Devils in the Canyon

More years ago than I care to remember, I returned to Palm Springs for the first time in years for a Bold Strokes authors weekend event. It was a lot of fun–I always enjoy visiting Palm Springs–and this time I rented a condo on Flipkey (this was before Air B-n-B became a thing), which was a short walk from Las Casitas, a women’s only resort place that hosting the event. It was a great trip. We made side trips to Joshua Tree National Monument (it was cold), I had my first In-n-Out Burger, and we also took an early morning expedition to Bombay Beach, a failed resort village on the shores of the Salton Sea. People still lived there, but most of the place was derelict and looked bombed-out, post-apocalyptic.

The place fascinated me, and in the years since I’ve occasionally, idly, when in between books and other research…looked it up on line to do vague informational research with an eye to eventually writing about it. It still fascinates me…sometimes stuff will come across a social media feed, or I don’t know, some reading material will be suggested to me by the algorithms. That whole area of California really is interesting to me–more so than Los Angeles or the other more, better known, better documented parts of the state–which is also why I enjoyed reading Ivy Pochoda’s Imperial Valley so much.

So when I heard about this short story collection–and the Salton Sea was mentioned, I thought, hey let me take a look at this.

Three hours out of the hospital, his left foot too swollen for a shoe, Shane’s car breaks down. It’s July, a trillion degrees outside, Interstate 10 a gray ribbon of shit unspooling east out of Palm Springs toward Arizona. Not exactly where he wanted to go, but who the fuck wants to go to Arizona? It’s what was on the other side of Arizona that mattered to Shane, the chance that there might be another life in that direction. He never liked being on the coast. The one time he ever tried to swim in the Pacific–during a vacation with his dad, so, over twenty years ago, half his lifetime now–he was gripped with the ungodly realization that unlike a pool, there were no sides. You were always in the deep end.

It was a feeling that stuck with him, even when he was in one of those towns in the San Fernando Valley that sounded like an escape route from an old Western: North Hills…West Hills…Hidden Hills…

The Honda was the one damn thing Shane thought he could depend on. But as soon as he pulled out of the parking lot at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, the check-engine light flashed on. A hundred thousand miles he’d put on that fucking car and not a single problem and the one time he really needed it, it was telling him to fuck off. He didn’t have the time–or the money–to swing by the mechanic considering he’d left the hospital before the nurse had filled out the paperwork for the cops, which was a problem. Not as big a problem as staying would have been. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would have the cops trawling the city for him, especially since the wound did look self-inflicted, since it was…someone else holding his fucking hand while he shot himself with his own damn gun.

And so begins the first story in the collection, “The Royal Californian,” and what a ride this story is!

This story reminded me of a story I read in college, in a writing class, by Barry Hannah–all nerves scratched raw and in-your-face. The voice is incredible, and the noir sensibility–really, what could be more noir than the desert of southeastern California?–is right there. We don’t really learn a whole lot about Shane, but just enough to understand who he is, why he behaves the way he does, and that weird sense of desperation that drives him. This low-end, low-rent motel he finds himself in, the Royal Californian, kept reminding of the Eagles’ classic hit, “Hotel California”–this was a place you check in, but you never leave. Everyone he encounters at this place–from the two-bit lawyer, the knowing bartender who’s seen too much and doesn’t care, and the mysterious clown at the motel bar–is kind of a lowlife, kind of a desperate character, and out for themselves. No one can be trusted at this hellish motel– least of all Shane. As the story unfolds we learn why he was on the road on his way out of California, and a little of his backstory…and while you kind of want him to get his shit together, everything he does indicates that he is not going to.

And there’s also a truly marvelous twist at the end, that gives this story that extra little sharpness in its edge that makes it truly memorable.

I was highly impressed with this story, and am looking forward to reading more of Tod Goldberg…I just wish I had before!

I Can Dream About You

Hello, Monday! How are you?

I’m in a remarkably good mood this morning, which is unusual for a Monday, and even more unusual for a Monday during which I intend to tackle my storage unit. (There are copies of Mardi Gras Mambo in there, I know there are, there has to be.) Granted, my mood will undoubtedly be completely different once I’ve finished that slog, but it must be done. I will not rest until I have found that case of books.

In other news, I am continuing to enjoy the hell out of Ivy Pochoda’s Wonder Valley, and have all kinds of thoughts about it that I can’t wait to share with you, Constant Reader–but they shall simply have to wait until the book is finished. It’s also making me think some more about an idea I had (what? I told you before, great books inspire me and give me ideas for my own stories! This is nothing new! Keep up, you there in the back) a while ago on our expedition to Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea. Seriously, if there’s ever a place that needs to be the setting for a short story/noir novel, it’s that town. The fact that hundreds of thousands of fish die there in the summer, gasping for air and making the surface look like its boiling, and that the shoreline is literally littered with fish corpses–that alone is a great opening scene, don’t you think? And that the stink of the rotting, dead fish can be smelled in Los Angeles when the wind is from the east?

There’s some serious metaphor just waiting to be written, don’t you think?

I am hoping that when I am finished in the storage unit I won’t be too worn out to come home and write. I just remembered yet another short story I promised, haven’t started, but at least I already had the idea for it. I need to work a mystery into it somehow, which I am not certain I can do, but maybe I’ll just write the story, see what happens, and then get input from the editor. (I also tend to think of mysteries as always involving murder, and that’s not necessarily the case.) We shall see.

Okay, I am going to finish straightening up the kitchen and drinking my coffee before heading off to the spice mines/storage unit.

Here’s another Calvin Klein ad.

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