It’s safer, they say, to cross the border for a flight. We’re your boys, they say. We’ll take care of it.
They take my money for the papers and drop me off here, in this dusty-ass I-5 town with two payphones.
Stay put, they say. Where we’ll know you’ll be.
It’s been weeks and I’m still waiting to hear the rest of it. No cell phones.
It’s not safe.
I know too much.
I sleep better when sirens are screaming by the windows. When they come for me, they won’t make a sound.
I’ve done time before. I know how to kill it.
How long? is the first thing to stop asking.
I lay my cards down in rows and columns. I arrange them by color and sound. I’m tracing patterns. I take shape. It’s almost like Tarot.
I shuffle. No checking the clock. I deal.
3. Beach Day
This bar has a sign that says CASH ONLY, so I stay. It’s dark in here, hush-hush. BUD LIGHT neon humming on the wood-patterned walls.
I spot the dome cameras, there and there, in the corners.
I look and I listen. I try to make small talk. I ask the bartender about the other sign, black Sharpie on cardboard. It says, NO M.C. ATTIRE.
M.C. as in hip hop?
No, she says. As in motorcycle club.
I lift my bottle to my lips.
The last two drinkers leave, looking back.
I tell her that I’m here to borrow some things. Then I’ll go. That’s fine, she says. She pops the register like I asked and turns to smile. Not my money.
I take it.
She’s assuring me how little she cares—about any of this shit. She’d only moved here to look after her dying aunt, to find out she’d be the only one helping: from cancer to chemo to hospice. You know.
She’s good at talking. She uses her hands.
I bet she’s stopped people from hurting her before by talking. In the past, I mean.
I have a hunch.
The aunt tells her, Just change me the best you can. I don’t want anybody to see me—just you girls. My girls.
That day, like all the others, she’s the only girl.
So the aunt gets changed into her bright yellow dress, her New Year’s dress, with the little white flowers. And when she’s all clean and nice, the bartender presses the button, sending meds into her blood.
That all right?
The aunt is miles away.
Her thumb is still on the button though, so she presses it again. Just to see.
The aunt is gonzo.
Now, looking back, she didn’t mean for anything to happen. It was more like a kind of test. She told herself, Tawnya? It’s now or never.
And then she’s pressing it and pressing it.
The aunt’s heart is beating so fast.
I’m sitting on my stool. I’m listening.
She tells me, I don’t know why I stayed.
I nod. I’ve had to make concessions.
It wasn’t the bills, she adds, it was the screaming and hallucinations. Here, she clenches her long sparkly nails into claws. They’re coming out of the walls! They’re crawling on the ceiling!
I’m trying not to hurry.
So after, she tells me, after all that, she takes her aunt’s ashes to Santa Barbara and has them spread at sea. The sun is setting and the seagulls circling. It was beautiful, she says. Just so nice out there.
Then that night her aunt appears in her dreams.
There’s a knock at the door, and there she is: in her beach gear, her hair grown back, her make-up perfect.
And do I know what she says?
Come on! she says. What’re you waiting for?
The bartender presses the tip of her pinky into the corner of her eye, sort of laughing.
I have dreams like that too.
I don’t know what she wants.
You could do your time, I suggest. Then get deported.
Here, she blinks her big batty purple eyelids.
Oh, she says. Oh no, we still do beach days on Sundays—Aunt Sophie, Aunt Lydia, the kids, Melanie and Mag—
In the corners, the black dome cameras look on.
I have to go now, I say.
And she stands very still.
4. Some People Think Cameras Are For After The Fact
Her Geo Tracker has been parked in the alley. It’s a dune buggy, a silver grille and a roll bar, stranded in the moonlight.
It’s been here too long.
I cross the blacktop. It’s gritty. Bits of rocks and sand. I feel the crunch of it in my teeth, like an old kind of hate.
I don’t think, The Wild West.
I barely think, Desert.
I’m walking my way to the moon.
