An Interested Party
They didn’t let dogs on the bus so I had to walk, dragging my suitcase and Hendrix behind me for miles and by the time I made it to the big white building, I was hot and tired and angry. Like all the places around here, it had a red tiled roof and looked too pretty surrounded by pink Bougainvilleas and Birds of Paradise shooting their orange and purple spears toward the sun. I wished it was raining or foggy or even a little cloudy, not sunny, not windless, not a warm day with a clear sky. It must be April by now I thought as I walked in the County Morgue. April in California. Not too hot, not too cold. Fucking perfect.
“No dogs allowed,” the woman behind the counter said, wrinkling her nose when I got close.
I had no idea what I looked like anymore, but my hair felt matted and I hadn’t had a real shower since the shelter and God knows when that was.
“I need to find out about a body,” I said. “The people at the hospital told me to come here.”
“Miss, please, you have to leave your dog outside,” she said. “Then we’ll see about the body.”
I took Hendrix outside and told him to wait. I never tied him up. He and I understood each other.
“Are you family or next of kin?” the woman asked when I returned. She was young, not much older than me and up close, I could see her pale lips were outlined in dark lip liner.
She walked over to a large metal filing cabinet. “What’s the deceased’s name?”
“Rhea McCallister and she doesn’t have any family. They’re all dead,” which was almost true. Her dad, a Vietnam vet, was probably still alive, drinking himself stupid on some park bench in San Francisco.
She pulled out a file, flipped through the pages. “We allow five days for a family member to claim the deceased. After that, any interested parties may claim her.”
“I’m an interested party.”
“Then come back in four days. We just got her yesterday.”
I walked back to the beach where Rhea and I’d been camping for the last month and collapsed on the sand, hollowed out and empty. She’d been dead for two days and I felt nothing but an awful static in my head; where I knew there should be sadness or anger, a pain in my chest or throat, there was nothing but fuzzy black and white lines squiggling in my head and buzzing in my ears. I couldn’t even cry.
Somehow it became night. I slept fitfully on the sand, debated whether or not to call my parents about a hundred times before deciding I didn’t want to hear their voices just yet, didn’t want to hear they were “praying for me,” didn’t want to hear anything except the sound of crashing waves, the sound of the ocean, which was oddly soothing considering it was the thing that had claimed her. Or rather it was the thing she had let claim her.
Although Rhea was never much of a swimmer, it wasn’t an accident. That much I knew when I found her rolling back and forth in the surf, covered in soft foam. Her body was blue and tangled in seaweed, but it was her eyes that gave her away – they were gray and still and seemed to say, I didn’t tell you everything. Her mouth was cold when I tried to blow air into it and her skin already felt rubbery, more dolphin than human. When the paramedics and police came, I was babbling incoherently, or so that’s what they told me later when I went to the hospital. I only remember how much she looked like the mermaids on the bath towels she’d bought for our apartment, her legs bound together with kelp, her face contorted with surprise and triumph, as if she’d just deciphered an impossible riddle without me.
We’d met at Frimples, a 24-hour restaurant where the smell of bacon permeated everything, including my uniform, a brown smock dotted with yellow and orange flowers that looked like the tablecloth my mother used on Thanksgiving. We worked the late shift and by the end of that summer we knew a lot about each other, maybe too much.
We were both eighteen. She’d run away from San Francisco, away from cleaning office buildings and living in a van with her drunk dad. I’d run away from New Beginnings, the clothing-optional commune of born-again hippies where I grew up. I found myself telling Rhea things about my former life I’d wanted to forget – the endless prayer circles, the naked men and women strolling around the gardens, reading the Bible, clipping their toenails on the deck. Even though I was home-schooled and didn’t know much about life beyond our thirty acres in the Sierra foothills, I was still embarrassed by these people with the sagging, sunburned skin who peed outside as if it was the most normal thing to do, as if they were in the garden of fucking Eden. Even my parents did it. “It’s natural,” my mother would say, “all part of God’s creation.” But I didn’t want to see my mom squatting over a bush, her breasts low to the ground. I didn’t want to see my dad scratching his bare ass as he fed the chickens. I wanted to watch TV and eat junk food. I wanted a real life.
