Friday, January 25, 2013

Beach Walk

     It wasn't love at first sight. Not really. Interest at first sight, yeah, or maybe even infatuation at first sight. But not love. I'm too cynical to believe in that.
     I first saw Diane one summer night in Ojai, California, in a local tavern where she'd been tending bar for about a week. I asked for a beer, and my first thought was that she was polite enough, but with a thick icy veneer. She was tall, about five-ten, with long brown hair and matching brown eyes. She wasn't strikingly beautiful, but she was pretty in a non-Hollywood way. And, to paraphrase a line from a movie, I've never been the kind of guy who'd fall for a woman you might win in a raffle.
     "I'm Steve," I said.
     "Diane," she said, in what I'd come to think of as her polite-but-not-friendly delivery. And that was pretty much the extent of our "conversation." I wondered how she'd look if she ever smiled. I wondered if she ever smiled. I tried to ask her personal questions--nothing too personal, mind you--but she deflected them. Politely. About the only thing I got out of her other than name, rank, and serial number was that she owned a Harley. She'd seen me park my own out front, but she offered no hint that she might be interested in going for a ride together sometime.
     My friends Dave and Rita were half-owners of the bar, so the next morning, I called to ask Rita what she knew about the new girl. Rita had a way of wheedling someone's life story out of them, whether they wanted to share it or not.
     Rita said, "She's nice enough, she's always on time, and she's a hard worker, but she sure as hell doesn't share much about her life." I thought I detected just a hint of "how dare her" attitude in Rita's tone.
     "Did she grow up here?" I asked.
     "Nope. Prescott, Arizona. I did learn one thing about her though."
     "What's that?"
     "It was dead in the bar, only two customers, so we were both watching the TV on the wall. Summer Olympic highlights. She sort of froze in place when they showed the women's high jump."
     "Do you know why?"
     "Geez, just let me tell the damn story, will ya?"
     I smiled. Rita was the sort who could tell friends and family to go to hell, and yet what they'd hear would be, "I love you."
     "I guess I caught her in an unguarded moment, because she said, 'I was on the track team in high school. I did the 440 and the high jump.'"
     Rita muffled the phone, and I heard her yell at Dave to take out the trash. She came back to me, thankfully for Dave. "That's when she surprised me."
     "How so?" I asked.
     I heard Rosie take a breath. "She looked right at me, with tears in her eyes. It was the first time I'd seen her show any emotion. Really. I was starting to wonder if I'd hired a robot. She never acted happy; she never acted sad. She never acted angry, either, or even irritated."
     "Did you find out why she looked sad?"
     "Geez, just let me tell the damn story, will ya?"
     I chuckled. "Okay, Rita. Sorry."
     She went on. "She told me that she did okay in the 440, but that the high jump was her event. She set the state record for high school women in the high jump. I could tell she was proud, but something tells me she's never been one to brag."
     Seeing an opening for a little jab, I chuckled again.
     "What's so damn funny?"
     "Gosh, Rita, I was thinking that she sounds just as modest as you."
     "Steve, you can just kiss my rosy ass cheeks."
     "I'd love to, but your husband doesn't seem inclined to share. Some best friend he turned out to be."
     "You should be so lucky."
     "Don't I know it."
     "Do you want me to tell the damn story, or not?"
     "Yes, ma'am. I'm so very sorry."
     "Uh huh. Sure you are, wiseass. Anyway, she told me she set that state record as a junior. When I asked how her senior year went, she said she didn't compete that year, and gave up on going to college."
     "Geez, why?"
     "She got pregnant by an assistant coach. He skipped town, she had the baby, and gave up the little girl for adoption. She said, 'That was three years ago, and I wonder every day about that little girl.' Then she went to the restroom. I didn't see her for a half hour."
     "Wow." I really couldn't say much more than that.

