La Luz de Jesús
LAX to ABQ, only one hour and twenty minutes, tarmac to tarmac.
The puddle jump took less time than driving to Vegas in his Mini, James noted while eyeballing the elderly guy from the seat behind. The man’s face was gritted as a brick, and the fuselage smelled footy, and James’s quad majorly itched, and he wanted off already. The old guy was outmaneuvering James, setting his frayed paisley carry-on in the aisle first during the processional deplane.
“In a hurry, Ace?” James asked the man, drawing numerous stares.
Other passengers were ornery and waiting bent under luggage compartments. Another man sneered at him, but James didn’t care, he was secure with himself, stamped golden with the knowledge that he was from Los Angeles, City of Angels.
So as to perfect his New Mexico role, James wore cowboy boots. Made from sealskin and purchased from a Russian in La Brea with an orange rub-on tan, the boots were, of course, illegal—and therefore supremely hot. He would be in the state for three months, and James figured he needed to look the part. Everyone in his friend circle, in Los Feliz, in Echo Park, in Silver Lake, looked the part.
It was a seventy-eight to thirty-five degree slide, but, even so, James shivered gladly. Outside, the New Mexican air was bracing. And that massive northern mountain range was super Jon Blazin’. Under the biggest carport of blue sky he’d ever seen, bluer than the Beverly’s swimming pool, the cold made James’s testicles harden to walnuts and rise. And his voice notched up several octaves when he said to the kid behind the counter at the off-site car rental place, “That piece-a-shit? No way. I simply refuse.”
“I’m afraid so,” the kid said politely. A single car sat in the fenced, asphalt lot.
Buck-a-Trunk rented beat-ups and clunkers for long-term use. To James they leased the last available, a jaundice-yellow El Camino, dull chrome along the sides and faded mauve interior. “It’ll have to do,” James said at last, sliding the keys off the counter.
He would need to acclimate to the elevation and February temps, the southwestern dead-of-winterness, but it was a bright day, the sky was purring, and he had nothing but free time ahead of him. James had paper and pens and a laptop in his bags, everything he needed. Finally, at last, he was here to finish his screenplay, which in its nascent stages was superior in every way, he was certain, to Thunderbird, technical shots of which had been filmed at the new studios next to Albuquerque’s airport. Several massive hangars could accommodate five helicopters flying indoors simultaneously. Or so the rumors went.
For years James had been hearing whispers about the New Mexico scene. Everyone in the business had. Suits from the state’s capital wanted to lure industry away from California, wanted to siphon from the billions, and so they offered fifty-cent returns on every dollar spent. The state built professional sets. The state bought an old prison, transformed it for film use. The state promised well-trained talent and invested in infrastructure and advertised location spots and reliable vendors.
The incentives were smart. Studios came. Cue Tamalewood.
James cruised north. It was all distances beyond the bubbled window. His rental car was comfy, tatty bucket seats but not half-bad, considering how the tires hummed along the interstate. His gonads descended as vents blew hot on his lap.
According to a slim guidebook James had destroyed during the flight and left inside the seat back, this landscape was high desert shrub-steppe. He pushed into higher desert, headlong toward the Sangre de Cristo range—the Blood of Christ Mountains, also via the guidebook, if you can believe that. The Blood of Christ Mountains. Too perfect, he thought.
Too too, he thought.
James thumped the steering wheel with his palm, and in the rearview watched how his long, tinted bangs draped agreeably into his eyes. Boot heel depressing the accelerator, he flung a gum wrapper out the window, where it fluttered in the dry, subthermal desert air, coming to rest somewhere out there, he didn’t know where, just somewhere amid all this weird reddish dirt.
James Miles loved movies. James adored film—or “Cinema Arts,” as his one-hundred-twenty-eight-thousand-dollar undergraduate degree stated, in black Winthorpe font.
Whatever you wanted to call the business of capturing images and sequencing them in blocks of celluloid moving at twenty-four frames per second and blasting them via bright light onto screens worldwide, James worshipped it. From the age of twenty-two he’d worked on film sets as a production assistant, driver, location scout, extras wrangler, wardrobe assistant, fly on the wall, absorbing it all.
James remembered often and fondly the film that marked his early conversion, how Apocalypse Now flooded his impressionable seven-year-old synapses to the point of near epilepsy. How on that fated afternoon he softly genuflected in the sticky movie theater aisle, freshly sneaked-in from The Muppet Movie, his mother unawares, and how on reddening knees he crossed himself again and again, enraptured and awestruck by syncopating light and sound, as though the whole cosmos was convulsing.
Nothing was the same afterward.
Nearly every afternoon during high school, James would rent VHS cassettes and lock himself in his westward-facing room, which sopped up West Covina heat, sweating under a hot television screen in his airless, stultifying teenage stronghold, watching movies—learning from them.
He started with Action and systematically moved down the shelves, A-Z. Next he ingested Drama, Comedy, Foreign, Documentary. He suffered for movies. In the near-tropical heat of his bedroom he watched fade-ins and camera angles and tracking shots and outtakes, his mother always yelling at him from downstairs, her wedding ring tapping against the wrought iron banister: “Come down and act like a human being, or so help the Gospel of Mark!”
He analyzed shorts, indies, feature lengths, prequels and sequels and the extra cookies that rolled during credits. He studied cuts that worked, edits that didn’t, when to overlay montage with soundtrack and how many gratuitous buttocks to shove inside a trailer to lure crowds to the box.
Also, he developed special gifts. He could tell whether young starlets would make bigger payday someday if they blew his synods at least three times during simulated coitus scenes. Rewind, play. Rewind, play. Rewind, play. Actresses of that caliber became legends. If they delivered lines without too much wood in their throats, if they were Bathsheba beautiful, if they had been blessed with the right coloring and genes, they endured. Virginia Madsen, Creator. Angelina Jolie, Gia. Bo Derek, Tarzan, the Ape Man. For example.
His Cinema Arts degree was a rerun of those high-school afternoons of willful solitude, but with terminology. There he met Ricardo Morales, who ended up directing The Get Go—huge opening weekend. There he also met Joy Paz, actress, later his girlfriend, or live-in lover, as she had called him. After Joy’s liposuction surgery, she began pulling down large coin for early motherhood leads. Joy’s first role, forgotten by everyone but him, was in James’s opinion the greatest, saintliest work ever put on celluloid.
