Monday, January 27, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 30: Kumbra

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After a day of regular soakings, I have discovered a small shelter. The walls feature pictures of good-looking people who smile at me as if I have just handed them a plate of  cookies. I have also inherited half a peanut butter sandwich and some crackers. It’s hard to believe that people throw out such things. I feel much better, but I also feel like I should keep moving. I dig out a plastic bottle, fill it with water and am about to take off when I hear a far-off crashing. I follow the sound along a short path and come to a low stone wall. I am standing at the top of a cliff, and looking at a shoreline that I cannot quite believe. It’s as if someone cut a mountain in half and sent its sandy innards tumbling toward the ocean. I move to the left end of the wall and find something even more stunning: a white city, a million houses built on hills. Some of the houses are enormous, rising toward the sky in fantastic shapes: a triangle, a stack of cards, a fire hose. I know that Mama warned me about places like this, but I have already decided: the road back to Cloudburst begins in the white city.


I know that I am a pathetic figure, but I also know what I need. I step on to the sidewalk and rap on the glass. Javid looks up from his work and comes over to unlock the door.

“Hi Paul.”

“I know you’re closing, but… could I buy some popcorn?”

“No,” he says. “But you can have some popcorn. Butter?”


He fills a bucket, spends a long time at the butter-pump and grabs a handful of napkins.

“Thanks, Javid.”

“No prob. I… I miss her, too. Well – I better get back to work.”

He slaps me on the shoulder. It stays there like a Day-Glo handprint. I sit in my bed and squash handfuls into my mouth, parsing a late-night talk show for words of wisdom.


The sky has cleared out, but the light from the city obscures the stars. I descend the final hundred yards to the orange bridge, feeling like a knight approaching the dragon’s lair. The first tower rises forever, disappearing into the night sky. I am relieved to find that a person can, in fact, walk across to the white city. I pass beneath the tower without being eaten, and the giant cables slowly sink to my side. I begin to see dark silhouettes, shadows that have escaped their people. They gather at the railing and take turns leaping into the water far below. One of them turns and reaches out to me, an invitation. A black-haired angel appears on the cable and raises her arms, like a queen addressing her subjects. She speaks in a low, calm voice. “These are the shadows of people who were silly, and wasteful, and threw away their lives. Ignore them, and keep walking.” I turn toward the white city.


We’re playing a party in Sebastapol, in a funky little house on the edge of a vineyard. It’s actually two houses: an aging farmhouse and a slapped-together cottage that serves as the band room. Things with Exit Wonderland have gotten too serious, so we decide to play a bizarro set. We play the surf punk as a stoner reggae, the metal anthem as a disco song, the rockabilly as a polka. Some of the new versions sound better than the old – or perhaps we are just dazzled by our own ingenuity.

Afterward, we head outside to attack the remains of a pot-luck. Sitting at a picnic table, we watch the next band through a picture window. A hip-hop drummer is doing some amazing tricks on my hi-hat as his word-man conjures an impressive run of rhyme and invective. The bass player spends most of his time cracking up.

“They are fucking awesome!”

“And you’re fucking drunk!”

“Molly! What the hell are you doing here?”

The charmed smile. Always the charmed smile. I just want to attack that thing.

“I’m here as your personal assistant. It was great to hear your band.”

“I got news for ya. That wasn’t us.”

“You’ve been doing the Jello shots.”

“And the hash brownies. I am an equal-opportunity dessert consumer.”

“Good thing I brought the camper.”

“So you’re my designated driver?”

“After a good long sleep. The shrink is going to indulge, because the shrink is fucking worn out.”

Even in my altered state I can see the sadness in Molly’s eyes.

“Rough week?”

“Yeah. Lost a patient.”

“That’s too bad.”

“She just… disappeared.” She holds up a fist and opens it, like a magician vanishing a coin.

“You know, Molly? You’re a beautiful woman.”

The next smile falls more in the category of amused. “And you’re drunk.”

I raise a declamatory finger, but succeed only in upsetting our bench, sending us tumbling backward onto the grass. After a lengthy fit of laughter, I open my eyes to a sky that is absolutely crammed with stars. I feel certain that I am supposed to be sad about something, but I am grateful that I don’t remember.


The city is dazzling and terrifying all at once. The buildings scale the hills, and seem to be leaning on one another. I fear they will tumble down and crush me. I keep them at arm’s length by staying to the waterfront, and I take a nap on a park bench. When I awake, I steel myself and I wander onto a street lined with shops and restaurants. The air smells of seafood and candy, and the people chatter in a hundred languages. The crush almost feels comforting, but still I’m relieved when I burst into the broader spaces near the wharves. One of them features a row of colorful banners at its entrance: Pier 39. I walk the gray planks amid jewelry stores and ice cream parlors, and I discover a ride with painted horses circling round and round. Two brown girls are holding onto a white pony and screaming with glee as their mother snaps photos. But I hear something else, too – a howling and bellowing, like the sound of Reverend Matterhorn’s hounds. I take a corridor past a souvenir shop and come to a railing next to the water. Twenty feet away, a wooden island is teeming with oily-looking creatures, flopping around and barking their heads off. The scene is so silly that it sets me into a fit of giggling. “What’s so funny?” someone says, and I say, “Those goofy dogs!” I turn to find a man with lean features and skin as black as obsidian. His smile is blinding. “Those are not dogs, silly girl. They’re sea lions.” “Now what’s more likely to be in the water,” I say, “a dog or a lion?” He lets out a ringing laugh and says, “You make a good point.” He lights a cigarette and stands a little away from me so it won’t blow in my face. “Your skin is incredible,” I say. His face tightens, as if someone has blown smoke at him, but it passes. “You actually mean that, don’t you?” “Well of course!” I say. “Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it?” He chuckles and puts out the cigarette. “Skin is a touchy subject in this country.” “I also like the way you talk – it’s musical.” “Well thank you. I am from Kenya. I am told it’s a pleasing accent. My name is Kumbra.” He extends his hand. “I’m Kelly.” The exchange of names brings an awkward silence. The sea lions jump in the water, all at once. “Well!” I say. “What’s that about?” Kumbra says, “Perhaps they spotted a fish. So pardon me for being blunt, but you are much better-looking than our usual homeless clientele. What brings you here?” The question makes me a little sad. “I’m not really sure. I’m trying to get home to Montana. My mother’s probably worried about me.” Kumbra gives me an all-over look. “Listen, I just had some people from Oklahoma turn up their noses at my best prawns. What the hell does an Oklahoman know about something that comes from the sea? Wait right here.” A minute later, he returns and hands me a paper bag. “I tell you what. I get off in three hours. Let me take you out for a drink, and we’ll see what we can do to get you back to Montana. Please don’t stay here, though. Tell you what. See that tower up there?” “Oh! The firehose?” “Yes. Exactly. Take a nice, easy walk up there, eat your prawns, and perhaps by the time you get back I will be ready for you.” “Okay,” I say. “Thank you, Kumbra.” As I turn to go, Kumbra says, “You have incredible skin, also.” This makes me laugh.

Photo by MJV

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