On a precarious journey down a twisting mountain road, a singer-songwriter finds herself on a crash-course with her heart. Her husband awaits at the bottom, but the loops and turns of her life are pointing her elsewhere, a burning for change, a fiery want, a flame.
How do you tell your husband, with whom you can’t talk about a damn thing anyway, that you saw a sign on the road and now everything between you has changed? You drove by the Calvary Chapel and their message board got you thinking, and, since then, your soul has shifted positions.
It read: “When Life Knocks You Off of Your Feet, It’s Time to Get Down on Your Knees.” And though I’m technically Jewish, I brake for church signs.
I’d been in Big Boy’s car all by my lonesome, on Highway 190, a winding road I hadn’t ever driven. Makeshift shrines with dangling rosaries decorated mountain edges. Names of dearly beloveds were scrawled in colored crayon on cardboard tombstones and posted into the ground, in memory.
He’d been riding his bike on the Camp Nelson Trail, a parallel dirt road. We’d made plans to share an icy beer at the Ponderosa Lodge down below. My mouth was already dry. I started to drive slowly to postpone that beer, for my husband could be a mean son of a bitch, and even though I couldn’t stop thinking about him, I burned for change.
When I wasn’t psychoanalyzing our marriage to death, I was soothing myself with the knowledge that there were two people out there whose unlikely attributes had formed a unity of opposites: Mom and Dad. They’d been married for a hundred years. She was the free spirit; he, the iron fist. It seemed to work for them. They were like that Simon and Garfunkel song, “Old Friends.” They were bookends, or a worn-in sofa with stuffing popped through a tear in the fabric.
There’s comfort in this kind of permanence.
Still, as the affirmation of their easy existence sunk in, I couldn’t help but wonder, what did it mean to touch the same person’s face and body for 40 years? They’d memorized every angle and crevice, every birthmark and scar.
How many times could you imagine the one you were married to was someone else, someone new, if it had come to that? I hoped it hadn’t.
My mind tends to drift to the politics of the personal while I’m driving. I don’t get hypnotized by the road, like some people. I face things, head on. It’s the only time I’m quiet enough to stop avoiding. It makes it harder to block out bad thoughts about Big Boy and hidden truths about myself, but maybe that’s a good thing.
If I had my way, I would not drive.
My husband was a singer, same as me. He was a Jim Croce/Harry Chapin/Tim Buckley hybrid, who wrote sad country love songs that he sold to other, more famous, people to perform. He wanted to sing them himself, to the world at large, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Publishing rights raked in the big bucks yet he still managed to select Bob’s as the place to take me for our first date. That’s why I call him Big Boy, even though he’s really a Bennington Yankee with a Christian name.
I hadn’t been to a chain restaurant, ever. My parents had higher culinary standards and passed them on to me.
Now my life seems like one Denny’s after another.
I’ve always said, you learn everything you need to know on the first date. The signs flash before you and you ignore them, lie to yourself, while the urgency of your needs dictates.
At Bob’s, our waitress wore an oversized wig in a shade that had nothing to do with real hair. She was an aging flirt with a dowager’s hump and she kept calling my date Big Boy. Every time she’d walk by him she’d touch his shoulder like they were old lovers. It was turning him on in a way that implied, There could be an Oedipus complex here.
She’d linger at our table, long after our meal had been served, refilling the sugar and the Sweet’N Low, then the jar of salt and our water glasses, while we struggled to connect. I found myself feeling … uneasy. Not jealous, really. For Christ’s sake, she could’ve been my grandmother. Maybe it was the way my date would blush and shrug and act coy in return. Maybe it was because he looked as much like Bob the Big Boy as I looked like Angelyne. He didn’t have the rosy cheeks or the dimples.
“Some people would do anything for money,” I told him.
“What would you do?”
“I wouldn’t flirt for it.”
“Oh really, High Priestess of the Open Mic? She who wears her undergarments onstage? If that’s not a sales job, what is?”
“I’m not for sale.”
“Everyone in this city has their price. Including you.”
Big Boy should have known better; he was 20 years my senior and had no right to condescend. Not on the first date, anyway. I picked up my pocketbook and dramatically rose from the table. I was 25 years old, a child of the ’70s, raised on soap operas and Movies of the Week, where characters made smooth entrances and swift exits.
He grabbed my blouse and twisted it, pulling me back. “Give me another chance. I’m so out of practice.”
