BY CHAD GREENE
Copyright is held by the author.
DOWN ON the ground, it does sound like a good idea.
Especially sitting in the booth, with its seats of sagging green artificial leather and its tabletop of chipped pine veneer. Here, it sounds pretty terrific.
After all, Curley’s Café has served so many roughnecks from the oilfields of Signal Hill since it opened in 1938 that tin signs for petroleum companies alternate with neon signs for beer brands on the green walls of its interior. Shell, Budweiser. Pennzoil, Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Why not attempt to ride the pumpjack in the parking lot?
After all, I’ve never —
“You’ve never ridden a horse?” Johnny spits out a tiny bit of PBR in disbelief. “You grew up on a farm, man.”
“My father, the farmer, hated horses.” I sip my Maker’s Mark. “Always said they’ve been useless since the invention of the tractor. And that was the worst insult in his vocabulary: useless.”
“Well, the front of the pumpjack in the parking lot may be called a horsehead, but it isn’t useless. It’s useful for —” Here, Johnny nods — down and up, down and up — as if he is attempting to imitate the motion of the pumpjack. Truly, though, he is struggling to stay conscious. The number that the hour hand on the clock behind the bar is about to point to is only nine, but the number of drinks we have managed to down already between the two of us is much higher.
Suddenly, though, he snaps out of it. “— for sucking oil out of a well.”
“And for riding?”
“And for riding. Fucking A!” Johnny slams down his now-empty pint glass on the tabletop. “So, it’s time to saddle up, partner.”
With that, he starts to slide out of the booth, but I stop him with a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s irresponsible, Johnny. You’re a married man now. What would I tell Jig if —?”“If what?”
“If you fell off.”“I’m not going to fall off.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I’m not going to ride it,” Johnny says. “You are.”
The street outside the front door of Curley’s is Willow, but it’s instead palms that alternate with the streetlights at the edge of the asphalt parking lot. As Johnny careens across the patched blacktop toward the pumpjack, I continue to protest.
After all, I’ve never been —
“You’ve never been irresponsible,” Johnny agrees. “But that’s the problem, man.”
“How is that the problem?”
“What’s that story you used to tell? About that time your next-door neighbour in the first place you and Heidi lived in Long Beach, that townhouse in that nice neighbourhood —?”
“Right. Belmont Shores.”
“It’s Shore, singular,” I correct, “not Shores, plural.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference is that the first makes you sound like a local, but the second makes you sound like an out-of-towner.”
“I am an out-of-towner.”
“Johnny, you live in Signal Hill.”
“It’s a separate city.”
“It’s a separate city that’s surrounded by Long Beach on all sides.”
“Damn right it is,” Johnny slurred. “Claim to fame: the only one in the United States that, that’s surrounded on all sides by the same city.”
“Really?” I asked. “The only one?”
“The only one,” he answered with something that sounded more than a little like pride.
“So, why is it?”
“Why is it what?”
“A separate city? Why didn’t Signal Hill allow itself to be annexed by Long Beach?”
“Because of this.” Johnny points to the pumpjack, which towers at least 20 feet above the parking lot.
“Because of this pumpjack?” I scoff.
“Not because of this pumpjack,” Johnny slumps against the chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire meant to protect the pumpjack from idiots like us. Or maybe it was the other way around. The sign attached to the fence warns, Pumps start suddenly and without warning. “Because of what this here rocking horse is pumping out of the ground.”
“More noble nickname than nodding donkey. After all, no one wants to ride a donkey, but everyone wants to ride a horse.”
“Not everyone wants to ride a horse,” I declare. “I don’t.”
“Because you’ve never been irresponsible.”
“But that’s the problem?”
“But that’s the problem,” Johnny nods, and — as much as he’s acting like an ass — I resist the urge to call him a nodding donkey. “C’mon. What’s that story you used to tell?”
“By the time Heidi and I moved into that townhouse in Belmont —”
“Shore, not Shores.”
“That’s right. In Belmont Shore. Anyway, we were engaged, and we were both holding down full-time employment. Our next-door neighbour was older than us, maybe about 50, and she had a daughter who was still a student at Cal State Long Beach. One morning, when I was about to leave for work, I opened our front door and found our neighbour’s daughter passed out on the steps, slumped over a puke-filled plastic pail with the Greek letters of her sorority scrawled on its side.
“Obviously, our neighbor was embarrassed. As I helped her carry her daughter inside her townhouse, she said, ‘I hope that, when she’s your age, she’ll be as responsible as you and Heidi.’”
“So, I asked her, ‘Well, what age is she?’”
“And our neighbour answered, ‘She’s 23.’”
“Without thinking about how worried she had to be about her drunken daughter, I laughed out loud. ‘Well, we’re 23 — both Heidi and me.’”
Johnny nods. “See? That’s the problem. You two were too responsible, too young. You shouldn’t have spent your twenties trying to repress your irresponsibility. Maybe, if you had gotten it out of your systems . . .”
“It would have worked out?”
“Got to get it out of your system, man.” With that, Johnny laces his fingers together. “C’mon. I’ll give you a boost over the fence.”
Up in the air, it does not sound like a good idea.
Especially clinging to the top of the ladder, with its still slightly green rungs of rusting steel. Here, it sounds pretty terrible.
Why attempt to ride the pumpjack in the parking lot?
“Got to get it out of my system?” I shout down to Johnny.
“Got to get it out of your system!” Johnny shouts up to me.
So I inch over to the side of the ladder, stretch my right foot toward the walking beam of the pumpjack.
But then, just as the first toe on that first foot is about to touch it, the pumpjack stops pumping.
The nodding donkey stops nodding.
The rocking horse stops rocking.
“What —?” I ask.
“— the fuck?” Johnny asks.
“What does that sign say?” I shout down. “The one attached to the fence?”
“Pumps start suddenly and without warning!” Johnny shouts up.
“Guess this means the opposite it true, too?” I make as sweeping of a wave with my right hand toward the still horsehead — stuck in mid-nod — as I can manage while simultaneously maintaining a white-knuckled grip on the rail of the ladder with my left hand. “That pumps stop suddenly and without warning?”
“Guess so.” Johnny sighs. “Shit.”
“Does this count?” I ask.
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, I do think so.” I start to climb back down the ladder.