A Weed in the Canyon
by Susan E. Lloy
Clementine just purchased a small two-story house on Willow Glen Rd in Laurel Canyon with a lush side garden teeming with lemon, lime and orange trees. It’s absolutely lovely and completely renovated. She scrimped and saved her entire life and, with the help of an inheritance from an uncle, purchased it for one buck shy of a million, which is a steal for this area. The move isn’t at all practical. For one thing she isn’t American and will have to leave the country every six months in order not to be labeled an illegal alien. Nonetheless, she’s here.
Clementine had visited California and many of its counties numerous times wishing she could move to the Golden State. She doesn’t know a soul; yet an undeniable lure has brought her here. It’s the mystique of it all that played a significant slice of her decision. Much has happened here, the music scene that changed a generation, but that history is spent. Even so, there is an aura about this place. Maybe it’s only the warmer weather. It certainly puts a smile on a face instead of freezing one’s ass off as the northern neighbor where polar winds bite at a face, freeze toes and every single bone aches and cries out for comfort.
She has no clue of what to expect from relocating. Change. Something. No matter how insignificant. It felt as if days have remained stagnant the last twenty years and now that’s she’s left the life of the worker bees, she wishes to venture somewhere unknown. Taking in the scents of all unchartered.
It’s the first time in her life that she will live in a detached home since her childhood. For her entire adult life she has lived in apartment buildings hearing the continuous slamming of doors. Haunted by noise and smells of cooking not to her liking. This house is open and airy with an ultra-modern kitchen, dining and living room all in one breadth. Glass pilot doors open to a patio area and upstairs there is an additional living space with a fireplace for cool evenings, a closed bedroom, a courtyard off the second level and a roof garden. It’s sleek and sexy. What more could she wish for?
In all her years Clementine never really learned to drive. When she was young she had been in a serious car accident and two of her cousins had died. She never got over her nervousness of vehicles even if it hasn’t been constructive for her life. She does maintain a driver’s license, though never drives. She forced herself to acquire one to overcome her fear. Still, she has only been behind the wheel three times in sixteen years.
Her home is situated on a bend high up in the canyon and the closest store is more than an hours’ walk. Still, it will help with her weight. She has let herself go the last years. Hiding under think layers of clothes, which is required most of the year, with only a sliver of warmer weather allotted for thinner attire. Here lifestyle is paramount. Fitness. Clean habits. She never gave up smoking. It’s not a heavy addiction, nevertheless she can’t say no when having a drink that has become more of a problem of late. Hell, can’t I have something? It’s her go to for when she’s overdone it.
She sold everything, keeping only a few photographs inside her three large suitcases. Got rid of all her heavy attire. A fresh start – that’s what’s needed. Her kin are all gone and she is childless. What was there to keep her there – nothing. She looks at a photograph of her five-year old self, standing beside a snowman proudly pointing at her creation. It feels so different here with the ocean off in the distance and palm trees erect and alien.
There isn’t a thing to eat. Only a can of espresso she brought in one of her bags. Not even a drop of milk, but makes a stovetop brew. She’ll need the energy to traipse down the hill to the Canyon Country Store and back up again. She grabs a few bags and begins her descent down the winding road. The heat is intense and it scorches her exposed skin. Humidity attacks her hair making her gray locks look like a deviant scrub brush. Often cars pass. Some with surfboards, yet no one offers a lift.
She’s happy to be back in the land of Anglophones after leaving the French province, where she had become one of those people who swore she never would be. One that had lived there for decades, but whose French had remained shabby at best. She did try, but she was always lousy with languages and only had English acquaintances. French was not required for her job with an international import/export company and now she relishes in the thought that if she needs directions or whatever, she can easily converse in her mother tongue. Instead of doing her French best and getting a “Hein-quoi??” Which is the Québécois equivalent of “what the fuck did you say?”
She finally reaches the Canyon Country Store and takes a seat outside before venturing inside to purchase some provisions. They say, sometimes, you can see famous people here, although today there are only loud-mouthed, skimpily-dressed millennials wearing Lululemon and baseball caps taking selfies.
