We are leaving to find what's hiding in the kelp beds. What's hiding in the tide pools. We are disappearing...We drove to Venice Beach in three days. Ella had a beat old silver Saab, with Vermont License plates and a bumper sticker that said, 'Minor Threat,' and another that said, 'Uncitizen.' Going through the Lincoln, Ella told me to turn down the music and listen, her head cocked just so, and gigantic landscape eyes turned down in concentration.
"There it is," she said, "listen, it's the City, she's crying because I'm leaving her." I held my breath and concentrated, straining towards the howl of wind whipping through the tunnel. I couldn't make out anything above the sputter of all the engines. Two days into the marathon run, we were flying through the wide nothings of the Arizona dessert, when Ella suddenly insisted that we pull over.
'What is it?' I said, but she was frantic and unable to articulate. I pulled over into the breakdown lane, perplexed. Ella leaped out of the car and went dancing into the desert, spinning and twirling, kicking up dust into the dry air. She moved off into the wavy heat, long enough for me to start wondering if I needed to go retrieve her, but suddenly she came dancing back, holding a large non-descript hunk of rock in her hands.
"Here it is," she said. "Look," she held the rock out for inspection, pointing out dull dusty flecks of mica and swerving lines of muddy white that meandered through the coalish gray of black.
We moved into a hostel just off the boardwalk.
"This room is tiny," I said when we walked in.
Ella wandered over to the window, smelling at the breeze. "This room goes all the way to the bottom of the ocean," she said.
Before I had even brought our things in Ella disappeared. She came back half an hour later, with flowers she had picked from the front of the Marriott Hotel. "Beautiful," she said, setting them down next to her rock. "Now this is home." My home had always smelled of truck diesel and human beings cramped into humid August cubby holes like a flat bed big-rig full of chickens--just heads and legs and wings sticking out all over the place.
Venice smelled like sun-cooked skin, and ocean, sand, flowers stolen from hotels, and Ella, slowly turning golden, as I got dark and darker than I already was. I could feel us both healing over, like we had been walking around with holes all over us that we didn't know were there. Our bed was tiny just for me, but as soon as Ella climbed in it got bigger, stretching till there were the two of us curled up with plenty of room to move around in.
A week after we got to Venice we went to go move the car into a space closer to the hostile. When I turned the key, nothing happened. Not even a gurgle or a cluck, or even a tiny clicking sound. I looked at Ella, and she looked back at me, her eyes dancing.
"This is not good," I said.
I went out to lift the hood, feeling like it was the right thing to do, even though I'd grown up in New York, and didn't know a thing about cars or engines. I stared at the foreign landscape of metal and hoses and gears gone dark and powdery with grease and dust. Ella came up behind me, and put her arms around my waist.
"We're ship wrecked," she said, "We're marooned," her eyes wide like twin planets, pepper and moss continents, "mar-oooned" she said.
The car never moved again. Ella couldn't have been happier.
Venice is a whole lot like a small town in the mid-west, but instead of farmers and pastors and dentists, the locals are six-foot-seven transvestites and faith healers, and people who spit fire with albino boa constrictors draped over their shoulders.
The hostel had a large wooden entryway, like a bar without the bar. There were two giant window spaces open to the air, with picnic tables set in front of them. Often in the afternoon I would find Ella sitting at one of the tables dreaming into the air.
"What are you doing?" I said to her one day.
"Meeting people," she said, staring off at the middle distance.
And she was right. We sat there all afternoon, watching the people who passed by on their way to the boardwalk. Some you never saw again, and others, kept reappearing until you just sort of found yourself waving, saying hello, without ever realizing it had happened. This is what Venice meant to me--not the New York sidewalk glare into cement--just watching the air for familiar faces, friendliness that grew like sea grass, natural and in ways you can't notice.
Around the time the money started getting thin, we were sitting at the table watching into the air, when a guy we'd seen a few times walked up off the street and sat down next to us on the bench. He pulled a bowl out of his pocket and sparked it up passing it over to us without a word. We passed it back and forth in silence.
"I spin over at Circle Bar on Main a couple times a week," he said while repacking the bowl, "One of the bartenders just quit yesterday." He passed around one more time then got up and wandered off towards the water.
I got a job at Circle Bar the next day, and the money started trickling back to us. Grains and rice and yogurt and fresh fruit at the organic market. One-twenty for the month at the hostel. I bought a journal with a cover made of hemp from a vendor on the boardwalk, and started writing again, which I hadn't done since getting out of school.
This girl, Ella, I wrote, it's wisdom like a whole other continent, like finding out there's a whole number hidden between one and two...I find there is another way of breathing here, I wrote, I was never supposed to see this side of the ocean, and now I'm sleeping in it.
A few days after I started at Circle, the guy who told me about the opening walked in the back entrance of the bar and started setting up his turn tables. When he saw me wiping down the taps he gave a nod and a little smile. I nodded back.
