THIS THING WE CALL LOVE
A collection of short fiction
By John Szabo
"A fresh and entertaining collection of short stories about love take the reader on a personal journey of self-discovery...a talented, unique new voice."
-- Kirkus Reviews
Some of these stories have previously appeared in The Toronto Quarterly, The Rockford Review, The James Dickey Quarterly, BLUELINE Literary Review and The Stillwater Review.
Szabo earned his BA at UC Irvine and received his MA in Journalism at Indiana University, where he also took creative writing courses. He has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Los Angeles Times.
Szabo examines seemingly prosaic yet seminal moments in our lives told with a solid dose of dead on dry wit.
A rich, wide-ranging collection of stories about all of us; flawed characters, struggling to navigate a minefield of disillusionment and often painful life history, before finding redemption and perspective.
STORY SYNOPSIS & AUTHOR NOTES
An accomplished writer suffers a midlife crisis when he is informed that an urn of his mother's ashes have been found in a security deposit box and he is asked to fulfill her final request; sprinkle them in the surf below their home where she drowned saving him as a child.
This story originated from my dream diary.
A motorcycle accident victim is instantly transformed, from a blissful ride through a wildlife preserve, to an emergency room.
This story partly autobiographical based on my motorcycle accident.
"Swimming to Catalina "
A man hospitalized for a nervous breakdown realizes that his real strength lies deep within.
This is about a tough period in my life from which I emerged a better, more complete, healthier person. In the hospital I met a youth who I felt I helped by listening and witnessed an act of violence, both described in the story.
An unemployed executive wanders the financial district of San Francisco, convinced he must connect with a mysterious woman he follows obsessively.
I was unemployed in San Francisco from a failed software startup. I dressed up and dined at buffets and read newspapers, all gratis but intended for paying guests, at swanky hotels.
"This Thing We Call Love"
A man struggles with whether or not he is in love and the meaning and significance of monogamous, romantic love.
Based on a Vegas road trip with a woman I was dating.
A recently married young couple, Jeff, a newspaper reporter, and Tina, an AIDS researcher, have an epic meltdown during a long drive from San Francisco to Crescent City that challenges the strength of their relationship.
This is about a woman I dated for a few months in San Francisco, who insisted I catch moths in our bedroom by hand, and safely release them outside.
A Parisian pigeon, a gifted abstract painter who quotes Tolstoy, reveals the colorful lives and adventures of rebellious, artistic pigeons.
I attended the prestigious Frieze Art Fair in London, where one of the esteemed galleries featured canvases splattered with pigeon shit complete with pretentious art booth girls who dressed in black and spouted pseudo-intellectual psychobabble.
A successful Hollywood scriptwriter returns to his childhood home of Toledo, Ohio, to visit his ailing father, but struggles to repair their strained relationship.
One summer I worked at The Toledo Blade as a reporter and rented a room in an expansive, vintage Victorian from a third-generation Toledo, Ohio couple.
"And Then Things Went Bad"
Scott’s plan to divorce his wife Sharon, just before he becomes a .com millionaire after the IPO of his company, is thrown for an unexpected twist.
I watched a dominatrix and a businessman meet in a lobby bar in San Francisco during a software industry trade show and let my imagination run wild.
A middle-aged man confronts a group of kids bothering him at his river sanctuary.
Based loosely on a friend in Healdsburg, California.
Copyright 2014 by John Szabo
This work is registered with:
The Writers Guild of America, West
Registration Number: 1700211
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Final draft of book is pending publication with the Author Solutions division of Penguin Publishing.
For permission requests, or other inquiries, contact John Szabo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While some of these stories have previously appeared in literary fiction and academic journals all have been significantly revised.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This book is dedicated to my parents Joseph and Irene Szabo.
"Any idiot can face a crisis; it's day to day living that wears you out."
-- Anton Chekov
"A little imagination and a lot of autobiography make the best fiction."
-- Raymond Carver
"In art economy is always beautiful."
-- Henry James
"An artist is usually a damned liar, but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day. Away with eternal truth."
-- DH Lawrence
Joseph's morning began like any other, seated at his small yellow metal table imported from Rome, the destination of his yearly writing sabbatical. His partially glass enclosed balcony afforded him a panoramic view of Central Park. Late autumn is when he most enjoyed the park, a postcard of foliage: oak, hickory and birch, a patchwork of yellows, reds and browns, soon a blanket of rotting leaves exposing the stark beauty of sculptured black branches and trunks. Wrapped in a thick white robe, toes warm in burgundy felt slippers borrowed indefinitely from a Ritz Carlton in Paris, Joseph felt the morning sun cast a golden glow across his pale freckled face and light gray eyes. He took pleasure in his 50-year-old post-diet svelte body, a cashmere beret soft against his messy reddish silver hair, a portable heater warming his body. His breakfast had not changed since his diet began nine months ago after an angina-induced stent procedure: prune juice, oatmeal, a soft-boiled egg, coffee black and a bowl of nonfat unflavored yogurt with an assortment of fresh berries. It was all delivered weekly by his doorman Gregory, a Kenyan immigrant and trusted confidant, who performed countless tasks for Joseph. Scanning The New York Times on his iPad he read a glowing review of his new book of short fiction. The sky turned a softer, lighter shade of blue and below in the park a petite woman was yanked along by a menagerie of excitable dogs. Joggers of all proportions, some barely shuffling in bulky layers, others gliding along in neon expensive running gear followed a wide,
A bald, beefy, stout man, with tattooed forearms and a blood stained white knee-length coat, walked over a street vent spewing steam, a small pinkish pig tossed across his back, legs wrapped around his neck like a sack of dough, supported by his meaty shoulders. He entered the kitchen loading dock of a boutique hotel. Joseph made a mental note of the rolls of fat that constituted the back of his neck; a potential future character for his new novel. A shiny dark blue Rolls Royce limo pulled in front of the awning of his building "Central Park Manor" and reflected a beam of iridescent light, temporarily blinding Joseph
His cell rang and a woman identified herself as a representative of a bank from southern California. She asked if he was Joseph Bernthal the son of the late Elizabeth Bernthal. She explained that an urn of his mother’s ashes, accidentally placed in the wrong safety deposit box four decades ago, had been found. Attached to the urn was a letter with instructions for her ashes to be sprinkled into the ocean. His right hand shook, espresso splattering his white robe. He felt nauseous and then vertigo.
Joseph pressed the heels of his hands into his moist eyes and entered a world of colorful flashes then white light into which he walked; a sensation of floating outside and above his body. In his mind he was transported back 40 years, frolicking in the surf below his childhood home in Crystal Cove, Southern California.
It was an unseasonably warm December day and his mother warned him of the strong rip tides. Only a few joggers and pet walkers dotted the early morning beach. She watched him wading in knee deep water. He felt sand crabs, tiny shells and coarse sand rush between his toes, burying his ankles deeper with each wave. Like any 10-year-old, he imagined a sea of octopus, sharks, and man-eating prehistoric creatures, all dangerously close. Suddenly a rogue wave struck him chest high, the backwash knocking him off his feet and dragging him into deeper water where he could not touch bottom. The undertow pulled him out swiftly and he flailed his arms in an attempt to keep his head above the frothy turbulent surface. He tired quickly from swimming directly toward the beach instead of relaxing as they had taught him in junior lifeguard training. He should have allowed the current to take him out before swimming parallel to the beach and out of the rip. His heart raced and he inhaled salt water, spitting most of it out, but causing further panic. He yelled for help but only choked. Elizabeth, eyes closed, soaking in the morning sun, calculated in her head if they could afford to buy a new sailboat or if it made sense to join The Balboa Bay Club with access to their boats. At first the woman's screaming sounded distant, perhaps neighbors from the cliff above, arguing over a disobedient dog. Elizabeth looked through squinted eyes at the ocean and assumed the splashing was a large bird or mammal, perhaps even one of the dolphins or porpoises; she still didn't know the difference. The screaming woman waved her arms overhead, pointing toward Joseph. Elizabeth was a solid swimmer but the rip was strong and had carried Joseph out quite far. When she reached him she was exhausted; choking on salt water, feeling as though neither of them would make it to shore. She lost her visual of him within arms reach before he bobbed out of the water, gasping and choking for air, his face just above the surface, now so close he struck her forehead and scratched her left eye with his right hand. She tried to grab him from behind, as she had witnessed many lifeguard rescues over the years, but everything went wrong. He bear-hugged her from the front and they both sank fast, face-to-face. A few feet underwater she managed to push him away and turn around with her back to him. At least now she could swim with him riding her piggy-back as long as he did not panic and choke her. She swam breast stroke parallel to the beach with Joseph on her back until the rip tide eased. Joseph did not remember dog-paddling the 30 feet to shore, collapsing into the arms of a waiting man who met him in knee-deep water. Members of a cross country team searched for his mother before lifeguards and paramedics arrived. The autopsy revealed she suffered a mild stroke and drowned in knee-deep water; very survivable under different circumstances.
Throughout his twenties Joseph concocted and tortured himself with scenarios. If only he had not complained about taking more swimming lessons. If only the high school cross country runners had passed a few minutes earlier. If only the city had not cut lifeguard hours. Through his thirties and forties he thought of it less but still thought of her daily.
Over the years he recalled her by photos; Disneyland, petting zoos, camping trips to Yosemite. His favorite was a photo of his mother and father with espressos, Joseph his ubiquitous hot chocolate, in a Parisian cafe. His parents had divorced when he was seven and he remained close to his father until he left for college. A surgeon, his father emigrated from Italy, but was of Irish heritage, pale and thin like Joseph, a marathon runner. After leaving his mother for a fellow surgeon, he raised a second family of three kids. Joseph never felt alone as an only child and after the divorce lived an idyllic life with his mother, a respected poet occasionally published in The Paris Review. Joseph awoke still seated at his balcony table, head resting on folded arms.
Over the next few days Joseph made arrangements to fly to Southern California to receive the urn. He landed at John Wayne Airport in Orange County and took a cab to The Newport Sunset Hotel, walking distance to Crystal Cove.
Sunshine, likely not her birth name, a young freckled woman with long blonde sun-kissed hair and a body toned from surfing, welcomed him. Tourists thought Southern California was all stunning resort coastline, but it was mostly desert, deserted highways, tract housing, drought, dust storms, occasional earthquakes, Santa Ana wind-fueled fires, and smog. Nobody visited the Inland Empire where people died from something called "Valley Fever" a soil-dwelling fungus of seeds or spores carried by the wind that caused pneumonia, sometimes spreading through the bloodstream to the brain resulting in deadly meningitis. "You have a room with a balcony overlooking the cove," said Sunshine, handing him an old fashioned metal key attached to a small pinkish hermit crab shell. His room was small, decorated in an ocean motif of coral colors; all blues and pinks with a bedspread of sand dollars, but with a nice balcony extending over a rocky outcrop of tide pools. Breathing deeply on the balcony, Joseph smelled salty seaweed and the brackish odor of tide pools. He recalled his father buying lobsters from fisherman like the one pulling up lobster traps just beyond the surf. He assumed lobster today to be smaller in both size and number, versus the behemoths, the size of a muscular forearm, his father caught beneath the kelp beds, with nothing more than a Speedo, fins, goggles and a spear gun. Joseph did not leave his room for a week. He ordered room service and hung a do-not-disturb sign on the door and did not allow anyone in his room. One night he dreamt of emptying the urn over the edge of a boat. He took this as an omen and accepted the urn at the bank the next day. That evening, seated on his balcony eating fresh crab salad with white wine, he closed his eyes and listened to the surf. He heard a voice inside of him that said it was time. He would sprinkle his mother's ashes near the northern end of Crystal Cove where she used to sometimes walk alone. Soon after leaving his room seagulls entered from the open balcony doors and scavenged on the detritus of previous unfinished meals. He carried the urn carefully between both palms nearly spilling it on the new marble floor in the hotel lobby. Sunshine wished him a nice evening. He nodded.
The sun was setting fast over a distant Catalina Island. It was warm relative to Manhattan, but brisk by California standards, so the beach was mostly deserted. He discarded his sandals, feeling the cool sand and tiny bits of coarse sea shells between his toes, a feeling of déjà vu. He was dressed casually in brown khaki shorts and white Polo, gift shop purchases.
