Chapter Two: Reseda
"These go on aisle 12.” Ngoc pointed to a box full of books.
I never liked books. At least they weren’t hard to stock. They fit neatly on a shelf and were easy to organize. We had a bunch of paperbacks and some hardcovers. All of them had a black mark across the bottom. Ngoc said they were remainders, the books other stores couldn’t sell. Well, they couldn’t sell them at full price. Perhaps people would buy them here for a dollar.
At Buck & Awesome, we sold the stuff they couldn’t sell elsewhere. Generic breakfast cereals. Pumpkin spice Pop Tarts when it wasn’t pumpkin spice season. The superhero toys that sort of look like Marvel Avengers, but the package says “Marvelous Adventurers.” Disney Frozen hair brushes that were just regular hair brushes with a Frozen sticker on it. I guess you can get little girls to sit still and have their hair brushed if Elsa’s face is on it. At least until the sticker fades and falls off.
And people came from all over to buy our stuff. Things that seemed worthless at full price suddenly seemed worthwhile for a dollar.
If we had places like this in Orange County, I didn’t know about them. Mom and Steven thought they were too good even for Target. “Tar-zhey" they called it with a sneer. Walmart would make them break out in hives. Macy’s was as cheap as they would go.
But when I realized I was stuck in Reseda, I knew I had to get a job. Buck & Awesome hired me on the spot. It was first job I ever had.
I don’t know why I wound up in Reseda, but I know how.
After I was kicked out of the house, I had to drive around to my friends to see if they would take me in. My iPhone didn’t have service, so I couldn’t call them.
I went to Jaime’s first. He was my best friend, so I was sure he’d hook me up. He just rubbed the back of his neck and said he wasn’t sure if they had the room. His family has a 6,000-square-foot five-bedroom house. They had a casita off to the side where we used to blaze. And he was an only child. I assumed his answer was no.
Then I went to David’s. He said they were in the middle of remodeling. But there were no construction crews, stacks of wood beams, table saws, the stuff you’d see at a remodeling site. I assumed his answer was no too.
Gabriel moved out right after high school, so I thought he would be cool with me moving in with him. He started getting real jittery when I asked him. He said his roommate didn’t want anyone else living there. I assumed his answer was also no.
I stopped by Omar’s, but his family wasn’t home. I considered asking my ex, but her parents made it clear they didn’t want me anywhere near her.
I went up Golden Lantern towards Aston’s house in Nellie Gail. I then remembered that one party we had at his place and knew I couldn’t ask him.
Instead, I turned onto Oso Parkway and headed to the 5 Freeway. I decided I would see Dad in Lake Forest. He said I’d always be welcome to live with him.
My parents had a nasty divorce, but it was mostly Mom’s fault.
Dad was a doctor, one of those general practitioners. You’d think he’d be super-rich, but he had lots of med school debt. Since he mostly worked with elderly patients, he had to constantly fight to get paid from Medicare. Mom grew up in Corona del Mar, so she was used to fine things. Dad was able to get us a nice home and nice Fords and Toyotas, but they weren’t nice enough for Mom. They argued about money all the time, so Mom decided she would earn more money by returning to her old job as a hospital receptionist.
And that’s how she met Steven. He was visiting a kid who had cancer. That video with him praying by her bedside went viral. What the video didn’t show was what he and Mom were doing in a hospital storeroom afterwards.
She screwed Dad over during the divorce proceedings. They were supposed to get joint custody of my sister Muriel and me, but Mom was able to get full custody and the child support that went with it. Not that I would have cared. I wasn’t really close to Dad since he had to work all the time. Muriel was closer to him, but she was involved in sports and music. He would always go to her events, but he sat far away from Mom. I’m sure he would have gone to more of my events if I got involved in anything.
But since Mom didn’t want me anymore, I figured I better get closer to him.
The freeway signs said that Lake Forest Drive was coming up. I moved to the right lane. I checked the gas gauge. I had about a third of a tank, but the Explorer got shitty gas mileage. I still had more than enough to get off the freeway and drive a few miles to his house. But would he really take me in?