During our first days in Venice, I had a habit of wandering out into the sand just to make sure the ocean hadn't gone anywhere. One time, after I had been standing for a long while, looking out at the long line of blue, an old dread had come up to me and handed me a torn piece of notepad paper, "karma is how we say thank you here" it read. He smiled and walked off, neither one of us saying a word.
Ella started collecting glass off of the sidewalks. At first I thought she was just picking it up so that no one cut their feet, and throwing it away at the next trash can down the beach. Then one day I came back to our room from a morning swim, and she had all the glass out on the floor in boxes next to the bed. She was sorting them into piles-clear, opaque, green.
"Where'd that come from?" I said.
"The boardwalk," she replied.
I nodded and walked over to the window, looking back at the water I had just come from, "The dolphins were out today," I said.
She looked up at me and smiled, "Dolphins in the bedroom."
That night when I got home from the bar, Ella had already finished the first statue. She was sitting in her usual spot at the picnic table, staring off at the street. It was sitting in front of her, glistening. It was a figure, the form of a man. He was tall and gaunt, tree like in the way his long legs sprouted up. On his back were a gigantic set of wings, as wide as he was tall, and swooped out over and in front of him. In his hand he held a long thin rod, or perhaps a torch, outstretched before him. He was composed entirely of shards of glass, every inch head to foot in glistening fragments, fastened, somehow, to a sort of wire frame that poked out, here and there in opportune places, as if intentionally revealing the inner workings of the creature. He stood at least two feet high, tall and brilliant in the heavy Venice sun.
"That," I said, ''it's amazing, I,'' trying to catch my breath, ''did you make that?''
"Look," Ella held up the palms of her hands, her lips spreading into a pout. They were covered with a thousand tiny cuts, little dried rivers of blood turning from burgundy to a dark brown.
I took her upstairs to the bathroom we shared with the others on our floor, and helped her clean her hands up. "It's the archangel, Michael," she said.
I went downstairs with the idea that I should grab it before someone walked off with it. When I got downstairs I realized how ridiculous an idea that was as I tried to figure out a way to just pick it up without severing a major artery. Dangerous art, I thought, leave it to Ella.
After a few aborted attempts at transport, I went back upstairs to check on Ella. I found her waiting for me in our room. She was sitting in her chair in front of the window, her palms held upright in the air like some sort of yogi.
"How do your hands feel?" I asked from the doorway.
"Like they made something beautiful," she said.
Back outside I stood in front of the archangel considering different hypothesis for quasi safe locomotion.
"Ooh look at that," people said walking by, "how beautiful."
Eventually I took a walk down to the local hardware and picked up a pair of heavy duty welding gloves. Gently, gently, I lifted the piece by its base and its side, and slowly maneuvered my way inside and up the stairs to our floor. Ella was asleep in her chair, her hands laid, still palms up, on her lap.
The next day they were so swollen and puffy, that she couldn't bend a single joint in any of her fingers. We walked down to a restaurant nearby on the boardwalk and ordered a big plate of scrambled eggs, which I spooned into her mouth. She kept forgetting that she couldn't use her hands. She would reach out to grab something, jumping with a yelp as soon as they touched what she reached for. Then she would laugh at herself. She laughed when I fed her eggs, and began referring to her hands as a gang of outlaw sausages. We watched the white caps disappear below the sloping sand, drinking free refills of coffee until it felt like either you couldn't blink, or couldn't stop blinking.
Two days later she started being able to move her fingers a little. I went off to work in the morning and when I came back in the afternoon, there was another sculpture waiting for me on the picnic table. Another glistening spindly tree man, this one with horns and a muzzle, instead of wings.
"It's a Minotaur." Ella cried, holding out her hands at me.
"Why didn't you wear the gloves?"
"Because I couldn't feel it then," she said. We washed her hands and then she went to sleep in her chair, so much like a Buddha the way she sat there, palms up, I had to shake my head and look twice--a skinny little golden white girl, who looked exactly like the Buddha. I grabbed the heavy duty gloves and carried the Minotaur up to the room, placing him next to Michael. I sat on the bed with my head in my hands and looked at the two of them.
A week later where there had been two there were now six. Ella's hands were horribly infected, swollen red and white, and seeping clear liquids. I bought two big tubes of antibacterial ointment, and she watched with glistening child eyes while I placed them in warm soapy water to soak, slathering on the ointment, trying to be as gentle as I could. She never complained, or cried out, even once, but she started whimper while she slept in her chair.
There was Ulysses tied to the mast, and Samson gone blind and pushing at the pillars, and Rapunsal, and George Washington crossing the Potomac, which I later saw the original of and realized with amazment that it was an exact replica, still the spindly faceless tree folk, but all in exactly the right positions, and sparkling away.
"You have to stop this," I said to her.
