28 April 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 1

Streetsmart Loca and the Pomegranate Theory

We're at the zoo. It's hot, must be ninety-six degrees, and we've been in the sun all day. I want some water, or maybe a red snow cone like the ones those two little girls are licking. I'm getting a headache. But Wallace won't let me leave the high lookout next to the gibbon cage.

"Look," he says, "they're making out." He points and I follow the line of his finger. The larger of two long-armed, silk-furred primates has his arms around the smaller one and they're rubbing their heads together while sitting side by side.

"Wallace," I say, "I'm thirsty."

"Yeah," he says, nodding, "it's a hot day in the desert today. My god, look how their fur shines in the sun. It must be jet black. Blue-black, like a woman's hair in a painting."

I sigh and hook my arms over the metal railing. At least we're in the shade for the moment.

Most of the time, if you listen to Wallace, what you hear seems logical enough. It's when you put all the strings of sentences together, after you've known him a while, that he stops making sense.

An old lady and a little boy cross the wooden bridge to the lookout. The boy bounces up and down. Thrown off balance, the old lady catches herself by grabbing the rope rail. She's about five feet tall. She's wearing an animal print blouse, lions and tigers and zebras. A matching print sun visor encircles her white curls.

"Don't be a Tigger!" she says to the boy. He stops bouncing. I guess that he's about eight. He has blond hair that sticks straight up on top, and I can see his pink scalp through it. He has an elastic band around the back of his head to hold his glasses on. He gapes at the gibbons, his mouth open.

"They've got hair everywhere because they're naked," he says to the old woman. To me, he says, "The zoo is a good place to notice things. Have you been here many times?"

"No. This is my first time," I answer, trying to muster some semblance of friendliness and failing. Funny how kids expect grownups to get excited about things, too. I don't get excited about much of anything these days.

"I'm always noticing new things," the little boy says. "Right, Grandma?"

The grandmother smiles. She has pale lips, chalky skin.

Wallace folds his arms over the black metal rail and leans toward the boy. My mouth is dry.

"Oh, yeah?" says Wallace to the youngster. "Like what kinds of things?"

The boy closes his mouth in a pause for thought, then shows his soft tongue again before he starts to speak. "Did you ever notice that hair grows where the sun shines?" the boy says to Wallace. He sounds like a lecturer.

"Nelson," the grandmother says, a good-natured warning.

Wallace readjusts his elbows on the rail, lowering his face so it's close to Nelson's. "Really?" he says.

"Yeah!" says Nelson. "That's why hair grows on the top of our heads. And the monkeys, they go naked in the sun and so they grow hair all over their bodies."

The grandmother catches my eye and laughs with wet lips. Isn't my grandson cute, the laugh says.

"These are apes, not monkeys. They're small apes. And people have hair where the sun doesn't shine," Wallace says to Nelson. I elbow Wallace in the back. He ignores me. "You obviously haven't crossed the line into puberty," he tells the boy.

My headache kicks in, full force.

"Let's go, Wallace," I say.

"We'll go in a minute," he tells me. "I just want to finish this discussion. Life is all about compromise, Loca."

I don't use my first name, which is Susan. I am Loca de Luca, the resident sunbaked blonde on the premises of Streetsmart Roadworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you ever come by the shop, you'll drive around back by the garage door because the storefront is always dark and you'll think gee, maybe they're closed. When you get to the back, though, you'll see me on my knees in an oil slick, wrench in hand. My hair will be the only clean thing about me. I come from northern Italian stock, the tall, fair, arrogant sort. I'll look up without smiling. You'll think: what a dusty black-handed pretty-even-with-crows'-feet but cold unlikable bitch. Maybe she's not firing on all cylinders. You'll stand there uncomfortably for anywhere from five to thirty seconds. Finally you'll ask, "Um, are you guys open?"

That's when Wallace will come out of the backroom, the paint hangar, I call it. He'll wipe his hands on a turpentine rag and he'll smell like noxious chemicals. He'll give you a big grin and a waggle of his rug-like brown eyebrows. You'll like him right away because his face is cleaner than mine and he looks glad to see you. You'll expect him to ask if he can help you. He'll walk right up to you and you'll extend your right hand for him to shake. He'll put the paint rag in your palm.

