After the albino gave him the finger from behind the glass doors of the Nano Research Center, Colt walked back to his truck and drove to Santa Monica to pick up Nicole, a girl he had met recently at a local coffee hangout. By the time they finished their hamburgers, Colt had lost interest in Nicole. She kept using the word “totally” and it was driving him crazy. Her friends were totally cool. Her summer had been totally great and school was totally boring. They went to a movie about a man and a woman marooned on an island and she thought it was totally romantic. By the time the film was over, Colt was totally certain he didn’t want to see her again and couldn’t wait to take her home. When they came out of the theater, a fog bank had drifted in from the ocean.
Colt dropped off his date, drove home to his apartment on Chautauqua Street and sat in his pickup watching the tiny drops of moisture collecting on the windshield. It was after midnight and the marine layer from the ocean had enveloped the neighborhood in a thick mist. In the darkness, Colt thought back over his day and the run-in with the insolent, hostile, smart-ass albino. He tried to remember the scenario at the Surfrider. The albino was standing at the edge of the crowd next to the girl with the tattoos on her upper body. He was holding a plastic takeout bag, probably with the remains of his lunch. There were at least 30 other people standing nearby. How could he pick up the foot with all those people around? Would anyone really take a severed body part home?
Colt got out of his pickup and stood in the middle of the street surrounded by the fog. He looked up into the gray mist and felt it settle on his face. Growing up in Wyoming, he never imagined he would end up living a block from a white sand beach in Southern California. When he arrived in Los Angeles almost six years ago, he was 18 and had $12,600 in his pocket after the sale of the ranch and payment of his father’s debts and funeral expenses. Rising land prices in Wyoming had bailed him out. He was happy to leave the coalmines, gas wells and marginal ranches, but the first months in Los Angeles were difficult. The crowded Southern California sprawl was a shock and he missed the days when he could ride his horse Flash in the open spaces under the endless sky of the high plains. He was also lonely. In a city of almost 11 million people, he found it hard to meet anyone. No one walked anywhere—everyone drove, locked inside a vehicle. He had no friends, no support group and no family. His father had been a difficult, mean man who drank too much and cursed everyone. Even so, Colt knew his father had loved him and felt adrift without his presence. Sometimes Colt felt so alone that he even yearned for the quiet companionship of Bear Cloud, the old Cheyenne Indian who worked around the ranch and barely spoke English.
For two years, Colt lived in a cheap converted motel near the airport while he studied for his fire science degree. After graduation from the fire academy, he got a job with Los Angeles County. The fire department brotherhood became his family and his life changed. He moved from the smell of jet fuel to the smell of salt air; into a studio apartment in an old wood structure on Chautauqua Street in Santa Monica. The building was surrounded by vegetation never seen in Wyoming—banana plants, palm and eucalyptus trees that shed long brown strips of bark onto the sidewalk. Colt lived on the third floor in the back, looking out at a dirt hillside. He couldn’t see the Pacific Ocean, but he could smell it.
On one side of his rooming house was a gay bar called the Hideout, which opened at noon. The Canyon Steakhouse and a liquor store were farther down Chautauqua. Across the street, Paddy’s Roadhouse, a white and lime green building decorated with dark green shamrocks, attracted the volleyball players and other people from the beach. In the morning, the smell of bacon frying in Paddy’s kitchen drifted through Colt’s window and reminded him of crisp mornings in Wyoming. At night raucous crowds at Paddy’s, groups of men trying to hook up outside the Hideout and people arriving in expensive cars to eat at the steakhouse all created a lively atmosphere.
