I remember the nights in Santa Cruz as darker than nights other places. I’m sure this has to do with my state of mind when I lived there. Even so, I remember that I could feel just below the surface of the town’s smug self-satisfaction an undercurrent of seething resentment. It had, I believe, to do with money. How a number of people in and around Santa Cruz had unimaginable amounts of it while everybody else, including people with good-paying jobs, or what used to be considered good-paying jobs, like professors and chiropractors, were living paycheck to paycheck. And yet there seemed to be this unwritten edict that those who had somehow managed to hang on were expected to fall to their knees every day and kiss the ground for the privilege of living in Santa Cruz. It is true. The beaches are wide, are glorious, but this sort of obligatory genuflection cuts to the bone. Not that I spoke to a soul about any of this. I lived in a shoebox off Soquel Avenue for 10 months, and aside from my students, who’d vanish so fast after class I’d be left standing there wondering if they’d been there at all, I don’t remember having a single conversation with anyone. As an adjunct, I was so far down the food chain I didn’t exist. I’d go and get my hair cut, I was so lonely for some fingers.
They weren’t paying me enough to live, but I had to sleep somewhere. For the first two weeks of the term, I stayed at the Capri Motor Inn. The drain was clogged, and every time I took a shower, I’d stand ankle deep in water that reeked of urine. I hoped at least it was my own. I’d lived in worse places. The room came with a mini-fridge and microwave. But that year I had hopes. I was teaching at a genuine accredited university. I answered an ad on Craigslist for a cheap, one-room rental. It was up in the mountains, near a place called Bonny Doon. Sounded cheerful. Bonny Doon, a place you could dance to. For some reason, I drove up there at night. The darkness around Santa Cruz is heavily populated. You never knew what your headlights were going to pick up on those mountain roads. Around one curve, I lit up a couple humping, happily, violently, on the edge of the trees.
Peter Orner’s memoir, Am I Alone Here?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he has twice received a Pushcart Prize. He is a former member of the Volunteer Fire Department in Bolinas, California.
Excerpted from Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner. Published by Little, Brown on July 2, 2019. © 2019 Peter Orner.