I told Rhea all this and she didn’t laugh or make fun of me. She just said, “I wonder what it’s like to walk around in the nude. I wonder if it makes people more honest.”
“It doesn’t,” I said.
I even told Rhea my real name. It was Abundant Dawn, but I dropped the first part years ago after I got tired of explaining to other kids what abundant meant.
Rhea smoked. She had a chipped front tooth and an intriguing habit of picking things off the ground, things no one else noticed: dirty nickels, metallic hair ties, shiny gum wrappers. At Frimples, she would stoop over tables and chairs to reach mysterious objects she’d slip into her pockets. She reminded me a little of a crow with her dark glossy hair, her pointy features and her eyes, darting and bird-like in their constant search for sparkly objects.
And she could sing. She didn’t have a feminine or pretty voice, but it was forceful and clear and when she sang there was an ache in her voice and the sound stirred something in my own chest, something wordless and beautiful, something I’d never felt before.
We moved in together and built grandiose plans that seemed almost more real to us than the present. We would move to New York, to Los Angeles, to London. Rhea would become a rock star and I would be her manager. Doors would open. We’d be rich and famous. All the people we hated – our boss at Frimples, our nosy landlord Mr. Lambert, loud Mrs. Otis in apartment three – would beg to be our friends, would wistfully tell reporters they “knew us when.”
We became so absorbed in our plans, so engrossed in drinking Southern Comfort and playing Blondie and Pretender albums that we laughed it off when we lost our jobs and couldn’t pay the rent. It didn’t help that I’d never saved a penny and Rhea had spent all her money decorating our studio apartment so that it looked like an Easter display in a drug store – all pastel pinks and yellows, candy colors that were too sweet, too artificial – springtime on acid. We didn’t even have furniture for some of the things she bought, like sheets and a tablecloth, but she was so happy hanging up the curtains, talking about having people over for dinner, that I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hated the colors, hated her taste. I only questioned whether or not we could afford it.
“Fuck money,” she said. “I want a home.”
We ripped up the first eviction notice and threw it in the toilet, snickering at the ridiculous threat to “forcibly remove us.” And when the second notice came we still laughed, but when two sheriffs and our landlord showed up early one morning, they did indeed forcibly remove us, leaving us only enough time to gather a few belongings before they shoved us out the door and changed the locks.
Since then, Rhea had pulled away from me, keeping her thoughts to herself, having secret feelings I could only guess at. She cut her long hair, stopped wearing makeup and only wanted to drink milkshakes. I pretended not to notice because the truth was I sort of liked living on the beach. It was exhilarating to sleep near crashing waves, to wake to gulls crying instead of the screams of Mrs. Otis’s four kids and the rumbling garbage truck, to smell the ocean breeze, briny and wet, instead of the stale air in our apartment.
Rhea said there was something wrong with me, but I was more attentive out there, alert to the weather, the tides, the moon, my own breathing self. Without walls and ceilings, something inside me shifted. I didn’t care about our plans anymore. I started to imagine I was that Indian woman from the book Island of the Blue Dolphins, who’d lived alone for eighteen years on one of the islands off the coast. When I’d read about her as a kid, I’d thought, now that’s the kind of life I’d like to lead: making weapons, building a shelter out of whale bones, wearing feathers in my hair. Now that would be really surviving. Not just pretending to be Indians like my parents.
Rhea was the first person I’d told any of this to and at the time she liked my stories, but once we were homeless she didn’t want to hear any more stories. She’d sit uselessly on the sand, smoking, while I collected driftwood for a fire or built a wall of sand around our sleeping bags.
“This isn’t the fucking girls scouts, you know,” she’d say.