A few yards from the water he froze with indecision and felt a cold sweat on his forehead and slight vertigo. He was self-conscious but when he looked around he was alone. The sun melted behind Catalina Island. It was nearly a full moon and the clear sky was colored shades of red, orange and yellow. At the end of the rock jetty at the entrance to Newport Harbor he could see the diffused blue blinking light of his childhood. A foghorn sounded every 30 seconds, a noise which had lulled him to sleep many a night and reminded him of his visits to San Francisco. He visualized her walking on the cool morning sand just after sunrise toward the water, posture erect, eyes closed, slowly, meditatively entering the sea. Her ankles disappeared, then her knees when she would do windmills with her arms each in an opposite direction, rushing blood to her upper body, loosening her shoulders. She would elegantly dive into the water surfacing thirty feet later with a perfect breaststroke, head bobbing out of the water; shoulders cresting the ocean, all smooth perfect strokes. He could not do it. He would pay a company to toss them overboard as did most people. His mother would not have cared. Microscopic traces of ash would eventually find their way to Crystal Cove as she had wished. His knees weakened and he momentarily thought he would drop the urn; the ashes left in an ugly damp clump on the hard wet sand. He suppressed the urge to cry. He knelt in the sand, facing the ocean, a downward facing dog yoga pose he learned last summer at Central Park Yoga, as though before a deity, arms stretched before him, the urn secure beneath his chest. He wept slowly at first. And then a torrent of tears unleashed; warm and salty across his cheeks. Never in his life had he cried like this. Especially not at the funeral of his mother, where he remembered himself as stoic, over which he felt guilt and confusion to this day. His hands clenched clumps of wet sand as though he were trying to squeeze them of any water, some of it oozing between his fingers. He heard a voice speaking softly in front of and above him. It was more than a ghostly visitant, it was her incarnate, lit by a nearly full moon, a back drop of stars, in her favorite polka-dot bikini, covered with a diaphanous white dress that blew in the wind. She was how he last remembered; tall and statuesque, skin of porcelain and long red hair, a kind face of delicate small features and piercing blue eyes. She held in her right hand a large yellow sunflower, the kind he often picked for her from among the ice plant and cactus, on the steep cliff below their home. "I don't know what to say," he whispered. She placed her right finger before her pursed lips as though to silence him. "I should have listened to you but I was only a child. I should have never entered the water. You warned me." He felt himself levitating above his body; urn clasped between his hands. He looked down at himself weeping , kneeling in the sand. She reached out, parting his curly mess of hair, with his right hand. "You are an amazing writer," she said breaking into a smile. "But how do you... " "Just listen," she said. "You were too hard on yourself. I did not drown because of you. It just happened." She held both his hands. "It is time," she said, opening the urn, and then handing it to him. He tilted it forward, and then hesitated, unsure, until she nodded. A teaspoon of ash swirled in the air giving off a phosphorescent greenish-blue glow, like photos he had seen of an aurora borealis; Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn. An ethereal glow encircled his mother's face. "I have so many things to ask you," he said. "We don't have much time," she said placing her right index finger across his lips. "But I need to know..." "It was my time. I would have soon been diagnosed ...it was inoperable." "But how did you know it was your time? How did you know of my writing?" "Keep writing. So rare is such a gift." She looked deep within him. He tilted the urn further and it emptied, creating another stronger greenish-blue aura around his mother. She placed her hands across his eyes and he could feel her warmth emanating from his face to his chest and beyond. "My child I will forever be with you. And always remember I will watch over you; but ultimately life is the sum of your choices."
He felt himself drifting downward until he was back on dry sand on the beach about 50 feet from the water, just below the cliffs. He spied the surf for the last vestige of dissipating ash. He waited with anticipation, but little hope, like one yearning to view the green flash at sunset, but the greenish-blue glow faded.
"You can't go yet," he said, holding the urn upside down, hoping for even the smallest of ash. "How will I know if this was but a dream?" he asked. The surf pounded against the shore. A few sunflower petals, glistening in the moonlight, blew across the sand in front of him; he grasped for one rubbing the silky smoothness between his thumb and forefinger, sunflower oil moistening his fingers. And then a single sunflower appeared before him. He closed his eyes and held the flower in his open palm. He placed it inside the urn and just before he closed the lid tightly the flower glowed a faint golden yellow.
And in that moment; his earliest memory. She lifted his pale infant body, all squirming muscular arms and legs, covered with slippery sunscreen, a healthy crop of red hair, above her sandy shoulders that smelled of coconut baby oil.
His father, red hair slicked back, all taut muscle and freckles, his nose a white titanium pastel of sunscreen, a large multi-colored parasol protecting him, a slice of pear in his mouth, looked up from his book and waved enthusiastically. Posing like the Greek goddess Athena, arm out-stretched, she raised him higher, with both hands like a trophy, above a crashing wave that sprayed her knees, ocean mist dampening Joseph's face. She hummed a familiar pleasant song. He laughed and giggled bringing a wide smile to her face. She felt as though she could, in this moment, never again possibly feel such love. He experienced for the first time, what he recognized, as pure joy.
The air smelled of salt water, musty, swampy wet mud, damp cattails and sea lavender. Long-beaked birds left tiny footprints on the thin skin-like clay surface that covered the more shallow water near the banks as they fed on snails. Snowy white egrets and mallard ducks dotted the swampland and a few large spotted bass splashed clear out of the water. Pebbles crunched under Michael’s tires and a small dust trail puffed behind. Every evening at sunset he rode his motorcycle along the rural dirt road lining the estuary, which led to the nearby Pacific Ocean. Cruising slowly he filled his lungs with the aroma of chaparral, peppermint and wild jasmine. A pack of bicyclists, all slight of build like horse jockeys, whizzed past.
Michael looked skyward as large white egrets released clams with practiced precision. The clams exploded on a narrow outcrop of rocks, exposing gray-pink meat for the egrets to dive and recover. Leaving the estuary he entered a paved two-way road and drove about a hundred yards. He thought about what type of soup he would have that evening: split pea or country vegetable.
The SUV ran the stop sign to Michael's right. It crushed his leg and hurled him forward over the hood before he slammed onto the asphalt and rolled a few times on the street.
Michael felt what seemed like warm motor oil, thick against his right lower leg, and suddenly felt very drowsy; almost drugged. His right leg was unresponsive. Everything was blurry and then it came into focus; a sharp, white piece of shiny wet bone protruding through his ripped jeans from his tibia. His right hand bled from his mid knuckle and it was too painful to make a fist. He felt the same warm sensation dripping down his right shoulder under his leather motorcycle jacket. The warm oil was blood. It soaked through his black jeans and formed a pool under his leg. It flowed steadily across the asphalt moving small pebbles in its path. Michael recalled stories of people going into shock and feeling no pain; this just hurt like hell. A woman squeezed his left hand and he felt very drowsy. She kept asking him mundane questions.
He awoke in the hospital. His right leg was bandaged between his knee and ankle and throbbed with pain. The wounds had bled through; the bed sheets were soaked in blood. Multiple IV’s were connected to a machine that beeped his vitals.
From his room he could see a nurse station busy with activity and beyond that a few other patient rooms. A man in his 50’s dressed in green hospital scrubs introduced himself as his surgeon Dr. Jack Ruiz. He looked like a rougher, older, Latin version of Hemingway. Michael thought he must have an easy time with women.
Dr. Ruiz explained to Michael that he had arrived 5pm Monday. It was now 7pm Tuesday; a few hours after surgery. He had suffered a comminuted multiple compound tibia fracture. In layman terms, the main leg bone was crushed and splintered and some of those splintered bones had penetrated skin. Bone fragments near his femoral artery had been removed; other pieces were left inside. A titanium rod had been inserted from the ankle to the knee straight through the bone marrow of his tibia. Michael imagined the fancy cow bone marrow appetizers he had recently been served at a trendy LA restaurant. He had suffered nerve and muscle damage and would likely always use a cane and walk with a noticeable limp. Dr. Ruiz said, “You’ll need to spend another week here until the risk of infections has passed. Then we can transfer you to a long-term health care facility. Details will depend on your insurance.” The doctor left and a young thin man with short dark hair entered the room with a clipboard in his right hand. He twirled a pen in his other hand. He asked Michael a series of questions about how he felt and if he had received sufficient treatment. The young man kept wiping sweat from his forehead with his left hand, accidentally marking his face with the pen. He cleared his throat a few times before saying that Michael would likely be released from the hospital tomorrow; something to do with denial of coverage from his insurance company. The young man avoided eye contact and scribbled on his clipboard. Michael asked, “How can you send me home when I live alone? I can’t possibly navigate stairs. I’ll end up back here with more injuries. I need to see Dr. Ruiz.” The young man wiped more sweat from his brow. “Dr. Ruiz is in procedure.” He nodded and did his best to look concerned, but his expression looked feigned and practiced. His badge read “Patient Advocate” but he was a hospital employee and Michael figured he received a bonus the sooner he dumped patients. The man assured Michael it was all a very complex decision-making process, had to do with Michael's preexisting conditions, and that the outcome was not unusual. Michael raised his voice and a corpulent, pasty white security guard with a shaved head and a doctor who managed the ward, a beautiful, tall Asian woman, entered his room. She asked if there was a problem. “You can’t send me home. It’s dangerous and irresponsible. I can’t even move my leg. It feels like hot coals are burning me up.” The doctor responded with a forced smile and a practiced platitude. The young man nodded in approval. Michael struggled with the bed sheets. “You’re clueless. You don’t have my best interest in mind. You’re violating your sworn Hippocratic Oath.” His hands bunched around the material. “You’re both spewing corporate for-profit hospital bullshit. Go to hell!” Michael grabbed the paper cup of cold coffee on his tray and threw it at the doctor. She wiped coffee from her neck and face. The security guard moved closer removing a small mace container from his belt. Michael emptied a bowl of diced fruit in the direction of the security guard and then a box of Kleenex.
A loud alarm sounded as he ripped his IV from his arm; blood spraying his chest and face. The doctor moved closer showing her palms as if to placate him. He waited until she pressed on his arm against where the blood had changed from a solid thin squirt to more of a mist.
With his right hand he grabbed her right forearm. She turned to him wincing in pain. She looked more afraid than angry. She struggled and her thick black-framed designer glasses fell to the floor. Michael’s grip, slick with his own blood, slipped to her wrist. He gripped tighter, grinding the charm bracelet against her wrist, carving small deep pinkish impressions that slowly filled with blood. He squeezed harder, twisting her wrist, digging the charms deeper into her flesh; a Buddha, The Golden Gate Bridge, a small bust of Hippocrates. She screamed and the security guard lunged toward the bed. Michael felt an adrenaline rush as though from a drip IV. He tightened his grip, grinding the charms deeper into her flesh. Endorphins coursed through his veins. He forgot about his injuries and pain.
Swimming to Catalina
A few hours after being admitted to the hospital I sit for dinner in the dining room at a faded green Formica table, paint peeling off the walls onto the floor, like dried leaves. It was a mistake to flush my meds down the sink a few weeks ago and stop cold turkey. I should have taken my psychiatrist’s advice and weaned myself off of them.
A year earlier these meds ended The Dark Days, recalibrating my 100 billion brain cells, tweaked out of balance after my on again, off again relationship with Chloe finally ended; coupled with a few other things that created the perfect storm of unhappiness. Perhaps I added to the collective good of Californians by spiking their water with happy juice. I recently read that 41 million Americans consume trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in their drinking water; antibiotics, sex hormones and of course, anti-depressants.
In the lobby of the hospital I seriously considered fleeing to South America, where, like in some beer commercial, I’d live large off my savings and float away my troubles on an inflatable raft over a crystal clear blue ocean. I’d meet a beautiful, dark, young nubile tropical delight and stuff myself on fresh lobster. The reality is I’d probably get cholera, be sunburned beyond recognition, and kidnapped by some drug lord.
The hospital is on a hill in Laguna Beach, in southern California overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s August, smack in the middle of tourist season, and the beach, about a half-mile away, is dotted with many brilliantly colored umbrellas. Everyone in the psych ward is dressed casually in their own clothes, likely brought by relatives, or packed in a small bag in anticipation of a stay. Friendly with the staff I gather some of the patients have been here before. I am 45, tall and thin, with a bush of curly brown hair and green eyes. They gave me a printed paper name tag that reads "Ian," something you'd expect at a speed dating event. Dinner reminds me of airline food; pale, chewy chicken breast, cold mixed veggies, apple sauce, a brown, wilted salad and orange-colored water. Fifteen other patients are dining. Everyone eats in slow motion. Most of them are drugged into a lethargic state by the nursing staff so as to make them easier to manage.
Abdul, my roommate, is a short, bald fat man of olive complexion with bad acne.
