L.A. RIOT - LAURIE POWERS
Originally published at You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You? on December 22, 2009
That first morning I ran into Brian at Joanne’s cubicle. “Did you hear?” he asked. “Rodney King trial. The cops. Not guilty.”
I looked at him, and for once the stupid little preppie and I had the same thought. “Head for the hills,” we said in unison.
By two o’clock, the radio stations had transferred to continuous live helicopter news. I could hear the stress in the reporters’ voices. People were being attacked at Normandy and Florence. Looters were breaking into stores in East Los Angeles. Fires were being started.
At three o’clock, my boss appeared at my office door. For once she seemed as frightened and as human as the rest of us.
“I’m letting everybody go home early,” she said. It was three o’clock, two hours before normal quitting time. How generous of your tight ass, I thought.
Home? How could I get home? Getting to the San Fernando Valley from Beverly Hills, I might as well have been trying to get to Russia. I called Ken and told him I was on the way to his house.
I watched the eastern sky blacken as I waited in gridlock on the side streets in Beverly Hills.
I had met Ken on a blind date, one that I furiously resisted for weeks because of the endless years of unsuccessful blind dates. I had sworn them off and I wasn’t about to waver. Truth is, the fun in fucking men on the first date went right out the window when I stopped drinking, and there was nothing to say this would be anything other than a first date. The guy sounded like he was eighty years old. The first time he had called I told him I was much too busy to talk and to call me back in three days. And he called after three days – who is this idiot I thought - and even though I was rude to him on the second phone call just like on the first, he still wanted to meet.
Did you lose a bet or something? I thought. Even with that intriguing raspy voice, I didn’t want to meet him. I drove down Wilshire Boulevard to the restaurant, bristling. Eat your lunch and get out of there, I told myself.
But there he stood in the parking lot, with a face like Kevin Kline’s. He wasn’t eighty, he was more like forty and looking like a freaking angel sent to redeem me.
He lived in the living room of his parent’s rambling ranch house on Airdrome off of Robertson in the Fairfax district. The house was stripped to the studs for a major remodeling job. His parents had moved out and he was there to protect the place, do some odd work around the house and to keep from paying rent. We walked on clear plastic tarp to get to the only bathroom on the other side of the house, a house that stretched for miles.
His bed, high up on a wooden captain’s bed that he built, was stationed in the living room, the only room not completely gutted. We made love on that bed in front of a broad picture window where silk lined drapes separated us from the Orthodox Jewish families walking to temple on Saturday mornings.
He liked the fact that I would stay in the house in the evenings and watch television, waiting for him to come home from various jobs. Depending on the neighborhood he was working, he could be home at 11. If it was Brentwood or Beverly Hills, it was usually later. People there had much more involved burglary systems, so it took longer to get inside. He’d come home at 1 or 2, exhilarated, but refusing to tell me about it or show me the take. He didn’t want to make me an accessory. Fine, I said. Just come to bed.
The sky to the east was completely black by the time I pulled up in front of Ken’s house. He had no food in the house except for a measly orange chicken Lean Cuisine in the freezer.
“We can’t go anywhere. There’s a curfew on.” He was standing in front of the television and watching replays of Reginald Denny getting his head bashed in.
“Fuck curfew,” I said. “I’m starving. There’s got to be something open.”
We drove down Robertson. The street was deserted, not a car in sight. I kept a look out for black-and-whites, Ken looked for an open store. Frustrated, we pulled into the Montgomery Wards parking lot. At the far end of the lot stood the hulk of a Toys R Us store, dark inside. But a door was open, a battered white Toyota parked outside. Three other cars pulled up in unison, people streaming out and sprinting into the store.
Watching the looters come out of the store with arms full of electronics was mesmerizing.
Ken looked hypnotized. “You know, we should get in on this.”
“No, Ken. We need to get the hell out of here,” The thump thump thump of a helicopter was approaching. I started to pound the inside of the door, feeling that familiar urge to jump out of the car and bolt. He gave me a swift look of anger.
We went back to the house in silence. We split the Lean Cuisine and turned on the television. And there was that stupid Toys R Us being looted, the whole thing on television. Apparently it wasn’t a cop helicopter that I heard, but a news helicopter.
