Sunday

III - Tar Pits

Alex - a Greek - or a Russian or something - had given him the news. He'd failed the credit check. Ho hum.

Where would he live?

Live nowhere? Or maybe live like Thoreau. Live like the lilies of the field. Or...

Ho! How great and perfect was the white light reflecting off the flowers and lawns of this evergreen city! The light! And the eye-cleansing breeze!

Brandishing a tuna sandwich, he walked the park in awe, well-pleased with creation and unafraid. The breeze had lofted enterprising seagulls inland from the Pacific and their wings were translucent Japanese paper transmitting the sunlight.

Gulls are carrion birds. He loved to watch them. They hopped and squalled and squawked and they devoured waste. They perched on the rims of oil barrel trashcans and dipped in and spread refuse about and they walked and they flew, and it was strange to see so many, many animals - animals, wild animals - walking around and flying around here in his busy city on his busy lunch hour.

He supposed they must be at it all day, though he only saw them during his brief break. Unless they took only one hour for lunch too. Possible?

He finished the sandwich, wiped his hands with the paper bag, and threw the bag into an oil barrel trashcan, then walked the asphalt path circumnavigating the park's eponymous centerpiece - The La Brea Tar Pits.

Idiotic name. As every Angeleno will tell you.

"La Brea" means "the tar". So to say "The La Brea Tar Pits" is to say "The The Tar Tar Pits".

The ancient smell.

The ancient petrol smell of the past - the tar. It brought to his mind notions of new roads and ways and of tanned men in filthy jeans - Mexican men - working in hours of sunshine laying boiling tar on boiling streets. Men far from home, standing on, dragging tools across, other men's roofs.

He visited the Tar Pits with his dad when he was seven. His father had taken him to the L.A. County Museum of Art which stood hard by. He didn't remember much about the museum, except that it seemed to be under construction - scaffolding and plastic sheeting dangling like banners and loud sounds of workers. But he remembered clearly walking past The La Brea Tar Pits. Stopping with his father and peering through the fence at something that was not a pool of water.

The place's Master Pit is an oblong pond about a hundred meters by fifty meters that vents, at all hours, natural gas. Not far below the surface of the pond, a few feet maybe, there lurks an oozing caldera of hot tar that presses up from below the earth, pushing out into the world through a geological peristalsis. Every moment of every day for a hundred thousand years this football field swollen fat with petroleum, expels countless volumes of dreadful emissions. Plop, plop, plop - all across the surface great bubbles billow up. It is a carboniferous zit that has come to a head and continues to ooze - and to ooze.

And feverish mosquito men dip probosci into the veins and channels and underflows below and live on the riches sucked out.

He remembered seeing the Tar Pits. But more than the Tar Pits, he remembered seeing the mastodons. Who could forget seeing mastodons?

On the other side of the fence, fifty feet from where he stood back then, from where he stood right now, was a mastodon. It had the general build and hide of an Indian elephant, but the rustic lower jaw jutted far forward and the tusks were overlong, stretching, competing with the trunk.

The mastodon, an enraged grey mountain at the pond's edge, bellowed helplessly as he watched his mate, water halfway up her back, sinking into the hidden tar. At the bull's side stood a big-eared, big-eyed calf, little trunk worming out, mimicking its father, no sense that its mother, huffing and grunting twenty feet away, was lying in her grave.

The mother bellowed, struggling, trying to shrug the tar off as she would throw a tenacious predator. Pushing tugging and tugging and bellowing and tugging with strength enough to plucks trees out of the ground. And then with a guttural bellow, exhausted stopping to gasp like a furnace. Then - despite having torn her own muscles with the massive effort - doing the same thing again.

The Tar Pit permits movement in only one direction. Down.

The harder she tried to live, the sooner she would die. Soon the tar would begin to cup her great barrel body and the weight of it would vise her ribcage closed. Her massive diaphragm and lungs would fight valiantly - an oak defying an avalanche...and then...and then...and then...she would be suffocated long before she vanished beneath the surface. The constrictors - boa, python, anaconda - do not kill by crushing, but contain their prey in their coils and wait till the prey exhales before drawing subtly tighter. And then tighter with next exhalation, and the next, and the next, and so their prey, with no space left for air to be, suffocates. The tar pit constricts identically.

Condors circled as she died. The first to land nipped out the glassy, barely blinking eyes. Dire wolves might run the length of the pit, back and forth, barking, hunger-eager, but wise to the danger, well aware that this was not a free meal, but they remained in the area, waiting to feed on the other carrion feeders who would be lured by the mastodon's cries.

One condor, hopped off the mastodon carcass and taking to the air caught just a bare wingtip in the tar, enough to stutter the take off, requiring an extra push off with a foot, which touched tar, the wings touched the tar too. Down he went, flapping like an idiot in the tar, doomed too.

The bull stood by all night and all the next day. Pacing and bellowing. Running off the wolves time and again. Trumpeting impotently at the dancing condors dipping into the cow's slowly disappearing mouth, tearing pieces from her broad tongue.

Eventually, the wolves overrun him. They take down the calf first. They kill it. The father kills many wolves first, but they did kill the calf and dragged it away in pieces. The bull bleeds. He will die there by the side of the pit.

Animal eats animal eats animal. Living things eat living these. Horrible way to die. But this is how a lion's share of creatures meet their end - murdered by a fellow beast, eaten by his fellow, chewed swallowed and digested by his fellow. Sometimes murdered beforehand. Sometimes left to die in the stomach.

He stood looking through the fence, with a few curious others, peering down at a slow motion commotion at the tar pit's edge.

A big round black man grabbed was grabbing a healthy young girl by the waist, anchoring her.

The girl's gloved hands were immersed in the black pool.

Periscoping from the surface was the head of a bird.

A seagull had somehow gotten stuck, badly stuck, in the tar pit.

The girl birthed the gull from the pit, pulling it, working it gently like a tooth - pulling and releasing then pulling and releasing then pulling and wrapping it in a white smock - exactly like the one she had on. She was a doctor? She was a veterinarian? She was a scientist?

After a long miserable time of it, the gull came free. It trailed a tail of black tail like blackblack paper, or syrup or licorice frosting, or like a snake with half a dozen shiny black skinny tails stretching. Its hooked, long beak was harshly stained.

The girl and man set the bird in a clean cardboard box - "Waste Management"

"Will the bird live?" he asked.

The woman pointed her hand at him and seesawed it left and right.

A small crowd of men and women and children too had gathered, peering in at the animal in the box - unwhite beaked head jutting from a kelpy black web.

The lid was shut. The box was taken away.

He chose to believe this:

The doomed gull, like its condor forefathers, had been diving down to feed upon the paralyzed fiberglass mastodon in the pit. Realizing its error at the last instant, it aborted and ditched onto what was surely only the calm surface of a pond.