Chapter One of Golden State by David Prybil
Reprinted with permission from Aficionado Press.
Late morning in early August, downtown Sacramento, and it was already a hundred degrees in the shade, if you could find any. Sun beating down directly overhead; no clouds, no breeze. The air was so bone-dry it was hard to draw a breath. The city streets shimmered like some kind of black magic. It was the type of weather that drove men mad.
Of course, insanity is not a condition exclusive to cases of extreme heat. From his desk in the air-conditioned offices of the Sacramento Bee, Spencer Brine could certainly attest to this. He was sitting there, directly beneath an air duct that was blowing so hard and cold he actually contemplated putting on a sweater.
Then again, a sweater would not have been nearly enough to solve Spencer's problems, because that duct was also dripping some kind of refrigerated fluid on him. Which was made even more like Chinese water torture because it was taking place in a windowless basement, in a claustrophobic, gray-cloth-walled cubicle, with harsh fluorescent lighting and a mysterious, odd-smelling brown stain on the wall beside him, where he was toiling as a lowly paid junior staffer, writing obligatory back-page pieces that absolutely no one read, the crafting of which made him want to stab himself through the brain with his own pen and end it all right then and there, before it could get any worse—if, indeed, that was even possible.
And it was on this hellish day that things did get worse for Spencer. It was on this day that he lost his mind, just a little bit. For while Spencer had somehow managed over time, and with much effort, to resign himself to the woes of his workspace and the tedium of his daily labors, this feat had only been made possible—at least, up until now—by the fact that no one else around him seemed to be having much fun, either.
This collective state of relative misery was due to a number of factors. The first being, they were all in Sacramento. Capital of the great state of California, it's true, but bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the California most of the world knew and loved. No beaches. No celebrity sightings. No iconic signs or bridges or hills or theme parks. Though an attractive enough place by most standards, it quite simply paled in comparison to the Golden State's larger, starrier, and more picturesque coastal brethren. Nobody ever bought "I Love Sacramento" T-shirts. And despite the city's valiant efforts through the years to change that, the area and its people retained an inferiority complex that was hard to shake.
The same was true with the newspaper itself. After all, how can a paper called the "Bee" ever be taken seriously as a journalistic enterprise? Though the name had been in use since the paper's founding back in 1857, most people, especially Spencer, secretly hated it. Rife with overly folksy connotations, it sounded more like the title to some cow-town gossip column written by an old biddy in a Minnie Pearl bonnet. And this was so even without the added disgrace of their cheesy, animated-bee mascot, Scoopy. Together, the name and accompanying cartoon image somehow infused everything they did—and mind you, they did a lot of things extremely well—with the faint but undeniable stench of second-rate amateurism.
On this day, however, a dazzling ray of new hope had appeared on the horizon. It came in the form of a big, breaking story, one that seemed destined to put Sacramento right at the white-hot center of the news-world map; that was, the petition to get rid of the state's flailing governor, Gray Davis, had been officially certified. As a result, an unprecedented recall election had been announced for October 7 to replace him, mid-term, in just a little over two months' time. With such a brief run-up, minimal qualifying standards, and no cap on entrants, this had set the stage for an utter free-for-all, a political carnival of a kind only California could produce. Candidates of all stripes and competence levels were racing to sign on, with over a hundred already declared, and more on the way. Among them were a number of famous names, some with reasonable prospects and qualifications like telegenic gadfly Arianna Huffington and Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth, others just unashamedly desperate for attention, like former child star Gary Coleman and hardcore porn actress Mary Carey. And while that was more than enough to generate the media's interest, rumors were swirling that an even bigger name player, indeed the very biggest of them all, was plotting to join in the fun, too: former bodybuilding champ turned movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Add to that the state's dire financial straits and the energy-crisis corruption scandal that caused them, which led to the call for Davis's head in the first place, and if that wasn't a blockbuster scenario, what was? The Bee's entire staff was salivating at its potential. Reporters and columnists manned their desks and marched the newsroom hallways with a newfound sense of urgency, hoping with every ring of the telephone to receive a tip that could lead to something big, as if sensing that a searing, front-page exposé with their name on the byline, perhaps even a Pulitzer-worthy one, might be lurking just around the corner.
