Beth Escott Newcomer
You rarely see a corpse in the woods, but it happens now and then.
One evening, a couple of months after I’d come to live in the canyon, I was hurrying along an unfamiliar path at dusk. As I rounded a bend in the trail, my eyes on my shoes, a voice in my head said, “look up,” and when I did, I was just one step short of plummeting headfirst into a steep, rocky ravine.
I gripped onto a nearby sapling to catch my breath and my balance, and then peered over the edge to see just how far the fall would have been. There, some twenty feet below, lay the broken body of a young buck, his rack of antlers half-grown and velvety, his dead eye open and dull. How was it this creature—the very symbol of effortless grace—would come to take such a clumsy misstep and plunge to his death? How terrified he must have been to forget himself like that.
In those days my knowledge of predators was limited. At the time I asked myself, if it had been a pack of coyotes that chased it, why was the carcass left uneaten, intact in a wild place where nothing is wasted? But now, having lived in the wild for the last couple of years, I suspect it was a mountain lion that scared the poor thing off the cliff and that I had stumbled onto the scene moments before a feast. No doubt, the cougar had heard me a mile away—hidden in plain sight nearby, maybe draped on the branch of a live oak. I was lucky to be so unskilled, to announce myself so noisily. It gave the great cat time to grant me some grace, as I, the interloper, cut an inelegant path through the chaparral.
* * *
Living in the woods up Malibu Creek is not as rough as you might think. At the beginning I was afraid of the canyon creatures, but now that I’ve learned their code, I feel protected by wood rats, coyotes, lizards, and ravens. We all abide by an interlocking schedules and system of sacrifice and survival. Ever notice how rabbits hang out with the quail? It’s for
protection: Quail are little watch-birds. Their nervous systems are tuned in to pending danger just a nanosecond sooner than the rabbit.
When I lived in the city, I was anxious as a quail with none of their survival skills.
Out here alone in the woods, you learn what it means to stay silent, to watch and to listen for signs, to pay attention, but most importantly to blend into your environment.
One time I heard some local kids down at the Shell station on Pacific Coast Highway call me the Creek Man. They weren’t talking to me; they were talking about me. I don’t blame them—they probably didn’t notice me standing by the newspaper machine just a few feet away. Not that I look like I belong in with the local population—quite the opposite. My humble appearance does not warrant their attention. It’s a form of invisibility that provides me the freedom to travel unseen among the denizens of Malibu’s elite, to make my barefoot commute back and forth along Cross Creek Road between civilization and the cozy cave way back in the woods: the place I call home.
Likely I’m not the first person to live in the covered outcropping in the hill above the Fisher mansion. In the old days the Chumash knew every notch and crack in these boulders—and this spot is a real prize. You may not be able to stand up straight inside the place—it’s only about five feet from floor to ceiling—but the nice wide overhang keeps me dry when it rains, out of the wind, and hidden on clear days. I have about eight feet of floor space, covered with soft sand, and a perfect view of the trail in both directions.
From my stony ledge, I can watch the people on horseback and the weekenders with their dogs trudging along the main path, staying to the right where it makes a Y and following it two more miles to the place where it ends at a deep green pool lined with boulders. But what they don’t know (and what I shouldn’t tell) is if you take a left at the Y and go past where the trail seems to disappear at the water’s edge, then wade a few hundred yards up the creek, you come to the wide meadow that borders the eastern boundary of the Fishers’ property. Keep your eyes open you’ll see where the fence ends and the path resumes at the base of some big boulders. From there, climb straight up and you’ll find my home sweet cave.
* * *
People around here throw away more stuff than they use—it’s pretty easy to find clean food in the dumpsters behind the mansions and the restaurants, once you know where to look and have learned the kitchen schedules. I’ve picked up some pants and shirts and other things out of the piles of castoffs left by the neighbors outside the town’s only secondhand
shop. I keep the few possessions I’ve accumulated hidden around in the chaparral: a Carhart jacket, a couple of blankets, an old pair of binoculars, a machete, and a rusted metal ammo box with a few first aid items. Keeping clean can be a challenge, but the Shell station manager looks the other way when I slip into the men’s room to wash up and rinse out a few things.
This life can get a little lonely, and for a while, that was a problem. It would not suit my situation to be conversing with anyone face-to-face— such an encounter would surely shred my cloak of invisibility. Someone might become upset by my rustic appearance, mistake me for a vagrant.
The authorities might come and roust me from my home, and then what would I do? Stand in a doorway in downtown Santa Monica, begging for quarters, pissing where I sleep? No, sir. I would not last a day.
