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Pacific Avenue

Here’s the complete first chapter of my novel.

Chapter 1
December 1974, Interstate 10, Westbound

I chose a window seat on the Greyhound, but I didn’t look out. For almost the whole trip, I stared at the rough tan upholstery of the seat in front of me. It had a rip on one side and three dark stains.

A woman settled into the aisle seat. She raised her footrest, but it clunked back down. When I glanced her way, she caught my eye and smiled.

“How do you make these things stay put?” she asked.

I meant to answer—the words were lined up in my mind. But before I could say them, they slipped apart like beads when the string breaks. I gave up and studied the seat cover again. Still tan, still ripped, still stained. The next time I looked, the woman was gone.

Evening came, but I didn’t use my reading light. Late at night, awake in the breathing dark, I imagined running my fingers over the seat back, erasing the stains, mending the seam. In the morning, I almost believed I could fix it. So I took care not to touch it, not to find out for sure.

In the afternoon, the bus left the freeway and crept through downtown traffic. I turned then, and peered through the mud-spattered window. As far as I could see, Los Angeles was a city of warehouses. I sank back into my seat.

When we reached the station, I claimed my suitcase and dragged it through the waiting room to the street. Outside I found blank walls and empty sidewalks. No direction and no one to ask.

Well, I ran away from college, then from New Orleans, and then Baton Rouge. Is it too soon to run away from here?

The traffic light at the end of the block turned green, and cars passed me by. When a city bus stopped and opened its doors, I climbed on. I couldn’t think what else to do.

I paid the fare out of my change purse and took a seat near the front. Even though I pulled my suitcase aside, it poked out into the aisle. More people piled on at every stop, and all of them had to squeeze past it. I expected everyone to glare, but nobody gave me a second glance.

The bus started, stopped, started again. We passed through neighborhoods with trees and shops. The crowd thinned as passengers got off, going home. Should I get off too? No, not here. Where? Next stop, no, the one after. No, not that one. Every stop would be a whole different life, a different second chance.

Choose, choose. I couldn’t. I rode till the bus pulled over and parked.

“Seventh and Pacific, San Pedro, Port of Los Angeles,” called the bus driver. He turned to me and added, “End of the line, Miss.”

I waited till the other passengers got out, hoping the driver would help me with the suitcase. He watched blank-faced as I wrestled it down the steps. Setting it on the sidewalk, I looked around.

I’d reached the end of the line, all right. Pacific Avenue was like a street in some Third World country. The candy-colored buildings were old and grimy. Christmas tinsel sparkled around the windows, but the sidewalk glitter was broken glass and gobs of spit. The crosswalk lights cycled green and red, green and red. Their afterimage flashed inside my head when I closed my eyes: “WALK, DON’T WALK.” Choose, choose.

I couldn’t decide which way to go. The bus pulled away in a cloud of exhaust. A man ran past me, shouting, “Hey, stop, hey! Son of a bitch!” A few steps behind him, a woman jerked a crying child along by the arm. Gusts of wind sent sidewalk trash skittering after them like rats.

Seventh Street looked quieter, so I tried it first. But after the first block, the buildings thinned out and the street plunged downhill toward a gleam of water. Silhouettes of tall cranes made black X’s against the evening sky. Like scissors, waiting to cut it into strips. Nothing but the port down there. Nothing there for me.

So it had to be Pacific Avenue. Night was coming, and I dreaded wandering the streets after dark with no place to stay. I backtracked quickly, then began to search for motels, rooming houses—anything halfway decent.

All I saw was stores. I passed the Thrif-Ti-Mart, with its displays of sun-bleached plastic housewares. The Angel Bakery—a wedding cake behind plate glass, a ventilator spewing the scent of sugar and grease. Next door, a boarded-up entryway added a reek of stale pee. A pigeon flapped past my face. Flinging up my hands to ward it off, I dropped the suitcase on my foot. My eyes filled with tears, but I didn’t have time for them. I grabbed the suitcase handle again and kept going.

I scanned the signs, but some of them meant nothing to me—“Baile,” “Mariscos,” “Menudo Hoy.” For all I knew, any of those words might have meant “Rooms.” I hesitated a couple of times, but the places didn’t look like boarding houses, so I walked on by. I passed “Antiques,” in a window with a black velvet painting of Elvis and a tangle of pole lamps. The next block offered “Ten Minute Oil Change,” “Auto Upholstery,” and “Radiator.” Everything for cars, nothing for people.