     Over the months, Diane gradually warmed up to me, although certainly not to the point that we were sharing deep, dark secrets. I knew better than to hit on her, because I'd seen her cut guys off at the knees who thought themselves her Romeo. She even mentioned her track and field accomplishments now and then, although there was still no brag in her. I told her one night that I'd run track in eighth grade and during my freshman year in high school, but that I'd given it up.
     I smiled. Or maybe it was a grimace. "I started out looking like a natural. I broke the record for the triple jump and high jump at my junior high. But in high school, it seemed like the more I practiced, the worse I got. I quit halfway through the season. It was embarrassing."
     She looked at me, shrugging and looking vaguely sympathetic. "It's such a mental game. Especially in the jumping events, I think."
     Summer faded away, and fall and cooler weather came. I kept going to the tavern twice a week or so. Diane continued to grow friendlier, but incrementally. Usually, we talked about track and field, or motorcycles, or camping. Anything but her. Anything but me.
     Two days before Christmas, Rita called.
     "Diane said you haven't been by the bar this week."
     "Diane said that?"
     "No, dipshit, I dreamed it. Yes, Diane mentioned that you haven't been by, and she seemed kind of concerned."
     "Rita, don't screw with me. What the hell makes you think Diane was 'concerned.'"
     "Because I'm a woman, not a dumb-ass man. I've worked with her for several months now, and I know how to read her. Sort of. You like her, don't you?"
     "Well, yeah. I like what I know of her."
     "Then have some balls and ask her the out. Quit using your big head and let the little head take over."
     I laughed. If only Rita could learn to express herself.
     "Rita, what makes you think the other head is so little?"
     "You wear a big watch."
     "Seriously, Steve, you need to ask her out."
     "Kiss my rosy ass cheeks, smartass."
     "Okay, I'll fire up the bike and ride up there."
     "Dumbass, it's in the low forties out there. Take your car."
     "Nope, Rita, I'm taking the bike. It's providence."
     "No Steve, it's peckerheaded stupid."
     "I love you, Rita."
     "Damn right you do."

     I got there at dusk, and saw that the only other motorcycle in the lot was Diane's. When I walked in, she was bending below the bar. When she straightened, I was right in front of her. She jumped. And then she smiled.
     She smiled.
     "Where have you been, Steve?"
     Steve. She called me Steve. I didn't remember her using my name before.
     "I had a cold. Didn't want to spread my germs around."
      I ordered a beer, and she said "Merry Christmas" when she placed it in front of me. Trying not to look nervous, I reached under my jacket and brought out a plastic tube protecting one yellow rose. Rita had told me a yellow rose wouldn't be threatening.
     Diane's eyes widened. "Merry Christmas," I said.
     She walked around the bar and to me. I stood, and she wrapped her arms around me. I hugged her back.
     "Merry Christmas," she whispered, and kissed my cheek. I felt fifteen years-old again.
     "Merry Christmas," I said back. Steeling myself for a "no," I thought of how to ask her out.
     "Steve, what're you doing tomorrow?"
     Whoa. An unexpected development?
     "Going to my parents' place to open presents."
     "Me too. Want to go for a walk on the beach in the afternoon?"
     "I'd love that. Gonna be cold, y'know."
     "Yeah, I know." She smiled, and I thought her smile looked the slightest bit flirtatious. I hoped it wasn't my imagination, fueled by wishful thinking.

