Sunsets Are Giant Rainbows
by Joel Tomfohr
Chris is a poet who lives in Marin with his mom. He thinks his poetry sucks and can’t send it out. Next fall he’s moving to China to teach ESL because the Bay Area is so expensive. We’re supposed to go to Baja to go surfing for a week at the end of July. Last weekend, though, while my girlfriend Malalai was out of town, we went to a movie and when we tried to get tickets for the 7:15 show, it was sold out so we had to wait until 9:15.
It was 6:30.
So we had, like, three hours to kill at the Bay Street outdoor mall in Emeryville which is a simulacrum of a real street you might find in any normal city except Emeryville is a commuter city. Baudrillard came to mind. So, it’s not really a real city as far as I’m concerned. Chris and I begin killing time by getting hamburgers from Fudrucker’s, a place I have a fond memory of from when I was a child. My uncle, my mom’s brother, took my brother Jason and me there when we were boys. I remembered it ever since. Well, I remember walking into the air-conditioned restaurant from the hot, muggy late afternoon with the sun setting spectrally like the way it was setting last Saturday night with Chris at the mall. To be honest, I remember nothing of Fudrucker’s except for the name, the hot, muggy afternoon, and my uncle who was a nice guy, kind of quiet and a little scary to me, though I couldn’t say why. Back then I thought all adult men looked at me disapprovingly. Like they saw something in me that I didn’t. I was a strange boy, I guess. Ah well.
So there Chris was across the table from me, we were sitting in the spectral light of the slowly setting sun, wolfing down his hamburger and I was wolfing down mine and taking giant gulps of my chocolate milkshake while Land Down Under blared down on us oppressively through speakers situated in all the corners of the restaurant.
“I could just work for a tech company,” Chris said. “Write advertisements, sell out.”
I considered this for a moment. “Can you?”
“I think so.”
“Here’s the thing.” I pushed my plate aside so that I could get my elbows up on the table and leaned across it. “You can’t work in marketing. Even if you applied, you wouldn’t get a job. It’s not possible for you.”
He looked at me.
“Don’t be dejected,” I said. “It means that you’re an intelligent, reflective human being. That kind of work goes totally goes against your nature.” I leaned back and took a bite of my burger. I hit a pickled jalapeno and the spice of it bit my tongue. The grease of the hamburger clung to the roof of my mouth, my gums, my teeth. I ran my tongue along all the inner surfaces of my mouth. I felt feral. The music blared, teenage girls and boys screamed at each other like monkeys. Obese fathers held their children’s hands while they stood in line to order their half pound burgers with bacon and cheddar and wedge-cut fries and their bottomless cups of soft-drinks—Cherry Coke, Coke, Sprite, Hi-C, root beer. Cooked meat and corn syrup and thick cut fries, Heinz ketchup dispensed into small plastic ramekins in infinite amounts. People’s names blaring over the loudspeakers, harkening them to their plastic baskets filled with hamburger and fistfuls of thick-cut fries. “You couldn’t get one of those jobs if you applied anyway. Hiring managers see through the bullshit.”
“They read your soul. They can see your soul.”
“You think I’m crazy, but I’m not.”
“What do you think they see then?”
“Your soul, for one thing.” I dunked one of my fries into my Heinz ketchup and then into my Heinz mustard and placed it into my mouth. Vinegar. Sugar. “That you actually have a soul to be crushed and they don’t want that. No employer wants to be the employer that crushes their employee’s soul. You know people always say this or that job is soul crushing. They don’t want that. They can look you in the face and in all honesty tell you that they don’t want that.”
“What do they want then?”
“They want you not to have a soul in the first place.” I ate my last two fries and looked around the restaurant. “You wanna get our of here?”
“I need a pair of sunglasses,” Chris said. “Then let’s walk along the bay.”
We found a cart that sold sunglasses and Chris bought a pair of knock-off Wayfarers. We left the outdoor mall and crossed under the 580 overpass and there were these strange two-dimensional metal sculptures in the likeness of humans, but almost double the size of normal humans. They looked monstrous. Holes were cut out for the eyes and the mouths. The other features that made them identifiable as humans were grotesque. One was the sculpture of a man speeding along in his wheelchair. Two others were boys kicking a soccer ball. “Public art,” I said.
“Hardly,” Chris said. “They shouldn’t allow sculptures of humans doing things that real humans might be doing in the space that they are doing them.”
I laughed. “Who would do those things under an overpass anyway?”
“Exactly. It’s insane.”
Then we came out from underneath the overpass and made our way out onto the jetty and past Trader Vic’s and I told Chris that that’s where my great uncle—not my mom’s brother, but her grandma’s sister’s husband—took our family to eat after Jason graduate from Cal.
“Seems like a place you’d get taken by an uncle.”
We strolled out toward the bay and the sun was setting on the other side of the Golden Gate, way out past the Pacific. The water flashed, the traffic raced over the Bay Bridge from the East Bay to SF. The city was a silhouette, the most prominent building no longer the Transamerica Pyramid, but the Salesforce Tower. American cities are vertical, Baudrillard wrote. Except for Los Angeles. Los Angeles was horizontal. We talked about getting unemployment since we weren’t teaching for the summer.
“Baja, man,” I said.
“About Baja,” Chris answered. “Don’t know if I can do Baja.”
Baja was two weeks away. I didn’t want to put pressure on him. “I guess I could go by myself,” I said. “Rent a car. Surf alone.”
Chris squinted out toward the bay. “Let me think about it.”
And that’s where we left it.
“Where do kids who grow up in Marin end up? Do most of them move into San Francisco?”
“The jocks,” Chris replied, “and the popular types end up in the Marina.”
“All of my friends where I grew up moved away. Out east. One in LA.”
He didn’t seem interested.
“You been writing?” I asked him.
He said he wrote a poem while he was housesitting in Sonoma. “I recorded it.” He took out his phone. “You wanna hear it?” He touched the face of it, swiped his finger. “Wait a second.” Then he handed me his phone. “Now listen.”
I took it and put it up to my ear. It was about bees in a pool, and whales and water and the air. It was a beautiful poem. I looked at Chris and he grimaced and winced. “It’s good,” I said. “Lovely.”
“Nah.” He shook his head.
“You should send it out. Get it published.”
I could see him considering it.
“Don’t think. Only do.”
“Zen mind, beginner’s mind,” Chris said.
“Zen mind, beginner’s mind,” I repeated. “You know that humans were thought to have come down from the trees, right?”
“Now we think that they came down from the trees to the land to the water and then back to the land.”
“How do they know that?”
“Our skin,” I said. “Our bodies aren’t covered in hair. We don’t learn to walk until we’re about one year old. Infants automatically hold their breaths under water.”
“Where’d you find this out?”
“I read it somewhere I don’t remember now.”
We walked back down the jetty away from the bay toward the cinema. We got inside the theater, found seats and for the half hour before the movie started I thought about bees and whales and humans descending from the trees and ascending from the water. I closed my eyes and hoped Chris would come to Baja. I imagined the cabana, the beach. I felt the hot arid desert air and I imagined I would call Malalai, and tell her to come down and Chris would go back to Northern California and Malalai and I would never return to the United States and Chris would write more poems about things and he would send me them in recordings and I would listen on my phone during sunsets and forget everything except bees and whales and Malalai’s hand warm in mine.
Joel Tomfohr‘s work has appeared in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Hobart, BULL, and others. He has been a resident at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Cultural Center in New York Mills, and the Vermont Studio Center. He holds an MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. You can find him online at joeltomfohr.com. He lives in Oakland, CA.