IN THE SHADOWS
BY SEAN M. LEWIS
The sun shines brightly over Palmton. Jorge waits for the bus in the shade of the covered bus stop. Thankful for the twenty degrees of relief in the shade, Jorge begins to sweat. In this weather, it is easy to forget that you are losing water because the searing sun dries the sweat before you feel it on your dry, salty skin. Waiting for the hopefully airconditioned bus, Jorge stares down at the pavement in front of him. The grey-black asphalt swims in the optical illusion of heat. The sun and road become so blistering hot that the light bends in unnatural ways, giving the illusion that the road is under water. Across the patched, cracked, asphalt lies the desert. Desert as far as Jorge can imagine. Desert until the foothills surrounding the arid Apricot Valley break up the horizon. Nothing but mile after square mile of dirt, tumbleweed, and spiky Joshua trees. Whatever animals are roaming in this stretch of the Mojave are small, and hiding in whatever shade they can. Jorge is sitting at a bus stop on the outskirt of the city, that artificial airconditioned oasis sitting at the edge of Apricot Valley, trying to hide in the shade of the foothills.
Down the road, the bus cruises towards him. A crackling tumbleweed hitches a ride on the hot wind, preceding the bus. The sun heats the air up in the valley and creates pressure differences between the valley and cooler mountain air causing a rush of wind to fill the valley almost constantly. The hot wind blows the dust, scatters seeds away from the barren soil towards a more fertile land, and propels the ever present Russian Thistle Shrub across the scorched desert landscape.
The bus halts in front of the stop as the tumbleweed continues its journey on ahead. Jorge files in, moving quickly from the shade of the stop to the airconditioned shelter of the large bus. Jay-Z plays on the hiphop station being piped through it. Jorge sinks into the sticky, vinyl-covered bus seat and takes the ride to Apricot Valley College, AVC, Tumbleweed Tech, whatever you call it, it is Jorge's destination for the day. The same destination he's had for the past three years. Between school and his job at his parents' roadside motel, Jorge's time is so stretched that he still needs a year's worth of classes before he can transfer out of the blistering desert.
When he arrives at the school, he walks towards his first class. He walks on the green grass. The air near his feet is humid from the mixture of sprinkler water and the intense heat of the day. He passes probably the only apricot tree in all Apricot Valley planted in front of the main office, and then continues straight into his first class of the day: Greek Mythology.
The professor is already in front of the class and midlecture as Jorge is several minutes late. Today he is lecturing on the lessons of Icarus. Icarus was warned by his father not to fly too high, but he did not listen. Icarus got too close to the always dangerous sun, and the glue holding his wings to his arms came undone. Icarus fell from the sky and died. Jorge could not relate to the young Greek. Why would anyone want to fly closer to the sun? If Icarus was from the desert, he would have known better. He would have never tried to soar so high.
* * * *
The sun is below the hills now. The sky is now God's canvas; he paints a stunning sunset just as he does every night. Scattered hi-altitude clouds glow orange, red and gold; the pale blue sky is ablaze, as if the heat that is now leaving the desert has set the clouds on fire. With the sun behind the hills, the desert comes alive. In the distance, a coyote howls a lonesome and macabre message to his pack. His snout is high in the air, as his body stands guard over his discovery. A jack rabbit has fallen victim to the sun, and now lies dead and dehydrated on the hard desert soil. It has been a year since Jorge last set foot on the fertilized grass of AVC. The last day he went to class.
To Jorge, the whole notion of remaining in community college as long as he did was no longer appealing. The more he thought about it as he sat listening to his professor ramble on about Greek Mythology, the more he became disillusioned with further education. He already had a decent job with a private room of his own, and he would be happy to eventually run the motel. He also knew that his grades were so mediocre that the possibility of being able to transfer to a school worth transferring to was slim at best. So he just quit. Now he spends his days working the front desk at the roadside motel. His parents are happy to have their only child living at home, even on his 22nd birthday. Earlier this evening he enjoyed a family dinner at the best Mexican restaurant in town. The cheese, rice, beans and tortillas rest comfortably in his stomach, as he awaits his buddies on the sidewalk in front of his motel. The neon sign bathes him and the surrounding desert tundra in a pale red light. A scorpion, normally pale in color, is a strange pink color on the illuminated dirt. Six legs scurry along the still warm dirt, and over Jorge's shoe, then back to the dirt, then out of the light and out of sight.
He doesn't even notice the scorpion. Jorge is focusing on the breeze that has come along with the setting of the sun, when his buddies roll up on the dirt shoulder in front of the sidewalk. The tires make a crunching sound as they crush the dirt underneath. The six of them sit crammed in the cabin and bed of the primer-colored El Camino. Jorge thinks for a moment that the Apricot Valley must be the world's capital of cars without paint on them. It reminds him of all of those postapocalyptic movies where the only surviving cars are paintless muscle cars from the sixties. This thought makes him smile and he fastens his seatbelt as the driver takes off like a bullet down the lonely highway.
Upon arriving at his friend's party, Jorge is thrown a beer and greeted by the already booming crowd. Cops would be coming by in a couple of hours for sure, and that would be the sign that it had been a successful party. In the mean time, Jorge downs a beer in one trip to the lip; a learned skill, well-practiced since highschool. In the living room the DJ is spinning hiphop beats and some of the guests are "rapbattling." From nearly nightly parties like this one, Jorge has honed his skills as an Emcee and these skills are instantly recognized when he approaches the turntables. When he walks up, he is instantly handed a mic and begins his conquest of the night's competition.