The phone rang at five in the morning. Diane had said she'd check with me late in the morning. But I felt thrilled at the mere possibility that she could be calling. Something about the idea of her calling so early seemed intimate. If she was calling before dawn, no matter the reason, it could mean the door into her life was swinging open just a bit more. Or, it could be that I was grasping at straws.
     It was Dave. I could hear Rita crying in the background. In all the years I'd known Rita, I'd only seen or heard or cry twice: the day she got married (although she denied that one), and the day she learned that she could never conceive a child. 
     "Dave, what the hell is going on?"
     I heard Dave take a breath. "Diane was in an accident last night."
     "Is she in the hospital?"
     "No, buddy." Dave took another long breath. "Steve, she died. She's gone."
     We talked for a few more minutes, but I remember nothing of the words. 
     A witness driving behind Diane's bike said that she veered to the right off of the road, and ran into a telephone pole. The brake light never came on. She hit the pole at highway speed.
     The autopsy came back with the finding that Diane had suffered an aneurysm. They said she was likely dead before she hit the telephone pole. At the funeral, I kept imagining that Merry Christmas hug, and her kiss on my cheek.
     Three years and a week later, I rode up to Dave and Rita's place for their ten-year anniversary party. I picked up the bicycle with training wheels off of the front lawn, and went around the side of the house and through the gate to the back yard. The barbecue was smoking, people were laughing, and kids were playing off to the side.
     Rita spotted me, and ran at me until I caught her in my arms. She kissed my cheek, and said, "She's been asking where you were."
     "No, dumbass, the eighty year-old gal across the street."
     "Wow. She really asked about me? Where is she?"
      "In her room reading a book, but at least this time she's leaving the door open."
     Dave and Rita had adopted Susie out of foster care fourteen months after Diane's death. The two-year anniversary of Susie coming to live with them was approaching, and I was sure Dave and Rita would have another party for the occasion. I wondered if Susie would spend her time during that party in her bedroom too.
     I made my way through the house and found Susie on her bed with an open book. I chuckled at the quintessential look of a six year-old girl's bedroom. Rita had spared no detail. Susie heard me and looked up. 
     "Hi," she said.
     "Hi, Susie. You want to come out to the back yard with me?"
     "Maybe later. I want to read my book for awhile."
     "Okay, Sweetie. I'll come back to check on you in a little while."
     I walked back down the hallway, but just before I turned the corner to the back yard, she called my name.
     "Uncle Steve?"
     Dave and Rita had been referring to me as "Uncle Steve" since Susie's arrival, but that was the first time she'd ever attached "Uncle" to my name. I had to clear my throat as I turned around. Something seemed caught in it.
     "Yeah, Sweetie."
     "Would you read my book to me?"
     "I'd love to read to you."
      I read to her for a half hour. It was a book about a little girl who befriends a talking dragon. I added some dramatic flourishes when the dragon talked, and Susie giggled. Finally, she announced that she was hungry. I walked her down the hallway, and as we walked into the back yard, she put her little hand in mine.
     I looked down at her, seeing her rich brown hair, her dark eyes, her oh-so-serious expression. So much like her mother.
     I thought to that night three years earlier, when I'd tossed and turned, unable to sleep out of excitement. I was going for a walk with Diane. Yeah, I thought all the normal guy things, and visited the normal guy fantasies, like falling to the sand and making love, immune to the bitter cold in the heat of passion. But, I kept coming back to one little fantasy. We would walk. We would talk. We would laugh. We would have a good time.
     And we would hold hands. I felt like if I'd met her on the beach that Christmas Day afternoon, we would have held hands. For three years after her death, I'd wondered what how it would feel to hold Diane's hand, walking along the shore, bundled against the cold.
     I didn't know if the six year-old little girl's hand in mine felt like a miniature version of her mother's. I would never know.
     But I hoped Diane was watching.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Birthday Surprise