“If I want to be degraded, I can call any one of my ex-boyfriends, OK?”
“I know I’m wrecked. I haven’t been on a real date since 1977.”
“I was a cheerleader that year, and in the ninth grade.”
“Here’s the problem: Either I feel nothing or I feel everything.”
“Which category do I fall into? Wait, don’t tell me.”
“You make me feel alive inside. I don’t quite know how to handle it.”
No one had ever told me that and it was hard to believe. My last and only long-term love clearly stated that I’d ruined his life, stolen his wild. I’d taken his word for it, believing I had that much power. The word “alive” made me take another, longer look. It gave me a purpose, and newfound hope. It indirectly confirmed what my horoscope had said that very morning: Marital status dominates scenario …
I moved to his side of the booth to get a sense of how he really felt, up close.
His breath, not his words, filled the air. I could feel its heat as it traveled from his mouth on a relief journey, a carbon dioxide ride that evaporated on my cheeks. I could feel the filmy mist of human fog.
He reached down to explore my double-jointed knuckles, the half-moons of my nail beds, the ripped cuticles, and told me I had beautiful hands.
How I found myself back at his house, and in his bed, was beyond me.
When life knocks. It’s time.
Big Boy suggested we write a song together, but we never got around to it. He did teach me some chord progressions and we sang half the songs in Rise Up Singing. In his own element, he possessed a Just-Roasting-Marshmallows-Around-the-Campfire quality unapparent in public. We talked for hours, and that’s what I fell hard for: the discovery that we could communicate. About everything. About nothing.
Later, he fell asleep in my arms, fully clothed. At first, I felt rejected, because sex was the unspoken language that I was fluent in. There’s a lesson here, I thought. Don’t use your body as a think tank. Confront your own deficiencies. I was a previously owned vehicle, skilled at concealing high mileage, rust beneath the paint and a broken frame, with the Armor All of sly candor and an Earl Scheib makeup job. I knew where I was headed: the back of the Blue Book.
Each whirlwind and crash had shown me glimpses of future wreckage, while always rewarding me with the birth of a new song. But what good was being prolific if nothing I wrote could be heard on the FM radio?
Big Boy was a win-win compared to the sincere California liars I’d previously attached myself to; the ones who all, coincidentally, shared multiple personality disorder; the ones who’d assisted in ensnaring me into a never-ending state of discontent and ecstasy.
But he wanted Someone to Love, he needed Someone to Love. I was drawn to his want, to his need. It gave him a refreshing quality. He was a breather from the poseurs, schizos and 12-step dropouts of my inner circle. I decided to marry him then, and tortured myself with the plague of all interfaith unions: Who would perform the ceremony? A priest? A rabbi? Or both?
On the Mighty 190 — as this highway was so-called — I drove Big Boy’s truck through the twists and the turns, all the while stuck in my head, reviewing long-neglected clues from our first date; images and actions well preserved in the lockbox of my selective memory, like the moment I determined he was my single shot at Top 40 Love.
I didn’t stop to think, Why should this be any different than what came before? I didn’t recognize that I never used spare time to heal, only to fill the void. I wasn’t willing to confess that the void was really a disguise for a gaping hole. Instead, I secured a permanent position, as girlfriend. As wife.
It was my first real job. It paid nothing.
Which is to say: I soon learned that wedlock was not the cure for acute female longing. But what was? No self-help book, herbalist or fortune-teller could teach me how to thrive in 10 easy steps, though I continued to look outside of myself for the answers. I’d been letting lyrics from other people’s songs tell me how to live since early adolescence, and would’ve taken words of wisdom off a bathroom wall if they applied.
You could tell me to get a life, do some volunteering. You could tell me to go find God. Yet it was a worn thread that linked me to my religious upbringing. Temple was a “She who wears the best dress to High Holidays wins kind of a place”; Hebrew School, where I went to meet and make out with dark, secretive boys, smoke clove cigarettes in the ladies room during Torah study and gossip with other full-bodied, restless girls. I wanted to believe I was one of the chosen people but that didn’t seem fair to the people who weren’t chosen.
As for Big Boy, he’d moved on without admitting it, and his attention, and affection, were directed to a much larger audience: the general public. There was no roadmap to show me directions to the deepest place within him.
How do you connect when there isn’t a plug or an outlet?