Then one day as I was gathering fallen oranges and avocados, I realized I didn’t want to be her manager anymore. I didn’t care about being rich and famous. It was her dream all along. And she was lazy. While I’d collect cans and bottles for money, she’d beg for change downtown, spending whatever she made on chocolate milkshakes. I found an old fishing pole and fished off the wharf. I discovered the bakery that left day old bread on their back door. If there was one thing I’d learned from my parents, it was how to be self-reliant. And all along I’d thought she was the one with the talent.
One night, she walked down to the shore without me. With only a sliver of a moon, I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her, screaming at the top of her lungs. Repeatedly. Horribly. I huddled in my sleeping bag, remembering a painting from one of my mom’s art books, the scary one of the man on the bridge with his mouth open so wide it looked like you could drop right down inside of that hole and never climb out.
Walls and ceilings. That’s what she wanted. She didn’t want to be playing Robinson Crusoe with me. She didn’t want to be a fucking girl scout. She wanted me to call my parents and go stay at the commune, but I didn’t want to go back to milking goats, praying, changing diapers all day. I wanted to be like those people in the past, who I guess were mostly men, that just went up to a ship and asked the captain if there was a place for them, even if they had no skills, and they would get on that ship without a cent in their pocket and go out into the world. Or they would cross the country by wagon or hop a train and find some new kind of life at the other end. I wanted that kind of freedom, that kind of wide-open life. But the world seemed less open now. Frontierless. You had to have money. A college degree. You had to get with the program.
The days passed slowly while I waited to pick up Rhea. I had plenty of things to do – fish, collect fruit, stop by the shelter for a shower, but I couldn’t find the energy for anything except to feed Hendrix. I knew I should try and make some kind of funeral arrangements, but I didn’t know where to even start so I just stared at the sea, shiny as sheet metal in the sun. I stared so hard and so long I felt I was close to seeing the back of my own head.
I counted each sunrise. The sky turned blue-gray, then rose, then copper as the sun peeked over the mountain range, reminding me each time of the first sunrise we’d seen after getting evicted. Rhea and I had sat on the curb, suitcases at our side, and watched the sun inch its way up, slow and measured, transforming everything it touched. I wasn’t thinking about Rhea then. I was thinking how I felt more at home on that street corner than I ever did in our apartment, and it scared me.
“I can’t believe people sleep through this,” I’d said.
“It is beautiful,” Rhea answered. Then she put her head in her hands and started to cry.
When I had counted four sunrises, Hendrix and I went back to the County Morgue. We were waiting outside when they opened, having walked there the night before because I couldn’t sleep and because I wanted to get there early, just in case any other interested parties might show up. The evening was cool and filled with the smells of spring: sweet night-blooming jasmine, cut grass, sprinkler water on asphalt. I strode purposefully up the long boulevard then took a detour through the dark suburban streets, the bats diving through the air, sometimes coming so close to my head I could hear their clicking radar sounds. This was my favorite time, when people were unable to see me, but I could see them in their brightly lit houses eating dinner or watching TV – the mother in the kitchen, the father with his newspaper, the children playing with their toys. Perfect people in boxes.
The same woman with the pale outlined lips opened the double glass doors. She glanced at me and Hendrix, sniffed the air, then turned on her heels and stepped inside. When I walked up to the counter, she was on the phone but she watched my every move as if I might walk off with the lobby furniture. I waited, studying a glossy urn catalog and pamphlets about organ donation.
She put the phone down.
“I’m here to pick up Rhea McCallister. I was here four days ago.”
“I remember. You had the dog.” She stood close to me and I now noticed that her eyebrows were also lined in dark brown pencil. She opened the same file cabinet and pulled out a folder. “What’s your interest in the deceased?”
“She was my friend.”
“So you’re a known acquaintance?”
“We lived together.”
She raised her eyebrows slightly. “It says here she has a father who’s still living. However, he did not respond when contacted.”
“I guess he’s not interested.”
“So we contacted the anatomical board regarding donation.”