In a thick Middle Eastern accent he asks me if I’d like to trade my chicken for five Popsicles. Word is he’s an architect who arrived in a Rolls Royce with his driver. He assaulted his wife then barricaded himself in his house, holding her hostage, although now he says that’s absurd and she was free to leave.
I push the entire tray toward him and he gets up and removes the Popsicles from a box in a freezer. He explains that’s one of the foods not monitored so basically he’s an asshole who got my chicken for nothing. Abdul polishes off both dinners in a few minutes and then crams a few Popsicles down his pants, as we are not allowed to eat outside the cafeteria. He can’t contain them in his crotch so a few fall on the floor and he places them back in the freezer pubic hairs stuck to the plastic wrappers. After dinner he sits on the edge of his bed in his food stained V-neck t-shirt grunting each time he plucks a coarse chest hair with his greasy, fat sausage fingers. I request Annie, the head nurse, and they page her from wherever she is doing nothing; likely sleeping or playing video poker on her cell. Annie is a pear-shaped Latin woman with more nose and tongue piercings than I can count, arms covered with tattoos of some half bird-half dolphin type creatures. I tell her I have something important to discuss and she raises a finger for me to wait as she finishes a hand of poker. I am not going to spend my first night in a room with Abdul. I claim to be on the verge of having a shingles outbreak due to the stress of rooming with Abdul. She smirks and then laughs. I say, ”If I am not immediately transferred to another room I will pull the emergency alarm and tell all about the poker, the money you charge patients for cigarettes, and the fact that most of the staff spend their days shopping or lounging at the beach.” This was a little bit of a bluff, all bits of information I overheard during dinner. My new room has one bed and an ocean view. From what I have seen there is also a robust barter trade, like in prison, of items snuck in by guests during visitor hours. Word has it one patient bought a cell phone for $1,700 from another patient’s guest, making all his calls in the bathroom with the sink turned on high. The sting of a needle awakens me; they take blood every morning. My first full day is a blur of mandatory group therapy sessions. The nurse’s station is a circular desk from behind which they sit, surrounded by a second larger circle of patient rooms.
After breakfast I wander outside to the nurses’ station and have my blood pressure taken. Next to me is a patient named Shawn, whom I guess to be a bit younger than myself, perhaps 40, with boyish features and a mess of unkempt red hair. He is pale, freckled and thin; could be a long distance runner. He spends much of his day speed walking laps around the circular main hallway, a small towel and water bottle in his left hand. He always reads while he walks, this time a yellowed Penguin paperback Oliver Twist, in his right hand, occasionally stopping to highlight passages while reading them aloud. He seems like someone I would be friends with on the outside so I offer my room as a hangout, an escape from living with Abdul, with whom he was assigned after my successful uprising.
Shawn says he has been here before but will not elaborate and insists the best thing about the place is the food so I wonder what he eats on the outside. His favorite dinner is the vegetarian corndogs. He is gentle and thoughtful, has kind bluish-grey eyes and smiles easily. After a day that is a blur of group sessions, sleeping too much in my room, eating as a group and having my vitals checked what seems like every hour, I finally meet a psychiatrist.
Amishi, a petite Indian woman, wears a brightly colored headscarf and speaks barely above a whisper.
She prescribes meds. “I’ll start,” I promise, imagining a cocktail of meds in a small plastic cup. “How long until I get out of here?” She says, “Maybe a few days, but maybe as long as two weeks.” I shake my head, unhappy, and she pats my shoulder as she moves to the next patient. A dinner of limp fried fish sticks is followed by meds then taking my blood pressure and a blood sample. I retire early but have trouble sleeping so wander outside my room, to the cafeteria to get a Popsicle or some juice. Shawn is standing tapping his fingers against the window speaking to himself slowly and softly. He is looking off into the distant ocean, the twinkling lights of small boats and what looks like a large cargo ship, barely visible against the dark blue and blackness of moonlit sea. “Nobody messes with me at this place," he says, his finger still tapping the window. “I like it here. I wish I could stay. Why can’t the rest of the world be like this?” I begin to reply but he waves me off. I sense he rarely finds someone who will just listen. “Why would a benevolent God do this to me? It makes no sense. Can you explain that?" he asks rhetorically. "Everybody outside messes with me and then they say I'm the problem when I reply. I'm just trying to stop the abuse. I'm the victim. I'm a good guy. But it always gets twisted around and makes me look like the aggressive one." I rest my palm on his bony shoulder. He flinches at first, and then relaxes. "You will be OK," I say softly. "You are strong. You will be OK." "I've heard that self-help bullshit a million times and nothing changes." "You are a good person," I say. "None of this is your fault. Eventually things will get better. It just takes time." "What book did you get that from? Same shit my psychologist rambles about." "I feel your strength," I say, left hand still resting on his right shoulder. "Take a breath of air..." "I'm already breathing," he says, interrupting. "Listen," I say firmly. "Just listen dammit. Close your eyes and listen. Trust me." He closes his eyes and breathes from his upper chest. "Inhale like you are filling a glass of water from your abdomen to your chest," I say placing his right hand on his abdomen. "Start down here," I say. "Start breathing below your chest." He begins to listen, moving his hand from his abdomen to his chest as he inhales and exhales. "They can't touch you. In the end you rise above them."
I make it back to my room and fall asleep. I awaken in what feels like a few hours. I hear what at first I assume to be a dream. A distant struggle; fists banging against a wall, yelling and then a series of muffled screams. Groggy from meds I sit on the side of the bed, rubbing my eyes. It takes a few seconds to realize the commotion is coming from the nurses’ station.
Javier, the security guard, an older Latin man who looks like he uses steroids, slowly awakens still slumped low in a small plastic chair in the hallway. Even in the darkness I recognize the outline of Abdul; shirtless, big round shoulders, meaty hands, watermelon of a head. He leans against a wall, one arm choking a nurse from behind, the other pressing what looks like a pen against her neck in the hollow indent just below her Adam’s apple. I charge, lowering my shoulder into his ribcage. It has no effect. He digs the pen deeper into her skin; it looks as though it has or will penetrate at any moment. I dig my thumb deep into his face, gouging his left eye socket. He immediately loosens his grip enough for her to stumble away; blood dripping out of the impression made by the point of the pen. Abdul drops to his knees, hands covering his eyes, moaning, swearing, and writhing in pain. A patient, some young surfer-looking dude, thin as a rail, with long blonde hair, grabs a security door badge from the nurses’ station, swipes it over the lock and walks out, leaving the door ajar. An alarm shrieks, bright miniature flashing red and white lights temporarily blind me. Javier yells for everyone to freeze. I’m not certain if it’s a real gun or a Taser, but the red laser dot is pointed between my eyes. I stand motionless, hands above my head. Heart pounding, sweat stinging my eyes, I wait until he is a few feet away and orders me to turn around, drop to my knees and place my hands behind my head. In one motion I turn around with my hands behind my head, my left elbow knocking the stun gun from his hand. It slides across the smooth floor like an ice puck. In a few seconds I am out the door, following the surfer dude, running down five flights of stairs. A distant Javier yells for me to stop.
I dash across Pacific Coast Highway, barely avoiding an SUV, only realizing I am barefoot when I step on small, sharp pebbles on the hot asphalt. The sand is still warm and the water must be at least 70 degrees. Under a quarter moon I see what looks like a million reflective silver plates all the way to Catalina Island. I dive under the foam of a wave and swim for a few seconds before pushing off the sand bottom, thrusting through the calm back side of the wave. I swim breaststroke until I am beyond the surf break, traffic a distant hum.
I gain strength, changing to freestyle, my arms slicing cleanly through the smooth glass ocean surface. I look back for only an instant and in the distance see the faint white and red glow of hospital alarms. At this rate I feel as though I could swim all the way to Catalina Island.
For a period I followed strangers in the financial district of San Francisco. I didn’t stalk people or anything crazy like that. I'm not some psycho. I just followed people. Sometimes I’d alter my step to stay close behind a tight ass or perky tits. Other times the impetus could be a more ephemeral, fleeting, unexplained urge that resulted in an interest, bordering on obsession, to learn about a person; exclusively woman. It began in earnest soon after I got fired from my job as a stock analyst. I worked for a large firm in the financial district. I was envied for my named parking spot and corner office; sweeping views of The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, The Berkeley Foothills.
It’s a long story but I got fired for doing a few things I was asked to do that weren’t exactly honest or legal. At first I told them I wouldn’t do it. But then I got the vibe that if I didn’t do it I would be canned so I gave strong buys on stocks that were about to go in the shitter. The stock would stay inflated because of all the flowery bullshit I’d write and insiders at my firm would dump their stock while giving outside investors strong buy recommendations.
Large bonuses were the reward for giving endless positive coverage because this also guaranteed us their business financing the most lucrative IPO’s. I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal. My parents and relatives were proud. Bought a new Porsche. A home in Pacific Heights and another in Marin.
Maria, my Columbian girlfriend, Harvard MBA and law degree, passed the bar her first time in New York and California. On the fast track to partnership at a leading downtown corporate litigation firm, she glowed from the attention we’d receive at the finest restaurants, never needing a reservation for the best table. Not exactly celebrities, we still created our own little buzz; photos of us at celebrity-filled fundraisers in the back pages of the San Francisco Chronicle High Society Section. I always wore the same simple black tux, Maria her petite figure accentuated in a form-fitting cocktail dress, perky tits lusted over by all, her long curly black hair halfway to her tight ass.
A few weeks after the market crashed men in dark blue suits packing heat showed up at work and a few people went to prison. Guess I was lucky. I plea-bargained. Ratted on all my bosses. Gave back a lot of money but was also able to keep enough so I don’t have to work another day in my life. Sold the Porsche and bought a smaller home so it wouldn’t look like I was living fat. Hid money in foreign banks. Maria left me a month later which, along with the work situation, led to a bout of depression, somewhat alleviated by long walks in the city. For a few weeks I wandered the city in expensive custom-tailored suits lounging in cafés and swanky hotel lobbies, hours surfing the web with my iPad. I reminded myself of depressed unemployed Japanese executives, unable to face their families, who ride the subway all day in suits, clutching briefcases, before coming home for dinner.
At just over six foot, with thick, curly prematurely graying hair, a solid square jaw and swarthy complexion I never had trouble meeting women, my best feature being my nose: prominent and crooked like it had once been broken from which I spun machismo-infused stories of bar fights and UFC training.
If I ran into somebody I knew I’d explain I was now working as a freelance consultant, late for an important meeting. I scribbled notes on torn pieces of paper and stuffed them in my pockets. I made up names for strangers I met and by the end of the month I had hundreds of little rolled up pieces of paper in a drawer at home, which I organized into neat piles and then began to transfer to index cards. I preferred old lined index cards stored in small metal boxes; the kind I used for book report research in school as a child. I averaged five cards per person, notes on both sides, but had a few with as many as 35 cards.
It was easy to learn people's routines, following them via public transit, or simply waiting for them at their favorite morning Starbucks, where I would overhear cell conversations and gather more information. I also followed them after work, sometimes trailing them from a distance after they exited the bus or cable car, all the way to their home. I filled in details via Facebook, LinkedIn, background searches and Google.
Elizabeth Chandler, the first time I noticed her, was seated in front of me on a bus talking with her girlfriend. During those 15 minutes I fell in love. She was 26, a UCLA grad, studied Russian Literature, a manager at Nordstrom and considering breaking up with her schmuck of a fiancé Eric, but feared being alone. She was close to her sister, brother and parents, all of whom lived 500 miles south in LA.
Her family may have known more about her childhood and Eric more about her exact sexual proclivities, but I had the most complete understanding of Elizabeth and what really made her tick. On subsequent bus rides I learned a lot about Elizabeth and her boyfriend Eric, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. I know it sounds like I made that up just to make him appear vile but it was true. I began following Eric too. The brash arrogant bastard was cheating. I don’t know if he paid these women or what but they were all very different from Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a refined cosmopolitan way about her. With her pale skin and beautiful, shiny long reddish-brown hair she reminded me of a short, petite Nicole Kidman. I got some great shots of him with different women. Elizabeth had a heart of gold. She always bought a few extra slices of pizza and gave them to homeless. Did the same with coffee at Starbucks. She would actually buy the Venti, which is like a pot of coffee, and then ask for an extra cup and always give it to someone down and out. She loved art and spent hours in galleries; usually alone and never with Eric. She sometimes skipped when she was alone. She almost never drove and preferred walking to public transit. Once a week she would pray at any number of Catholic churches. She read The New Yorker and The National Enquirer. She sometimes spent Sundays alone in a park reading. She had recently read Sartre’s The Age of Reason, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and a few short story anthologies. She took ballet lessons. I couldn’t allow a jerk like Eric to have her. It would not work out. In the long run she would see him for what he was. He would continue to cheat. She would find out. I could not allow her to get hurt. It was my responsibility; no my obligation to do something. This may sound a bit odd but I began to believe that perhaps I lost my job for a higher cause. That somehow this was all part of some predetermined path.