Inside my heart, pop, folk, country and the blues had merged. This was the recipe for a hit song in the ’90s. Not so with love. I was overblown with expectation (pop), ruminated about it until I burst (folk), cried myself to sleep (country), then mourned the loss with a quiet dignity (blues).
I became unable to write another song, unable to sing ever again.
It was a record heat in the Southern Sierra, and a fire was burning near the Trail of 100 Giants. There were sirens and smoke, charred trees, ashes falling like snow.
And there was a low-budget tavern called The Dawghouse. A neon Varga girl was wired to its roof. She was bending over, her head facedown into her cocktail, her ruffled skirt above her pantyhose. Hung on the tips of her stilettos, a banner read: Free Drinks for Firemen Before 2-4.
The locals were sitting on the hoods of their cars and smiling. I wanted to smile, too. I pulled in, put the car in neutral and debated. I could see through the window that a couple of forest rangers were dirty dancing to the dull roar of “Whip It.” New wave had finally made it to the Needles, 15 years late.
“Kir royale, please,” I told the resident bartender, who had the leathery skin of a logger and was sexy in an angry-at-the-world sort of way. He eyed me suspiciously — the red lipstick, the floral dress, the Joan & David hiking boots. And then he said: “Where do ya think you are, Road’s End?”
Road’s End was the one restaurant between Kernville and Johnsondale that offered “deluxe dining.” It was the home of the 64 oz. steak, Big Boy’s fave. Vegetarians like me were forced to feed on the “fixins”: stale bread, packets of Parkay and soggy slaw. But anything was better than camping food and drinking condensed milk from a can.
A fireman in a rubber suit came in: torch-like, enflamed. Seeing him made me think of that song, “I Love A Man In A Uniform.” I’ve always had a weakness for a badge.
“Her money’s no good here,” he told the bartender.
“It’s free drinks for firemen, not fiery women,” the bartender said.
Both men were equally intriguing and I stripped them clean in my head. I could do that, same way you hear that men do it. They looked like they could provide strength, which made me want to be sandwiched between them. Not a three-way, but to sleep with one holding me in front, one from behind.
Sex is everywhere, I thought. Tenderness is nowhere.
“Where’s your husband?” asked the fireman, eyeing my Westside rock of a ring.
“Riding his bike down some trail,” I said, pointing toward the lounge’s chipped door.
“Why ain’t you with him?” asked the bartender.
“Because I’m base camp. I keep the cabin warm. And besides, I hate nature. I hate dirt. Rodents. Outdoor bugs. Backpacks. Gear. Peeing in the bushes. Wiping with a leaf.”
“D’ya like dancin’?”
“What do you think?”
“We can’t ignore Aretha. She’s singin’ ‘Respect.’”
The fireman pulled me to him and we danced real slow, even though it was a song you’d dance fast to under different circumstances. I like the way he smelled, like he’d fought 10 fires that day, like an urn holding the remains of someone you’d known and loved.
And he kissed me, the kind of kiss you’d give a married woman you weren’t sure of, a light, airy peck — on the lips, but with no tongue. I was disarmed, but not enough to move away.
“Gotta go lick the flame,” he told me. “Shift ends at 11.”
“I’ll be sleeping in a tent at Quaking Aspen campground.”
“In fire weather? Bring your oxygen mask. If you were mine, I’d get you a king-sized bed at the Pine Cone Inn.”
I perceived this to be minor praise, and out of desperation for such, I was flattered.
See, it wasn’t diversion that I craved. I was in search of those things you can’t get back, like faith, like old photographs, before it all fades into an outline, a mere skeleton of your original intention. I wanted to recapture what drew me in, in the first place: open arms of acceptance, the myth of understanding, a slideshow of my parents, dancing slow and easy to “Riders on the Storm,” and me, watching from behind the doorway, knowing this must be the meaning of home.
My journey on Highway 190 resumed. I could picture Big Boy as he downshifted past Freeman Grove, his shirt flared from the force of wind, like the wings of a peregrine falcon about to make a power-assisted dive. Those birds of prey were indigenous to the Southern Sierra and he identified with their insistence on being above it all.
Let’s face it: He’d Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, and these would have been his first moments away from me in three days, to rant and rave, vent his unbridled wrath to mute groves of sequoias that could not vent back. I may have been the one driving the car, but he’d beat me to the Lodge on his 18-speed bike and already be at the bottom of our Carta Blanca, sipping the part that had lost its carbonation.
