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Circles and Wheels

Circles

and

Wheels

 

Short Stories by

Anders Flagstad

 

Smashwords Edition

 

Bubble Eyes Publishing

San Diego, Ca

www.BubbleEyesPublishing.com

 

 

www.AndersFlagstad.com

 

Copyright 2015 Anders Flagstad

Copyright 2015 Kenneth Anderson

All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

Published by BubbleEyes Publishing at Smashwords

(this book is available in print at most online retailers)

 

Illustrations and Design by K.P. Anderson

 

for L. S. (as always)

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading their book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

FRONTISPIECE

 

 

It smelled like a refinery up there. Whoever was throttling it was going to town with it, the diesel smoke was as thick as fog. Three guys were yelling at each other, pulling on the bumper, trying to steady it, Red, Shaved, and a new guy with a baseball hat. There had to be a fourth guy trying to unjam the accelerator (maybe?-why was the truck racing forward like it had a mind of its own? I’ll never know) – the door was open on the driver’s side, so I couldn’t see much of anything up in the front. But I could see the license plate now, upside down, over my head – California 9845BTRS – and I could see we were apparently on some high, curvy bridge thing which overlooked downtown maybe a mile or so away. I got up onto my one knee, off the pavement. I pushed myself onto one leg. I edged away. There wasn’t another car or other person in sight. Just the yelling men, me hopping on one foot, and the possessed delivery vehicle.

You know, the odd thing was, the bridge curved up high, almost unnaturally, and in a circle, as if it were a boomerang propped up on stilts in the middle, ready to boomerang itself away from this crazy city and make its own way off into the starry unknown and a new, exciting, city-free life. Weird. And it sloped. Boy did it slope. It’s a good thing San Diego didn’t get much snow, huh? We were at the top.

The truck was doing a slow pirouette towards the water, a long, long, long ways down…

 

from the story Night Streets.

 

 

 

 

CONTENTS

 

Foreword

Woman with Yellow Umbrella

Still Life with Fruit

Untitled #27

Persian Miniature

Night Streets

Bus Stop

The Nostril of the Archangel

Snow on Sagebrush

Two Meadows

New Moon

Babushkas

Circles and Wheels

About the Author

 

 

FOREWORD

 

You wouldn’t notice it unless you were consciously looking for it (which perhaps was the intention) but once you realize what you’ve found, when you’re standing on the buckling sidewalk, looking up at a Niagara waterfall of concrete embellishment rearing above you, well, let’s just say it’s a little hard to miss. But what is it?

Look at it. A new, poured-concrete apartment block, a sort of Spanish Baroque Special Units Architectural Assault Force of massive pediments, heroic architraves, triumphal arches, fountain-filled patios, faux bell towers, rivers of red ceramic tile roofs pouring down from every direction, all of it, every wildly ornamented piece of it, firmly fastened together with six story colonnades wrapping around the entire complex. This California retro newcomer recently arose a couple of blocks away from me and my very modest house. Color me surprised.

Our neighborhood of tiny Deco bungalows from the Twenties and Thirties didn’t have a chance. Yes, that frothy bubbling concrete apartment block is, in fact, architecture you’d expect to see at a World’s Fair from the turn of the last century, not something you’d want to find in a politely decaying inner city suburb, but somehow it squeezed by the zoning boards (and the rest of us – where and when were all the neighborhood meetings? – all the citizens group’s input committees? – all the petitions and notices? – we were, all of us, obviously asleep at the wheel), and it sprouted like a stucco-covered fungi.

The Beast (that’s what we call it) appeared as if out of thin air a couple of years ago, at the end of a rainy winter, just at the beginning of a foggy spring, on a lot that had hosted a bowling alley – a mostly-abandoned, once-popular, round-cornered, neon-festooned Deco concoction that had been politely decaying for so many, many years in that spot, that no one who lived here could remember it not being randomly open at various hours of the day, on that same corner, in exactly that same condition. We thought it immortal. We were wrong. Nothing is immortal.

But why bring all of that up now? It’s in the past, isn’t it? What’s done is done.

Yes, now we have to learn to live with it, somehow.

We have a Spanish Renaissance gateway ponderously and authoritatively dancing over our heads every morning. In the light from the rising sun it looks as if it were a door to another dimension.

It is a beast, truly. Untamed. Beautifully wild. It is life. It has its own agenda. You wouldn’t want to turn your back on it. But I’m being silly, aren’t I?

The Beast has, of course, proper setbacks, xeriscaping, and a modest, self-effacing presence on the corner of a busy boulevard and a quiet side street (the last sentence, of course, is from the sales brochure for the condos being sold there). But it is true to some extent – maybe the city made them do it – you really don’t see The Beast because they left a lot of those big Eucalyptus trees standing everywhere, up and down both blocks of the corner it sits on.

In other words, it hides.

What is it hiding?

Well, I had to stop by, just to check it out. So I went. Carefully.

In the elevator lobby, I saw 12 pictures, all in a row, all on one wall. And beneath it, on a shelf, many copies of the same small book containing reproductions of the 12 pictures with 12 stories to go along with them. I took one. It was some kind of promotional literature. Later that day, I wrote this note to the management telling them how I felt. They thanked me (The Beast is nothing if not polite) and said they might include my note in future printings of their little book, if I would give them the permission to do so. I did. And they did. So, if you’re reading their book, and reading my note, it (and I – frightening thought – how did I let this happen?) must be a part of The Beast now, in a manner of speaking, and, well, now you’re seeing the same pictures I saw and now you’re reading the same stories I read too.

So, you tell me. What is The Beast?

 

 

 

Circles

and

Wheels

 

 

WOMAN WITH YELLOW UMBRELLA

 

 

Jolene never told anyone the first time she saw the angel.

There was a scratchy towel. It had a hole in it. Just big enough to put her small hand through. And there was sand. Squirming through the hole. White and slippery. It ran away when you grabbed at it. She listened and she looked and she pushed the sand away from her, when it crept out of its hole, she pushed it back, way back, where it was supposed to go. It was a lot of work. But someone had to do it.

What else could she do? She was just a baby, but she still had responsibilities, even back then. It was, maybe, her first memory of this earth – that globe spinning through confusion, suffering and delight we all cling to in fierce desperation although we’d be hard-pressed to say why exactly. The earth, the globe, it all fell on her, all at once, all at the same moment. And she remembered it.

Air. Brightness. Gold. Green. Warm. Grassy dunes, foam-flecked, blue surf stretching long and wide in front of her, laid out as if it were a gift, pulled tight in front of her admittedly unfocused eyes, an empty, expectant landscape of blurry, shimmering morning light – and all it for Jolene. Just for her. She was smiling to herself. She was alone. But she couldn’t enjoy it. She had to work at the attacking, squirming sand problem. There was no one else to do it. She didn’t complain. She didn’t fuss. She worked.

Her mother had to have been nearby, surely. But Jolene swears to herself (yes, she could be mistaken) that her mother wasn’t there. Jolene remembers it very clearly – feeling uncomfortable, curious, bored, irritated, patting at the aggressive sand, tumbling over here, twisting over there, finally she fidgeted clean off her beach towel right into the floury piles of sand grit crouching everywhere along the towel’s edges, ready to spring, fixing to eat the towel and gobble up Jolene up in their entirety. Abruptly her towel work ended, right then and there and Jolene found herself face first in an angry white hell and that’s where she stayed.

Dirty grit up her nose, even more in her mouth, she didn’t like it – who would? – she opened her mouth to yell for her mother – a technique that had always worked in situations like this in the past – and more powder poured its way in. That puzzled her. And made her afraid. She wasn’t crazy afraid yet, but she was getting close. She coughed. She opened her mouth to yell. More sand found her and choked her. Now she decided to panic. Jolene didn’t often yell, but this time she was going to do it, yes she was. She tried to suck some air in, preparatory to a heroic scream of fear, and more sand found its way inside instead. She spit and gasped and tried again and again and again and – no luck for Jolene. She threw her head around, backward, forwards, to each side, it did no good. She felt dizzy, funny, she didn’t feel happy. Not at all. There was plenty of air out there, she could tell it was there, but none of it was getting to anywhere near where Jolene needed it to go. Funny how you don’t appreciate a thing until it’s gone, huh?

A shadow loomed over her. It went away. It came back. Jo didn’t notice it much at first. She was too busy trying to breathe.

Above and behind here she felt (more than heard) a whispery flutter of soft, supple wings, she coughed and wrinkled her noise at an unexpected smell of sappy, sweet spice. Then the light left her, gone completely, and gray soft feathers tickled her above, behind, below, from every side. There were everywhere at once. Something changed. Air pushed its way into her lungs again, her mouth surprised itself at being wet and dustless. She laughed. She breathed and she laughed again. She dug her fingers into soft cotton toweling, found the hole again with her fat fingers, rested easily on it, neatly on her back – she was athletic even back then – and balanced herself exactly in the center of a field of friendly, clean, yellow cotton stripes. The sun was shining. The breeze was warm. She wasn’t afraid at all anymore.

Later, other hands, familiar hands wrapped her favorite blanket, the one that smelled sharp and clean like wash day, around her tubby legs and tucked her dimpled chin in and nibbled at her ears with the sound she loved the best – “Jo Jo Jo.”

And that was that.

It wasn’t anything special. It just was. It was hers. The wings, the feathers, the spice, the tickles. Jolene’s. So she didn’t talk about it. You’ve got to have some things that are secrets that you can keep all to yourself, and not blab first thing you did to every person you met and so that’s what Jolene did with her first experience with an angel and that’s all there was to it. That’s it. Everyone saw angels, Jolene was pretty sure about that, it’s just no one, apparently, wanted much to talk about them. So neither did Jolene. That’s how Jolene saw it. It was a plan. It worked for her. That was her memory of her first angel.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The second time with the angel, well, she kept that a secret too.

Afterwards she could never look at a pair of mittens again. And the winter, it became a season that was spoiled for Jolene Ann. Utterly destroyed. Truth is, she tried not think about any of them all too much. Angels were becoming something unavoidable. She didn’t like it. It made her feel oppressed by a constant plague of immanent divinity. She read something like that someplace. Jolene thought it applied to her situation, especially.

Angels were different. They weren’t like us. They had their own ways. And Jo had hers. And the two did not mix very well. She was finding that out the hard way.

The second angel, well, Jolene was older then. And the older Jolene got, the less Jolene said. All manner of secrets were coming easier and easier to her. Secrets were as natural as breathing. To Jolene’s way of thinking, the more you talked, the more people had hooks to snag you and drag you off to places you didn’t want to go. Jolene wasn’t about to let that happen. Jolene saw what they were doing. She was too smart for them. She kept angels to herself. She kept generally to herself. She kept quiet.

Yes, Jo was silent and calm as she grew up, allergic to fusses, arguments, and loud voices, vigilantly navigating her simple days in wide circles around and away from the bounding people surging about her. She spent a lot of time each day trying to squeeze her small self in between their ricocheting bodies trying to find a place to go and rest easy. Brothers and sisters, moms and dads, aunts and uncles and cousins popped up everywhere. Busy, loud, rough – it was just too much for Jolene. Peace was best. It just made sense. That was just Jo’s way.

“JoJo, now you just stay put up there until supper’s set, you hear?”

That from her ma downstairs in the warm, red and white kitchen, but nobody had to tell Jolene twice to stay put. No one had to tell her to settle down in one place and get comfortable and feel safe. She knew how to do that. She was patient. Not like her siblings.

A brother and a sister or two – or maybe three – would rapid-fire fly past her – resembling kid-sized rocks discharged from a six-foot tall demonic slingshot – and they would yell harshly as they flew “Ma, Bobby hit me on the arm again”, and “Give it back! Give it back I’m telling!” and “You best bet you’ll be sorry!” In situations such as those, Jolene could only shrink into the corners, disappear into the faded, orange wallpaper, evaporate and turn into tongue-less dust, sprinkled in a breathless Jolene-shaped pile, deposited in a forgotten closet and wait. That was a lot of her life – waiting out the fury and bluster of the latest family storm – hoping it would pass entirely over her and move on – listening to it distantly, bursting onto another unsuspecting room of their house, bringing only torment and disorder to all who sat there and didn’t have the sense to hide like her.

So Jolene learned – you blend and wait, blend and wait.

And it worked.

In a second everyone would be outside or downstairs again, and Jolene would be back to smiling into her large rectangle of sunlight warming her little wedge of afternoon, pushing her fingers carefully into the frayed carpet and squeezing the fuzzy pile gently in and out of her small fists. Quiet was her best friend back then, as she remembered it.

But that wasn’t where she saw the angel.

No, it wasn’t. As she already mentioned, Jolene still didn’t like to think about it. Although Jolene for the most part liked to sit and think quietly to herself about all kinds of things. Maybe more than was needful. Maybe more than was healthful. Still she did it. People noticed her doing it. “JoJo, why you just sit there all the time, all silent and still-like?” one of her loud siblings would ask in a hurry, going (once again) from some important place in the house to another, leaving before Jolene could even answer with her quiet voice and short, but careful explanations.

