The Golden Gopher
written by Susan Straight and narrated by Alison Johnson

Now I lived in a lovely Mediterranean castle building, and I had a lunch meeting, and I wanted shoes. I wasn’t going to think about Grady and Glorette. I walked along Broadway, turned on 8th, and then headed down Los Angeles toward the Garment District.

“No one shops downtown,” people always said to me at receptions or parties in Hollywood or Westwood. When I was at a tapas party in Brentwood the week before, someone said, “Oh my God, I had to go downtown with my mother-in-law because her Israeli cousin works in the Jewelry District. I thought I would die. Then she wanted to see another cousin who sells jeans wholesale in some alley. Nobody speaks English, people can’t drive, and we took a wrong turn and ended up in Nairobi. I swear. It was like Africa. All these homeless people on the street and they were all black.”

“African American,” someone else said smugly, holding up his martini glass.

“They were tribal. Living in cardboard boxes.”

“But is that better than dung huts in Africa?” the same guy said. “Did you know that people are so resourceful they make houses out of crap?”

I drank my apple martini. The color of caterpillar blood. Had they ever cut a caterpillar in half after they pulled it off a tomato plant?

I said, “People made houses out of shit everywhere. Sod houses in the Great Plains—back then, there must have been old poop in that grass and earth. Adobe bricks—must have been some old mastodon shit in that. Dung houses just seem more unadulterated.”

They looked at me. I thought, Where did that word come from? No adult added?

“Sorry. I’m—I’m Tom Jenkins,” the guy said.

“FX Antoine,” I said. Then the woman’s face changed.

“You’re FX Antoine? I love your stuff! I do ads for Lucky.”

I smiled. I drank my caterpillar blood and turned gracefully away while she studied me, reaching for a crusty bread round spread with tapenade.

The sidewalks were wet here, as I passed the Flower District with gladiol spears in buckets, and carnations that didn’t smell sweet. I still loved these streets, the doors sliding up to reveal roses and jeans and blankets. I slowed down in the Garment District, with rows of jeweled pointy-toed pumps everyone wanted now, and the glittery designer knockoff gowns. Usually everything looked like pirate treasure to me.

But today the voices were harsh. The men from Israel and Iran and China and Mexico hollering at the sales clerks and delivery guys, looking at me and dismissing me. I wore no veil, and I wasn’t a buyer. They wanted wholesalers, not women who were headed to work, trying to get a bargain.

I ain’t no blue-light special. Hattie had said that. I shop in Downtown L.A., she bragged to us when she came home to Rio Seco once after she’d moved here to become an actress. That was Grady’s sister’s name. Hattie Jackson. She said she’d never go to Kmart again in her life. But I still hadn’t seen her on television or in a movie.

I sat in one of the tiny burger places and called my brother. “Lafayette?”

“You heard?” he said. His radio was going, and my brother Reynaldo was singing. They must be on a job.


“Man, Glorette was in this alley behind the taqueria, you remember that one close to here? She was in a shoppin' cart. Her hair was all down. Somebody had been messin' with her.” He paused, but I didn’t ask, and so he told me. “Look like she had a belt around her neck. But we don’t know what got her. Or who.”

Got gotted. I hadn’t heard that for a while. She done got gotted. Damn. I said, “What about Grady Jackson?”

My brother said, “Who?”

“Grady. The one she was supposed to marry, after she got pregnant and that musician left her.”

“What about Grady? That country-ass brother been gone.”

“I know, Lafayette,” I said. Hamburgers hissed behind me. “He lives somewhere in L.A. I should tell him.”

“Sprung fool. Only one might know is his sister. Remember? She was gonna be on TV. She worked in some place called Rat or Squirrel. Some bar. I remember she said it was just part-time while she was waitin' for this movie about some jazz singer. I gotta go. Naldo callin me.”

I walked back up Los Angeles Street toward Spring again. I didn’t want shoes.

All these years, I had never wanted to look up Hattie Jackson in the phone book. I didn’t really know if Grady was homeless or not—I’d just heard it when I was home in Rio Seco. Someone would say his cousin had heard Grady lived on the streets in a cardboard box, and all I could think of was being a child, in a box from my mother’s new refrigerator, drawing windows with magic marker, Glorette sitting beside me.

I had left all that behind, and I didn’t want to remember it—every memory made me feel good, for the smell of the oranges we kept in a bowl inside our box house, and then bad, for not being there to help my father during the harvest. I didn’t want to see Hattie, or Grady.