There was nothing worse than the end of a beer.
To think this was supposed to be a vacation from the private war we were battling in our Venice clapboard shack. How did beach-city living veer from borderline bohemia to bourgeois in a matter of months?
Before I dropped Big Boy off at the trailhead, we’d taken a swim in the Kern River, where “over 160 people have drowned since 1972.” That’s what the sign says, a warning that no one pays attention to.
I was certain I’d be the next casualty to get nailed in the backwater, turn up bloated on a riverbed days later. I found comfort dog-paddling in one safe spot. Big Boy did cannonballs off of rockpiles and a Japanese balletic technique called Watsu. You’re supposed to do it with a partner, but he chose to dance in the river alone, pointing his toes and wading in a meditative state.
Then we took a hike, two-and-a-half miles of terror, that led to the Needles Lookout Tower. It was a lighthouse encircled by a City of Rocks. We climbed the final 200 steps to the top, then took turns looking through the telescope at the pinnacles and vertical cliffs that surrounded us.
He was a would-be mountaineer, measuring cracks inside of stone and examining the spaces left open for fingers to catch. He viewed me in the same microscopic manner.
“Altitude sickness alert,” I’d said. “I think I’m going to pass out.”
“Don’t be such a wuss. Why can’t you just take it in? People risk their lives to hang from these things. People like me. That climb over there is called Romantic Warrior. And that one, Nearer My God to Thee. The spirit of Inyo is said to be haunting these rocks. He’s here to remind us we’re living on stolen land,” he said.
Preaching, always pontificating about the injustices of modern man.
What about the injustices of modern men?
“Hey, ‘Stolen Land,’ I like that,” I said. “Makes a great title for a song.”
The injustices of modern men. You can see how I thought that as I stood there, can’t you? Entrapped by his eco-babble, hemmed in by stone faces; rocks, clustered and aligned as if dropped from the sky and sculpted, with beaming, turned-up mouths, hook-nosed profiles, pained expressions.
I told myself to calm down and just take in the beauty. No doubt, these formations were guardians of the Earth, unglaciated granite watchdogs.
They made me feel safe, in the most estranged way.
He decided we wouldn’t be bike riding together.
“Why not? I saw some level one trails by the highway …”
“It’s called mountain biking because you’re supposed to ride in the mountains. You can’t keep up in the flatland.”
“Why isn’t it OK to go at my own pace?”
“This isn’t about pace. You have a lack of stamina. If you’d used the StairMaster I bought you last Christmas, you’d be buff.”
I wanted to say, Buff? Who needs buff? I’m Pre-Raphaelite, not postmodern. I’m a woman in the old-fashioned sense: fleshy, open, real. I wanted Big Boy to know that I wasn’t about to let these cut and honed women of today redefine beauty for me, for him.
He needed to understand that I would never feel like the cold, hard rocks he gripped to know his own strength.
But it didn’t quite come out that way.
“Whoever made muscular women fashionable should be shot. Taken out. Who was it, huh? Tina Turner? Madonna? Linda fucking Hamilton? Stupid bitches.”
He grabbed the lower part of my arm, where it was starting to look like pizza dough in mid-flip.
“What? I’ve lost 30 pounds since we met.”
“You looked better fat.”
This is what it had come to with me and Big Boy. He’d fallen in love with my potential, not me. I’d promised to accommodate his misconception, and failed miserably by staying the same.
We hiked back down to the car and I drove him to the Camp Nelson trail. He got on his bike, rode away, then screamed out, “No one ever burned calories driving.”
Why did I marry Big Boy, anyway? I couldn’t remember. To escape my Jewishness? Partly, I suppose. This mixed marriage had not transported me from the dry desert of Tel Aviv to a greener Dublin, as I’d hoped.
Off of your feet. Down on your knees.
I’d heard those words before, but not in relation to prayer. Prayer was an idea imagined, never practiced. I wondered what they’d say behind the walls of the Calvary Chapel that they hadn’t said on the church sign. Those words I’d read were changing something in me, aiding and abetting a soul fracture, an unattended crack from inside.