They noticed. But they didn’t notice a lot, and they didn’t notice for long.

It got lonely sometimes for Jolene. It did.

And yes, Jolene may not have talked much, but when she did, she made sure it counted. She made sure it meant something.

You see, when Jolene was doing some explaining, Jolene always imagined she was talking the way her dad did, when he was doing some explaining. Dad said you had to be mindful when you described things. Dad said one wrong step, one sentence put wrongfully in front of another, even one word uttered out of place, and the whole thing would just fall apart, right in front of your eyes – fall to pieces and you’d be days getting it back together again, orderly and correct and understandable. Dad was serious about talking. So Jolene didn’t say too much.

Jolene and Dad were the quiet ones in the family. The careful ones. The ones you could trust to get things done right the first time. Not like the others. Especially not like her ma. Ma was always commenting on some thing or other and was doing a hundred things at once. Of course, with a big family, there was always a hundred things to do, every minute of every day, and ma was the one who had to do it, that’s true. Still, her mom was a little too active and talkative for Jolene, and she loved her quiet, sad dad and their slow, measured, and infrequent conversations. A person had to know what you wanted to say before you said it. You had to be careful. She knew it. Dad knew it. They were a pair. Two peas in a pod.

In fact, it was not unknown for Jo to stumble at, over, on top of, and through an important explanation in front of her dad, just so he would get another chance to do his crooked smile, his arching eyebrows (Jo loved to watch her dad maneuver his bushy eyebrows around his face), and start up that wrinkling thing he did with his big nose, telling her to slow down, start at the beginning, think about what she wanted to say, get him interested. She knew what she wanted to say. She wanted to tell her Dad that she loved him, bigger than the sky was blue, she wanted to stay in that house forever and take care of him and love him and be loved and that would be enough. But it never happened. The appropriate time didn’t occur. While she waited for the perfect moment, Jolene made do with saying it all with her bright blue eyes. She telegraphed it, from her irises directly into his. She hoped he got her message.

But back to the angel.

She had red hair. Jolene could still see and accurately describe to this day that living, joyful kind of hair flowing backwards and upwards, flipping over the angel’s shoulders spilling over her front and splashing off to either side of her face. Jolene couldn’t really remember the color of her skin, or the exact color of her eyes, but if you looked into those angelic eyes long enough (a second would do) you would feel as if you were falling, falling, falling deep into a something – usually not a scary something – no, it was an entirely different something – a kind of meaningful, strange and comfortable, yet uncomfortable something. And this something that was waiting there, it was waiting especially for you. Just for you and only for you. You just knew it. You did. As soon as you saw those eyes.

The angel had wings of course. The wings were broad and covered the whole sky and were colored in patches – some parts gray-blue, soft and pure as a dove’s chest, and some other parts fluffy white, bold and terrifying as a summer afternoon’s storm cloud. You expected to see lightning, hear thunder. Her body was some transparent color, but her hands were warm and lined and used to hard work, same as Jolene’s mother’s. In fact, they looked a lot alike, the angel and Jolene’s mother. Their hands, that is.

The angel appeared over Dalton’s Department Store downtown one December morning before Christmas, smiling conspiratorially at Jolene and putting a single finger to her lips, her bottomless eyes twinkling (Jolene remembered the twinkling especially, she hadn’t ever considered angels as possessing a sense of humor before, especially in the eyes). The angel swooped down upon Jolene and her mother and a couple of brothers and sisters on the wind-swept corner of Fifth and DeLaporte and Jolene naturally reached up to touch her hair and see if it was as soft and silky as it looked. Her collar pulled back, she remembered that, the cold scraped against her neck and ears – a frozen nail file, frosty sandpaper, it hurt to be honest, she’d forgotten her scarf again. She remembered that too. Jolene stepped a few feet forward, letting her new yellow mittens with the puppies on them drop into the dirty ice-and-salt-crusted gutter, keeping her eyes up on the swooping angel as best she could.

She remembered two familiar hands twisting and yanking her backwards with as much gentleness as you would handle a sack of potatoes being thrown into a dark corner of the pantry on Big Shopping Day, and really loud horns and a high whining, whistling sound, and a wall of metal and color coming towards her and her ma, magically at her side, no, maybe in front of her (or was she in back of her?), yelling, screaming something in a voice Jolene had never, ever heard her use before. Her brothers and sisters told and retold the story, but no matter how many times they told it, Jolene couldn’t ever remember exactly what happened next. She couldn’t. It was true. No matter what anyone else said. That was where the story in her head always stopped. She couldn’t recall. No matter how hard she tried. She couldn’t. She couldn’t. It was the truth.

Jolene was in the hospital for a month and a half. Everyone visited her. Even the bus driver visited her. But her ma didn’t visit her. She never saw her ma again. She missed the funeral. She didn’t even hear about it until she got home.

And she never, ever forgave the angel.

 

~ ~ ~

 

That was over forty years ago. Forty years. Two words. Such tiny drips and drops of words – how could they hold such a flood of time? They couldn’t. It was too much. It was all too much.

I will not cry. I won’t.

And whatever had happened to her, to happy, trusting little Jo? How did she go from the corner of Fifth and DeLaporte to where she was (wherever the heck was she anyways?) right here, right now?

Her head felt buoyant. It bobbed. It bounced. She was dazed. Sand was in her clothes, in her hair, in her face. It made no sense.

No. No crying.

“How did I get to here?”

She whispered it, she asked, she begged, but would there ever be an answer for her, for Jo? No. No one would answer. She was alone. That’s what alone meant. No one answers you, Jolene, if you’re alone. When will you ever learn that? When?

Jolene blinked and wiggled her eyebrows and tried to get the sand out of them. No crying. None. Forty years and fourteen rounds of Chemo ago (not to mention round number fifteen about to start), and there had been more of the red-haired angel, more than once, and that was too many times really, but nothing ever changed did it, and Jolene had never, ever really wanted to talk about it – well only to one person, maybe two, but she was still pretty sure she didn’t want to talk about it – and who knew, maybe there were more angels to come, maybe more unplanned, random life changes ahead of her, so why complain now? Who could possibly know how to conduct their life with angels on the loose in the middle of it?

And what would she say, really, if she started unburdening? If someone actually listened to Jolene’s trials and tribulations? What? What? How unjust it all was? How unfair? Don’t make her laugh.

She spit sand out of the side of her mouth.

Look, the world was unfair, no getting around it, you just made do with what you got, improvising some kind of dance that worked, worked with whatever you had and whatever they sent your way – including the occasional angel, of course – until there was nothing left to dance around or about, until there was nothing to make the inevitable pain stop.

And after that, well, after that, when there was nothing left, well then, well you… what? What do you do Jo? You did something else. Something else to make the pain stop. Something else so that you can get through the day to get through the night to get through the next day. Something less like a band aid and more like an amputation. A slicing off. A pain-ectomy. Cutting off the pain and the nothingness, and well, everything, entirely. A more permanent something. A something that worked, that gave you results. That kind of something. A permanent solution. That’s what she needed. A lasting, permanent solution. A pain-free, permanent and lasting solution.

She found herself shaking her head forcefully back and forth trying to jar loose a raw and throbbing (but increasingly familiar and bittersweet) train of thought. She succeeded in getting herself even dizzier than she already was. After a while, she stopped shaking her head. She looked around her, a little embarrassed by her twitching and jerking.

She was alone, of course. She whispered that to herself, small words, weak and lost in the wind blowing between the dunes.

“No, that’s never any good either, pretending life is all pain and broken promises. It’s not always that way. Not always. Some promises are kept. Now, you know better, Jolene. It’s just the chemo talking, that’s all.”

“Just the chemo talking.”

“It’s the chemo.”

“You know that.”

“No, no use talking about it. Absolutely none.”

“Won’t change a thing, Jolene.”

“It certainly won’t change the fact you might be lost.”

Well, Jolene didn’t want to think about that. She didn’t want to think about anything. She was tired of thinking. And compensating. And waiting, and wondering, and wanting. She’d thought too much and too long lately. She’d decided to give herself a think-vacation.

No thinking. None.

Because just now Jolene was not happy. Not at all. She was lost. Better to admit it. She was tired. She was cold. No, she was hot. Well, both. No, she was irritated with herself, with life, with everything and everyone really, and anxious and feeling a little nauseous – well, more than a little – and, to top it all off, knew she was about to start crying. Again.

“I am not going to do it, I am not going to start bawling, not here, not because of a walk from a parking lot to a beach.” She talked out loud. She talked clear and careful, in order to make it true. It order to fix it. Tight

She said “No. I won’t. I will not cry.”

At least she thought she had said it, clearly and carefully. Had she? She couldn’t tell anymore. Was she talking to herself? How could she know? She couldn’t, that’s how. How could a person, alone, ever know? They couldn’t. That (of course) made her want to cry.

“I can’t, – don’t even think about it. No. No. No. I won’t.”

But then she did. She felt hot liquid tracks betraying her, softening and washing away her resolve and willpower (as they always did) and sliding their purposeful way earthwards down both her sunburned cheeks. They melted her. She dissolved. Right on the spot. A very familiar feeling, especially lately. Jolene was left gasping, standing, swaying and waiting for the short, welcome feeling of calm release that these crying jags brought her. And it came, blessedly. Like it usually did. And she felt release. For a moment. She did.

And it felt good.

Then she started hiccupping. And the realization that crying was one of the few times nowadays that she felt anything approaching hope or happiness made her even more miserable and that brought on stronger hiccups, and then the hiccups brought on more tears, and the tears stopped the hiccups, but the tears also made her more hopeful. And then that started up the hiccupping again. And Jolene was off and running. Round Number Two.

Smiling lopsidedly, she looked upwards, closing her eyes and rooting herself to her sandy spot, twitching her flip-flops off and pushing her toes and heels into a puddle of warm, floury white powder at her feet. She waited. She was good at that. The emotional storm raged on, and Jolene felt a warm sun bake her gently and softly dry, smoothing out her tear-lined face.

Quiet.

It felt good.

Except for the wind – which slapped at her unmercifully and slung sand at her.

You know, chemo was one long (well-known to her by now) hormonal rollercoaster of anger, then tears, then exhaustion, then back to anger all over again. And she was always tired. Always. She was a walking, one-woman mood-swing lately. She ought to sell tickets. Or better yet, bottle the wild rides up and down, and hawk them on the streets as the latest designer drug, the new cocaine. What would it look like? Like small plastic bags of tears, of course, Jolene tears.

That started her crying all over again.

Jolene, really!

The breeze continued to pester and needle her mercilessly, she turned and turned mechanically, wiping away her tears and trying to get out of the wind’s way. Both actions were pointless. She began to wonder if she’d have enough energy to cart all her stuff all the way to the beach and back to the parking lot again – or even get it back to the car from here if she decided to give up this National Geographic Expedition to the Atlantic Ocean.

The more she thought about it, she really didn’t know if she had the energy or not.

Could she get back?

Could she? What if she couldn’t? Then for a moment, squeezing her eyes shut to concentrate on this situation, she couldn’t remember what in God’s creation she was doing in the middle of a bunch of sand hills on this particular afternoon, dragging piles of things around here and there.

Why was she here?

Why?

There had to be a reason.

But her mind was a total blank.

Where was she?

Another vicious whip of the wind, and Jolene had just about had it with the wind. That did it. Enough was enough.

Lurching into action, she swatted violently, but precisely at the sly, obnoxious blasts of fine, white particles of mineral which seemed determined to gum her eyelids together and give her exposed arms and face a thorough, impromptu dermabrasion, – as if she, Jolene, were a paying customer at a fantastically malevolent outdoor spa.

She swatted backwards, flinging both hands around her head.

And then again, forwards and to the right, across her nose and her eyes.

Anyone looking at her would wonder who this crazy, crying lady was, and why she was being attacked by angry beach-bees. Or maybe beach-wasps. Well, at least some kind of dangerous stinging insect, but probably not annoying gusts of beach-wind. They’d never guess the wind. Only mentally-imbalanced people did that. Only deranged people, people who saw angels, people who talked to themselves and didn’t know it, people who had terminal diseases – only those kinds of people did things like that.

She swatted and snuffled and shook her head back and forth, felt the dizziness coming on and stopped the shaking, squeezing her eyes shut and willing herself to a state of calm.

“Don’t think. You’re on a think-vacation. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. A think-vacation, think-vacation.”

It wasn’t working. It was hard to take herself seriously when she was making the same sounds a cartoon steam locomotive did, pulling up a steep pastel-colored hill. Her head was spinning.

Jabbing at the wind was obviously not a helpful response to the situation at present, but there was an aspect of it that was becoming immensely satisfying to her – no matter where she punched, she hit the air every time, right on target. She couldn’t miss. She was a non-stop success, totally in control. It was wonderful. Breathing hard she tried out a few more experimental jabs. The wind ignored her.