Where Chautauqua ended and dumped traffic onto Pacific Coast Highway, a stairway led down into a short tunnel that ran underneath PCH and out onto the beach. A homeless man, Roy, spent each morning using a broom and a cardboard box to sweep sand from the sidewalk, the stairs and the underground passageway. He swept during the morning and the wind blew the sand back in the afternoon. Roy was a large man who wore filthy Army fatigues. He had long matted hair, rotten teeth and no one could understand anything he said. Swimmers, volleyball players and sunbathers using the tunnel tried to ignore him, but he still managed to collect a few bucks every day from the neighborhood residents who felt sorry for him, knew he was harmless and actually appreciated his efforts to keep the area clean. After he ended his sweeping chores around noon, Roy spent the rest of the day scouring the beach as far north as Malibu for anything left on the sand or in the trashcans. He dragged with him a large nylon bag that he filled with flattened plastic bottles and aluminum cans and often brought back abandoned beach chairs, toys, towels, bottles of lotion, stray shoes, magazines and books. Roy kept his treasures where he slept—under the outside stairwell leading to the second floor of Colt’s building.
As Colt stood in the fog, he saw blue light from the window of the fortuneteller who lived and worked on the ground floor. The sign on her door said:
DOREEN’S AMAZING GRACE
Inspired Visions of the Future –$5
During the time he lived on Chautauqua, Colt had never seen Doreen, but suspected she did a good business. People often wandered out of the restaurants, stopped at her door, looked at the sign and went inside. This was one of the crazy things to do in California—stop in and consult a fortuneteller in the middle of the night. Colt wondered what she told them. “Inspired visions” sounded like bullshit, but he decided to go for it. Why not, Colt thought. Doreen was the local equivalent of a Cheyenne witch doctor and after his date with Nicole, he needed five bucks worth of hocus-pocus.
Her door was partially open. Colt hesitated and then knocked. A small bell tinkled when he entered and a strange but pleasant scent filled the air inside. He looked around. It definitely wasn’t an Indian meditation lodge. Yellow stars and a blue moon, fashioned from neon lighting, glowed on one wall. Silver Christmas tree ornaments and larger disco balls covered with mirrors hung from the ceiling, turning slowly, reflecting blue and yellow splinters of light. A black cat sat motionless on a couch under the window. A small table and two folding chairs were the only other pieces of furniture. The table was covered with a white cloth decorated with more stars and planets.
Without making a sound, Doreen appeared like an apparition from the adjoining room. Colt looked up to see her standing in the shadows. “Hi,” he said. “I live upstairs. I saw your light—”
“It’s OK, I’m up all night.” She was a tiny, wrinkled woman wearing a shapeless dress and a blue turban that hid her hair. Colt guessed she could be in her 70’s. She lit a candle on the table and slid onto one of the folding chairs. “Please.” She motioned to Colt and he sat down. Doreen stared at him with dark eyes surrounded by blue eye shadow. “I feel negative energy coming from you.”
Negative energy, Colt thought. She probably said that to everyone.
“Are you in trouble?”
“Are you here for life counseling?”
“No.” Colt thought for a moment about what he wanted from Doreen.
Her tiny hands reached across the table.
Colt pulled out a wad of dollar bills from his pocket.
“No,” she said. “I want to touch you. Turn your palms up.”
Colt peeled off five one-dollar bills anyway and handed them to her.
Doreen took the money and slipped it into her smock. She grasped his hands in her own and closed her eyes. She sat transfixed for a moment, then opened her eyes and pressed his hands gently down onto the table. She bent toward him. “What’s your name?”
“Colt. Colt Lewis.” He was beginning to feel ridiculous, sitting with this tiny old woman, and tried to think of something to say. “Uh, how’s my lifeline?” he asked.
“That’s an old wives tale. No one can look at your palm and tell you how long you’re going to live.” She looked down at his hands. “Have you suffered a loss?”
“Yes.” Colt had suffered more than one loss.
Doreen raised her eyebrows. “Is she dead?”
For a moment, he was confused. Who was Doreen asking about? His mother? Bibi?
“Are you mourning her?”
“Mourning her?” Colt nodded. “I guess so.” Colt glanced over at the cat. Its eyes were open, head up, but it still hadn’t moved.
“Death is just a graduation, it’s—”
“I’m a firefighter, a paramedic. We responded to an accident on PCH. A girl’s foot was cut off. I’m searching for it.”