Dad recently started dating again. I saw pictures of his new girlfriend on Facebook. She looked really pretty and athletic. They were always doing outdoor things like hiking and kayaking in the Back Bay. They even ran a 5K together. Dad wasn’t into sports before he met her, except for watching Angels games. She had two kids from her previous marriage. They were ten and eight, and they were both in Little League and AYSO.
He wouldn’t want some 18-year-old messing up his new life. Even if it were his own son.
I reached the Lake Forest exit, but I pulled into the lane to my left. I cut off a guy in a Prius who gave me an angry honk.
“Fuck it.” I stepped on the gas. I stayed on the 5 Freeway and kept going north.
I didn’t know or care where I was going. I kept driving until I ran out of gas.
I ran out of gas in Reseda.
Reseda wasn’t what I expected. The way they always show it in movies and sing about it in songs, I thought it would be some rich place with lots of movie stars. It wasn’t. Reseda actually looked kind of ghetto, like Santa Ana. But unlike Santa Ana that looked drab and run-down, Reseda was bright and colorful with murals and painted utility boxes.
Buck & Awesome was in an old strip mall on this boulevard called Sherman Way. In front of our store was a sign that said “Reseda Welcomes You. Hub of the West Valley.” The street had a grassy median that still seemed green in spite of the drought. Palm trees lined both sides of the street. Someone wrapped some yarn around one of the trees. Yarnbombing, they called it.
The people in Reseda are pretty chill. Many of them are Hispanic. I got along with them pretty well. I knew some Spanish. I took a semester of it in high school, but I learned most of it hanging around my Spanish-speaking friends. They taught me the useful words, like “cabrón” and “pendejo,” instead of spending two weeks on how to conjugate “ser.”
There are a lot of immigrants too. One of the people working at the register is a Syrian refugee. Her name is Fatima. She always wears one of those headscarves. She smiles at everyone and always has a kind word. She encourages everyone to drop their change in the plastic coin box at the register. It has a sign that says “Buck & Awesome supports United Cerebral Palsy” with a picture of a guy with his arm around a smiling little girl in a walker. I heard it is our company’s CEO and his daughter.
They say a lot of white people used to live in Reseda, and I still see a lot of them in the store. Mrs. Cimino is one of our regulars. She’s short and thin with neatly curled gray hair. She’s in her seventies, but she moves pretty well and has good posture. She says she stays in shape by gardening and taking yoga classes. She’d tell us stories about what Reseda used to be like, when they had department stores, and the abandoned movie theater down the street actually showed movies, and bartenders wore crisp white shirts and black bowties and made drinks like Manhattans and Gin Rickeys. It’s interesting to talk to her, but I couldn’t when Ngoc was around.
One Sunday morning, I remembered why.
I saw Ngoc in front of Annabelle’s register. She was drunk. I could tell. I had seen plenty of people that shitfaced at parties. But I figured a 54-year-old woman like her would know better than showing up drunk at work. I knew she was 54 because she kept telling us that, especially whenever she was asked to lift a box, sweep the floor, or basically do any work at all.
Ngoc was at a level of pissed I had never seen before. I had seen him get pissed before. He got pissed at me the first time I stocked a shelf wrong. He has this way of stepping up and shaking a finger at you. Even though he was only five-foot-two, he made me tremble. I didn’t stock a shelf wrong again. I couldn’t afford to get fired.
I knew Annabelle wasn’t going to get off for what she did. Ngoc stood rigidly. He loosened his brown and beige tie, which he always kept neat and straight. Veins popped on his forehead.
I turned towards a side aisle and looked for a display to straighten up. I knew what was coming and didn’t want to be caught up in it. But I couldn’t ignore the shouts.
“You know the rules, Annabelle!”
“I didn’t take drugs.”
“What do you think alcohol is!?”
“I just had one drink.”
Ngoc stared at her, disbelieving. He must have known she had more than one drink. I could smell the liquor from where I stood.
She protested, “I need it for my back!”
“You drink for back pain!?”
“I can’t afford meds with as little as you pay us!”
“Then you don’t have to worry about me paying you anymore!”