But these days, it seemed, everyone was fast-forwarding but James.
He secured his SAG card after a humiliating series of background performances, cinched finally by saying, to a well-known dopehead, “Excuse me, is this your fork?”
[Handing over the fork.]
[Aaaaand . . . cut.]
That particular film nearly got canned before it was finished. The production was a three-week, straight-to-video throwaway, a bomb made as a wedding present from the director and producer Gil Soto to his latest nineteen-year-old wife, Mims. Mims was a high-pitched, screechy person, and she reminded James of a hummingbird, only ramped up more via methamphetamine. Mims wanted to “carry” her own project, but after the first day of shooting everyone knew Mims’s acting was such a colossal farce that Gil Soto simply refused to leave his Star Trailer, an Airstream outfitted with chrome dials and pro range kitchen.
On the set, rumors swept through the impatient crew. Mims was nowhere to be found. And the producer wouldn’t come out of the Airstream. People wondered, was the job over?
That afternoon, James leaned against the producer’s trailer and heard babbling inside—the TV? Or perhaps, James thought, he was just hearing the sad, dying sounds of a has-been. Years of working in the business had toughened him to the affliction. Still, James yearned for his big chance at catching it. He’d been lounging around sets for years, communing at night with up-and-comers on his television set, and at twenty-eight he was nowhere. He rented a twelve-by-twelve room in Los Feliz, drank at Skybar, dated an earlobe model, but he wanted real entrée.
At last James knocked on the Airstream’s door.
Gil Soto’s eyes were bright with self-loathing. The man had a disarmingly familiar TV commercial face, sixty years old or so, and he usually carried himself like a trophy, but not on that day. Standing before him, James reached deep and pulled from his pocket a tiny round and blue Xanax, holding it to the light ceremoniously, in offering.
Gil Soto cricked back his neck, which James interpreted as an invitation, and when he stepped inside, Gil Soto fell into a leather Eames recliner, motioning for James to approach with a curling finger. James stumbled, dropped the tablet on the tight-woven carpet, and fell to his knees. He did not give up. He soldiered on. He reached and parted Gil’s great and full lips, gently placing the pill on the man’s gray tongue.
Gil closed his swollen eyes and swallowed, without asking, What chemicals?
Then the man’s eyes opened. Unexpectedly, he raised his feet and propped them on James’s shoulder, slowly forcing James onto all fours. He positioned his sockless, fuzzy, naked feet on James’s back, using him as a footrest, leaving his feet this way until night fell, as the writer and director of Paddycakes, the biggest moneymaker of the Reagan era, watched cartoons on a flat-screen television and short-monologued.
That evening, Gil Soto hired James Miles.
For five years James worked alongside Gil, quote-unquote learning the ins of the biz. Perpetually locked to the man’s side, James gave pep talks when called upon, championing Gil Soto’s comeback at every opportunity, raising him like Lazarus, which, of course, happened, as everyone knows, the classic Hollywood fairy tale, now an award-winning documentary.
Oh that Gil Soto, James now thought, gnawing on sugar-sucked gum and driving into the road’s shadows, further into the mountains. Soto’s last film, featuring monsters, pulled in eighty mil in four weeks. Oh that Gil Soto, the fuckin’ asshole!
North of Rio Arriba, James passed a patrolman dozing on the side of the highway. He accelerated. James would do just fine out here, away from Gil Soto, that fuckin’ asshole!, and away from that flittering wife of his, out here among the aired-out, sunburned hicks.
Piñon Hill, as it was known, was owned by Gil Soto. Or rather, Piñon Hill was owned by Gil Soto, but operated by the Gil Soto Trust. Tax reasons. Gil Soto was the kind of fuckin’ asshole! who owned stuff—like a western film set.
It was tucked in a low valley between foothills, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo. Piñon Hill was leased by premium cable networks and, lately, western movie projects—they did okay at the box—and was miles from the interstate, through a padlocked gate, down a narrow gravel road, a perfect replica of an old-timey town, complete with raised wooden walkways and splintery buildings approximating those from late nineteenth-century western America.
James had seen many films shot here, but he could hardly believe the place when he arrived. Semi out-of-it from travel, he blinked; his Tag Heuer had the wrong hour. “Dude,” he said, staring sag-eyed out the window.
He parked next to the corner building with wood shingles. In The Sandbaggers, the building was central to the bar fight. It served as the brothel in Queen Flea and Her Highwaymen. (Only one viewing of Sara Black, he now recalled, but nothing became of her, proving his system was valid.)
James opened the car door, knee popping, and surveyed. Hairs inside his nostrils stiffened in the brisk air.
Two rows of wooden, near-dilapidated buildings faced each other on a block-long stretch of eerie filmscape. Business names in peeling white paint were etched above each structure: saddlery, jail, mercantile. James laughed to himself. It was just too much. A wide dirt lane ran up the middle, horse posts over troughs, and at the end, through cold pale air illuminated by the El Camino’s headlights, James saw the shadow of a single-room church with a bright white cross on top.
Already thin layers of dust had settled on his black sealskin boots. He wiped them clean, shivers coursing up his ribs.
The door creaked as it opened, spreading cold light over wood flooring. It was a prototypical westerny bar, mirrors behind it. Piano, stage, bar stools. The wood tables were half-ass props, unsteady and wobbly. The film in his head unfurled with each careful step. Every detail would matter; every detail would be right. His film would be a stunning achievement. He’d suffered years of emotional abuse at the claws of Gil Soto, and he would not waste this opportunity to prove himself.
Upstairs, next to the whore rooms, or the lodger’s quarters in Lucien’s Revenge, was a fully equipped studio apartment, as promised. The room was wintry, musty but adequate, occupied by directors during longer shoots.
James spent the evening unpacking, arranging his clothes, computer equipment, and seven body hygiene kits. He set up his small library of DVDs next to the television and stereo combo system. Thankfully, also as promised, the unit had surround sound. Four remotes, TV centered, chair situated beneath the arrangement—it was an altar of sorts. And, that night, he worshipped the glowing node, the single room on the second floor of the corner building shining like a bright star amid the surrounding darkness, and visible for miles.
Before bed, James put in Joy Paz’s earliest movie—Fresh Mangoes, a boner-comedy set in Fort Lauderdale—and skipped forward to minute 40:12. God bless modern tech, he thought, remembering the wasted hours in his boyhood bedroom, fast-forwarding and rewinding to land on the exact half-second.
