Kyle listened to the nearing sirens and thought about waves, the waves of the sound--each wave fleeing the next, as the fire engines rattled closer through the maze of street. He kept playing, letting the sirens sing with him, and the sound echoed doubled off of dingy brick on all sides. He watched the guitar strings, clear nylon and steel-wound, watched the low E swelling into a narrow ellipse, vibrating, to resolve itself again into a straight line like an eye closing.
What a noise, he thought. A more distant siren rose again from a growl in three voices to a sustained wail, holding one fixed discord for almost twenty seconds before it sank grudgingly away again. How terrifying, he thought, if I didn't know it for what it is. He ran his fingers along the high strings, frets like railroad ties passing under his fingertips, trying to imitate the noise. The howl of a monster in the hills, of a banshee. A ghost crying out in Los Angeles.
"I am a dead man in a ghost town," he sang softly, and shook his head. After a moment he fingered the next chords, humming, and tried again.
I am a dying man in a ghost town / at sundown, now at sundown / I can almost feel the city drown / slipping down under the darkness, and he stopped again, abandoned the idea. Not what he was after.
L.A. isn't a ghost town yet, anyway, he said to himself, arpeggiating the same chords differently. Not for five more weeks. And me, I'm not a dying man, even if I feel like the ghost of a man. Kyle closed his eyes for a second. The air currents were almost entirely deadened in this rooftop courtyard, and the sallowing sky was visible only directly above.
I have five weeks to decide which way I go, he told himself. Five weeks before the city dies. It doesn't matter, not really; my life here is over in a day and a half.
Behind him the curtain rustled and he looked to see Sharon slipping out of her apartment window. She was ready for bed, barefoot, a button-down shirt of his own flowing vaguely around her, her hair constrained in a loose bundle on the top of her head. He looked town at the pitch of the roof and kept playing, and she settled onto her knees at his side. After a moment she leaned into him, cheek on his arm, and asked was he coming in.
"In a little bit," he said, looking near her but not at her, and his hands fell silent. She nodded, looking at his face, and rose up to wrap her arms around his neck. Just for a moment she was molded to his shape, vibrant, familiar. Then she let him go, and left him alone.
The Sahara is devouring Africa, he though. So she wants to go to Africa. Wouldn't you go to see Pompeii if you knew what was coming? She wants to see the Serengeti because it's dying. Wouldn't you want to watch an L.A. sunset if you knew the city was going to die?
Kyle looked up again and saw only darkening blue, none of the glory over the sea. It was said the sunsets used to have more fire, when the city was dirtier. What kind of justice?
They did not make love. Sharon didn't question, they didn't talk at all, she just lay behind him and held him. I should talk to her, she's trying to make this easier, he thought. She's doing everything I can ask. Still she is leaving, she is leaving with Evan and not with me, she is going far and she will surely be gone long. There is no malice in this, there is only sweetness in her, but when she lives in Africa her sweetness will be moot to me.
Sharon had been seeing Evan for a long time. Kyle had only met the man in passing. He seemed likable enough. It had never been too hard to keep from getting jealous. He had never been at risk; Sharon made it clear she had no intention of giving either man up for the other. From time to time there were other men, from time to time he saw other women; this was their accepted way.
Tonight, though. Tonight it was hard to keep calm, hard not to suppose this long voyage with Evan amounted to abandonment. The resentment he fought made it seem unfair to touch her, so he lay aroused but still, a further challenge. She'd be back, she kept saying. She never said when.
She and Evan had talked about travels abroad for several years, sort of speculatively. Then the news broke about the water, the Colorado dams coming down, and the government advisories appeared everywhere telling people to get out of the metropolitan area. They were still everywhere. The water supply would be practically nothing, without the dams. So Sharon and Evan laid real plans, to get far out of town. Tanzania, northern Tanzania, and the Serengeti Plain. Kyle had a day and a half left with her before they left L.A.
Kyle lay awake and staring after Sharon rolled away from him, after her breathing settled down. He had character enough to be calm, but only mutely. Sharon snored softly; hardly enough to be called snoring, and she'd have been mortified at the suggestion. He could just hear her over the fan fighting the heat in the street-side window.
He turned slowly, quietly, careful not to rock the bed or pull the sheet. A little light came through the window and laid shadows along the tangled wrinkles in the sheet over Sharon's body. Her mouth hung just open, turned a little toward him, and a few strands of dark hair escaped the knot on her head, vibrating at her lips with every exhalation. Kyle could not make out the freckles on her bare collarbone; he knew the pattern from memory.
Slowly, in a trance, he let his hand glide around her head, gently released the clip that held her hair, and lifted it all away, let it rest in a disordered cascade around her. Gently, wrinkles flattening under his palm, he laid his hand on her hip and looked at her that way a while. His mouth stayed shut as though it were locked shut, and her body under his hand was warm and alive.
