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Chapter 1 - California

Chapter 1 - California

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Published by scprweb
Chapter 1 of Edan Lepucki's debut novel, "California." Used with permission.
Chapter 1 of Edan Lepucki's debut novel, "California." Used with permission.

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Published by: scprweb on Jul 07, 2014
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved


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1 On the map, their destination had been a stretch of green, as if they would be living on a golf course. No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: those had been left to rot years before. Frida had given this place a secret name, the afterlife, and on their journey, when they were forced to hide in abandoned rest stops, or when they’d filled the car with the last of their gasoline, this place had beckoned. In her mind it was a township, and Cal was the mayor. She was the mayor’s wife. Of course it was nothing like that. The forest had not been expecting them. If anything, it had tried to throw them out, again and again. But they had stayed, perhaps even prospered. Now Frida could only laugh at the memory of herself, over two years ago: dragging a duffel bag behind her with a groan, her nails bitten to shit, her stomach roiling. Grime like she’d never imagined. Even her knees had smelled. She thought it would be easier once they arrived; she should have known better. The work didn’t end then; if anything, it got worse, and for months the exhaustion and fear tick-ticked in her body like a dealer shuffling cards. At night, the darkness gave her a skinned-alive feeling, and she longed for her old childhood bed. For a bed, period. She had packed some things to comfort herself: the dead Device, a matchbook from their favorite bar. Cal later called them her
 In a world so disconnected from the past, her attachment to these objects had been her only strategy for remaining sane. It still was. She tried not to take them out too often, but Cal had left the house to do some digging, and he wouldn’t be back for at least an hour. Even though the sky was gray, the sun weak, he’d worn his plaid button-down and a bandanna around his neck. They still had a bottle of sunscreen, but it had expired and was as watery as skim milk. “Stay inside for a while,” he’d said before he left. Frida had linked her arms around his neck. “Where would I go?” He kissed her goodbye on the mouth, as he still did, and always would. She was thinking, already, of the artifacts tucked away in an old briefcase, shoved under one of the unused twin cots. It had been a rough morning. Cal had latched the door behind him, and once his footsteps receded, she went right for the briefcase. From the small pile of artifacts, she picked up the abacus. She liked to pull the blue beads back and forth across the wires. She counted, she tapped, she closed her eyes. Frida had played with the abacus as a little girl and even then had depended on its calming effect. Her brother Micah, two years younger, had one as well, red beads instead of blue, but one day, when he was about seven, he cut it apart and strung the beads onto a piece of yarn. He’d presented it to their mother as a necklace. Frida flicked at the beads. She found herself counting the days yet again. Forty-two. “I’m late,” she said aloud, and her voice in the one-room house sounded small and plaintive. The walls seemed to breathe in the words; they would keep the secret until she told Cal. “I’m late,” she repeated, and willed her voice to stay steady. She’d have to tell him soon, and like this. She could not be freaked out. She would have to declare it, as she would any fact.
Frida pulled the last bead across the abacus. It would be pleasurable, she thought, to pluck the wire from the frame and let the beads fall. She would pop one in her mouth and suck on it like a candy. But then she wouldn’t have the abacus. She put the thing down and sifted through the briefcase for something better. The other artifacts wouldn’t do. Not the Device, nor the matchbook, nor the ripped shower cap she couldn’t stand to part with. Not her mother’s handwritten cake recipes, already memorized and useless out here. Not the box of antique pencils, nor her bottle of perfume, halfway empty. She knew what she wanted. Unlike the other objects, the turkey baster had been new. She’d brought it with them precisely because they hadn’t had one in L.A.; it was something different, a simple object to mark a before and an after. She had liked the idea of using it at Thanksgiving, although she hadn’t been sure they’d celebrate that anymore. She didn’t think there would be turkeys here, and she’d been right. Thanksgiving. That holiday was so quaint in her memory it felt like something from a storybook:
Once upon a time, Goldilocks ate herself silly.
