I keep coming back to that night like you keep looking at a tree on a dark street, sure it was something else a moment ago. But its shape is simply different from the corner of your eye. It was the last time I saw Katie and the first time I’d seen my half-brother Jesse in months. “I’m getting out,” he said simply, as if that held everything within it. He’d been living in a van in the Sunset but I figured wanted to escape that weather. We were standing in front of my open garage drinking tallboys and watching the night come in. If I tried hard enough, I could imagine the sound of traffic on the 101 was the sound made by fog swallowing Potrero Hill.
Katie came out of the house wiping her hands on her jeans, which were the right amount of tight. “Thanks for letting me pee,” she said. I held a beer toward her but she shook her head and pulled back like I’d leaned in for an unwanted kiss. We’d slept together two nights before and now it was this veil between us.
“You know this fog,” Jesse said after a bit, motioning with his beer toward Potrero. He was talking to her. “It wasn’t like this before Treasure Island.”
“The weather patterns?” They were each lit on one side by the dim light of the garage, half-masks in the dark.
“Well. Not exactly. You know, the Navy owned Treasure Island during World War II. They used to do research over there, had it all locked down. It’s all landfill.” He lit a cigarette and his face briefly floated above his cupped hands before vanishing again. He said, almost to himself, “God knows what’s buried.”
“What type of research?” Katie asked.
“Well. They had this idea for wallpaper.” Katie laughed and Jesse loved that she laughed. “No, wallpaper that could hide a ship. They got the idea–”
“Hide a ship from radar?”
“Radar and sonar. They would cover the warships with this material that could absorb and disperse the waves. So the scientists said, ‘We can do it with sound and with radio, why not light?’”
“I remember this story,” I told him. I looked at Katie but she was studying the dark form of his face. Did she see me there?
“Like when you put a straw in a glass of water,” Jesse continued. “Or the way a fish will disappear near the corner of its tank. What if you could put a tank of water around a ship?” He exhaled and was briefly gone behind his smoke.
Katie said, “Or a plane.”
“Well. This was the forties, they needed massive amounts of power for this–huge generators, too big…” he started to trail off while he went into the garage for another beer. “Ever hear of a Faraday cage?”
“Well, power generators get this special metal cage. If there’s a surge, it takes the electricity and spreads it around the outside, but it’s totally safe inside. So these scientists figured out that with enough power and the right materials you could route light around a cage, just like electricity.”
“To hide the ships?”
“Not at first,” Jesse said. “At first it just shifted them. They could make a ship appear ten yards off, then a hundred. Torpedoes couldn’t reliably find the target. It was a success but they wanted to go further. So they built bigger generators, big enough that they needed a bigger ship. Until one day they made a three-hundred-foot destroyer”–he stretched his arms wide and dropped his beer, which started to spray out onto the street–“completely disappear. Two-hundred men aboard.”
“Like heat on a summer day.” He crouched to pick up the beer can. “That’s what witnesses said, that it looked like heat above the highway. Or a thin fog. There was the ship. Then a roar like a wave breaking. And it was gone. Then they turned some knobs and brought it back.” He stood up again and waited just long enough for her to want to respond. “But even that wasn’t enough–they wanted to go bigger. So next they did an aircraft carrier. One minute it’s floating in the Bay and then the sailors said it was floating in a cloud of gray nothing.
“But the thing is,”–and here was the part that had kept me up at night as a child the one year that Jesse lived with us and told the story repeatedly, cruelly, at bedtime–“the thing is that eventually the generator got so massive that it didn’t just bend light waves. It bent everything. The ship was warped. The machine was twisted beyond repair. Some men were dead, some lost circulation in their limbs where their veins had shifted, some had completely vanished. And some–some were trapped in the metal of the ship itself.” He contorted his face into a frozen scream.
“Fuck off,” Katie said and laughed lightly and freely against the mood that had settled upon the driveway. I wanted to touch her and share in that but wasn’t sure where her silhouette ended in the dark.