King without dominion in his land / under Kilimanjaro, in the plainland / his soul is cold, he's lost his hold / on the rolling land with the sand of gold / the ruination of everything he'd planned.
Most times songwriting was a trickled, a forced flow, drawn out with effort over a long time. Once in a while a song would come all in a rush, like horses out of the starting gate, and Kyle knew that feeling when it same. He strummed a new set of chords, out on the roof again, waiting for the next line. The Serengeti, he'd tried to imagine it, and to imagine Sharon there. That thought had led to lions, their social structures, their families, their dominance battles. And then there were lines of verse beginning, and now he was out on the roof, half-singing a melody without words, his guitar and voice amplified by the close-set walls. New chords, more driving, a little slower, a higher melody line.
Maybe you'll return when you grow older / go back and claim her as your own / the weaker of two kings who fought to lead the pride and hold her / you lost the battle and the throne. Changed it: You lost the lady and the throne. So where does the loser go?
He has to go somewhere, right? The loser of a dominance struggle might be beat to hell, or just cowed; either was he's dispossessed. He doesn't have the mastery any more, no right to the females. He doesn't have any territory. Now, that's not a proper parallel. Sharon and Evan are going away, not driving me out. But I'm alone, nevertheless. And what's the use? Can't stay here anyway. This is a doomed city. Move on, your majesty!
A slight breeze eddied, fingering the curtains in the window, and the guitar fell silent. This is the only place I know, Kyle thought. I was born in L.A. There has always been L.A. What are they thinking? He'd been asking himself for months, like maybe everybody else in California. To restore an unbalanced ecology, to change an age-old plan that suddenly looks like it might be a mistake--well, fine--but at what cost? All the major cities of the Southwest? All of them! Some would be entirely cut off from their water supply. A generation of ghost towns, ghost cities, massive sprawling cities standing empty in a desert in the space age. How big a mistake can we make? We're destroying Los Angeles. For an ecosystem the earth itself has almost forgotten. Key change.
Think back to your younger days / when no one ever knew / about your secret waterhole but you / that place kept you alive then / you can survive now, if you go back again. Kyle shifted into a simpler pattern, letting the low strings drone, a musical scrap he'd had on a mental shelf for weeks. Oh, battered soul, what if the fates aren't done with you? / What makes you think that your waterhole is a wishing-well? / Already you feel like the angels died / and the heavens fell down on you / as you limp along with the blood dried on your side. Kyle paused, ran through it again, added: when you've lost your pride.
It was hard not to imagine Sharon coming home married after five years away, if she came back at all. This was not her own prediction or evident intention but she'd be so long alone with Evan; that changes things. She refused to make estimates, how long they'd be out there. Until they wanted to come back, she said. But she'd be back for sure.
I'd want to go to Africa, Kyle thought. I can't argue. It's not that she's wrong. It's just that I lose. I'm allowed to take exception to that.
See him sitting in a place where nothing ever grows / been staring at an empty hole ever since the sun rose / now the sun rides high in the pale blue sky / and his eyes are closed and he knows he'll die / the desolate northern desert wind still blows. Back to the refrain, but change words. This is not the prize you came here for / but lions don't know how to cry / you can only shake your solitary head and roar / when the waterhole runs dry. The words fell into place almost as fast as he could sing them.
It might have been any hour. The night sky in L.A. was never entirely dark. It was good and late, anyway. He knew he was tired because he'd been working a long time; he felt alert, cagey.
The fan droned. Sharon lay sprawled across the whole bed, hair strewn over her face, her shoulder blades. Kyle paused, watched. This, he told himself without wholly believing, this is what I'm losing. The world has conspired to take my whole life from me at once, and this is where my losing begins and ends. He barely thought about joining her.
In the bathroom, alone, he stood facing the mirror. He looked more tired than he felt, the skin tight around his eyes, the hair hanging heavy around his face. It was a little alien, looking at this most familiar face, when his head was full of her face.
Kyle leaned back to glance into the bedroom, and pulled the door to, not quite letting it latch. Slipping his shirt over his head and off, he reached into his assigned shelf, picked up his trimmer and looked back at his eyes. A moment, just to remember the face with the beard. And then he began, anxious, afraid the trimmer's hum would cut through sleep and the noise of the fan outside.
Rough hair fell drifting into the sink, brown whiskers darker than the hair on his head. No going back now, a voice in him said, without judgement. He cropped the beard close, lathered, shaved. It had been a long time, but his hands remembered the ritual. It was comforting.