Snail-mailing her photos guaranteed nothing could be electronically traced. I handled everything with rubber disposable gloves so there would be no fingerprints. A week later she was still with Eric. A month later they were still together and Eric was still cheating.
I mailed her new images and the following note:
Eric cheats on you. He may have told you the photos – yes that was me also that sent you the pics – were old. They were recent. I took them over the last six months. This tape includes a 60 second film of him entering, and then an hour later exiting, The Sunrise Hotel in The Tenderloin District. He meets a woman at this hotel weekly. Ask him if he ever goes to that hotel and surely he will lie. Ask him again. He will lie again and get nervous. He will not look you in the eye. Then play the tape for him on any small camcorder. Make a copy in case he destroys it. I am not doing this to hurt you. On the contrary I am doing this to prevent you from making the biggest mistake of your life. Leave him. Do it for yourself. This man will ruin your life. Your happiness. Your mind.
Someone who cares about you greatly.
I didn’t want to mention anything about me following her. Or liking her. Or falling in love with her. I thought all that would freak her out. But I was certain of two things. She would leave him immediately after getting the tape. She would fall in love with me if I played my cards right. Nothing changed. In the month following I spotted them dining multiple times at fancy restaurants, sometimes with Eric’s scumbag attorney friends, jogging, and leaving for weekend trips in a new yellow Ferrari. I became consumed with ending their relationship. I concocted endless scenarios. I could pay someone to confront him in the dark parking lot after work. Tell him he would be killed if he did not leave her. Club his knee with a baseball bat.
And then one morning I literally bumped into Elizabeth leaving The Ritz Carlton lobby, our shoulders brushing.
"Excuse me, I think I know you," she said, removing her sunglasses. She squinted hard, as if she were constructing a mental jigsaw puzzle. I imagined her brain firing off disparate memories of me, straining to piece them together: an elevator...Nordstrom... The 41 Union bus...the California Street cable car. "I look like a lot of people. Happens all the time." I felt my checks warm and then flush. Via Google I knew she’d graduated from UCLA with a degree in Russian Literature. "You went to UCLA right," I said slowly, struggling with each word. "How did you know that?" she said, concerned. She asked me what year I graduated and I went blank. I couldn’t remember a single fact about Elizabeth. Not even her name. Her smile dissolved and she looked worried, as though she were trying to determine if I were a harmless loser or her worst urban psycho nightmare. "I apologize," I said snapping out of it. "Jet lag. I majored in Russian Lit too at UC Irvine. Must have met you at a conference." "Yes. That's it. What a small world," she said, visibly relieved. "I concentrated in short fiction; Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol." I reached out and shook her hand and introduced myself. "Nice to meet you, Rob," she replied. "I’m Elizabeth." Her eyes were green with little flecks of brown and black; spotted and multi-colored like a cat. She agreed to join me for a few minutes at the hotel Starbucks. We talked about UCLA and UC Irvine where I earned my BA in English Literature and my MBA. After about 5 minutes Elizabeth said she was late for a work. Appearing too eager, perhaps even desperate, I reached out and gently palmed her shoulder with my hand. "I have something very important to tell you, Elizabeth." She remained on the stool facing me, again all at once concerned and hesitant. "I never went to school with you. A while ago I sat behind you on the 41 Union bus." Maybe she figured she was safer to remain calm and call the police after I left. Avoid an ugly scene by agitating the psycho. "You’re not making sense," she said getting up to leave. "Eric is cheating on you." She froze; eyes narrowed, remaining on the edge of her stool, ready to pounce for the exit. She gripped her coffee, hand trembling. "You know Eric?" she asked. "He cheats on you. He spends his lunch hours with prostitutes he meets online. I mailed you photos, a tape and the letter." I thought she might faint when the silence was broken by what sounded like organ music; Elizabeth's personalized cell ring for Eric. She had to go. It was urgent or so she said. I followed her for a few minutes but she kept looking back and frankly I was worried she would call the police. Elizabeth was the last person I followed. After her it was anticlimactic. I had a few Elizabeth sightings and was relieved to never see her with Eric again. I think she recognized but ignored me a few times.
I became an angel investor in startups.
One night I placed all the metal boxes, filled with index cards, in the fireplace, until they burned to ash.
This Thing We Call Love
On Highway 15, just before Barstow, halfway to Vegas, Peter reached a difficult but certain conclusion; he had yet to fall in love with Joyce. He despised the term but nonetheless questioned if he had found his "soulmate." He enjoyed being with her, celebrating milestones like this; their fifth anniversary. But, he struggled with why he was not, at least by his internal barometer, in love. His shrink told him he was over-thinking. Joyce looked a decade younger than her thirty five years, long dark hair, eyes of dark chocolate, a face of delicate features, and was an exotic mix; Korean mother and Brazilian father. Out clubbing with work friends, she had caught his eye. They slept together that night and had been inseparable since. She moved into his one bedroom on Russian Hill in San Francisco a few weeks after meeting. She rested her head against his chest which she described as a scientific lab experiment of human steel wool, suggesting they harvest it, Crazy Glue it to wood, and use it for stains that were Brillo Pad resistant. Unshaven for a week his hirsute look stretched from just under his eyes to his belly button. She was convinced he had at least partial Hypertrichosis, known in folklore as werewolf disease. He claimed that was the beauty of it all; not having to buy a Halloween costume.
Peter's parents emigrated from Sicily and he looked the part; thick black hair greased back, at forty fit but fighting off love handles. He always had a decent amount of stubble adding to his overall swarthy rugged good looks. He was tired from the long, stressful hours as a reporter at The LA Times; working the previous graveyard shift. But he was lucky to have a job with everything going digital and few willing to even pay for content, instead using the next free killer app to create their own personalized news feed.
The high beams and shrieking air horn of a big rig startled him of his reverie. Amazing, he thought, how one could drive in a daydream-trance aware only of random thoughts floating in and out of focus in your mind like abstract Rothko paintings. Perhaps over the last few miles he had been talking to himself out loud, exposing details of his subconscious, as Joyce informed him he did while driving long distances. They stopped in Barstow: mobile home parks, abandoned railroad cars, a rest stop, mini-marts, and the city’s landmark – the largest McDonalds in the world. Biting into a Big Mac, Peter joked that Homeland Security didn’t have to worry about smart bombs or chemical and biological warfare. More people would die of greasy artery-clogging burgers and Freedom Fries, as the altered menu read. If terrorists were smart they would funnel money to Washington lobbyists to champion fast food, the NRA and the tobacco industry. Barking into a fancy wireless headset, a McDonalds manager who looked all of twelve, kept the drive thru window moving. A pasty, obese woman in a bright summer flower dress and a rail thin tall man with dark, sun-weathered skin, worn Wranglers and cowboy boots, devoured a tray of food and polished off jumbo-sized soft drinks the size of small kegs. They would not make it the short distance to Vegas without hitting a rest stop or the thin man pissing in plastic water bottles in the car. Peter pictured them chain-smoking at the slots for hours. Eating sloppy free chili-cheese dogs and nachos. Dining on sides of buttered, fatty pink steaks thicker than their triple-chins.
Local Barstow kids, looking bored and angry, with long hair and black rock t-shirts, smoked inside and tossed bits of food at one another. One boy had a skull tattoo on his forehead."
A woman had what looked like a branded angel on her forearm, but was actually a raised image, made by strips of flexible metal embedded under her forearm.
The boy with the skull tattoo jammed a half-eaten fish burger into the remains of a milkshake, adding soda and fries, covered it with a smooth, laminated menu, turned the drink upside down on the table, then artfully slid the menu from under the drink, leaving it suction-cupped to the table, a conundrum for their friend to bus. A loud wedding party of teenagers entered from a gift shop connected to the McDonalds. The bride was pregnant and the groom wore a white t-shirt with a tuxedo print design. Trucks with giant tires, loud mufflers and the occasional set of brass balls hanging from the back fender were decorated with signs that read "Just Married" and "Vegas or Bust." A tall, young, thin store manager with a Mohawk asked an older man to cease filling plastic McDonald’s cups with beer. Pick a few of these families at random and you have a hit reality TV show the likes of Duck Dynasty, Poverty TV or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Most of the women looked like a casting call for The Real Housewives of Chevron minimarts.
Back on Highway 15, Peter and Joyce drove for a few more hours in comfortable silence, enjoying a mix of Dylan, Johnny Cash, Jay Z and The Clash. About 30 miles outside Vegas Joyce squeezed Peter’s hand and asked him to pull over for a lookout with a striking panoramic view of the distant glow of Vegas. They drove down a narrow dirt road beyond where the ground was littered with broken glass, bottle caps, used needles and a few small plastic urine-filled containers motorists had tossed. Pebbles popped and crunched under the tires. A sliver of moon added a lunar orange glow to car-sized boulders, chaparral and cactus; a world away from Laguna Beach, a nearly non-stop five hour drive away.
Six months earlier they enjoyed the novelty of watching the millennium madness of The Strip from this same isolated, barren hilltop of boulders; explosions of color, a gentle rumble of humanity at midnight. Joyce stood in front of Peter and leaned her back against his chest. "Before that big rig flashed his beams," she said. "You were talking to yourself. Out loud. Whispering." "I've always talked in my sleep," he said. "When I drive I sometimes get in like a trance, aware of everything and alert but I just...my mind just gravitates toward my subconscious." "Sounds safe," she said, a bit sarcastic. "But, I know what you mean. I've done it before. It sounds crazy dangerous but yea I know." He buried his head in her coconut-scented hair and kissed her neck. "I wonder if what one says through their subconscious is more real or honest or whatever than other times..." her voice faded as he moved his lips from her neck to her shoulder. Peter wondered what he had said in his driving trance and if his standard of forever romantic love were unattainable idealism. They stood silent for fifteen minutes. Chemicals shifted in his brain, altering his mood and then clarity of thought, a feeling of clairvoyance; he would stay with Joyce.
Tina and I finally got a weekend off together. Tina has highlighted the AAA map different colors and has a goal of making it at least to Crescent City from San Francisco by sunset. I really don’t care how far we go as long as we get a nice ocean front campsite, which shouldn’t be difficult in November. It’s still early morning; a few hours after first light. Both windows are rolled down because Tina enjoys letting the wind blow her flattened hand up and down, like a plane or a large bird, something I did as a child on family vacations, along with counting telephone poles and pelting my sisters in the back seat with tiny marinated spit wads. I sip milky coffee and eat a steaming, messy cinnamon roll. Tina drinks freshly-squeezed green juice that smells of wheat germ and kale. An orange Giants baseball cap conceals my black curly hair. I am tall and thin; my most significantly feature being my crooked nose. I have a swarthy, olive-skinned completion. Tina asks about the blank plastic panels on the dash of our new Honda. Where most cars would have special features our budget model has plastic panels. We saved a lot of money but now even I wish we had gotten electric windows. I know I got a good deal because the floor manager nearly fired the salesman for giving it to me below invoice or perhaps that was all an act; free live theatre. Tina is still sensitive about our getting married in Vegas six months ago. She thinks an elaborate wedding on a bluff overlooking the Pacific somehow portends a more lasting marriage.
It’s all the same to me. I’d been content spending the rest of my life with Tina without getting married. Half of all marriages end in divorce in California. She called me a cynic. I prefer realist. The Vegas wedding without all the hoopla of friends and family saved money toward a down payment on our home.
As we pass through another sleepy coastal town Tina says, “Jeff, it would be cool to live out here away from all the stress of the city.” I agree but we can barely make payments on our new condo and I’d miss the city so I just say, “When we win the lotto.”
I work as a city desk reporter at The Chronicle in San Francisco. As much as I hate to admit it I’ve become part of the rat race; writing about things of no consequence; city hall meetings, speeches, crimes, trivial lawsuits.
“I was speaking with Gail at the hospital last week and she’s thinking of buying a house on the beach not far from here," Tina says. "Something simple that AIDS patients can use as a retreat when her and Alan aren’t using it. They might buy a timeshare. Maybe we could do a timeshare as an investment?” Gail is a nurse at the hospital where Tina does AIDS research. Alan, a doctor, is her husband. We are dinner party friends. “We’d be stretching it too thin,” I say. Tina nods.
