By Z.H. Gill
The articulated bus groans, bending with the road—
A face appears to me inside my head, blurry at first, utterly uninvited, as we pull beneath the Erector Set of the elevated train station:
His name was Cole Mineo and he said he was related to the murdered actor Sal Mineo; his mother was Sal Mineo’s much-younger second cousin and they’d only met once, she could barely remember it, that’s how young she was, she admitted to Cole, who told me all this. So his name wasn’t even actually Cole Mineo, it was Cole Pakorny, his parents had split, he had sided with his mother in that jamboree, and so he took her name, it was his name, too, after all, it’s a bit brazen of me to suggest otherwise, it was totally within his right to use it as he did, but still it rang oddly to me, Cole rang oddly to me in his totality, the things he said, the way he dressed, the songs he whistled out weakly while we paired up to collect for a labor union on opposite sides of the same street, partners assigned, not chosen. We compared notes at the end of each block. Or we just talked. We drank the Dasani bottles the organizers handed out, which warmed up so quickly in those summer months. I got to know him well enough, but like so many people I’ve come across who call themselves an “open book,” he was hard to pin down. He could be gracious, he could be insufferable; he was never truly honest with me, I thought. We were working as foot soldiers for Local 524; I called it Local 5150, a little joke, and Cole liked this, he thought this was funny. He told this to Mo, a curly-haired woman we worked with, he re-packaged my joke and thought I wouldn’t hear his doing so, despite my standing there five feet away from them right before the morning meeting. She didn’t think it was very funny, perhaps she didn’t understand it at all, at the very least she didn’t understand at all why he said it to her, she smiled a telling little smile and turned her head and hips away from Cole Mineo toward Hugo the handsome campaign lead. We were gathering signatures to save a historic site, an Elks Lodge, oddly enough, in an art deco-ish one-story beige bunker of a building just off the highway. We were fighting to save this monstrosity because a real estate developer planned to raze it and put up an enormous hotel, and the hotels this developer had put up in the area so far were the only ones not to staff union, so 524 gathered us up, us “hapless peons,” Cole Mineo would call us, to try to save the Elks Lodge and keep a non-union hotel out of town. They’d succeeded before, they’d spared a whole city block from destruction down on Fairview, and across town from that a dentist’s office and the lot next to it, a patch of hard dirt in which a man from the university dug up arrowheads and stone tools with eager encouragement from the union, the Local employed any tactics that could stall a project into zoning oblivion. The mayor had promised to build a convention center by the airport, state-of-the-art, and these scum-fuck developers wanted their piece of it all before property values in these parts would make any such efforts unviable. Hugo the handsome campaign lead told us that we could, and likely would, get harassed on the ground today, he said he’d been getting more and more emails, that these emails had been getting more and more “specific,” but he didn’t specify in any way the subject of this specificity, he let a hum of threat and dread wash over us and no one bothered to ask for further elaboration. I, for one, was hoping something might happen out there, some “specific” something, something specifically bad enough for me to receive some sort of payout from someone, from any deeply-pocketed party, but not something specifically bad enough for me to sustain any genuinely permanent physical or psychic damage, I was already damaged enough, and, anyway, I wasn’t afraid of any goon these parties might stick upon us, any real estate G-man, and why should I have been, in broad daylight, in the safety of this bland boring shithole, which was high up in the rankings of the safest bland boring shitholes in all the state? Plus, I was tall, I was “barrel-chested,” is how my FWB described me to her best friend over the phone as I listened in from the shitter. If any G-man fucked with me, I’d sue, and I’d win or settle; no more signature-gathering for me, then. The organizers handed out printed reams of addresses, the fine residences of fair registered voters, our door-knocking duties for the day. Cole Mineo and I were assigned the outlying houses around Old Town, which wasn’t really that old, just another slippery developer’s ploy to jack up the property values around there. We had fewer houses to hit than usual, but just as much ground to cover, as the streets over there began rolling up into the dry hills. We decided to take the bus over there, leave our cars at the rented field office, so vile NIMBYs couldn’t sic tow trucks upon them. I paid for Cole’s fare, he’d bought me Burger King one evening a week or two earlier (it all blended together). Over our chicken fries that night we talked about college; he’d dropped out of Santa Barbara City College two years earlier, he’d only gone there to follow a girl from his high school who’d matriculated to UCSB. He didn’t say if she was in on this plan, this arrangement, and I didn’t ask, and my guess was no, knowing Cole. He didn’t call her his girlfriend and I didn’t want to know anything more, plausible deniability being the governing force of our relationship thus far. He asked me about school, too. I told him about a recital I gave my senior year at Mathews College, for the Technology in Music Arts Practicum, before which in the single-use restroom attached to the recital hall I’d slashed at my forearms with razor blades I’d ordered from Amazon (the tops of my arms, not the bottoms, I hastened to point out) so I could “perform” a Max patch on my laptop which randomized in real time splices of Tammy Wynette songs (I titled the performance Soft Touch)—it was something approaching collage—as I slowly bled onto my keyboard, more and more steadily over the course of my 12-minute performance. When I finished, I shut my laptop to turn off Max MSP, and thus the music, abruptly; I’d lost a good deal of blood by then. The crowd was silent, concerned. Afterward, my computer wouldn’t turn on, I’d ruined it with my own fluids. I received a High Pass in the practicum, perhaps because the instructor was so afraid for me. Cole Mineo drove me home afterward in near-total silence (my car had a flat I hadn’t yet addressed). The only thing he said was, “Let’s see some music sometime,” when he dropped me off. Which, if anything, was the coolest takeaway he could have had from my recounting of that recital, that artful cry-for-help. I told him we could go to a house show, there was always one coming up. (We never did, not together.) On the bus now, Cole told me his mother had asked him the night before to begin paying her rent, he’d moved back into his childhood room. He was humiliated by her request, he told me. The bus shook as it took a wide turn over rough road. No one seemed to notice. Cole asked me, then, if I’d ever consider getting a place with him. I told him I couldn’t refuse staying with my sister rent-free, which wasn’t even true, I have no sister, and I made a mental note to remind myself never to bring Cole Mineo inside my sublet, to keep up this ruse. I could tell Cole whatever I wanted because the stakes were so low between us, at least they were for me. Sometimes I told him of my life with a sharp, urgent honesty, like when I told him about my recital; much of the time, I made shit up, I wanted to see if he’d push back at anything, if he’d question me—and, of course, he never did. In return, I granted him a similar grace.
After that summer, I never saw him again, and never thought about him, not until just now, as I gather myself here in the back of the bus–another bus full of humans I’ll never see again either. I rise from my seat, preparing for my transfer to the train above, carrying myself away as soon we stop and the doors slam open.
Z.H. Gill lives in Hollywood, CA, with his cat Hans. Find his recent writings at X-R-A-Y and Back Patio Press.