There’s more to her story, another part I had to cut.
It’s about the morning after, how she fetches her mail and finds footprints, a trail of them, stopped at her door and outlined in sand.
I liked that part. I wanted to keep it.
But these things that happen to people—they wouldn’t make sense if they were real.
I’m traveling along the crooked spine of California, along its twisted bundles of nerves. I’m a red blip of fever.
I switch towns and switch cars. I switch towns again.
I’m lucky. I know what I am.
I stop by 7-Eleven for a hot dog. I pump the chili and cheese, top it off with diced onions, and—after some thought—scoop the relish on too.
It’s almost like the good old days.
I cut up the mess with a plastic spoon by the trash can.
I learned from my boys, when I was 14, what flathead screwdrivers do to locks on Honda Civics and Toyota Camrys.
Like this, said Stomper.
Underhand he stabbed, stepping close to pop the shaft in, belly- low. Something turned in my chest. He threw the door open.
And you’re in.
The world got so big that night. The possibilities.
All those parked cars in its lots and lining its curbs—like turning over gold nuggets among stones.
You could take them if you wanted. You could pick them right up.
I should be mad at my boys but no. I had my chance and I missed it.
I really thought they were teaching me about cars.
A young Wood strolls out of the 7-11 and I ask, Hey, did you drive? He stops and says, Yeah? I say, Let me see your keys. He says, Man. If you touch me, I swear to God.
I ball up my napkins. I toss all my trash.
I don’t know what I’m trying to accomplish here. I shouldn’t have said anything. I think I must’ve been lonely.
I lift my shirt and show him the thing.
I’m taking a trip, I say. He glances at the store. I say, No. Right here. Look at me and keep looking.
Okay, he says, nodding. I see you. All right.
I should’ve met more people when I had the chance, all kinds of different people. Not him, specifically. I mean people in general.
I messed up, I say. I made a mistake.
I have to rearrange some things in my life. I’m trying to be grateful. I’m trying to live day by day.
I had to tell him. I wanted somebody to know.
I think this is where things go wrong for me. Once you say things like that, you bring them into the world. And once you lose control, you’re lost.
I’m still talking when I know it’ll happen. I know it in how he takes a step back. I hear that heart-stopping whoop and then there it is, a patrol car on the street rolling by. It looks like CHP, not local.
It flips on the spotlight.
I block with my hand and blink in its brightness. I turn my back to it and there, as if in a mirror, I spot a shadow spinning away from me, slowly—across the lot, against a wall, it unfolds as it rises.
Then the light clicks again and I vanish.
7. Forgive A Mistake, Get Taken Twice
The way they play you.
Take an oath and give your word. Give a shit and take care. Take a shit and leave something behind.
I took my time here—almost 20 years. It turned out to be borrowed, I know, but still.
8. In the Dark, And on a Train
I’m in a kitchen in Taiwan, trying to read Dr. Seuss. I’m at a glass- topped table and listening to my mother cooking. I’m seven years old and kicking my legs and in a month, I’ll be in America.
I’m confused. I know so little. And this book is only making things worse. Is Sam-I-Am a cat or a dog? He has a bird’s tail and a fur-suit for a body. His shaggy fingers spread like curved wingtips.
Is he a monster?
In the book he’s forcing his friend to try some green food and, finally, so Sam-I-Am will stop harassing him, the friend forks up a yolky green egg.
And he likes it.
He says thank you.
I put the book down.
I listen to the popping of oil, the sizzling of chopped ginger and scallions, the shuddering of the range hood.
In America, the animals must be different, I think. All kinds of things must be different.
I shout, Ma, are the eggs really green in America?
I hear the crackling of bok choy hitting hot oil. She shouts something back, something lost in the roar of the range hood.
Ma, I shout again. Are the eggs really green in America?
Steve Chang is from the San Gabriel Valley, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, North American Review, The Southampton Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. He tweets @steveXisXok