I met Tina at UC Berkeley ten years ago. She earned her BA in biology; first in her class. I was working as a reporter at The Daily Cal, where I got an MA in journalism; useless bunch of academic crap. I learned more in three months on the job at The Chronicle. She organized an animal rights protest against animal research on campus.
I asked her if she’d considered whether she would forgo any medical treatment gained through animal research if she had a terminal disease. Research that could only be advanced through live animal experiments. She threw a lemon cream pie in my face that was intended for a research scientist and told me to go to hell. I asked her how she knew lemon cream was my favorite. I liked her spunk and thought she was cute.
Our first night together, just before first light, I was kept awake by a small moth. Tina insisted I capture it by hand and release it outdoors. I called her an insect rights activist. After trying to capture it live for ten minutes I splattered it against the wall. She made me sleep on the sofa in the living room.
Tina volunteered with various AIDS non-profits then got a job in a research lab at UCSF where she now works trying to find a cure and eventually earned her MA in biology. Recently she has talked about taking the MCAT. Roughly 350 miles north of SF on Highway One it’s all rolling green hills to our right and steep cliffs leading to rocky coast to the left. It reminds me of the beautiful isolated New England coast or some of the hamlets I once drove through on vacation in England. Tina holds a small paper cup out the window into the cold mist. “Filling it with air so you won’t have to buy anymore of those pine air fresheners,” she says, laughing. The terrain eventually changes into giant redwoods lining both sides of Highway One. Tina studies the map. Sunset will be a slow diffusion of light into thick fog. I slow and turn on the high beams, which only makes it worse. Tina bubbles over with excitement. "This is beautiful. Unreal. We have to do this more often. I could camp right here," she enthuses. "And to think the lumber industry is lobbying to clear cut anywhere near here. Those bastards!" "Not sure it was near here," I say. "You may have it confused..." "There was a story about this very grove being at risk." "Well let's just enjoy it," I say. "You're the one who is being too damn serious. We can discuss the politics of what those bastards are trying to do and enjoy it simultaneously." I apologize while stroking her forehead. We pass a sign that reads "Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park" and then "Crescent City: 12 miles," where we will spend a night before camping at Del Norte.
Crescent City resembles a ghost town. Flat, foggy, cold and depressed. The main road is lined with fast food joints and cheap motels. We pull into the Pine Inn Motel. I speak with a petite Indian woman wrapped snugly in a colorful robe who looks at me with suspicion. A few children play behind her. She wants $55 but I haggle her down to an ocean view, color TV and cable for $45.
Stapled to the inside of the door is a bright orange piece of paper covered with plastic that begins: “TSUNAMI (TIDAL WAVE) SAFETY. If you feel a strong earthquake which lasts a long time (20 seconds or more) when you are on the coast: Move to higher ground immediately. A tsunami may be coming. On March 28, 1964 Crescent City was damaged by a tsunami.”
Tina and I head over to Safeway. We'll make an elaborate salad and toss foil-covered potatoes in a fire on the beach. A group of teenagers, most of them smoking, cluster around a heavily-rusted light brown 1965 Mustang in the Safeway parking lot. All the guys have shoulder length hair except for one kid who looks like he just joined the Marines.
“Hey bro, think you can score us a few brews?” one of the longhairs asks. I walk toward the young man. “A few bucks in it for you bro or you can just pocket a few brews.”
“Jeff,” Tina says. “I’ll drive straight home if you even consider….I can’t even believe,” she says in a hushed voice the longhair can hear.
“It’s not what you think lady. We’re gonna just hang at my bros and kick it. No drinking and driving.” His friends nod in agreement, earnest but like they’ve done this a million times.
“It’s cool,” I say, turning away from the kids, walking back toward the store with Tina.
“Gonna let the lady tell you what to do homes?”
I ignore him and keep walking.
“Punk ass bitch don’t even own the pants in the family.”
I turn around and stare at him. He stares back, amused.
“Keep your fricking mouth shut,” I say.
He smirks and his friends laugh.
Our cart is full of pressed firewood, fruit, vegetables and my juicy red steak.
Tina is still fuming and ignores me when I ask her what kind of potatoes roast best in an open fire pit.
I ask again and she spins around, her elbow knocking over a pyramid of perfectly arranged, waxed plums. She stares at me, waiting for an explanation.
“I did the same thing when I was young and it didn’t kill me,” I say.
She shakes her head, eyes narrow, arms resting on her hips, as if she’s trying to figure out an impossible mathematical equation. “That’s just about the most stupid thing you’ve ever said. To think you'd take that kind of risk..." Her voice trails off.
“You want to talk about stupid risks?”
She fills a plastic bag with potatoes.
“One prick of a needle and you have AIDS. Is that a smart risk?”
Tina freezes, her back toward me. She turns around, takes a step closer, and says, “Fuck you!” loud enough for an elderly couple to turn around and stare. “And fuck Vegas too!”
The elderly couple stop staring and whispering when Tina asks them: “Have a problem?”
Tina drops the bag of potatoes and heads for the exit. Her forehead slaps against the glass door as it opens automatically but too slowly.
There is a splattering of blood on the door and small droplets of blood on the concrete leading outside into the foggy parking lot then back inside the other entrance.
I run through the store slowing only to glance down each aisle. I’m not thinking about the longhair punk, our beach barbecue, trivial arguments I’ve had with Tina or the ignorant, insensitive things I always hate myself for saying. Instead, I recall how I fell in love with her our first night together, the moment she looked at me very serious, demanded I discard my fly swatter, and catch by hand a small moth that had been keeping me awake.
My name is Cher Ami or "Dear Friend" in French. I am a pigeon. I live in Paris. Since many of my readers are American I will stick to English because you likely have never bothered to learn another language. I could say no insult intended but I do find Americans obnoxious and ignorant so it was intended. Just keeping it real. I am fluent in French, German and English. I used to peck away on an old school typewriter or scribble with a tiny piece of lead, way above chicken scratch, but not always legible. It was only a matter of time before someone finally invented an app to translate pigeon so I use that exclusively. I am related on my mother's side to Cher Ami, a pigeon of great historical significance, who during WWI saved many lives by carrying messages across enemy lines, during the fiercest of battles. He was injured, shot in the chest and leg, but continued flying for 30 minutes through enemy fire. Cher Ami was awarded the "Croix de Guerre" for heroic service. I call Montmartre, a hill in North Paris frequented by artists, home. This Right Bank district has hosted the art studios of: Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Claude Monet. I live in a space behind a neon sign that reads PAUL; the Paul Boulangerie Cafe founded in 1889; beloved by Parisians and tourists alike. I've been warned about the long term health effects of living near a neon sign but it keeps me warm and I've become accustomed to the neon buzz. Among PAUL's many pastries and desserts; Flan Coco, Macaroons and Tartelette Fruits, my personal favorite is Fraisier, more commonly known as Strawberry Cake; sponge cake, the texture and consistency of Tiramisu topped with mousseline cream and strawberries.
Before I became an artist I was paid to carry out hits. I can strike the silver dollar bald spot of a man walking briskly from 30 meters in a crowd with a dime-sized shit and control the splatter, consistency and acidity of the crap. Some of my noteworthy accomplishments include:
Hit job against opponents of Nicolas Sarkozy, elected President of France, during the campaign including direct head, face and shoulder splatters which received international coverage.
Starbucks closed along The Champs-Élysées via campaign of poop strikes targeting customers, subcontracted to pigeons with high acid diet that ruins clothing. Foiled terrorist plot coating the windshield of a car with poop causing them to crash into a pole on their way to dirty bomb the Paris Metro. Caused removal and relocation of numerous, hideous sculptures. Strikes on adulterous men, any hit pigeon's largest source of income as it includes any married man in Paris, once splattering a few feet in front of an American who then slipped, broke his hip and was unable to explain why he was dining with his mistress late one evening.
Ever wonder where a drop of moisture comes from on a clear blue day?
And just to get this out of the way I don't give a shit (pun intended) if you call it crap, poop, droppings, fecal matter, feces or shit because Art in America, one of the more prestigious art magazines in the world said, "Not since Pollock have we seen such beautiful splatter" regarding my art.
My career as an artist began when I noticed a square of bare white canvases in a neat row on an expansive balcony a few blocks from The Louvre.
I began practicing pooping on small pieces of paper; experimenting, very loose, with no preconceived pretentious art school conventions. A mastery of the following elevated my random pigeon poop to fine abstract expressionist art: Diet: I learned to monitor my diet based on the preferred acidity, liquidity, color and texture of my poop. Mixed media: Feathers added a complex mixed media element. Delivery: Experimenting with altitude, speed and weather I gained greater control over the finished piece. Once a week my art was replaced with fresh, blank canvases. Chase, the man behind all this was a gallery owner, a major mover and shaker in the art world, and it was his penthouse balcony with sweeping views of Paris where I painted. He was tall, tan and muscular. At 33 with long hair dyed blonde, he looked like a veteran surfer, but a pigeon I paid to track him on his summer trip to Biarritz said he's a total fake and has only surfed Biarritz a few times, paddling around like a sponge on his expensive flashy-colored board.
Tolstoy said in "What is Art?" his seminal brief book on art criticism, the purpose of art is to "evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art."
He continued, "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them." No disrespect to Tolstoy but I am not human and yet per his own definition I am a great artist. One of my pieces recently sold at auction in Paris for $22,000 euro. A special splattered rare high seed, acidic compound on Arches cold press paper, Chase named it "Chagall" as it reminded him of one of Chagall's large oils of a couple floating above the Seine in front of a large blue moon. At first it was enough for me to watch Chase sell my art in his gallery from across the street. I'd get a bit tipsy off discarded plastic wine cups and excellent cheese that smelled like the space between my pigeon feet but kept me returning for more. Via a message I left on his balcony, Chase agreed to meet me a few days before The Frieze Art Fair, one of the most prestigious of the year in Paris, in the 6th arrondissement on the Left Bank at Cafe de Flore, founded in 1886 and immortalized by its previous clientele; from existentialists Sartre and Camus to literary expats Hemingway and Stein. I sat across from him on the edge of the table. He was rude enough to open the dialogue by asking me "why do pigeons incessantly bob their heads?" I did my best to ignore it and handed him the following note. "The following message will be dropped by air carrier pigeons at the Frieze Art Fair opening reception unless you immediately replace all your fakes with my authentic pieces and pay me the requisite 50% commission all other artists receive. My name is Cher Ami and I am the creator of the pigeon splattering art. You can confirm this via DNA from small bits of feathers embedded in poop in each canvas. Not to mention my pigeon footprint on each piece as I am extremely pigeon-toed even for a pigeon. I have been paid nothing for my originals and you are selling forged works created with a machine that drops artificial synthetic acrylic based paint on the canvas. These shit rip-offs don't even use real poop! Immediately Facebook, Twitter and IM this to get out the word. Demand my original work not worthless fakes!" Chase replied with a profanity-laced diatribe ending by calling me "a rat with wings!"
He installed the pigeon translation app and we exchanged incendiary IM's for a few more days. He assured me I'd be poisoned if I did not immediately leave Paris.
A week later, the morning of the Frieze Art Fair, Chase was at Cafe de Flore sipping espresso, enjoying a chocolate filled croissant. I sprayed him with a fine mist of urine and he wiped his brow looking upward into the cloudless, blue sky. He shifted and then boom, a direct hit of poop on the right shoulder of his blue blazer.
