Victoria Allek grew up in in Wyoming, where she earned the cancer survivor tag at age 12. Later, she pursued a Wisconsin teaching license and a Master’s in Communication. She taught high school English and public speaking for 14 years before moving to Iowa, where she completed her memoir. Currently, she mentors student teachers at Wichita State University, maintains a blog (www.writevictoria.com), and is pursuing representation for her memoir. Victoria Allek is the pen name for a woman obsessed with people-watching and traveling; she would be hard-pressed to find something she couldn’t turn into a metaphor.
Author Archives: stithamanda
Today I met a Satanist. Okay, so I didn’t just meet him. Jacob’s been in my junior Advanced Placement English class since the beginning of the year. But today, three weeks into the year, I found out he’s a Satanist.
Yesterday, he was just another supremely polite kid. He sort of reminded me of literature’s version of an English gentleman, minus the accent. Soft-spoken. Pale. Precise in his language choice. Sure he dressed in basic black, but lots of teens gravitate toward that at some point.
He was just sort of…background. Bland. Vanilla.
But today, and forever after for me, he is a Satanist.
He told me, or rather had me read, all about the finer points of Satanism and how he came to make that choice. Not Devil Worship or that phony animal sacrifice stuff, he scoffed, but Satanism. And not that “absence of a God” sort of stuff, either. Nope, he believes in the big one: Satan as a deity.
Okay, so this has to be a test, right? He’s pushing to see what I’ll allow for topics, how I handle random tidbits of disturbing information, or how confidential I will keep their personal narratives.
“The teacher at my old school didn’t really appreciate this, so as you read this, keep an open mind, a very open mind.”
Definitely a test.
I’m understanding. I don’t laugh. I don’t even raise my eyebrows, though I don’t know how I manage it. I offer intelligent insight while ignoring the topic. “To me, this reads more like a definition paper than a personal narrative, could you try…”
But he follows up with questions for me. “How much of this background information did you know already?” More than he would have thought, it appears.
I’m beyond uncomfortable with this conversation.
“So you’ve had Satanists in class before?” He’s exhilarated. He’s disappointed. He’s never found any among his peer group.
Did I pass the test? Does that mean that somewhere tonight he is kneeling in front of an upside down cross praying to Satan, his dark Lord and Master, to “bless” me? Am I okay with this?
Even if I’m not, there’s really not much I can do. I’m pretty sure this would fall under that religion in schools regulation, so maybe I could avoid it, but then what if his parents sued me for religious discrimination?
But then, what about the kid? He really is just looking for someone to understand him, a way to fit in. That much I get.
I hope I have it in me.
16 months later
I will probably never see my Satanist again. After having him for his entire junior year in class, I was surprised to see him beside my desk at the beginning of his senior year, asking to be my teacher’s assistant for the year.
I was desperately in need of help. Besides, I thought he was an okay kid, so I’d said yes. As the year wore on, I found myself biting my tongue when colleagues complained about his mannerisms. I certainly didn’t stand up for him.
And he eventually asked, in his odd, formal way, standing beside my desk, hands behind his back, for a letter of recommendation. I wrote him one. He forgot to tell me he got into his first choice school, somewhere on the East Coast.
I am aware I don’t thank my assistants enough. So, to commemorate the end of the year and acknowledge the work he did for me, I gave him a gift card for a bookstore with a note in the card. In the card, I scrawl a thinly personalized message of the generic ilk in which I wish him luck, thank him for his help, and express that I sincerely hope he finds everything he’s looking for in college.
He had never liked it here, never quite fit in; although, I think he relished his nonconformity, to some extent.
He thanked me profusely. Hadn’t he ever received a thank you gift for a job well done?
I leave for the day, not thinking about him.
The last day of school: no students, and all day to finish my grades and clean up my room. I was doing nothing in particular, probably trading anecdotes with my colleagues I would be embarrassed to have attributed to me later.
He showed up in our office, his longish hair pulled back into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck to more effectively show off the upside-down cross breaking up all that black clothing over his pale skin.
He brought me a gift, wrapped awkwardly in black construction paper and too much clear tape. I comment on the choice of wrapping, and he ducked his head and said simply, “Because it’s from me.”
I know. I get it.
I opened the gift as he looked on. It’s a dull black, carved cat. It’s sort of Egyptian-looking, with symbols on the base, and I noticed a snake peeking out from between the seated cat’s front legs. A cobra, an asp maybe? I thanked him, told him he hadn’t needed to do that, and wished him luck again. He was gone quickly after that.
I heard the comments from those around me that sounded like they were about the gift, when I could tell they were really about the giver: It should go right in the garbage. It would never see the inside of my home. If you place it on your mantel, it’ll begin to bleed.