* * *
One lazy afternoon I was up on the cliffs on the other side of the creek, watching the Fishers’ place, as was my habit. I was lonesome—it had been months since I’d had a conversation with anyone—and I felt an overwhelming urge to reach out to someone. I suppose I wasn’t thinking much about the consequences when I transmitted a good clear telepathic
“Yoo-hoo!” toward the silver-haired woman weeding seedlings in the Fisher greenhouse. Almost immediately, I heard a female voice reply deep in my mind, a faint yet distinct “Hello?” I saw her turn from her work and squint in my direction. It was alarming. I’d been so careful to avoid contact with my neighbors—especially the Fishers.
But there was definitely a connection between the two of us. And it felt safe.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen her. She’d arrived in Malibu a few months before, and I’d watched her unpack and arrange her plain, Ohio things in the spacious glassed-in south wing of her son’s enormous mansion. Soon after moving in, I noticed she began to spend most of her time in the greenhouse. And then she took over the once-empty caretaker’s cottage nearby—she brought in a couple of boxes of vinyl LPs and set up an old hi-fi in there and listens to jazz in the afternoon sometimes.
Perhaps she does not care for the sterile opulence of her son’s house. Perhaps she distrusts it. Maybe like me, she can see how the vast wealth of this town—the way it seems to come from nowhere, seems to float in the air without a foundation—makes its citizens behave as if tomorrow will be the day the bottom will fall out, makes them feel they must grip on tightly to every possession. As if a fast car or a house or a racehorse or a diamond ring was all the meaning they had in their lives.
I learned her name was Vivian and that she’d moved here from Columbus an article I read about her son in an issue of Us magazine. (I get most of my news about the outside world, from the newspapers and magazines left behind on the tables outside Starbucks.) I began referring to her by name in our silent salutations which, over time, became a daily occurrence—I would be prowling around on the cliffs doing my afternoon rounds; she would be puttering around in the greenhouse; I’d transmit a “Hello, Vivian,” and a moment later her reply would come bubbling up from my subconscious in a voice increasingly distinct and recognizable. I admit I wondered if I was imagining this: Maybe I could read Vivian’s thoughts, but to her I was probably nothing more substantial than a bit of Tule fog clinging to the tips of the Manzanita bushes. A ghost in the woods.
But then came the matter of the sandwich.
I was on my way to the Fishers’ dumpster one evening at an hour when I was sure I wouldn’t be seen. All ten members of the household staff were crowded in the kitchen having dinner like the boisterous Central American family they were. I cut across the meadow and was making my way past the stable, when I spotted it—wrapped in a clean white linen
napkin on one of the stone benches near the caretaker’s cottage. You might think this was mere chance, that someone had left it there at the end of an alfresco lunch. Except for the way it was wrapped, as if Vivian was serving it to me. Like a person leaves out bread crusts for a songbird to convince him to stick around. So I took the sandwich and in its place left a plum-sized moonstone sitting neatly on the napkin.
Since then, though we have never met face-to-face, we’ve grown close. Some afternoons she plays me Chet Baker records, the creamy sound of his trumpet winding its way through the oaks, pulling me out of my hiding places. We share our psychic scrapbooks: She transmits mental pictures of her husband who died young in the Korean war, the high school graduation portrait of her fatherless son, baby pictures of her motherless grandson. I show her telepathic home movies of my childhood, flat lands with rows of corn as far as the eye can see; me as a blond boy growing up with my grandparents on their farm; images of how I looked before I came here, before I became a creek man. Handsome? Maybe, but isn’t everyone when they are 26. I don’t bother looking my reflection anymore—does a raccoon care what he looks like?
This is how it is with us—we care for each other. Vivian leaves me sandwiches and sometimes a piece of fruit or a candy bar on the stone bench wrapped in white napkins. I leave her moonstones and bunches of miner’s lettuce, and bouquets of clarkia, lupine, and phacelia, sometimes unbroken robin’s eggs when I find them on the ground. So a couple of days
ago, she asked if I would keep an eye on the place during the big party; how could I refuse?
* * *
I’m a natural—it’s what I do. After all this time, living among the wild things, I can sense the danger others don’t—a quail among rabbits.
The three full-time guards Fisher employs don’t even know about our deal—the one where I stay invisible and they remain unobservant. I guess they can get away with that: This whole neighborhood is swarming with security. If someone wanted to steal from the Fishers, first they’d have to get past the main gate at PCH, past the deputy sheriff snoozing in the black and white, past the dogs—everyone has at least one, past the private gate, the guards, the electronic surveillance, the alarm system, the live-in help, and for what? For a snapshot, that’s what.