He shook his head. “Man, that would have been some easy pickins.”
“What, for cartons of Barbies? Give me a break,” I retorted, embarrassed over my slip-up.
Later, he grabbed my hand. “Come on,” he said. “We can see a lot from the roof.”
We climbed up via a ledge outside the bathroom window.
“I’ve had to come up here a few times to fix things,” he said, straddling the peak like he was king of the world.
To the left, the plume of smoke from East Los Angeles was as tall and as broad as a dust storm. The only sounds were constant sirens in the distance. The Toys R Us forgotten, I was never happier.
“I need to go check on my grandmother,” Ken said two days later. Curfew had been lifted.
“My mom’s worried. No one’s answering at the switchboard. She wants to make sure everything’s ok.”
Ken’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s and was imprisoned in a convalescent home, an old converted hotel on Fairfax Boulevard just below the Tower Records on Sunset, a complex hidden by a concrete wall sprinkled with graffiti. The switchboard was fine – like everywhere else, the phone service was erratic.
Ken and I sat on the window seat in Grandma’s room. Next to me was a dinette table, a small television with rabbit ears and a blue bud vase the only ornaments. The afternoon sun was starting to pale.
Grandma With Alzheimer’s asked him questions. Had he retired yet? How was his wife?
“No, Grandma, you’re thinking of my father. I haven’t retired. I’m too young. I’m not married.”
“You’re still living in that place on Gramercy?”
“No, Grandma. Dad lived there before I was born.”
“Do you have any children?” she asked.
“Because I haven’t met the right woman yet, Grandma.”
I looked at him, waiting for the punch line.
It didn’t come.
We got back in his truck. I stared at him.
“What the hell was that?” I asked. He said nothing. Just grimaced and shrugged his shoulders.
We went back to the house in silence.
“Look,” he said when we had parked.
Here it comes, I thought.
“I just can’t promise anything.”
“Why the hell not? Either you do or you don’t want this.”
“The truth is that I…I don’t know…I’ve always imagined myself with another type of girl.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Christ, Ken. You break into houses for a living. I’m the one with the straight job here.”
“Well, I know. I just…I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“Look, I can’t really say right now. I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
“Let’s go back up to the roof,” I said later that evening. Ken looked at me, puzzled, then relieved. Apparently I had gotten over the afternoon.
We climbed up again, through the bathroom window, out on the window shelf. Ken pulled me up onto the roof again.
We sat with our feet braced to keep our butts from sliding down the shingles. Below, the pathway gracefully laid the way to the front door.
Maybe we could start over, I thought. I nestled next to him, placing my right arm behind his back for balance.
At first, he looked ahead, and then turned and looked east.
“We should have done it. We could have made some money.”
“That Toys R Us.”
“You’re still mad about that?”
“Hey. All it would have taken would have been a run in and a run out. Nothing to it. There were so many people in there, no way was one black-and-white going to run us all in. IF they showed up.”
“Would it help if I went and bought you a G.I. Joe?” I rubbed his arm, trying to make a joke.
This scared me. He was freaking mad at me for not wanting to rob a Toys R Us.
“I just didn’t see the point in taking the risk,” I continued.
“Well, that’s just it. You never want to take risks, do you?”
I sat there, looking west at the sunset. Everything was in a haze, even in Santa Monica and over the ocean. It made for a spectacular sunset.
I placed my hand between his shoulder blades and pushed.
He tried to scramble for his balance, his arms flailing. For a second, I thought he was going to grab me in his panic and pull us both off the roof.
I planted a foot on his hairy back and pushed hard.
I looked down at him face up on the pathway, motionless, his grey eyes staring up at me, a pool of blood spreading underneath his head.
“I guess I’m the right woman now,” I whispered.
Sirens wailed on Robertson Boulevard but I knew it would take the cops hours to get here and only after someone found the body. As I climbed down the roof and scooted through the bathroom window, I looked to the eastern sky towards Watts and South Central being rebuilt right at that very moment.
BIO: Laurie Powers has a blog devoted to pulp fiction.