I forgot how cold it gets at night in the desert. My hands are in my pockets, elbows out to the traffic thrashing past me on some sidewalk underpass in San Bernadino. Maybe Fante was here one drunken night.
La Costa smells solid. Through the front window I see families clustered around tables, slapping shoulders, ordering another beer.
I go in and am greeted all smiles.
The waitress calls me amigo three times before I decide what to eat.
I order a giant bowl of molcajete. Crabs and cactus, shrimp and squid, black beans and a beer with lime wedged on the rim. I squeeze it between my dirty fingers and wonder what N would say, eyes rolling but she is sleeping now in that makeshift bed in her mother's kitchen. I want to call, to wake her up and tell her how sweet and briney the crabs are, how this black stone bowl is really for two and they are actually out of cactus.
There are two shots left on the roll and they go quickly after I see some men working on a roof. Squatting on the curb with the sun behind me I reload the Leica.
The neighborhood is marked by dirt lawns and faded American flags that drift around in the early morning light. I see a man on crutches standing beside the Salvation Army. There are low buildings, just paint and cinder blocks. There are car dealerships with more flags, but no one looking. On one corner a man in a silver costume waves a sign around, promising fast and easy loans. He dances, feet planted on the sidewalk, hips swiveling, arms poking out.
I wander into a 99 cent store, searching the shelves for souvenirs. I buy E some purple hair clips, a wild cherry air freshener for N's car, and a red baseball cap that reads California Republic above an embroidered brown bear.
There is a white house with a wheelchair and at least six cats on the front porch. They stare at me, walking around each other, moving in strange patterns. A man leans deep into a car, vacuuming the back seats. Someone sleeps on the green meridian strip of grass as traffic sputters past them.
A kid wheels around the street on a bike, swooping past me in giant curves his hands limp at the handlebars. I think of E's pink bike on our balcony, stiff and unused, with the training wheels still on it. I think it will be four years old soon. I remember buying it for her birthday and how she made me take her out in the snow and ice to wheel around the courtyard until she got cold.