An excerpt from
Commune of Women
Los Angeles International Airport
Los Angeles, California
Monday, 8:37 AM
The noise as Erika steps out of the cab is deafening. She’s screaming at Amelia, “Just call Dallas and tell them...” and the fucking phone cuts out. She spins around, hoping to pick up the signal again. It’ll take Amelia ten minutes to settle down and remember that she already knows what she’s supposed to tell the Dallas office. They went over it yesterday. Christ!
The cabby’s on Mexican time. He’s taking her bag out of the trunk like he’s doing it underwater. She’s got forty minutes to dash through the terminal, get through fucking Homeland Security, and catch the flight to Berlin. Come on!
Every loser in Creation is in her way. Why do most people look like genetic throwbacks? They mope along, looking dazed – no sense of direction; no focus. How do they manage to feed and clothe themselves? What must their sex lives be like? She’s like a shark among guppies. If she has to, she’ll bite her way through this sea of zombies!
The thing Heddi always hates about LAX is the frantic pace. Traffic swarms around entrances and parking spaces like bees around a disturbed hive. Once she’s run that gauntlet, dealing with the mess inside the terminals is a piece of cake.
Thank God Betty insisted on driving her today. The thing with Hal has her so upset! And this Wellbutrin’s so strong she wouldn’t trust her own driving. Betty – big and solid as a navy-and-red mountain, her grip on the wheel like a strangler’s; her jaw, lost in a pudding-like sack of triple chins – is navigating the traffic like one of the Norns clutching the reins of the Car of Fate.
She’s never let a patient drive her anywhere before and this is the first time she’s ever come to the airport to pick one up. Heddi has a special spot in her heart for this arrival. According to her own analyst, Dr. Copeland, Ondine represents some part of Heddi’s shadow which is why Heddi always finds her so marvelously aggravating.
“Offer her particular hospitality,” Dr. Copeland advised her. “She has much to teach you.”
The digital read-out of Arrivals says Flight 3742 from Paris is on time, probably taxiing up to Gate 34 at this very moment. Which means she has at least half an hour to use the loo and then read a few pages of the murder mystery that’s got her hooked – if she can hold Betty at bay – before she even has to start looking for Ondine in this mob. And to make herself suitably hospitable, whatever that might entail.
Betty never thought she’d be the kind of person who’d go to a shrink. She’s as normal as apple pie. Dish water. Laundry soap. Whatever. But things happen to you in this life; things you don’t expect and that are painful.
That was a surprise. She grew up so normal and still that was no proof against suffering. During their last session, Heddi said that Betty survived her normality by staying unconscious – not, like, out cold, but by not really thinking about the things that were wrong. That’s why things got so crazy – because Betty wasn’t bringing any of the stuff to consciousness.
Betty steals a sidelong glance at Heddi, so cool and aloof in her short blond do and pale blue silk pencil skirt that glints like surgical steel, so slender and self-contained, and she feels a shudder run through her. She’s not sure if it’s from pleasure at being of service to such a svelte, sophisticated creature, or from pure terror of her.
At their last session, Heddi also said that Betty has made a fetish out of plastic flowers. She says Betty is living in a very primitive state of religiosity. That religio is the root word, meaning careful consideration of the dangers.
“What dangers?” Betty asks.
“The gods,” Heddi says. “The gods will have their way with us.”
“Gods? I don’t believe in them.”
“It doesn’t matter. They believe in you.”
Betty doesn’t get it. She’s new at this. If her friend, Em, hadn’t sworn that this was the best thing for her to do right now to save her sanity, she’d quit. It’s all a mystery to Betty, but at least she’s up out of the BarcaLounger and doing something positive – if navigating L.A. traffic, especially LAX traffic, can be considered positive. It does kind of perk her up, getting her adrenaline going like this. And Heddi’s surely in no shape to drive. Betty’s never seen her so somber. Maybe it’s this mystery person who’s arriving that she’s thinking about.
It doesn’t matter if Heddi doesn’t even say a word to her. All Betty wanted was to get out of her house before she took a butcher knife and drove it straight through her own heart.