In the block after that, I rested beside a storefront—Salvation Army, used Christmases for sale. The dinged-up manger scene in the window was nothing like my family—the mother, the father, and the baby were all there. I laid my hand, then my forehead, against the cool glass. Oh, God, let me find a place to sleep tonight.

When I turned back to the street, I thought I saw a sign advertising “Room and Board.” I hurried toward it, suitcase bumping my legs. Two motorcycles roared from behind me and pulled over to the curb a few yards ahead. One of the riders looked back, and the low evening sun flashed from his blank helmet. Faceless, dangerous.

I bolted across the street, hardly checking for traffic, and scrambled back the way I’d come. Didn’t even look over my shoulder for half a block, but when I did, no one was following. Shaking, I set the suitcase down and leaned against a wall. Right beside me hung another sign, “Madame Sofia—The Mystic Eye—Botanica.”

The dusty store window displayed roots, stones, and cards, like the voodoo shops in New Orleans. A sign propped against a plaster pyramid said “Apartment for Rent.” I went in.

A woman sat behind the counter of the dim shop, spotlighted by a small lamp. A black and white cat sat beside her.

She didn’t smile as I came toward her. Her eyes were almost opaque, like pale blue marbles. Her face seemed young, but her hair was white as a piece of paper and nearly as straight. Dime-sized mirrors glittered on her embroidered dress as she reached for a Tarot pack at her elbow.

“Tell you the future, five dollars.”

I would have paid more than that not to know.

“I came about the apartment,” I said.

“Apartment?” She sounded so confused, I wondered if I’d come to the wrong place.

“The sign in the window,” I prompted.

“Oh, the apartment. Two hundred a month, utilities included. You want to see it?”

“Yes, please.”

She led me out the way I’d come and around the corner to a side door. Instead of unlocking it, she turned back to me.

“What’s your name?”

“Kathy Woodbridge.”

“Where you from, Kathy?”

“Illinois.” My voice sounded squeaky and forced, but she didn’t seem to notice. She let us into a narrow hallway that might have been white the last time it was painted.

A fluorescent tube flickered on the ceiling. The mustard yellow carpet was a felted material that trapped twigs and cockleburs. The only way to get rid of them would have been to pick them out by hand, but it looked like no one ever did.

I followed her up a dark red stair at the far end of the hall. At the top were three doors.

“This used to be offices,” she said, “but I decided to remodel them into apartments. There’ll be two, but only one is ready.” Judging by that faded “For Rent” sign, she was taking her time about it.

“What’s the third door?” I asked.

“Stairs to the roof.”

She unlocked the apartment door, jiggling the key to make it work.

I could tell the apartment had been patched together from offices. The rooms were all misfits—a living room with tin cabinets in one corner to make a sort-of kitchen, then a too-small bedroom and a too-big bathroom.

At least it was clean. Rips in the linoleum floor were mended with parallel lines of tacks. Everything else, even the light switches and doorknobs, had a fresh coat of paint.

I tried to raise one of the living room windows, but it stuck. Giving up, I stood and looked down at Pacific Avenue, its shabby buildings all but erased by the dusk. If I didn’t take this place, I’d have to go out there and find another one.

I turned and considered the room again, wondering if I could stand to live in it. Madame Sofia watched me take it all in.

“The walls are white to go with your curtains and rugs,” she pointed out.

Pictures swirled through my mind, almost like a movie. I open my suitcase and pull out my curtains and rugs. A bookcase, a table, all my old stuff. My suitcase is bottomless. I pull out books, dishes, my paints and woodcarving tools, the marionettes, our bed. Last of all, Richard steps out, with Jamie toddling beside him.

Tears stung behind my nose, but I pulled myself together. Madame Sofia hovered expectantly. Well, if she sees the future, guess she knew all along I’d go for it. I didn’t have two hundred in cash, but I still had my old checkbook. I fished it out of my purse and began to write.

“Make it to Marilu Collins,” she said.

I had already written “Madame Sofia,” so I started over with a new check. No reason to save them—two hundred dollars about cleaned out the account. As I handed her the check, I realized my old address was on it, and stifled an impulse to grab it back. But she didn’t even glance at it, only tucked it into her pocket and gave me the key. I said goodnight and closed the door—my door—as she went downstairs.

A box of crackers and a bag of raisins from my suitcase would do for dinner. As I ate, the room went dark except for streetlights fanned across the ceiling. I spread my coat on the floor to sleep on and wadded up some clothes for a pillow.

That was my first night on Pacific Avenue. Nobody knew my name but the woman dressed in mirrors. And no one at all knew where I came from, or why.

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