After having a meal and buying all the food items she can easily carry, she begins her amble up the road. By the time she reaches her house she is drenched in sweat and thirsty beyond belief. How she wishes for a frosty Margarita, but she doesn’t have any Tequila in the house. Beer was too heavy to lug up the hill, so she settles for a warm rosé with ice.
As Clementine sits on her garden terrace she feels a tinge of happiness. She does not believe in this state-of-mind. She simply isn’t wired this way. She remembers hints of such a feeling when playing with childhood friends, having a laugh when tripping or in the first bloom of love, but not in the day-to-day and all the therapy in the world won’t change that. When folks say, “I’m great” she believes they are total phonies and liars. Even so, her mood is lighter today.
The city is beautiful lying beneath her feet, especially at night when it is aglow and brimming with life. She ventured into downtown LA a few times to lunch watching the many young fit bodes stroll along the sidewalks, but felt consciously exposed in the sizzling sunlight with all of her abundance displayed in plain sight. She wished herself back up north enshrouded in heavy clothing – a tuque and winter coat and winding scarf partially concealing her face and neck. Here, there is no escaping. No snow gusts or freezing rain or a thousand brown-red turned maple leaves encircling one’s sphere.
It becomes more and more unusual for her to venture down into the city even though it awaits a few minutes from her doorstep. And although she loves the sea and went to the beach a few times, she was too scared to swim. The strong temperamental currents frightened her. She imagined them sucking her far out into the blue with hungry sharks lurking under the swell, ravenous for her generous form. She did enjoy the surfers though, admiring their courage and their highly developed art of riding the waves.
Even though it’s preferable to have her food and liquor delivered from favorite downtown shops, she still sets off every other day down to the Canyon Store. One afternoon after leaving the store she is offered a lift. A yellow, vintage Volkswagen van with a white top slows down along side of her.
“Hey there, you’re lugging a load. Can I offer you a ride?”
He looks friendly enough, with a smiling dog panting out the window; nevertheless he could be the local loony, but she accepts. The van grinds into gear and makes a series of wheezing sounds that reminds her of the van in, Little Miss Sunshine, trying to stay the course with all of its troubles.
“Where ya heading?
“Willow Glen Rd.”
“No problem, we’ll be up there in a jiff. It would be a shame to let a lady trudge up this road with all that gear you’re toting.”
“What’s your name?”
She somehow expected him to say Jax or Zane. Something vernacular Californian.
“I’m Bernie. And this is Chili Pepper.”
“Well, this is very kind of you Bernie.”
The dog quietly wags her tail revealing several patches of heavily matted fur.
When they reach her house he beams.
“Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”
She returns his smile watching as he turns the rig around with its groans and spurts of pain. He waves out of the side window and drives and slowly makes his way down the hill. After he is out of sight, she thinks that was kinda nice. She has become somewhat fatigued with herself. Solitude has a shelf life.
When moving in, her next-door neighbors came to welcome her, promising hello to invite her over once they returned, but they were heading to Sicily for five months. The only contact she has with folk here is the staff at the Canyon Store.
Clementine’s used to it. She’s more of a loner, although she can be quite social when she needs to be. The older she’s become people have become less significant to her. She prefers the company of birds or hearing the distant barks of coyotes that howl throughout the canyon every evening. Often they compete with hoot owls serenading everyone within earshot.
A hummingbird feeder hangs from one of the lemon trees and sometimes they come close to her like tiny fairies. One morning a coyote was standing on her patio with three of her cubs. Clementine threw some sliced meat cuts, which they gobbled up like there was no tomorrow. Afterwards, she thought perhaps she had made a mistake. One shouldn’t tamper with wildlife. Imagining them moving in, awaiting grub every day, yet that was their only visit.
Bernie settles in for the evening on an empty lot further down the canyon featuring remnants of an old foundation. His van is camouflaged amongst hearty overgrowth. He knows this locale is only temporary. Soon enough, the builders will arrive to construct a new home.