 Frida couldn’t hold herself back any longer and pulled the baster out of the briefcase. It was stored in old Christmas wrapping paper, printed with gingerbread men and mistletoe, and she unwrapped it slowly. She had last looked at the baster a few weeks ago, and she had taken care to put it back properly. It could not be damaged. At the store, Frida had so much fun playing with the turkey baster, squeezing its plastic bulb so that the air farted out the glass tip. Frida had wondered if they might use it to try to get pregnant someday: their own ad hoc fertility treatment. It was funny how that had been on her mind even then. But, no, Frida thought now, she wasn’t pregnant. Couldn’t be. She’d stop thinking about it. The baster had been on sale. The store, like so many others, was going out of business. When the first of them perished, it had seemed impossible. “A chain like that!” people had said. When she was younger, Frida used to go there with her friends to marvel at all the useless necessities: the soy sauce receptacles, the tiny mother-of-pearl spoons, the glass pitchers. Even then, she didn’t know anyone who could afford such things. When she turned thirteen, she spent all of her birthday money on a single cloth napkin. Her mother would have killed her had she known; things weren’t dire then, not yet, but times were tough, and Frida could imagine her mother decrying such waste. Frida had stored the napkin in the pocket of a coat she never wore. But on her last visit, at twenty-six, she was no longer that same stupid little girl, or so she told herself. The place had been ransacked. Frida still remembered the starkness of the floodlights; they ran on a generator in the corner, illuminating the remaining coves of products, which were jumbled together in plastic bins. The register was by the entrance, and the girl who worked there accepted gold only, and not jewelry—it had to be melted down already. Frida couldn’t conjure the girl’s face anymore, but she did remember her eyeliner. How had she gotten her hands on eyeliner? Perhaps it was an old stick of her mother’s, gone to crayon at the back of the medicine cabinet. She could have sold it, if she wanted to, but she hadn’t. The girl was barely eighteen, more likely sixteen. The place shut down a week later, didn’t even make it to Christmas.
By the following spring, Frida was celebrating her twenty-seventh birthday in an empty apartment, their belongings packed and ready by the door. She’d wanted to spend one more in L.A.; she’d been born there, after all. Cal couldn’t argue with that. Frida held the baster by its plastic bulb, lifting it above her head. She imagined the store had probably gone feral soon after they left, like the rest of the businesses at that stupid outdoor mall. The Grove, it was called. Maybe in these two years it had sprouted some trees, finally earned its name. The famous trolley, rusted, its bell looted. The fountain, which had once lured tourists and toddlers to its edge, was probably dry; that, or sludgy with poison. But what about the girl? Maybe she had been brave and stupid enough to head for the wilderness with only a bag full of tiny sherry glasses and cloth napkins to keep her company. Maybe a turkey baster, too. Back in L.A., Frida had kept the baster a secret from Cal because she’d spent gold on it, gold they were saving for their journey. They’d saved for almost a year to get enough money for gas and other supplies. She had purchased something frivolous, and she knew it. She was still that same little girl, hoarding her treasure. She hadn’t changed at all. Once they were leaving, she kept the baster a secret because she was afraid Cal would say they couldn’t bring it with them. They could only fit so much in the car, and before it ran out of gas, they would have to abandon it, carry their possessions the rest of the way. There was so much to carry, they had ended up making multiple trips with their stuff, and then they drove the car in the opposite direction until it sputtered dead, so they couldn’t be followed. It was a small miracle that they found their possessions again, piled where they’d left them, unharmed. Frida had smuggled the baster, like she had most of the artifacts. Cal eventually discovered her other things, but she’d still managed to keep the baster hidden. She’d initially intended on using it in the afterlife, in whatever way it was most needed. And then, one day, she realized she wouldn’t. Occasionally she toyed with the idea of snapping off the tag, which was attached to a string at the base of the bulb. At least it wasn’t one of those plastic threads; she used to hate those, how they would leave holes in clothing and require scissors to remove. Those doodads were probably the whole reason America had gone to hell, the plastic seeping poisons, filling up landfills. What foolishness. But she loved the turkey baster precisely because it still had its tag. She loved its newness: the pure glass of the cylinder, its fragility, and the plastic butter-yellow bulb still chalky to the touch. It inhaled and exhaled air like that first time. She had to keep it hidden. It belonged only to her, and the secret of it had become as precious as the object itself. Frida was tucking the briefcase under the bed when Cal stepped back into the house, ducking to get through the oddly small door. She liked how tall her husband was, and his narrow shoulders made him look even taller: stretched. Every morning he combed his short reddish hair with his fingers; it was so fine that little knots formed at the back of his head as he slept, and he hated it. Frida loved that, and she loved how every morning he woke with crescent-moon bags under his golden-hazel eyes, no matter how well rested he was. A fine veil of soil covered his shirt and face, and he’d untied the bandanna from his neck so that he could wipe the sweat from his brow. The room filled with the sweet stink

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