“I don’t think she’s going to return my calls anymore,” I said later. Jesse and I were still in the driveway with low clouds swirling above us. We were both well drunk now.
“That’s the thing with this fog,” he said. “You never see those people around. Or when you do see them they’re half-invisible still. These poor bastards that survived never stopped vanishing.”
We’d shut the garage so I couldn’t see him at all now, save the light of his cigarette. I had always hated this fucking story. But Jesse would be on the road in a few hours trying to break the orbit of the city he’d lived in for 34 years. So for the first time in all its tellings, I asked, “What the hell does any of that have to do with fog?”
I could feel him looking at me in the dark, but maybe was just imagining the orbs of his eyes.
“We’re the sailors,” he said. “This whole goddamn city is the ship.”
“I’m gonna powergame her,” Kenny says. He passed the joint. We were on The Steps. I remember it was fall because we were all doing forms for State.
Maria said something like, “That’s so gross.” She was still coughing on the sleeve of her shirt because she didn’t usually smoke with us.
I told her it wasn’t gross, it was some nerd shit. Kenny even wanted to make games. Like for a job. I passed the joint to Miguel, that was the normal circle. Miguel never talks but he always has the weed.
“It’s like when you’re playing a video game”–this is Kenny–“and you do everything perfect.”
But that’s not really right. Powergaming is when you know all the secrets, all the strengths and weaknesses, all the points and everything. It’s not like when you beat some mission and it’s tight, it’s the way you play all the time. Like you know where you want to go and exactly how to get there. Anyway, this is nerd shit and I didn’t want to talk about it when Maria was there. Maria hated coming because Kenny and me cut class to do it and she was really worried about State. Miguel wasn’t in school anymore, he was working in that garage on Folsom. But he used to go to John-O, too.
Anyway, Maria says, “You mean like you’re going to shoot people?”
I go, “Or just eat magic mushrooms!” Miguel gave me dap for that.
But Kenny was real serious. He said some shit like, “When you’re playing Modern Warfare you get all your targets and you don’t shoot civilians.” He could tell Maria was pretty confused so he said, “Or whatever. You do what you need to and don’t do what you don’t need to and you don’t fuck up or if you do you do all that shit again. That’s what it’s going to be like with me and Tina. I’m gonna get her right.”
Maria says, “I like that.” I remember that she had the joint now because right then the door opened. You see, The Steps are some old guy’s steps. But he never calls the cops. He came out the front door and didn’t say anything and went down toward the school. But Maria lost her shit and stomped on the joint.
Miguel just goes, “Girl. Girl.” She was covering her face with both hands but I know she was blushing.
Miguel picked up the smashed joint and tried to roll it up a little. I was like, “You look like you’re whacking that shit off, Miguel!” He tried to light it up but it was falling all over the place.
We were all losing it but then out of nowhere Maria says, “I gotta get back to class.” She put on that pink sweatshirt she always wears and fixed her hair before getting up. “Powergame her,” she says to Kenny about Tina. Then says, “All you guys, powergame it.” As soon as she’s gone we hear the late bell ringing at John-O, I don’t know how she does it.
“That’s Comp Sci,” Kenny says. I thought he was going to bitch out on us but then Miguel ashed on himself and let out this crazy sound like a cat getting stepped on. We cracked up again because those were the pants he wears every day. I think they still have that burn.
“They used to call this neighborhood Dolores Heights,” Jack called from the bedroom.
“What?” Katherine was counting his pills in the kitchen. The pill splitter was lost and she nicked her first finger trying to split one with a steak knife.
“Dolores Heights. When I was growing up here.”
Katherine stepped backwards from the counter. She could see down the railroad of the hall to the bedroom and Jack was sitting up in bed. He’d pulled open the red curtains and with light behind him he looked healthy.
“I said, ‘Dolores Heights!’” The dog upstairs started barking.
She came down the hallway with the pills and the coffee in the same hand. She was sucking on the cut in her finger.
