Garrett Rowlan

The November Featured Writer is Garrett Rowlan

Feel free to email Garrett at: garrettrowlan@att.net


by Garrett Rowlan

Homeless, retired, Chad was a man of few possessions. They fit in a suitcase, which fit into his van where he slept and moved around to avoid being cited or towed.

One day his van died. The engine seized, groaned, and he rolled to the side of the road.

Looking under the chassis, Chad saw spilled oil. A thrown rod, he guessed. There was no way he had the money to fix it—the small pension he received kept him in donuts and coffee, little more—and so he had to junk it, the last link to his old life as a renter, husband, and employee.

The van’s loss made him really feel like a statistic. Now he truly was one of 60,000 homeless people in LA County. Feeling adrift without wheels under his feet or one between his steering hands, he was an outcast, a random atom, floating.

He took comfort in junk food. Having eaten four of six donuts he bought at a shop where they reluctantly let him use the restroom, he carried the rest of his box up the street while dragging a suitcase—repository of his last possessions—behind him. He stopped, smelled something unpleasant. And for a man of his lifestyle, that had to be pretty bad.

Chad turned. The man was sitting on the bank leading up to a municipal swimming pool, closed now for the winter. He was bearded, grimy, and emitted a shock wave of stink. While aware that he probably didn’t smell so good himself, still Chad felt the insides of his nostrils almost burn with the stench. The man looked over at him.

“I’m hungry,” he said. “Can you do a favor for old Doc Fever?”

“Doctor of what?” Chad asked. Warily, he came closer. The smell was like rotting cheese and day-old, dead flesh, and Doc Fever’s skin could have been either.

“Miracles,” Doc said. “Right now, I’m starving.”

“Here,” Chad said, breathing through his mouth to lessen the smell. The smell had put him off his appetite.

“Much obliged,” he said.

Chad, who had been to the bank and withdrew money from the paltry pension he received monthly, reached into his wallet and handed the man ten dollars and a donut..

“By yourself a new shirt at least,” Chad said.

“Bless you,” Doc Fever said. After pocketing the money, he took a bite of the donut and the sugar rush seemed to make his eyes change color, but Chad knew that was his own exhaustion, jolted by caffeine. “I owe you a favor.”

“Sure,” Chad said. “Bring me a car. It doesn’t have to be fancy.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Doc said.

Later that afternoon, Chad was walking in the northeastern part of Los Angeles, having just crossed a bridge over the Pasadena freeway. Looking to his right, he saw a public park that adjoined the freeway. Exhausted, he descended via a footpath, and propped himself up against the first suitable sycamore tree he found. He closed his eyes and slept.

He woke. Night had fallen, and nearby a man stood by a fire. It burned in a small enclosure of rock and concrete. Calling out, the man waved the bottle. “Have a drink, friend.” The clear liquid glowed by firelight.

Chad welcomed the thought. Too late in life, he’d sobered up, but the thought of losing his van made him want to ease his mind. He wandered over. The man was large, with unkempt hair that glowed with the fire at his back.Up close, Chad saw clearly a bright scar on the man’s cheek. The man thrust the bottle into Chad’s outstretched hand.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Chad said. He took the bottle and swallowed. A cold fire burned down his throat. Chad swiped his palm across his mouth.  He took a second drink and handed back the bottle.

“Good stuff,” he said.

“Has a kick,” the man said. “There’s just one little problem.” He took back the bottle. “How are you going to pay for that?”

“Pay?” Chad asked. “I’m broke.”

Before he could react, a fist caught him above the eye. Stunned, Chad toppled to the ground. His assailant stood flexing his hand. The other hand held the bottle, the liquid sloshing the way the blood seemed to in Chad’s skull.

Chad staggered to his feet. “Why’d you do that?”

“Anger management,” the man said. “It’s why I never adjusted.” The man nodded, waiting. “You got a problem with that?”

Chad turned and lugged his suitcase up to the sidewalk. The pain from the blow pulsed like a flashing red light above his right eye. Standing under a streetlight, its bluish tone seemed color-coordinated to the hue of misery by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he wished again he had a car, an escape, and a shelter.

