Jinx pouted his lips.
Randall was tall and skinny, his Adam’s apple was prominent, along with his hawkish nose.
Mateo had the compact curves of a gymnast, a soft face, and a dark, secretive brow. Men said he was pretty.
“Your hair?” Mateo asked. “Was it up?” He took a drag of the Camel, careful of the cut on his lip.
“Yes,” Randall answered. “I wore my hair gathered at the crown.”
As Jinx and Davey-boy listened, they shared a bottle of Schnapps. Seven years older than Mateo, they were each twenty-six. Jinx, a red head, had a sensuous mouth and a gap between his front teeth. When he took a swig from the bottle, the hot liquor darkened his freckles. “You’re not telling that story again, are you?” Jinx passed the bottle to Davey-boy.
“What do you mean?” Randall asked.
“You know,” Jinx said. “The same stories over and over.”
“Don’t listen to him, Mateo. He’s drunk,” Randall said.
“I haven’t given you the pleasure of seeing me drunk.” Jinx grabbed Davey-boy’s hand and squeezed.
“That’s right,” Davey-boy said. “Randall hasn’t had the pleasure.” He squeezed Jinx’s hand in return. Davey-boy often boasted about how supportive he was, but his compassion was not always returned. Of the four, he was smallest. He liked to tell people his voice made up for his stature. Davey-boy passed the Schnapps back to Jinx who tipped back another swallow.
Randall reached forward and carefully took the Camel from between Mateo’s fingers.
In Tijuana, Mateo had worked making medical bags at an assembly plant, a maquiladora, and had earned $35 per week. Mateo knew other boys who, during the summer, picked strawberries in a place called Oxnard. Their bodies showed the distress of their labors. Mateo’s fingertips were callused, but his cinnamon face was unblemished. He didn’t require make-up. Davey-boy and Jinx did. They said they envied Mateo’s beauty. Randall had told Mateo he loved him.
“I was beautiful when I walked,” Randall continued. “Toe, heel, toe, heel.” He demonstrated with his hands. “Perfect balance—”
“Balance?” Jinx interrupted. “I wouldn’t say balance.”
Randall didn’t falter. “I never looked down; I held my head high.”
“You were the princess,” Jinx said. “Splendid. Slendeedo, splendeeda.”
“My show always sold out,” Randall said. “Standing room only. Glasses clinked like money. Forks and knives sparkled like diamonds.” He embraced an imaginary audience. “They were hungry for me.” He reached out to Mateo and curled a lock of dark hair between his fingers. “They loved me.”
Mateo stiffened, and moved Randall’s hand away.
“Power,” Davey-boy muttered.
Jinx raised the Schnapps in a toast.
“They loved me.” Randall repeated.
“They loved the princess,” Jinx said. “The skinny princess.” Jinx sang, “When the princess was the princess, people always stopped to stare—”
“Stop it.” Randall sliced a glance at Jinx. “This isn’t a song. It’s a story.”
“Bitch,” Jinx said in a low voice to Davey-boy. “They loved the princess, until she was deposed.” He squeezed Davey-boy’s hand.
“Power,” Davey-boy whispered. He squeezed back.
Randall addressed Mateo: “One afternoon. One dreary, grey afternoon, like today, rainy all day. I was inside, rehearsing a new number. I kept my act fresh. New bits, new songs. I was rehearsing and looked up. Everything stopped. I’ll never forget it. I saw him setting a table, a new busboy.”
“No, no. No, no,” Jinx sang. “He was not a busboy.”
“Yes, a busboy.” Randall lit another Camel. “A beautiful…he was beautiful.”
“Was?” Jinx asked.
“Was,” Randall answered.
“Bitch,” Jinx said.
“Power,” Davey-boy said.
Taking the Camel from Randall, Mateo stood and walked out to where the dry ground met the wet. He looked towards the waterfront. Electrical wires stretched above the city streets. A hum filled the air. The street lamps flickered, the waterfront preparing. Fishing boats rocked; their masts drew side-to-side, like scolding fingers. No, no. No, no.
“He was beautiful,” Randall said to Mateo. “A beautiful busboy and we fell in love.” Somewhere out on the water, a bell rang, steady and plaintive. “I was too stunned to speak at first,” he continued. “But eventually, we fell in love.”
Davey-boy and Jinx finished the Schnapps and stumbled to the two cartons to sort through the clothes.
“Fringe,” Jinx said.
“Feathers,” Davey-boy said.
They smiled and cackled at each other, “Sequins! Sequins!”