Oil-based cerulean with a metallic sheen will come off the rag and coat your skin. Thick color will glue itself to your fingertips and the mount of Venus. You'll look from your sticky hand to Wallace's face and back, and you'll be too puzzled to anger right away but you'll be getting there fast.

"Smell that," Wallace will say, gesturing at the rag. "That, my friend, is the ambrosia of the gods and the jewel-like seeds eaten by Persephone, my blessing and my curse."

You won't know what Wallace is talking about. You won't know whether to drop the rag on the concrete floor, hand it back to Wallace, or just hang on to it. You'll hang on to it.

I'll stand up. By this time you'll have forgotten about me, so I'll startle you when I ask, "Were you looking for service or a paint job?"

Later, when you're gone, I'll ask Wallace why he can't wait until customers know him better before he starts in with that speech. He'll check his hand to make sure there's no paint on it and then he'll put his arm around me. He'll stroke my back between the shoulder blades, sweet and slow. He'll rest his forehead against mine. "Lovely Loca," he'll say, "why shouldn't I say what I mean?" He'll kiss me.

Then I'll tell him I want him. I'll tell him that since it's nine on a Wednesday morning, there won't be another customer for hours and the owner won't be in for at least forty-five minutes. We could shut the paint hangar door and no one would ever know. Wallace will pull away from me.

"That's why they call you Loca, and me Wallace," he'll say as he returns to his work. I'll work again too, and another customer will show up two minutes later, just to prove him right.

The smaller gibbon races along a tree limb. The bigger one chases her. He catches up to her in a far corner and they sit still, cuddled together. We can barely see them through the leaves.

"Let's move along, Nelson," the grandma says. "The monkeys are resting now."

"They're not monkeys, Gram," says Nelson, mimicking Wallace. "They're a kind of ape. Only small."

When he calls her "Gram," I think of graham crackers. I wonder if he eats graham crackers with milk after school, and if the name makes him think of his grandma.

The boy turns away from his grandmother. He squints at Wallace and repeats his question. "What do you mean, people have hair where the sun doesn't shine?"

Grandma catches my eye again and I think she's pleading. On weekends, I'm clean, and she must think that since I look good and I'm keeping my mouth shut I must be sane.

I cup a hand under Wallace's elbow. "Come on," I say. "I'm thirsty. Let's get something to drink. We'll sit in the shade." He shakes me off.

"You don't have pubic hair yet, do you?" he says to Nelson.

"What's pubic hair?" Nelson asks.

"It's hair that grows near your genitalia," Wallace answers.

"Nelson, we'll be late," says Grandma, her voice shrill and tight.

"For what?" the boy says with a note of irritation. He doesn't look at her. Wallace and the little boy try to stare each other down. In a long moment I wait to see what they'll do and I think about Wallace's mind. He doesn't think in circles; he thinks in long labyrinths. Somewhere, deep inside one of his labyrinths, this contest between a man and a child is justified. I want to go in with a ball of twine and lead Wallace out but I don't know how. Wallace looks away from Nelson and stares through the trees at the gibbons.

The little boy crosses his arms and sticks out his lower jaw. "Are you afraid of me?" he asks.

When I met Wallace, I'd been working for Tony Garcia at Streetsmart for almost three years. Tony was a classic bike buff who'd ridden a 1961 Moto Guzzi Galetto past the swamplands near the barracks where he was stationed in Florida, before Vietnam. When I met him, Tony rode another '61 Galetto like it, in perfect condition.

Our paint guy quit one morning in June with a phone call saying he was heading north to work a fishing boat off the Alaskan coast. Tony put an ad in the paper. He ran off our first job applicants. Tony's quizzing scared a kid who'd never heard of Triumph. He rolled his eyes at a man who talked about his engineering degree and his plans to find a "permanent" job designing and simulating motor parts. Tony flipped the bird behind the back of a clean-cut fellow who showed up in Dockers and a white Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

"Loca," Tony said to me with flecks of Starbucks whipped cream in his graying mustache, "how can I find a young person who believes in making excellence happen, right here, right now? Like you!"