Big Boy had not prepared me for the fact that about halfway down 190, the road became a Hula-Hoop. I slowed the car, rode the crescent curves with my signature caution, and in the arc of a swivel, saw a Hispanic man kneeling in the dirt. He was digging a small hole, burying stems of flowers into the ground. I could hear him singing a Spanish hymn. He’d made a circle with small stones and was placing a religious saint candle in its center. A portrait of a teenaged girl in her graduation cap was taped to a piece of wood. It had to be a monument to his daughter, who had died in the very spot where I was driving.
The lit saint flickered as it caught the Kern Canyon wind. I recognized the man without knowing him. I was sure he understood how to transform bereavement into beauty, turn endings toward a greater continuity. He was a tongue of light that temporarily blinded me.
Is that why I slammed on the brakes like I did? Why the truck lost control, hit a sheet of stone and bounced nearly 75 feet down the mountain pass, plowing through a field of grass, tumbling into walls of stone? Dirt and glass exploded, cassette tapes danced upward, pebbles and smoke created dust clouds that settled into my eyes.
I was upside down, in a chrome somersault. The car was driving me now.
It rolled three times until it smashed against another boulder, landing on top of it, balanced on its side. My left cheek was pressed to the window, the window was pressed to the rock and the passenger side of the car was above my head. Slivers of glass cut through every extremity as a cracked rearview mirror dangled from a wire in metronome fashion.
If only I’d pulled over and prayed, like the sign had instructed, for childlike faith, for a sense of direction. But it was too late for kneeling. I was going to die, become another post in the road.
Then I passed out, and dreamed of Saint Veronica, accompanying Jesus on his ascent to Calvary; only here, I was she and she was Jewish. I got to wear fabulous shimmering robes and save souls. I’d gone selfless, using my own veil to wipe Jesus’ forehead, and watched, as his true image appeared on it instead of his sweat. At first, the man playing Jesus in my dream was the fireman from The Dawghouse. As we got closer to the cross, it was Big Boy. I ran beside him and he expressed resentment for my slim but out-of-shape physique, my breathless exhaustion. But it didn’t seem to bother me anymore. I didn’t take it personally. I felt compassion. I could see that what he really was, was a contortionist of the heart, and for me to live with this kind of love meant becoming a shape-shifter.
I awakened to the pleading arms of the shrine-building man; his hands like waves, his head to the clouds. He reached through the broken window, rested his palm on my forehead. He didn’t mind that the glass was cutting him, or that I didn’t answer to his touch.
He was searching for signs of life, vital signs.
There was a low humming around me that I couldn’t name, which soothed beyond words. There was a prickling in my skin that pierced and punctured. I saw wings, and slender, smooth shapes. I sensed a congregation.
But I was not dead, and these were not angels. They were meat-eating yellow jackets.
They’d found a way in, drawn to the body and the blood that was covering me. It was their nourishment, healing as holy water. They sucked and stung, buzzed and nested.
I thought, How easy for them; how natural. To know what you need, without question.
To follow your own instincts and simply survive.
Susan Hayden is a poet, playwright, novelist and essayist. A second-generation Angeleno, she is most interested in writing about identity and belonging and the search for home. Her plays have been produced at The Met Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s L.A. WinterFest, South Coast Rep’s Nexus Project, Mark Taper Forum’s Other Voices, The Lost Studio and more. Her essays and fiction have appeared in numerous publications, including The Black Body, edited by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (Seven Stories Press), and in Storie, an international cultural journal based in Rome. Most recently, her work has been published in two anthologies: The bestselling Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine, edited by David Kukoff (Rare Bird Books, 2016) and I Might Be The Person You Are Talking To: Short Plays From The Los Angeles Underground (Padua Playwrights Press, 2015). Hayden is also a producer of literary events. She is the creator/curator of the monthly series, Library Girl, now in its eighth year at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica. She co-produces another monthly show in Chinatown called The Window at A.G. Geiger (with poet Alexis Rhone Fancher.) In 2015, she was presented with the Artist In The Community Award by the Santa Monica Arts Commission for her “significant contributions to the energetic discourse within Santa Monica’s arts community.” Upcoming projects include a theater piece about emerging from grief after the sudden loss of her longtime husband and creative partner, Christopher Allport. She is currently at work on a book of poetry to be published by Punk Hostage Press. Hayden is the proud mother of singer-songwriter Mason Summit. She resides in Sunset Park, Santa Monica.
An earlier version of this piece was a finalist for the Tara Fellowship for Short Fiction (Heekin Group Foundation / Sisters, Oregon).