The following is from Jon Raymond’s novel, Freebird. Raymond is the author of two novels, Rain Dragon and The Half-Life, and the short-story collection Livability. His work has appeared in Tin House, the Village Voice, Bookforum, and other places. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Loading the dishwasher, Anne pondered the many methods of skinning Mark Harris’s cat. There were many skinning strategies one might employ, she realized, but surely one skinning method was the best. Skin it from the head? Skin it from the butt? Peel the whole pelt inside out? If nothing else, the cat skinning was an interesting thought experiment to ponder. If she was going to sell off the rights to the used toilet water of Los Angeles, how would she do it?
The water of Los Angeles was touched by many agencies and authorities. Fish and wildlife, Parks and Recreation, the Port. But controlling hegemony over the city’s most precious resource, once it passed down the drain, lay ultimately with the Bureau of sanitation, as she’d told Mark Harris from the start. Sanitation was also in command of trash, which meant the fleet of 750 trucks hauling more than six thousand tons of refuse a day, and the landfills, and the 6,500 miles of sewer line, mostly leading to Hyperion Treatment Plant and Terminal Island, where the bio-slurry was turned into heat-dried fertilizer for nonfood crops in the Valley. All together, the system added up to a sprawling municipal fiefdom, manned by a staff of some 2,800 people, based at a crescent of industry on the waterfront near the airport, and presided over by one Charlie Arnold.
Anne knew Charlie. Charlie had been in the commissioner’s chair of sanitation for around five years, and before that he’d been at city hall, and before that, long ago, he’d been at CALPIRG, the environmental canvassing organization. His job at sanitation had come as an act of flagrant nepotism by the mayor after Charlie’s turns as mayoral campaign manager and mayoral chief of staff, and, although Charlie had always been a competent, dutiful civil servant, he’d surprised everyone by becoming what many now termed a “visionary” of all things eco, a walking PowerPoint presentation on the glories of the green city. He talked about membrane bioreactors, Zeeweed ultrafiltration membranes, all manner of membranes—internal, external, sidestream, you name it. His greatest triumph was a pilot project whereby tons of bio-slurry had been injected into deep fissures in the earth, creating pockets of biogas to later siphon back out as alternative fuel. The program had been regarded as a major success, with write-ups in the industry papers and a New York Times Magazine profile. Shit into energy, a perfect circle, the dream.
At some point BHC Industries’ permit quest was going to lead to Charlie Arnold’s door. How to convince Charlie that ownership of his precious public wastewater should migrate into the hands of a greenwashing speculative capitalist without any particular conservationist agenda was not immediately clear. Charlie was a staunch protector of the public interest, harboring a nearly violent hatred of polluters of all kinds. He was also an arrogant prick. If anyone comprehended the value of the city’s wastewater and would fight to protect it, it was Charlie.
The other unavoidable personage through whom the permitting process would go, as she’d also told Mark, was Randy Lowell, the city-council member who putatively oversaw Charlie Arnold’s sanitation Department. Randy Lowell was in effect Charlie Arnold’s boss, or at least his direct manager, and he was not in any way, by any definition, an eco-visionary. He was the child of old l.A. Anglo stock, scion of okies, a former cop elected term after term by his district in la Jolla, grounded in a hard-core constituency of corporate donors, city commerce club members, anticrime soccer moms, right-leaning megachurches, and certain nonpublic trade unions. He was a devout pragmatist, in other words, with no interest in high-minded principles of equality, justice, environmentalism, or industrial regulation of any kind. He was a “friend of business,” as they said, a defender of cops and the people who loved cops, with a reputation for doing his homework and yelling. A lot. A lot of yelling.
Anne had a fine relationship with Randy. Randy liked Anne because she was also someone who did her homework, and they’d shared more than one cutting joke at the expense of some hapless city manager flailing with his excel spreadsheets. But as to whether Randy was a natural ally? she doubted it. He was not a fan of public giveaways unless he was the one doing the giving, and even if he was a natural ally, it didn’t much matter. Ultimately, it was a personality thing. Both Charlie Arnold and Randy Lowell were going to have to sign off on this permit. And unfortunately, Charlie and Randy despised each other. The natural ally of one was the natural enemy of the other. such was the needle she had to thread.