By that evening the outdoor VIP reception in the main garden was a frenzy of activity; roughly 2,000 VIP Frieze art collectors, appetizers served by tuxedoed-waiters, Rolls Royce, Ferrari and Lambos backed up at valet. This is where the real action takes place; pre-qualified buyers purchasing the most prized art, the rest left for the masses, who will graze under the giant white tent like cattle, fortunate if the pretentious art dealers will even so much as acknowledge their existence. Chase occasionally glanced skyward. Fifty pigeons laid in wait; in trees, on rooftops, perched on rain gutters waiting for my command. Some were svelte fast striking birds, others obese pigeons that could barely fly, with everything from acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome, who had consumed chocolate square laxatives, for less precise strikes causing bedlam. In an act of defiance Chase had worn an all white tux. The forged piece of mine Chase had on display was prophetically titled "Chaos." To the untrained, sophomoric eye I suppose it looked alright; another modern abstract expressionist piece of shit. But up close, the details that define my work were absent; fine shades of gray and white, complex yet controlled texture and the layering of mixed media pigeon poop. The first strike team hit with military precision leaving Chase encircled by poop; not so much as a drop on his polished white shoes. He tried to pass it off as his own orchestrated publicity stunt. He flipped us the bird, waving his hand toward the sky. This was followed by ten pigeons releasing fortune cookie-sized small notes that read: "Chase is selling forged pigeon art. I have DNA proof. www.chasepigeonartfraud.com." The site lit up going viral in real time; 500 plus hits in the first few minutes. Chloe, a crackerjack of a bird hacker, posted the URL on the Frieze Art Fair website. We gave him fifteen minutes to reply but were met with acts of defiance. The next strike was indiscriminate and released at high altitude and left no one unscathed. Chase was immediately blamed for a PR stunt gone awry. We utilized the notorious acid reflux and irritable syndrome team. They struck mercilessly and without warning. Chase was covered with shit. He wiped his eyes, flinging crap from his hands in every direction. Stunned onlookers mouths agape watched in horror, their finest clothes ruined. Children and women dashed for cover men hopelessly trying to shield them with their tux jackets. Within an hour we negotiated an agreement. Chase destroyed all the fakes at the show and replaced them with my supply of originals. He split with me the profits. That year alone I made 3.7 million euro; giving 90% to a non-profit I created that worked for the overall betterment of pigeons worldwide. We hired the same PR and advertising firm representing PETA and ran public service announcements across the advertising spectrum: buses, billboards, subway, TV, radio and online. We used humor with an image created of a half rat, half human and the tagline "Rats With Wings?" We would take ownership of their pithy insult by educating the public with fascinating pigeon trivia. We offered cash awards to anyone reporting pigeon abuse or mistreatment.
The following nine factoids proved the most popular; getting over a million unique visitors in the first month alone:
A rural pigeon's life expectancy is fifteen years but urban dwellers live five years. Europe is home to 28 million pigeons; 80,000 in Paris. We can fly at an altitude of 2,000 meters, average 123 kph and have been recorded as fast as 148 kph and have delivered messages 5,000 kilometers. Per the Journal of Experimental Biology, we follow ultra low frequency sound waves, inaudible to people, using sound to gauge terrain back to our lofts. We mate for life, which in France; well I'm just saying monogamy from the French President down is not exactly our nation's strength. Pigeons have passed the "mirror test", the ability to recognize your reflection; one of only six species and the only non-mammal. We recognize all 26 letters of the English alphabet and in scientific tests can differentiate between photographs of two humans. Romans used pigeon messengers over 2000 years ago and the Greeks used messenger pigeons to communicate the results of the Olympic Games. Keep pigeons labeled so you know which pigeon will return to what location. We can also be trained to fly back and forth between two locations.
An unintended result of all this is that people starting utilizing pigeons as messengers for the romantic novelty of it; anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. There was a bit of a scandal regarding the hits I carried out throughout my life, but I ameliorated the authorities by brokering a truce, where we ended hits and even agreed to poop in designated poop stations of lemon-scented pigeon litter throughout Paris.
Life is good. After focusing on work, my art and pigeon politics for so long I met the pigeon of my dreams Rosie. We settled down and have three children; one girl Rosie Jr. and two boys, Cher Ami Jr. and G.I Joe; named in honor of a pigeon that saved the lives of 1,700 American soldiers by warning them of an impending surprise attack. So get out there and experience life in the grandest city of them all for as the esteemed French novelist Stendhal wrote in 1819, "One can acquire everything in solitude except character.” And next time you're in Paris and you don't get pooped on you know who to thank. Au revoir!
The day after my father's 88th birthday my mother calls to say he's dying of cancer; late stage pancreatic that has spread. At his age and with such a grim diagnosis they decided it best to forgo treatment. Doctors give him three months. I make plans to leave for Toledo, where I was raised, from Los Angeles, where I moved 20 years ago to pursue a career writing screenplays. By chance I will arrive on the Fourth of July. Although I have made an excellent living selling scripts to some of the biggest Hollywood studios they have all disappeared, into the black hole of "pre-production hell" meaning the film never gets made and per the restrictive NDA I am prohibited from discussing it. I also work as a "script doctor" my specialty being male protagonists in romantic comedies about dysfunctional, neurotic, 30 or 40-something's looking for love; think Judd Apatow's "40-Year Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up.” Nice way to use the M.A. in creative writing that I earned from University of Cincinnati. Other writers are hired to develop a specific character in a script the studio may consider weak; a young female yuppie or a lawyer. It's all very analogous to Dutch Masters like Peter Paul Rubens, who in the 17th Century on very large, complex works, would hire assistants to complete very specific parts of a painting; a small mammal, clock or fruit expert. My parents have visited me here a few times. After living all around LA; Westwood, Hermosa Beach, Hollywood and Echo Park, renting for 15 years, I finally bought a 1920's small craftsman cottage when the market was down in Silver Lake, a neighborhood in central LA, built around a reservoir, from which it gets its name.
I live with Joy, 33, my girlfriend of three years, who emigrated from Vietnam with her family, when she was five. She works as a manager at Intelligentsia, a "coffee bar" where we met. Joy usually wears jeans and faded soft cotton retro t-shirts that say things like "POLAROID" over the image of the iconic camera or other retro shirts with sketches of Pee-Chee Folders or 8-Track Tapes. She has about ten thick-rimmed brightly-colored John Lennon type glasses she matches with her t-shirt. She has large brown eyes and short dark hair.
Her real passion is opera set design; she works freelance traveling three months a year mostly to Paris, London and New York. She is friends with the artist David Hockney, with whom she worked on Mozart's The Magic Flute; they text often. I don't have a great appreciation for opera or classical music. Silver Lake, like other trendy LA neighborhoods, is inhabited by hipsters with their obligatory retro mustaches, big beards, thick black geek glasses and plaid shirts. I'd be very dismissive and cynical about them if I were not myself considered one.
I am 45, six foot, have some mean looking sideburns and a well groomed hipster beard and long mustache with finely waxed ends. My name is Theodore but people call me Ted.
I do most of my writing on an iPad at Intelligentsia, where Joy charges $8 for an organic, sustainable, ethical, fair-trade coffee. Each cup is individually craft brewed in what look like fat hourglasses with a paper filter on top. I always get the same thing; bold Kenyan, a smoky dark roast with a complex nutty, dark chocolate, bitter cherry taste. I've seen a few celebrities here: Ryan Gosling, Julia Roberts, Seth Rogan, Christina Ricci, Kevin Bacon and Jerry Seinfeld. My parents visited last summer. We did a lot of obligatory tourist stuff: bus tour of the star's homes from Malibu to Bel Air (we actually saw Jack Nicholson get his mail behind a gilded gate and Madonna speed walking), Universal Studios, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, La Brea Tar Pits and Leno.
Joy drives me to LAX. I transfer flights in Chicago and arrive seven hours after leaving.
From the taxi I see him through their living room window, bathed in flickering television light, seated in his black leather recliner, wearing yellow paisley PJ's, slippered feet propped on the footrest. Parked out front is my father's light blue 1965 Mercedes 600 Sedan; so old it's appreciating. People leave business cards on the windshield asking if his "vintage beauty" is for sale. My mother greets me at the front door. At 70, she is younger than my father, petite as a ballet dancer, blonde curly hair, piercing blue eyes. She always wears flamboyant earrings; today brightly-colored parrots. My father appears a bit dazed, eyes glossy, but I don't smell alcohol and mom says it's the painkillers. Gold strips of plastic, the kind you see in the department store floor model at Sears, flap in front of the small air conditioner, blowing my father's short gray hair. "Hey what the hell...it's about time," my father shouts over the TV and AC. "Good to see you, Dad,” I say, leaning to hug him. "You look great." "Good to see you too. But what are you talking about? I look like crap." I don't know how to respond. "Alice, did you hear that? He thinks I look grand even on death's doorstep." "Randall...please." My father sighs. I regret not bringing Joy. She could diffuse tense social situations. I imagine her next to me in a sunflower dress, laughing easily, serving an exotic Intelligentsia coffee and homemade lemon cookies. "Ted, what are you doing here anyway?" I wonder if it's the meds, old age or his impending mortality that makes him ask. I swear, my father at 88, has shrunk during the last five years. Last time we met he was about 180 pounds, with a pregnant-looking beer belly, a rakish walrus-like mustache covering his upper lip, a red porous, swollen very pink nose, and grey rheumy eyes. He has since lost 40 pounds; eyes sunken, cheeks hollow. The family room is decorated with items Mom plucked from estate sales: a rug from Persia, a framed watercolor of The Eiffel Tower, a collection of Russian nesting dolls, a colorful stone vase from Africa filled with plastic Bird of Paradise. I sit on a new green sofa. The fabric and pattern remind me of thick corduroy pants. It's too firm and I can feel a few springs askew. I am surprised they still live in the same home but they did splurge on a Marriott time share and in the last year have been to Miami, Boston, and Manhattan. A tornado watch flashes on the screen along with an obnoxious loud alert sound. I can't remember which is worse; a watch or warning. I remember many years ago my father lifting me, rushing to the basement, as I stood frozen, mesmerized by the black funnel cloud. It razed the mobile home park and damaged our two story red brick gingerbread-looking home; breaking most of the windows, collapsing the brick chimney. My father is enraptured by the talking news heads; blindly scooping Rocky Road ice cream direct out of the small Haagen-Dazs container. "Heard it's been a real humid summer," I say to nobody in particular. "Worst in memory," says my mother. She asks him to turn off the TV but Dad just turns down the volume and says it's an important hourly SportsCenter update; top Top Ten Plays of the Day. I hear the rapid popping of firecrackers; kids must have lit an entire brick.
Across the wooden fence, our neighbor of 40-something years, Duke Anderson, is hosting a block party. Fat pasty-white figures jump off the diving board into the pool, cannonballs splashing into our yard. It smells of barbecue, chlorine, and marijuana. A patriotic Springsteen's “Born In The USA” plays on endless loop.
Scrolling letters at the bottom of the screen announce they will interrupt regular programming for the "fireworks extravaganza from the banks of The Maumee in beautiful downtown Toledo." We drag my dad outside to watch the fireworks perhaps a mile away. He wears a blue down parka over his PJ's. We sit in gray plastic folding chairs. It's humid and smells like thunder. A small group congregates at the end of the cul-de-sac; spillover from the Anderson's. Basically a bunch of drunk, shirtless, tattooed, beer bellied Toledo-lifers, jeans worn low exposing underwear logos and baseball caps worn askew, lighting illegal pyrotechnics often pointed at one another. I almost, no I do hope, they engage in a UFC-style fight-to-the-death melee. I'll film it and get a few million hits on my website or sell the exclusive white trash footage to TMZ. Hell I'm tempted to offer them money if they guarantee a few compound fractures, rear-naked tap-out chokeholds and flesh burning bottle rocket wars. I recognize Ray Anderson, Duke's son. We went to high school together. He spent summers rebuilding cars with his father. I don't feel like saying hello. Duke Anderson, his father, a pack of cigarettes bulging under his left shoulder short sleeve t-shirt, must be 80. He was notorious for being arrested when I was in 6th grade, for making bomb threats from pay phones to local businesses at which he was pissed for a sundry of petty reasons; charges which ultimately were never proved. He laughed and bragged about his brush with the law for years carrying the mug shot in his wallet, flashing it to women he'd meet in seedy bars on business trips. "That guy with the red baseball cap,” my father says. “That's Gunner Flanders." "I remember him," I say. Always thought it was a name better suited for a dog. "Self-made man," my father continues, raising his voice, chewing on a thick unlit cigar. "Never went to college and now owns his own garage repair; Lexus', BMW's and Mercedes. Seven people work for him." I am proud of my father. He worked at a spark plug manufacturing plant in Toledo for 30 years; first job after the war. He has a fat pension and a quarter million 401K. Before that he had straight A’s at the local JC, taking pre-med. His father was a family physician, the kind who showed up at your rural home, black bag in hand, ubiquitous stethoscope around his neck. His mother was a busy homemaker: 3 boys, 4 girls. My dad doesn't understand that companies simply don't offer any of those perks anymore. I know people my age with well-paying jobs and solid careers who will "retire" working at Starbucks, Walmart or Home Depot until they drop dead. "How come I've never seen any of your films?" He continues. "What did you ever do with your degree?" "Well actually the MA has got me a lot of work..." "MA...BA...PhD...Flanders did it without a degree!" I think of a million retorts but instead say, "You did good for yourself, Pops." "I don't need you to justify anything about my life. I know what I accomplished."