Toggling the super-slow-mo button with one hand, he unzipped with the other. He unfurled one sock and set it neat and flat on the light-blonde wood floor. At minute 43:53 he sighed, “Hallelujah,” inhaled deeply, and reached for the sock.
“Time to hit the hay,” he said to the room, repeating a phrase from the Old West phrasebook he’d brought along, for research purposes.
He was tired, worn plum down, and he felt good. He felt western and good and clean.
Backdropping the set were foothills pocked with juniper and piñon, and rising to high snowcapped mountains. The next morning James stood at the window, captivated by the scenery. The mountains looked like fancy ornaments from Neiman’s. It was ridiculously serene, even inspiring. Quiet, with nobody to coax him into going to The House of Blues. No distractions. And the absolute isolation and feel of the place was Jon Blazin’.
He flipped open the computer shell and wrote, without coffee, for three hours, sunlight filtering through lace drapes and warming his knuckles.
Later he walked the set in his new parka. The coat was massive, so warm that he only needed a T-shirt beneath it; it was like wearing a gutted polar bear. He said the names of things during his slow meander. Outhouse, chuck wagon, prospecting pick. He loved the western film genre. Windows in several buildings displayed their wares, horse tack and glass bottles now dressed in spider webs. He walked around the buildings and, not surprised, discovered they were mere shells. Four walls, unsteady roofs, the insides gutted and fake.
The church at the end of the lane was something different. Its adobe walls were shellacked cocaine white, with heavy pews inside, and a huge dark wood cross at the front, which sat propped on a ledge. The church appeared real, or real enough. Someone had done a remarkably believable job.
Behind the church, James came across a tamped-down trail, something made by time, from coyotes, or mountain goats, or trespassing health-nut hikers from Rio Arriba. He followed the trail around a bend, figuring on some exercise. Away from L.A., his tri-weekly yoga sessions were on hold, and his abs could use a workout after that bag of peanuts on the plane.
Ascending hills, down ravines, James soon forded a creek half-frozen by winter. The amniotic smell of dew and earthy shoots and mud was pleasurable. Further up, through a copse of aspen, was an opening that led to a leveled outcropping, where he saw a great valley to the west. Shaded by a tree’s branch was an oblong, adobe structure with a corrugated steel roof, now rusty. Several earthquake-like cracks decorated the building’s exterior walls. The strange building was about the same square footage as Joy Paz’s well-furnished casita on Ambrose Avenue. It looked like it had seen better days. James wondered if it was somehow part of the film set. He did the calculations, figuring the building sat on Gil Soto’s land—one thousand acres was a lot, right?
James was startled when he heard scruffy, shoe-like sounds coming from inside the building. He stopped, his fist involuntarily clenching. He thought he was alone.
Late February in the foothills north of Rio Arriba was certainly far from Los Angeles, but what he saw next could have come straight from Hollywood Boulevard. A half-naked, white-haired man emerged from the building’s doorway, his skin as umber as heroin, a synthesis of Spanish and American Indian, jeans sitting ridiculously high on his waist, with a shirt bunched in his fist. The man was perspiring, little beads collected on his neck. The man looked at James as though seeing a ghost. Perhaps seventy years old, the man had a left sideburn as white as goose feathers.
No phone reception in the hills. This James knew.
Without a word, the man turned and began walking away from him. James saw that the man’s back was scabbed-up like mange, red scratches along his vertebral column, as though a sharp comb had been run up and down it. Worse, there was blood trickling down into the hollow, the upper portion of his tighty-whities gone pink.
“Um, hey,” James finally said, politely trailing the guy. But the man quickened his walk into a geezerly semi-jog.
“Dude, wait! Hey!” James yelled after him. He followed the man as far as the high ridge, where a trail switchbacked down the other side and faded into trees. “Do you know who owns this land?” James called out.
The man took to the trail and soon disappeared. Branches covered any trace of him.
“Ever seen Paddycakes?” James yelled down the hill, his voice echoing around the panoramic valley. “Do you know the name Gil Soto?”
Even saying the name roused pangs of indigestion. James knew the name all too well, and James wanted to forget the name. He knew far too much about that fuckin’ asshole! Gil’s reemergence had kicked off with a big budget, teen-teeth, vampire movie.
James looked down into the pretty tree canopy, but the man was gone.
Later that day, when the sun dropped, a chill ran through James’s calves: the hike, the elevation.
Self-pity wrecked him whenever he sat too long in a room, bubbled in from the outside world, forcing him to recall those long afternoons in his childhood bedroom, watching and studying movies—and for what?
Here he was, still struggling, still completely unknown. Where was his film? Where was his Maserati? Where was his villa on Lake Como’s shores?
He’d passed several businesses five miles west, past the chained gate and the cattle crossing, just off the interstate.
James fired up the El Camino.
Every building had been closed at one time and reimagined for different purposes. The no-name town, if it even qualified as a town, was a loose collection of slipshod roofs and converted businesses. The bar, called Filling Station, was once an old auto shop. El Cheapo, the grocery, had once been a barbershop. And so on.
James approached the grocery store, but there was a Post-It note stuck to the glass window that read, in chicken-scratch handwriting, GESLOTEN. The door was locked, the lights out. James thought, closed? And what language was that?
Filling Station was a soft bar, unfortunately. No hard liquor, which was what James was after. Watching a half-naked stranger haul noodles off a high ridge was a fine reason for a spot of Jameson.
“Really? No whiskey?” James said to the bartender, a woman.
She returned the same look as the saleswoman at Maxene’s when he’d asked if she carried belt buckles with rubies—he’d seen one once.
The bartender had nothing on tap either: bottles only. So he ordered a twelve-ouncer from the rough-and-tumble lady with the nasal bump. She wore a long tan Carhartt jacket and had eyes as green as street signs. Her curls jumped off her head and hung like wisteria.
“Well, then, any food in this place?” he asked the woman next.
“Frito Pie, is all,” she said.
“Open one bag of Fritos and drop chili and sour cream on top,” she told him. “And serve with a spoon.”
James felt as though she’d punched him. “Do you know how many calories that is?”
