Like Judy in the movie, you are a fallen woman. At home, men follow you in their cars. They form and change you. They see themselves as rescuers. When the rescue attempts fail you are left for the next one to dress and paint you.
On Third Street, in front of Doña Esther’s, you exit the car, pulling the back of your skirt away from sweaty flesh. Discarded pandemic masks are banked against the doors of the businesses, all closed.
An old man blocks the door of Doña Esther’s. He is stooped and skinny. He wears a battered t-shirt that reads “The First African American President of the United States.” Once he and you shared a feeling: excitement that Barak Obama had been elected president. President of the United States. But he is not the president now. He will not be the president again. The man regards your damp dress, your white go-go boots.
“What do you think you’re doing?” There is no seduction in this question. But there is no disapproval, either.
“I’m here for … the banquet. The one with the Halloween puppets.” Afterward, you usually visit the mission to pay your respects to the Amah Mutsun buried there. Then you cool off and catch your breath in the red velvet sanctuary, under the gazes of wooden saints.
Jimmy Stewart has vertigo because of his guilty conscience. A policeman died because of him. He throws himself into the annihilation of height. A dreamed grave. The spiral hairdo of a woman whose personality he erases. A woman who startles at the sight of a nun, and plummets to her death.
The Vertigo Effect is achieved by zooming in fast, while pulling the camera back at the same time. You also get this feeling when you’re old, when looking up can throw you off kilter. Or when you observe an old man resting his hand on his hip-sheathed knife. A leather sheath, stamped with poppies. Like those barrettes and hard purses you used to see in the seventies.
The door to Doña Esther’s is locked. Earlier, you called. You chalked the unanswered phone to a busy lunch hour, and set off. Inside, you see the arched interior doorways. Long shadows streak the dining room’s red walls. You register the smell of something burning. Something that isn’t food.
“What do you want?” you ask him.
“My teeth. My work. My family,” he answers. “This restaurant was supposed to be a polling place.” This is a man who has felt pride. Who once stood tall, with a strong and lively skeleton inside him. Worked. Sired children. Are they safe now, these children?
Behind the man are the three chickens. They scratch and murmur. Far below, your boots are dulled with dust. The man is not as old as you first thought. He has no fingernails, you notice, zooming out and zooming in. He smells of sweat and lilac. His t-shirt is stained with a red sauce.
From inside Doña Esther’s comes the sound of a ringing phone. The bright echo of those rings hangs in the hot air. You and the old man stand there on the turning earth, not far from the San Andreas Fault. All around the two of you, the sky pulses purple.
Patricia Q. Bidar is a native of San Pedro, California with family roots in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Her stories have appeared in Wigleaf, The Pinch, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sou’wester, Little Patuxent Review, and Pithead Chapel, among other places. Apart from fiction, Patricia ghostwrites for progressive nonprofit organizations. She lives with her DJ husband and unusual dog in the San Francisco Bay Area and tweets at @patriciabidar. Visit Patricia at www.patriciaqbidar.com.