Ever since she lost her spot in front a Pop’s Diner, Pearl’s been a gypsy. She tried settin up at the pier, but either the wind was too sharp or the sun got ta her. Then she tried a couple a blocks back from the ocean, by the Safeway. But people was too busy, bustlin in, bustlin out. Nobody paid her no nevermind.
She went from a good, solid twenty-dollar day at Pop’s ta almost nothin. It’s been two weeks an Pearl purdy near starved ta death, til José come along, him an his cab.
“Pearl, I been looking for you,” he says. “All over town.”
José was one of Pop’s regulars, an he never stiffed her. Ever single time he put somethin in her can –sometimes a dollar, sometimes two, or even five. Always with a smile an a “Buenos dias, Madre.”
Madre! Callin the laks a Pearl Mother! Well, if that don’t beat Hell!
“What you are doing now, Pearl? Where you are sitting?”
“José, I ain’t got no spot no more. Since Pop up an died on me, I’m double homeless. Ain’t got no home an also ain’t got no business establishment.”
“Dis is turriblay.” He rattled off them r’s lak he’d got a chill. “Terrible, Pearl. You got to come wit me.”
“Whar we goin?”
“I don’ know. You get in. We theenk about it.”
“What bout mah chariot? Cain’t leave mah cart behind.”
“You get in, Pearl. I poot eet een de trronk.”
Pearl smiles at how these Mesicans can mangle the language. And sure enough, he hefts that damn thing in thar lak it warn’t nothin, an off they go. “Whar you takin me, José?”
“I don’ know, Pearl. We got to theenk. How about de pier?”
“Tried that. Most froze mah tush off.”
“How about de shelter?”
“Nope. Ain’t goin ta no shelter. If’n I gots ta sleep in the sand on the beach, I’ll do that. But I ain’t goin inta no shelter.”
By now, theys out on the freeway. Don’t ax her which one, cuz she ain’t never drove a car in her life. She barely done rode in one. José is real quiet an Pearl’s thinkin he’s regrettin takin her up. But then he shouts, “I got it! Pearl, I know where you got to go! You have good business there.”
“Now how the Hell am I gonna get ta the airport?”
“I take you.”
“Now listen, young man. I don’t need no one-day gig. I gots ta do this ever day.”
“Jes. Jes, I understand. I take you every day.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No. Listen, Pearl. I got to go to de airport every day, anyways. That’s where most of my fares come from. I take you in de morning and pick you up, my last run at night.”
Well, Pearl argued a piece, but José was so enthusiastic, she finally done give in an said she’d give it a try. It’s illegal as Hell, she’s sure. But the amazin part is, she’s made more in the first hour then she usually makes all day. She’s keepin a low profile. Hangin out mostly in the bathrooms. She cain’t ratly believe how many a them suckers they is. They gots more bathrooms then a pig’s got poop.
Pearl figgered out rat away that she could take a paper towel an wipe the counter an the bowl, fore a lady washes her hands. She knows they laks ta plunk they purses down – an them wet spots jes gives em the shivers. Some jes brushes her off, but more often then not, they’ll dig in a pocket or a purse an hand her some change, or even a bill.
Pearl cain’t hardly believe her good fortune. Only trouble is, she cain’t smoke her pipe. Other then that, thins is lookin real good.
When you lift off from Orly and climb above Paris, you can see the inner ring – the Périphérique, the freeway that follows the ancient fortifications of the city. It makes a huge mandala in the midst of the urban sprawl and confirms Ondine’s deeply held conviction that Paris is the Center of the Universe. And at its beating heart, on the tail of the Île de la Cité, the Great Mother is enthroned – Notre Dame Cathedral. That view never fails to bring tears to her eyes.
Flying in over L.A., on the other hand, brings a different kind of tears to her eyes. It doesn’t matter that the full name of the city is La Ciudad de la Madre de Los Angeles. Somehow Our Lady, Mother of the Angels, has gotten squeezed out of the center of things – or asphyxiated by smog.