“You’re searching for someone’s foot?” Doreen stood up and walked around behind Colt. She placed her hands on the top of his head and closed her eyes again. “You have a troubled aura. Perhaps because of this girl. Who is she?”
“I don’t know.”
Doreen opened her eyes, walked around and sat down again across from Colt. “So you’re looking for a dead girl’s foot but you don’t know who she is?”
“Right. That’s the problem.” Colt leaned back in his chair and glanced again at the cat. “No one knows who she is. All we have is a first name. And there’s this guy dressed in black—”
“Are the police involved?”
“The Sheriff’s Department…uh…maybe.” Colt had to check out the cat, which still hadn’t moved. He stood up and walked over to the couch. He looked more closely, then reached out and touched it. The fur seemed real, but the animal was hard as a rock.
“That’s Angel. That was Angel,” Doreen said.
Colt sat down again. “I promised her I would take care of her. Shouldn’t I try to find her foot? I think I know who has it. What do you think?”
“Has she returned yet?”
“Returned? I said she’s dead.”
“Someone who expects to die may return sooner. People who die unexpectedly take longer to come back. Did she expect to die?”
“Huh?” What was this woman talking about?
“Mr. Lewis, what’s your question? What do you want from me?”
“I just asked you. Do you think I should—?”
“Are you having emotional problems?”
“No, I’m not.” Colt got up again. “Why do you say that? There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“You promised a dead girl you don’t know that you would find her foot and—”
“She wasn’t dead when I made the promise.”
Doreen shook her head. “I’m not a psychiatrist, just a medium, but I think you have a problem. You should talk to someone. Have a heart to heart. How about your father? Let him help you. That’s my advice. Have a father-son discussion.” She smiled at Colt.
“My father’s dead.”
“Well then, get some counseling. I’m not the one to help you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Colt repeated. He stood up and went to the door. “Thanks.” Thanks for nothing, he thought.
“Her soul may be—”
Colt slammed the door and stood in the fog again. What a waste of time. Doreen wasn’t even listening. He might as well have talked to the cat. The whole day was a disaster. The news about Bibi’s death started things. The albino flipped him off and then he had a date with the most boring girl in the world. Now some old fortuneteller insisted he needed a psychiatrist.
Colt approached the wooden stairs at the side of his building and found Roy curled up in the fetal position, sleeping on his rubber mat surrounded by his bags of crushed cans and plastic bottles. “Hey buddy,” Colt said. Roy didn’t move. Colt shook him harder until Roy looked up with bloodshot eyes. Colt gave him the rest of the one-dollar bills from his pocket. “Go get something to eat.” Roy rolled over on his back, held the money in his hand and stared at Colt.
Colt ascended the stairs, walked around the outside balcony to his room and inserted the key in the door. In the dark, he went to his small refrigerator, took out a can of beer, popped it open and took a long swig. The light from the refrigerator illuminated the only décor in the apartment—a poster from Sheridan Fire and Rescue showing a bunch of firefighters with their helmets off, covered with soot, standing with their hands on each other’s shoulders. Colt’s worn cowboy boots sat in the corner of the room collecting dust. He saddle-soaped them once a month to protect the leather from the arid climate, but rarely wore them anymore. His shearling jacket, too warm for Los Angeles, hung in his small closet along with the belt and large silver and gold buckle that his father had won for saddle bronc riding at a PRCA—Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association—rodeo. Colt had long ago replaced his ranch work shirts with blue fire department T-shirts. Only his worn Levis fit into his new lifestyle.
He lay down on the unmade bed and placed his beer on the floor. He closed his eyes but couldn’t go to sleep. From the time he was a child, Colt had been a poor sleeper. A doctor once told him that he had an “intermittent sleep pattern.” Being a light sleeper was a good quality for a firefighter. When the tones went off, Colt was able to wake up and be fully alert and ready to function in a matter of seconds while most of his brothers were still stumbling around. Colt tossed on the bed and thought about his mother. His problems with sleep began after she deserted him. Even now, sixteen years later, he longed for her. He still wondered why she left him. Her absence still haunted him.