He is accustomed to this upheaval and has been homeless for years now. At first, he had aspirations of becoming a singer and drifted to Los Angeles in the early eighties. Initially he got gigs as backup vocals and playing acoustic guitar in clubs on the Strip, though in the end it never amounted to anything. He ended up doing odd jobs, mostly in restaurants. He gave it up completely following a motorcycle accident, which left him lame and in constant pain. Forcing him to walk with a cane carved from a tree branch.
Sometimes he busks for money downtown. The tourists are the most generous. Thinking he’s some old throwback from the music scene way back when. He eats a lot in soup kitchens and wanders the hills inquiring about yard work and handyman jobs and often he can earn a few bucks.
Clementine’s out of the loop as far as scoops go. The last time she read the news she saw a photograph of a wild elephant lying dead in a river somewhere in India. Someone had given it explosive fruit. It disgusted her and she vowed to stay clear of what’s going on in the world. It’s only shit.
The house is absent of a television or stereo. She wasted so much time staring at the screen and withdrew from music years ago. Compressed with neighbors and paper-thin walls. Sometimes, though, she twirls around her open space like some excited Dervish. Especially when she hears a tune from the B-52’s or the Ramones or something else to her liking from a car’s open window. She thinks a party would be amusing, but there’s no one to invite.
One evening while sipping a cocktail on her patio she hears a familiar sound. The voice of the van. It seems to be conking to a stop in front of her house and lets out a long series of grunts. She heads to the door and sees Bernie with a bouquet of wildflowers. Chili Pepper sits obediently at his feet.
“Bernie. This is unexpected.”
“Thought I’d take a chance.”
Handing her a mix of locally grown blossoms.
“Well, come in.”
She isn’t at all certain why she invites him in. Though truth be told she is bored with hardly a soul to chat with and celibacy has become too close a companion.
“Would you like a cocktail?”
“That would be nice.”
Clementine goes to the kitchen and Chili Pepper follows close behind. She prepares icy Margaritas in the blender and brings them out to the patio.
He sits across from her taking a deep, long swallow.
“This is really tasty.”
“Sure. Can’t say no to that.”
She produces two additional delicious dripping glasses and returns with a plate of assorted cheese, crackers, seedless grapes, and a bowl of cold water for Chili Pepper, which the dog gulps down as if it is her last moment on earth. She is offered a few bits of cheese and following her treat, gazes back at Clementine with a grateful smile.
“So Bernie are you still working?”
She does not find this intrusive for they are of similar age.
“I do landscaping from time to time. Keeps me active.”
After the second drink Bernie asks Clementine if he can take a shower.
“I never had the chance before dropping by. I was in the neighborhood you see.”
Although she finds this odd and feels put on the spot, she agrees providing him with a fresh towel. She feels it would be unkind of her to refuse him. A considerable amount of time passes before he emerges cleaner with bits of water lingering in his full, longish hair.
There’s no denying he’s a good-looking man, reminiscent in a certain angle of light of a young Sam Shepard. Inviting, in a definite, raffish way.
“I feel like a new man! Thanks, I really needed that.”
Bernie has started to come over more frequently, but she wonders why he never invites her out to dinner, a movie or anything for that matter. She just assumes he’s stingy, an attribute she doesn’t respect in a man. Still, overall she likes him. He told her about his past. How he grew up on a farm in the Midwest. How he hated it. Forced to do chores upon chores day in day out. How his mother died from an accident when he was four. How his father was mean and beat him and the minute he was old enough to leave he headed here.
By the end of the month he is practically living with her. She even buys steep-priced chow for Chili Pepper from a vet. Chili has taken a shining to Clementine and often Bernie will have to limp over just to rub her head and get a wagging tail. His pained hip doesn’t hinder his sexual performance though, which has proved to be an extra benefit to the friendship.
One afternoon down at the Canyon store one of the guys, Wyatt, whom she’s gotten to know well, shines the spotlight on Bernie.
“Clementine. I realize this is hardly my business, however I’ve seen you from time to time with Bernie. You are a nice lady and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
“What do you mean exactly?”