She sat in her chair, her hands held up and glistening with salve, like a doctor who had scrubbed up for surgery, waiting for some nurse to encase them in latex.
"You have to stop," I said.
But she just looked at me, curious, like I was suddenly speaking another language.
A box arrived for Ella in the mail, wrapped in cut up paper from a grocery bag, and duct tape, and twine, with no return address. Inside there were two giant bottles of Vicoden, the kind of bottles that you see behind the pharmacy counter, like someone had taken a picture of Tylenol bottles and blown them up to 4 times their normal size. Ella beamed when I brought the package into the room and opened it. She almost clapped her hands, which had of late turned even more gruesome, blue in places and in others the grayish white of dead people. She held them above her head whenever possible, to try to keep the blood from pounding into them.
"This is not the answer," I said holding up one of the swollen bottles, "You need to go see a doctor."
She laughed at me, her face framed on either side by her elevated gruesome hands.
It seemed at first like she was listening to me after that, for a couple of weeks there were no more creations, and her hands got slowly less blue and grayish white, and she soaked them in her soapy water, and I covered them in thick layers of antibacterial goo. Then one day I came home after a long shift at the Circle to find another sparkling sculpture, waiting for me on the picnic table, in the bright of late afternoon Venice. This one was the largest of all, bigger even than the previous works combined with thirteen individual figures in all, gathered around a long dangerous table.
That was it, I said to myself as I stormed up the stairs. She had to be stopped.
Ella was sitting in her chair asleep when I walked in--peaceful and Buddha as ever with her hands a brilliant swelling red and danced all over with tiny fresh slashes, on top of older half closed ones, and even more ancient little white spots beginning to scar over.
"Ella," I said, "This has to be over."
She just lay there in her chair, peaceful and without a single whimper.
"Ella" I said, "did you hear me?" Reaching over to shake her gently by the shoulder. When I shook her, her head lolled down, lifeless and inanimate, prey to the mercies of gravity. I jumped off the bed and squatted in front of her chair, looking up with my hands on her shoulders, shaking her, trying to rouse her.
''Ella,'' I said her name in panic, ''Ella,'' over and over until it was vacated of all meaning, becoming a chant, and then a sound prearticulate, an expression of need.
There was no response. I came suddenly to my senses reaching to feel at her neck, putting my head to her chest, and holding my breath to listen. Finally I made out the faint distant echo of her heart slowly thumping. In a flash I pictured it, tiny and tucked away beneath her perfect breast, surrounded and iridescent, glowing red in a suspension of clear liquid, lit and fiery and fed through with veins. I put my hand to her head. It was covered in sweat and burning. Quickly I scooped her up from her chair and ran down to the lobby. "Call an ambulance," I yelled out to the girl behind the check in counter, ''Somebody call for help.'' I carried her over to the table, sitting heavily with her curled into my lap, her creation, glowing and brilliant, at our side.
Just before the ambulance arrived, her eyes flung themselves open, wide and terrifying. Like a spasm she sat up in my arms, staring right into my face, and through me, to whatever it was her mind was dreaming, "The chair is in the ocean," she said, and then her eyes cleared into momentary clarity, focusing on my face with recognition for the first time, "Oh," she said, ''It's the last one this one, it's the last supper.'' And with that her eyes closed and she mumbled her way back to limp, and hanging against my chest.
I glanced over at the sculpture. The long broad glowing table, the tree man in the middle, his hands raised as Ella's had been, in blessing, with six figures seated on either side.
The doctors said the infection had gone systemic. They dosed her with high levels of intravenous antibiotics, but it was no use, she never regained consciousness.
I was in Venice for six more months without Ella. I had no choice. I didn't have enough money to go anywhere. I called every radio station in Cincinnati looking for her father. "He thinks he's Thelonius Monk reincarnated," I would say hopeless, frustrated. A few took pity, most simply hung up, thinking I was crazy. I never found him.
I had Ella cremated, and set her in the midst of her statues. I worked as often as I could at the Circle, walking around the bar as soon as I finished shift, to drink away what little grief I could. I slept all day and all night, dipping deeply into Ella's supply of pills whenever I wasn't at work. I tried not to look at the ocean.
Finally I had enough money saved for a plane back to the city. I thought of Harlem, and chickens stuffed into wire boxes. It felt like all that I deserved, comfortable, like a corpse thinking about worms and the dusty earth.
On my last night in Venice, I carried Ella down to the ocean. It was low tide, and the moon was full and dull, glowing and dusty. I carried her sculptures, one by one to the water line, standing them in a row, three on either side of her, and in front her Last Supper strange and glowing sharp. I sat alone in the cool sand, and watched as they were swallowed by the water. I breathed in the shuttering crash of the waves. They tasted cleaned of all their flavor. Venice, I thought, this strange country, this karma that swallows people and spits out shards of glass, that cleans out old wounds and digs new ones, like the pulse beat of the water-the flood and withdrawal syncopation of tides.