He walked up the street. His forehead ached. Cars passed on his left, their headlights piercing, and to the right TVs, in a gated apartment complex, flickered like lunatic thoughts, throwing themselves against the screens and bars and sliding glass. When he had nearly reached the top of the block, Chad turned and sat on a low wall of pinkish colored stucco blocks. He crossed his arms. He found himself trembling with rage and self-loathing. He’d always avoided confrontation, fights. Skinny in school, he’d been bullied growing up. Passivity, endurance, and caution got him through the teen years. Later, there had been two marriages, disagreements he resolved by giving in. He had sulked, became sarcastic, and drank. By the time he’d dried out, he was divorced and ready to retire—before they could fire him—from the various job he’d held.

Lost in his thoughts, he realized he’d been staring at the car in front of him for several minutes before he really saw it. It had a bracketed look, as if it had been carved into the spot, and yet there was the aspect of a negative space, and something of a camouflage look, too. Its color was indistinct in the street’s sodium-vapor lights. It was dusty, and leaves gathered where the windshield wipers had been. Its make, model, and year of production were indistinguishable. It looked abandoned.

Stepping closer, Chad saw, through the dirty windshield, spider webs hanging from the rear-view mirror. A loose seatbelt looped like a dead snake. The rest was hard to see. It was like looking at something underwater.

He reached down and pulled at the handle. To his surprise, the door opened. As no one was watching, he entered the apparently-abandoned car, dragging his suitcase after him. Once inside, he sat behind the wheel, holding it in his hands and giving it little twists like at a kiddie ride. He then wiped away the spider web around the rear-view mirror. The windows were dirty but gave his view of the sidewalk a comfortable selectivity. He saw outside but no one who passed—a dog walker, shopping-bag holder, man in work dungarees—could see inside. He felt comfortable and undisturbed, and he finally grew weary and stretched out.

He woke at sunrise, having slept better than he had in recent memory, even when he had his van. Slumped across the front seat, he rose, rubbed his face where the man’s fist had hit, and set off in case the car wasn’t abandoned, and its owner would find him inside. That day, Chad went north, found a deserted park where he sat on a bench and read a paperback novel, its cover missing.

At twilight, with no better place to go, he made his way back to the same car as yesterday. It was parked in the same spot. He slid inside the car and closed the door behind him. Immediately, the world, seen through dirty windows, was distant.

Looking back into the rear seat, Chad had an impression of depth, a dimensional recess that the darkness expanded. Curious, he climbed over the seat and dropped, a longer fall than he expected. His ankle twisted slightly when he hit the back seat. Rubbing the ankle, the soreness fading, he found that the feeling of depth didn’t dissipate. Glancing through the street-side window to his left, he felt as if he were looking through a porthole in the middle of the ocean, so oddly distant did the passing cars seem.

When Chad turned to his right, he saw that the side window was so dirty that he couldn’t see outside, and when he extended his right hand he felt encrusted dirt, thick and hard as tree bark. In fact, the more he touched the window, he found it wasn’t a window at all. Its surface was round and ridged, like bark, like a tree, a shape he traced as he extended his hand, and when he twisted his body to feel farther, he found he could extend his hand all the way around.

Soon, he was leaning against the tree—he assumed it was a tree—with his chin pressed to its side, and he was able to slide around the tree, and before he really knew it, he had somehow stepped outside of the car. I’m not crazy, Chad said to himself. This is really happening.

He was standing in an urban grove, with the same apartments as before but set at a distance, and with tall trees all around. The streetlight illuminated them in a discrete way, like a nature trail would be lit up for a hike by night.In a few steps, he was walking a dim trail that descended.

Soon he saw another light, this one ahead of him. He stopped. He was at the edge of a clearing, in the middle of which was the same man who had hit him. The man was doing a sort of war dance around the fire, kicking up dust and throwing punches while periodically raising the bottle to his lips. It was an odd thing to watch, crude, ugly, and ceremonial.