“Don’t get me wrong. Bernie is a cool dude and all, but he’s sort of a predator.”
“Predator!” You mean sexually perverse?”
“No. No, not that. A player. A sort of douche. It’s just that I’ve seen it again and again throughout the years. A single lady comes to the Canyon and he swoops in like a bird of prey. Ya know, gets chummy, and then makes his move to gain entrée so to speak. Get me? He’s homeless. Bet he didn’t tell you that one. He lives in his van.”
As she eats her lunch on the terrace the story of him being in the area, dropping in, and the ceaseless requests to use the shower start to sink in.
A few nights after following a carefully executed meal, Clementine puts the gears to Bernie.
“So Bernie. Why don’t you ever invite me to your place? Truthfully I get fed up with all the cooking. You know I do – you once in awhile do, would be nice.”
“Oh, I will. Eventually. I’m ashamed, actually. It’s a mess. You know with the bum leg and all. I’m not much of a housekeeper.”
“M-m-m-m. That’s funny because someone told me, someone whom I trust, that you live in your van and that you make a habit out of befriending single women and moving yourself in. Trust me, I hate liars and I’ve met plenty throughout the years.”
“Man. If I had told you the truth would you have given me a second thought?”
“I dunno know. Maybe I’d feel less disappointed if you’d been upfront from the get-go. But, you never gave me the chance. I don’t judge most folk.
Everyone has had hard times. In spite of that I’d like you to get the hell out. I’ll find a way to contact you if I change my mind. I feel totally deceived and ripped off.”
“Clementine, please believe this wasn’t my intention. I would have told you sooner or later.”
Bernie gathers up his few belongings and his guitar and calls for Chili Pepper who knows a good thing and hides herself where no one can find her.
“Chili Pepper… come on girl. Chili…”
But before he can sniff her out Clementine pushes him out the door. Cane and all. An old tattered duffle bag just misses his head.
Several weeks have passed and no sign of Bernie. She feels bad about keeping Chili and is certain Bernie pines for his dog. Clementine puts a note on the message board of the Canyon Store alerting Bernie that Chili Pepper is happy and misses him since he doesn’t answer his phone. She asks Wyatt to tell him to stop by if he runs into him, but it is as if he has dropped off the planet. Or abducted for that matter.
Truth be told, Berne has already hooked up with another lady. A new addition to the Canyon, a newbie from London named Arabella. He left his van on the entrance driveway to the vacant lot, partially concealed by heavily laden foliage and high-tailed it down Mexico-way with his new squeeze. Not giving Clementine a second thought and a mere nano-second for Chili Pepper. Thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have to stash her somewhere while he’s off gallivanting down South with Arabella, whom he met when he helped her with car trouble and charmed her on the spot right then and there.
Rain has been falling heavily the last week keeping Clementine housebound, preventing her from going down to the Canyon Country Store. Instead, she watches the worrisome stream of brown earth running down the road in front of her house. Chili Pepper has never been happier since her groom and shampoo down at the doggy salon. If Bernie were to appear now she’d give him the cold stare, ignore him and exit the room retreating to one of her many hiding places.
The downpour continues without pause and unbeknownst to Clementine the earth has started to shift. First, she hears a rumbling like an oncoming train. When she looks outside she sees that part of the road has caved in and her next-door neighbors’ house has collapsed like an accordion from the swiftly, accelerating mudslide. She picks up Chili Pepper and speedily walks down the road stepping over fallen trees, boulders and structural debris.
After walking for some time she sees the back of the yellow van lurking from under a palm branch. She opens the door and gently puts Chili in the back on the worn sleeping bag before rummaging around for the keys that are soon discovered taped to the roof of the glove compartment. To her amazement it starts without hesitation, although a little surly and stubborn. She turns the yellow van around, which sighs in disapproval, heading down the Canyon with one wonky wiper clearing her way.
Susan E. Lloy is the author of two short story collections, But When We Look Closer (2017) and Vita (2019). Susan likes to write about unconventional characters who exist on the edges of ordinary life and is hoping to finish her third collection by spring 2021. She lives in Montreal.