Where was she again?

Let’s see… This beach path she was shuffling down curved to her left, branched about a thousand times and continued winding its various ways right out of her sight, in every direction. All she could see were dune tops ahead. That’s all she could see to either side also. She thought she could hear surf futilely pounding away at some much-abused, but distant shore, but then, it could have just as easily have been her heart pounding in her chest, self-righteously complaining about this last-minute impulse to hike into sandy wastes.

So it’s a beach. How did she get here?

She looked towards where the car might have been, but couldn’t see a parking lot. Sand, fence, and emaciated grass greeted her on all sides. Paths twisted and recombined merrily in back of her, in every direction. Her footsteps were already being erased.

She continued jabbing absentmindedly, straining to see something, hand on her forehead shading her eyes, her bright orange-striped beach bag swinging awkwardly from her elbow, squinting to see some landmark that would at least get her in the general direction of safety and her parked car. But safety was invisible, hidden now, off by itself, tucked away in a sandy corner in a far away, sand-dune-surrounded lot, screened behind devious, mind-numbingly complicated labyrinths of moving sand hillocks.

She was lost.

Lost.

She tried to feel sad about it. But she couldn’t. She didn’t feel anything about it.

That actually felt good.

She touched her cheeks. Oh. She was crying again.

The wind scooted behind her and wrapped around her ankles, circling her – a cat with sandpaper for fur. Twisting to the left, in what she thought was an especially energetic, and totally unexpected move on her part, she began a wild upward swat, truly heroic, and then thought better of it (she was actually getting tired of the swatting), but stopped too late, way too late.

She managed somehow (it was just her luck too) to trip on her ridiculously heavy umbrella – the one that she had been doggedly dragging for what seemed miles – and to topple over dramatically and finally. She disappeared from sight. Not without a prodigious grunt of surprise first, and not without a spectacularly theatrical crash. It was a good imitation of a great oak being felled in a medieval forest of long ago. One second the massive she-oak was there. The next second, she wasn’t.

Her majestic arc downward was arrested by a crumbling, sun-blanched, slatted fence – a fence that slowly, and with a certain amount of grace and generous consideration for her un-athletic frame, crumpled and shattered into dozens of pieces, depositing her carefully, face-up on a pillow of warm, sloping sand under the bright, open September sky.

Suddenly it was very quiet.

The wind died down immediately, and a heavy hush, an almost abashed silence fell on her and on the dunes. The indian summer heat was a heavy blanket bundling her up for a long winter’s nap. She blinked for a few moments, breathing heavily. She frowned. She started mentally feeling around her body for broken bits and pieces of herself, eventually coming to the conclusion that the majority of her middle-aged parts were in as good a working order as they had been thirty seconds earlier, and started laughing instead of crying – a thing which surprised her.

How long had it been since she’d really stopped and let the constant buzzing in her head evaporate and allowed a stillness to condense inside her instead? It felt to Jolene that it had been a long time. Years. Decades. Centuries. A very long time.

She closed her eyes and lay in the sun – for just a few more minutes – her belongings scattered about her in the dunes – an explosion in the beach supplies department of a drugstore with one female mannequin lying motionless in the center of it all. Quite the sight.

She stretched and lay and breathed.

It felt right, somehow.

She still didn’t know where she was.

Her eye was twitching, and there were sand flies buzzing in her wig. She thought she could hear footsteps approaching. She ought to get herself up, she definitely should.

But she didn’t.

She was hopeful. And that was odd. The thought came to her, (it was crazy, but she already knew she was crazy) that if she stayed very, very still, what she thought might be possible, what she imagined she was struggling to be hopeful for, well, it might all materialize, right in front of her face, and then Jolene could make a grab for it. She might still be saved. Safe at least. Safer. She’d settle for that. Whatever form it took. Assurance. Surety. Protection. Really, Jolene didn’t want much. She didn’t want a lot. She’d settle for even a little. She assumed an appropriately expectant mental attitude, and waited for the dews of peace and quiet and salvation to rain down abundantly upon her.

But that’s not what she got.

Instead, as usual, random memories bubbled and boiled on the surface of her consciousness. It wasn’t dew. But it was better than weeping.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Sometimes she remembered the farm. When she could. Those impossibly light-filled, boundless summer hours. Days and days of them. Crumbly smells of old wood, cool iron smells of pump water. The prickly smell of fresh baled hay, stacked in unlikely towers of scratchy green blocks in her grandpa Dunne’s barn (her mom’s father). Heavy country air soaked to slopping over with a syrupy, spicy smell she could taste all the way in the back of her mouth. Languid summer days, purple-shadowed afternoons, long comfortable evenings, loud crickets, silent spiders catching frantic moths by the back door light over hushed porch-conversations with her gram Dunne after supper. It was special. It was hers. Shelling peas, shucking corn, and whatever and whatnot and all – and oh, everything – all of it – every bit of it was pure, unadulterated heaven. Heaven. Always.

Anyways, that’s how Jolene remembered it, it was her life, she could remember it any way she wanted to.

Jo had a secret self back then, back there, only Jo could see her, and she was Jo-Esmeralda (Esmeralda for short), that was her name, you see. There was this person, named Esmerelda who lived on the far away Dunne farm, green and bright as an emerald, a being who lived at a location where it was always summer and it was always humid, hot, and life was tremendously interesting. Esmeralda stayed there always, just because she wanted to. And Esmeralda liked her situation. Esmerelda led a loud, confident life out under the hot, yellow sun each day and every day and Esmerelda explored and worked and took a bath every night and had muscles and got brown as a berry, brown as a nut, so much her freckles almost disappeared and everyone loved her. Even Jolene. And that was something because Jolene was hard to please. Jolene was picky. Esmeralda wasn’t. Esmeralda didn’t have time for picky. Esmeralda was too busy getting happy.

Jo-Esmerelda was not at all like Jolene. She wasn’t like the Jo that left each spring and returned each fall to the city, quiet and pale and skinny, who lived with her family overflowing with excess and excessive people in their small red brick and white-porched house. Esmeralda lived a free life, a safe life, a connected life, life with a direction to it. Esmeralda lived where there was room enough for a person to stay out of every single other person’s way, all day long, if Esmeralda wanted it that way. But Esmerelda also got watched over by people, and was noticed and not lost in a crowd of brothers and sisters. In fact, Esmerelda was never lost. She was never confused or tongue-tied. Esmerelda knew things, and knew she knew them, and wasn’t afraid to say she knew them. Esmeralda was heading places. She had plans. And she was going to take Jo along with her.

Yes, that was Jo-Esmerelda.

Later, life was different and things changed – much to Jolene’s misery, things have a tendency to do that in this world – and the plans and places and direction and knowledge faded and faded until you couldn’t hardly tell they’d even existed before. Jolene watched it happen, hating it, helpless to change it or slow it down.

First, all kinds of things shifted, all together, abruptly, one year in the spring. Everything. All at once. Her body changed. Her complexion changed. Her moods shot off in random directions at just the wrong times, and people started acting different towards her. Expecting new things. Frowning at old things. It was complicated. It was perplexing. It wasn’t fair.

Second, Jo-Esmerelda just up that summer and moved away. Far away. As in never-speaking-to-you-again so far away.

Last year Esmeralda was running free – a wild thing – all over the farm. This year, she was missing, gone. A memory. Where? How? Why? Jolene didn’t have a clue. Esmerelda skedaddled for parts unknown and left Jolene holding the feed bag so to speak, all summer (and for the rest of her life, by the way), confused and wary and worried and overworked. Her confidence and self-reliance were all a thing of the past. The new Jolene learned – she had to, right? – the hard way – how to be Jolene all over again – just Jolene, just her secretive self, shy and scared and alone, and angry as all get out with a new, half-grown-up body to boot. She learned how to be alone with the Jolene newness, and learned she did not like it. She did not like it at all. It was not something she would’ve asked for. No. Not that anyone had ever asked her at all. Where was an angel when you needed one, huh?

And Jolene learned to loath all those familiar smells, all the farm odors, and her boring life, and the endless work on the farm during summers and how it got too hot and how much she sweated and how it got too quiet and how lonely she became and how embarrassing it was to be so, well, rural. She spend more and more time up at the farm. Less and less down in the city. At some point it became a year-round thing. She didn’t know why. It just happened. The farm was always the same, all the time, all day long, every day. Sweet day in the morning! – as her granma Dunne used to say – her life was coming to a complete stop. When would something finally happen to Jolene? When would life happen to Jolene? When?

Well, Jo ought to have been more careful about what she wished for. Yes, it was true, too true.

She graduated from high school, a graduating class of nineteen, from her enthusiastic but tiny rural school and no one even asked her if she wanted to go to college. In fact, being the youngest child, she found herself politely shoved into a spare bedroom, staying at home and helping out her aging parent. It all happened to fast. She can’t exactly remember when and how she agreed to it.

And everyone said it was for the best. Jolene even said it was for the best. She said the words. Out loud. But inside she didn’t say them. She hated them inside. Jolene hated even more that she was the only one who ended up choosing to stay home (well, home at their granpa’s farm house – they’d had to move somewhere, didn’t they, after dad got cancer? – after they lost their old red brick house in the city? – yes, they did – and guess who did most of the moving? – one guess who did all that work – just one). It was hard, of course. But it wouldn’t be forever, right? And she thought it couldn’t get much worse. But she was wrong.

Granpa Dunne died. Granma Dunne died. And that was how Jolene got left high and dry up in the hills living alone with her dad with a big farm and a big house to take care of. No one even asked her if she wanted to help out. No sirree. They just shoved Jolene in the direction of work and said – there you are girl, get at it.

That’s how it goes for people who are quiet and keep to themselves. People do a lot of your deciding for you.

For months and years afterwards, sometimes, lying in the tall grass, exhausted from another long day of farm chores and nursing chores and managing tenant-farmer chores and whatever other chores the farm and life would saddle her with, Jolene would will the angel to descend to her. Just for her. She’d frown and she’d concentrate on a specific patch of blue above her and focus a powerful beam of “please” at it and then she’d bite her lip and close her eyes and will it six more times (for a total of seven, which was her lucky number), and then she’d open her eyes and she’d just wait.

That is, until the rain hit, or the light faded, she would wait. Jolene would watch for the angel to appear (why wouldn’t she appear? – she’d done it before), looking for a speck of color wafting – angels do that, they waft – the angel would waft graciously, towards Jolene, downwards from on high, down, down through the late afternoon thunderheads piling and spilling and rumbling over the blue mountains in the distance, and Jolene would see her and wait for her.

Jolene was sure that was how it would happen, that was the direction from which she’d arrive – from the west. It was a feeling she had. So she went with it. She would watch for the angel, who would drift over, fluttering towards Jolene with her ever-twinkling, humorous angel eyes of indeterminate color, darting here and there, tenderly motioning Jolene to come, come, and finally floating Jolene and herself off, swiftly and softly, to a new life, a life far, far away from farming and nursing, somehow leaving everyone, including Jolene, happy and content with their divinely instigated new living situations. The sun would set, and that would be that.

Unfortunately, that never happened.

Which brings up the awkward question – what exactly, then, is an angel good for?

Jolene would really like to know the answer to that.

Anyways…

Other times, of an afternoon, lying in the grass in the lower pasture, she’d stare at the blue sky and hate it. She hated the clouds above her and the grass underneath her and the old house on the hill and sometimes that felt better than willing the angel to descend. It was certainly more dependable – the hating that is. It always got her riled up. She didn’t know how much longer she could take it – staying there, taking care of a sick dad, scraping by on their tiny pension, doing the necessary things of daily life without going absolutely, positively mad.

She would, you know. Insanity was just around the corner. It was just down the hall, a short trip away, a few footsteps really. Stark, raving, bonkers, cuckoo mad and she felt she was going to explode and then they would be sorry. Wouldn’t they? Huh? Wouldn’t they? You bet they would.

Lying in her bed at night, tossing and turning, thinking, unable to sleep, she felt she could sympathize completely with a fox or a wolf or mountain lion that got its leg caught in a hunter’s trap and gnawed it off during the night to get themselves free before morning. It all made sense. A gnawed-off leg during the night was the smallest price Jolene would pay to get the chance to start her life over in the morning for real. A very small sacrifice. Tiny in the greater scheme of things.

She felt, deep in the ocean depths of a sleepless midnight, if she didn’t get away from this farm and this house and her family soon she’d start screaming and screaming and would scream so loud and so long she wouldn’t be able to stop screaming. That would show them. That would show everyone. Then they’d wish they would have listened to her. The clean, white padded wagon with the burly, but handsome attendants would pull up, she’d be carted off in a bright white strait-jacket with the siren screaming and Jolene screaming and then they’d all visit her on Sundays and she’d be yelling in a muffled, strangled kind of way (she’d be hoarse by then) and everyone would be crying and carrying on and apologizing for how insensitive they’d been to her, and then they’d regret it, probably for the rest of their natural lives. But, by then, of course, it would be too late, way too late, wouldn’t it?