Then a soft voice came from behind me. “It’s just as well.”
I turned around and saw Mrs. Cimino. I could feel my face start to burn from embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cimino.” I stammered as quietly as I could. “You shouldn’t have to hear this...”
“I’ve heard it before.”
“Here? At this store?”
Mrs. Cimino stood silently for a moment and then said, “Annabelle is an unhappy person. I know. Unhappy people do things that cause them greater unhappiness.”
She then looked directly at me. I felt a little creeped out at first, having an older woman look at me like that. But she gave me a small smile.
“I hope you don’t do that to yourself, Dylan. You have too much of your life ahead of you to make yourself miserable. One foolish mistake can ruin your whole life.”
She returned to her cart and continued down the aisle. I waited until she turned away and got out of earshot before I could exhale.
I looked back at the front of the store. It didn’t take Ngoc long to get rid of Annabelle. She had already stormed out of the store, paperwork crumpled in her hand. Ngoc watched her leave. When she was gone, he tightened and straighten his tie. He went back into the office and took out a sign, “Help Wanted/Se Necesita Ayuda.” Without a word, he carried the sign to the front window and put it on a ledge next to another sign, “This is a drug-free workplace./Este es un recinto libre de drogas.”
I went back to cleaning up the shelves.
At five, I hung up my green work apron in the office. If someone was around when I left, I’d wish them a good day. I never said “goodbye.” For some reason, that word freaked Dad out. Fatima was always there because her register was close to the door to the office. I always wished her a good day, and she’d reply with the biggest smile. She always smiled. I couldn’t figure out how she could smile with what she went through in Syria and what she had to deal with every day at work.
From the moment I stepped out the door, I started walking. I couldn’t drive the Explorer since it ran out of gas. And since it has been sitting for a month, I wasn’t sure if it’d even start. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to find my way around Reseda. All the streets were a neat grid. They didn’t bend around, go at funny angles, or changed names like they did at home. I still found myself calling my old place home, even though I knew I wouldn’t be welcomed back there again.
Over the past month, I learned the places to go in Reseda.
There’s a restaurant a few blocks down on Sherman Way called Mamá Frieda. They serve kosher Mexican food. No chicharrones, but really great chicken albondigas and noodle soup. It was owned by this woman named Magdalena. She was really chill. When I first came to Reseda and didn’t have any money, she’d give me whatever leftovers they had. If she didn’t have any leftovers, she’d let me wash some dishes in exchange for a free meal. I was glad that I now had money to pay her, even if I could only afford a taco. She’d still throw in the rice and beans for free.
The guy who worked at the gas station on Reseda and Sherman Way was chill too. His name was Reza, and he let me use the bathroom whenever his boss Carlos wasn’t around. Carlos was a bit of dick, and he didn’t want “homeless scum and drug dealers” hanging around his gas station. And he packed a .38, so he was serious. But Carlos was usually gone by seven, so I knew when it was safe to go there.
After a couple weeks, I found the library. It took a half an hour to walk there, but it gave me a safe place to hang out for a while, especially since it was near the police station. They had computers where I could check the Internet and outlets where I could charge my iPhone. I thought about selling my iPhone, since I couldn’t use it without service. But I had reasons for not letting it go.
It took me another week before I could get up the nerve to check my Facebook. What did people say? Did they miss me? Did they care that I’m gone? Did they want me to come back? Did Mom and Steven want me to come back? What about Dad?
The first time I checked, it broke my heart. No one posted anything about me. No one asked where I went. No one messaged me. No one. It was if I no longer existed. My friends posted pictures of themselves. The usual duck-faced selfies. Pics of parties I was no longer invited to. And my friends -- or people I thought were my friends -- had the droopy, glazed eyes I used to have in my photos. My ex posted pictures of her new boyfriend. He’s the starting second baseman on the Dana Hills baseball team. He’s black. I’m not sure how well that went over with her parents. Then again, they didn’t like me, and I’m white. But they had their reasons for not liking me.