Sprung fool. Growing up, I always heard my brothers and their friends talk about fools. Man, that is one ballplayin' fool. Don’t do nothin' but dribble. Damn, Cornelius is a drinkin' fool.

When I went to college, I heard Shakespeare. The fool. Fool, make us laugh. Go tell the fool he is needed. When I went to England, I saw the dessert Raspberry Fool. I closed my eyes, back then, tasting the cream and cake, thinking of Grady Jackson.

How you gon get sprung like that over one woman? That’s what my brothers always said to him.

He came to the barn another night, and my brothers were working on a car. I stood in the doorway, watching him hold his right hand in a rag. Grady said to Lafayette, “She over there at her mama’s? Glorette?”

Lafayette said, “Man, she told me she was movin' in with Dakar soon as he got a record deal. Said they was gettin' a place together. I don’t keep track of that girl.”

Grady said, “I heard him say it. Dakar. He was playin' bass in a club, and I heard him tell somebody, ‘I gotta book, man, I gotta get to L.A. or New York so I can get me a deal. Tired of this country-ass place.’ So I hatted him up.”

My brother said, “Damn, fool, your finger bleedin'! He done bit off your finger?”

The red stain was big as a hibiscus flower on the dirty rag. Grady said, “He pulled a knife on me. Man, I kicked his ass and told him to go. He was gonna come back and then book again, leave Glorette all the time. I just—I told him to stay away.” He was panting now, his upper lip silver with sweat. “Forever.”

He pushed past me and said nothing. I had already been accepted to college, and Glorette had told me she was pregnant with Dakar’s child—I’d seen a swell high up under her breasts, awkward on her body like when we used to put pillows inside our shirts in that refrigerator house.

I left for college, and when I came back in the summer, my brothers told me what had happened. Grady had been driving a Rio Seco city trash truck for a year, made good money, and he rented a little house. When Dakar didn’t come back, and Glorette had the baby—a boy—Grady took her in and said he’d marry her. But after a year of not loving him, of still loving a man who got ghost, she left him to get sprung herself—on rock cocaine—and she refused to ever love anyone again.

I walked through the Toy District again, the dolls and bright boxes and stuffed animals from China and Mexico. Glorette’s son would be a teenager now.

Often my mother would call and say, “Marie-Therese and them wonder can you get a scooter. For her grandson. Out there in L.A.”

To everyone from back home, L.A. was one big city. They didn’t know L.A. was a thousand little towns, entire worlds recreated in arroyos and strawberry fields and hillsides. And Downtown had canyons of black and silver glass, the Grand Central Market, Broadway, and its own favela.

That’s where I was headed now. I was close to 3rd and Main. If you hadn’t been to Brazil, and you hadn’t seen a favela—that’s what Skid Row looked like. The houses made of cardboard, the caves dug out under the freeway overpasses, the men sprawled out sleeping on the sidewalk right now, cheeks against the chain-link.

Were they all fools for something? Someone?

Would Grady Jackson still be on the street? Would he be alive?

All the men—sleeping with outstretched fingers near my heels, pushing carts, doing ballet moves between cars—black men with gray hair, heavy beards, bruise-dark cheeks, a Mexican man with a handlebar moustache and no teeth who grinned at me and said, “Hey, payasa.” A man my age, skin like mine, his hair dreaded up in a non-hip way. Like bad coral. He sat on the curb, staring at tires.

I kept moving. How would I find Grady among these thousands of people? And why would he still care about Glorette?

Sprung fool.

I glanced down an alley and saw a woman standing in the doorway of a port-a-potty. She lifted her chin at me. Her cheeks were pitted and scarred, her black hair like dead seaweed, and her knees gray as rain puddles. Then a man whispered in her ear and she pulled him inside by his elbow, and closed the door.

Glorette. She wanted to go wherever Sere Dakar went. He played the bass and the flute. He played songs for her. He left when she was seven months pregnant. Nothing mattered to her but living inside a cloud, and yet she was still beautiful. The bones in her face lovelier. She smoked rock all night, walked up and down the avenues like the guys who passed me now, their faces crack-gaunt.

A man waved and hollered high above me. Construction workers were gutting one of the old banks and an old SRO hotel. I saw the signs for luxury lofts on the building’s roof. I turned on Spring Street.

Rat or Squirrel. What was Lafayette talking about? Hattie Jackson had a TV gig? I needed more coffee, and I needed to get myself together before meeting Rick, so I headed to Clifton’s Cafeteria.