In the street, Mr. Anderson lights an enormous, clearly illegal, cone. He is showered with what resembles a fire hose of red and then white sparks. He stumbles backward falling hard, embers smoking in his hair, one igniting a small flame on the front of his shorts. He rolls on the ground and someone pours beer on him from a small keg. He does an odd, lame victory dance and exchanges high fives with kids to whom he hands sparklers. It’s reminiscent of a Homer Simpson cartoon.
Bottle rockets are shooting in our direction from across the street. Past the highway a vacant field of asphalt and weeds leads into marshland and then forest. Each bottle rocket attempt comes closer. I imagine kids concealed behind a log making adjustments each time, like some military artillery operation. The next one sails toward us and at first I think it is going to hit my father but it lands behind him in the garden.
My father has had enough. He rises from the lawn chair supporting himself with his walker. He shouts in their direction and is answered with more bottle rockets.
He actually moves quite well with his walker, likely adrenaline. My mother and I try to stop him but he pushes me aside and before I know it crosses the highway and enters the field. I follow, yelling for him to return. I can see two baseball caps peeking over the log. They are now aiming bottle rockets at my father. It's pitch dark except for a sliver of moon. I twist my left ankle in a gopher hole. The burning pain is immediate and intense and I wonder if it's broken. He stops about 20 yards in front of the log. He pulls what I think is a pellet gun out of his parka and fires into the sky. It sounds like just another fire cracker. One of the kids tosses a large explosive, possibly an M120, at him and then another. One explodes close enough that he is showered with weed and dirt. My father stumbles forward with his walker. He falls to his knees using his walker as a protective barricade. He fires what I now see is one of his revolvers directly at what appear to be three kids behind the log; emptying all six shots. I hear a kid scream from behind the log. His two friends stand up and yell something incomprehensible. Gunner Anderson and some of his buddies jog across the highway into the field. My father points his revolver at them and they scatter. He is out of ammo and the chamber clicks.
Some of my earliest and fondest memories with my father are when he took me pheasant hunting a few miles from where we are now, beginning at age ten, in Maumee State Forest outside Toledo. There was a two bag limit and I forget the exact days but remember we always hunted on Thanksgiving.
He taught me to aim ahead of the bird in their direction of flight. It was always muddy and foggy and we wore high rubber boots and camouflage gear we purchased at an Army surplus store. Dad was very good at mimicking their mating calls; using a bird whistle and his own guttural vibrations. He'd let Rex, our Golden Retriever rescue, loose and she'd return with our dinner. Mom would roast the bird in a small rotisserie oven rotating it to juicy perfection inside, crispy on the outside; brown meat but not too gamey, wrapped in bacon, stuffed with thyme, rosemary, lemon and whatever else she had handy. The best part was the tiny crunchy wings. Rex became adept at locating and pointing out quail egg nests, similar in taste to chicken eggs but mostly yolk, deep in brush and cattails; gray and black spotted as many as ten to a nest. Mom would make what became known as the "Quail egg concoction" we'd have Sunday after church. Sometimes we'd be silent for an hour seated on our small folding camouflage hunting chairs. That's when he'd tell me about the only time I sensed he felt he lived with a sense of purpose, in the moment, for something greater than himself. He was an elite paratrooper who jumped behind enemy lines on D-Day; a few miles inland of Omaha Beach. Many became target practice for German gunners. Others broke limbs or backs landing in trees or boulders; only one in five survived a week after landing and they carried over 70 pounds of gear; their mission to gain control of strategic bridges. My father blew clear through the roof of a barn converted into a German gunner. He surprised the lone solider left behind to protect the outpost while the others were out on patrol. The German pointed his rifle at my father from 20 feet but something jammed and it didn't fire. He charged in an attempt to club him to death with the gun butt. My father ripped his rifle off his backpack and shot him point blank; close enough that he could almost touch him. His head exploded and my father was splattered with brain. They just called it "stress" or "nerves" back then but a year after returning to Toledo my father had a breakdown; PTSD. He fought from June 1944 to May 1945 and was awarded a Purple Heart, taking shrapnel to his left knee, fragments of which remain. He still shows his Purple Heart to Homeland Security at the airport going through the X-ray and had a Purple Heart symbol on his vanity plate that read "PRPLHRT." He was the only one of seven who survived a German surprise attack by soldiers dressed as civilians and suffered survivor's guilt. I reach my father, who is sobbing in a fetal position, body shaking. I lift him up, hugging him. I can feel his ribs; bony shoulders against my chest. He whispers something softly, barely above a whisper. I turn so my ear is touching his mouth. I squeeze his hands and assure him everything will be alright. "Ted, I didn't ask for it," he says. "For what?" "The Heart; they gave it to me. I tried to live a good, honest life, Theodore. I was kind to people." "You are a very kind man." "I am a good person. A good father. A good husband." "Yes, you are, Pops. You are loved. I love you." I hear a siren in the distance and then see the flashing lights of an ambulance followed by a police car. I think he says "bitches" but he repeats himself; "birches." And, while faint, I can hear every word.
"When I see birches bend to left and right
across the lines of straighter darker trees."
He is quoting Robert Frost's "Birches"; a poem he often recited to lull me to sleep.
A lone police officer, with a large felt hat that looks like a cross between a fedora and something a cowboy would wear, advances through knee-high brush; weapon withdrawn, pointed in our direction. He commands us to put our hands, fingers interlaced, behind our heads. Paramedics tend to the kid. The flesh wound does not appear serious.
My father continues, his voice gaining strength.
"I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them."
I silently mouth each word with him. We both stand, my father leaning against me, chest to chest. The officer, now only twenty feet away, lowers his gun, but continues moving forward with trepidation. My father smiles, laughing to himself, before continuing.
"Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel."
And Then Things Went Bad
Vegas is hot. 114 degrees hot. Cook scrambled-eggs-on-the–hood-of-your-car hot. My driver is nowhere to be seen. Yes, I am an hour late, after wasting time at a crappy Vegas airport bar chatting up a petite 20-something dirty blonde I met on the plane, until her muscular Italian-looking boyfriend wandered back from the slots. Anyway drivers are paid to wait. I fire him via text. It was a brief flight from my home; a ubiquitously foggy, drizzly Seattle. The airport taxi line is long likely from a convention. Prostitutes, strip clubs and drug dealers will have a bonanza week. Eyes shut, I visualize the resort hotel pool; turquoise, green crystal clear waters, wave machines, a white sand beach, a labyrinth of canals you can leisurely traverse in giant inner tubes lounging under a private cabana, washing down an exotic cheese and nut platter with a tall fruity rum cocktail, engrossed in a fast-paced paperback thriller, surfing the web via my iPad. But instead I see an enormous ostrich egg frying on my head, over easy, extra runny, streaming down my neck, under my shirt collar all the way down my back to my sweaty, itchy ass crack. A drunken booming voice of some idiot in front of me boasts to anyone that will listen about how it's dry heat and so it's not that bad, blah, blah, blah. I recognize him from the flight. He wandered up from the plebs of economy to first class trying to mooch free alcohol but was immediately turned away by a hot busty Asian first class stewardess who directed him back to his fat steward who billed him likely more than he could afford for three gin and tonics. He looks defeated, a short, bald fat man, the tail of his wrinkled shirt pulled out. I am dressed in old school 80's preppie, now popular again; tan khaki pants, a yellow cloth belt of tiny boats, a pink cotton Polo golf shirt and red suede loafers. I will buy a bathing suit at the hotel and toss it when I leave. Don't want it to appear I intended to have too much fun.
Often I remind myself of a young Robert Redford, squared-jawed, dirty blonde, blue eyed man, for whom everything comes easy. At 5"10, 170 I am in excellent shape and am often told I look 10 years younger than my 42 years.
I have had enough of this waiting, wasting my valuable time, so I stride purposeful and confident, up to a limo driver with a sign that reads "Netflix" hand him $20 and I'm on my way. The Netflix chump can wait in line and be late and arrive drenched in sweat and dehydrated. Not my problem. Entering the hotel between enormous exotic rain forest trees of blown glass a fine mist sprays me from cooling fans disguised as palm trees. Stunning colorful giant hand blown glass flowers grow from the lobby ceiling. I live with my wife of sixteen years, Sharon, and our two kids, Debra, 14 and Aaron, 9. Sharon lives the good life; raising the kids, playing tennis and golf, volunteering for a myriad of causes. She stills looks great at 39; tall and slender with a body shaped by weekly yoga along with weight and cardio workouts with a personal trainer. She's from Cincinnati; Midwest honest. We live in a tony suburb of Seattle on the waterfront. We see a psychologist monthly for couples therapy; her insistence yet I admit it has been useful in taking her scent off my indiscretions. Sharon thinks I'm interviewing prospective account executives as part of my responsibilities as Director of Sales for Star Bone Growth, a start up medical device company that invented a smaller, better bone growth stimulator for patients with severe slow healing fractures. The way I figure, if these little indiscretions keep our family together and secure my employment where's the harm? I make plenty of personal sacrifices for her and our family so don't I deserve a little fun? If I don't allow myself to fall in anything close to love I'm better than most of the corporate scum who have long-term affairs with colleagues, customers and business partners, culminating in our yearly new product release trade show better known as an infidelity fest. Then there are the scumbags and low life's who take advantage of naive, insecure, desperate job applicants or those willing to do anything to get a better sales territory or simply gain favor for greater job security. I put them to shame.
I met Chloe, my madam of sorts, through a blackjack dealer. I am very discreet about the women I meet and the arrangements I make for physicians. All my communications are via my Gmail account used exclusively for that purpose. They fly in for the day, sometimes just for a few hours. I take care of everything; flight, hotel, the woman, or women in some cases, and have a safety deposit box at the hotel so they can pay everything cash. More thought is put into this versus any other aspect of my job. I have a carte blanche expense account.
Give or take a few million, it is estimated I will clear 17 million after taxes, from the IPO in a few months. A few weeks prior to the IPO I will divorce Sharon and marry one of my mistresses. Tiger Woods, next to me, looks like an altar boy, a regular angel. And don't get me started about Anthony Weiner or John Edwards, or Bill Clinton, or Gary Hart or John Kennedy or I could go on forever. I will never get caught hooking up doctors or having a little fun on the side myself. When I started in medical device sales years ago it was exciting, even pleasurable. I took doctors on elaborate safaris to Kenya, to Tokyo seducing and them with prostitutes and a week of luxury at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Imperial Palace Hotel, or awarding them and their families lavish gifts for attending a seminar in Kauai regarding a medical device new product release. Now I'm lucky if they can accept free donuts. So we circumvent the new rules by hiring tit and ass, baby. Doctors want to have lunch and be seen with beautiful woman who don't judge them if they leer at their perfect tits during a visit. We hire girls young out of college with biology or pre-med backgrounds. We hire young men and have them call mostly on female physicians but they also must be beautiful. A recent story in The Financial Times and another in The Wall Street Journal speculated we are being courted by some large medical device companies; a suitor may be found soon if we can quell rumors of a product recall. A story in a recent medical journal accused us of burying clinical studies in the early stage if they indicated less than stellar bone growth stimulation in clinical trials. I personally don't know enough to go to prison and the fact remains companies that manufacture joint and knee replacements are worse than us burying defects that should lead to product recalls putting quarterly profits ahead of patient lives. Worst case our device is prescribed over a competitor based on exaggerated or false claims and if you're going to be a real technical jerk about it, could deny them a more effective device that could have saved their limb. But that's cutting some damn thin hairs.
The casino is busy; mostly corpulent pasty white poorly dressed ugly people. They sit at the slots, guts hanging over their belts, smoking, wolfing down delicacies like BBQ spiced pork rings out of the bag wiping greasy sausage fingers on plaid stretch jeans.