But for poor Spencer Brine, toiling away down in his damp basement cubicle, that dream was not being shared. For, you see, Spencer chased no leads, employed no snitches, and fielded no scoops. He won no awards, and appeared on no local newscasts. No. Spencer wrote obituaries. Even worse, he wrote the local obituaries. And in Sacramento, that meant a lot of sewage commissioners and Rotary Club presidents. Ever try to write an interesting school paper on a member of your own family? Imagine that kind of futility, then multiply it over three obituaries a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for four long years. That was Spencer's life, and he hated it. And with the added indignity of a big, juicy, career-making story being dangled right in front of him, just barely out of reach, that hatred became unbearable. Especially when he heard this:
"Got one for ya, Briney."
Spencer looked up to see his boss, the editor of the Metro section, Morris Sutphin, fast approaching, a print-smeared facsimile clutched in his bony, claw-like hand.
Morris, unlike Spencer, loved his job; thought working Metro at the Bee was as good as it gets—which, for him, it probably was. And if anybody dared besmirch such a notion, or even vaguely hint that its underlying logic might be faulty, Morris made sure to make that person's life as miserable as humanly possible. Spencer could almost hear him now: Don't like the obits? Okay, Shakespeare, how's about you try some classifieds on for size? Therein lies the rub; no matter how shitty a situation might be, there's always a way it can get worse.
Morris walked off and Spencer slowly dragged the fax into his direct eyeline. The newly deceased's name was Jarvis Kovacs. Spencer stared at his photo and tried to surmise what the rest of his life story might contain. As usual, he wasn't far off; the faces don't lie. Like his parents and their parents before them, Jarvis had been a farmer, growing pumpkins with and of no particular distinction, until the city's creeping growth reached his property and Jarvis was able to sell the family land to commercial developers. That land was now a nirvana of strip malls and gas stations, and Jarvis—until his recent passing—had resided in a big house on a small bluff at the end of a street he named after himself (Jarvis Lane), staring down upon all that his ancestry's purchase had wrought.
But, Spencer asked, does this truly merit a feature obituary? All the man really did was sell some undistinguished property that was fortuitously situated, and then sit back and reap the profits. Yes, there were the pumpkins, bought by locals every year to festoon their front porches on Halloween. And yes, Jarvis also owned the local go-kart and putt-putt emporium, which entertained the kiddies, while also serving as an impromptu lovers' lane for the teenage crowd. But was this really a life of great accomplishment? One of genuine newsworthiness to the community? This was a question that Spencer grappled with on a daily basis. And oftentimes, the answer hinged on a second query, one that was far more cut-and-dry in its resolution: namely, who else has died? So far, Jarvis was all Spencer had, and if things stayed that way, he would be memorialized as a benevolent land baron, a man who brought joy to the masses. But if Spencer received more faxes? Well, then, the passing of Jarvis Kovacs would likely be relegated to a few short lines at the bottom of that same page. Such are the vagaries of life, even in its twilight.
And it is precisely these vagaries that occupied Spencer's mind much of the time. In his case, while it was true that he'd chosen to leave his home state of New York after college and go west, to broaden his horizons and carve out his own slice of the California Dream, he nevertheless had to ask himself—and often did, especially now, especially today—how in God's name had he wound up here, in the sun-scorched armpit of the state, doing this? He'd had such high goals for himself. What had happened to all his drive and ambition? His talent? How will history remember him when he passes?
These were awfully weighty matters to be pondering, especially when you're barely thirty years old, but that's what writing death notices for a living did to a person. It forces you to constantly dwell on the end of things, even when they're still at their beginning. And that can't be healthy, can it?
Thirty years old. Shit. Might as well be sixty, Spencer thought to himself. Going from his small condo to his small Volvo subcompact to his small, gray-walled cubicle. And then right back again, day after day after day. It might as well be one space. One small, continuous space. A prison cell. Or a coffin.
A headline suddenly flashed before his eyes: JUNIOR STAFFER DIES AT DESK, NO ONE NOTICES.
Spencer blinked, wiping the image away. He got up from his chair as if it were on fire. He took the stairs, up a flight to the side exit. Out the door and down the sidewalk, with no sense of direction or purpose other than to get out of there, right fucking now.
And once that was done, there was nothing to do but keep going, away from the Bee, from Morris, from the faxes, from the boredom, from the death. Spencer walked for miles, aimlessly, through the scorching midday heat, in a fog, only vaguely aware of his surroundings—enough to avoid oncoming traffic, but with no real cognizance of where he was or what he was doing.
Until he heard the music. It was rock and roll, and it was loud and raunchy and alive. And it was just what Spencer Brine and his job and indeed his whole sorry excuse for an existence were sorely lacking. It was coming from inside a purple concrete bunker with a large neon sign out front bearing its name: ShowBar.