Oh, if only they’d listened while there’d still been time. If only…

Then she’d let her eyes close for only ten minutes or so and right away light and flies buzzing would be waking her up, and it would be morning already and the sky would gleam a distressingly bright pink in the east before the sun came up, and the predictable, non-stop busy-ness of her life would overwhelm her again for another day, drowning all her pathetic internal cries to be saved until the evening hit her smack between the eyes as if it were a screen door some laughing someone had slammed deliberately into her surprised and confused face.

That was her new life.

And, as it turned out, Jolene didn’t go crazy.

Yes, life stumbled on, one, long day after another.

And Jolene complained a lot.

And she watched the skies.

Then, that last day, she was in the green hell of farming life – the humidity had to have been 170 % – her head hurt, it was stuffed so full with cottony, woolly non-thoughts, and the light was so bright outside it hurt the insides of her eyes, and she felt sick.

The whole day she felt teetering on the brink of throwing up. It was useless. It wouldn’t work. No matter how often she ran all the old debates she’d had with her dad over the years again and again in her headache-filled head, she never got him to understand, ever. She fanned herself in the heat, making dinner, and thought furiously. She fought for herself, by herself. And she lost, of course. She had to leave. She was going to leave. She would leave. She was an adult. She had a right to choose.

No, the truth was, she was going to live on this farm for the rest of her life. She’d probably die here.

Mashing the potatoes (viciously and furiously – she admits that), she tried to get them (the points in her arguments, not the potatoes) to line up, but they refused. As she cut the green beans, the logic congealed, lumped together, jumbled itself up and came out sideways, backwards, every which way but forwards. It was the opposite of orderly – so much so that even Jolene didn’t understand what she was trying to say or why she was trying to say it. When she was frying the pork chops she tried talking to him in her head. It hurt. That’s all she understood. It hurt to leave. It hurt to stay. It hurt. All the time. Something has to change, papa. I have to change something. Help me, papa, help me.

But that was not how you explained things to her father, to her hyper-organized dad – cool in his careful approach to life’s troubles, appalled at self-imposed chaos based on sentiment and feeling. He was one man that was not going to be afraid of calling confusion for what it really was – just plain laziness, pure and simple, an unwillingness to work.

Well, that was the old dad.

The new dad didn’t say much, he slept a lot, sat up in his chair staring at nothing, it seemed as if he was trying to will himself somewhere else, he rarely held her hand as she read the evening paper to him, he held his body still and stiff and correct and he avoided her eyes if she looked his way one too many times in one night.

She wanted her dad to let her go. She wanted him to say “Go on, live your own life, I’ve lived mine it’s your turn.” She wanted him to look Jolene in the eyes with strength and fierce pride and… what else? Concern? Worry? Love? – and say “Enjoy the time God’s given you. I’ll be fine. I’ll be happy. Don’t worry about me, do what you think’s best for you. Go on, live!”

That’s what she needed.

That’s what she thought she needed.

Well, it was what she wanted anyways.

She climbed up the barn’s steep stairs that afternoon, bringing him his supper, the stairs almost a ladder, and she hated the stairs, sincerely, as she usually did. She had to use both feet and hands and watch vigilantly for splinters and balance the glass and covered plate and twist and squirm and hop her way, up, up to her father’s room, and it was never easy. As usual, she carried a book to read to him pressed painfully between her arm and one breast. Today, the climb up the long ladder-stairs seem to stretch higher and higher, much higher than usual, ridiculously far above even the attic platform where they stored hay in the winter. She rested for a moment, a third of the way up, blew at some hair that had fallen in front of her face, jammed her wiry body between a pair of two-by-fours for support. She looked at the rest of the stairs, bit her lip and she concentrated on a tiny piece of hay or dust floating in the air up the stairwell. She balanced and she observed. She didn’t want to move. Ever. Not ever again. She breathed and she balanced until that little piece of hay floated its way up, up and out of her sight into the anonymous evening shadows. So. What was she going to do? Stay here on the barn stairs forever? She started hopping and twisting again. It was always such a struggle for her.

For the thousandth time she asked herself – why? – why did he stay alone up here so far away from everything and everyone? Sometimes she thought it was a punishment for her, or maybe it was a lesson, or maybe he’d forgotten about her entirely and didn’t care anymore what amount of trouble he was to Jolene. Who could tell?

She made it, this time, only spilling a little bit of the milk. And she hadn’t even dropped the book!

You know, Jolene had never liked this room. But as she’d mentioned, her dad refused to lie down anywhere else, lately. She avoided it as much as she could, with the dolorous and melancholy quality of its silences. It reproached her and shamed her – the solitude up here felt like that – and it was broken only by an irregular and nervous ticking – the unsteady gear sounds of an ancient clock that had been salvaged (when any sane person would have thrown it away in the garbage the first chance they had) from the sad old brick house dad and ma used to have back in the city.

The clock always reminded Jolene of her mother. Her mother used to call it her pride and joy. It was a curvy, brass-edged mantel clock, complete with angels and all sorts of divine personages sprinkled here and there, now black-green and unrecognizable in their corruption since no one had polished them in decades. It was made of all kinds of darkish, layered wood, some of it peeling away now. It rested precariously on a splintery two-by-four her father had painstakingly nailed to the sloping underside of the roof. The board slanted slightly. It looked as if it were about to dump its contents on the unwary at any moment. The clock itself didn’t work very well. It was ugly and lazy. It always had the wrong time. It was not a clear nor a careful clock. All of which hurt Jolene. Her old dad would have hated it. He would’ve fixed it, all of it. The new dad didn’t seem to notice anything was out of the ordinary.

The shelf hung in a shadowy corner next to where her dad’s small metal bed lay, with his one table, and his one old kitchen chair, painted three colors. Everything (including her father, yes it was true) had this peeling, paint-flaking, dry-rotted, badly-patched look of neglect and well, loveless-ness that poked at her at odd times. As if someone had strapped a rusty knife into her chest, and then decided to twist it in her insides at random intervals. It hit her now. Not the most pleasant feeling in the world.

The room was long, very long, the whole length of the barn. She started across it. The wood of the floor was soft with age.

Old bits of tools, odd shreds of leather and stray assemblages of amputated equipment from machinery long ago disassembled or sold for scrap, all of it lay heaped and piled randomly throughout the first half of the space. It was a kind of wall, a protection maybe. Maybe it was just despair. Her father was buried on the other side of it, in the other half of the room. There was a narrow, twisted path cleared through the clutter. She started down it.

Holding her breath, (it smelled alternately sweet and stale, felt cool and hot as she crossed different air currents rising through the gaps in the floor boards) she scanned the room for her father. She allowed herself a quick breath. The dust always made her allergies worse. And yes, smoking probably didn’t help much either, did it? She should stop. Her father said it wasn’t ladylike. Well, he used to, back when he had opinions. Now why didn’t Jolene didn’t see anyone up here? Her eyes only gradually adjusted to a dim, late afternoon light streaming in the lopsided window cut at an angle into the far wall.

“Dad?”

“Are you up here, Pa?”

“Dad!”

Oh. Twenty feet in front of her, she could just see him, asleep, a grayish mound of clothes and blankets on the his cot in the corner. His red and white checked handkerchief was tied around his neck. He was turned towards the wall. All she could see of him was his bald head. He looked pale even in this reddish light. The table was covered again in piles of books. Everything was messy. Is he sick? He usually didn’t go to sleep this early.

He’s going to win again. They aren’t going to be able to have a discussion. She’ll never get to leave here. It’s starting all over.

No. It won’t. Not this time.

Think! Think about what you want to say and say it. It’s not that hard. That’s what Dad always said. Think. Open your mouth. Move your tongue.

She stopped in front of the bed and table.

She set the milk and plate down on the uneven floor, let the book drop softly onto dusty boards. Nothing made a sound. Got to clear off the table. I suppose I’ll have to wake him up. Yes, of course I’ll have to wake him up. He’s got to eat something. But he’s breathing so easily. Isn’t he? Isn’t he? Dad? Dad? He doesn’t look good, does he?

The books were open, spines broken, pages fluttering to the floor. There were circular brown marks, water stains, on the covers. Why does he live like this? Why do we have to live like this?

Maybe she didn’t.

Maybe she wouldn’t.

How very quiet it was in this upper room of his. Jolene used to like to sleep up here when she was just a little girl. Great crossbars of syrupy golden sunlight slammed down in front of her, outlined in floating chaff. A shadow or two moved outside in the light. Owls? It must be later than she thought. The window darkened, got light, darkened again, then it was light. It was too quiet for Jolene, as always, quiet that is, except for the wheezing arthritic clock. She hated that clock. Yes she did. It should have been in a real living room, with a comfy sofa, and real chairs and a big front window looking out on a proper front yard. It shouldn’t be giving mice a place to live.

You know what?

Never again.

Never again would she settle. Yes, it would be tonight. Tonight she would do it. Tonight she would declare her freedom. Freedom day for Jolene. One of her brothers or sisters would have to take up the slack. Yes, tonight. Now. Open your mouth. Talk.

She would explain everything to her dad.

He would listen just like he used to do.

And they would sit together quietly and calmly decide what was best. It would be like it used to be. He would understand. He couldn’t not not understand, could he?. No. This was her dad, her pa.

She was crying. And she was sneezing because of the dust. It was hard to see. She’d need a light soon. She moved to shake his shoulder. She touched his shirt.

“Dad?”

He’d understand. Wouldn’t he?

“Dad?”

And then Jolene caught the merest glimpse of an oddly familiar grey and red blur, light and dark feathers the color of heaven, it streaked, it made a long banking turn outside the window three times and then it was gone. She saw it all through the disturbing, wavy old glass of the barn window, true, but she and the gray flyer knew what was going on. Jolene knew, knew it with a certainty. Her Dad’s shirt was cold, His shoulder was cold. He wasn’t moving at all. Not one bit. Nothing was moving in this room except her.

There wasn’t a dad up here for Jolene to talk to anymore.

The humorous old angel had fooled her again.

Was it all an angelic joke? What did angels laugh about anyways? What or who did they laugh at? Obviously, in this case, what they were laughing at was Jolene.

So.

She’d been wanting to be let go for the longest time, and all along she was going to be free anyways. Very funny. She’d been wanting to worry about herself for a change and here she was, finally, all alone, on her own, and not responsible for anyone else’s happiness except her own. Such a good joke. So glad to have been so amusing.

Yes, it was finally her time.

But now all she could do was cry.

She’d never hear her dad’s voice again. It staggered her. She was a little astounded by the amount of pain a person could feel all at once, in the tiny space of a second, and still go on living.

After her father’s funeral, a long time after, and after she’d been back in the city again for way too many years, and after she’d started working professionally and coughing professionally as any young professional smoker, and after she’d landed her position as first assistant accounts-receivable manager in an unbelievably dusty, smoky, sunless back office of (ironically, angel-wise that is) Dalton’s department store, it was only after all that, after she had gotten the life she’d been wanting, that it began to dawn on Jolene, painfully, that maybe this being alone stuff, well, maybe it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be.

Wanting was more complicated than it looked.

She wondered what it was she really wanted.

She wondered why everyone else seemed to know exactly what it was they really wanted.

She wondered why an angel would dupe her into wanting something she wouldn’t have wanted at all, if she’d known what it was she was wanting, before she wanted it. Weren’t angels, maybe, possibly supposed to be on top of things like that? Yes they were. Jolene was sure of it.

Yes, Jolene wondered a lot of things.

You know, maybe the angel hadn’t fooled Jolene. Maybe Jolene had been fooling herself. No. That’s not the way life worked. That couldn’t be right. Could it? No.

Later, she stopped wondering so much about maybes and possibles and ceased agonizing over thinking and wants and might-have-beens. That’s because later, Jolene met the unforgettable Robert.

 

~ ~ ~

 

It took most of the middle of the afternoon for Jolene to make it out of the dunes and onto the beginning of the beach, one hand on her head, gripping her inexplicably large hat and her slightly inappropriate wig, the other hand stretched out behind her, dragging a sled made of knotted towels containing the sum of her multifarious and many beach-ly possessions.

A few people passed her. She tried to appear normal and harmless. She felt she met with some success. No one woman-handled her into a waiting police car. That was success, wasn’t it?

She had to stop a lot. Almost every three steps. She pushed forward, stubbornly, weakly. The wind fought at her the whole way.

She dug in and pulled with her complaining calves at every step, as would a veteran, middle-aged (and foolish) husky in the long middle bits of the Idatrod dogsled race in Alaska. It was a Jolene trip of heroic proportions, of monumental efforts, of tough decisions made and hard triumphs won, of monumental willpower and of stark determination. Yes, it was all of that. But what else was new? Really, that was about par, nowadays. That was how Jolene lived her daily cancer-ridden existence, her everyday life, her every waking moment – the simplest things required a hero’s dedication.

