Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 31: Mecca

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Interstate 101 is no place to be on a Return Sunday, so Molly takes the back way. My head is throbbing, which makes it easier to monitor my heart rate. We’re passing a farm with a long row of eucalyptus when Molly decides to talk.

“I feel responsible for this.”

“Hey, nobody forced me to take those Jello shots.”

“I pushed her too hard. I should have been more careful.”

“Oh nonsense. You only went forward when she forced the issue. Wherever she is, she’s not injuring herself, and that’s because of you. Nobody could predict a random convergence of words in an art gallery.”

She clicks her tongue. “Opus fucking Giovanni.”

This makes me laugh, which makes my headache worse.

“Regardless,” she says, then seems to lose her thought. She tries again. “Regardless, I am part of this disaster, and I intend to do whatever I can to help you with this.”

“Be a friend.”

She looks at me, then back at the road. “Are we friends?”

“We’re sharing a hangover. We’re both in love with Jasmina.”

“I’m not supposed to be…”

“Who can help being in love with Jasmina?”

Pause. Pause. “And I’m not implying that you’re a lesbian.”

Molly laughs, a single open-mouthed yap. “Thank you for that.”


Kumbra drives us away from the white city on a bridge so long that it must rest at an island before continuing on. When we arrive at his apartment, I find that I am almost too tired to walk. Kumbra tugs on a couch and turns it into a bed. Mama warned me about this kind of dark magic, but I am too tired to resist. When I open my eyes, the curtains are fat with light; I peek through them and see the white city across the water. Kumbra serves me a breakfast of eggs and a pastry he calls kwa-saunt. Afterwards, I take a shower and join him on a hike along the water. The trail forms a capital C, taking us to the end of a long jetty that looks back at Kumbra’s apartment. He puts a hand on my neck and rubs. It feels wonderful. “I hope you are feeling better,” he says. “You were very tired.” “Yes, I was. It’s been a long and puzzling journey.” “Where did you start?” he asks. “I’m not sure. There was a long trail through the giant trees, and then I had to cross the orange bridge.” Kumbra’s eyes grow wide. “You are a wonder.” A speedboat crosses the water in front of us, a father and son, yelling with glee. “This is an incredible spot,” I say. “I feel like we have walked into the middle of the water. Like Jesus.” Kumbra answers quietly. “I knew you would like it. I come here to clear my thoughts. But now, I have to get back.” We return along the jetty and pause at an island peppered with rocks and spindly-looking trees. “I am going to give you some money,” says Kumbra. “Did you notice the long brick building behind my apartment?” “Yes.” “It’s an international marketplace. Go there and buy some lunch – I recommend the Vietnamese place – and then walk to the very end. There you will see a store called Goodwill.” “Goodwill to men!” I say. “Exactly. And inexpensive clothing. Used clothing, but they clean everything. I want you to buy three outfits, and get something for all kinds of weather.” I’m so struck by his generosity that I can say only “Okay.” A tall white bird stands on one foot in the water, looking for food.


Exit Wonderland has been in a bit of an exile. With his girlfriend and her children moving into the household, Smeeed saw the need for a hideaway, and booted our equipment out of the garage so he could make some renovations. After a month without rehearsals, I march in with my bass drum to find a vastly different space. The cluttered shelves are gone, making room for large photo collages and a comfy futon sofa. The southwest corner plays host to a computer center, a wooden desk resembling the bridge of a spaceship. Most alarmingly, the rugs are utterly clean.

Smeeed comes in behind me and says, “Here, I’ll take that.”

“Oh you will, will you?” He takes my six-pack and sorts the bottles into a mini-fridge. “My God, man, do you realize what you’ve done?”

He gives me an amused look. “Not really.”

“You’ve created the ultimate man-cave. Complete with its own rock band. I have half a mind to call Sunset magazine and have them do a feature.”

“Why not Rolling Stone?”

We revert to our usual preparations. Smeeed sets up monitors and mic stands as I perform the endless back-and-forths of drum delivery. Once I’ve got all the parts, I begin the process of sorting them into a playable feng shui.

Smeeed folds out the keyboard stand, an X-wing affair. “Any news on missing persons?”

“Nope. Given that she’s an adult, and we’re not related, the powers that be cannot really force the issue. Never mind that she may not know who she is.”