A bar. Hmm. Spencer suddenly realized his throat was parched and that his shirt was drenched with sweat. And though it was barely past noon, it also dawned on Spencer that a cold beer would really hit the spot. On impulse, he made a beeline for the door, only to be stopped in his tracks by a huge bearded man with mirrored sunglasses and a black, sleeveless Harley-Davidson T-shirt.
"Five dollar cover, ace. And I need some ID."
Spencer was taken aback. "Five? But ... I just want a beer."
"Save it for your wife."
Spencer protested, "My what? I'm not—"
But the bouncer didn't care. "Look, bro, you want a beer, there's a liquor store down the street. Otherwise, it's five bucks."
The mountainous man crossed his forearms threateningly. Spencer felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, like a cornered animal, and he considered fleeing, but the music and the air conditioning and the promise of refreshments within were all calling out to him like the Pied Piper. He finally reached into his wallet and proffered the money and his license.
The bouncer smiled now, the blazing sun gleaming off his gold-capped incisors. "Okay, boss, you're good. Enjoy the show."
The show? Spencer thought nothing of this, his parched throat calling all the shots. He headed inside, the jarring transition from sunlight to darkness leaving him stumbling around like a latter-day Mister Magoo. However, aided by the blinking beer signs that lined the walls, Spencer was able to navigate his way up to the bar. There, he straddled a stool, and wasted no time placing an order.
As he waited for his drink, Spencer drummed his fingers along to "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses. Doing so, he felt better already. Though not exactly one of his favorites, it nevertheless conjured up fond memories from the carefree days of college. Keg parties. Co-eds. Cutting classes—which, come to think of it, was kind of what he was doing right now. Spencer smiled to himself as the bartender returned and set down his beer, a Corona longneck, icy cold, with a fresh wedge of lime perched in its mouth, just the way he'd imagined. He took a long pull off the bottle and sighed contentedly.
Then, as his vision adjusted to the dim lighting, he glanced into the large mirror behind the bar and finally caught sight of the "show" to which the bouncer had alluded. And only then did Spencer realize, despite what anyone now or at a later date may believe, that he was in a strip club.
Spencer spun around on his stool. Onstage, there were two women, both of them completely nude and dancing seductively around a pair of firemen's poles. But Spencer only saw one of them, a blond stunner with tan, supple skin and the body of a Greek goddess. She was exactly the kind of sun-dripped beauty that he had always hoped he'd meet out here. Spencer couldn't take his eyes off of her. And maybe he'd led a sheltered life up until now, or maybe he'd just been cooped up in that horrible basement too long, but sitting there, he swore that she was the most gorgeous creature he had ever laid his eyes on.
The golden-tressed goddess danced to two more songs. First, another hard-rocking number called, disturbingly enough, "Nookie," that allowed her to show off her slinky athleticism. Then, slowing it down for her apparent encore, she writhed and crawled and did the splits in a dazzling variety of increasingly provocative ways to another Guns N' Roses classic, "Patience."
And then, she was gone.
The jaded DJ mumbled out a rote exit line, "Give it up for Roxy and Veronique, fellas. Thank you, ladies. Next up, Candy & Carly. "
But Spencer didn't care. Bolted to his chair, thoroughly gobsmacked, he stared at the stage door, waiting desperately for Veronique—it had to be Veronique—to reappear. And, after twenty excruciating minutes, she finally did. Dressed now in a lacy camisole and a sheer ... what? A robe? A jacket? A scarf? Whatever it was, she looked fantastic in it. Working the room, she stopped by several tables, thanking her tippers and flirting a bit. But then, she looked up and caught Spencer's eye. Spencer was so overwhelmed at first that he shyly looked away, but when he turned back, she was smiling—and not only that, but she was heading right for him. And she kept right on coming until she was perching herself onto the faux-leopard stool right beside him.
"Hi, you must be new here. I'm Veronique."
Off this kismet-confirming introduction, Veronique flashed another brilliant smile and extended a soft, well-manicured hand. Taking her hand into his own, Spencer inhaled her intoxicating scent and stared deeply into her entrancing, azure-blue eyes. And with that, everything else fell away. His disappointing morning. His unfulfilling job. His whole, soul-crushing life.
Maybe, Spencer thought, he would never get the big break and the big career he had always assumed would be rightly his. Maybe his name would never be hailed, his talent never recognized. Maybe he would die as completely unknown as the day he was born. But this was something, at least. Something tangible. Something worth living for, and fighting for.
This was his California Dream, right here, right now.