Or a dog’s.

Take your pick.

Frankly, Jolene could use a dog right about now.

Yes, kind of lonely out, it being a week day and all and this odd September starting out a boiling scorcher but winding up tepid and lukewarm and pathetic and nothing special really. Only a few fellow beach goers on her slow, detour-ridden way in. Every one going home. Which was good, of course. Very good. All the more beach for Jolene. That’s how Jolene saw it.

She smiled, keeping her lips over her teeth, which were a little yellow, since she hadn’t been brushing hard lately, what with the chemo and all. Her gums bled at the drop of a hat. Or a wig.

And Jolene didn’t much feel like indulging in a wide smile. She was nervous. Jumpy. She’d had to take some anti-nausea stuff, and it always made her excitable and prone to anxious moments. Well, nervous at first, then blurry and indistinct, later. It was always something, huh?. Always interesting. It never stopped, did it?

And the beach itself was cold-ish and empty. What a surprise, huh? Until two young men in black pants and white business shirts in red ties arrived and helped her truck her pile of stuff the last ten feet to this mostly level spot in a gentle feminine-shaped valley wedged between two bulbous dunes which opened out halfheartedly onto wide, deep, blue-hearted waves shooshing industriously below them.

What these two young men were doing on a beach dressed for a church meeting Jolene had no idea. They seemed just as puzzled by Jolene as she was of them. Puzzlement was in the air, everywhere. No one was sure of anything. It was all a muddle. All of it.

They asked multiple times why she was there, and where she lived and all kinds of other details Jolene didn’t want to think about. Jolene answered with multiple silences and winning smiles, adjusting her new wig every time the wind blew it and her hat sideways. Which was often. Eventually they got the idea.

Alone again, the truth stared her in the face, lopsided hairpiece and all – Jolene wasn’t sure she could answer any of their questions. Why was she here? Why? Did she have to have a reason? And she’d have to think a little bit about where she lived. They called it chemo-brain, right? Memory loss. It was just the chemo. Short term, medium term. A gently descending, mercifully effacing fog of zen-like, involuntary living-in-the-present. She was here. She knew that. She was alive. For now. What else did she need to know?

She watched two black-white dots, red ties winking on and off as they looked back down at the beach at her, disappear down the edge of the dunes in curtains of salt spray billowing off the surging surf. The spray was cold, but it felt good in the sunshine, which was a little stronger now for some reason. Two upside-down exclamation points, the dots wavered, appeared, got closer, then receded, and eventually evaporated into the sandy distances. It took a few minutes or so. The dots. Why was she watching the dots? The dots looked familiar. She was certain she’d seen them before. They seemed helpful somehow. Helping dots. Strange, huh?

Her stomach or her intestines continued to signal her that something was deeply and desperately wrong. Jolene knew already. Yes, she’d taken poison. They called it infusion, at the chemo center. Hang in there you guys, she patted her middle-aged white torso, decently hidden behind a swimsuit underneath a wildly leaf-patterned yellow mumu, the anti-nausea cavalry are on their way. You just wait a minute. You’ll see. Peace is just around the corner. Just a little patience. The drugs will kick in. They will.

And the drugs did kick in. She felt hazy. Pleasantly. Not painfully. A little like she’d been drinking. As if! Maybe a sip of wine with her nephew Johnathan. Maybe. Years ago? Months ago? Yesterday? Well, now, she wasn’t sure. Did it matter? Of course not. But she couldn’t explain all that to total strangers. Why should she tell strangers about her private life? Why?

Who was she thinking of? What strangers? Who would she be talking to? Jolene looked around her. A few seagulls. Lots of grass, Sand. Hazy cream-colored clouds. Sky. Jolene was alone. Who was she talking to?

No one. That’s who. And that was exactly how she wanted it.

Enough with the thinking, Jolene.

Think – think-vacation, Jolene.

She watched the waves. The tide was coming in. Or was it going out? You could never tell by watching. You had to look away, pretend not to watch, look back a half hour later. Watching never did anything.

“It’s funny…”, she thought (or maybe she was talking to herself again), and while she was doing that she adjusted the straps of her swimsuit, under her mumu, (not the easiest thing to do while sitting down in a low slung beach chair) so that they didn’t bind quite so much, then she had to re-arrange her towel, then her chair. The wind picked up. She could smell rotting seaweed, corruption, death, decay. She felt sick again. Oh, darn. Her neck was a bright red – she could feel a scratching against her collar and the swimsuit straps. Waves of heat rolling off the back of her neck. You know, Jo, honey, you really shouldn’t be getting sun if you’re in the middle of doing chemo – not the best idea, really.

More wind. Her face sandblasted. She moved her hat down one side of her face. It didn’t help.

“It’s funny…”

She watched the dunes. She watched the waves. She watched the sky. Nothing moved. Well, the sun crept up towards her feet. She kicked and fussed with her legs and pushed herself back, deeper, deeper into inky shadows under her enormous, braid-fringed, banana-colored beach umbrella spread royally above her – a rich, ribbed, goldly luminous Persian carpet pulsing with heavy sunlight and glowing over her head, surrounding her body with all the different variations of her favorite hue, (yellow of course, hadn’t you guessed already?) a rain of lemony goodness. She felt good for a second, which was a rare feeling these days. Oh! Yes! She felt as if she had been eaten by a dream of a sleeping color, and that was O.K. by Jolene.

She dearly, dearly loved her sun-colored umbrella.

Even if it did weigh a ton.

The waves gurgled and whooshed at her. They wriggled their foamy fingers in her direction. She wriggled hers back at them, giggling.

“It’s funny” she continued “how everything goes in circles.”

She waited (for a response?), looked out, over empty (well, almost empty) beach and blinked at a shocking bright line of light – mottled greenish ocean stretched clean and taut against a horizon of flat, white-blue skies. The blue light was so strong. It hurt. White dots – plastic bags blowing in the wind? – she blinked – no – she blinked again – no, they were seagulls, floated down towards her. Her eyes teared up and she couldn’t see the birds anymore.

She stopped and waited again, for what, this time, she wasn’t sure. The seagulls apparently hovered away and drifted out of sight. She waved her hands at the surf, and discovered a lone seagull earthbound and staring at her and hopping purposefully towards her left foot at the edge of her towel. She waved at it repeatedly. Nothing deterred it.

“Circles?”

“No, that didn’t quite make sense, did it?”

“That’s not what she wanted to say. What was she trying to say? What was the point?”

The seagull cocked its head at her. It hopped. It hopped again, closer to the towel. It examined her. Closely.

She frowned directly at it. It shuffled two webbed feet forwards in the hot sand. It seemed to be staring at her head, no, at her hat. She decided to ignore it.

“Yes. I see. The point. Uh, well. I guess I don’t have a point. Do I need a point? Why does there always have to be…”

The gull lunged forwards. She glared at it. The gull opened its bright red mouth and gave out a strangled cry and that did it, she kicked some sand at it. It cocked its head. It flapped up, spread its great dirty white wings in the wind, hung for a moment, perfect and motionless against the painful blue, flapped back down and landed in the exact same spot. It cocked its head again. She refused to acknowledge it. It hopped. She looked the other way. Pointedly.

“O.K. Circles. Circles, then. You start out on one part of a circle. You journey long and hard, turning, moving through new experiences and places, learning, watching, struggling certain that you’d accomplished something, anything, thinking you were going somewhere, anywhere, and then bam! you have to face up to the fact (since you are, in fact, going in a circle, my dear) that you’ve ended up right back where you originally started. The same place. Like none of it had ever happened.”

The bird squawked at her, three times in succession and hopped sideways once or twice with its mouth open. Its head jerked back and forth. It still stared at her sun hat. As if she’d stolen it.

“You’re very impolite to stare like that.”

It hopped and jerked. She tried to stare it down.

“Look, it’s not that hard. It’s a circle. Birds do it. People do it. You’re going in circles. I do it all the time. I’ve been doing it all my life.”

“Get it? Circles?”

“Maybe you get it, but you just don’t care.”

“I used to be like that.”

“I…”

But, even Jolene was tired of talking about it. She sighed, closed her eyes, listening for approaching webbed feet, and lay back imitating a limp, over-cooked, expensive piece of spaghetti draped over a designer beach chair. No one expected pasta to have a backbone. It felt good to be boneless. Hot air smothered her. She was suddenly too tired even to work her lungs. She just wanted to stop. Completely stop. So tired. So peaceful. So restful. So familiar. So…

So freakish. So frightening. And in a twisted way interesting. It shocked Jolene how quickly (and unpredictably) her body lost energy these days. As if someone had stuck an enormous shiny faucet into her side and cranked the valve open, and spilled out all her strength, all of it, out onto the ground in a big puddle, leaving Jolene weak and hollow and defenseless and blank. Mostly blank. And everywhere weak.

How was she ever going to walk away from here? She wasn’t. If she kept this up.

She riffled through one of her bags, without opening her eyes, found and ate some melting chocolate she found, which, of course, got all over her towel, and interested the staring gull to no end. She could hear it clucking to itself, jumping around in a fever pitch of gluttony in front of her, not knowing what to do. That is, until she threw out the rest of the gooey bar with its gooey wrapper off into the dunes behind her starting a monumental gull riot that took a surprisingly long time to calm back down again.

She lay there and listened, eyes closed, forcing herself to breathe slowly.

She lay there, and she felt a little less weak as each minute passed and the sugar hit her bloodstream, and more oxygen surged through her lungs.

She lay there, with waves thundering irregularly in front of her – as if they were the ticking of a slow, malfunctioning clock, or maybe, a pump – water being sucked and tossed, pulled and pushed, moved back and forth against its will – she lay there and it all started to make her feel a little unbalanced.

When did it ever stop?

She felt herself falling. She didn’t like the feeling. But instead of throwing up, which is what she normally did these days, she started to fall asleep, which was not a normal activity, insomnia being a constant companion of hers lately.

That was good, even if surprising.

Bright drops of afternoon sun burned her ankles, pushed against the top of her umbrella, cascaded down the slopes of the enveloping dunes and she swore she felt each and every photon of light – every one – impact, burrow and lose itself in her body – this struggling, doomed structure – she felt them spreading recklessly, heedlessly, heaving their way into every corner of her, exploding in dazzling bursts of every color of blue imaginable in their own private, miniature rendition of an atomic-level Fourth of July deep inside of darkest Jolene. The light filled her, filled her to overflowing, carelessly, foolishly, negligently. It teased. It tickled. Then it didn’t do anything at all.

 

~ ~ ~

 

It never ceased to scare her how much she needed to feel Robert’s hand in hers.

His hands – they were necessary. An implacable compulsion. An unavoidable force of nature – she needed his palm touching her the same way she needed to breath oxygen or relied on gravity. It was necessary. It was basic. It was essential. It was horrible. Robert’s fingers had to be in hers, his bodily presence demanded her bodily presence. Yes, quite naturally once Jo meant Rob, Jolene had disappeared off the face of the earth, as had Robbie, dead as a doornail, and a new composite being – a Jobert or a Roblene had taken their places and lived their lives in place of them.

It had hit her hard and it had hit her fast and the old Jolene hadn’t had a chance in hell of surviving it.

Robbie was quiet, sometimes, yes, with a devious smile, and a more than slight tendency to stretch the truth in some situations and an ability to make a person feel like, well, like they were the most important person in the world, and he had the shoulders and arms of a lumberjack and the smile of a preacher. And he had the tongue of an angel. Or a demon. Robbie liked to talk, when the mood hit him. He was good at it. Very good. And when he did talk, it was normally about Robbie. Well, who didn’t like to talk about themselves? Everybody did it. But in Robbie’s case, since Robbie was fascinating, endlessly fascinating, Jolene didn’t mind it one bit. You wouldn’t have either. He was a joy to listen to. He was unusual.

Robbie was a phenomenon.

He was finishing up a business degree and working two jobs and had bumped into Jolene one windy night on the fateful corner of Fifth and DeLaporte (now, their corner) and Jolene had been very suspicious of him at first, distant and frosty to his apparently warm and sincere invitations to coffee and later, to the movies, and later to other things. She didn’t know why he was so interested in her.

She worked, and stayed at home nights reading, she talked on the phone with her friends, washed dishes after supper, did laundry, sewed her clothes, worried about the new clerk not making reversing journal entries for the year-end financials at Dalton’s, but gradually, mostly, she found enormous pieces of her head devoted to Robert and what he was doing and why he was doing it, and who he was doing it with. Soon she didn’t have to wonder. Most of Robbie’s time was spent with her. He was always there. She loved it. She hated it. She thought she was going crazy. She didn’t care.

And she still wondered, but it was a little different now – why was he doing this?

Why?