Ondine gropes for her seat belt, as the jet angles down steeply over the web of freeways in final approach. She drags her maroon leather hobo bag from beneath the seat and rummages for her cosmetic bag, refreshes her lipstick, flicks pretzel crumbs off her pristine aqua lapel, pushes the usual errant lock of auburn hair back from her face and glances again out the window.
There is no center here. No there out there, as they say. She’s diving down into an eye-smarting jumble. Into chaos.
Sophia had a dream last night, on the eve of her departure for Los Angeles. She dreamed she was flying.
No plane around her; just her arms outstretched and the wind rushing over her. She simply rose up from her mountain cabin until she was up high enough to see the Pacific Ocean on her right and the white phalanx of the Sierra crest on her left. Her plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans flapped in the wind and her scuffed Red Wing work boots trailed behind her, weightlessly. Her hair arced out around her like long, gray wings. She just flew and flew. It was exhilarating.
Which is a good thing because in actual fact she hates to fly. It raises her blood pressure until she thinks blood will squirt from her ears. And she hates Southern California even more than she hates flying. She loves the Earth. She loves all the creations of the Goddess, right down to the humblest nematode. But Southern California’s a wasteland, with all natural life suppressed under asphalt and buildings. If the conference on goddess cultures wasn’t too good to miss, she’d never have come.
Sophia does like air terminals, though. She loves seeing the people arriving from foreign flights, especially: the women in saris, the men in turbans, the Africans with deep ritual scarifications on their cheeks, and the little huge-eyed children. Since her bus for Pasadena doesn’t leave for an hour, she’s decided to come over to the international terminal and get a dose of the exotic that simply never penetrates into the hills where she lives.
She settles her denim derrière in a molded plastic chair and watches what must be a tour from China coming at her – several dozen Chinese, all talking too loudly in that nasally singsong and dragging their suitcases on rollers behind them. They’re perfectly dressed; perfectly coiffed. How do they do that, after hours in the air? Maybe it’s genetic.
And here comes a Muslim couple. He’s in a well-cut business suit. She’s in chador, walking three steps behind him. A stair-step covey of brown-eyed children gathers in their wake, dutiful and subdued. The last time a woman in Sophia’s neck of the woods covered her head, it was raining. What must it be like, walking around in a black tent all your life?
One thing’s for sure – they don’t look like terrorists. But then, what does a terrorist look like? On general principles, everyone’s supposed to be hating these people. But they look like a nice couple to her. Their kids are neat, well fed, and well behaved. He doesn’t look unkind or demented.
Who knows what she looks like? Sophia wonders how Homeland Security handles the fact that three people could be hiding under such a copious garment? Do they shoot first, and ask questions later? Do they make her lift her skirts and peer underneath with a flashlight? That poor woman is a walking international incident in the making!
She keeps repeating to herself this mantra: Violence is power; power is violence. She will not let her mind think any other thing.
Violence is power; power is violence.
Violence is power; power is violence.
The van’s windows are blacked out, and the Brothers have duct taped a curtain between the driver’s seat and the back where they are all sitting. Did anyone notice them, a dozen people all in black, emerging from the dilapidated stucco apartment building, abandoned long ago to its fate as student housing? Or see them wedge themselves and their gear into a battered Tradesman van and pull the side door shut, without ever speaking a word? In this big city, does anyone really notice anything – or care, if they do?
Certainly, no one would notice – or care – that they are all male, except for one young woman, who has had a demotion. The men have taken away her name and call her, simply, X.
Jamal is next to her, which is a comfort, even though he will not look at her, or speak. So far, everything is going as planned.
The van leans into a curve and she hears Ibrahim say softly, “Only two or three minutes, now.”
Jamal cracks her ribs with the stock of his gun. She raises hers from the floor and tucks the stock into her right armpit. The others make similar preparations. She pulls down the rolled balaclava and settles its holes over her nose and mouth.
Then the van slams to a stop. The side door is thrown open and Ibraham is standing in the blinding glare, shouting “GO! GO! GO!”
They all scramble out and run.
Violence is power; power is violence.
Violence is power; power is violence.