The hops bounced up his sinuses. Several nights later he ordered the same beer, managing to wheedle out the bartender’s name: Linda. And James was Linda’s only customer. He sussed out that Linda was some kind of artist, as evidenced by brown and gray paintings of mud puddles hanging lopsided on the cinderblock walls. She lived cheaply too, off the grid, nomad-like, and was the caretaker of two horses, she told him. But after this brief exchange, Linda didn’t give up much. Every woman he knew in L.A., especially the earlobe model, talked nonstop.
Small red tags beside the paintings stated prices. Linda sold them for fifty dollars each. On the concrete floor was yellow and black caution paint, daubed out by oil stains. And duct-taped to the wall behind the bar was a list, printed from the state’s website, outlining the penalties for DWI infractions. James was shocked to see the list run to ten. Ten DWIs? In California, after four, he was pretty sure authorities sailed you into the Pacific.
Wind blew, rattling the shop’s aluminum garage doors.
Beer helped, but his thoughts were still triggered by what he’d seen in the hills. James couldn’t put the matter to rest. What he’d witnessed was eerie, Anthony Perkins eerie.
So he placed an elbow on the bar top, a household door propped horizontal by twin saw horses, and said, taking a casual sip, “The other day, I saw a man without his shirt. He had a bloody back. Up in the hills. For some reason he ran away.” Then held in a breath.
Linda listened, gathering a moment before responding. “Just give those guys space.”
“Those guys? There’s more than one? You know about this?” he asked. “There’s a building up there, too. Old building. Bad roof.”
“It’s called a morada,” Linda said, her tongue doing yoga to squeeze out the word with a Spanish inflection.
“Mor-a-da.” Said as though he wore a helmet.
“Look, I no speak-a the Spanish. I know, I’m from L.A. It’s a problem. I get it. But I’m not an idiot.”
“Okay, listen,” she said. “Just give the penitentes room for their silly holy rites.” Again with the irritating inflection. “Leave them alone, and they leave you alone. That’s the deal around here. Get it?”
“But that’s Gil Soto’s land,” James said. “Ever heard of him? Paddycakes? The blockbuster?”
“I’m telling you. They’ve been around a hundred years. Maybe more.”
James swigged; his beer was tepid. “Whatever, dude. I own in Los Feliz,” he said, adding to that lie another, “on the hill, walking distance from the observatory. I don’t let just anyone walk around on my property. You know? That’s like, not American.”
For whatever reason, Linda was unimpressed. Informing certain ladies in L.A. that you owned property in Los Feliz could get you invited into their rectories. Instead, Linda stared at him coolly, and they sat like that for some time, eyeball-to-eyeball.
Linda looked like she would be comfortable hunched over on rangeland, nibbling alfalfa. And she smelled of burnt tires. Her dog, Cockroach, a mother telling by the teats that hung like icicles, followed Linda everywhere.
Linda intimidated James somewhat, but he liked her hair, how curly and long and dusty and honest. It was then that James knew he’d do the same: start wearing his hair longer, sprout a beard, and embrace being here. As long as he was in New Mexico, why not? And he had to admit that he liked the way Linda handled beer bottles, firm and purposeful, like Alice Wells at the 55:01 mark in Cosmica, especially Alice Wells on wide-screen, and especially with Kiehl’s Crème de Corps lotion.
He left Linda a three-dollar tip.
Another night, soon after, James returned to Filling Station. During the drive he remembered with a primal shudder the number of blind-alley jobs he’d held without significant advancement—best boy, second AC, lighting tech. For years he was a gopher for Universal, primarily a paper-jockey gig. Things were different now, and much, much worse. Now he was Gil Soto’s grunt, the man’s foot soldier, the assistant to the power player, Mr. Brentwood, Mr. Fuckin’ Asshole! A movie featuring Vikings made cash rain down after Gil had produced a one-off, at James’s suggestion, like always.
After hooking himself to Gil Soto, James had been certain his luck would shift. He thought opportunities would open, meetings would be set, people would call and ask his opinion, the Holy Grail within his grasp. Instead, working for Gil was a major backslide, with increasingly costly therapy bills.
Everything had been smooth sailing until that night James prophesized the next big three.
“Emily B., Cody L., and Moni G.,” James whispered into Gil’s flesh-colored hearing aid, without letting the man know about his divine skill set. A year later, his prediction proved correct: Emily and Cody and Moni soon had swarms of paparazzi bothering them. And after that, Gil Soto downgraded James to busboy duties, as if, because of his gift, James was angling to usurp the throne.
James went from thumbing through film treatments to picking up Gil’s dry cleaning.
Then he was tasked with scrubbing Gil’s five outdoor barbeque grills. This transitioned into painting Mims’s toenails sepia as she slurped vodka from a straw while they waited for Gil at the Marmont. There was much smoking of Gil’s neatly rolled joints—“I want someone around here to be high, just not me”—and months of putting Gil to bed, raising thousand-count Egyptian cotton sheets to his chin and quietly reading to him Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! And, of course, responding in the affirmative when Gil, drifting off one evening, asked him, “Pound out Mims tonight for me, will you? My sciatica.”
Every subsequent disgrace was endured in the hope that the golden door would eventually open—that James would eat enough shit to earn his own project. What had come of his suffering, however, was this: three months on a writer’s fellowship, of sorts. In New Mexico, in the late winter, alone. James had demanded it. Or, he’d told Gil, he’d walk. Or, he’d threatened Gil, he’d tell Variety about those weekly meetings with Men’s Ministry, a Christian life network.
“Please, oh no, please,” Gil said.
The following week, James’s feet were solidly on New Mexico hardpan, his man purse full of nonsequential hundred dollar bills.
James developed routines. Mornings, he ate on the dusty downstairs bar, two yogurt cups and an apple, his breakfast ritual watched over by the black bowling ball eyes of a severed buffalo head. Ten to three, he wrote, edited, and swore. Afternoons, he wandered around the deserted town, expecting to see tumbleweeds rolling across the lonely road. His hair grew, his beard thickened. He underlined favorite sayings in the Old West phrasebook.
One morning, he broke. He’d had it with words, space breaks, with dialogue, and he decided to stir his blood. He marched down the lane to the church and began deadlifting the boulder-heavy pews, nearly popping out twin hernias. Decades of dirt berms lay beneath the seats. He returned to the church with a broom and swept soggy leaves and dirt out the door. James had a knack for interior design. When the set designer on Stardust fell ill with flu, James saved the day by arranging the drapes and tables and flowers just, perfectly, so.