Mateo felt a chill. He took a drag from the Camel, crossed his arms, and rubbed his bruises. The man last night, Mateo’s customer, a business tourist, had seemed harmless and ineffectual, but had become crazy and enraged when Mateo undressed. Randall had tended to Mateo’s cuts and bruises, and advised Mateo that, from now on, he would be safer if he kept the dress on. The customers preferred the illusion.
A car passed by overhead. Water spiked into the air and splashed onto the ground. “The water,” Mateo said. “It cuts a river in the dirt.” He stared at the muddy river that flowed down the incline at his feet. He could go back home, but what would be left? He could go further north, to Los Angeles, or even San Francisco, just follow the highway that bled into California. Last night’s beating was nothing compared to the beatings Mateo had suffered at the hands of his stepfather. The man had once smashed Mateo’s hand with a hammer. Last night, Mateo had earned seventy-five dollars. At home, in Slaughterhouse Canyon, the Cañón Matadero, it had taken him over eight months to save two hundred dollars. But his money was gone, his home was gone, everything swept away by the mudslide that came the day the Tijuana River overflowed its banks.
Randall snatched the Camel from Mateo and inhaled a final drag. “Remember, you’re a lady out there. Even when you’re knocked down, remain a lady.” He dropped the stub at Mateo’s feet and crushed it.
One step, Mateo thought. Other steps would follow. “The rain’s stopped,” he said. “Maybe we won’t get wet.”
Davey-boy and Jinx laid out Lycra miniskirts on the cardboard.
“He’s pretty,” Davey-boy whispered to Jinx. “He’ll take all our dates.”
“You’re pretty,” Jinx said to Mateo. “Once you’ve been trained, you’ll make more money than us.”
“That’s right,” Davey-boy urged. “More money.” Davey-boy smiled and whispered in Jinx’s ear. Jinx brightened.
“One time,” Jinx addressed everybody. “I wanted to leave San Diego.” He pinched his thumb and forefinger together. “Came this close.” He opened his fingers. “But I didn’t.”
“No one wants to leave,” Randall said. “Don’t listen.”
“You know why I almost left?” Jinx asked Mateo.
“No,” Mateo said.
“Stop. No one wants to leave.” Randall chewed his thumbnail.
“It’s a story,” Jinx said. “You had yours, now it’s mine.” Jinx pulled on a red Lycra skirt that clung to his hips. “I didn’t go because I was saved.”
“Stop,” Randall said. “This is ludicrous.”
“It’s true. I was saved. I was without means, Mateo. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“You had no money?” Mateo answered.
“Exactly.” Jinx stepped up to where Randall stood. “You found a quick one, Randall. He won’t stay long.”
“Ludicrous,” Randall said. “Don’t listen.” He covered Mateo’s ears, but Mateo shrugged him off.
Jinx laughed. “It was back to Iowa and a trailer for me. I was at the terminal, bus ticket in hand, just an impressionable thing. Like you, Mateo.”
“No, not like Mateo,” Randall said.
“Yes, exactly like Mateo. We could be twins.”
“No you can’t. I don’t like this. It’s not a story at all. It’s nothing. You’re nothing.”
Jinx donned a wig. The long, black hair completed the transformation. His cheekbones had been rouged and now, accentuated, hid the patchy freckles, the wig’s bangs softened his eyes, and glossy pink lipstick drew forth the fullness of his lips, making his normally square jaw seem pert. “And then I was saved and fell in love. Isn’t that sweet?” He curtsied. “What every girl dreams, a man to protect her, to love her.” He walked to the cartons and chose a pair of heels.
Davey-boy was ready. Dressed in a blue sequin halter and skirt, a black body suit underneath, it was impossible to tell Davey-boy was a man. Her long hair was sprinkled with glitter, her face fully made up. “Let’s go,” she said. “It’s time.”
“Wait a minute.” Jinx snapped his fingers. “Daddy’s busy.”
“I’m with Randall. I don’t like this story either,” Davey-boy said. “None of it’s true. None of it.”
“You should listen to Davey-boy,” Randall said.
Jinx clapped. “Shut up, both of you. I’m not finished.”
They fell silent, listening. The rain whispered, and then fell heavier, gasping for breath.
“So, we fell in love,” Jinx continued. “What a happy time. I was saved and stayed with him, loved him. But as soon as I learned the trade, someone else stepped into our happy picture. Didn’t he, Randall? Didn’t he, Davey-boy?”
Randall stood up and began undressing. “I was a star and he was a busboy and we fell in love, and very soon, because I trained him, he was promoted to waiter. Do you hear me?”