I didn’t expect Mom and Steven to post anything about me. Steven used Facebook to post photos and videos to promote his books, speeches, and his non-profit organization, Face Time for Healing, which supposedly “used the healing power of Christ to bring hope to the poor and disadvantaged.” Mom posted pictures of sunsets and flying eagles and mountain peaks with inspirational quotes like “No problem is so great that God cannot handle it.” Bullshit. She considered me a problem, so she threw me out of the house. I guess she didn’t trust God enough to handle me.
Dad posted more pictures of his new girlfriend and her kids. One was a picture of them at the beach. Dad’s girlfriend rocked a bikini. Maybe he posted it to taunt Mom, showing her how good he was getting it. He didn’t post anything about me.
But Dad only emailed me. It took me a few more days to get up the nerve to check.
Sure enough, there was an email from him:
I heard from Mom and Steven about what happened. I really wished you would have called me. You know you’re always welcome to live with me. I haven’t heard from you in weeks. Please call me or email when you can. I love you very much.
I didn’t reply, but I didn’t delete the message either. I kept it in my inbox. Every time I would come to the library, I’d look at it, trying to figure out how I’d reply. I didn’t know what to say.
I then got another email from Dad.
We’re all getting very concerned about you. We hope you’re OK and nothing happened to you. Please, Dylan, if you get this message, reply or call me. We just want to know if you’re all right. I love you very much.
I stared at that email for a moment, puzzled. What did he mean by “we”? Did he mean him and Muriel? Or him and Mom? He certainly couldn’t mean him, Mom, and Steven. Or maybe it was him and his new girlfriend. But why would she be concerned about me? She doesn’t know me! Or was he just saying “we” to make me feel better, like other people cared about me when they really didn’t? And why did he write to me at all? So he didn’t feel guilty if something happened to me? And why the fuck would he care what happened to me anyway!? He doesn’t really know me! And if he cared so fucking much, he would’ve fucking tried to spend more time with me!
“Dude, are you OK?”
I looked over my shoulder. It was some kid in a maroon Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt. I stared back at the screen.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Then,” he mumbled, “I’m sorry, but if you don’t mind, like, are you done? I really need to use the computer for homework.
I clicked the button to log off from the computer. “Go ahead.”
I unplugged my iPhone charger from the outlet and started making my way home.
Home was my Ford Explorer.
I had parked it behind the abandoned movie theater. I don’t know why I chose that particular spot except it was where the Explorer started sputtering and stalling as it used the last drops of gas. Maybe I knew I’d be left alone there. Maybe it was because the theater was a crumbling old building, a piece of shit sitting there to rot. It had no value. Worthless. A remainder.
Just like me.
I didn’t feel that way at first. I was pissed for a long time. I hated Mom and Steven for kicking me out. I hated Dad for going on with his life with a new woman and family. I hated Muriel for being so perfect in everything, and then doing the perfect thing by going away to college so she’d get away from our fucked-up family. She didn’t know that I was sleeping in an SUV in Reseda. Or would care. I hated my fake friends who were “ride and die” with me when I had money and weed but weren’t there when I needed them. I hated Orange County. I hated its shopping malls, its Starbucks, its beaches, its fake girls with their fake tits and fake tans. I hated having to get a new iPhone every year because you weren’t cool if you didn’t get one the day it came out. And you had to get the right case, and the right wallpaper, and the right apps. “Are you on Fleekchat? Everyone’s on Fleekchat now.” Fuck you!
Then I started hating myself.
I didn’t come right out and say it, but it showed up in weird ways. I’d accidentally leave the doors of the Explorer unlocked at night in case someone wanted to steal my shit and slit my throat. When I heard some people talking about the Orange Line, I thought about stepping in front of one of those trains. I learned these are buses on their own special roadway, but stepping in front of one would still do the job. And if I couldn’t find that Orange Line, I’d just step in front of one of the cars rushing by on Sherman Way. I wondered if anyone would notice or care. If anyone would miss me.
In truth, I’d been feeling that way for a long time. Even when I was little. But I’d blaze or take some bars or down some shots, and the feeling would go away. For a while anyway.