Nights, he frequented Filling Station, where he engaged Linda in hours-long staring contests. Big, hulking Linda started looking better and better as the weeks rolled by. Midnight, he’d sit and face the stereo-TV ensemble and watch movies, ending the night around 2:00 a.m., watching Joy Paz in that singularly stunning gamic performance: unzip jeans, remove sock, the business, and then cry.
One afternoon he sped to the no-name town earlier than usual. He wanted to reach El Cheapo before the proprietor put the damn Post-It note in the window. Two men were arguing over a stack of lumber when he cruised into the dirt lot. About fifteen feet in length, the wood boards stuck out from one man’s truck. James bought a tissue box at El Cheapo—the crying. And when he came out the men had managed to settle their argument and had already relocated the lumber from one truck to the other.
When one of the men slammed his truck door, James saw a pure white sideburn behind the window’s glass. James recognized him: he was the character from the hills weeks earlier, the same man who’d run, his back slashed and bleeding. The man’s truck coughed exhaust, and James’s eyes burned.
James approached the proprietor of wood as he was securing his tailgate. “How much are two-by-fours going for these days?” James asked him. He wanted his snooping to appear casually inquisitive, friendly-like, as though he was just another local yokel.
“Two bucks per twelve-foot board,” the man told him. “Why? Need some?”
“Oh well, thinkin’ on it,” James said, overemphasizing his drawl. “Might do some framing work soon.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Say, that guy, who just drove away, what’s he building?”
James watched the man’s chest jump as he chuckled. “Stairs to heaven, son,” he said, and smiled.
There was a Cadillac in the middle of Filling Station, taking up half the bar. And the garage door was open. Tables were moved, chairs stacked, clearing space for the vehicle. Linda was on her back and fiddling around underneath the carriage, her bent knees the size of grapefruits. She wheeled out on a rolling contraption, swiped her hands with a rag, and said to yet another stranger, who was sitting on James’s stool, “Oil’s changed.”
The guy was the only other customer James had ever seen in the establishment. Three empty forty-ounce bottles were on the bar top. James watched Linda help the man into the driver’s seat. Then he watched her actually start the Caddie for him. She said, before the man backed out, “Remember, keep one eye closed. Set the steering wheel on top of the yellow road lines. At the yield sign, make a right, and coast on home down the hill. Easy, like last time, okay?” The man through half-shut lids nodded happily.
“How on earth do you stay in business?” James asked Linda, after the drunkard drove away.
“We’re busy the rest of the year,” she told him. “Right now it’s Lent. This area’s big on Lent. And folks drink less during Lent.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he said. He thought more about it. “Anyway, if it’s Lent, what about that guy?”
“Frank Rodriguez? Frank doesn’t follow Lent,” Linda said. “He and his family are what people around here call crypto-Jews.”
There Linda went again, talking nonsense, but she did look at him differently. She even complimented James on his luxuriant beard, saying it was a better look for a man with such soft hands.
It snowed. Great parachutes of crystallized water dissolved like cotton candy on his tongue. That night, the night of early spring snow, James walked the set. When the clouds parted, the moon shone like klieg lights over the buildings.
Inside the church, James perched his boots on the pews, surveying his clean-up job. More and more it resembled a truer church. A proper church. The place was the only genuine-looking article in town. After a while he began aligning the pews into neat rows. He swept snow from the entrance. He wiped down the pulpit and shined its brass base.
Around his middle, he noticed—oh, he noticed—a slight paunch had formed. All those mornings of yogurt without following up with yoga. He wondered what Joy Paz, or the earlobe model, would think, seeing James Miles like this, all mountained-up. For once he did not care. He felt oddly safe here, sheriff over his own forsaken town, examples of his sweat and hard work all around him. The big dark wood cross on the ledge was the final item that needed cleaning. When he tried taking it down, the thing wouldn’t budge. It was heavy. So he shimmied its base, and suddenly faltered, and the arm of the cross bore down. He quickly pivoted and caught it on his shoulder, which ached under the weight. “Oh, Christ,” James said.
The wood was so old and dry that it was almost held together by splinters. It definitely needed oil.
Hitched on his shoulder, James dragged the cross outside, snow flurries jumping around his face, and walked the full lane, leaving a long, crooked trail in his wake. Then he proudly set the cross, with a thump, on the barroom floor under the buffalo head. What a shoulder workout!
The creaking stairwell was like an old woman’s complaints. James returned from upstairs with a bottle of lavender massage oil. He’d brought the stuff along in the event he met someone special, but so far the only woman around these parts was Linda. The stuff smelled calming, and when he fully unscrewed the cap he was reminded again of that aromatic young nymph from The Standard Hotel on Sunset, her sole job to lay in a nightie, behind the reception desk, encased in glass like a buxom hamster, scribbling into an oversized journal, a pink feather dancing at the end of her pen. Los Angeles seemed to him now, looking down at the distressed wood cross, a distant solar system. Weeks of mountain air had woken up his synapses in new and unexpected ways, and his task for the night was to burnish wood.
Lent, Linda had said. That time of year. Oh, how he’d forgotten. Yet James remembered how hard he’d tried throughout his life to forget, suppressing what he was once taught, and how long it had taken him to clean his mind of sacraments and absolutions and replace them with things of greater importance.
On his knees he picked away the splinters with eyebrow tweezers. He used a white Atomic Rock T-shirt as a rag—it had armpit stains and had to go anyway. He doused the fabric with oil and rubbed the prop. It was a prop, though, wasn’t it? Hadn’t it been the same cross from The Old Pueblo? Regardless, the wood drank in the oil. James was surprised when he reached the upper portion. There, under layers of caked paint, was a hand-hewn engraving. He picked at the paint with his fingernail. The flakes slowly fell away and revealed the image of Mary. The mother of Jesus. Mary in her shawl. Mary with rosary beads hanging from her arm. Mary inset in the cross. It was the first time he’d ever seen that done.
He restored Mary to her previous condition, rubbing in more massage oil than was necessary, even shining her forehead.
Parallel drag marks lay in the snow after he was finished. As he walked back to the studio, swiping dust from his hands, he thought he saw a shadow drop on the snow in the shape of a person.