People thought the government was a hierarchy, but in fact that was not the case. The government was a centerless hive of back channels and side alleys, pitted with private dungeons where personal agendas went to be tortured and starved.
Yes, she thought, folding laundry, downing a second glass of her favorite pink cava, the best avenue was going to be the hard- est one. she couldn’t go top-down on this one; she had to go bottom-up. And that meant cracking the hardest nut first, to mix metaphors. she had to recruit Charlie Arnold, the green vision- ary, and only then could she take the proposal to Randy lowell, the pragmatist. from there, the project would move to the city attorney (she already knew which one she’d use—ed Monk, a blathering know-it-all but ultimately pliable and friendly). And finally, she’d let the mayor in on the impending deal. They could possibly circumvent the full council vote, definitely any public hearings. The mayor was a great connoisseur of secret bargains, and if she could get this all the way to his desk without interference, he’d be impressed, and they would likely be fine.
Mark Harris was going to have to give them all something, of course; it wouldn’t be free, but that wasn’t her concern right now. Paying the tolls on this road was his problem, not hers. She was only holding the map.
* * * *
She and Charlie had a traditional place they liked to meet, and when Anne called his office, she reflexively suggested the old spot—a bench in the park near the entrance of the La Brea tar pits. They’d established their meeting ground back during the 1996 Campaign for Clean Air in schools, during which they’d both served on the regional advisory committee and had put in some ungodly hours dealing with leadership infighting that had threatened to spill into the newspapers. They’d bonded then, recognizing each other as serious people, and they’d continued to encounter each other with genuine affection at every new plateau of their careers. She’d proposed the old bench partly to remind him of their youthful allegiance and also because she knew he probably wanted to avoid crowds at this particular juncture, owing to his current sex scandal.
This was another factor shaping her scheme, too, if lightly. Normally Charlie would have enjoyed mixing with his constituents and fielding what he seemed to think was their adulation, but this was a strange time for Charlie Arnold. A month ago, he’d been caught in a compromising position—i.e., having sex with an intern—and ever since, he’d been keeping a low profile. The girl was a semi-attractive student from UCLA, the daughter of a politically involved TV agent, and their pathetic mash letters had come out on LA Weekly’s blog, these sad, lewd sex notes between a middle-aged bureaucrat and a teenage striver, since which time numerous parties had been calling for his resignation. Everyone agreed he’d get through it—the girl was of age, the parents seemed almost proud of the tryst, the blog posting had gone relatively unread—but it was probably embarrassing to Charlie nonetheless, and Anne knew enough to avoid that third rail by whatever means necessary. So she was surprised when Charlie sat down and immediately brought up the news himself. They’d barely traded hellos, and all the gnarly details of his sex life were gushing out of his mouth, and there they were, miles from her own day’s agenda.
“It’s all true,” he said, wheezing from the effort of mounting the small knoll of grass to their appointed spot. He was looking a little thicker around the middle, she noticed, if not downright soft, and his face was getting puffy, a mealy blankness threatening to swallow his thin lips and small eyes. He needed a haircut, too. And his shoes looked fifteen years old. And yet, against all this evidence of decline, his swagger also suggested he still imagined himself as an irresistibly handsome specimen. This was both the annoying and tragically endearing thing about Charlie’s character, the desperate self-love that made him at once human and such an asshole.
“In case you were wondering or anything. God, I was stupid, Anne. So fucking stupid! I still just can’t believe I went there, you know? She’s not even that hot or anything. Just young, is all. I’m so old, I can’t even tell if a person is hot anymore. I just see the youngness, and I’m, like, Gaahhhcck. I knew it was stupid, but I was just an idiot. What else can I say?”
“Yeah, well, what are you going to do, right?” Anne said, working to strike the right note between disinterest and sympathy. Who Charlie fucked was his own business. For once, she didn’t want to hear all the salacious details.