Jinx stood his ground. “Or should I say he was brought here? Is that a better phrase? Yes, he was brought here. And sooner than you can say ‘shit,’ I was yesterday’s sweet and sour pork. Randall brought a new little boy into our lives. Didn’t he? Didn’t he, Davey-boy?”
Davey-boy pulled an umbrella out of the carton of clothes. “Let’s go. I want to go. Now!” He waved the umbrella in the air.
“But as soon as he was promoted to waiter, he lost interest in me,” Randall was saying. “He played with all the glamorous men. Not like me—the working stiff who worked the gutters to keep him fed. Now he had anyone he wanted. Oh, don’t think I didn’t see, didn’t see you. Out there taunting those God-awful hungry men who grabbed you, slipped you their tongues and their phone numbers. You fucking whore, you didn’t make money. It wasn’t business for you. You loved it.”
Jinx laughed. “But of course, even poor Davey-boy wasn’t enough.” Jinx smiled and stepped closer to Randall. “Because then he threw poor little Davey-boy aside, too. And that left stale, kicked aside me to pick up all the little broken pieces. Not like when I broke and there was no one. No one!” Jinx stepped in and jabbed Randall’s shoulder. “I did love it. Did.”
Davey-boy pounded the carton with the umbrella, denting the carton’s corner. “No, no, no, no! None of this is true. You’re both liars. Why can’t we go? Please, Jinx, let’s go. I can’t stand it.” She ran out from under the overpass. The rain pelted her, flattened her wig, soaked her skirt and body suit. Now it was evident that she was a boy. He pointed the umbrella at the men. “Don’t you see? It’s power. It’s only power.” His hands fell to his sides and he dropped the umbrella. “Oh, somebody, please, come with me. I can’t go alone. I can’t.”
No one moved.
Davey-boy kneeled. “None of this is true.” He hid his face in his hand.
A car sped by overhead, spattering water onto the ground near Davey-boy.
The rain stopped. The world seemed unable to offer up any sound.
Davey-boy pulled himself up and leaned on the umbrella for support. “Nobody loves anyone,” he said. “There’s no such thing. It’s only power.” He opened the umbrella, disappeared underneath, and walked alone toward the pale waterfront.
The three remaining men stayed silent.
Randall applied his makeup. “You better go after him, unless you plan to sleep alone.
“Oh, I’m not worried,” Jinx said. He looked at Mateo and then at Randall. “There’ll be someone else.” Jinx grabbed his purse and left, brushing past Mateo.
One step, Mateo thought.
Randall carefully touched one of the bruises on Mateo’s arm.
Mateo flinched and said, “Before I came here, I was with my very good friend.” He looked at Randall. “You know what I mean by very good friend. I see you know.”
“Yes, I know about very good friends.”
“We climbed on the roof. Shouted. But the rain was loud. Nobody came. The canyon fell into the river. My friend is gone. I saw him disappear. I think he is in the ocean now.”
The bell on the water rang again, faintly, as if it had drifted out to sea.
“After that, I came here alone. You found me.”
“You did the right thing.”
“Last night was as bad as this gets,” Randall said. “Very few hit you.”
“Maybe there’s worse.”
“No, you get used to them. You laugh at them.”
Randall walked over to the cartons of clothes and held up a platinum wig. “You can wear my Jean Harlow tonight.”
A pink ribbon loosened itself from the wig and, for a moment, floated on a draft. The ribbon lifted, curled gracefully against itself, and then fell toward the ground. Randall reached out.
If he catches the ribbon, Mateo thought, I’ll go home.
The ribbon fell to the ground.
Mateo peered at the stars. Rain blurred his vision. Tomorrow was the first day of autumn, but he doubted anyone would notice. The sun might shine. At night, the lights would offer the same illusions. The trees wouldn’t shed their leaves. The sea would still be there. Tonight, tomorrow, forever.
“Where does it go?” Mateo asked.
“Where does what go?”
He’d meant to ask about love. He’d hoped it was like the ocean. “The highway,” Mateo said. “Where does it go?”
Randall hugged himself and closed his eyes. “Nowhere. I don’t know. Anywhere.”
“Gracias,” Mateo whispered, quiet as the car that passed by overhead, quiet as the wall of water that fell, cutting a river near his feet.
~ ~ ~
John Zic was born in Chicago, Illinois, and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since1982. He is a longtime member of Actor’s Equity, having worked with Aurora Theatre, Berkeley Repertory, TheatreWorks, and Attic Theatre, among others. His poetry has appeared in Fierce Hunger, an anthology of poetry from Writing Ourselves Whole, and his short story, “A Secret Mother,” is forthcoming in The Fabulist. John obtained a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College and is currently working on a collection of poetry, a novel, and a play.