It’s the photographers who risk their lives, not burglars. One compromising picture of Fisher’s new-and-improved-former-soap-opera- star wife could bring $10,000 or even $100,000 to an enterprising young paparazzo. Seven days a week you’ll find them lined up outside the front gate in their black SUVs with the tinted windows, like a funeral motorcade, waiting for the shot that will send their kid through college.
Last night the ante was way up and there were twice as many lying in wait. It was Grammy night, and the best party in a town full of parties was at Fisher’s house.
* * *
You’ve seen the place on television and in magazines. It’s the one with Spanish-tiled terraces off the Spanish-tiled terraces, whole wings made of glass. A multilayered birthday cake of a mansion surrounded by a vast manicured lawn, butting up against the last bit of untamed nature in the Santa Monica Mountains conservancy.
And last night, the whole compound was lit up all the way—every light bulb, candle, and torch ablaze. All decked out—a Southern Californian fairy tale with waiters floating through the golden light serving champagne and exotic hors d’oeuvres to the well-dressed Beauties and Princes Charming, and bodyguards in plain clothes ready to discreetly escort from the premises any wicked witch, evil dwarf or interloper without an invitation.
I’d settled in early and found myself a spot with a perfect panoramic view of the lawn, draped on a branch high up in a live oak tree, above the boulders, not far from my cave. From there I could see the band setting up, with roadies doing sound checks and unwinding miles of black cable; bartenders in red vests hauling buckets of ice and wheeling dollies stacked with cases of champagne; platoons of party-planners unfurling white tablecloths like so many flags of surrender.
And up in the house, I watched the members of the Fisher family prepare for the evening, each in their own private wing, floor or turret.
Vivian’s son, Peter Fisher, is some kind of producer, a star-maker. He started out in the business selling records out of his rusty station wagon, back in Columbus—I saw a photo of him in Rolling Stone from those early days, grinning behind a wild hippie beard in a tie-dyed dashiki. Quite a change to become the man I saw before the party, standing on his balcony, frowning in the elegant drab-colored casual clothes and manicured stubble. He looks dissatisfied, as if everything disappoints him. From his position, he could see a long line of tint-windowed limos, Escalades, and Porsche SUVs pulling up and idling on the cobblestone driveway that sweeps around the front of the place, disgorging well-dressed guests. From my position, he looked like he was dreading the whole affair.
Charise is Peter’s third wife—the model who became an actress who got killed off on a popular daytime drama. Now she’s a couple of years older—she’d probably do almost anything just to stay in the business. Last night I could see her standing in an elegant designer dress, sobbing in front of a full-length mirror. Gossip magazines report she came to a party at the Fishers’ once and made it her singular goal to live there one day. Now her job is to stay young and supple, a perfect size 0. When she eats, it’s raw. She swims hundreds of laps in the pool. Trainers arrive in shifts to contort her in the latest Pilates positions and coach her while she lifts weights in the glassed-in gazebo. I’ve seen her cry in the mirror before.
Fisher Jr. was smoking a joint on his balcony. He’s 15 and pale, even in the golden hour of sunset. His mother—Fisher’s first wife—died when Junior was only four. Since then, he’s probably had everyone telling him he’s a special boy, but I don’t think he will be following in his father’s Italian leather footsteps. He’s shy and always by himself. Well, not always. Last summer he made friends with a Salvadoran boy who worked at the horse farm over on Mariposa. One time I watched them take a couple of horses up the trails along the creek to the old dam to eat a sack lunch, then ride back for a swim in the Fishers’ pool. When they were lying there in the sun with their shirts off, Junior rolled over and lightly touched the other boy’s chest, who in turn jumped to his feet and fled. Junior panicked and called his friend a Mexican fag! in a voice that carried throughout the halls of the Fisher household and echoed off the canyon walls—the voice of a boy hoping everyone would now know, once and for all, he himself was not gay. His is the only room in the house with an ocean view, but he doesn’t notice what he has; only what he hasn’t got.
And then there was Vivian. If only you could have seen how beautiful she looked last night: her silver hair done up in an old-fashioned French Twist, in the classic pale blue evening dress she’d chosen to wear—my God, how elegant she is in every setting! She was as graceful as a puma as she made her way down the long, S-shaped staircase that curls down the side of the house, reviewing the party preparations as she floated along toward the greenhouse. When she arrived, she paused at the stone bench and peered up into the darkness toward me. “All ready,” said her voice in my head. As if on cue, the band began their first number and the party was underway. I straightened up and scanned the perimeter, the entrances, and the opposite hillside with my binoculars. So far, so good.
