Cheryl Klein’s book The Commuters: A Novel of Intersections,
will be published by City Works Press in Spring 2006. By day she manages
the California office of Poets & Writers, Inc. Her fiction has appeared
in journals including other, CrossConnect and The
Absinthe Literary Review, and is forthcoming in the anthology
Jane’s Stories III (Jane’s Stories Press). Cheryl also co-edits the
online queer fiction magazine Blithe House Quarterly. An alumna of the
CalArts writing program, she lives in Los Angeles, and is currently
working on a novel—tentatively titled Calla Boulevard—about
lesbians, ghosts and used clothing.
Excerpt from “Amor Sin Leche”
Melrose stretched out like a big charm bracelet
with silver balls and platform shoes and rhinestone belts and sometimes
a movie star if you looked hard and waited patiently.
“That’s Delia Montoya, the
news lady on either channel five or channel four I think,” my foster
sister Paulita whispered. She was wearing her big green army backpack
that she had from back when she used to live on the streets.
Paulita knew some of the
people sitting outside the stores with safety pins in their clothes and
faces. “Spare some change, lady?” hollered a white boy with dreadlocks
and boots laced up to his knees.
“My man!” Paulita wrapped
her arms around his skinny body and rocked him back and forth. I could
smell his hair in the sun. There were pictures drawn all over his hands
and arms in blue ball point pen. Bars over a skull face on his right arm
and a map of the world on his left, the water dark and the continents
the color of his skin, covered in real dirt.
“Where I’ve been and where
I’m going,” he explained.
“You’re deep, my man,”
said Paulita. “Now, which is which?”
We chilled with the dreadlock guy for a while (Paulita
just kept calling him “my man;” “Lucin, meet my man.”) We slouched in
the shade, Paulita plunking down her backpack with a surprising rattle,
next to her man and another guy and girl.
“I’m thinking of going to
Santa Monica for a while. I’ve got a hookup in one of the buildings they
still haven’t fixed up from the earthquake. Then maybe to Texas for a
while. My aunt lives there and she’ll put up with me longer than my
folks will. Just for a while though. Then maybe Alaska.” I liked
thinking you could go places just to go places.
When the owner of the
store we were in front of asked us to leave, Paulita’s man said, “Why
don’t you and little sis here come back to our squat? Rio scored some
good shit last week and we’ll get some beers too.”
“Sorry my man, I’m not
taking Lucin back to your shithole. No offense. This little girl doesn’t
even cuss—I’m not going to turn her into a hoodlum. No offense.”
“That’s cool. Well—stay in
When we made it past
La Brea, Paulita sighed. “That boy gets to me like nobody else.” She was
all wistful and gushy about it, like a character in one of the movies
“Are you in love with
“Oh, probably.” She
shifted her backpack and more things clunked around.
In October it got summer-hot. One night Paulita
said, “Let’s take a field trip.” She put sweats over her bare legs and
laced her boots over her sweats.
We lugged candles and CDs
and snacks up to the roof of the half-restored garage. I got a splinter
in my knee from the climb, but I didn’t say anything about it. There was
only one tiny part of the roof that was flat, but it was the perfect
size for our beach towel.
I looked up at the sky. “I
can’t see any stars.”
“Is this the first time
you looked up or something? There’s never any stars in L.A. Too much
smog or something. You have to go like 50 miles out of town before you
can see stars. Maybe they’ll send you to one of those camps for
underprivileged youth and you can see your stars.”
“It just seemed like I
should be able to see them here. That this would—I don’t know—be the
By a week before
Halloween, I knew all the words to her favorite songs. We kept going up
there, waiting to get caught. Our squat. Sticky in our pajamas, powerful
with all we could see—the yellow windows and the inky swimming pools and
the Spanish-style house where Paulita said that the chick from Battle
Ranch lived. She told me about her man and the first time they did it
(Metro bus, middle of the night, rattling through Hollywood) and how I
should wait til I was at least 16, she wished she did.
Since she knew some
Spanish, I asked her about a billboard I saw that day that said Familia,
Amor y Leche.
“Family, love and milk.”
“I’m lactose intolerant,”
“And my real family is the
most fucked up thing you ever saw,” she said. “That’s advertising.”
Three days before Halloween, they took Paulita
away. First, there was screaming like fault lines in walls, from Paulita
and from our foster parents, Susan and Chris. They came in from the car
all talking at once. I found out later they were coming from the store
where Paulita had been caught stealing. Again was the word everyone kept
saying. Sweeping stuff into her backpack: black light bulbs and earrings
with posts the size of your pinkie finger, postcards of old movie stars,
blessed virgin candles and a pair of thong panties that cost $28. I had
to wait in the hallway while Chris and Susan yelled at Paulita in our
bullshit” was one thing from Paulita.
“Not running a [something]
center” was from Chris.
And lots of stuff about
trust from Susan.
Paulita had to go to this
half-jail, half-camp place til she learned to behave herself in
civilized society. “How about when society learns to behave itself,
huh? Guess that would be a life sentence,” Paulita said. It wasn’t
until I’d promised to take good care of her CDs and she’d walked
tight-shouldered to the van that came to pick her up that Susan and
Chris told me: When she got out, she’d be living with another family.
“We’ll always love Paulita,
but we’re not running a rehabilitation center here,” Chris said. “We’re
running a family.”
I vowed to speak to them
only when they directly asked me a question, but they didn’t seem to
notice I was up to anything. I just seemed kind of quiet lately, they
said; it was okay, they said, they missed Paulita too.
From The Commuters: A Novel of
Intersections, forthcoming from City Works Press in Spring 2006.