The shadow came from near the saddelry building. He also thought he heard the crunch of boots on snow. When he looked again, the shadow—or whatever it was—had vanished. Anyway, he was tired, and the tissue behind his eyes was frayed. He was seeing things.
James fell into bed without watching Joy Paz that night, and in the morning the sun was high and the snow was gone, the lane turned into mud.
It was a bright morning, several days later, when James decided to take a hike. His lungs needed air, and he wanted to wear down his muscles, shed the paunch. How could he face his Pilates class in his current flabby condition? And how could one person gain this much weight by eating only egg whites for dinner? His bones were moaning under his skin, and he’d just run out of face-mask cream.
Six weeks in, he had fifty-nine pages of his New Wave Western completed. It electrified him to imagine the film premiering at The Vista, his favorite theater, with a friends-only guest list. Then onward to festival circuits, distribution deal, a National Society of Film Critics Award. From that point forward everything rolled out for him, doors opening, the remainder of his career wondrously Jon Blazin’.
Still, after forty-three days in the high desert, hair past his ears, beard fuller, he needed an ending, a title. He lathered his face with SPF 100, hypoallergenic lotion and admitted to himself that he was stuck. He’d hit the wall.
A hike might loosen things.
Up the hill, the creek ran harder from the melt. The yellow eye of the sun never seemed to recede; it was unlike L.A., where smog created a comfortable, blurry shield. The creek was really working, would be hard to hop, and for the first time in his adult life James manned up. He dragged a branch toward the creek and created a natural bridge. He was proud of his ingenuity. The cold, high air dried his eyes, but the hike was good, his heart was going. Perhaps thirty more pages to the end, he told himself.
His cast of characters spoke a distinct language: L.A. slang crossbred with oldfangled, western maxims. It was revolutionary dialogue. At least James thought so. Mamet-like, only not. Perhaps Jarmuschian. Of the books he’d brought along, one, published by UCLA, documented the latest linguistic street slang. The other, the leather number, which was falling apart from age, was written by a reverend and linguist from the Nevada Territory, noting the hee-haw-isms circa 1876.
To bed down a man was to kill him.
James liked that. He liked other sayings too.
Full as a tick, i.e. drunk.
Soiled doves, i.e. prostitutes.
His untitled screenplay was based on Paradise Lost, its style influenced by Fassbinder, to be shot like Days of Heaven, with a surprise alien at the end, and it was going to be huge.
He borrowed the first five pages from his undergraduate thesis.
When he reached the flat ridge, his heart pounding in his neck, there were twelve horses standing around untied, necks down, feasting on the permafrosty meadow. James wheezed. Two freshly assembled wooden crosses lay on the ground outside the long adobe structure. Mor-a-da, it was called, per Linda.
He heard faint slapping noises coming from inside the building. He remembered the older guy with the bloody back. He thought about quickly turning around, but he knew this was Gil Soto’s land. And he was curious. James touched the cool dry wall, tiptoeing around for a closer look. What he saw was unfilmable in some southern states. Twelve men, naked to the waist, were whipping themselves. Each man wore jeans and big silver belt buckles. Among them was the man with the white hair and distinctive, pearly sideburn. The simple movement was like tossing salt over a shoulder, to ward off bad luck, only these men had the motion memorized, whips connecting with the skin on their backs.
One man glanced up, spotting James’s wet forehead, his eyes peeking into the darkness. The man raised a finger toward him.
James’s adrenal glands emptied, a flight response so intense that the tip of his penis tingled. James ran, but he was never a track star, and the sound of galloping feet caught up with the speed of an avalanche. Someone grabbed his arm, flung him around.
Long shadows fell around him, as though dropping from skyscrapers. James was breathing hard. He was encircled. Not one man was younger than him, but they were certainly faster. The men’s left shoulders were red, their backs spotted with blood. Everyone was huffing, including James. Clearly displeased, the men looked him up and down, considering his hair, his beard, but he was not the mountain man they were seeing, not just some random intruder, even though he did resemble Bum #1 from that bit part in Beverly Hills Beckett. This was a look, he wanted to say, a character study. This wasn’t him. He was James Miles, from L.A., basically an okay guy who liked the coffee at the Casbah. And besides, this was Gil Soto’s land.
The man with the monochrome sideburn said, “You again? Seriously? Can’t you just leave us alone? We’re having a private ceremony.”
“I’ve already told you. You’re on Gil Soto’s property,” James responded. He was indignant. He wasn’t looking for a dust up, but he knew what was what.
The stranger shook his head. “Listen, pardner. We have an easement, okay? It’s on file at the county recorder’s office. Go check at the courthouse in Taos.”
“Whatever, dude,” James said. “I think Gil Soto would have warned me about this kind of weird business. You do know the name Gil Soto, don’t you?”
Another man spoke up. “Hilario,” he said, jutting his chin at James. “Do you think—he sort of resembles—”
“Sure, sure,” Hilario said, touching his sideburn, squinting harder. Then he added, pointing to the trail James had followed, “Just leave.”
“And if I don’t?”
That night they came on horseback, with torches.
First James turned on the electric teapot, to make green tea, to keep alert. He was out of adrenaline. Yet it was all so ridiculously familiar that he almost laughed, unable to pinpoint the mishmash of films the scenario resembled. A blend of many: the distant clack and thunder of hooves, followed by the appearance in town of sepulchral figures on horses—with lit torches. But this was real life, his. Cue the drop in the gut. Cue porcelain-staining diarrhea.
Sarsaparilla—that was one nice-sounding word from the dead reverend’s phrasebook.
When he returned from the bathroom, he lit a vanilla candle to cover the stench. Then shut off the lights. From the second floor he watched through a slit in the drapes. Torches raised, the men on horseback were assembling around town. He listened to the clacking hooves.
Epic fail was one word from the UCLA slang book. He’d used it fifteen times in his screenplay.
Fear pulled inside his intestines; the magnetic draw of the toilet was fierce. James wished he had the fire poker from downstairs. The fireplace was fake, so was the poker, but it looked the part. James watched the group, surprised when most of them disappeared, one by one, finally leaving a single man behind. The flame of his torch eventually burned out. But the man remained beside the church for hours, watching James, on the second floor, watch him.
By morning’s first light, the man was gone.