No one stands a chance against Jorge. The friends and strangers of the party shout their approval as he hurls verbal jab after jab at the sunburned Irish boy standing up to him. With a conceding wave of his arm, the pink-skinned victim sits down, unable to tolerate any more humiliation for the night. Awaiting his next opponent, Jorge squeezes through the crowd to take a large shot of whiskey. The amber liquid burns the back of his throat and scorches his esophagus. Finally resting in his stomach, the drink warms him and quickly gives him the buzz and blind confidence he so desires. He returns to the front of the crowd, ready to take on anyone who thinks they can match his flow, but no one is in the mood to be humiliated like the pink one tonight. So instead the DJ spins for Jorge to freestyle. For a moment, all he can do is stare at the spinning records, and notice how the room is beginning to mirror the movements of the vinyl. Something about the girl with the blonde hair sitting on the couch inspires him, and the words spill from his lips. Half rap, and half poetry, Jorge spits fire and breathes the party to a frenzy. The music from the DJ, the alcohol, and the blonde make his world a spinning globe, and the dreamlike sequence ends with him setting the mic down and walking over to the girl. The partygoers dance and the DJ puts on a new song.
Full of liquid courage and the high of performing, he sits down on the couch next to her and starts a conversation. Her name is Marie. She's been in the AV her whole life. Her beauty is unmatched in the room, and in Palmton. The fair-skinned woman commands all of Jorge's attention and all of it is given to her. So much so that he doesn't even notice the man walking over from the turntables.
The DJ approaches him with an offer as his music plays in the background. He is starting up his own record company and wants to sign Jorge as his first artist. Blunt and straightforward, he doesn't beat around the bush. Jorge thinks about it for a second before the DJ interjects. He tells him that with their combined skills fame is a matter of "when" and not "if." Jorge knows this to be true, and begins envisioning the life of fame: a nice coastal city, away from the sun. The DJ tells him he's moving to a two-room apartment in L.A. soon; one room is a bedroom and the other a studio. He says Jorge should come with him; they could work from there and blow up. Again, Jorge envisions his life as a celebrity, but a sudden doubtfulness strikes him and he envisions himself in his thirties, living in a rundown L.A. apartment with nothing but cheap furniture and a lost youth. Jorge glances over to Marie; it would be a shame to not get to know this girl better, to pass on happiness with this amazing woman. The DJ hands Jorge a card and tells him to call. Jorge promises that he will. For a moment, Jorge can see that life is opening doors for him. But he can't tell if these doors will slam shut in his face or not. He is afraid that they might. As the DJ walks away, Jorge checks the business card he's been given: DJ Damien.
* * * *
The sun wakes Jorge up in the morning. He sits up in bed in his motel room that he calls home. The white brick walls glare in the shine of the desert's vicious father. In the room next to him lies his newborn son. In the bed next to him lies his wife of four years. Marie continues to snore softly, her long blonde hair covering her face and bare shoulders. Suddenly the radio alarm clock comes to life. The song playing finishes. It is the newest hit track played on every major station in the valley, produced by the now-famous DJ Damien. It has been six years since Jorge got that offer, six years since the day he met his wife, three years since his parents died in a car accident and left him with the motel, and just six short months since DJ Damien and his record label became the hottest thing to ever hit the hiphop scene. The radio disc jockey announces that it is seven o'clock and eighty degrees outside. Jorge looks at his wife and turns off the alarm. He was content to stay with her instead of move to L.A. with Damien, but now he can't help but wonder what would have been if he said yes. At the time he was afraid of wasting the rest of his youth on a possibly doomed attempt at celebrity. He felt he had found happiness in Marie, and was afraid of trying too hard, of investing too much, only to wind up jobless, and alone. Staying with Marie was the safe choice.
As she gets out of bed to check on the baby, Jorge takes satisfaction in his wife's full curves as she walks away. Walking out to get the morning paper, Jorge squints at the brightness of the morning. The walkway around the motel is already blistering hot on Jorge's bare feet as he hops through the sunshine towards the paper. After grabbing the paper and retreating to the comfort of the irrigated grass in front of the office, he opens the front page and notices the main article. Property values are at an alltime high. Now would be the perfect time to sell the motel and finally move somewhere nice: somewhere away from the dirt, and tumbleweeds, and the punishing sun. This has been a goal of his for a long while now. As he turns towards the motel he is reminded of his father.
His father practically built the motel from the ground up. When land was cheap in the valley he moved his family from a place Jorge can't remember and built a small motel on the side of the highway. As young Jorge grew older, the motel grew in size as it was a very prosperous industry at the time. His father invested his entire life in the motel, and when he died as suddenly as he did, the only legacy he left was the motel. Selling it would erase one of the last memories of his parents that Jorge still had. His goal of emigration would have to wait a while longer. The sun beats down on Jorge as he ponders this. The angry father scorches its bastard sun, threatening death to all of those who dare come close. Feeling the intensity of the morning sun, Jorge walks into the office, opening the motel doors and switching on the airconditioning. Jorge puts the thought of selling the motel out of his mind.