     Harry's dismal attempt at joking with the bouncer in Spanish had fallen flat. A bored looking dancer gyrated on stage until the M.C. announced in English, "Let's have a big hand for Luscious!" Anemic applause.
     "I'm looking for the owner, if the owner's name is Paul. Paul Miller, maybe."
     The bouncer looked like he'd been slapped. He glared at Harry, then cold-cocked him.
      Harry came to three blocks away, in an Ensenada alleyway, with a dog licking his face. He tried to stand up, but fell against the wall behind him, sliding to his butt. He sat there, collecting himself, willing the feeling to come back to his limbs.
     He imagined being back in the hospital in Santa Barbara, sitting by his ninety-eight year-old grandfather's death bed.
     "That you Harry?"
     "Yeah, Grandpa. How you doing?"
     "Not worth a shit. Harry?"
     "Yeah, Grandpa?"
     "How old are you now?"
     "I'm forty-eight today."
     "Happy birthday."
     "I promised I'd never speak of what I'm about to tell you . . . "
     His grandfather seemed to fade away for a moment. Harry took his hand and squeezed it gently, tears rolling from his eyes.
     His grandpa came back.
     "Yeah, Grandpa. I'm here."
     "You remember Lois, the gal you worked for when you came to visit us that one whole summer in Arkansas?"
     Oh, yeah. He remembered Lois. He was fourteen, and she was thirty-eight, but the age difference disappeared that day she took off her clothes.
     "Of course, Grandpa. You remember, don't you?" He could tell his grandfather anything, and he'd told her about Lois. At the end of the summer, it was his grandfather who broke the news that Lois and her husband were getting back together.
     "Oh yeah, I remember," the old man said. He chuckled, and for a moment, Harry thought that he sounded like the grandpa of old, the guy who still tossed hay bales around in his eighties.
     "Harry, you remember the next summer, when you came back, and I told you that Lois and her husband had a baby?"
     "Lois called me over to her place when their boy went off to college in Fayetteville. She was really upset about 'her baby boy' leaving the nest. Her husband was off on a trip, and she'd been drinking. That's when she told me."
     "Told you what?"
     "That the boy, Paul, was yours. She'd been a nurse before she got married, and she knew the boy couldn't be her husband's because of his blood type."
     Harry sat stunned. He was forty-eight, and he might have a thirty-three year-old son. A son. Out there somewhere. "Do you think she told the truth, Grandpa?"
     "Yeah, I do. Reach in that drawer there, and take my address book with you. Look for a Darlene Miller. She was Lois's younger sister. Probably still lives in Little Rock. She knows too. Call her. She might help you find Paul."
     "Yeah, Paul. Your son."


     He walked out of the Ensenada alleyway, found his bearings, and began walking back to the strip club. He rehearsed his lines, the lines he'd offer to the bouncer with the hope of avoiding being dumped in another alley, or worse.
     "My name is Harry. I once knew a woman named Lois. If your boss is named Paul, and he's thirty-three years old, he may be my son. Please don't hit me again."
     He turned the corner, and saw the neon sign for the bar. As he neared the entrance, he gathered himself for what was to come.
     He was not a man to waffle on responsibilities.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Cafe and the Sea

They sat together, the three of them, sipping coffee in the empty restaurant. John, the owner, looked at his two remaining employees.

"You two can leave. No pressure to stay. I'd understand. People are heading south, you know? They're heading south so they can survive the winter if the power and gas go away."

Rich looked at his boss. How he'd hated him before the flu came. He was such a grumpy old fucker, who could never be bothered with a "good morning" or "have a nice night." But the flu did come, and John lost his wife and two daughters. Rich lost his mom and brother, and still wondered about the father he'd never met. Elaine, an only child, lost her mom and dad.

John, Rich had decided, was a man of substance, grumpy fucker or not. The boss that Elaine and he had tolerated to make a little money for college had proven made of iron.

Rich glanced at Elaine, who just rolled her eyes and smiled.

"John, if we leave, who will you have to pick on?" Rich said. "All of our customers are cops or military now. You mouth off to them, somebody might shoot your ass."

They all laughed. "You have a point there," John said.

The three of them finished their coffees. John said, "Well, we'd best start prepping for dinner. That National Guard unit from Stockton is coming into town tonight." He looked down for a moment. "I'm serious, you two. They say the winter will be a bitch this time around. The major promised me he'd get us out of here if everything winds down, but what if something happens to him?"

Rich had a quick, smart-ass retort at the tip of his tongue, but felt himself tearing up. Dammit. He looked at Elaine for help.

"John, we're not leaving you. You'd fall apart without us," she said.
John smiled. "You two are such a pain in my ass. I should have fired you both months ago."
Rich said, "Too late now, boss. You're stuck with us."

John went back to prep the kitchen while Rich and Elaine set up for dinner. John put on some of his old college-era disco music. As usual, Rich and Elaine yelled in protest, and as usual, they heard John's pirate laugh in response.

They moved about to the beat of the music, lost in the rhythm of their movements, a new family thrown together in a sea of death, waiting for the sharks to circle, or a drifting lifeboat.

Prompted by Thom G.'s Three Word Wednesday.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No Country

He looked across the street at the headquarters of the magazine. A music magazine, yes, but so much more. He found himself wishing they'd never moved from San Francisco to New York. It always seemed easier to get away with things in San Francisco.