Colt got up and went to his dresser, opened the bottom drawer, lifted up his sweatshirts and withdrew a photograph. He took his halogen fire flashlight from the floor and shined it on the picture. His mother and father stood holding hands by a silver pickup truck. His mother wore a blue T-shirt with CALIFORNIA in white letters across the chest. The picture was taken before Colt was born. He examined their faces, as he had done countless times, looking for some sign. At times, he thought he saw love, disappointment, anger or no emotion at all in their faces. In the end, the picture told him nothing, but he still treasured it. He had so few reminders of his family’s history and it was the only image he had of his mother and father together.
Colt’s paternal great grandfather, a blacksmith, was traveling the Bozeman Trail to the gold fields in Montana when he stopped in Big Horn, Wyoming after an Indian attack. He never resumed his journey and started the ranch where Colt lived with his father a century later. Named after the “gun that won the West,” Colt grew up helping his father breed horses for dude ranches and pack trips into the mountains. His mother came from Cheyenne but he knew almost nothing about her background or her family. He did know she hated Big Horn. In fact, she hated all of Wyoming and ran off when he was eight. The date was February 8, 1992 and Colt never forgot it. Every year when it came around, he remembered how hard it was snowing the day she abandoned him. On his ninth birthday, a package postmarked Dallas, TX, arrived at the ranch. It contained a cowboy shirt and a birthday card that promised, “I will always be your mother and I will always love you.” She lied. She sent noaddress, no telephone number and Colt never heard from her again.
After his mother departed, Colt continued his life in Big Horn, a town of 200 residents. Colt rode the school bus 15 miles each day into Sheridan, a city of 16,000 whose most famous citizen was Buffalo Bill Cody. In the afternoon, he returned on the same bus and did the chores his mother would have done. When he was older and asked his father why she left, the only response was, “She’s not coming back.”
The ranch was in the vast Powder River Basin, just south of the Montana border. Where Crow and Shoshone Indians once roamed through shortgrass and scrub vegetation, geologists and land men working for oil companies now drove around in SUV’s. Big horn sheep, black bear, elk and deer still filled the nearby mountains. Trophy hunts, wild turkey shoots and the annual prairie dog slaughter were a part of life. Colt had a horse, but few human friends. At times, he had wished for a brother or even a sister, anyone he could call family. Most of all, he dreamed of becoming a firefighter and helping people. Sometimes his father grew exasperated and asked Colt, “What’s wrong with being a rancher? Isn’t that good enough for you?” If one of his father’s friends was around, which was seldom, he would mutter, “I must have the only kid in Wyoming who grew up on a horse but wants to drive a fire truck.”
During high school, Colt volunteered at Sheridan Fire and Rescue. He started sweeping out the station and washing the dishes and imagined becoming one of them. He loved the camaraderie at the station. The men were always joking, laughing, and slapping each other on the back. Firefighters were a team, a family of their own, always together. They were also dedicated to saving people. For the first time, he thought of becoming a paramedic.
His father had no dreams and couldn’t comprehend Colt’s ambitions. He expected his son to spend his life shoveling shit, carrying feed and mending fences. Colt wondered if his father would have lived a different life if he knew that he was going to die prematurely. He concluded no, his father would not have changed the course of his life in any way. He was a stubborn man who would have continued on forever, doing the same thing, scratching out his existence on a dirt ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming.
Colt watched the television shows about Southern California and tried to imagine what it would be like to go surfing. He had never seen the ocean and knew nothing about Los Angeles, but wanted to move there. After the death of his father, Colt decided not to waste any more time in Wyoming. He moved to California to follow his dreams. After he arrived, he noticed that every store near the beach sold the blue CALIFORNIA T-shirt with the white letters.
Six years later, Colt thought less frequently about Big Horn, but he never stopped thinking about his mother.