Running the water in a small stream, to keep it quiet, he wiped the last of the lather from his face, checked the smoothness with his fingers. His face looked fat. It had been a long time. He stared at it, feeling lightened, defiant. On impulse he reached for the trimmer a second time. This time, as quickly as he thought of it, he clippered a swath of hair from the very center of his hairline, close to the skin. Unconcealable. No going back.
This Kyle had never done, and even with a hand-mirror it was a challenge and a chore. Before too long his whole head was cut close, the hair littering the floor around him, whispering over his chest and shoulders. Then, only at length, after more than an hour with the razor, he felt satisfied that his scalp was entirely shaven, and he let the chilly water run over it. He laid his palm over the crown of his head, spread his fingers. Clammy, and prickly, as the hair refused to vanish altogether. His face in the mirror looked entirely unfamiliar now. He turned his head back and forth slowly, his eyes alone fixed forward. Rubbed the padding of fat at the base of his skull. Slapped the skin gently, and again. How strange and how funny, he thought, I've never seen my head before tonight.
Softly, brushing the hair from his skin as best he could, he flipped the lightswitch and stepped back into the bedroom. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, gradually, learned to use the uneven light from the windows again. Sharon had moved but lay still. Kyle stilled the strings of his guitar with one palm before he lifted it, carefully, holding it out the window in front of him as he climbed out, cotton curtains dragging over his scalp like a wire brush.
The softened breeze rang all around his skin, cool, uncomfortable. He stood with the guitar strapped around him, exhilarated. He checked the tune, adjusted it more finely than necessary, and paused. The new song was in his head, he checked it mentally, and tentatively started in. The lion is beaten; the lion is lonely; the lion flees home and home is no salvation. It's a terrible story, he told himself, while with his mouth he spat the words with the fierce pleasure of having written them so truly. In spite of his intentions the chorus had become strident and almost celebratory, like an anthem, and he sang it that way. When it was done he felt full to bursting, and barely pausing he cycled through it again, a little louder, to seal it just so in his memory.
He let the last chord ring a minute, nodding to himself with a certain satisfaction, absently touching his head. The city was quiet, more than ever, such as it could only be in the last hour before dawn. The sky was clouding over. He inhaled deeply, glanced at the drifting curtains.
Once more he climbed inside in near silence, always watching the bed, freezing in place now and again when he feared she might rouse. Morning was at the door and simple exhaustion of the body was starting to tell, and Kyle had decided it wouldn't do to stay. There was so much to say, and he still couldn't imagine how he might say any of it, and he lacked the will to face her in the morning.
I have another day, he thought. I'll talk to her tomorrow.
Gently, he leaned the guitar against her dresser, not bothering with its case. This was a message; I trust my guitar to you, it said, which means I trust you a great deal, which means I still know I love you. Also: I will see you again, and soon.
On the street the wind was shocking, buffeting his defenseless head more than he would ever have supposed; he knew this should be a pleasant wind, cooling just a little, maybe hinting at rain. Now it felt like a torrent, like a cold shower, like standing under a waterfall. Kyle tried to hide behind his own shoulder as he walked the street. Now and again his reflection showed in a window, and he stared at it, enchanted, nervous. Again and again he passed his hand over his head.
He watched his feet walking, following the path home almost unbidden, as though they knew the pattern, the city layout, as well as he. I know this town, he said to himself, sadly. I know my way around pretty much all of it. How much of my brain is a map of L.A.? So much that's no good for anything, now. Five weeks from now.
The streets seemed to wear down as he walked, approaching his own neighborhood; the buildings thinned and hunched lower, the sidewalk torqued and split like a wooden plank left out overnight. Grass showed here and there, taking root improbably in the cracks. Grass in the middle of the city.
Why here, of all places, he thought. This is no place for living things. This is a world of asphalt and concrete, clean of soil for you to live on.
He stopped walking for a moment, his left hand resting on the fence around a playground he knew well; he let his eyes settle for a moment on the packed dirt of the lot inside. There was some earth, with grass in ragged patches on its edge, surrounded by asphalt on all sides. Thinking this, Kyle stopped and reminded himself of the earth underneath; the poured stone he lived on was shallow, just a covering over the soil, not its own sort of ground. He tried to picture it that way, a thin blanket of blacktop spread over miles of the planet's surface, and this little playground just a hole in the cover. It was like an optical illusion, his mind flipping from one perception to another without the picture's changing.
Slowly, glancing behind him, Kyle stepped through the gate, into the playground. He stared at his feet. His eyes flickered around in all directions, as though he might be caught, and unhurriedly he squatted. His hands planted themselves on either side, and he moved on forward, over the edge of the pavement to the hard, dusty ground. He spread his fingers, dug them in a little. Slowly, then--inexorably--staring--he sank forward, lower, until with eyes closed he let his head rest lightly on the grass, cool and soft against his cheek.