It was foolish for him to stand in one place for so long, disguise or no, but he kept peering toward the building. If he made it through the front door, they wouldn't kill him, but they would arrest him. For starters. If they were there.

He felt his pants sagging, and cinched his belt buckle a notch. He guessed that he was down to about ten percent body fat, the lowest since college two decades earlier. The silver lining of life on the run.

Although he'd spent three years in the field before taking a higher position with the agency, he knew that his ability to evade capture or death was more a matter of dumb luck than knowledge or skill. His field missions were mainly low-risk, ticket-punching endeavors to retain credibility later, when perhaps he would be in a position to have people jump when he told them to move. It worked that way when your dad was a high-level agency type.

He thought of his dad's friend and mentor Al, who'd been a staff member under Eisenhower, both during his time as a five-star and as president. He remembered standing by Al's death bed, and how Al focused on him after his dad went to the restroom.

"David, all of them are true."
"All of what, Uncle Al?"
"All of those conspiracy theories."

Al mentioned one name, a mid-level type in the agency, and fell silent.

The woman told him. Indeed, most of those conspiracy theories were true. He already knew about the big-money plot to overthrow FDR in 1930; it was well-documented, if largely ignored. So too the JFK assassination. But the other revelations left him reeling: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, RFK, the take-down of Nixon by the CIA via the Watergate scandal, The Jonestown Massacre, the stolen elections, and the plan to end democracy.

David willed his feet to move, but they wouldn't. Strangely, he felt less afraid of death than the possibility that he wouldn't be taken seriously. It didn't help that he'd spent a half-hour wedged between a wall and a dumpster, waiting for his senses to stop rattling.

He walked across the street, and through the door. A journalist he recognized--only his beard and hair were longer than in his magazine photo--was walking out.

David met his eyes. The journalist stopped.

"Say man, it looks like you've been on the lam."
"I have," David said.
The journalist looked him up and down. "If I had to guess, I'd say you were an agency type gone to seed."
"You'd be right."

They walked to the elevator. Once inside, he held his hand out to David. "Name's Stan," he said.

"I know. Stan, did you ever play 'connect the dots' as a kid?"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Demise

He idled at the side of the road, looking at the revival tent. He shut off the engine. He imagined running into the tent and screaming at all those people to get away from that used-car salesman who offered them packaged hope and contrived conditions for reaching heaven. He didn't, because he also imagined getting hauled off in cuffs by a sheriff's deputy.
Funny thing. He believed in God, now more than ever. But he was angry at God. Very angry.
He started the car, and drove to the supermarket to restock his empty refrigerator. He stopped at the booze aisle and pondered the numbness promised by a bottle of V.O. "No thanks," he said to the bottle, and walked on. He stopped by the beer coolers. "No thanks," he said to the cases of brew. He saw his reflection in the glass door. "You look like crap," he said to the reflection. 
He drove home, put the groceries away, and looked at the calendar. Ten more days of what he used to think of as his real life. Ten more days, and then he would drive away from the Houston suburb to a dock in Louisiana, where he would spend twenty-eight days captaining an offshore work boat, taking supplies to offshore oil rigs. His stint on the vessel felt like his real life now, since she left the earth.
He looked out the kitchen window in time to see her husband and son arrive across the street. It was Thursday, and normally, the eight year-old Bobby would be knocking on his door, telling him that his mom and dad were inviting him to dinner.
That was before Bobby's mom was taken from them by a drunk driver. She was coming home from a PTA meeting with an ice cream cake in the back seat.
He would never tell Bobby or his dad how much he loved her. There was nothing sneaky or underhanded about her, and never had there been more than a hug between them, but those hugs nourished his soul. He would never tell her husband and son that either.
He hadn't talked to Bobby or his dad since the funeral, but tomorrow, he would ask them to dinner. He would try to get them to talk. He would do his best to fill just a little of the vacuum in their lives. He would look in Bobby's eyes, those eyes so much like her's, and try not to cry.

Three Word Wednesday

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pennies in a Well

He did the zombie-like terminal shuffle through the airport. Another book signing on the other side of the country, another too-long layover in San Francisco.

