A short man (a convict) walks into a bar
(the bar at the bowling alley where I work) and sits down. He sits down and visits with my assistant manager at the bowling alley, Jon (who pronounces his name Yon, and is sometimes known as Jesse) over bottled Coors pilfer
ed from the fridge behind the bar.
I have a callous on my thumb and forefinger, from opening dozens of pilfered bottles of Coors, purchased bottles of Budweiser and Amstel Light. I would have thought imports and microbrew would be more popular here, but when folks in Sun Valley drink up, they drink wine. When they drink like folks, they drink domestic.
We have Coors Light in the refrigerator behind the bar, but Jon specifies just plain Coors.
“Light beer,” he says, a gold cap twinkling from behind one of his front teeth, “is for queers.”
After a second, he corrects himself: “Homosexuals.”
The convict and my coworker, Ed, don’t seem like the type to be bothered by anyone’s use of words like “queer,” so I assume this clarification was made for my sake. To the eyes of these men (middle-aged ski bums stuck for 30 years at the bottom of the resort town social order) I probably seem like the type (Birkenstocks, Malcolm X glasses, spiky hair — and I go to school in Oregon) to be offended by words like “queer.”
I’m not offended; mildly irritated, maybe, but I merely wrinkle my brow and pretend to be even more absorbed in my book than I actually am. Normally, when I work with Ed, I do the driving and he sits in the back and tinkers with his Powerbook, emerging to work only when business is especially busy. (Ed is from Louisiana, and is also the kind of guy who shows up anytime between 7:30 and 9 when he’s scheduled to work at 7. I like him a lot.) Tonight, I sit back — still behind the bar, but in the shadow — and let Ed take the wheels, open the beers and entertain the present company.
The convict — whose crime I am still unaware of, but it was probably garden-variety drunk redneck stuff, DUIs or maybe assault — is named Tim, and is evidently a good enough friend of Jon’s to pick him up and share a shiftie with him as he gets off work for the evening. He looks like Gallagher, brown hair falling out of the same places — only washed out and sadder.
They talk about bars to hit after these pilfered Coors are gone, places off the resort — in Ketchum, which is two miles off. They complain about the social life in Ketchum, about the local women.
Jon, who is 40 pounds overweight, who slicks back his graying hair and is trying to sell a Camaro, says, “I had girls chasing me down the aisles at Sears — in Denver. But here, these women in Ketchum…” He trails off, almost indignant, certainly furious at his apparent recent lack of success.
Men, even middle-aged men who’ve been dating for years with nominal success, don’t talk this way in female company — as if the weaker sex owed them something, as if we were centuries late delivering on a promise. At least not most of the time.
Stay quiet enough, though, stay absorbed in your book and stay out of the way when Ed opens up the fridge to pilfer more bottles of Coors — they either forget you’re female or forget you’re there, but either way you get the chance to be a fly on the wall, if only for an hour or so.
Tim says he was kicked out of a bar downtown because he asked one of the waitresses for a table dance.
“This dyke-looking bitch who owns the place,” he slurs (all PC bets are off at this point) “says, ‘You’re making the girls uncomfortable,’ and it turns out the girl who complained was one of these 19-year-olds from Europe, and she doesn’t even work there anymore.”
“Jesus,” Jon assents. “What’s her problem?”
Let me tell you something about Jon: I want to like the guy. He’s the only guy I work with who actually works, as opposed to spacing out while I spray shoes, pour beers and talk to the customers. He’s nice to the customers, especially the kids who come into the place — and that’s more than I can say for our manager, Jeff. Actually, anything nice I have to say about Jon is something I can’t say for Jeff, who I work with when I’m not covering for Ed or dealing with Jon.
Jeff’s an old man who can’t hear, who hates children and is obsessed with watching the news. These are all fine qualities in the right context, but the context is bowling, the context is arcade games, the context is rich kids whose parents don’t quite know what to do with them and therefore pawn them on us. The context is also that he’s obsessed with Fox News
, won’t watch anything else.
My politics (as a spiky-haired, Malcom-X-glasses-and-Birkenstock-wearing college girl from Oregon) aside, Fox News sucks. Like most college kids, I’m too absorbed in school and my various quarter-life crises to pay much attention to television, and I missed the generation of Murdoch’s news tentacle entirely. But Jeff insists on getting his O’Reilly fix and I can’t avoid it.
I hate TV news in general, and in the last several years I’ve cultivated a special hatred for cable-news pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Hannity and Colmes. I hate the bias and superficiality of their “reporting.” I hate their mean-spirited interpretation of civil debate. I hate, most of all, Fox News’ definition of news: the tabloid, the trivial, the sensational and mundane. So for the first part of the summer, I tune it out.
Several months in the pit, however — our name the little area behind the bar — as a captive Fox audience member, and I can’t tune it out, not entirely. I discover I'm sucked in.
When I’m not at work, I’m reading. And often when I am at work, I read — when it’s slow and I’m trying to drown out the damn television or the voices of angry men.