“Yeah.” I set my ride cymbal into place and cap it with a wing nut. “I sometimes think this isn’t a brain thing. Maybe I was just here to give Jasmina her memory back. And now she’s on her merry way. Maybe I’m not that important to her.”


I wait for more. Smeeed checks the levels on his soundboard.

“That’s all? ‘Nope?’”

“Nope, you’re wrong. I’ve been around you two. I have observed the vibe. Something strong there, something gravitational. Same thing as me and my lady.”

“I think it’s hilarious that you call her ‘my lady.’”

“Considering the benefits, I’m willing to suffer the ridicule.”

The door swings open, followed by two dachsunds, straining at their leashes. “Don’t worry,” says Pamela. “Just giving them a tour of the yard before I lock them in the truck.”

“No more dachsunds?” I ask.

Smeeed waves a hand. “Clean rugs.”

Pamela pulls her charges toward the yard. Jasper nearly chokes himself, looking back at all that virgin territory.


The lights of the white city fill Kumbra’s window like a magic trick. He tells me this is San Francisco, which surprises me. Rev. Matterhorn always held up San Francisco as the modern Sodom. I used to picture a city of demons, flames licking at the sewer grates, sinners running down the streets, naked, killing people at random. I am equally dazzled by Kumbra’s television, which seems to contain a separate channel for every possible human desire. In the presence of such a device, how would a person get anything done at all? But the wait is long. Kumbra has the dinner shift, and though I try very hard, I am unable to stay awake. Deep into the night, I am roused by Kumbra’s hand on my shoulder. He looks tired, but he is still handsome. “Kelly, I am sorry to wake you, but I have news. Did you buy your clothes?” “Yes,” I say. “Good. Very good. I have something for you. Scoot your legs.” I shift to the side, and he lifts a suitcase onto the futon. “What’s that for?” Kumbra smiles. “It goes with this.” He hands me an envelope and turns on the lights. “What’s an Amtrak?” I say. He laughs. “You are, at this very moment, three blocks from the western hub of a train called the California Zephyr. This train will take you to Salt Lake City, after which another train will take you to Great Falls. And you will use this to feed yourself.” He hands me a wad of bills. I am barely awake and shocked. Kumbra gets up from the futon. “Now! To celebrate your voyage, I have purloined some fine swordfish from my restaurant, as well as some excellent Italian wine.” We eat and drink and laugh, but I don’t feel entirely comfortable. Eventually, with the help of the wine, it bursts out of me. “Why, Kumbra? Why have you done this for me?” He takes my hand and gives me a serious look. “An entire village labored and sacrificed to send me to the culinary academy, and to allow me to work in this paradise. I send them money, but it is never enough to express my gratitude. So when I meet a beautiful girl who wants to go home – and believe me, I know what it is to be homesick – perhaps I will help her, and perhaps in this way my debt will feel less burdensome. I give this gift freely, Kelly. Do me the favor of accepting it.” I am overwhelmed. I kiss Kumbra on the cheek. “I once had a friend named Jacob. He and I played a game that gave us much pleasure. I wonder… if you would play it with me?” Kumbra looks entirely amused. “Why would I ever say no?” “Good,” I say. “Come with me.”


After four hours of too many people and not enough space, I have discovered a sanctuary, a café under the viewing car. I am closer to the rails, and I have my own window. We’re climbing long hills through a tunnel of trees. I spot a lone patch of snow, and a swingset – someone’s backyard! How odd that must be, having folks from all over the country careening past your fence. Kumbra knelt forward, his head to the floor. I thought he might be sick. “Kumbra?” He held up a hand and whispered something to a small rug. Then he lifted his head and smiled. “Sorry. I am not a devout man, but I promised my mother I would keep up with my prayers.” I snickered. “That’s a funny way to pray.” “Not at all,” he said. “But I do admit, it is often difficult to locate Mecca. I wonder if they make a GPS for that? Well! We had better get you going.” I was grateful for Kumbra’s chattiness, because I was trying to hide the fact that I was horrified. I shared a bed with a Muslim. If my mother ever found out… But Kumbra is so kind. Perhaps he is not really Muslim. Perhaps he is mistaken. I sip my coffee – coffee purchased with Muslim money – and I feel more confused than ever.

Photo by MJV

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