“Never thought it’d happen to me,” he said, intent on wallowing. “I thought I was a different kind of fish. But there you go. It happens, all right. And, I mean, of course it does, you know? Look how busy we all are. We’re all giving everything we’ve got. You pull your head out of your desk and look around, there’s no time for dating. You take what’s standing there.”
Anne nodded. Already, she could see, his apology was curdling into rank anger and blame. The slide from self-flagellation to self-justification had taken all of forty-five seconds. She worried it was a mere prelude to long-winded score settling, and she was right. He began with a broadside against reporters, a rant about his newfound sympathy for celebrities, and then went on and on, about sex with interns, sex with married people, sex with ex-lovers, sex on first dates. Maybe, Charlie theorized, people his and Anne’s age were consigned to sleep with only the people they’d already slept with in their twenties. There was only returning to old beds now, never finding new beds. Then a diatribe about his recent computer-dating adventures, the depressing activity of updating his profile, the silly antics of avoiding women after the failure of their outings. He’d literally jumped into a bush in silver lake in order to dodge a conversation with a woman he’d reluctantly screwed the week before.
Mostly she just watched the people entering the tar pits, letting his confessions wash over her. There was only a smattering of families and a few tourists out today, shuffling to the ticket booth under the weight of their backpacks and diaper bags. She watched them punching their debit codes, siphoning into the quiet gates. God, how Aaron had loved this place as a kid. They’d gone almost every month to ogle the ancient, blackened bones. What was it about the mastodons that kids found so fascinating? She had to think it was the aura of death they emanated. These tremendous creatures had once ruled the earth, and now they were nothing but dead bones. The kids came to this museum to get their first, happy glimpse at their own unimaginable demise. A flock of schoolchildren approached the gate, chaperoned by three harried grown-ups, and Anne watched them all congregate at the fence while the teachers counted them off, and then the yelping crowd of princess pink and Spider-Man red descended en masse into the devouring maw, down to mastodon Valhalla. The world just kept making more of these kids. Why had she assumed the world would stop after she’d had hers?
Anne could feel the clock ticking on the meeting’s end. Charlie was still being his funny, oversharing self, but surely he had meetings stacked up through the afternoon, and this one had to be low on the priority list. If she wanted to get to the main subject without rushing him, she had to make a move, but she wasn’t sure how.
Thankfully, Charlie had his own inner clock ticking. He was a professional, after all. And, as the more powerful member of their duo, he was secretly the one in charge here. It was possible the sexual confessions were even a simple assertion of that power, an imposition of his private life into their mutual head space. It was LBJ taking a shit with his aides in tow. But once he’d deigned the time was right, the lesson imposed, he snapped back into business mode with surprising alacrity.
“But what are we here for anyway, Anne?” he said, clapping his hands, and she could tell all the emotional capital she’d been storing up had suddenly been locked away. All her moist sympathizing had been for naught.
“Lay it on me,” he said. “What’s up your sleeve, Anne? I know you called me for some reason. I’ve got a ton to do. It’s great seeing you, by the way.”
“Great seeing you, too, Charlie,” she said, mindlessly brushing her skirt. “I’m glad you’re getting through everything all right. That was the main thing I wanted to know. But as long as we’re here, I do have a little thing to run by you, if you’ve still got some time.”
“Sure. What’s the thing?” He snuck a look at his watch; he was such an asshole, he physically couldn’t seem to help himself.
“It has to do with the city’s wastewater,” she said. “You have some jurisdiction in that area, right?”
“So, I have a guy who wants to take a crack at recycling it. He wants to filter all the city’s wastewater and send it back into the drinking supply or something. He says he’s got some hot technology to get it pure enough for consumption, and he’s got the capital lined up to build the facility.”
Here, she was embellishing on Mark’s plan a bit. Quite a bit, actually. But she didn’t see any other way. Something she always liked to remember about Charlie: in addition to being a great lover of the air and the water and the earth, he was also a major technophile, a pie-eyed optimist in the grand silicon Valley model, lacking any of the twentieth-century nausea that Anne had always taken for granted as part of any mature worldview. If BHC could come at him with some kind of shiny gadget, she suspected, some kind of Next Big Thing for the treatment of wastewater, the pitch would be all that much easier. If she could only work in the word “membrane,” she’d have him.