These men, making James wrestle with concepts he hadn’t wrestled with in some time. Church doctrine, he knew, would always be with him, hooked-in like an intestinal amoeba, but for as long as he could remember James told everyone he did not know. How could he know? How could anyone know? He bought the truth as it mattered in the material world: darkness bursting open, like the Big Bang, into white light. Born wet.
That was that, and that was everything he understood or cared to understand.
His mother, his father, his older sister, and James once lived as a family in a tract home surrounded by a square patch of grass, each house on the block a facsimile of the next, each its own mini castle, and everyone inside his home believed—everyone but James. His mother balled her fists and prayed for him, two red knots thumping together, but he never got it, and he never believed. The whole brouhaha, after all, was a lot to swallow without choking. One dude, really, the Son of God, really?
Each subsequent night he watched the men arrive on horseback, torches lit, always leaving one man behind, who disappeared by morning. James worried and wondered what they were after, what they wanted, and what their plans were. They were trying to intimidate him, clearly. And keeping tabs.
Their presence in the town, though, roused him into action. He grew obsessed with finishing what he’d begun, locking himself inside his studio apartment, and he rarely, if ever, thought about his patron, his benefactor, his boss, the fuckin’ asshole!
Serpentinia, Gil Soto’s first foray into CGI animation, was about to be released.
Over the next week the clouds unzipped. Rain fell, snow liquefied on the mountain, sending sheets of water down arroyos and creeks, creating marshes and temporary bogs in the underland, a glacial kind of melt, everything around the set soaked, as though the mountain was crying.
“What is it with those guys?” James asked Linda one night. He sipped from his beer bottle. His eyebrows were wet from drizzle. He turned the door handle on the bar, back and forth, back and forth, preoccupied.
Behind the bar Linda was repairing an eighteen-wheeler’s flat tire. She held it down in a metal tub with her thick, muscular pinkie. “Those guys,” she said to him, “like to flagellate. They probably didn’t like you seeing them. I warned you.”
“Flagellate?” James said, momentarily confused. He said, “They touch each other?”
“No, dumbass,” Linda said. “To prove their faith and pay penance they whip themselves, among other things.”
A half-lit cigarillo drooped from Linda’s dry lips. Her eyes blinked from the smoke as she told him about the whips, the hymns, this New Mexico brotherhood of atoning men. “They’re the penitent ones, all right,” she said. “Believers all.”
James narrowed his eyes, disbelieving. The feeling was similar to when he watched Naked Lunch for the first time, dark confusion overcoming him, as though something was offering itself to be understood but in the end proved impossible. He took a bigger swig of beer. Neither could he understand, for that matter, Gil Soto’s fleeting fascination with similar fetishistic territory.
“Oh, and we won’t be open on Friday,” Linda said.
“But it’s Friday. I always go out on Fridays,” James said. “Where will I drink my beer?”
She shrugged. “Other bars down in Rio Arriba. They keep them open for tourists.”
“That’s sixty miles.”
“Sorry, it’s Good Friday,” she said, and winked.
James wondered what she was trying to pull. And after that wink she wouldn’t look at him. He missed their eye game. He only had two more weeks left, and his screenplay was unfinished. He was desperate for an ending. He needed inspiration. A title. He needed to be shaken. For the first time in a long time, he needed to believe.
James set his palms convincingly on the bar top and said, “Linda, look at me.” And after a while she eventually did. “Linda, I want you to show me.”
“Show you what?”
“How hard those men believe.”
“I don’t think so.”
James set his jaw. He bent an elbow and gulped his beer. He tapped his knuckles together, thinking. Finally he pointed to a vaguely gross painting of a nut-brown mud puddle on the wall, its cloudy water surrounded by rounded pebbles. “I will give you five hundred dollars for that gorgeous masterpiece,” he said to her. “But first you need to show me.”
“Well,” Linda said, suddenly nervous and scratching her throat. “I do know some things.”
James sped to the set in the El Camino, nothing but static on the radio, and played Joy Paz’s celestial, underexposed, payoff shot seventeen times, using two socks, the ceremony lasting two hours and forty-seven minutes. Afterward, he held his breath and waited for the flash of insight. But there was still nothing.
One detail, however, was certain: he no longer thought an alien invasion was appropriate for his film.
He was raised in it. So he knew it. Still, he didn’t understand any of it. And he’d forgotten much of it.
Baptism. First Communion. Confirmation. The whole nine. He attended catechism classes and survived the eighth grade altar boy post without being groped. He held on at each ceremony, enduring the full ride, as large checks arrived in the mailbox from distant relatives, which he spent on video equipment, on clothing, on looking good.
But he never got it. Mostly, he did not know how to know, or how to know what to know.
To prove their faith, again per Linda.
At least he could partially understand that line of reasoning. Living in L.A. for as long as he had, working in the business, he knew what it meant to prove one’s devotion.
Over the next few nights he dreamed of humping mounds of wires and frames and nets across hot studio warehouses, of delivering C-stands and grips and Jimmy Jibs to back lots, of driving dollies through soundstages, of sitting on beach chairs under weeks of sun, of waiting, of watching, of wondering what it all meant beneath the big white letters atop Mount Lee.
Perhaps he would never understand that, either.
On Friday morning, the answer arrived.
James woke early from a dream about the dog park in Silver Lake. He’d been standing beside the reservoir, watching coeds pick up green poodle shit with purple velvet bags, and in the gauzy background someone was hollering.
“Un milagro! Un milagro!”
There, again, that shouting. His eyeball twitched. He threw back the sheets and scanned the road from the window. One of the elder horsemen had dismounted his beast. The man hadn’t left during the night, which was highly unusual. He was pacing outside the church with a cell phone to his ear. James’s phone didn’t work; maybe he had the wrong provider. Soon another man joined him, also on horseback.
James sighed. These old dudes. Why these guys couldn’t just leave him in peace he didn’t know. Resignation settled in his throat like an irritating nasal drip. If these men were not going to leave, fine. He would still face the morning; he would face whatever Linda would show him.
Downstairs, at the bar, he ate breakfast, listening to horses clop-clopping about the town. He washed up, preparing himself. Linda would be arriving shortly.
He put on his sealskin boots without socks—fresh out. He changed into his red flannel, hundred-fifty-bones Martin Gordon shirt, his kangaroo belt, his handmade Gomorrah jeans. He moisturized with Kiehl’s Restorative Argan Body lotion and clipped his fingernails to the quick. The beard, and his hair, he kept messy; it was his look now, and he wanted to claim it, to be at the forefront of the trend, appearing like he hadn’t tried.