Leaning forward to get a better look, Chad stepped on a stick. It snapped loudly. The man stopped and looked in his direction. “I told you I had a punch,” he said, almost howling. He turned and threw the near-empty bottle. It hit a tree above Chad and shattered.

Chad retreated, bumping into trees in his haste and flayed by low branches. At last, he saw lights ahead. He reached the sidewalk. He turned. The forest had vanished, and the man wasn’t following him.

Another man was waiting, however, right in front of his car. This man had a white shirt, a thin black tie, and his mustache and sideburns looked penciled in, like make-up for a high school presentation.

“I see you’ve taken a shine to this baby,” he said, slapping the car’s hood.

“I have,” Chad said. “Who are you?”

“Cody’s my name,” the man said, “selling cars is my game.”

He extended his hand. As they shook, Chad looked closely at the man. He was not sure, but the features suggested the bum—Doc Fever—he’d seen yesterday morning, though now cleaned up and made to look presentable, though with a used-car salesman’s shadiness.

The salesman’s smile oozed faked sincerity. He turned to the car. “I’d jump on this deal right away,” he added. “This baby is fully loaded. It’s got a dual-reality exhaust, four worlds under the floor, and a sound system that can hear for miles.”

“Does it run?”

The salesman cleared his throat. “Not exactly,” he said. “Driving is more of a mental event.”

“Anything else I should know?”

“It only works at night,” the salesman said.

“What’s the make?”

Cody “Doc” Fever beamed. “The marketing boys came up with a name. It’s a Sueno, which is Spanish for dream. This is a 2017 Sueno, fully loaded. It’s a good car.” He leaned forward, winking as if to disclose something that management didn’t want the customer to know. “It senses what you want, if you know what I mean.”

Chad grunted, thinking. “How much?”

“One hundred dollars,” the man said.

“Eighty,” Chad said. “That’s the one-hundred I took from the bank yesterday, minus the ten I gave you, minus enough to leave me pocket change.”

“You gave me money?” the salesman said, frowning.

“Sure,” Chad said, “and a donut.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the salesman said, “but eighty dollars…I tell you, pal, I could learn a few things about a driving a hard bargain from you. Eighty bucks is exactly what this baby will cost.”

His hand went out like a slot, and Chad withdrew his wallet and handed over the money.

“No bill of sale?” he asked.

“You don’t need one,” the salesman said. “But here’s the key.” He reached into his pocket and dropped it into Chad’s waiting palm.

Chad rounded the car. “See you,” he said, looking back, but the man had already vanished, as if evaporated.

Sitting in the driver’s seat, Chad put the key in the ignition and turned. There was a rumble from the engine, a sensation of movement, and the grimy windshield was now crystal-clear. An image formed—trees, road, and headlights gobbling up the broken white line as Chad moved forward. He knew it was an illusion but still he felt as if he were really moving down some dark forest road. The engine hummed, and the seat vibrated faintly.

Soon, Chad left the trees and found himself traveling a moonlight mile beside a shimmering ocean view, with a boat light in the distance.

He passed a gas station, lit up with the isolated brilliance of an Ed Ruscha print, and then there were more lights. He entered a city. All the lights were green, and Chad moved easily in and out of traffic.

“This baby really handles well,” he said. Just then, he felt something hit the front of the car.

Chad braked to a stop. He was back on the street. He opened the car door, exited outside and walked to the front of the car.

Just then, the car’s headlights came on. Standing on the street, he looked up and saw Doc Fever riding shot gun, and another man behind the wheel, steering with one hand while the other held a bottle of booze.

The car inched forward and struck Chad on the knee. It hurt. When the car moved forward again, he jumped back. The car jumped forward, its engine growled.

He turned and ran, the car chasing him. “Sueno is Spanish for dream,” he told himself. “Let me wake up!”

The car chased him down the street.

Garrett Rowland is a retired sub teacher for LAUSD who lives in Los Angeles. His first novel, To Die, to Sleep was published earlier this year and another, The Vampire Circus, is due out soon. He's published some 70 or so stories and essays. His website is garrettrowland.com.