And I simply didn’t know what to make of it. Was it symbolic of something to him? Did he know I had a cat at home and think I might appreciate the little statue? I can’t remember. It’s a nice gesture, I decided, and vowed to leave it at that.
There was a card with the token. “Thank you,” it proclaimed on the front. And inside it simply stated, “so much.” A nice card, in and of itself, but he had added two lines. Written in his funny half-script, half-print style I suddenly recognized as similar to my own: I did not forget. And I will not.
Other than that, merely his name.
I’m even more ashamed that I didn’t hush my colleagues and their snide comments. Did I contribute to them? My face flushed warm and my vision swam, just a little.
What was he talking about? I savagely scavenge my brain. Did I deserve the gesture, or was I over analyzing? Was it just about the gift card, for the letter of recommendation, for…?
Those who choose to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl watch from the safety of the steps, analyzing which pods seem to respond to their occupants. When the carnie opens the gate, they race around the corrugated metal ramp, diving into the choice cars.
People who don’t like spinning rides shake their heads while the riders try their hardest to get dizzy beyond reason in the name of fun.
As a high school teacher, I had a prime seat on the Tilt-a-Whirl of teen angst. From that vantage point, I managed occasional glimpses out the side of the ride as the world reeled by. I could lean one direction and hold onto the bar, and sometimes I could make the car spin the direction I wanted. But not always.
I still have no idea how the ride works.
Her face was the first thing I remember seeing when I came to after the accident: ethereal in the glow of the red night lights, that of a nurse from a Battle of Britain movie, bedside with the RAF pilot who is bandaged head to toe and in traction. I was wrapped and trussed like that, but I was hardly a romantic hero, and though she looked relieved when I opened my eyes and spoke to her, there was none of the adoration that I so desperately needed. Maybe it was the painkillers, maybe it was turning thirty and wanting to be someone a woman like her couldn’t live without.
I didn’t remember the accident but what happened was clear enough. I had set out to ski Corbet’s Couloir, the 50-degree drop though a narrow chute just below the headwall at the top of the aerial tram. Later I would read the frontpage article in the Jackson Hole News & Review with the photograph of me: limbs and skis spread-eagled, taken from far above in the tram. I looked like a tick on a white duvet comforter. The tenor of the article was derogatory — “another thrill-seeker, this time a young natural gas attorney from Denver, fails his final exam on Corbet’s.” The guide service, to defend itself, had told the reporter that I was a competent skier and in great condition — that I had done Saudan at Whistler numerous times, and that I was a Marine combat veteran who had gone through Seal training.
I was fairly certain that the nurse thought that I was a frivolous egotist, for I felt so myself. Desperate to make a connection with her, I asked her what she thought of me. She said she had given me no thought, except that I should have to pay the county for the expense of my rescue. I asked if she’d feel different if I were local, and she said it didn’t make a bit of difference. So I said I had to agree with her on the matter of restitution, but coming from “away,” I probably sounded more cash-rich than contrite.
She was from central Montana, raised on a ranch up against the Dry Range, so I played Ian Tyson out loud on my iPod, but she’d never heard of him. I had read in some magazine that Ian was the genuine article: the cowboy troubadour, the sounds you’d hear in the bunkhouse. Oh well.
When the ambulance brought me in I’d had one of those wrist ID bracelets on, so they had some contact information. Still, only one of the three telephone numbers on it raised anyone: one was my firm, which was closed for the holidays; another was my father, who was at sea in the Sydney-Hobart race; the last was Gram, and she right away drove over from Idaho Falls in her pickup. She got a room at the Super 8, but spent most of her time by my bed. Sometime during my recovery, it occurred to me that I got the order wrong on that bracelet — Gram was the only one who cared and the only one who mattered.
As soon as she thought I was well enough, Gram started asking me questions on the matter of selling the farm in Rigby. She was living in town now and Simplot was farming it, but some ranch broker from Bozeman had someone who wanted the riverside sections, would buy it all if necessary. She had once gone to a meeting of The Henry’s Fork Foundation with Granddad where conservation easements were discussed. This was not my area of the law, but she climbed up on the bed and the two of us got on my laptop and got smart about it.
One night when Gram and I were on the bed like this, she whispered, “Reflection . . . in the window.” I looked up from the screen. In the window across from the foot of the bed was the reflection of our faces illuminated by the glow of the laptop, and behind us, in the doorway, was the nurse silhouetted against the hall lights. Her arms were crossed and she was leaning against the doorframe. I turned toward her, but she was gone.
Around the time I started physical therapy, Gram quit the Super 8 and went back home. But she’d still drive over to the hospital a couple times a week to share her deviled eggs with me. She laid out a plan for my future: as to the farm, I would buy out my mother’s sister for a price Gram would determine, and she would finance me. I would set up practice in Rigby and live in the house where Mom grew up, on the bluff where we’d spread hers and Granddad’s ashes. She saw that the idea had some appeal to me and pressed her case. “Maybe you could recruit a sure-handed young lady like that nurse to keep you company and out of harm’s way.”
“Her family runs cattle. What would she want with a spud farmer?”
“Rubbish. That sort of thinking went out long ago. Your ideas are right out of the cowboy movies. If she, or any other girl, would have a problem with you, it’d be your city ways and you being a lawyer, but you could rid yourself of the bad parts of that if you put your mind to it. Then she’d have to trust that you’re not one of those easy-come, easy-go, officer-and-gentleman types.” She stood to leave, patted my hand. “Piece of advice for you, Ace: talk less — way less in your case — and say more.”
The nurse still had a major hold on me, so I tried dialing it back and it helped. In fact, we had some fine moments together. But as the time approached for me to leave the hospital she seemed to pull back. All she said when I left was, “Enjoyed your company . . . take care of yourself.” Just gave my arm a quick squeeze. It gave me a shiver — it was like “bless you on the rest of your journey” — like I wasn’t coming back, or if I did she wouldn’t be around.
It’s April now and I’m back up to fish before run-off. Right away I tracked her down, asking if we could get together. She was polite about it, but it was a bad week. “Maybe next time,” she said. I gave her my number, said I wasn’t going to stalk her, but that I’d be around for a while.
Two days later I was wading some private water south of Wilson when she called and left a message: I should meet her in the parking lot at Smith’s at 6:00 PM. She’d be driving a white F-150 pulling a drift boat. I should wear jeans and boots, or sturdy shoes, not flip-flops. No need to RSVP — she needed to stop at Smith’s anyway, for gas and to leave the boat trailer in the lot. I didn’t know she had a boat. My grandparents’ place is near the Menan takeout. She would have known Rigby when I mentioned it in the hospital. She never let on.
She drives and we make small talk. She admits she got to know Gram. “Nice lady,” she says, “probably the reason you’re sitting in that seat today.” That doesn’t surprise or offend me, but she turns on the radio, pretty loud and tuned to the wrong station and I give up talking and will myself to stay positive. Still, by the time we take the left at Hoback Junction, I’ve bled off the romantic head of steam I built up all afternoon. Maybe she is just too big a project. Oddly I feel better, having shrugged off the outcome, the silence now comfortable. I study the Hoback: no holding spots for fish in this straight chute. Postcard-pretty though.
Maybe ten minutes pass and she pulls in at a gravel turnout on the left, close to the river. There is a flatbed semi parked under the cottonwoods next to the bank, loaded high with baled hay covered with translucent tarps. We park off to the side and get out. She hands me an old-fashioned medical valise, lowers the tailgate and drops a pair of her sandals on the ground underneath.
The driver of the truck climbs down from his cab and nods at her. He is a tall, rangy young guy with a lantern jaw, not bad looking, dressed like a rodeo cowboy.
“Cade,” she says, not real friendly.
He looks at me, and she explains, “Here to help.”
“No need now. Made some improvements — put in a trap door.”
“Show us,” she says. “Then you can stay in the cab — looks better that way.” He doesn’t object.
We crawl under the truck. He bangs some toggles open with a crowbar and a hatch hinges down. He stands up in the opening, then squats in place pulling down a garbage bag, bits of straw falling on him. He pushes a jug of bottled water, a bucket of KFC, and the medical bag overhead through the opening. He stands again, his legs twisting in front of us like he’s moving things around up there, then he squats and moves aside. With a sweep of his palm he motions us to climb aboard, a gesture that strikes me as theatrical, mocking us. I wonder what their connection is.
She hoists herself up on her bottom and clears the opening. I arrow my arms through the hatch and stand. The smell of fried chicken is otherworldly. My eyes adjust: I am standing in the middle of a small crypt hollowed in the bales, narrow, about three feet wide and seven feet long. There is four feet of headroom — two bales high, the roof a sheet of plywood. Rip-sawed in the plywood is a skylight of sorts, for light and ventilation. It is comfortable, the temperature, but the space feels close, crowded. Behind me the nurse is attending to a small child under the skylight. Forward, practically in my face, a Hispanic couple huddle with their daughter. The girl is maybe six, more handsome than her parents, too pretty and formal in her yellow dress, like she’s dressed for mass. The man, my age I guess, looks bone-deep weary, his eyes sad. The mother and daughter hug their knees, staring at me without expression, their cheeks moist from tears.
I hoist my butt up next to the nurse. I will have to twist to help her; there isn’t space to pivot. The patient is a sloe-eyed boy, about four. He has a ripe boil the diameter of a beer can on his thigh, a roundel with a yellow shirt button of pus at its center, a plumb-colored circle around that, fading red-to-pink on the perimeter — like the national insignia on a vintage European warplane.
She cleans the boy’s leg, unsheathes the disposable scalpel and lances the center of the wound. I hold a spongy absorbent pad against the wound to soak up the pus, while she lays out materials for dressing the wound. I go through three of these blotters and begin to feel light-headed, afraid I might faint. Just then the boy squeezes my wrist and we make eye contact, and then I’m steady again.
She dresses the wound and wraps the tape clear around the thigh, using plenty of it. “How’s your Spanish?” she says. “Mine’s sketchy.”
“Better than that,” I say, and start translating her instructions, as one-by-one she puts dressings, ointment and sample antibiotic capsules in a shopping bag. She opens a packet of sterile wipes and demonstrates their use. I do the same and she has me emphasize the need to use them, that the infection is contagious. She takes over then: asks in Spanish where their people are, then tells them it will be after midnight when they get there, and that the boy will be okay. They beam then, noisily grateful, and she shushes them and exits without ceremony through the trap. I wish them a safe journey and the enjoyment of the pollo frito, then drop through the opening myself.
The two of us huddle underneath the truck bed and peer out through the banks of tires, scanning the area: the coast is clear. We crawl out from under and she rousts the driver. They talk and he tries to give her some cash, but she waves it away with an angry look. He just shrugs and crawls underneath. I hear him toggle the hatch.
We are at the river’s edge, scrubbing down, when I hear the rig pull out. We stand together, drying our hands and forearms. She studies my face intently, hers hard for me to read.
“What?” I say.
I don’t know where to start. I want to tell her she just takes my breath away, more even than before; that I’m nearly there about Rigby. And there are questions about today — I am an attorney after all. But I swallow all this, and again, like on the trip down, it feels right and natural — elemental: talk less and say more.
I kiss her on the hair. She makes the sign of the cross with her thumb on my forehead, leans against my chest. I listen to the water. That water will be slipping right by the farm, in what, three or four days?
I want to shake off sickness the way a dog
shakes off water from a garden hose.
I want to scream but the screaming’s been done.
I want to walk back in the bar and ask him to take me
home. I want to
dance, buy brown boots with sensible heels, eat lavishly, sweetly,
I want a return guarantee.
I want grime, gritty, sleuth, the hollow
at the base of his throat.
I want to outlaw floor 15.
I want the garden hose and the dog and jubilation,
to roll back time to when he last smiled,
to tango with Roshi in the zendo
the way he embraced the woman with pale ankles.
Don’t paint summer the color of blue flax
then the color of goldeneye, paint
two broad black strokes a river
dammed at the end of the porch,
a rhomboid tilted by the tenacious lure
of dandelions, and if there must be
a figure, paint the figure
a triangle woman with childish arms, her hair
a chaos of wildflowers, the whole of summer
falling between her hands.
down the fall line of the roof
red across a captivated
It’s the charged
that disturbs me
how the desk creaks with my every word
baubles of medical waste
that tipped the morning
a shrike with a siskin as cargo
Seven boys, ages nine to fourteen, loiter in a subway station in a prosaic afternoon throwing pieces of glass and rock across the track. Out of earshot from their parents, each one cusses with intention, as if their tongues are trying to indulge in a rush of forbidden maturity. They swear like their fathers, the words tailoring in their mouths and becoming more natural with each use, like stones worn smooth by a river.
The boys work together trying to gimmick a way out of boredom. They dare one another to jump into the tunnel, to lie on the tracks and run back up. One by one they provoke an ethereal and delicate thread that keeps away ghosts that haunt entire lifetimes.
The last to jump is the smallest of the boys, who takes off from the platform with vigor and upon landing feels a hot potency of woe. Immediately his ankle responds with a brittle snap that echoes throughout his body and sets forth the momentum of shock. He hits the tracks hard. When he attempts to lift his leg, his foot is dead weight. His sock is warm and wet.
The call of the train runs along the sides of the tunnel and impels the boys, leaving their hearts to forever fear the sudden alarm. They call out for the boy who lies on the tracks and each one commands the same order, their tones now more adult than they have ever been.
As his eyes open he sees the train surging towards him. The others reach forth, their small hands jut in a bouquet of palms, fingers, and peril. Each become prophetic as the train impends. The boy below screams at the others, pleading with them as if they were black angels. In the second before the train meets him, he is consumed with the foul realization of inculpable circumstance.
Before the train masticates his small body, before ribbons of meat and sinew grind against the asphalt and the boys above see the boy’s skin split and his fat and muscle bloom and breathe; before the walls of the tunnels run with what looks like ink, before this boy becomes a ghost story forever in concord with the subway station, he can smell his mother, a careful balance of floral notes, bleach, and garlic.
And each boy above would remember making direct eye contact with him, the very moment they were severed from their childhood.
The sun hovered above the horizon, a wavering orange globe that tinted the ocean the color of cool steel. My bare feet, resting on the weathered red tile wall of the Whale Watcher’s bar, framed my view. The rock arches of Land’s End added perspective, an artist might say, to the spot where the Sea of Cortez melded with the swollen Pacific.
The breeze was warm and salty. I popped back my first shot of tequila, pleased with the thought it wouldn’t be my last. I sucked on a lime and attempted to listen to my client.
Murray Patterson’s voice buzzed like an irritating insect. “When I get back to the office, I’ll go through my schedule and pick out some dates. Two months, tops, and I’ll be back down here.”
“The man has caught a disease,” Phyllis Patterson said. “He won’t be able to work.”
Phyllis was a good-looking woman, mid-thirties or so I’d guess. She had the kind of face that was nice to look at, expressive, with lively hazel eyes and long sexy black hair. It focused me back in the moment.
“We still have a half day tomorrow,” I told Patterson.
“I’m gonna have nightmares about losing those two fish and about missing those others.”
“Happens to everybody,” I said.
“I hooked up ten stripers on fly before I boated one. Took me two years to get a blue.”
“That sounds like the skipper trying to pump up the sport.”
“I’m not stuck on this fly business,” Phyllis said. “I just like catching fish. It’s fun.”
“She doesn’t get it,” Patterson said to me as if his wife didn’t exist.
“She gets it,” I said, “but in her own way.”
“Thank you.” Phyllis’s expression was like a dart in her husband’s eye. She pushed her hair off her shoulders, gave me a flirty little smile and she sipped her margarita.
Patterson said, “You know Dirk, I can’t make you add up. You got a nice setup down here, but this isn’t where you banked your green. You said you lived in L.A.”
I nodded, and at great risk to my retinas, I watched the sun drown itself in the ocean. The high cirrus clouds flared pink and the roiled surface of the water glowed violet, like a lit-up marlin hot after a teaser.
“What kind of business were you in up there?” Patterson asked.
“Imports,” I said, and my mind clicked on an image of the plush offices of Kaplan and Trude Imports. Herb Kaplan and Dirk Trude, masters of business, purveyors of fun, best friends for life.
“What made you get out?”
“Not enough time for fishing.”
Patterson laughed, a loud obnoxious sound that rumbled up from his substantial gut.
“I can understand that,” he said, though I was sure he couldn’t. “So you came down with a little nest egg and you’re making out OK.”
“You must’ve been married,” Phyllis said.
My female clients always addressed the marriage question so I was used to it, but this time I had to take a long pull on my Pacifico before answering.
“Once,” I said.
I shook my head, downed the rest of my beer and sucked on another lime.
“I think you’d make a good father. You have incredible patience.”
I knew I could scrounge up some people who would disagree with that. I said, “We’re going to work on your casting tomorrow, Phyllis. We’ll get some energy in your backcast so you can deliver that big popper on target.”
“What about my casting?” Patterson asked.
“Billfish fever’s your problem. You’ve got to keep your stuff together. It’s good to get excited, but it needs to be controlled excitement.”
“Who could help it, seeing that big old fin and that slashing bill. I start shaking like a bimbo after a greenback.” Patterson laughed again at his own lame humor.
Phyllis rolled her eyes. “I told you, he’s got the disease. And we’ve got to get a taxi.” She stood. “I need a swim and a shower before dinner.”
“Las Ventanas at eight-thirty.” Patterson stood next to his wife, his unruly mass of gray-splashed black hair making him almost as tall as her.
“I was thinking of bringing a friend,” I said.
“Sure, liven up the party.” Patterson tossed a wad of pesos on the table. “That should cover it, and have another one on me. Eight-thirty.”
I didn’t watch them leave. I spread my feet wider on the tile wall, studied the sky like a film director setting a scene in his mind. The pink color was fading. I turned to Patricio and signaled for another tequila.
* * *
The past has a conniving way of intruding without notice.
It’s just there. An old face, an unresolved situation, a lingering emotion that makes your skin burn and your mouth go dry. If you fight it, you’re a fool because it’ll only come back later, and the next time it’ll be worse.
I popped back another shot of Don Julio Anejo, closed my eyes, and imagined Herb Kaplan sitting across from me sipping a Chivas rocks. It was something we used to do several nights a week on the deck of my Malibu beach house; listening to the waves, inhaling the salt, and working out the grand schemes of life.
“So what’s the deal, Herb? We’re best friends for twenty years, and now we never talk? We pursued our dreams, enjoyed some laughs, made piles of cash, loved the same woman; I leave town, she divorces me, you marry her. Somebody should write the script. What do you think?”
“I think you’ve lost it, beauty,” I envision Herb saying. He’d be slouched back in his chair, hands folded on his Buddha belly covered by a baggy polo shirt, and he’d fix me with that trust me, I know what I’m talking about look. “You crazy or what? Down there with a gaggle of Mexicans chasing a bunch of dumb fish?”
“The fish aren’t dumb.”
“See! Crazy! Look, you move back up here to So Cal like a sane person. I give you back your half of the company for almost nothing.”
“Define almost nothing.”
“The hell difference does it make? Money’s what we’re talking about? I don’t think so. Get your tushy up here. We’ll eat in a real restaurant and have a face-to-face sit-down.”
“Do I get Marlene back, too?”
And that’s the end of the conversation. I can’t imagine what Herb would say. I can’t grasp how my life evolved in a way that would make that question possible. I only know that it was my doing.
“Looks like you need something more to drink, amigo.” Patricio wore the standard limp blue uniform of the Finisterra staff and he stood like a boxer ready for the first round.
I nodded. “If you just kept ’em coming I could sit here for the rest of my life.”
“If a lady didn’t distract you first.”
I laughed, thought of Gianna, an unexpected glimmer of unreasonable joy, perhaps a prospect for the future. A crazy thought, though I have to admit to being a sucker for hope—not in reality, just in concept.
Patricio returned with replenished supplies. He served me with his unique flair, the show punctuated by him spinning his tray on his index finger.
“Ever play basketball?” I asked.
“Futbol. The people, they like entertainment. I make more tips.”
Smart kid. I watched him prance to another table to ply his trade. The sunset crowd was typically animated, mostly people down from Southern Cal. Their faces were flushed with sun and booze and their smiles were genuine, nothing like the ones they’d put on when they went back home.
Cabo had that affect on people. If you wanted to become sincere, or become a vegetable, or try to decide what you wanted to become, this was the place. You could hang out, eat a lobster, get sloppy drunk, think about everything or nothing.
I made myself more comfortable, if that was possible, and watched the billowing white-crested lines of surf assault the Pacific beach. Perched up here six hundred feet above the sand, I could feel the concussion of the waves hammering the shore, hear the echoing rumble, smell the fishy spray.
I closed my eyes. Gianna Marie Taylor walked out of the surf, water beading on her slick, tanned skin, her long, wet hair pouring over her shoulders. Naked, she slinked toward me. I wondered if she practiced that, then realized it was as natural as the moon’s influence on the tide.
For a moment I was in a zone. The past vanished and I began to believe what only a fool can.
“You look comfortable and content,” Marlene said.
The fantasy of Gianna was swept away. The sound of a chair scraping the tile floor shattered the remnants of my trance. The scent of her perfume, Bal a Versailles, was more than familiar. It was the Pavlov thing. It invoked a reaction that was beyond my control, and gut-twisting.
“I stopped by Beto’s,” she said. “He told me you’d be up here with clients.”
“They just left. I’m meeting them for dinner in a couple of hours.”
“Would the Señora care for a cocktail?” Patricio asked.
I used the diversion to open my eyes and adjust my position for a better view. Marlene’s always-touchable blond hair was carelessly strewn over her bare shoulders. Her makeup blended with her tan as intended, to highlight her sea-green eyes.
“Stoli rocks with a lime,” Marlene said.
What the hell. I pulled my feet off the wall, rested my elbows on the table, allowed my eyes to roam. Marlene wore diamond stud earrings and a choker strand of pearls. Her strapless sundress cut low across the tops of her breasts. Something I hadn’t seen before was an emerald ring the size of a grape.
“How’s the fishing?” Marlene asked.
“I guess you must have a lot of clients.”
“Too many. I’m buying a new boat for Beto.”
“That’s what he told me. He and Elle tried everything to get me to stay for a drink and a chat. Anyway, they seem really happy.”
“Sure. They’re pursuing the American dream.”
“And you’ve run away from it.”
Patricio arrived in the nick of time, served Marlene’s drink formally before darting away to greet a boisterous group of new customers.
Marlene gulped a third of the clear liquor.
I said, “You only drink vodka when you’re upset.”
“That’s the trouble with ex-husbands, they know everything about you.”
“Why not just tell me why you’re here.”
“Sure.” Marlene downed another mouthful of vodka. “Herb’s dead. He was killed four nights ago at his office. I buried him this morning.”
I stared at her, not sure I believed her, except that I noticed a slight tremor in her hands, moistness in her eyes, and I felt instantly cold and choked.
“He had a fight with someone,” Marlene said. “The police don’t know who or why. They don’t think it was an accident.”
I sat forward and stared at her. She was telling the truth. My hands clenched into fists and I felt like I’d be slammed by a rogue wave.
“Why didn’t you call me right away?” I said.
“I wanted to, but . . . .” Marlene finished her drink.
I signaled Patricio for another.
“We’ve had a complicated relationship” Marlene said, “the three of us. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Herb was my best friend.”
“Was being the key word.”
I gave up trying to hold her eyes. It hurt too much, and admitting that took a lot out of me. I slumped back in my chair, took a sip of tequila.
“What I felt about Herb,” I said, “my friendship with him, had nothing to do with you. Christ, he wouldn’t stop playing the guilt card, telling me I was deserting him. I just wanted him to wish me well, or at least not be mad or hurt or whatever. He’d work on it, he said. I guess we were both still working on it.”
“And now he’s dead.”
I picked up a piece of lime, sucked it viciously then threw it over the wall with all my strength.
“Tell me what happened,” I said.
“I had talked to him on the phone early in the evening. We were going to meet for dinner. When he was late, I called the office. Herb’s never late, at least not to meet me. The service picked up. They didn’t know where he was. Finally, I went over there.”
“You found him?”
Marlene nodded. I leaned toward her but Patricio arrived with her drink. She accepted it, took a greedy swallow, and Patricio disappeared.
“I don’t know anything more about the fight,” she said, “or about the investigation, than what I’ve already told you. I do know Herb had problems though. The accountants say some files are missing and maybe some money, too. There was an audit scheduled for two weeks from now, but they’re going ahead with it immediately.”
“Are they accusing Herb of tinkering with his books?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Marlene held me with her eyes, the way she’d done thousands of times before, and I knew it was a disastrous omen. “I thought maybe…maybe you could come back and help sort it out.”
I shifted around in my chair. “Marlene, I…I doubt I could sort out anything up there.”
“You could try.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“You know Herb. You know how he schemed, what he thought, everything. You two wrote secret little notes and e‑mails to each other every day. You could help if you wanted to.”
“Did the police say anything else? Think.”
She shook her head.
I had a million questions but what was the point. “This isn’t my problem.”
“You don’t care Herb is dead?”
“You know better.”
“I’m sorry, really, I just…I’m sorry.”
There was nothing else she could have said with more emotion or impact, nothing else that would have made me feel like more of a jerk. She turned her right hand palm up on the table, stretched it toward me. I took that hand the way I had done in the church more than a dozen years before, but I could think of nothing to say.
Thankfully, Marlene Collins, daytime television’s most popular star was always prepared with an appropriate line.
She said, “I felt the same way Herb did, like you deserted me. You can’t deny it.”
I let out a long slow breath. No, I couldn’t deny I had moved here, though that was hardly the issue.
“I wanted you to come with me,” I said. “Actually, I seem to remember begging.”
“You wanted me to make an impossible decision. You had no right to ask me to give up my career.”
“That’s not what I asked or what I wanted. I showed you how we could make it work.”
“Sure, work for you.”
That should’ve been it. I should’ve followed my instinct, jumped up and run for my boat. Instead, I sat there and stared at Marlene’s unusual beauty, at her crooked nose, enticing mouth, the uneven angles of her cheekbones.
She said, “I could never live here and pursue my career the way I need to. You know that.”
I took a deep breath. “There’s no point in discussing this. I’ve worked hard to make peace with it. I’m not all the way there, but I can feel the finish line out there somewhere.”
“How great for you.”
I let go of her hand, took a hit off the Pacifico, slumped back in my chair.
“I’m not going back to that place and dig up the past,” I said.
“Jesus. I must be a complete idiot.” She pushed her hair off her shoulders, let her head tilt back, then went on as she stared up at the stars. “Your voice sounds the same and your touch is still…. I don’t understand, Dirk. We were in love, real love. We had a life, and Herb was closer than a brother, and you just decided you didn’t want us anymore.”
Marlene picked up her glass with both hands and drank as if she’d just come out of the desert.
“That’s not how it was,” I said without conviction. “You had a choice, and you made it.”
“God, you can be a cold-hearted bastard. And you’re so smug, sitting here in Disneyland south.”
“What, L.A. is the real world? Malibu and Hollywood, all the sincere people in the business wishing everyone the best then ripping their hearts out the instant they’re out of earshot. You just didn’t want to see it, Marlene. I didn’t want more. I didn’t want better. I just wanted this, and I wanted you to share it with me.”
“Fine.” Marlene stood, shook her head so her hair fell across her shoulders. Her bare arms hung loose at her sides. Her fingers pinched at the fabric of her dress, and her eyes poured into my soul. “I’m afraid. I think Herb was involved in something stupid with Mac Remington.”
“Jesus. I told Herb if he ever did business with Remington I’d. . . .” There was no point finishing the sentence. What would I have done, killed him?
“When did Herb ever pay attention to a warning, especially if he smelled money?” Marlene stepped closer, rested a hand on my shoulder, her usual tactic. “I need you to come back and help me sort this out.”
“It’s a matter for the police and the accountants,” I said, staring at a crack in the floor.
“No it isn’t.”
Of course I knew what she meant, and the whole idea of it made me want to get on the next plane for New Zealand. They have big marlin down there. Big trout, too.
I forced myself to look up. “I can’t give you a yes.”
Marlene nodded, then made one of her famous soap opera exits where her blond hair catches the light and demands that you follow.
As I watched her start down the stairs, it hit me that a director should jump out from behind one of the rock pillars and yell, “Cut.” This was a bad time for cynicism, though, and the lingering sensation of Marlene’s touch was too real for make-believe.
* * *
Herb gone. Mac Remington involved. So here we go, bud. How many times did I tell you we’d never do business with that asshole? So I hit the road and you hop in the sack with him. What, to spite me?
How many millions do you need? I know, it wasn’t a matter of need. It was the game, the rush, the winning. And, yeah, we started out sharing the same vision in college, selling our first shipment of knock-off bean bag chairs and starting the company.
And sure, the money was a gas.. The hot pad in Brentwood where we dazzled the babes until we realized Malibu was the place. So we took our party to the beach and talked about getting married, having children, retiring by forty with ten million in tax-free paper.
What happened, bud? Dumb question, right? Life happened. Stuff changed. And now you’re dead?
“Hey, you OK there?” Gianna said. “You look like you’re on another planet.”
“What? Oh, hi.” I started to stand.
She pushed me down in my chair, kissed my half-open mouth. I tried to circle her waist with my arm but she pulled away and sat in the chair Marlene had vacated.
“That looked exactly like Marlene Collins,” Gianna said. “Was it her?”
“You a fan?”
“I love her soap. I used to watch University Hill every day and I still try to catch the show a couple of times a week.”
Sitting in front of me in the flesh, Gianna looked as good as she did in my vision of her walking naked out of the surf. I wondered how life could be this contrived, this compressed. You meet someone like Gianna and your ex-wife turns up to tell you your best friend is dead; all in three days, just like that.
“Have I told you how sensational you are?” I asked.
“Not in words.”
Patricio materialized, asked Gianna if she wanted her margarita the same, on the rocks without salt. She thanked him for remembering and ordered another round for me.
“So it seemed like, I mean, it looked like a serious chat,” Gianna said. “I thought I should let you finish it.”
“Thank you.” I reached over and took both her hands in mine.
I glanced over the wall, toward the sound of the surf clawing at the sand. The last hint of dusk was dying with the wind and the silver-gray surface of the ocean melted into the sky.
“An old friend was just killed,” I said.
Gianna squeezed my hands, looked at me with dark chocolate eyes that were the essence of compassion, eyes that threatened to bring tears to my own.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That might sound lame, but I don’t know what else to say.”
“It’s not lame, and I have no idea how I feel. I’m not sure I feel anything, except paralyzed, and that bothers me. I was trying to remember the last time I talked to the guy. Probably six months ago. Ridiculous. We were inseparable for over twenty years.”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me any of this stuff, unless you really want to.”
“They say confession is good for the soul, whoever They are.”
Gianna laughed, the sound a soft sincere melody. “Tell me about it. My family’s Catholic, like, really Catholic. My sisters and I wore prim uniforms to school, skirts no more than an inch above the knee. I was suspended in the ninth grade for a half-inch violation. I had to give this dramatic apology at confession. The next year I went to public school and our cheerleading outfits would have sent the nuns into a tizzy of prayers.”
“Marlene and I were married for twelve years. How’s that for a confession?”
Gianna stared at me, tapped her clear nails against the back of my hands. I realized this was her mode of contemplation, of turning over what to say before saying it. Definitely prudent for a young woman, or for anyone as far as that went.
“I’ve never been married,” she said. “I’ve never even been in love, at least not really.”
“Infatuation and lust?”
A half smile. “A few times.”
“You realize you’re putting me in a good mood without trying.”
“We don’t have to do anything, you know.” She let me go, reached up and combed her fingers through my hair, which I imagined was a wind-blown mess. “We could just hang and get drunk, or if you want to be alone I could see you tomorrow.”
“My clients invited us to dinner.”
“I said I wouldn’t go without you.”
Patricio arrived with more drinks, served them, and collected the empties. Gianna tasted her margarita, ran her tongue around her lips in a way that made me squirm.
I said, “What I’d most like to do is take you out to the house and work you over.”
“Would that help take your mind off your friend?”
Seized with honesty, I couldn’t avoid saying exactly what I felt. “You’re a lot more than a diversion.”
Gianna flashed her white teeth. “I could maul you right now, too, but it’s sweet to hold that feeling in, you know, let the desire swell and start to ache.” She laughed. “Are your clients’ fun?”
“They’re a comedy team.”
“What about your friend?”
“Good question. I’ll need some time to answer it.”
I raised my shot of tequila. Gianna touched my glass with hers and we drank. The liquor masked the cold fist in my gut. I focused on the muffled roar of the waves, and let the sound, along with Gianna’s company, erase all other thoughts from my mind.