But I had no money for drugs. Not even skunk weed. And I had no connects. I couldn’t trust anyone in Reseda. They could be with a cartel. Or an undercover cop. Or just some guy who rolls you and takes your money. And because I couldn’t get drugs, I was stuck with all those voices telling me what a worthless piece of shit I was and I should do the world a favor and off myself.
The only reason I didn’t was because of people like Magdalena and Reza. And getting the job at Buck & Awesome helped too.
But I still felt my stomach clench whenever I walked past that abandoned old theater with strands of dead neon tubes hanging off the tall Reseda sign and the empty marquee. Especially when it had gotten dark. Even with the street lights and the headlights of the oncoming cars brightening the sidewalk, it still seemed dark and sketchy.
I had to go around the theater and neighboring buildings by turning on a side street named Canby Avenue. As I got closer to the parking lot, I wondered if the Explorer was still there. Perhaps it was stolen or towed away. I started getting more jittery. Canby was darker than Sherman Way with fewer street lights and fewer cars driving by. I reached the driveway to the parking lot. I took a quick look around the corner of the building by the driveway. It was dark there with only a small dim lamp over a doorway on the back of a building. When I knew it was clear, I rushed into the parking lot. I looked across a dirt field, which was probably a building that had been torn down. I recognized the dark outline of the Explorer across the dirt. I gave a deep sigh.
I stopped using the remote to unlock the car. I doubted that it worked anymore, but I also didn’t want the sound to give me away. I unlocked and raised the tailgate. This weird funk came out of it, like the stale smell of polyester pants when you’ve been sweating in them all day. The funk would go away after a moment, and I’d crawl inside.
I sold most of my clothes. They took up space where I needed to sleep and I needed the money more. I only had $45 in my pocket when Mom and Steven kicked me out of the house. I left the house with $300 the night before. I had gotten the money from birthdays, when I sold weed before I got busted, and cash I took out of Mom’s wallet.
I tried making a withdrawal from the ATM when I got to Reseda, but I found out that Mom and Steven closed my bank account. I thought you couldn’t do that to an 18-year-old. I guess they wanted to make sure I starved to death. Perhaps that was how Mom looked to God to solve the problem called me.
I used the $45 and what little money I got from the clothes to buy some things at Goodwill that I needed. Like a sleeping bag and black plastic tarp to cover the windows so that I can sleep. I also bought some tools and parts to rig the Explorer’s lift gate so I can open it from the inside. I thought I needed something to use for a toilet, like a bucket or a toddler training potty I could dump out in the morning. But then, I met Reza who let me use his bathroom. I stashed the money I had left in a side storage compartment. That’s where I kept my pay after I cashed in my paychecks.
So, I’d be pretty fucked if the Explorer was stolen or towed away. I’d lose all my money. And where would I sleep? On the streets, I suppose. I’ve seen some people asleep in doorways. Sitting in the shadows, heads resting on their folded arms that were propped up by their knees.
I used to see them in Orange County too. They’d stand at the exit at the Costco parking lot, where they held up cardboard signs. Usually, they brought their kids with them. But we always drove past them like they weren’t there. I guess Steven only used “the healing power of Christ to help the poor and disadvantaged” when it didn’t interfere with his shopping.
But there I was, just one step away from sleeping in doorways or holding a cardboard sign in a parking lot. How could Mrs. Cimino tell me not to make myself miserable when my life was as miserable as it can get!
That’s when I took out my iPhone. It was now nothing more than an alarm clock and an occasional flashlight. I had to make sure the charge lasted through the night, which is why I never tried looking for Wi-Fi and getting online. Sometimes, I’d look at the photos. The duck-faced selfies I used to take. And my friends, back when I really thought they were friends. And my ex. There was even a picture of Mom, Steven, Muriel, and me at The Cheesecake Factory in the Shops of Mission Viejo. We were sending Muriel off to Minnesota for college. And we were all smiling. Even I was. Perhaps it was because I took a bong rip before we went to dinner. Still, our smiles seemed real. I’d like to think there was a time, even if it were a brief moment, when we were all happy together.
I took a deep sigh and turned off the phone. I had work in the morning.