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Between Heaven and Here

Photo: Douglas McCulloh
Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Where does story begin? Does it begin with an image -- an old photograph someone sees in an album, or a museum, or on a billboard? Maybe a porch story that we hear and can't get out of our minds. Maybe it's a familiar place you walk every day, that seems to hold some mystery only for you, the kind of person with an imagination. For me, stories begin in all these ways. Sometimes it's even an overheard phrase, or a total stranger.

My new book was released yesterday. It's my eighth novel, and each time, I spend days walking around thinking of where that book began. About fifteen years ago, a young girl was killed sometime during the night, her body left in a shopping cart parked at the corner of two streets in my city, a major artery through the historic black neighborhood and the one-block street my where my in-laws live.

Her body might have been there most of the night. Early in the morning, my brother-in-law walked past the shopping cart with its indistinguishable burden of clothing on his way to visit someone, at the park. He only glanced at what he thought was discarded clothes. By the time he got back, someone had called the police and people had gathered around the body.

Her mother, when interviewed for the sole small article in the local paper, said sadly, bitterly, that the police would probably never find out who'd killed her pregnant, seventeen-year-old daughter, who did not use drugs. No one will care, she said. And it seemed true. I couldn't find a single article after that. It was the shopping cart which seemed so undignified, so callous. I couldn't get the girl out of my mind, during all the years that I drove past that corner every day on my way to work.

When I was 18, I used to ride a bus to work in Los Angeles with the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She was Helen of Troy beautiful, Elizabeth Taylor beautiful, Iman beautiful. Her skin was like hammered gold, the gilt of ancient picture frames. Her eyes were aubergine -- do you know that deep purple color? Her hair was always in a high bun, tightly pulled from her forehead, as if with the black flowing down her back, it would be too much for her to walk down the street.

It was sometimes a dangerous neighborhood. We rode down Figueroa toward Downtown. Another bus I often rode was robbed that year, and the men took radios, wallets, and jewelry from the passengers. She sat just behind the driver every day. I think he was in love with her, along with every other man who approached her on the sidewalk, on the bus, and after we got off. There were men who watched that bus for her, who waited to see her face. "Just take my number, baby," they would say. "Just give me a chance." "Look, I'll wait. Come on. Come on! Just let me walk with you a little ways. Let me sit right there beside you. I'm not gonna hurt you. I just want to talk to you for a minute."

She was about 25, I thought. Maybe 28. She was also the saddest woman I'd ever seen. Her eyes were mournful -- and she kept her lips pressed together while the men spoke and whispered and shouted at her. I was anonymous-looking. I tried to imagine how hard it might be to be so beautiful that men thought of you as object, gift, reward, obsession, refusal, or even prey.

Photo: Douglas McCulloh
Photo: Douglas McCulloh

My brother was the caretaker for an orange grove in Riverside for many years. He told the best stories to me and my girls -- about the sounds at night of animals in the leaves, and we spent some of our best hours with him on his golf cart in the Valencias and Washington navels. One day he told me the rats were eating too much of the fruit, coring out the juicy sections and leaving him a dangling piece of rind. He told me if you lit the overgrown skirts of palm frond on fire, the rats nesting inside would launch themselves into the air and actually fly.

Mr. G told me a story on my front porch one hot afternoon. He was a roofer, and my best friend's father. He said that when his mother was pregnant with him, back in Florida, his father worked in the pine forests where they collected turpentine, a kind of black pitch. His father was riding on a cart with barrels of turpentine, and he was killed in an accident. Mr. G said that by the time he was seven, he was tired of being hungry, and so he walked miles to a farm, killed a pig, brought the meat back and told his mother to cook it. His eyes were turquoise, his voice soft and he stared out into the pink silk floss tree planted by my brother years ago.

Photo: Douglas McCulloh
Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Story is when something won't let you go, when you keep hearing the voice or seeing the image, when you write a novel filled with people who are trying to survive with humor and ingenuity. My book is about the most beautiful woman in a community, killed by someone jealous and her small body left in a shopping cart in an alley, discovered by a man who had always loved her, taken home to her father, who once killed a pig and fed the meat to another orphan desperate on the levee of a Louisiana river after the 1927 flood. That alley, that cart, that young boy, that novel -- I wrote three books trying to figure out how the characters got to California, bought an orange grove watered by an ancient canal, and this is the final one in the Rio Seco Trilogy. The title comes from a great line in the show "The Wire." Bubbles, a gentle doomed soul, says one day, "It's a thin line between heaven and here." And that's where we live, I believe, in that thin line of imagination and story.

Susan Straight will read from the new novel tonight at 7:30 at 826 LA, and on Sept 22 at Skylight Books.

Her new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

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