Vespers on the Rocks
2 days ago…
It isn’t like East Hollywood really needs another Mexican-Dim Sum fusion food truck, but Juan-Ton’s DJ is slightly better than Chucha Chiu-Chao!’s so they get a small crowd on Sunday nights near the ruins of the old zoo, despite having admittedly mediocre Carnitas Bao. The music is all jazz standards tonight, it catches some of the more diehard technophiles off-guard, but it makes for a pleasant picnic.
Allan shivers and pulls his jacket tighter. Max seems to barely register the cold, even though it’s freezing by LA standards. She keeps playing with a felt lamb that you can tuck into a felt pasture pocket on the picnic blanket. I mean she’s only two, so she should be playing, but Allan can’t believe that she can’t register the tension on some level. Her mother, Allan’s wife, Rose, just stares ahead shivering, refusing to take Allan’s jacket. She mindlessly takes bites from her rapidly cooling Shu Mai Diablo. Allan can tell she is just barely holding back tears.
There is a small part of him that still feels something approaching affection and love. It’s so small though, and it is so often lost in the fjordic rush of anger, frustration and exhaustion. Four years ago, she was perfect: mercurial, adventurous, self assured. They lived the careless lives of over-educated, irresponsible bohemians, working jobs that paid just enough to get by, and spent their nights watching Truffault films, drinking Pabst and arguing about the rules of Scattegories. But marriage, the baby, god—all of it changed everything and Allan was finding himself struggling to get through the day. It wasn’t just the new job he hated having to take out his gauges and his nose ring, but it would be worth it for Rose. It was Rose herself. It had been a rough pregnancy, postpartum depression, and total inability to connect with their daughter. Max was safe at home, but not particularly loved. Allan was trying to be a good dad, but, more and more, he was realizing that he was taking care of two children, and one was all he could handle.
The last three months or so, Rose had started doing this thing where she just checked out. She sat in pained silence, completely inconsolable, utterly dissociated. Then, hours later there was some pathetic attempt at reconciliation or affection. She would take his hand, or give him a dry, loveless kiss on the cheek. That part is the worst for Allan. The fruitless attempt at pretending things are fine.
Max brings over a clump of grass and dirt that she had uprooted. She places it triumphantly in Rose’s lap. Rose doesn’t even glance down. She does cock her head to the side, placing it on Allan’s shoulder, though it is the lightest of touches. He shudders a little and gets up from the picnic blanket. “Gonna take a walk.” He says. Rose nods listlessly and absentmindedly puts out a hand for Max to grab. Max does not take the lead.
Allan gets the fuck away from the music and the foodies and the slow death of his marriage. Once he is out of sight, he runs his hands through his hair, a picture of perfect anxiety. He makes his way up the steps to the old zoo proper. It was built at the turn of the century and expanded in the days of Roosevelt’s WPA. It still has a charmingly Deco feel and with most of the bars removed, there is a feeling of comfort in being able to wander in and out of the enclosures. He approaches the old bear cave. There are good memories here. Picnics with Rose, a late night tryst with her on the cold stone floor, content to be in each other’s arms, committing private misdemeanors. The little wash of joy fades, replaced by the cold inside and out. There will be no more late night trysts, no more happy picnics.
The music still drifts faintly up the hill. Allan walks into the shadows of the cage’s overhang and takes a seat on a stone dais. He’s not prone to emotional outbursts, but he can feel that aching warmth at the corners of his eyes. He does not cry, but he sits letting those tiny traces of tears well, but not fall.
It’s about ten minutes before a voice like parchment tearing shrieks out “HELP!” Allan jumps, stifling an undignified scream. The shock of not being alone, the raspy horror of that voice, all of it floods his body with adrenaline. He glances quickly left and right.
There, in the darkest part of the cave, where a doorway would have once let in zookeepers, there is a human figure. It is prone, head lolling to one side, arm outstretched, like a senior in a heart-monitor commercial. There is a wet cough and then the word again, “Help!” Fainter this time, and without the alarmist energy of the initial utterance.
Allan calls, “Who’s there?”
The figure is still. Breathing shallowly. Allan takes his cell phone out of his pocket and opens up the flashlight app. In seeing the horror show before him, he drops the phone and must scramble to pick it up. The figure is a woman. Middle aged, with close-cropped blonde hair and worry lines around her eyes. She clutches at her stomach which seems unnaturally swollen and distended and he cannot help but think of Rose at her most pregnant, she was grotesque then too. The woman’s white blouse and jeans are stained with a blackish, greenish darkness that is spreading out from under her hand, a wound with mold instead of blood, he thinks, foolishly.
“Please.” The woman speaks, barely above a whisper. When she opens her mouth, Allan can see that more of the muck is pouring out of her mouth. “Help.” Partway through the syllable, it devolves into a gurgle and then goes silent all together. There is a smell beginning to emanate. Allan thinks of garbage, of rot, of all those sweet, sickly stenches that linger over unclean things. The woman attempts to mouth another word, but no voice accompanies it. Her eyes go glassy and Allan sees the little spark of light go out. He dials 911. As the phone rings, Allan feels a strange wind blow from the woman’s body, strong enough to ruffle his gelled hair, his skinny jeans and chill him even colder than the night air and the loneliness in his heart.
Elswehere, in a dark paneled room, there are a hundred bells hanging in alcoves. There is a man in an overstuffed leather armchair, dozing. It’s very late after all. One bell, a tin one inscribed with a single Sanskrit character, starts to flutter back and forth, a tiny, tinkling noise like rain on glass. It gets louder and more forceful. Within a second the little bell is swinging violently back and forth, little glass clapper letting out a shrill alarum which jolts the man out of sleep. He rushes over to the alcove in which it is held, and scans up and down searching for the one ringing. He pulls a little piece of parchment from behind the noisy offender. He reads the name off it and his eyes go wide, his mouth goes dry. He runs for an end table and picks up a red phone, “Fuck, man,” he gasps into it, “It’s happened.”