CHAPEL OF THE SACRED MIRRORS
You live because something else dies.
I stood outside the Chapel Street Arco AM/PM Mini Market Gas Station funneling down my two-for-$1.69 hot dogs drenched in mustard and cloaked in green relish and capped with sliced jalapeño peppers. A tear of relish fell upon my coat, “Dammit,” and I raised it up with my fingertip and I ate it.
It would have gone good with sips of Napoleon Brandy on a cold night like that one. I already felt like Napoleon marching back from Moscow in defeat.
Hong “Buddy” Gildong was my companion that night. Short, stout, Korean. I called Buddy “Buddha” for a joke. He was always smiling. I think it was congenital.
I asked Buddha, “Did you know that ‘brandy’ is from a Dutch name meaning ‘burnt wine’.”
Buddha said, “That’s why I prefer burnt juniper berries.”
I asked, “Gin, right?”
Buddha asked, “Did you know that gin was originally an herbal medicine?”
I concluded, of course, “Still is.”
The Chapel Street AM/PM Market was right off of the 5-Freeway in that “economically challenged” neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the social hub of that neighborhood like a church would have been when times were decent. Occasionally citizens of the middle-clash swirled off of the freeway, took one look, and then got back on the freeway unless they really needed gas desperately. They continued their tightrope tip-toe at eighty miles-an-hour through the social clashes of America.
From where Buddha and I loitered against the market building we watched the transient car owners at the pumps, the steady hegira of the economically persecuted from the surrounding neighborhood, the crack dealers in the shadows of the market, and the crack addicts with epic tales bumming change from all patrons.
A thin haggard young woman with unruly hair and adorned in the latest Flotsam Jetsam attire and puffing her cigarette approached me and asked me, “Do you have 85 cents? I need to buy gas to get back to my children. They are home alone. I was trying to get a job so I could buy them something for Christmas but I ran out of gas.”
I gazed upon her. I said, “Sure.”
I gave her a dollar. I proudly decimated that ten dollars which she was going to need for the rock of crack that night. Was that wrong or was that compassionate? She was someone’s daughter.
The young woman’s left eye lit up. Her right eye was cloudy. She ensconced the dollar bill in her clamshell fist and she said, “Bless you, bless you. Merry Christmas.”
As she spoke her cigarette fell from her lips to the grimy asphalt. She said, “Damn,” and she slowly bent down to retrieve it and she placed it back in her lips and slowly arose again.
I couldn’t judge her. You shouldn’t judge her.
The desire for “happiness” is the crack cocaine of you and me.
There was a time when eating was happiness, when sex was happiness, maybe a new baby was happiness. But there are predators, fears, sorrows. And so Happiness became elusive.
A primitive tribe could be happy maybe. A tribe is communist by definition. Maybe that was the good old days, but I doubt it.
We run in packs, ‘Right, Buddha-Dog?’ I grinned to myself.
Any larger group of people gravitates into a feudal society around rich guys. Any rich guy, good or bad, receiving the happiness wrought by others is surrounded by his army of employee soldiers sworn to fealty even if they secretly curse him. And all the rich guys envy and distrust each other but they stand together to protect their harvest of happiness.
Think about it. Just think about the cost of happiness today.
You and me can’t remember happiness. This hotdog stops a pain. Is that happiness?
Buddha said to me, “Damon, you’re always sad ‘cause you hold on to everything. Nothing sticks around. It’s unnatural. Let’s go back inside and talk to Bonnie. That’s some kinda happiness.”
Bonnie. Sweet little Bonnie the night cashier. She was a Sister to us. She always smiled blamelessly at Buddha and me but she always seemed like she was waiting for something to fall on her. It was in the way she held her head and in the way she seemed to be peering out at you.
As Buddha and I went to the swinging glass doors of the entrance, a muscular cholo in a Baja Jacket was striding toward the door to exit. He cradled his two six-packs of beer, one resting on each forearm and braced against each bulging bicep. I opened one of the swinging glass doors for him and I nodded in respect. His lip curled and he subtly acknowledged me as he strode past.
Buddha and I went inside. It was warm. Bonnie smiled and said, “Well, Mr. Black and Mr. Gildong, long time no see.”
Buddha smiled and said to me, “What’s it been, Damon?” and he looked at an imaginary wrist watch and said, “Ten minutes?”
I picked up a shopping basket to look like a customer.
Bonnie said to me with soft sincerity, retrieving a recent conversation, “Damon. I’m glad your daughter called you. You should be there for her wedding.”
I actually used to work for Arco when times were decent. My wife Cindra and I got into cocaine indecently. She finally left in fear with my daughter, Janine. I lost my job. For the longest time I didn’t care anymore. I did odd jobs for coke money. Buddha saved me. I had lost touch with my wife and daughter. For years they had not talked to me. Somehow they found out I was trying to get my life back together.
I said, “Yeah. She’s sending me money for clothes and a train ticket.”
Buddha said, “All he talks about now is his daughter.”
The glass doors opened and in walked a big cop. He walked slowly to the coffee counter, watching all the patrons watch him out of the corners of their eyes. The cop came up to us at the checkout and Bonnie smiled a quick little smile and fluttered her hand at him. The cop nodded and walked out with his free coffee. I guess it was good business insurance for the place.
As the cop opened the doors to leave we could hear Choir Boy singing. He was some old white guy who must have wandered away from an Alzheimer’s home. He was singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing tonight. Usually he would dramatically croon The Tennessee Waltz. He had a beard like Moses and he looked like he had slept forty days and forty nights in an alleyway. He would always say his name was Archangelo Caruso when people gave him spare change.
I said to Bonnie, “Buddha and I have a room we’re staying at this week. You’re welcome to come over for communion.”
Bonnie replied, “Thanks, guys, but you know I’ve got a daughter at home.”
Just then four members of the Almighty Vice Disciples entered swaying and strutting. They split up like a formation of dark fighter jets in an air show. One grabbed an armful of cheeseburgers from the warmer, one took a shopping basket and filled it with assorted beers, one took a basket and filled it with assorted wines, and one turned around to watch the front entrance after a fleeting sneer at Buddha and me. Then, like that fighter jet air show, they reformed and went out the door without even a nod to Bonnie. The Almighty Vice Disciples were the black angels under whose protection the Chapel AM/PM gas station operated.
Outside, other members of the Almighty Vice Disciples were interrogating their dealers in the shadows. I guess that was an example of Management By Walking Around.
I looked over at the gas pumps and whispered, “Damn me, she was getting money for gas,” as I recognized that raggedy young woman wrestling with the pump hose next to her beat up old Toyota.
I saw her cigarette drop from her lips.
Suddenly the front of her clothes was on fire and the side of the Toyota was on fire. She was screaming and slapping the flames and shaking her head as the heat hit her face. Other customers yelled and ran.
I was beside her. I pushed her to the ground. I rolled her and the flames went out. She was alive and screaming. I turned around. The side of the car with the open gas tank was burning but with only barely visible blue flames. The hose was on the ground and faint blue fire bled from the nozzle. I yanked off my jacket to beat and smother the flames.
Now the gas tank is exploding.
I am shattering.
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