She thought about it at work, and got her cross-footing wrong in the General Ledger (which old man O’Connaghy didn’t appreciate at all, he made her stay until two in the morning once getting it right again). She thought about it on the bus going home at nights and missed her stop. Five times one week. She thought about it walking to the grocery store and found herself in front of her own front door, hours later, hands empty, with empty cupboards to boot, and so she had to make the trip all over again. It was very disturbing. She was positive he was a bad influence on her obviously weakened mental state.

She thought about it, babysitting for her oldest sister two days a week, watching her four boys – the oldest boy Johnathan, doing most of the babysitting actually, even though he was only six – which was a good thing since she was so distracted, as she’d already mentioned, and she thought about it as she walked home. It (the question – why?) echoed through her head meaninglessly, ricocheting off anything she tried to think about, a song from the radio you couldn’t get rid of, a simple, maddening tune that Jolene couldn’t or wouldn’t shake off.

Yes, that little question remained. Why? Why Jolene? Why her? What did he really want? Her girlfriends kidded her about Robbie, and her insecurities. Jolene laughed with them. Yes, she had a man. Yes, he was a good man. They told her to be happy she had anything at all. And she was, sometimes. But mostly she was scared. And that wasn’t a good feeling. Love wasn’t supposed to feel this way, was it? Jolene couldn’t be enough for a man like Robert. Something was wrong.

She knew how to be alone. That was easier. Being with someone was harder. It was as if you’d loaned your legs out to somebody. You never knew where your legs would take you, now that you didn’t control them anymore. And you had to be in control. It was crazy not to be. Anyone would say that. So Jolene had come up with a plan.

Which brought her, for good or ill, to where she was now.

It was winter. People looked as if they were ambulatory sausages. Jolene waited, scanning well-wrapped faces passing in the crowd near and far, but not really seeing any of them, looking intently for Robert’s sincere, square shoulders pushing through the hurrying commuters. She stomped her feet. She squinted her eyes. She blew on her hands in the November chill by habit, as if she could really feel the cold. She couldn’t feel it. She wouldn’t feel it now if they froze solid and fell right off.

Why had she told him that she thought she was pregnant?

She bit her lip to keep from crying and turned her face away from the people pushing past her on the icy sidewalk. She pretended to look at the store windows.

He was obviously slipping away from her. She knew it, could feel it, he’d be there breathing sincerely beside her all night long and she’d stare unsleeping at the cracks in her midnight ceiling and she could feel him sliding away from her into someone else’s midnight and she’d cry and cry. She couldn’t help it. Who wouldn’t? It was all so hopeless.

Yes, she was talking herself into a worried frenzy, a frayed, unraveled Jolene bundle of not-enoughs and never-will-be’s. And yes, she couldn’t stop herself (or wouldn’t, no she’d tried, she had). Yes, it was crazy. Yes, it was wild. It was horrible.

It was as if she were watching someone else.

She had to do something about it. She had to do something now. She needed to be more. More than Jolene. And quick.

She consciously began deleting little pieces of her life before she told him about it. Pieces that just would not fit the Robert mold. Not entire pieces, but irregular knobs, cracked parts and sharp bits that needed sanding. Well, anybody would do that, anybody. They were never big things, not at first (well, did she ever talk about anything important to Robbie anyways, and really Robbie didn’t really ask questions, that wasn’t his style), but the little details grew more and more elaborate, and it just kind of all got away from her. It was work. It was exhausting sometimes. Keeping it all straight.

It was worth it, though. It was all worth it. Robbie was her big chance. Robbie was going to be living. Robbie was going to be happiness. Robbie was going to be the rest of her life. Jolene had to make sure that her life happened. That her happiness happened.

Only a small problem now. Jolene bore little or no resemblance to the girl she talked about to Robert. This other-Jolene was interesting and daring. She was popular and funny and serious and worldly and sincere and loyal and well-educated and… well, everything. All at the same time. Robert’s girl was a life-contortionist, a personality pretzel shaped only to please. What a woman! After her, who would want just plain accounts-receivable Jolene? No one would. Certainly not Robert. He wouldn’t want the real Jolene, ever. Jolene knew he wouldn’t. No use pretending, none at all. He would walk away. And you know, Jolene wouldn’t blame Robert at all if he did

What was she going to do?

And, yes, it had gotten way out of hand. So, Jolene had come up with this plan. And then she was crying again. And then the telephone conversation last night. And then the wait at the corner today.

This corner of DeLaporte and Fifth was a torture. Why did she meet Robbie here all the time?

Jolene looked up. And immediately regretted it.

The angel was right there, right there – as if all that time had never happened, and maybe it hadn’t – and Jolene was still a kid, or still just out of high school, or still living her predictable, quiet life B.R. (Before Robbie). She, the angel, was hovering, lingering in back of her this time, and Jolene saw her red-haired, gray-winged self, all of her, reflected in the biggest of the Dalton store windows, full length and in dazzling color. Jolene saw the angel out of the corner of her eye as Jolene was pacing back and forth on that cold corner, careful not to slip on the ice, and she stopped in mid-pace.

The friendly eyes bottomless as usual, seemed glad to see her, maybe a little confused, maybe hurt, Jolene couldn’t say for sure. Angel’s faces were hard to read. This time her hand wasn’t over her mouth, it was palm to the side and outstretched – she seemed to be wanting to pull Jolene back up to wherever the angel went to for years at a time, or maybe she was reaching to touch Jolene’s shoulder, or maybe she was wanting Jolene to reach out to her. Who could say? Then the angel looked sad. Jolene forgot to breathe. She was there, right there, and Jolene turned herself slowly around, she twisted and corkscrewed her neck and looked behind her, blushing, mouth open, tongue-tied and she felt a rush of air and a wash of perfume flow over her and the air over her shoulder was conspicuously empty. The store window was empty. No one was there. At least no one with wings. Panic bubbled up and out of her of nowhere. She didn’t have to think, she knew, she knew.

Oh God! It’s Robert! Robbie’s dead! Robbie’s dead!

She should have met him on campus, then maybe they could have gone to that Italian place with the big blue platters of spaghetti and sloppy, overflowing bowls of meat sauce and that cheap Chianti he likes and he could have told her about his job interviews again, and his last semester at the University, and she would have listened to his each and every word, making sure he didn’t drink too much, making sure she didn’t drink too much, and asking the right questions at the all appropriate times, and then he would have pushed his chair back at the end, balancing on two legs, and smiled his satisfied, head-shaking, eyes-downward smile and exuding sincerity, would’ve wondered out loud again how he’d gotten so lucky as to have Jolene in his life.

And she’d blush, and she’d look down, the way she usually did, but this time she’d finally tell him the truth. She would. She would tell him. Tell him everything, slowly, carefully, leaving out no details, but stating the facts simply in the correct order and slowly so as to be understood completely. Sure. She’d explain. No, she was not pregnant, not really.

And he’d understand. He’d be puzzled at first, – of course, who wouldn’t? – but in the end, he’d understand. He had to understand. Then he’d say everything was OK. And they’d stay here, in town. Or they wouldn’t stay in town. They’d go to another city, or, no, maybe they’d even move to another state, and Jolene would go. She’d say that. Out loud. Anywhere he was, she’d go. She would say that. Anywhere. As long as they were together. Anywhere. She would say that.

She was crying openly now, sobbing and pacing in circles on a downtown street and making a spectacle of herself and she knew it, but she couldn’t help it. The angel had come and gone. Another piece of herself was going to be taken away. She wasn’t sure how many pieces there were of Jolene left to take. When would it stop? Little by little she was disappearing – just the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle pulled off a table falling forgotten onto the floor, too jumbled up to salvage, good only for the trash, and soon there’d be no Jolene there at all, none. She’d be gone. No pieces left. Gone.

The longer she paced and circled – a trapped animal – the more certain she was that Robert was lying in a street someplace under a bus, or under a pile of bricks, or electrocuted, or poisoned, or stabbed, or shot, and it kept on getting worse and worse, and she felt herself being wound up tighter and tighter until she wasn’t sure how she could stand it anymore and then she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around.

She turned around slowly, expecting to see a hard-faced policeman tell her to move on or to ask her if she were waiting for a man named Robert Hutchinson and would she accompany him to the morgue and identify the body – but no, it was Robert’s face she saw looking into hers with an astonished, worried look, and she fell into his perplexed arms laughing and crying and hiccupping, all at the same time, and Jolene realized she was found. Jolene was found. She existed. She was alive. Yes, someone had found her, fished her up out of oblivion, saved and treasured her and remembered her. Jolene was protected. Jolene was visible.

It took her a while to calm down, even longer to talk.

Robert’s voice floated over her right shoulder the whole time, murmuring “It’s all right now, everything’s going to be all right, just take your time Jo, it’s going to be fine, just fine. I’m here now Jo…” And on and on. Looking back, despite the furious storms of sobbing, it was one of the happier moments of her life. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and dove in, not looking up, not even trying to see what Robert was thinking. She had to do it. She had to do it now. She wouldn’t have the courage or foolishness to do it again, do it later.

“I haven’t told you the truth, Robbie, not all of it. I’m, I’m…” she couldn’t go on, but the image of red hair, gray wings and worn hands flashed in her head and she wobbled rapidly through the sentence with more strength than she thought she really had “I’mnotreallypregnant” She waited a heartbeat, then two, then three for some reaction, tried to judge what he was feeling by the grip of his hands on her back, or the sound of his breathing, pr the pressure of his chest on her head, but she didn’t dare twist upwards, didn’t dare look up. She couldn’t. She was paralyzed.

Rather than burst or collapse or both, she started to babble. Into the awful silence over her right shoulder. She poured out bucketfuls of words and tried to cover everything with something else before anything could happen inside of her, or inside of her Robbie. If she just talked enough and rapidly it would all be O.K. She could make it O.K. It just took work. Jolene wasn’t afraid of work. She knew what work was. You can do it, Jolene. Do it. Do it.

“I was going to tell you, I don’t know how, I thought you wanted, I mean it seemed like I wasn’t… I didn’t… I thought I wasn’t enough, and it just happened and I could see how happy you were when I told you and oh Robbie, I love you, please say something, please forgive me, I love you Robbie…”

Bucketfuls. At some point, during all of this, she’d been, not-ungently, released by a set of strong arms, just one hand remaining, sitting awkwardly on her shoulder, and she wasn’t sure what she should do. She allowed herself one, just one small glance upwards at his face and saw what she thought were tears and a look of disbelief and (what was even more shocking) defeat and hurt and some other emotions she couldn’t name. Or maybe she was just imagining it all. He must have seen her look up, because he turned his face away, (that made her crazy to see it) his voice a soft baritone rumble, every word swallowed before it was spoken. She could still see his face in the reflection of the window at Dalton’s. It was horrible.

“I don’t know Jo, I don’t know, I’m going to need some time, I don’t know Jo…”

And then, well, then he let her go.

That was the last time she saw Robert she got a letter from him later, but never looked inside the envelope, she never actually opened it. She didn’t have to. She knew what it said. She kept it though.

She kept it – it was her first tumor, not necessarily benign, and she had carried it her whole life, a faded bundle of paper wrapped around a lump of pain, hidden in layers of foolishness and she’d stuck it in the backside of a forgotten drawers someplace, somewhere, where she wouldn’t ever have to see it unless she really wanted to see it. Unless she really needed it

Well, it wasn’t quite that forgotten. She always knew exactly where it was. She did. Actually, she took it with her whenever she went on a long trip. In fact, it was, this very minute, in her yellow and orange striped beach bag right beside her on the beach, safe and sound and unopened. Just in case she needed it.

 

~ ~ ~

 

A few people she’d been sharing the sand with apparently, (mysterious individuals she hadn’t seen or heard the whole time she’d been there) had been packing up and filing off into the dune-maze behind her for a half hour or so. Jolene had woken up, looked up and watched them disappearing with a strange feeling of disinterested kindness – almost as if she were blessing them. She wished them well, all of them, and she hoped they were happy. The waves kept up their patient pounding and grinding for Jolene’s benefit alone now. Even the seagulls had abandoned her and were thieving and bullying elsewhere on the coast.

Shadows of grassy sand hillocks lay stretching out towards the water, the beach seemed to be getting narrower and narrower, and in an orangey-gold light, it seemed as if Jolene were looking at the waves through a pair of binoculars – they were closer and closer, maybe her eyesight was going, or maybe it was her mind that was going, but most probably it was just that the tide was actually coming in, after all.

She was comfortable and resting for once instead of being uncomfortable and unrestful, and she liked the unusual feeling. She wasn’t going anywhere. No decisions to make. No doctor’s appointments. Nothing to do. No one to see. She wondered, briefly, if the sea would continue its march up the beach and eventually just carry her off, but even that – as a possible disaster scenario – didn’t penetrate her heavy armor of tiredness and calm. No, the vast, pounding engines of anxiety and despair she used to negotiate her life were motionless and cold and dead. She was staying put. She was staying here.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Jonathan flipped back, with an efficient, characteristic jerk of his head, what might have appeared to the anonymous observer as a large and long patch of shimmering, blond-colored grass hanging over his eyes. It was in fact his hair. And he opened the door even farther. Simultaneously, he smiled and bowed to Jolene, and grandly motioned her forward into his small apartment with both hands, his forehead almost touching the floor, doing some twiddly thing with his fingers while he did it. Jolene dimpled her chin, smiled and curtseyed, elaborately, bowing her head and almost cracking her skull against Jonathan’s when they both struggled to straighten up at the same unfortunate moment.