“It’s our right if no family member claims her.”
“But I’m here now.”
“Anyway, turns out she had hepatitis. She was cremated.” The woman disappeared behind a door and returned carrying a square metal box, which she plunked on the counter as if she were depositing a can of beans in a shopping cart. I was surprised at how small it was and for a second I had the urge to bolt out the door, away from the cold little box and the pencil-faced woman, but I just stood there and stared at the label on the box: “McCallister, M. Female, 19 years. Unclaimed.” She asked me to fill out several pieces of paper. When I handed them back, she said mechanically, “I’m sorry about your loss.”
Outside, I opened the box. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t the coarse white-gray sand that looked like it could have been scooped up from the same beach where I slept. I opened my suitcase and took out the wooden box my dad had made for my sixteenth birthday. It was cedar with a latticework design of a star on the top. I rubbed my hand over the smooth wood, thinking how he had sanded this with care, how he had hoped I would use it to keep my Bible in. In one swift move, I dumped the ashes into the wooden box. A little puff of dust hit me in the face and the static in my head returned.
I took the metal box back inside and set it in front of the stunned pale lipped woman who was spraying the counter with Lysol.
“I’m done with this,” I said and walked out.
I suppose Rhea would’ve wanted a padded white coffin with lots of flowers and all the rest. A headstone that said something special or had the lyrics from one of her favorite Blondie songs. But I thought she belonged on San Nicolas Island where the Indian woman from the book had lived. Out there, she could have the whole island to herself. I could see myself as in a movie, standing on the edge of a cliff, the wind blowing my hair as I scattered her ashes into the ocean. All around me would be sea and sand and sky and Rhea would fly away into infinity.
In the Harbor Master’s office, I asked about trips to San Nicolas Island. The bearded man at the desk looked up from his newspaper. “No civilians allowed out there. Navy owns it now. You can go to Santa Cruz Island for $50.00.”
I fingered the few oily bills in my pocket. I needed them to buy food for Hendrix and me. And besides, it wasn’t even the right island.
“I’ll think about it,” I said, dragging Hendrix and my suitcase out of the office.
The light was fading, but I enjoyed sitting at the harbor, resting my elbows on my suitcase. The olive green water was stagnant and murky, reflecting the white lines of masts and sails. Boats glided through the lanes, returning from fishing trips, whale watching excursions, pleasure tours. Clouds cast shadows on the low foothills, but the ridge was lit up with the sunset, revealing the soft new green from the rains.
Hendrix sat at my feet. He missed Rhea. He kept looking behind me as if he was going to find her there. I missed her too. Her singing, her glittery dreams, her habit of picking things off the ground that had actually come in handy. Since getting evicted, she’d found clothes, a hairbrush, a radio; she’d even discovered Hendrix wandering along the tracks. And no one but Rhea had ever told me I could be whatever I wanted. No one but Rhea had ever looked me in the eye and said without shyness or expectation, “I love you,” simply, frankly, “I love you,” as if it was a scientific fact you could look up. At the time I had looked away, embarrassed. I hadn’t known what to say, but I loved her too. I guess I was maybe even a little in love with her.
I dreamed of her that night. We were back in our apartment, which was flooded with hot, white light. Rhea was controlling the light with the dials on the record player. It was a blinding, but beautiful light and I wanted her to make it even brighter. She knew I wanted this without me even asking her; she smiled at me and the light intensified.
At daybreak, Hendrix and I headed back to the harbor. That early, the fishermen were the only ones out, loading up their traps and nets, drinking coffee from thermoses. I spent close to the last of my money on a cup of coffee, a Hostess fruit pie and beef jerky for Hendrix. I sat on a bench and took the wooden box out, rubbing my hands over the smooth wood. “Bet you never thought you’d end up in here,” I said.
People passing by stared at me, at the strange girl in the dirty clothes talking to a box. She must be one of those people they were letting out of the mental hospitals. Deranged. Psycho.