Wallace showed up the next morning, right at opening time. I was half sick that day with allergies and a headache, and I had smudged grease all over my upper lip from wiping my nose with my hand. Tony took Wallace into the office. Ten minutes later, Tony yelled, "Loca! Come listen to this!" I got up and leaned on the office doorframe with my arms crossed.

"Tell her what you told me," Tony said to Wallace.

Wallace sat in a gray metal chair opposite Tony's desk. He wore a white T-shirt with two old Pontiacs—Pontiacs?—screen-printed on the front under a small-town auto club logo. Pale green cloth shorts came to the middles of his hairy thighs. He looked like my idea of an Ivy League graduate trying to pretend to be blue collar. He shifted in his seat to look up at me, his ankle crossed over his knee.

"About color? Color is emotion in physical form," he said. Great. A philosopher.

"Tell her about chemistry," Tony said. He squeezed his hands into eager fists.

"Oh, that. I used to know the chemical makeup of a whole line of colors from the major paint makers," Wallace said. "And how the chemistry of the paint interacts with the metal beneath it, and how different paints interact with each other. I've forgotten all that, now, and I go by feel."

"Uh-huh," I said.

"Every color has a different spirit. Colors are like different breeds, or different species, and each one has its own essence. The colors talk to me, and the bikes talk to me. Painting isn't just a job; it's a whole conversation." He looked as though someone had run an electric current through him, he was so alive.

Tony caught my eye. Laughing silently, he shook his head. I flicked my stare back onto Wallace. "Right," I said. All I wanted at the moment was to breathe through my nose again.

Wallace's chest rose and fell with a deep sigh. "I'm just trying to tell you that painting is my passion," he said. "The conversation thing is an analogy. You get analogies, right?"

"I love this guy!" said Tony.

Wallace started work the same day. Later, Tony picked up three beef burritos from the cafeteria-style place down the street. We ate in his office, where he handed hot, foil-wrapped cylinders to me and Wallace, gave us our change, and pushed a W-4 across the table at Wallace. He filled in the forms. I chewed with my mouth open so I could breathe. He got as far as his name and stopped, scowling. He stuck the pen's blunt end into his mouth and sucked on it.

"You have a question?" Tony asked, swiping a wet square of green chile from his mustache with the back of his hand.

Wallace shook his head no. "Sorry. Forgot what I was doing." He went back to writing. He got his Social Security number down, wrote an address, and scratched it out.

"Sorry," he said. "Old address. Wrote it by accident."

Tony gave him a new form. Wallace scratched something out on the fresh sheet too, this time rubbing the pen over the page until he'd made a shiny, solid black mark over his error. He tore a third sheet in half lengthwise when he messed it up. Finally, by going slowly and calling out the correct answer to fill each blank before putting pen to paper, he got the information entered correctly on a fourth W-4. Tony didn't say anything, just looked at me with raised eyebrows.

"See, it's like this," Wallace started as he slid the form back toward Tony across the desk. "You know Persephone and the pomegranate seeds?" He scrunched up one side of his mouth in a sheepish grimace.

"No," I said.

"I've been painting since I was five. Or ten. I don't remember," he said. "My dad knew the trade, and he taught it to me. I was a smart kid. I mean really smart. But not only did I learn the art of painting from the best, I loved it. I got really good. Really, really good. But the smell, see, it gets to your brain."

Tony leaned forward, forearms on his desk. "What does this have to do with – what kind of seeds?" he said.

"Oh, yeah, right," said Wallace, shifting his butt cheeks on the chair's hard seat. "Persephone was this girl who went to Hades."

"Someone you knew?" I commented, snuffling, pretending I didn't know the myth.

"No, no, in Greek mythology. If you eat anything in hell you have to stay forever. And she ate some pomegranate seeds. I guess she was stupid or something, like me. So her mother bargained for her soul, and she was allowed out of Hades, but only for six months of the year. The other six months she spent underground, with the souls of the dead. That's me. I'm six feet under, I mean six months under. My brain only surfaces halfway. These paint fumes are my pomegranate seeds. I embraced the paint, and I do magic with it, but I'm half submerged."