Chloe had arranged for Lori, one of my favorites, busty, tall, slender and Japanese to visit me that evening for a few hours. But that was before I spotted Autumn, a tight ass blonde with long, thick, curly hair down to her ass. It was risky to go with a freelance courtesan; but she was unlikely to cause any trouble. She flipped that switch in me, the one that still enjoyed the hunt, reeling it in, closing the deal, bagging the big wild game. We are both in the invite-only private blackjack pit. I am a bit down for the night but at a lively high stakes table winning a $12,000 pot when she glanced up from her martini with an olive, more likely water, our eyes locking. Against my usual proclivity to brunettes she is all blonde; maybe 25, a tight, muscular bundle of raw sexual tension, perky nipples showing through a diaphanous low cut, red cocktail dress and three inch bend me over the table heels and bright red pouty full lips. Slut and class at the same time. Her energy fills the room, everyone aware of her presence, men transfixed, women glancing at her with a mix of admiration and raw combustible jealousy. When the cocktail waitress makes her rounds I tip her $50 asking her to deliver the blonde my note on a cocktail napkin: "Room 2012. 10 Benjamin Roses. 2 hours. 11pm. Nothing weird." When she arrives I put a bottle of champagne on ice and pay her ten hundreds up front. Without counting she slips them into her small handbag. I pop the cork and we sit on the expansive balcony of my penthouse suite complete with a $50,000 bathtub sourced from an Italian quarry; all one solid piece of beautifully veined greenish marble.
I leave the balcony to retrieve a silver tray of freshly dipped chocolate strawberries. When I return she serves me a fresh glass of champagne. It tastes a bit off and I wonder if the champagne is bad.
Thousands line the strip below us to watch the extravaganza of neon colored water fountains explode and spray to familiar opera; mostly the three tenors.
She scratches my neck with her long French manicured nails. That's the last thing I remember before waking up naked, except for my red suede shoes, on the balcony. It takes me a few attempts to lift the mattress. Everything is gone; $15,000 in cash, passport and wallet. I scan the room for my clothing but she has taken everything, leaving only the hotel robe. I should have used the room safe. And then things go real bad.
My new iPhone signals an IM.
"Dear Scott. You seem like a man who values his time so let's cut to the chase. You will wire half your IPO profits to me -- details to follow -- or some very uncompromising images of you will be sent to all 1,700 of your address book contacts. In addition your myriad violations against the Securities & Exchange Commission will be included landing you in prison for decades. Any funny business on your end and by default the server will send the photos and SEC violations every 30 days unless I enter a password. Notify the police and everything is instantly sent from a secured server. I will donate 10% to various charities if that makes this more palpable."
I also miss a few calls from Sharon
I crawl on my hands and knees naked to the balcony. Before I can jump I vomit.
My cell rings, a Skype window opens, and a conference call commences. Autumn waves, grinning. The blurred image of another person comes into focus. It’s Sharon, smiling, waving, smirking. She holds up a draft copy of the divorce papers my lawyer had prepared. And then my wife blows me a double-handed kiss as the screen goes blank.
Leonard Channing impatiently sipped his black coffee while it was too hot; burning the roof of his mouth until he felt it bubble. He peeled the thin burned skin with his tongue. Having stayed up late channel surfing reality TV shows, from people who hoard to cooks that prepare road kill, it was already late morning.
He earned an MA in English Literature from UC Berkeley and his bedroom overflowed with books in messy stacks almost to the ceiling, gathering dust, their pages yellow and fragile. Today he bought very few books preferring literary magazines like The New Yorker. He found today's short fiction too formulaic, and predictable but enjoyed it nonetheless.
Leonard never found a groove at work moving between temporary assignments; mostly customer service or inside sales for mortgage or software companies.
He dribbled more coffee onto his already stained blue and yellow plaid thick shirt and blue jeans. His favorite, suede water proof ankle high boots of two decades fit snugly and has recently been resoled.
A goose-feather blue parka covered a blue-checkered thick shirt, down feathers poking out behind patches of silver duct tape, ripped mostly from squeezing himself through barbed-wire fences.
He allowed his dog Rex, a Black Labrador German Shepard rescue mix, to lick the remains of bacon detritus and runny eggs from his plate.
A horse racing section of the newspaper was highlighted in various colors, scribbled notes in pencil and colored pen. He still used a bookie eschewing the convenience of betting online.
Leonard lived with Abbe, his mother, who was short and thin, with closely cropped red hair and a narrow sharp nose, in a simple but comfortable one story white ranch home with green trim they rented 90 miles north of San Francisco in the wine country.
Abbe maintained her strong British accent, having immigrated to San Francisco from London with her husband. Chad was often described as ruggedly-handsome; a philandering wealthy banker, short and stocky with thick, black greased hair and puffy red cheeks. He returned to Britain after they separated when Leonard was seven, but still sent 700 euros monthly.
Leonard, an only child, was especially close to his mother, a retired nurse, who volunteered at local long term healthcare facilities as a watchdog ombudsman for the state. She had a group of friends who played bridge weekly and visited San Francisco monthly; attending art walks, opera, symphony and theatre.
Abbe cooked dinner and they ate together; usually a hearty soup or meat pie. She recently took up knitting and sold her popular scarves and hats at local shops.
Sharon, her younger sister, visited from England with her husband and three kids, twice a year. Abbe took them to see the sights in San Francisco and sometimes they drove south on PCH to Santa Barbara for a weekend at a bed and breakfast that reminded them all of a traditional old stone home you'd see in the British countryside. Leonard came along but mostly kept to himself, reading and going for long walks in the hills above the city and along the coast.
Leonard looked out the kitchen window at his feral cats hunting mice in the vineyard. He still maintained his svelte build from his days as a collegiate miler but his once bright red hair was now a thinning bush of unkempt gray and rust.
He often wondered if Chad were his real father as he had none of his physiognomy, looking more like his mother; pale and freckled with a boyish grin that caused him to often be mistaken for two decades younger than his 51 years.
Abbe's knife made a loud sound against the plate as she slowly, meticulously cut her thickly-sliced honey marinated bacon into postage stamp sized pieces, dipping them in a side of molasses they bought from a neighbor, harvested from trees on their property.
Abbe looked up from Country Living & Interior Design
and asked Leonard if he was going into town today as she needed the basics; coffee, milk, eggs, granola and yogurt.
Leonard said he would drive the ten miles to downtown Healdsburg tomorrow. He enjoyed his routine visiting downtown a few times a week; lounging at the tony Hotel Healdsburg where he would pose as a guest, enjoying the complimentary buffet breakfast near a roaring wood fire in what felt like a gentrified hunting lodge.
Rooms started at $500 and he had seen many of the San Francisco social elite in this lobby; Sean Penn, Robin Williams, Sharon Stone and Steven Spielberg.
After the hotel he would enjoy coffee at The Flying Goat Cafe, frequented by local wealthy vineyard owners, tourists and Mexican day laborers alike. He'd stay for a few hours, people watching, taking notes in his moleskin notebook, occasionally chatting with regulars he trusted and with whom he did not feel anxiety.
Leonard sometimes shot wild quail or turkey Abby would gut and prepare. He maintained the vineyard; agreeing to walk the property daily reporting any anomalies to the owner, performing small tasks, in exchange for their reduced rent.
Leonard packed his small square wicker basket with homemade venison jerky, fruit, chips and apple juice. His telescoping fishing rod stuck out of his bag. He would dig for worms, beetles and other bait under rocks near the river.
He could always count on catching enough small trout to fill a frying pan. Sometimes he cooked his entire catch near the river in a small rock circular fire pit; using metal coat hanger skewers and dry kindling kept in his pack.
It was a cold late December morning and the grapevines were stark black and bare of fruit. It had rained heavily the night before and the swale near their home had flooded onto their gravel driveway and spilled into the vineyard. He would wade into the muddy water in yellow rubber boots later and unclog the drainage pipes.
Outside he breathed the cool air deep into his lungs. He wiped his gray blue eyes of excess morning moisture. A bent very worn book of short stories bulged out of his back pocket.
He felt invigorated by the day ahead, fishing, reading, writing poems, relaxing by the river with Rex. Abbe would pan fry the trout with basel leaves, sage and thyme fresh from the garden.
He carried a loaded long-barreled .357 magnum revolver on a belt holster. He feared the wild boars that had once gored his leg and mauled Red. He enjoyed sitting on the rocks overlooking the winter-fueled fast moving river. A poor swimmer he had nearly drowned trying to traverse the river by foot last November.
A few times a year the boars transformed parts of the manicured vineyard into haphazard mounds of dark, wet clay mixed with the remains of thick gnarled, grape vine trunks and roots, upended like arthritic clenched fists.
A flock of Canadian Geese flew high overhead sounding like fading barking hounds.
He could hear the roar of the distant river before he could see it. Rex ran ahead excited to explore the muddy bank after a storm. A fine mist rose above the river near the waterfalls just downstream from where he fished, a mist that would soon dampen his face and cause him to remove and wipe his small round glasses, without which he was virtually blind.
At the edge of the river he walked over small pebbles crunching underfoot, over a few larger rocks before settling on his favorite, smooth large boulder. He could hear the catcalls of young kids yelling before hearing an echoing splash as they did cannonballs into a deep part of the river under a few oak trees up river. Hopefully the fish would not be too spooked.
Rex played in the water endlessly chasing and sometimes catching and chomping insects. A few times a week he caught and ate a small fish trapped between boulders near the shore.
Over the course of the day Leonard caught a number of small trout, read a few short stories, napped on the boulder, using his crumpled fishing hat as a pillow, dreamed he could float above the river and fly above the vineyards and imagined eating the crispy fried trout.
The sun moved behind the tall oaks on the opposite side of the river early this time of winter. He felt a deep chill clear through his coat as the wind kicked up. He packed his gear, climbed off the boulder and headed home. Rex ran ahead of him, pausing to sniff, dig and kick up dirt with his front paws.
He first thought the voices he heard were simply the distant roar of river white water. But after pausing still for a few seconds he was sure they were voices; distressed and strained.
He walked back toward the river, slowly at first and then a bit of a trot, as he got closer and the cries became more urgent.
From a distance he noticed kids just up river floating in circles in large thick black truck inner tubes. There were five of them, their butts low in the inner tube center hole; all boys and all likely drunk, hollering something unnecessary and meaningless, each with a beer in his hand.
One older boy, maybe late college age, with a pregnant basketball gut, precariously balanced the remains of a 12-pack across his fat, flabby chest. He had tattoos on his arms and legs and long hair down to his lower back. The other four boys all looked military with crew cuts, cut off t-shirts and military camouflage baseball caps. They all wore jeans cut off just above the knees except for the older kid who wore checkered boxer underwear and a thick short leather bomber jacket.
These were the high school dropout losers who had assaulted him one night as he confronted them doing donuts in the vineyard with their beat up truck, flattening a row of vines heavy with grapes, a few days before harvest.
Leonard ended up with a broken nose, a few missing teeth and a ringing in his ears that still bothered him causing him occasional vertigo. He had returned with an unloaded shotgun which scared them off but made him the villain with the local police who kept him locked up for a week. Since then the boys, led by their leader of sorts, a bully the size of an ox they called Fearless Frankie, took to calling him a variety of disparaging names when they spotted him downtown.
In their drunkenness they searched the river hollering for Frankie who was apparently missing, likely pale gray and dead, jammed underneath some boulder or rotten log. As Leonard turned to leave he noticed Frankie crawling slowly out of the muddy bank on the opposite shore. The other boys spotted Frankie but in their inebriated state, slouched deep in their inner tubes, it seemed unlikely they could reach him.
When it looked like he was alright Frankie fell face-first into a few inches of thick quicksand-like mud. He rolled onto his back stuck like an insect to flypaper only his arms free grasping for reeds and cattails. The rough current sometimes flowed toward the shore covering everything but his toes and nose causing him to choke.
His friends all drifted toward rougher whitewater, amongst large boulders, one of them caught in the circular flow of a water funnel. The eldest boy, Gunner, recognized Leonard and they locked eyes. He yelled to Leonard to use his cell; something for which he had no use, so did not own. Gunner pointed toward Frankie and screamed for Leonard to do something. Over the roar of the river and with Gunner's voice hoarse from partying, Leonard feigned he did not understand.
Leonard shrugged his shoulders and turned away. He was convinced Frankie would make it out fine. Or maybe not. One of the others could just as easily create another new crisis falling out of the inner tube into the cold rapids downstream. Not his problem.
On his hike home he made a slight detour to check his rabbit traps. He removed a small cottontail from the chicken-wire cage, gripped it from behind the ears and snapped its neck like a twig.
Abbe would turn it into a hearty stew with garden potatoes and carrots. He would dye the fur and feet, turning them into slippers and keychains he'd sell to the Healdsburg Country Store downtown.
From a distance he could hear the wailing of sirens as they got closer.
Over dinner with Abbe Jeopardy was interrupted by a breaking news special report. A young man had drowned in a river near their home and another was in critical condition. Abbe turned up the volume.
Leonard sucked the bone marrow from a rabbit leg and spread it on a cracker washing it down with apricot dessert wine.