“He’d like to meet with you if you have the time,” she said, without obvious eagerness.
“Who is this guy?”
“His name is Mark Harris.”
“Ahh. Harris.” Of course he knew him.
“You know him?”
“Never met him, no,” Charlie said, and Anne could tell by the minuscule stiffening of his spine that he was disguising his real, spinning thoughts. “He’s on a buying spree lately. He just bought Hoffman-Jenkins, the contractor that hauls most of our sludge. And he just bought a bunch of land south of Terminal Island. He’s circling us for some reason. Now you. What does he want, anyway? I’m getting curious.”
“I don’t know what he wants, exactly,” she said, annoyed to lack crucial information going into her meeting. “I’m not a scientist. But he seems pretty serious. He’s funny, too. I think you’d like him. Or hate him; I don’t know. But he’s a big fan of yours, I can tell you that much.” She was embellishing even further now, but what did Mark expect if he didn’t give her the whole story? If only he knew the level of services he was purchasing.
“Why doesn’t he just call me?” Charlie asked.
“He will. I think he wants to go through the proper channels.”
“It kills me,” Charlie said, grimacing at the sun. “People have no idea how much water we’re already recycling. You should tell him to check out the filtration system over in Lakewood. They’re keeping four golf courses alive on runoff from the city’s washing machines alone. Great pilot program. And no one knows shit about it.”
“I think Mark is talking about something on a different scale,” Anne said, with due meekness. The last thing she wanted was to belittle Charlie’s current efforts. “I think he wants to reuse, like, all of it. He’s thinking pretty long-term.”
“And you’re, like, his agent or something?”
“No. I just fielded the call. He’s . . . I guess he’s a constituent.”
“You think he’s that interesting?”
She stared past the trunk of the eucalyptus tree, the insane tangle of roots diving under the sidewalk, and watched the first kids she’d seen go into the museum already streaming out, carrying their new coloring books and polyurethane woolly mammoth shapes. “Interesting” was a code word, coming from Charlie, she knew, a personal query into the character of Mark Harris. He was admitting his high regard for Anne after all these years but also that he had grave suspicions about her client. If Anne was willing to vouch for Mark Harris, maybe he would change his mind. And so, in this moment, Anne held Mark’s future in her hands. With a word, she could open this door, and all her hard-earned integrity could be thrown out to sea.
“Yeah,” she said. “He seems smart to me. He seems interesting.” The sky didn’t open. Thunder didn’t call her name. Her voice quietly entered the matrix of Charlie’s mind and diffused through the labyrinth of other thoughts, other considerations. He’d absorbed her betrayal of principle and saw her no differently than he had moments before.
They ended the meeting with promises of further talks, future collaborations, better daily contact in general. Anne wished Charlie good luck on his sexual misadventures; he wished her good luck on her spinsterhood. Driving home, she felt generally satisfied with how the conversation had gone. The meeting might not have delivered the killer blow she had hoped for most—he could have fallen on the ground and humped her leg over the mere possibility of giving away the city’s wastewater to some speculator—but it hadn’t gone badly, either. She hadn’t made any huge, humiliating mistakes.
She got home at dusk, with the little red-breasted birds tittering in the bougainvillea, the sound of the street cleaner growling around the block. She unlocked the front door and went for the tea basket, selecting a Tension Tamer and putting on the water. Waiting for the pot to boil, she called Aaron, but he didn’t pick up. No news was good news, she figured, unless it was the worst news imaginable. She wondered what her brother was doing out in the desert, under the pale, dimming sky. She sat and stared at the patch of light on the wall, the rays marbled by the old, warped glass, reminding herself that this operation wasn’t going to resolve itself in one conversation. This was going to take some stages, some effort, probably even some duplication of effort. She’d planted the seed today, that was all. Now she’d see what hideous plant grew.
Excerpted from FREEBIRD. Copyright © 2017 by Jon Raymond. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.