* * *
I sensed him before I heard the first twig break, the hairs on the back of my neck prickling, but I decided to stay put. I guess I hoped I was wrong about someone else in the woods. I could see the white dot of a penlight dancing against the brush just a few feet away from the base of the tree where I was sitting. I tried to calm myself, to breathe more quietly, more shallowly, pressing myself flat against the trunk of the tree. A moment later there he was, crashing through the chaparral, clumsily, noisily, like a drunk in church. He stopped below the ridgeline and crouched down. He held up the long lens of his camera with one hand, took his cell phone from his pocket with the other, and dialed it with his thumb. After a moment he began talking in a low voice. I could hear every word:
“Yeah. I got perfect spot right across the creek from the house. A clear shot. You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to get here. My shoes are ruined, but I can get all you want of whoever you want at the main party on the lawn. That’s if he just wants the basic who’s-wearing- who shit. But if I use the 300 telephoto, I can get in through the windows. Like right now, I can almost make out the fag kid in his room jerking off to gay porn…”
He kept talking while he did a slow scan of the property.
“Wowzah. Check this out: Fisher’s has-been twat of a wife is out behind the gazebo, getting groped by that show runner guy with the big chop sideburns. I always forget that guy’s name. Anyway, looks like I could really make a shitload tonight. A little Us Magazine, a little TMZ…and just think of the nice steady paycheck I could shake out of Moneybags Fisher to keep his son out of the public eye. Jus’ kidding. But who knows? Maybe Grandma has something to hide… OK… Got it… Just tell him I got it covered, whatever he wants. Yeah…right-o…see ya later.”
He hung up and I watched as he pointed the long lens toward the gazebo where a man in tinted aviator glasses lowered Charise’s spaghetti straps. The paparazzo murmured, “Yeah, baby, go on, show him what you’d do for a television series, for a comeback…” The whirring sound of the electronic shutter was louder than the music, as dozens of pictures at a time were recorded in throbbing waves. Periodically, he refined his focus and continued, “Yeah, baby. Show him. Show me… Let’s have a wardrobe malfunction.” He liked that old joke and he giggled like a girl, in this high tittering way. Without a tinge of guilt, he would destroy Fisher’s family, such as it was. Even Vivian! I could contain myself no longer:
“HEY, YOU. STOP IT!”
My voice, long out of use, was much louder and more powerful than I expected when I shouted from the branch just above where he was crouching.
The next scene unfolded as if in slow motion. The startled man’s foot slipped off the edge, and he tipped forward over the cliff, going over headfirst, his cameras and cell phones and slippery-soled shoes close behind. There was a crunch and a thud but no groan or call for help. No sound at all but the music from the party.
I didn’t know what to do, so I just stayed where I was, watching the guests make their exits, the waiters pull off the tablecloths, and the roadies coil up the wires, amazed at the way everyone below behaved as if nothing had happened.
The party was over by the time I came down out of the tree and made my way into the ravine where the photographer lay dead. His camera was still around his neck, but was smashed and open. The full moon lit up the scene of the accident. With the point of my knife, I carefully pried out the tiny disk with the damning pictures on it and put it in my pocket. After that, I walked to the beach and waited for the sun to come up.
* * *
Once the fog burns off, it’s going to be another beautiful day in Malibu. I can see a dozen or so surfers in their wetsuits bobbing around in the waves, looking like sea lions. It’s nice to sleep on the beach when you can get away with it. I wasn’t worried about being rousted last night. The police were pretty busy—too busy to bother with vagrancy—what with all the partiers coming and going, DUI checkpoints, motorcycle escorts, limo traffic jams, and the like. Just before dawn, I heard a chorus of sirens screaming up PCH.
In a little while, I think I’ll pick a couple of muffins from the Dumpster behind Starbucks and head home to my cave. I’ll watch the Sunday hikers make their way along the beaten track, their dogs splashing through the creek. I’ll make myself comfortable under my stone overhang and take the rest of the day off, the same as if I were lying in hammock on the backyard of some house on a tree-lined street in Ohio. Later on, maybe Vivian will make a sandwich for me and lay it on the stone bench. If she does, when I’m done, I’ll leave her the little disk I’ve got here in my pocket. I’ll lay it on top of a neatly folded white linen napkin. She’ll know what to do.
* This story appeared in The Alembic, Spring 2014. Order chapbook.
Beth Escott Newcomer’s stories have appeared in many literary journals, and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and for Best of the Web. She was named an Emerging Voice as part of the Los Angeles New Short Fiction series in 2015, and in 2016, her story “Survival Skills” was featured in the Los Angeles Lit Crawl. She co-founded Chicago’s Clybourn Salon performance venue in the 80s, and was a member of the Amok Press collective in Los Angeles in the 90s. She lives in rural San Diego County with her husband and a pack of dogs. Learn more at bethescottnewcomer.com