Strays

 

Tonight, I fly down the middle lane of the 5, no Albertson’s trucks or SUVs forcing me to apply the brake. I turn the sharp corner past Dodger Stadium, where the freeway divides, and drive past Commerce Citadel Outlets, an Assyrian-inspired mecca mall. It makes me anxious, the building’s art deco pillars projecting so far above the car dealerships flanking the freeway.

It’s 10 PM, and Beth has just gotten off her shift at the ER. I arrive at her apartment complex and park in a small carport that’s always near empty. I have to be careful of the cats. They slide their skinny bodies into every spare space. When I leave Beth’s later in the night, I’ll have to idle a bit before reversing, give them time to flee from under the engine, the tops of my tires. They’ll let loose desperate pleas when I walk by, but if I get close, give them an encouraging call, they disappear into the night.

Over in Pico Rivera by the riverbed, it’s all dogs. They run up and down the river’s length, keeping a fair distance from residents. Beth and I are sometimes the only joggers they encounter along a particularly forsaken stretch of the San Gabriel. She still works out despite the late night shifts, and on the days I come over and there’s a shred of sun, we’re jogging – always three miles out and three miles back. We’ve run together for years, since we were roommates in college. We pass the dogs, and I worry that my running might incite a predatory instinct within them, but they just stare at us.

I grew up among coyotes and learned to watch for them slinking across my neighborhood streets around sundown. It’s the strays I find so much more unsettling – how they move with purpose, independent and only recently savage.

I like having friends who aren’t in the entertainment industry. Although most aren’t in the industry, but clinging just outside its periphery. I let myself fade into the background at some of these parties. I’m small, like Beth, and I don’t have her presence. At even the most intimate gatherings, I can’t recognize half the people there. Strangers ask what I do, and I say, “I’m a writer,” and the response is always, “What do you write?” I say “fiction,” and it usually ends there.

Last weekend was a barbeque in the shared backyard of a Hollywood bungalow, all concrete and yellowed grass. I met an actress who asked me what I write and quickly followed with a tale of her two suicide attempts. Pills, both times.

Beth told me pills never worked. When she went on runs as an EMT, a pill popper was a low-enough call in urgency for an ambulance to avoid sirens, maybe even stop for a quick snack at the nearest Taco Bell if they were coming off a long shift. She told me you would have to take the pills slowly, not all at once, and even then, the body fights against it the whole time.

I unlatch Beth’s screen door. She stands in the kitchen, clutching a can of Raid and a broom. She hasn’t changed out of her scrubs, and the dull blue swallows her frame.

“There’s a nest of black widows downstairs in the laundry room,” she informs me.

I wasn’t planning on doing my laundry there, so I shrug.

“We have to kill them,” she says. “There are little kids in the complex who play down there. Who knows how long it will be for the landlord to take care of it?”

“We could put up a warning sign,” I suggest.

I don’t like spiders. Apart from when they pose a definitive threat, hanging over my bed, scampering across my flesh, I try to pretend they aren’t there. But I realize their presence in her laundry room must seem like just another challenge to Beth, like a patient with his skull cracked open or a leg twisted the wrong way, dangling in place by only skin. She’s ready to plunge in.

“It won’t take long,” she says. “You don’t have to come with me.”

Beth is always reminding people that she doesn’t need their help. She’s the type who’d rather scale a grocery aisle row than ask someone taller to pull a can of soup off a shelf for her.

I begin to relent under her resolve. It’s true I don’t want a little child to die. A black widow’s bite could likely put down a three-year-old. Or at least one of the stray cats.

I take a can of Raid, promising to spray every arachnid I spot until they meet a watery, burning death. We head outside, past three spotted cats, and down the stairs into the darkness of her laundry cellar.

They cluster in a damp corner near one of the washers, plump black mounds woven into a cocoon of silken menace. They can see us, I am sure. They lie in wait, suspended in time, and I prepare myself for the frantic race that I know is in store.

Beth swings the broom back like a batter stepping up to the plate and turns to me. “You ready?”

I’m not, but I nod.

She kills with a clinical precision, the same concentration she no doubt uses when saving human lives. I flatten against the opposite wall and can only watch.

I think about that actress, lying on cool tile in a tiny bathroom somewhere in Hollywood, regretting what she’s done already, waiting for the ambulance to find her. A drop of taco juice spilling off an EMT’s hand onto her wrist as he listens for her weakening pulse.


Laura Picklesimer is an MFA graduate from Cal State Long Beach. Her work has been featured in Riprap, the Pomona Valley Review, Watermark Journal and the California Current Writers Series. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches English and creative writing.

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