By Stephen Vletas
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.