As I left Skid Row, the haunted men became fewer, like emissaries sent out among the rest of us. The other thousands and thousands of homeless people had packed their tents and boxes and sleeping bags and coats and melted into invisibility because now the day was truly the day.

I tried, but had no heart for it. Rick was short, and thin, and handsome, and funny. He held his tray like a shield, and then put soup and salad on it and laughed at the greenery in Clifton’s. I put away the notebook where I’d tried to write about Oaxaca, and mole, and mescal.

Rick sat down and said, “So, since you’re a world traveler, it’s good to know where you’re from.”

“Here. Southern California.”


“No.” I picked up one fry. “Rio Seco.”

“Really?” He studied me. “Where’s that?”

“Have you been to Palm Springs?”

“Of course! I love mid-century.”

“Well, it’s on the way.” I smiled slightly. I didn’t know him well enough to explain. “Where are you from?”

Rick said, “Brooklyn.”

“What part?”

He raised his eyebrows, like black commas. “Ah-hah. Fort Greene.”

“Cool,” I said. “Nice coffeehouse there. Tillie’s.”

He grinned, all the way this time. “But I live on Spring Street now. New loft. It’s echoing, I’ve got so much space to fill.”

I looked out the window at the shoulders bumping past. “Don’t you worry about all the homeless people?”

“Worry?” He slanted his head.

“Do they bother you?”

“They keep to themselves,” Rick said. “Everyone has parameters, and most people seem to respect those parameters.”

I nodded and ate another fry. Like powder inside. Parameters and boundaries and demarcation. I could never explain that to my mother, or to Glorette.

Rick looked up under my lowered eyes. “But you know what? It’s scary when you’re walking past a guy and he looks dead. I mean really dead. Laid out on the sidewalk in a certain way.”

Without any parameters, I thought. Not even curled up properly.

“And then you see him shiver or snore.” He moved a piece of mandarin orange around on his plate. “Anyway.”

Time for work. The way Rick put down his fork meant business. He said, “Let me tell you about Immerse. People don’t want to just take a trip. They want immersion, journeys, a week or two that can change their lives. Change the way they feel about themselves and the world.”

No, they didn’t, I thought. I looked at the haze in the window. They wanted to read about me walking down an alley in Belize, me going to the Tuba City swap meet and eating frybread tacos and meeting an old woman who made turquoise jewelry. But they really just wanted a week-long cruise to Mazatlán where they never even got off the boat but once to buy souvenirs. A week in Maui where they swam on a black sand beach and then went to Chili’s for dinner at the mall near the condo complex.

A woman paused to adjust her shopping bags, and she looked straight at me in the window and smiled.

I looked like anyone. A sista, a homegirl, a payasa. Belizean. Honduran. Creole.

“How about Brazil?” Rick said. “You look like you could be Brazilian. FX.”

“Where in Brazil?”

“Not the usual. Find somewhere different.”

He was challenging me. “Have you ever been in love?” I asked him, partly just to see what his face would do, but partly because editors realized I never mentioned any Handsome Gentleman or Nameless Boyfriend who accompanied me. I was clearly alone, and because of my adventurousness and initials, mysterious.

“Twice,” Rick said, looking right at me. “In high school, and she dumped me for a football player. In college, and she dumped me for a professor. Now I’m in love with my apartment and my job.”

None of us, at the parties or lunches, were ever in love. That was why we made good money and ate good food and lived where we wanted to. And yet Grady, and Glorette, had always been in love, and they’d never had anything but that love.

“My name is Fantine Xavierine,” I said. I looked into his eyes—brown as coffee. Mine were lemon-gold. “I was named for a slave woman who helped my great-great-grandmother survive in Louisiana.”

“Okay,” he said. He glanced down, at his fork. “I like that. So you’ll be fine in Brazil.”

I walked with him for a block toward Spring Street. It was after 2:00. I could head home now. Rick said, “You know, this place was worse than a ghost town a few years back, because the ghosts were real. But now all these hip places have shown up. There’s a bar people in the office are going to lately—the Golden Gopher. I guess it was a dive before.”

Rat. Gopher.

“Thanks, Rick,” I said, and I touched his arm. Gym strong. He was shoulder to shoulder with me. “I’ll call you.”

I remembered it now. 8th and Olive. Grady had driven down dark streets for a long time, looking for it, and from the backseat, I was dizzy seeing the flashes of neon and stoplights. Then I saw through the back window a neon stack of letters. Golden Gopher.

I walked toward 8th. Grady had parked and then he’d seen me. He’d said, “I can’t leave you here. Somebody get you, and your brothers kill me. Come on.”

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