I hung around the harbor all day, asking people if they might be going out to San Nicolas. One fisherman told me to “get the fuck away” from his boat. A woman on a yacht told me to stop “loitering.” I was beginning to accept the fact that I would have to find another place for her. And soon. Carrying her ashes around was beginning to feel creepy. I was starting to catch myself mumbling to her: Are you watching me? Do you miss me? Maybe I was going mad. Maybe this was how it happened. Maybe all those crazy people in the shelter and on the streets were just talking to the dead.
The sun was almost gone and little lights were coming on in the boats. Hendrix was antsy and I was cold. I took the box out of my bag one more time and lifted the lid.
“I thought we had plans,” I said. I ran my fingers through the dull ash, fighting the sudden urge to fling the box into the murky harbor. “I thought me and you were going to make things happen.”
Hendrix growled at a tall man coming our way, his rubber boots slapping the concrete. His long black hair was tied in a ponytail. A shark’s tooth hung from a leather cord around his neck. He stopped, peered down at my lap.
“What’s in the box?”
He blinked several times, pulled a dead fish from a plastic bucket and gave it to Hendrix who gulped it down in one bite.
“You know if you get caught begging down here, they’ll make you move.”
“Do you ever go to San Nicolas?”
“Out there? It’s a two-day trip. One way.”
“I need to go there,” I said.
He cocked his head to one side. “You can’t go on the island. It’s a missile test site or some crazy shit like that.”
I tapped the box. “I need to scatter her.”
He shifted the weight on his feet, then pulled a joint from his shirt pocket. “Mind if I join you?
I scooted over and he sat next to me on the bench. Hendrix sniffed every square inch of his boots. He looked around to make sure no one was coming, lit up, took a long drag, and handed it to me. We smoked the whole joint without talking. My heart beat slowly and without panic. It was my thoughts that were light, fleeting little firebugs that moved too fast for me to hold onto.
The first star appeared. The moon was heavy and full and seemed to be rising slowly and with great difficulty, like a very pregnant woman climbing a long flight of stairs.
“You know, nothing really dies,” he said, startling me. “Wood becomes ash. Plants become coal. Everything turns into something else.”
“My friend is dead. She’s not coming back.”
He stroked Hendrix’s head. “Then you should quit carrying around her ashes.”
Hendrix and I headed down the beach as the lights in the oilrigs were coming on. I took out the box and set it on the sand. “I’m a fucking girl scout!” I yelled then began to laugh so hard I thought I might vomit.
I buried myself in sand and felt the solitude of the ocean and the darkness all around me. This is what it’s like to be truly alone, I thought. I heard nothing but the sound of the waves, which was the same sound of my thoughts washing over and over each other, turning my memories of Rhea into smooth, polished glass. I felt tiny sand crabs crawling on my skin, smelled oily tar and gusts of brackish air blowing in off the ocean. I heard a gull cry, a seal bark, and then something else: my own breath, as steady and rhythmic as the tide.
I dug myself out of the sand, stripped off my clothes and stood naked on the shore. Hendrix barked at me as I waded through the kelp beds, the silky black water underneath me, all around me. It would be easy, I knew. So easy. To let the freezing water fill my lungs, to sink down and disappear among the rocks and shells like a mermaid and join Rhea in her dark, silvery realm. I was up to my waist. My feet were numb. Needles of pain shot through my legs and up my back. My whole body screamed, but I was alive. Alive on a dark beach with stars overhead and kelp weaving through my legs.
The fog started to blow in. I cracked the box open slightly and the wind did the rest – the gray ash and fragments of bone danced around my face then flew in all directions, stinging my eyes and nose. I stood for a few minutes, trying to think of something important to say, something profound or even religious, but when I opened my mouth to speak, I was crying.
I waded back to shore and as I emerged from the water, naked and shivering, I was glad to feel the earth solid beneath me. I kneeled on the sand, hugged Hendrix’s furry body close, and finally understood why Rhea had wanted a home.