I thought Wallace was more loco than me, the official Streetsmart Loca, and I'd have bet money he wouldn't last two weeks at the shop. So one day I slipped into the paint hangar while Tony was off the premises. I undressed Wallace and pulled him onto the torn orange couch Tony kept against the wall. Wallace complied, but as soon as he'd finished he bounced to his feet, glaring at me. "We could have had a customer while we were doing that," he said. "We would have missed them."

"Don't be so uptight," I said, laughing at him.

He exploded. He yelled at me for several minutes, that he wasn't uptight and who did I think I was anyway, until he suddenly deflated and returned to the paint job he was working on as if nothing had happened. A few minutes later, he came out to where I was working and apologized.

After two months passed, when the lease on Wallace's apartment expired, he moved into my adobe bungalow. Tony still loved him.

The gibbons move again. They swing into the lower branches and climb through the trees on the other side of the circular lookout.

"I'm a man, and you're a little boy," Wallace says to Nelson. "I have no reason to be afraid of you." He slaps his palms onto the railing and nods his head for emphasis. "I'm trying to tell you the truth about something."

Grandma looks at me again, and this time her eyes glitter with moisture.

"Wallace, stop," I say. I sound like a drill sergeant.

Wallace turns to me. "What is so wrong with setting the kid straight?" He raises his voice. "The theory is airy-fairy made-up nonsense." He turns to Grandma and says to her, "What's so wrong with telling him that?"

I grab Wallace's arm and pull him toward the bridge. I'm almost as strong as he is, and he knows now that I'm serious. As we start across the bridge, he calls back to Nelson, "Hair grows where it grows! It has nothing to do with the sun."

The bridge swings under our weight. I pause to steady us, one hand on each of Wallace's arms. That's when Grandma speaks up.

"If your brother can't behave in public," she says, "you shouldn't bring him out." I lead Wallace away into the shade.

"She thinks a woman like you wouldn't be with a guy like me, doesn't she?" Wallace asks, so quiet I can barely hear him. "Not unless we were brother and sister." I don't answer.

We go to the zoo café, an open stand under a heavy roof. We stand in line next to bins full of plastic, animal-shaped juice containers and ice. I stare into the distance at fat couples in vast, neon-colored T-shirts, towing toddlers.

"What if you refused the pomegranate seeds?" I ask Wallace. Near the edge of the roofed area, the sound of afternoon wind shields us from the voices of others around us and locks us in our own cocoon of conversation.

"I can't," he replies. "I already ate them a long time ago."

"But what if you could just decide to do something different now? Just say screw the rules about eating in hell, and spend all the time above ground?"

It's almost our turn; we move toward the stand.

"Loca, Loca," he says, "you have a lot to learn about Hades." He steps up to the counter and orders an ice cream cone for himself and a bottle of water for me. "Some choices can't be made twice," he says as he pockets his change.

I head for a vinyl patio umbrella that sprouts from a table with uneven legs. Mimosa blossoms drift to the concrete around us. I have just twisted the cap off the bottle with a satisfying crack when I hear the voice of the safari-print Grandma cry out, "That's him!"

A security guard dressed in white shirt and black pants steps in front of us. Grandma and Nelson stand under the shade of a nearby umbrella, holding hands.

I don't see the point of her calling security. These guys are high-school teachers with summer jobs. They get paid $7.50 an hour and they've had about five hours' training. I know about the difference between security and law enforcement.

There are a lot of things Wallace doesn't know about me, and one of them is that I almost was a cop but dropped out of police academy. He doesn't know I grew up in a beach house on the Atlantic coast. He doesn't know that the reasons I put up with him are that he doesn't sleep around, he doesn't bug me about making babies, and he doesn't nag me to become more feminine. Funny how a lot of guys think a female motorcycle mechanic must be the sexiest woman alive, yet the same guys want her out of the garage and into the kitchen as soon as possible. Wallace? He doesn't notice what I am, as long as I'm by his side.