As Jolene tried unobtrusively to adjust herself and her clothing – so that what she had intended to be covered in public stayed covered in public – she caught Tobi’s eye as he chopped energetically at some poor, defenseless vegetable in front of him and stirred a furiously boiling pot on the stove to his left. Tobi fastened his eyes on Jonathan, then on Jolene, and rolled them (his eyes) as usual in big circles of exasperated affliction. Jolene decided tonight was the night, (she had been thinking of doing it for a long time now) to bewitch Tobi with her patented, Jolene, pan-dental smile-of-death She initiated the smile. At first nothing happened. Tobi’s face remained absolutely blank. She increased the dazzle-volume. Still nothing. Then, a moment later, he fell to pieces. He smiled back, pointedly showing all his teeth, in a fair imitation of a shark, and shaking his head, in a sad, world-weary way, reached behind his back to open the refrigerator. The dinner with her nephew had officially begun.

Jonathan and his partner, Tobi (“now remember, that’s Tobi with an ‘i’ Aunt Jo with an o”) had made lasagna (Jolene’s favorite). Tomato, basil, and a multitude of other spices warmly surged over her in a pressure wave of humid cooking smells. It felt so good and so soft on her skin she wanted to lie down right there in the apartment’s hallway and let it bundle her off to sleep. Instead, Jolene took her shoes at the door and trailed little white sand streams onto the worn brown carpeting, collapsed into a waiting sofa, and waited, hand outstretched in mid-air, for the glass of wine already poured and sitting for her on the far-off kitchen counter.

This was the day of The Call, although she didn’t know it yet. The three of them had been to the beach earlier, and Johnnie (he hated it when she called him that) and Tob had left early to make dinner. She’d let them. Tobi (who was also mysteriously called Gustavo by Jonathan, mostly when Tobi was in trouble, which seemed to happen quite a lot) was a good cook, as Jolene had found out through long experience with these après-beach soirees as Johnnie liked to call them. They were a pair, Jonathan and Jolene, and after Jonathan had met Tobi, they’d become a trio. Jolene was never sure exactly what Tobi thought of her, he was a mystery, that boy. He did a lot of traveling, something to do with his job, computers or phones or something. She didn’t see him all that often. And he was hard to get to know, when she did see him. Ah, but then, Jolene could be a mystery herself, couldn’t she?. It wasn’t altogether a bad thing, mysteries had to hang together, they had to look out for each other. So that’s what Jolene and Tobi did.

Johnnie and Jolene had started to call themselves J and J, and had met down at the beach. Well, met as adults. Jolene had been babysitting him for most of his young life. Still, one weekend, tramping across the sloping upper part where people stretched out and baked in rows of people-shaped loaves of red flesh she’d almost tripped over a couple of bodies angled (in her opinion) a little too close to one of the paths, and was about to offer some helpful, loud instruction when she was startled to recognize the general outline of the brown-as-a-nut carcass before her (under an oddly science-fiction-like, bright white, wrap-around set of sunglasses) as the body and face of her nephew.

All ancient history now.

She’d been going down to the beach on Saturdays, and often finding Johnnie at the same spot, christened it JJ Point and she would pitch her tent-like umbrella, and Johnnie and Tobi would scoot out for more sun, and come in when they were too hot, and they’d spend the afternoon dozing and talking and listening to music.

She was careful and cagey at first. She still reserved for herself the right to be a little ornery. She also reserved for herself the right to love them. She just didn’t go and spill it all and tell them everything about the Jolene world and what she was feeling. She was selective. At first. And later too. And cautious. Yes, Jolene could be silent and possibly irritating. It was something she gave herself permission to be. But the relationship had worked, somehow, shakily and tentatively, and then more easily. To her surprise.

She didn’t explain how she was feeling. She didn’t feel she had to. Not the way she would have had to when she was younger and she did more random, compulsive explaining. She was voluntarily enigmatic. She just did it. And it made her happy. And that was that. They made her happy. She seemed to make them happy. That just about seemed to be the sum of it – that was all she needed to know at present. It was enough.

And now here she was, sipping some unpronounceable wine from some small mountain town in Northern Italy (or was it Croatia?), watching the two of them watching her. If she didn’t know better, she’d say she this had been a good day – she’d mark this day with a white stone. She guessed she’d say that.

The windows were covered in condensation from the cooking and the couch was facing away from the window when Tobi, bringing crackers or some little salami slices or something else small and intricate and edible stopped in midsentence – as if he’d seen a ghost, just as he was setting the plate on the big block of wood that served as their coffee table. He just stopped and stared over her shoulder for ten seconds, until Johnnie came over and touched him on the arm. Yes, he looked as if he’d seen a ghost. Then he told a joke or something, something to make people forget and made some excuse about getting back to the kitchen, where he and Johnnie talked in low voices for a solid thirty seconds. Actually none of that was unusual, was it? The rest of the evening was full and warm as it always was and when Jolene got home, she saw she had a message on her answering machine.

Was that the angel again? She never asked Tobi about it. She figured she knew the answer already. The call was from her doctor. Then she saw the doctor. Then the next appointment she made was with an oncologist. That was a year and a half ago, no, it was almost two years ago.

So the angel had come again. Jolene hadn’t seen her. What had Jolene lost this last time? She was the angel of lost things, wasn’t she? Or was she the angel of things that were taken? What did she take this time? What did she steal from Jolene?

Innocence?

It couldn’t have been her innocence. The many years after Robert had taught her the hard way (sometimes that’s the best way, sometimes the only way) that while it was important to want and need, what was more important was just to move and live. And learn. When you stopped all that you’d stopped living. Right, Jolene?

Moving and learning and living.

That’s what was important, right?

Well.

Maybe.

But, it wasn’t just the living, the important thing was the giving. Giving out and not looking for what came back. That’d always been the hard part, for Jolene – the not looking for something in return part. Everyone wants something back. And the crazy thing was, not wanting things back gave a person a kind of safety, a kind of secure place, that you could live a decent life out of. A place no one could take from you since it was a place you yourself gave to yourself. Giving without the expectation of return. Safety. Well, that’s how Jolene saw it. It made sense to her. It made you innocent, in a manner of speaking.

No, she’d gotten back her innocence a long time ago, and she wasn’t about to give it away again.

Why had the angel come?

No, it was a loss, she was sure of it, the angel, her angel, was always about loss. She took. Jolene lost.

Loss.

Well, yes, losing could be painful, but shedding the extra weight made the walking afterwards easier. She just wished there were some other way to do it.

Such brave words, Jolene.

And now cancer.

Cancer.

Cancer.

Even the word sounded hateful.

Cancer.

So Jolene wasn’t immortal.

O.K.

Maybe, Jolene, it was time to start living more. It was time. It had always been time. It’s had always been a good time to live.

O.K.

We can do this.

Me and my angel and myself. With a lot of help. And a lot of patience. We can do this.

Just breathe, Jolene.

Maybe it wasn’t so strange. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe the angel was there all the time. Maybe it was all good. The wanting, the having, the losing, maybe she just watched it all and it was all good and it will always be good and Jolene just had someone walking alongside her as she wanted, had and lost. An angel hiking companion. Maybe Jolene just didn’t notice her. And then again, maybe not. Who knew? Anything becomes ordinary after frequent repetition. Anything. Even angels. Even angels with messages. Even the occasional angel with red hair, bad timing, and a flair for the dramatic entrance.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The beach was deserted.

It was getting cold, well, cooler at least, and Jolene was feeling content, but vaguely uncomfortable, she needed to move around, or needed to finish something, or needed to start something. She needed to get up, at the very least.

The thought of getting all that stuff back to the car should have been discouraging, but it wasn’t. Probably because she had no intention of lugging it back. She’d take care of it tomorrow, maybe ask Johnnie to get it. He’d do that for her. She knew he would.

In the meantime, the beach was a show she had all to herself. The sun was starting to catch the top of the dunes with a halo of light behind her. Long, lumpy, ribbony clouds far out over the ocean were aflame with pink and purple fires, and she felt a cool mist, prickly with salt and sand blowing in over the breakers and pushing her and the yellow beach blanket she was rolled up in – pushing it into a saffron sail – up, up, and away – pushing her away from tiredness and immobility and peace and away from thoughts of endings, pushing her back towards her car and back towards the tumbling, raucous world of movement and change.

The sea was helping her. It was trying.

Jolene was scared.

It scared her to death, all those ups and downs, lefts and rights, and she didn’t know if she had the energy to do it any of it anymore. But she didn’t see what else there was to do. Besides, what more could happen to her? Yes, a loaded question, best not to ask, but third time’s a charm, so she’d blunder through it all one more time and see where it took her.

One more time, Jolene. You could do it. With help.

Just because change isn’t pleasant, doesn’t mean it’s not good, huh? Oh, just stop with the thinking Jolene. She grunted and groaned her way to a standing position, and turning her back to the sea, looked out at the wilderness of dunes before her, a kind of a future – whatever it was going to be.

But first she had one more thing to do, and she reached down.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“Aunt Jo!” “Aunt Jo!” Now Jonathan was getting worried. He didn’t bother to push back his shock of blond hair, he wasn’t even noticing his heart beating rapidly and painfully under his blue-striped dress shirt. Jonathan jogged down the winding path to his and Aunt Jo’s beach with a sense of strangeness. Nothing looked familiar. It was early Monday morning, he was late for work, but she hadn’t come over on Sunday like she said she would, and calling and leaving messages hadn’t gotten any response. He knew she went to the beach at the oddest times, and seeing her car in the parking lot, a little ancient Volvo, dusty and lonely, all by itself in the corner had made his head spin. Her car was in the parking lot, but she wasn’t. “What in the heck could Aunt Jo be doing out here so damn early?”

Seeing sunglasses of hers lying on the sand and her yellow umbrella wedged upside down in a shock of tall, spiky grass, its handle sticking up at a crooked angle into the early morning sky, brought Johnathan skidding to a halt. His heart was trying to pound its way right out of his chest, his head was rotating helplessly to the left and to the right and back again, his breath was coming in and out in ragged coughs and painful barking sounds.

“Aunt Jo! Aunt Jo!”

“Where are you, Aunt Jo?”

“Aunt Jo let me know where you are.”

He ran, faster and faster, afraid of what he might find, sliding around a bend, tripping on some saw grass and a rolled up towel (yellow and orange) and nearly doing a somersault, wind-milling both arms and sliding to a stop in front of half-buried beach bags, more yellow towels and miscellaneous pieces of paper trapped under more bags, tubes of sun block, crackers, chocolate, bottles of water. It was a mess.

He looked up the beach, and then down, but he was alone. Entirely alone. He started calling out again, anxiously whispering to himself in a cold, humid morning breeze coming off the ocean as he put all her stuff back into their various bags, the sun just rising, a perfect golden circle, balanced on a perfectly flat blue horizon as clear and obvious as a mathematical proof.

“She had no business out here on her own, no business.”

Why he was cleaning up he didn’t exactly know.

“Aunt Jo!”

He couldn’t just leave all her stuff laying out on the sand like that. It wasn’t respectful.

“Aunt Jo!”

He stuffed in and called out, stuffed in and called out.

“Aunt Jo! Answer me. Aunt Jo!”

He saw a weathered, yellowed envelope, falling apart with age, and a note stuck in it. It was a short note, creased in the middle and folded in two – it almost fell to pieces in his hands. It said “Meet me at our corner next Monday and we can talk. It will be all right. You’ll see. Love R.” That was it. And there was one long red hair stuck in the middle of the note.

“Aunt Jo” he said again, he tried to talk (who was he talking to?) but it came out more a breath than a whisper.

The wind gusted around him, shoving him towards the parking lot, Jonathan heard something or someone, and he looked around in wild amazement, expecting to see her appear out of nowhere. But all around was air, brightness, gold, green, warm, grassy dunes, foam-flecked, blue surf stretching long and wide in front of him, laid out as if it were a gift, pulled tight in front of his unfocused eyes, an empty, expectant landscape of blurry, shimmering morning light – and all of it was for Johnathan, for him alone.

Alone.

He was by himself. The light was everywhere. Where had the morning come from so quickly?

 

 

STILL LIFE WITH FRUIT

 

 

Friday 6:23 PM

 

“Shit. Shit. Shit.”