You want to know what I was reading that night, behind the counter, ignoring the convicty? It was Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. A friend sent it to me because he knew I was stuck in the mountains, with no friends and very little to entertain myself (though this is also the year I take up knitting, and entertain myself with walks in the sagebrush-covered hills outside the city park-like atmosphere of the resort). He sends me comforting words — “I hope you’re taking notes, because you’re getting great material up there” — and a handful of books, one of which is anything but a comfort.
When I get home that night — after a jog around the resort, in the dark, which I know to be ridiculous and unsafe but do it out of anger and stubbornness — I stumble on the description of Elizabeth Short’s corpse: sawed in half, badly burned, drained of blood and left in a parking lot in Los Angeles. The last time I went to barnesandnoble.com, some true crime author had claimed to have solved the case at last — but the fact of the matter remains that Betty Short’s killer will never see public justice.
The other fact remains that once a woman reaches a certain age, she will be aware — without being aware that she is aware — that something just as terrible could happen to her. If she doesn’t follow by rote the standard rules for female safety — don’t walk alone at night, watch your drink — her awareness of her surroundings is heightened, her alarms more easily triggered. She learns to lie about her name, to make eye contact with every man she sees on the street and act fearless as her heart is pounding. She learns to tell men she’s got a man at Lake Tahoe who’s enormously tall and well-built. She learns to say maybe when her middle-aged, Camaro-driving boss asks her on a date, voice cracking eyes on the distance wall — because yes and no are answers that ask for trouble when you’re stuck behind the bar with an angry man.
The summer I get sucked in to Fox News, against my will, is the summer of kidnappings. I learn that my friends in Corvallis, my happily oblivious college friends, miss this phenomenon entirely. But I also know the phenomenon’s invented: millions of children of all colors and classes are kidnapped every year, most by family members or family friends. But the middle-class white kids taken by strangers — those are the ones the cable news folk pounce on and devour, then spit out into the Forgotten heap. There are the two teenagers in southern California, the ones who actually fought off their abductor. Against my will, I see them embracing and crying moments after all this happens. There is Samantha Runnion, the seven-year-old who was raped and murdered and left by the side of the highway. Against my will, I watch her funeral on national television.
And before all that there is Elizabeth Smart, the golden-haired, 14-year-old daughter of God taken right out of her room in Salt Lake City, as her sister Mary Catherine tried to sleep. Sun Valley is a four-hour drive from Salt Lake, and is owned by a Utah company. Her face is all over Fox News — smiling softly, or playing the harp — and all over the resort, on flyers. It frustrates me; I don’t think of this stuff as news, and I’m sure she’s dead by now anyway.
Nonetheless, every day I walk into the accountant’s office every day to get the keys and cash for the register, and I see Elizabeth’s face on a flyer, and I read that she was last seen wearing short-sleeved red satin pajamas, and my heart breaks, just a little bit.
Sun Valley Lanes is located in the basement of Sun Valley Lodge — a short walk down the hall and stairs from the outdoor pool. This means a lot of kids get sidetracked on their way back to their hotel rooms, run down the stairs and end up bowling; they reach into their trunks and pay with wet dollar bills. Sometimes adults even wander down in white, hotel-issue bathrobes, carrying cocktails, and look around, making a note to come back later.
One afternoon a group of girls in bathing suits and flip-flops walks in. Maybe they have towels draped around their waists, but the image I will take home with me is that of their bare, tan flat midriffs, still glistening from the pool. They ask me how much it costs to bowl. Four dollars per person per game, I tell them; a buck seventy-five for shoes. (This is the most expensive bowling alley in the state of Idaho, by the way.)
Then one girl asks me, “Do we have to be clothed to bowl?” I have her repeat the question, maybe because I’m incredulous, maybe because while I may be heterosexual, female and sexually attracted to other adults, I know sex when I see it — and these darlings are throwing out sparks they can’t possibly be aware of, flipping their hair and moving in slow motion in their skimpy little suits. And while I may be heterosexual, female and sexually attracted to other adults, sparks this bright and blatant make me a bit...self-conscious.
“Do we have to be clothed to bowl?” she asks again.
I cock my head to the side.
“Well, I don’t think there’s a rule about it, but it’s probably a good idea —” I say, still taken off guard, though the mother in me wants to wrap beach towels around these darlings, march them upstairs and say through clenched teeth, Put something on over that — as if they are a fire that I have to put out.
But Jon, in the pit beside me, cuts me off.
“All you need is shoes,” he says. I am, immediately, furious with him, but I take their sizes and retrieve the shoes from the back room anyway.
In addition to being the most expensive bowling alley in the state, Sun Valley Lanes is also most likely the last bowling alley that still uses manual scoring sheets. This means that at the beginning of the summer, I have to review very quickly the rules of the game, so I can give scoring lessons to customers either unfamiliar with bowling or too familiar with automated scoring.
These lessons take all of two minutes, as a general rule.