The security guy is young and balding, with a shiny head and a long, shiny nose. He has a soft belly and big, fleshy hands. He clears his throat and shuffles his feet before raising his eyes to meet Wallace's.

"I understand there's been some sort of altercation between you and this boy?" He points to Nelson.

Wallace smiles and raises his big rug-eyebrows. "Well, I was explaining something. Maybe a little disagreement, that's all."

"Sir, do you realize that this boy is just a child?" the security guard asks. I think it's a pretty stupid question.

"He's old enough to know what makes hair grow, that's all," Wallace says.

The security guy scratches the side of his nose and looks down at the concrete floor. "Well, I'd just recommend leaving the children here at the zoo alone from now on." He probably thinks he's discharged his duty, and that's all. I know better, even before Wallace starts.

Wallace takes a step toward him. "What do you mean, 'leave them alone'?" Before the guy can answer, Wallace continues. "You think I harassed him, don't you?"

"Sir, now—" the security guy begins, licking his lips.

"You think it was my fault. You think it was some big fight, just because some old broad is making a big deal about nothing, and you think I picked a fight." Wallace's shouted words amplify the pounding in my head. The café grows quiet. Nelson stares with his mouth open. A little girl lets purple juice from the bottom point of her snow cone drip all over the front of her shirt as she watches Wallace fume. Wallace still holds an ice cream cone himself, which makes him look like some kind of horrible caricature, a cartoon for grownups with a sick sense of humor, "Apoplectic Crazy Man Holding Ice Cream Cone."

The security guard leans back as if to avoid the cloud of fury that radiates from Wallace. He crosses his arms over his chest. "Sir, I think you'll have to leave," he says. His voice shakes. I can almost hear his heart pounding. I feel sorry for him. Grandma and Nelson stand transfixed. If I were Grandma I'd get the kid out of here, but I guess Wallace is just too fascinating.

"Leave? You want me to leave. Yeah, that figures."

"Wallace," I say, in the smoothest, sweetest voice I have. He doesn't seem to notice me.

"I'll get out of your goddamned zoo," he shouts at the security guard, "but not until you listen to me for one goddamned minute."

I look at my water bottle. Cold sweat drips over the outside of the plastic, running over my hand. Up until now, all I've smelled all day has been dust and manure and animal flesh. Now, I can smell the water, a suggestion of something elemental, pure, and almost transcendent. I want two things: to swallow some of that water, and for Wallace to shut up.

I want Wallace to shut up more.

It takes an easy, underhand motion, like tossing a ball. He sputters when the splash of water hits him in the face. As I dump the rest of the bottle over his head, his mouth opens and closes like a dog's when it hangs its head out a car window.

Everything shifts. The air shimmers like glass as an invisible, hard shell around Wallace dissolves with his anger. In that half-second, life returns to the pavilion. The sound of voices resumes. The little girl licks her snow cone again, though without taking her eyes off us.

I grab Wallace's arm, letting the bottle fall. It makes a sproing as it bounces on the concrete.

"Time to go home," I say.

"Come with me, Nelson," says the grandma. She takes Nelson's hand, and he follows her with a bouncy sort of trot, the kind of gait you'd expect to see from a much younger child. He looks over his shoulder at me, his mouth a pink O. A jagged stratum of sweat darkens the band that holds his glasses in place.

Wallace walks with me without saying another word, peaceful as a well-trained puppy. Okay, I think. You win. Your brain is definitely broken.

A small, surprisingly cool hand lays itself on my arm. I pause. It's Nelson. Behind him, Grandma, hands on her hips, short legs planted wide. Nelson's other hand waves the empty bottle beneath my nose.

"You shouldn't litter," he says.

About the author:

Sasha Vivelo is the author of novels Wings of Escape and Through a Stranger's Eyes. Her website is www.sashavivelo.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in Sunnyvale, CA.

For further reading:

See the complete list of work by Sasha Vivelo at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 7, No. 1, where "Streetsmart Loca and the Pomegranate Theory" ran on April 28, 2007. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story, editors' select.

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