You have an old friend who holds, in amber, all the possibilities of who you were supposed to become. Together, as teenagers, you shared a criminal joy. What happens when you have been looking for her and find her, finally, in later life? You're a lawyer and she has a father on death row. LOLA, CALIFORNIA plays out within the dystopia of California, asking whether in our age we can survive the burden of too much choice.
Edie gives an overview of the book:
Vic has been, for years, losing his appetite. This happens on death row. In the last thirty days he has lost fourteen pounds and much of his eyesight.
“What’s the matter, boss?” the guard Javier asks. “You want to look like a war victim?”
“Who do I want to look like?” Vic’s fingers hover over yet another food tray, its edges webbed with grime, as if sensing radioactivity.
“Food smells bad today?”
“The body doesn’t want food,” says Vic. The day before, he’d had a consuming hallucination that some old friends from early schoolboy and surfing days in America awaited him in the prison courtyard. In a fancy suit he had gone out to bless them. Then he argued with some official that he wasn’t ready to follow the guy into a cold corridor.
Too tired, he had to get back to bed.
Later Vic talked to Javier about how nice and thoughtful it was that the prison had arranged this courtyard ceremony. Only from Javier’s tone did Vic understand that no ceremony had taken place.
“I don’t understand what’s happening to my body,” he says now to Javier, because Vic can’t rise from his cot. There’s a machine making his heart tick and a numb ellipsis occupying the nib where his stomach used to be; the ellipsis makes it hard to rise. He speaks to the fifteen by fifteen sound tiles in the ceiling.
15 + 15 = 30, as he knows well. Also 5 + 25. Also 9 + 21. Much better to count these than the click and screech of gates locking and unlocking.
Javier stands on the other side of the food slot. “Didn’t take your meds yet? Took the vitamins at least?”
“I’m not that optimistic.”
Javier sees the untouched tray. “Señor Legend, maybe it’s time forus to call Doctor K?”
“No. Interference would be problematic. Who’s Doctor K?”
“You’ll see him tomorrow. Maybe later today.”
Such concern emanates from the guard, for a second Vic knows
Javier to be one of the thirty- six righteous people walking the face of the earth, if not already an angel.
Vic waits. “Could you please come in?” He clears his throat before repeating himself.
Javier looks behind and then unlocks, making the choice to reach upward and slant the cell’s camera a few centimeters away. Someone might see them but in so many ways his prisoner is right: who’s looking?
“I’m here,” says Javier. In the protocol book, one exemption gets its own page: once the Bureau of Prisons finalizes the sentence and only the slimmest chance of gubernatorial intervention remains, humane and dignified treatment beyond the scope of protocol becomes permissible. How can anyone define the slimness of a chance?
“Would you mind lying with your head right there to give me some of your body warmth?”
Javier gets down on his knees next to Vic, ginger in laying his head down on the bony prisoner chest, an emptied birdcage. “This is crazy, man.”
“Your warmth is kindness,” says Vic. “I feel it entering me. In your hand too. But you could lose your job.”
“Also my pension.”
“No man ever laid his head on me.”
“Well, they don’t give out teddy bears around here, right?”
“True. No one ever gave me a teddy bear.”
Javier stands up quickly. “You okay? You’re talking strange.”
“How do I talk?”
“Your tongue, like it’s heavy.”
In mock joust, Vic sticks out his tongue at Javier, a proof of how manly and battle- ready he remains. He tries straightening the wayward vertebrae in his spine. “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”
“You’ll be okay, boss. I’m going to ask for another blanket. Maybe
I can get you another Mahler recording.”
“You know he’s a distant ancestor.”
“I know, Legend.”
“What do you live for?” asks Vic, desperate to keep him near.
“My kid. Or grandchildren.” Then Javier stops.
“But that’s for them. What keeps you going?”
“I don’t know.” The guard waits. “Maybe your daughter will visit today?”
“Now you’re lying,” says Vic. “You never lied before.” His eyes betray and don’t stop betraying. Since the time when he was small and someone shot a wolf cub in front of him, he had never cried, at least not in front of a living person. Today his eyes happen to let tears slide out.
“I’m saying maybe.”
“Maybe,” echoes Vic, already turning away as Javier leaves the cell, showing the humanity of a good host: flouting regulations, removing the tray.
Hello Red-Roomers! Here's my crib-sheet: LOLA, CALIFORNIA just came out in July. Before that, I wrote THE FAR FIELD: A NOVEL OF CEYLON (first) and CRAWL SPACE (second). This winter I spent two months in Cuba with my two daughters and mate; now I'm back as writer in residence...