“I am a screenwriter,” he said to the cold room. He unlocked the downstairs door, letting it swing back. A block of square golden light enlarged around him.
Morning shadows held at angles along the boardwalks.
James stepped into the middle of the dirt lane, thumb tucked purposefully in his belt. There were now three horses by the church. The man with the funny sideburn, Hilario, dropped down from his saddle. The two others were taking turns coming and going from the church, whispering. What James needed was inside. The muddy lane had dried into stilled waves. He walked it, his wallet chain clanging against his thigh, the distant sound of spurs in his ears.
And the men, standing mutely, watched him come. The friendly expressions on their faces surprised him. One man had a mustache so thick and full and unreal it looked like it was almost impersonating a mustache. The man walked over and touched James’s hair. James flinched and batted the guy’s hand away. The man withdrew, but his eyes were already organized into awe.
Hilario stepped forward. “Did you do this?” he asked James.
James slit his eyes. “Do what?”
Hilario gazed into the church. One man was sitting on a washed pew, mesmerized by the restored lady on the wooden cross. Mary. James had only cleaned away gunk, as a hobby, as something to do, nothing more. Even so, James nodded, yes. Yes, he did that.
“It’s Good Friday,” Hilario said to him, “and you’ve given us the Virgin.”
James had never heard such strong words coming out of anyone’s mouth who wasn’t at least an assistant producer.
“Please step aside,” James said. “I have important work to do.”
Inside, James looked up at the cross, then glanced down at himself, growing uneasy and nauseously ashamed. Tight black shirt sucked to his torso like skin, his formfitting soft flannel, the careful hem of faded-wash jeans draped perfectly over shiny pyramidal-toed boots, and he realized with a stab of pain behind his eyes that, outside of an urban metropolitan area, he looked like a fuckin’ asshole!
He wrapped his clean hands around the base of the cross and pulled.
“Milagro,” one man said to James, watching him breathlessly lug the burdensome cross out the door. James was unfamiliar with the word, but he liked the ring of it. The word sounded like the name of that hip coffee spot on Hillhurst. Outside, the sun warmed the rims of his ears.
“What are you doing with her?” Hilario asked him, setting a finger on the cross, near Mary’s buffed forehead.
“The question is, what is she doing with me?” James responded. At the far end of the lane, his dear bartender was standing beside her horse, Black Widow. Linda’s truck was parked nearby, a trailer hitched to it. She was holding Black Widow by the horse’s bridle.
Everything Linda did to him that morning, everything Linda showed him, happened with care and love and patience. Later he had a hard time remembering the steps and everything that came to pass under the blue New Mexico megacanopy above them. It went down a hawk’s dive from the Rio Grande—per his phrasebook—as the local men looked on, wondering and whispering.
James remembered visiting the Stations of the Cross prior to Confirmation, the preparations, the renewal of the baptism promise, the laying on of the Bishop’s hands. The worst part was watching the Bishop’s face during confession change from bewilderment to horror as James, just fifteen, admitted the number of times he’d played and rewound and played and rewound and played and rewound the crowning slow-mo scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the one featuring Phoebe Cates, Monad of Monads. The number of tube socks alone.
That humiliation was nothing, however, when compared to what L.A. could deliver to a soft, unprepared soul.
Linda began by respectfully petting James’s beard and calling him Jesús. Pausing for a half-breath, James did as she requested, shivering out of his ridiculous clothes, until only his ninety-dollar boxer shorts remained.
“Okay, good,” Linda said, nervously eyeing the older men. “I’ve heard enough to know how this goes.” She slugged his shoulder. “I hope.”
His skin pimpled up from the chill.
James was made to wash and dry Linda’s feet, boot lint and calluses and all. She sat on the boardwalk, him beneath her, his knees crushed into the dirt. At one point, as he was leaning over a bunion, she sliced into his shoulder blade with a sharpened rock. James winced. Then another cut, and another. After a while she unloosed rope from her saddle, and she gently, and reverently, started whipping him.
James began to cry from her tender abuse. He whimpered for all that time lost nurturing to Gil Soto, fuckin’ asshole!, and he mourned the friendship Joy Paz had given him before she tightened her tourniquet and let him fall away. He wept with the same tender force of New Mexico rain against loose windowpanes.
As he’d done on the night of snow, he was made to hump the full weight of the cross the distance of the dirt lane, as Linda called him names, as she called him names with a dim smile. She helped him up whenever he stumbled. Onward, he marched, toward a freshly dug hole. James struggled with the cross, bent and bearing it.
One man’s cell phone rang out behind him, its song of bells.
To prove their faith, Linda had told him.
The three men clutched each other when Linda pressed James down on the well-oiled cross, binding his forearms, one, the other, and then his feet. She drove office thumbtacks into his palms, into the bony tops of his feet, the pain like great scorpion stings. Blood opened on him. James had been over these months lonely for human contact, and he thanked her profusely, his giving bartender.
His breath sucked away as Linda smacked Black Widow’s haunches, as the rope affixed to the saddle tightened, as the base of the cross nudged into the hole, as the single cross, with him on it, rose into the day’s sparkling light.
Mounted high, James had views over the town, the miner’s exchange, the saloon, the church, and the men beside it. Wagon wheels were propped against raised boardwalks. He saw the ghosts of actors and actresses appearing and dissolving on acetate, famous faces captured for brief moments of glory.
The stench of horse manure was rampant and deep, and good, too, and memorable. Finally James looked the part, and what he saw was totally Jon Blazin’, including the vision of Linda below him and the men across the lane, silent and overwhelmed and wide-eyed, crossing themselves in that way he had once done and didn’t know why.
Hilario touched his sideburn and staggered forward until his knee buckled, and he kneeled. James was up a tree, he knew, but he was no longer a yellow belly. He was James Miles. And he was from Los Angeles.
James mentally lined out every stupid word of his screenplay that he could remember. Sweat dribbled into his eyes, powering retinal stings, creating optical effects in the troposphere, so that everything was golden, wondrous. He previsualized the ending, lighting, even the cast, his very own cosmogony crystallizing as the storyboard now took position below him, like some holy map. He had his title, his ending. Sun on his shoulders, the incisions burning, he had his story, too, as though delivered down from the few bright clouds in the sky.