Jon spends fifteen to twenty minutes on the bench with the bathing beauties, hunched over the score sheet, explaining the rules. Later he gets up and walks around — “working the floor,” we call it — puttering around outside the pit, but keeping the girls in his line of sight.
He’s subtle enough they don’t notice him at all, but they’re oblivious enough they wouldn’t notice if he leaned over and literally breathed down their necks. Take my word on this; I was 15 once myself.
“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning,” I mutter behind the bar, spraying shoes, opening beers for other customers, wiping down the bar with bleach. “Standing four feet ten in one sock.” Later, some pubescent-looking boys — also in bathing suits — show up, rent some shoes, and join the bathing beauties at the bench and I smile through my clenched teeth as Jon visibly shifts his attention elsewhere. Pubescent rivals. I don’t say much to him for the rest of the night.
Let me tell you something about Jon: I really do want to like him, and sometimes I do. Tim comes in again, this time already drunk. He forgets we’ve met before and attempts to chat me up
while Jon fixes a video game for some kid. I keep my eyes on the TV, or my eyes on the book — whatever I was using that night to distract myself. I open a Coors for him and answer a few questions — “Yes, I’m in school, going back in September” — but I do not smile and I do not make eye contact.
Jon hooks Tim up with free beers and free video games, of which he cannot get enough. He stays for something like two hours, screwing Jon out of his dinner break and irritating me no end. On his way out of the establishment, as I’m walking from the office to the arcade on some piece of business, Tim corners me in the office doorway. He tells me over and over, “Smile. You start smiling.”
Jon asks him to leave in polite-but-firm bartender/bouncer manner. He tells the other staffers at the hotel not to let him come back — and tells me to have him removed if he does.
Weekend, after which I will feel like Omega Man
walking around the resort — Labor Day Weekend sees Sun Valley teeming with last-chance vacationers, many of them large families from Utah.
There’s a waiting list at the bowling alley busy weekends like this. Scrolling down it, making sure everyone’s taken care of, I note a familiar name. Not a celebrity name — though Sun Valley is that kind of place — but one that had at some point lodged itself in my consciousness, then gotten loose.
Ed Smart. Ed Smart. SLC, UT. (We collect demographic information, too.) By this time the harp-playing daughter of God was old, old news, passed up in favor of other victims and the first whisperings of war in Iraq. I’m pretty sure, however, that her father’s name is Ed — the pleading patriarch who held press conferences every morning in the weeks after his daughter’s disappearance, the broken man.
He takes himself off the waiting list after a few minutes milling in the crowded arcade, and the family goes upstairs.
When I get off work, I find the Elizabeth Smart web site and confirm my memory. The next day I see an old man who must be her grandfather, wearing a powder-blue ribbon and a button bearing Elizabeth’s likeness.
“Remember me,” it said.
By Labor Day, 2002, few people do.
I spend some time wondering what it must be like to go on vacation with an empty seat in the minivan, wondering what it must be like to wonder whether your daughter is alive or dead. I learn upon Elizabeth’s safe return that in fact, in early September, she is still in the mountains outside Salt Lake City. That one night she heard her uncle in June, part of a search party, calling her name, and doesn’t respond.
If you saw her face several times a day, every day for weeks, and if you followed the story of her return home like I did, you know this: she looks different now. Same golden hair and soft face and smile — but older, resigned.
Do you remember when you were 14, 15, 16 and throwing out sparks, oblivious? Do you remember the day you caught fire? Do you have a burn scar that embarrasses you and you wear long shirts to hide it? Do you remember the day your voice lowered a bit to a more appropriately cynical, adult octave? Do you remember the day you started looking over your shoulder every time you heard footsteps behind you on street, in a slight panic? Do you remember the day you noticed that, not yet 20, you had crow’s feet?
Or was it more gradual — your eyes grew wider with alarm and your heart narrower and you didn’t even notice, until one day you saw some girls in bathing suits, unashamed, throwing sparks — and your instinct is to grab the hose, the fire extinguisher, and save them before it’s too late. Except that if you do you won’t save them at all.
Some months later, I'm window-shopping at Bi-Mart
and I found myself in the seed section.
For the first time in several years I am out of university co-ops, out of employee dorms, and in a place where I can put something in the ground and watch it grow. I was heartbroken that day and it seemed like a solution: bury something, put it in the ground, forget about it, but cross your fingers. Maybe something will come up in its place.
The Black Dahlia ends with an unplanned — maybe the word is serendipitous — pregnancy. A flower poking out of a grave of sex and death and violence and obsession. A new Dahlia, a new Elizabeth, a do-over (do you remember when you still used the word “do-over”)?
Because planting a garden requires as much faith as it does work. Faith that despite the elements, something will come up, that it will thrive, that it will spread its petals toward the sun and protect itself from rain and hail and thunder; faith that in spite of everything that isn’t OK, at least one thing, or a few things, can be.
I planted the seeds a week ago. They haven’t sprouted yet.