The Los Angeles River is not aptly named in that in many parts it contains no water. The first thought that goes through my mind upon gaining enough lucidity to ascertain my surroundings: “Well at least I’m not wet.”
I drag myself to my feet and stumble over chunks of concrete to the nearest prop I can find, a rusted shopping cart. Every movement bounces my wings and bones dig into flesh and nerve. I quickly turn my back to the cart and let the wings rest inside it. Feathers push through the cheap metal grid and add to my feeling of being a caged bird. I blankly stare at the grass pushing through the concrete.
A vision, I’m sure, naked and pulling a rusted shopping cart behind me to support my useless wings. None of the wheels turn so the scraping sound of metal on concrete adds to the display. Two grooved tracks stretch out behind me as I make me way, slowly aiming for the edge of the river. I bend to rest my hand on the river’s sloped side. The concrete is rough, sandblasted, I realize, to remove graffiti. There are staggering statistics on the millions of dollars spent annually by Los Angeles taxpayers on removing graffiti. The River alone is responsible for upwards of 2 million dollars a year in graffiti removal. What’s left is an off-color scar that stands out as it’s own form of abstract and unintentional marking. As territorial as the throw-ups by aspiring gang ladder climbers, the non-graffiti of anti-graffiti efforts join the tags and murals on the spectrum of street art.
I run my hand against the etched surface noting the honey in the light and that this signifies darkness soon to come, the first hints of what the film industry refers to as “magic hour”. I must find clothing. Shelter. I know what the dark will bring.
I hear laughter. Without my powers my senses are difficult to pinpoint. Pain fogs any assessment. I feel enhanced and retarded all at once. I can’t find the source of the laughter and for a moment I wonder if it’s from within.
Then I see her. Leaning barefoot against the riverside clutching a tattered backpack. Skin like chocolate, hair like fire. Black as night at the base, red in the middle, fading to orange and platinum blonde at the tips of her short afro. She looks half Persian, half African, and clearly homeless. She wears a large oversized men’s t-shirt that overlaps almost seamlessly into blue sweatpants with a college logo flaking off on her front flank she slaps now in laughter at me.
“Angel, you sure are some sight. What exactly you fucked up in yo’ life to get yo’ nekkeed ass here?” Her accent is southern black with the velvet tones of Farsi woven through. I wonder at her heritage, and how she ended up here.
I open my mouth but nothing comes out. It never occurred to me that I might not be able to speak. The sandpaper of stuck gears that rasps in my tubes when I try doesn’t encourage a retrial. The throbbing in my head is relentless and concentration does not help.
“You mute?” She looks at me with a blank stare, curious at first, but then she seems to drift off. Her eyelids flutter and close and then snap open. I realize that she must be on drugs. She aimlessly scratches her foot and I see needle marks. My eyes trail to her arm, to deep and weathered tracks woven into her skin.
I try to find the source of my voice within me. Nothing is there, there is no response, no feeling - no awareness. Dead air. I open my mouth and squeeze my throat and concentrate, trying to catch a wave of pain and urgency and ride it - when I do it feels like I may vomit again. Instead a low keening emerges and then a gargled growl and in a low voice - I speak my first words
“My name is not Angel, it is Lucifer, and you must give me your opioids.”
“Give you my WHAT?”
“It is the only thing that will make this pain stop and you must give it to me now.” I lurch forward and grab at her backpack, which causes her to jump to her feet.
“I don’t know what the fuck you talking about lady, but I been nice and shit and you want something that’s great maybe you gotta learn to ask for it but I ain’t making no deal with no devil that’s for certain” She spits for emphasis.
“Your drugs. Give them to me.” I listen to the words coming out of my mouth and am repulsed at my own humanity. Desperate to be out of suffering I know that I will do anything, even kill this wretch if she does not go willingly. It hurts to care so much about anything.
“What the fuck? Bitch you have to PAY for that shit.” A knife is in her hand before I can blink.
Money. This will bring me comfort. Shelter. Clothing. Protection from being shanked. I look at her. I see the cold eyes of a warrior - a junkie only in terms and context. This woman will fight me to the death for her companion, for her true love.
“How long have you been living with that drug?” I ask, softly. Bouncing against her is giving me energy, resilience, and alacrity. I realize that my softness causes her to soften. This will be purer to my survival than money.
“Since I was 10.” she answers, surprised at her own honesty.
“And how old are you now?”
“What is your name?” I ask, placing my hand on her shoulder.
“Janine”. She looks up at me, smiling. I see my reflection in her eyes. To her, I am still an angel. She is childlike and trusting. Power remains in my voice. It has authority. Petitions work better than threats.
“Janine, will you share your drugs with me?”
And it is thus that among my first experiences as a human being is injecting heroin into my inner right arm using an unclean needle held by a spirit more soothing than any nurse. Protection, understanding, relief.
The pain dulls, recedes and flows away, leaving only two points of tether at my forehead. It snakes outwards in all directions, but then is caught by gravity, filling the riverbed and rushing out to wash away the pain of it’s dwellers down westward and southward - down away and out into the ocean where it can not hurt us locked to land. Where it shall dissolve and leave alone these dreaming ground creatures nestled in co-dependence, now in a clockwork dance of their tools used for pain relief, the black one pushing the cart carrying the white one’s wings and the white one carrying the backpack as if cushioned on a slow-moving cloud. The black one in awe, the white one in worship.
And in a small, protected and long unused tunnel I bed down for the night amongst the belongings of Janine. She supplies me with a long floral nightgown, cobalt blue with pink hibuscus upon. Wrapped in the coils of false chemical serenity and cheap synthetic fabrics, and in the arms of a child finally found its family - I sit, resting - but awake - through the night.
At dawn, the smell overtakes me. The smell of filth and neglect, of diseased and misused human bodies. The smell of waste.
I have to leave the river. I can’t remember how many days I have been in this makeshift domicile. Time and memory are a blur, existence has narrowed to pain and absence. I do not know whether it is just one night I have sat here awake, or if I have been asleep for days.