Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by Paul Kareem Tayyar

Stay Out of the Rain

Demolition derby night on the 405 Freeway. It had been raining all day and the southland drivers were proving once again they’d never make it on the East Coast: a few drops of precipitation and you’d have thought Noah was paddling his long board out past the Long Beach Pier and on into the Book of Revelations, fanning his hair in the wind like an older Jim Morrison as he looked for God to emerge on the horizon. There was a vintage Bruce Springsteen song on the radio and I had the windows down and the volume turned up, a surrogate son of the New Jersey shore for the next three and a half minutes, dreaming of no-traffic highways and boardwalks where the Ferris wheels still carried young lovers to the ceiling of stars that they wished upon.

Took the Springdale off-ramp and street-lit it, the song carrying me through more greens than any honest man could expect, a brief flurry of luck that made me consider pulling into the next 24-hour liquor store I saw and buying as many lottery tickets as I could afford. But the next song on the radio was Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” and so I dashed my sudden urge to pay-and-play and, almost on cue, hit my first red at McFadden and Computer, the Boeing Aircraft Plant empty for the rest of the night.

The knock came on the passenger side window, an old man with a wizard-length beard, a blue bandanna and a hooded winter coat two sizes too small, asking if I had any spare change. I reached into the pocket of my khakis and, coming out with a crumpled five, rolled down the window to hand it to him when I realized he was not an old man at all. He was not even a middle-aged man, he was as young as I was, the long beard and bags under his eyes adding on decades he had not survived.

And I knew him.


“Thanks for the money, man.”

“Charlie, it’s me, Tom.”

Charlie was already walking away, replacing the hood of his coat and jogging off into the darkened Boeing parking lot, perhaps towards a concrete grotto to wait out the winter night.

The song’s crescendo—“AND I’M FREEEEE, FREE FALLLLLIN,” had hit just as I was trying to decide whether to chase him or not, the track with a sudden darkness to it, like a photograph whose colors have dimmed with the passage of time. I sat at the green light for a few seconds before making a sharp right into the parking lot, Charlie already nowhere in sight.

I found him on the south side of the campus—Boeing, being the largest defense contractor in the country, seemingly employs half of the people living in the surrounding cities—sitting in a six by ten hollow, an unrolled duffel at his feet, a camping backpack with steel handles nestled under the bench that he sat on.

I parked the car at the curb and stepped out, turned up the collar on my leather coat, decided that if Charlie made another run for it I wasn’t going to chase him again.

He didn’t move this time.

“Hey, Charlie,” I said. “It’s Tom Sharp.”

The last time I heard from Charlie he was living in Las Vegas, bouncing at some hotel dance club that specialized in European house music, making killer tips from the waitresses who cocktailed five hundred dollar bottles of wine and seventy-five dollar steaks, spending the afternoons breeding the greyhounds he had loved since we were kids, when his parents bought him Dozier, a Frisbee-thin greyhound for his seventh birthday.

Charlie was no drop-out; he’d graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Agricultural Studies, and the postcards he’d send me from Vegas were always photos of Midwestern farmlands with their Shenandoah hillsides, their badlands-tracking mountains, their end-of-the-line cowboys running down ever-dwindling herds. I knew he wasn’t long for Vegas, but I figured he’d push farther east, instead of circling back here.

In other words, he seemed happy, always talking about some celebrity he’d seen at the club—Magic Johnson one time, Angelie Jolie another—hell, the last postcard he sent to me couldn’t have been longer than a couple of years earlier.

And now here he was, looking like a Vietnam Veteran, quiet as an unanswered prayer, looking past my shoulder at some farm only he could see.

My clothes were soaking wet, and I was starting to shiver, but I didn’t want to step into the alcove before he got comfortable—it would have been like stepping into someone’s apartment before they’d invited you to do so.

“How long have you been back, Charlie?”

No answer.

“Why’d you leave Vegas?”

“Vegas?” His voice a bronchial rumble that only chain-smokers and chronic pneumoniac cases could muster.

“Yeah, Vegas.”

“Vegas,” he said, nodding his head, as if the city’s name was the answer to a riddle I had posed.

“You seen your parents?” I asked. His parents used to live over on the Huntington Bluffs, in some million dollar two-story a couple of miles from Main Beach.


“You want to go see them now?” I asked.

For the first time his eyes made contact with mine, with a nuance and pain that made me want to look away, even though I made sure to return his stare, to try to let him know I could take it.

But no answer came, instead he just started to untie the laces of his duffel and to spread the waterproof fabric down across the bench, seemingly oblivious to my presence.

“Okay, Tom Sharp. Goodnight.”

And that was it. He was asleep before I even had time to answer in kind. I took a twenty-dollar bill out of my wallet and tucked it into the pocket of his shirt, an old flannel number just like the ones his father used to wear when he’d take us camping down at San Onofre Beach, or skiing up at Mammoth Mountain.

I stood there for another minute or so, trying to decide whether I should phone the police, or his parents, before finally deciding I had a right to do neither. I got back into my car, turned the ignition, and headed for home.

I hit all the reds.

She was waiting up for me when I got there.

“My God, you’re soaked,” she said, with the type of concern that was just another in a long list of reasons as to why I loved her.

“What happened?” It was the second time tonight someone had looked at me with such intensity after posing a question that this time I had to look away before responding.

“I saw Charlie Sands tonight.”


“At the corner of McFadden and Computer. Washing car windows in the rain.”

“What?” she asked, removing my jacket and unbuttoning my shirt, her voice sliding into a nearly inaudible whisper.

“First his father, now him,” she said, too stunned to even cry.

“What do you mean, ‘first his father?’”

She stopped for a moment, seemingly trying to gather her multiple strands of surprise back into a bundle she could manage before answering. After a few more seconds she began to nod her head.

“You were in Europe at the time, and we weren’t together,” she answered, referring to the fact I had only returned to the states about six months ago, after spending the previous six years in London, working for a publishing firm and trying to survive the horrific British cuisine. Elizabeth and I didn’t move in together until three months ago, high school sweethearts who hadn’t spoken in almost a decade, but who had fallen back in love almost immediately after reconnecting. And now here we were, trying to fill in the gaps of each others’ respective experiences.

“His father jumped off the top floor of Hoag’s parking garage. He was being treated there for drug addiction.”

I was already re-buttoning my shirt and reaching for the jacket Elizabeth had draped over a dining room chair.

“I’m going with you,” she said, before I could even tell her where I was headed.

He was gone by the time we got there, the alcove abandoned. I got out of the car to see if there was so much as a discarded wrapper he’d left behind—though what good that would do, I had no idea—only to find the twenty I’d given him folded neatly upon a postcard with a picture of Yosemite National Park, on the back of which there was a handwritten note:

“Take care, Tom Sharp. Stay out of the rain.”

BIO:  "I am an English Lecturer at California State University, Long Beach, and I received my Ph.D. in American Literature from University of California, Riverside. My poems and stories have appeared in a variety of journals, including The Santa Monica Review, Ibbetson St., Bellowing Ark, and Into the Teeth of the Wind. My book of poems, Everyday Magic, released by West-Coast Bias Pres, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and I am the founder of World Parade Books, which has released books by Gerald Locklin and Lyn Lifshin."