“Oh, Kathy,” he said. She put down his coffee. She handed him the pills and showed him the little white slice made by the knife. “It’s nothing,” he said. His legs under his blanket seemed impossibly small. Another trick of the light.
“You didn’t sleep,” she said and touched his cheek.
“That dog!” There was a Scottish terrier in the in-law apartment.
“You should kick them out.”
Jack looked at the ceiling like he was going to go up there right now. He smacked the side of the bed. “It’s not bad, really.”
He swallowed the pills dry and then she bent and kissed him hard on each cheek. “OK, love, I’m meeting Sarah for lunch. Drink your coffee this time.”
The neighbors’ Prius was right out front. The key to Jack’s house was still in her hand. She looked at his window and could see the back of his head between the red curtains. The little dog in the apartment above was watching her. She looked up the hill toward the Sanchez steps and then down the hill toward the park. The sprinklers were on and a groundskeeper was cutting the grass. She dragged the key across the hood.
He was holding a little half-firework of a thing. Voices from his back porch drifted all the way down the block, the ghost of a summer evening, the only warm one in the nine months since I moved here. So this was it. Over bourbon from a mason jar with a handwritten label for persimmon jam. Oh, California.
“I missed you this week,” he said, so I told him to fuck himself. He held up the little plant, like the trail of a tiny comet. “This is a foxtail. We used to pull them from Thatch’s fur all the time.” We were sitting on the low curb and I had a cigarette in my mouth and had to pee and was ready for him to get it over with. “The pointy end could get into his skin and keep working its way in.” He wriggled the thing like a dry fish to show me. “Because it’s flared, it just keeps going in. One way. One time they found one in the side of his belly, deep enough that the vet had to cut it out, and he needed stitches.”
I realized he was more drunk than I thought.
He kneeled in front of me in the street, his jeans already patched there from the time he spilled on Division and showed up for our date all bloody. He was always trying to impress me like that. I hadn’t gotten around to lighting my cigarette but I held it at arms’ length beside me from habit and kissed him back from habit. When he touched my side through my dress I told him honestly that I wanted to slap him. He offered his cheek or was probably just looking at the silhouette of Bernal Hill.
“Wrong side,” I told him. I placed the cigarette on the curb and thought about it and he waited. “No, I don’t want to slap you, I want to kick you.”
“OK, here.” He pointed at his chest and backed up enough for me to do it.
“With these?” I showed him the four-inch heel of my boot. Then took my cigarette and the whiskey and went back to the party to pee.
Maybe he would visit his niece Aurelia today.
Was the vodka empty or just vodka? He squinted to regard the neat line of botellitas along the side of the washing machine. He reached for one but it was at once closer than he thought and clattering out of his reach. Hold on, hombre, hold on. He straightened up with the wall to help him, zippered the one jacket that zippered anymore, and finally dragged up his pants–he’d lost his belt or traded it, couldn’t remember. And what were these women looking at? If he had an apartment it would have a lavadora inside like at Aurelia’s. And if he couldn’t afford that he would do his wash in the basin as his mother had when he was young. Sad mujeres, don’t spend your last quarters at the laundromat.
But who is the fool? he thought. Aurelia lives in Sacramento, not here. He dug his hand in his pocket and found it happily fat with change. His mouth opened in a numb smile and he reappraised the bottles on the washer.
¿Y qué hora es? The light in this city never changes. Maybe it had been this day forever. Not too early for another drink then. He carefully–casually–reached for the small bottle of Jack and took it up. Tilted it back at once but did not taste it go down. They were all empty now, even the knocked-over vodka, he could see that. He gathered the bottles and took them outside to his cart. But when he bent to give it the hard push he found it was strapped to the meter with his belt. ¡Por supuesto! He smiled at his forgetfulness, taking care not to show his teeth this time, but no one looked. He sat heavily down on the curb to unstrap the cart.
Maybe today he would visit his niece.