He took out his phone and accessed his bank account. He pondered the balance, ballooned by an honest-to-God advance from one of the few major publishers left. And now, they were looking at his previous ebooks, and talking more advances.

So now he had an editor to answer to, a man who already seemed bent on pushing him to the edge of pandering to an audience. A man who didn't seem to appreciate that his first successful ebook, a collection of short stories, had been titled, "We Don't Need No Stinking Genre."

He was scared, and sad. His dream had come true. He was a successful author now. And yet, he couldn't embrace success. Instead, he wrapped himself in regret over the life he was leaving behind.

His friends were treating him differently. He missed his job. He missed his coworkers, even the buttheads.

He never dreamed that success could be such a curse.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One Last Earthset

He sat in the dome in the control room, monitoring the mining bots, pondering his future.

There wasn't much future to ponder. He'd been on the moon for seven months. Three months left on his contract. Williams and Deming were dead, killed while in a rover by the same meteorite storm that had taken out the oxygen-producing facility and the CO2 scrubbers.

Houston Control had been a contract facility for several years, owned by a corporation focused on the bottom line. He'd been surprised how long it took them to abandon rescue efforts after the aborted shuttle rescue. They held on to hope for quite a while longer than the bottom line would suggest was sensible.

They held on to hope, while at the same time, he gradually gained a purchase on reality. He wasn't going home.

He cycled through the outside monitors, watching the precise movements of the bots. He checked on the CO2 levels in the dome. Getting high. Soon, it would be time to suit up. With the oxygen available in the suits, he could hold out for another day or so, but not long enough for rescue.

He cued up the transmission from his son, watched it for the fiftieth time, and cried.

He decided to suit up early. He downloaded his son's video to his suit. He went through the airlocks, and outside.

He thought about taking one of the rovers to Mazatlan, the golf course, but he'd left his clubs inside. Instead, he walked south for several minutes to the first hole, and sat down, leaning back against a nearby boulder.

He thought about his divorce. He thought about that old line: "But it didn't MEAN anything!" It was true, really. That woman in Pensacola had meant nothing to him; she was nothing more than a way to scratch an itch. But she'd meant a lot to Cathy, oh yeah. Enough to end a marriage.

Tommy had been but seven years old when he moved out. For the first year, Tommy was brave, trying to act as if everything were normal, as if Daddy had just gone away temporarily. But by the time he was nine, he began distancing himself, and by twelve, he hated his father and wanted nothing to do with him.

He left for the moon on Tommy's twenty-third birthday.

He leaned more fully against the boulder, and watched the half-earth settling toward the horizon. He could see North America.

With a start, he realized he'd donned the wrong suit. He'd chosen the one with little oxygen left. He began to get up, intending to trudge back to the dome to get a suit with a full supply. But he stopped, and settled back against the boulder.

It just felt like the right time.

As earth touched the horizon, he brought Tommy's video up on his visor.

He saw Tommy's face, with his longish light brown hair and that silly little smile, the one he'd hardly seen through his teen years.

"Hi, Dad," he began. But tears filled his eyes, and he hung his head for a half-minute.

"I heard the news." He paused again to compose himself.

"I don't know if I can get through this, Dad, but I'm gonna try. I've been mad at you for a long time. When you hurt mom, I tried to deny it. But then I got to the stage where I was mad at you. Then I hated you. Then I tried to forget you."

Tears from Tommy again. Another pause.

"But when I heard the news, I found myself remembering what a wonderful dad you were during our time together. You always had time to play with me, you always had time to talk to me, and you always made me feel important. I wish I could have told you this before . . . the news, but I was still wrapped in anger."

"Dad, I know now that you left me with more than you took away. You screwed up. You hurt Mom, more than you know. But Dad . . ."

More tears.

"But Dad, you made me who I am. I'll always have you with me. Dad, I love you, and I'm sorry I ever quit telling you that."

He replayed the last part several times, until his breathing grew labored. He looked at the gauge. Zero.

He looked back toward the earthset. He reached to replay the video, but he couldn't move his arm. Soon, he realized he could no longer see.

But, he could still feel. He could feel himself smiling.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday.