The Trickster Diaries/Chapter 1
Winter. 1995. Solitude and quiet. The mouth of a backcountry quartz monzonite and sand canyon in Joshua Tree National Monument, CA, USA. I was working on the final draft of my first novel. Fisketjon at Knopf had rejected the original version but I was encouraged by his critique to try again. A strange environment for such a thing but strange environments were all I knew that decade. This was the softest, biggest, and at night the most Milky Way-est place in the world. An impossibly enormous cocoon of stars literally hung there, like a low, silently giggling cloud.
But then, a third of the way into the rewrite, I ran out of money, or nearly. I would soon need food, MSR fuel, water, etc..
Ugh. Back to the city.
I packed up and hiked seven miles to the road, loaded my stuff in the car and headed for town.
Wow. Town. Civilization. Denny’s. And an L.A. Times where I took due note that Seti I, a high priced claimer, was entered in a mile affair on dirt in the seventh at Hollywood Park. Wet track.
I could make it.
I did make it.
And now up 900 bucks I could go back to my surreal high desert planet. My life under the stars and inside my lunatic novel.
I’m not sure what mistakes or acquiescences are, or if fate or free will exist. Or how one plays off the other. For me there’s not time enough even to think about it, but I took an odd detour that day—the day Seti I paid off. I stopped, on a whim, at a Barnes & Noble in West L.A., believing it was the last stop before hitting the I10 back to the desert. And I was only looking for one thing: the Collier’s Magazine editions featuring Jack Finney’s excerpts from his novella, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
And they freaking had it!
But, they also had Sheila, the lovely young Filipina who rang me up.
Sheila: Jesus. I didn’t even realize we had this. What a great movie.
Me: Absolutely. I’m wondering how true the film is to the original material.
Sheila: Hm. Let me know, yeah?
Me: I will.
A week later, instead of resuming my high desert fiction writer persona, I was in charge of receiving at the same Barnes & Noble where Sheila worked.
I was only there because she was there.
It was a pretty great six months or so. I checked into a local residential hotel where I continued revising the novel and Sheila, an English Lit grad from UCLA, reviewed and critiqued it nightly.
“One day,” she coquettishly reveals as she licks her salad fork clean, places it delicately on an empty plate, takes a sip of red wine, then inconspicuously scans the softly lit restaurant interior for spies before returning her gaze to me, “…one day you’re going to meet my sister. She’s a little younger than me, 23. But you have to promise you’ll never, ever tell her what I’m going to tell you now.”
Me: Sure. Yes. I promise. What?
Sheila: She’s… troubled. Delusional, maybe? Or she was, I mean. Actually, I don’t know WHAT I mean. Thing is, she never fit anywhere. She always hated or never understood the culture all her peers adored.
Me: Sounds familiar, so far.
Sheila: Right. You get it. I knew you would. That part, anyhow. But, example: you’ve read Black Elk Speaks?
Me: I have. Yes.
Sheila: So you know it’s a play now, right? It’s running downtown at the Dorothy Chandler.
Me: Yes. So I heard. Great reviews, actually.
Sheila: It’s her favorite book ever. Paid a fortune for a first edition copy. Anyway, we’re going tomorrow night.
Me: Exciting. But, so, wait. You’re saying the book saved her from… what, alienation?
Sheila: Ha! (Picking up her fork again and waving it at me) That’s the funny part. She definitely relates, just like you and I relate to, say, Joyce. But it’s not what saved her. This is what you have to keep quiet about. She believes she’s not of this earth. Literally. That she was dropped here from somewhere else.
Me: Wow. So… the Black Elk mythology is supportive, not fundamental.
Sheila: Yes. Exactly.
Sheila and I quit Barnes & Noble on the very same day. She headed off to a job at a production company in L.A.. I headed off to a landscape design gig in Santa Cruz. Our getaway cars were parked next to each other. Her goodbye gift to me—oh, I can still taste her tears, feel her bones—jumps all temporal and emotional distance.
Regrets? I deeply regret not having gone to Banff Art Institute on a partial scholarship when I was 18.
My only other regret is never having met Sheila’s sister.