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.