His thighs pumping up and down, his breath getting raggedy and thin, David pistoned the pedals of his bike in and out, back and forth, any way he had to, anyway he could, sliding powerfully under the peeling Eucalyptus trees, slower and slower and slower as the hill got steeper and steeper. He wrinkled his nose and squinted between gasps and grunts. The air reeked of rotting plants. Gravel hissed under his tires. Car bumpers played tag with his left foot and its whirling steel pedal. Fluorescent, late-fall sunlight, avalanches of it, slammed into his face, his arms, his thighs slantwise, alternating with heavier, colder shadows. David was late. David was in deep trouble. But David was alive. He smiled into the sun and the heat and the cold and let the columns of light beat him up.

David told himself they were search beams. Dried leaf and dust-filled cylinders of bright, deadly light chasing him down. Sensory tentacles of a celestial police helicopter strafing the road with a single-minded, white-hot purpose. Find him. Find the ducking and weaving bicycling dot that was David Hirscher. Yes, they hunted him, they nosed about, they reached earthwards, they tried to, at least. Seeking, touching, grappling onto this lone escaping man, trying to force him flat, trying to silence him, trying to shove him facedown onto the cracked, black asphalt and beat him into a final, bloody submission. Yes, they would try. But they would fail, of course. David was on the run. Nobody caught David when he was on the run.

Except for the car going for the right turn lane that missed him by centimeters.

Another right-turning car almost hit him, and David bellowed and swore at its retreating bumper, but of course, no one heard. No one ever hears. If a bicyclist fell in the forest (or on a city street), they never made a sound. Bicyclists were invisible. They didn’t exist, formally.

David grunted. No. Respect. No. Respect. No. Respect. He continued his rhythmic whining (just because it felt good) and with each foot’s downward stroke, said it louder. Not looking, of course, to see how much closer he was coming to the top of the hill because David had given up simultaneous bike-riding and hill-top-watching years and years ago. A watched hill never ends. There are only pedals and quadriceps. Lowly biker’s treasured hill-wisdom.

Fuck! Fuck. Shit. Shit. Shit.

His lungs ached with a stinging fire. It felt good. His head hurt though.

Strobing sunlight wasn’t bothering him. Neither was the distracted truck driver gaining on his muscular biker’s behind. He wasn’t really interested, maybe he should have been, but he wasn’t. No, David hadn’t really even noticed. He was somewhere else. He was worrying. And he was laughing. One after the other. Worrying about what? Laughing about what? He didn’t want to think about it. He was tired of thinking about it. He just wanted to feel for a little bit. That wasn’t too much to ask.

So. He giggled and chortled and his head hurt, his neck hurt, his eyes hurt, there was angst somewhere inside of him, but something else was there too and it was going to pop any minute. He whistled to himself (even though he was lousy at it, Elizabeth always begged him to stop whenever he started it) and inhaled carbon monoxide like there was no tomorrow and he pumped.

Well, chortling is what Elizabeth called it. David called it laughing. It was not the same thing.

Yes, he’d been winking at the birds, getting high on this beauteous San Diego afternoon, pushing his dopey, smiling face up into the sky and feeling the wind wind-burning his cheeks – basically just a dog flapping his tongue out of the side of his snout and hanging too far into the slipstream of southern Californian air sliding past him. Yes, David admitted to all that. David had attained that zen-dog-being-present-being-here-now state and he hadn’t even been trying to do it.

Until a few seconds ago.

Now, well, now there was a certain amount of pain. These dramatic emotional pendulum swings from omnipotent giddiness to bankrupt desperation (and back again) were killing him. They’d kill anyone. They were even worse with a headache. He was obviously losing his mind. But in his own gnarly, twisted way David was enjoying them, and he would keep on enjoying them, (yes he would, Elizabeth), no matter what anyone had to say about it. He was alive. And he was living. Which sometimes wasn’t the same thing.

He wasn’t’ lit or drunk. There wasn’t really all that much monoxide flowing his way. His consumption of Mountain Dew had been practically nonexistent this morning. No, he was free. And he felt like laughing. So he did.

O.K. He wished Elizabeth next to him, right here, pedaling, squinting into the sun, shaking her head of long brown hair at him. He imagined his right hand running down the side of Elizabeth’s face (somehow miraculously, the two of them, riding their bikes in a straight line, avoiding clueless car drivers, and gazing deep into each other’s eyes, all at the same time). They would struggle to climb to the top of this hill. They would laugh. He would trace the soft mound of skin along her cheeks, drop back over her chin with the knuckles of his fat, knobbly rock-climbing fingers, rest the back of his hand gently, carefully, just for a second, in that small valley tucked neatly into her slim throat. She liked that, usually, and uh, then, well, trailing his little finger lightly across her neck, yeah, maybe, feeling a trembling in her muscles as he brushed along the arch of her shoulder, then her back, then losing his fingertips in her dark hair, brushing her brown eyes, well, she’d have to close her eyes for that, right? They couldn’t be riding bikes for that. Maybe they’d stopped and were resting at the top of the hill by that point.

He wanted her. Didn’t he? Yeah. Of course he did. Who wouldn’t? A girl like Elizabeth? He wanted to tell her how he felt. He wanted to share his dog freedom with her, his dog day, his dog life. He wanted and wanted and wanted it. But he couldn’t have it.

He couldn’t?

What was happening to him?

Yeah, right, he could never tell her about all of this, about any of this. Ever. What exactly was there to tell? Elizabeth didn’t even like to ride bikes.

But he had to tell someone, somehow, there had to be some way of getting it out of his head or his head would burst into pieces and his heart would jump out of his chest all on its own. It could get pretty messy if he didn’t do something quick.

But who?

Oh yeah, David wanted to shout, wanted to yell, to eavesdrop, to overhear, to rubberneck, he wanted to be everywhere at once, listening in on everyone and everything.

O.K. He wanted Michael (his best friend) next to him. Cool. Right now. Yup. That would work. He wanted to share the hot pressure of open falling sunlight pushing on your head and arms, the cool weight of a sluggishly approaching evening rolling over you, sounds of pedestrians blabbing, radios blaring, friends guffawing, kids and parents and grandparents asking about each other’s days and not listening to the answers. He wanted all of it. All the usual stuff.

He wanted life and living and people living their lives all around him, and by him, and through him and on top of him and underneath him. He wanted all that. All at once. Right now. Right here.

He saw himself and Michael, Michael with his aw shucks expression, shaking his head, watching David dance around a stop light on his bike – one-wheeling it.

Yeah. That’s how it would be. That’s exactly what he’d be doing if Michael were here.

But Micheal wasn’t.

And where was this Michael anyways?

Who cares?

David was free. He was crazy, yes, and like all good things there was bound to be a morning after with all kinds of consequences, all right, he gets it, but he just couldn’t take tomorrow very seriously just now. Not now. Not today. Most definitely not today.

Doesn’t he deserve a few hours off from worrying? A break? A little one? Everybody deserves a break, right?

He stopped laughing for a second (why was he laughing?- he couldn’t remember – and his forehead ached) still pumping away uphill, still not watching for the top and started humming to himself, off-key, as usual, as was his David-custom.

But the sun was hot on his legs which felt good, and the laughter wouldn’t stay shut, locked away like it was supposed to, and he started honking out his happy-laugh maybe a little too enthusiastically and scared the shit out of the guy driving the big white pickup sitting next to him waiting for the light to change, who hammered on his horn, bawled out some injury in Spanish and accelerated off in a shower of gravel and exhaust up and over the ever-nearer top of the hill. David could hear Michael’s patient but entertained voice in his head “Pedal on, bro, pedal on” that was what Michael’s advice would be, and David would have to admit that, yes, that was good advice, as was usual, from the Great Miguellator, so on David went, pedaling on.

He balanced on his bike at a stoplight, bouncing up and down, letting his bike oscillate between his knees, glanced at his wrist and he saw that he was more than an hour late.

How in the hell had that happened?

Well he knew, yes. But no, he didn’t want to think about it.

David, boy, you know Elizabeth will not be pleased.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Actually, David just needed to talk to someone – Fuck, he was in a mess – he and Michael, they always told each other everything, well, almost everything, well, a lot of stuff, a lot of shit, but, well – nah, Michael was his co-pilot, his sidekick, a great guy, who wouldn’t think so? – Michael was his good bud, and he had been a more than reasonably adequate guy to share an apartment with, before David had found his own place, before David had met Elizabeth, before David had all this other stuff start happening.

Nope, not going to think about it.

Yeah, even if Michael DID leave dishes in the sink for days at a time supposedly “soaking”, it was nice to come home to somebody, have someone to hang with. He could hang with Michael. He could talk to Michael. He could call right now. Right this very minute.

But no, David couldn’t talk to Michael about all this. Not this. Not what had just happened. Could he?

Could he?

No.

You’re thinking about it. Stop.

But…

He could talk to Tobi about it?

Nah. Not even. He could hear Tobi’s embarrassed silences as clearly as he could the ambulance siren racing up the hill behind him, clearer even. No. No Tobi.

You’re thinking again. No thinking. None. Especially about Tobi.

Tobi.

He pulled himself vertical at the thought, or the non-thought, standing on his pedals, a little too enthusiastically and swerved and jerked (so surprised he forgot to put is feet down) almost hitting a parked car and stupidly careening out into traffic, which caused a small cascade of car horns to erupt, crescendo, and die away and also caused a traffic jam behind him as cars slowed down and abruptly made way, detouring around this suicidal mountain bike rider in the middle of a hill waiting for the light to change.

That was stupid, David. That’s how dead happens. That, dear audience, David reminded himself, was the quickest way to transform a living biker into a memorial of flowers and lit candles on a street corner some night surrounded by a bunch of really sad biker friends. Besides, he barely knew Tobi, he’d just met him today at the gym.

He started across the intersection, got partway up the next hill. Then his cell phone started ringing. It was an odd ring, a new ring. His cell was obviously dying. But that was the least of David’s problems, right?

“Shit (that had to be Elizabeth) Shit. Gotta think. Gotta be sharp. Shit.”

In one motion, he dropped into a sub-walking gear with a thumb-click and reached into his sweatshirt to pull out his cell knowing full well he ought to pull over and stop to talk, but rationalizing he really, really needed to make up for lost time and fast and get home pronto. Dead and fucked. Dead and fucked. But wasn’t he in enough trouble as it was?

Yeah, but… Actually he was too keyed up to stand still right now. He wanted his lungs to fill to bursting and his legs to cramp. He needed something to do, something to feel, something to move towards, something to hit hard, something to ricochet against. He also wanted everything finished, now, all at once. Let it all happen. Let’s get it all over with. Let’s do it. He wasn’t asking for all that much. The back of his head hurt. He realized he was glaring at a stoplight. Furiously.

Then, David chuckled (great! the giggling again), and he smothered a laugh into the receiver as he held it up with his right hand, balancing upright on his bike one-handed, going uphill again and entering a turn lane at the next crowded intersection. He was going to get arrested, for sure.

David (foolishly, casually, he didn’t really want to know, did he?) glanced down at the caller ID, and promptly let go off his front wheel, barely catching himself as he started doing a header over his handlebars onto the trunk of a parked car on the corner.

It was a call from himself.

“Hello?” he said maybe a little too loud, frowning, not moving forward anymore, feet pressed onto his pedals, balancing the bike back and forth, right and left, and alternately holding the cell to his ear and then holding the cell out in front of his disbelieving eyes to see if his own name and his own number were still flashing encouragingly back at him. He vaguely heard cars honking in the background. He backed up, bouncing halfway onto the sidewalk. He heard sounds that sounded like something resembling words while he was doing all that.

“What the fuck are you playing at?”

An irritated, very small (but tantalizingly, strangely familiar) voice bubbled up over the sound of cars speeding to get past David, a long line of cars revving up the hill to make the light before it changed. Well, at the very least, David wasn’t hearing his own voice calling himself. That was a good start, Right?

“Check your fucking pockets dude, shit! Ain’t you got any brains at all?”

David’s frown got deeper, then disappeared, replaced with a broad shit-eating grin (he knew that voice) as he pulled his bike up over the curb, onto the sidewalk and under a particularly large and delaminated Eucalyptus, reaching into the pocket of his black hoodie (wait, this wasn’t even his black sweatshirt, it was really kind of a dark, dark purple and it was supernaturally clean) and pulling out a strange, fluorescent green-yellow, not-David-owned wallet. His smile evaporated. A worried, nervous frowning expression began to take shape on David’s face.

He stuck a dangling cord (the phone’s headset/earbuds) into both ears so he could get cussed out properly (if it was going to get done, it may as well get done right – something David’s dad always said, well, years ago before he disappeared leaving David all on his own, to sort out his life’s problems all by himself), and David started looking at the glowing, trendy sport-wallet in his hand. What the fuck? Did David sleep-snatch? Was he an involuntary wallet-magnet?

A license showing through a scratched plastic cover on the top said Gustavo Gutierrez, the rest was in elegant, official Spanish, and the photo was so fuzzy it could be almost any guy with spiky black hair in his early 20’s, even David himself. Hmmm.

Yeah. He knew the score. It definitely was exactly who he thought it was. It was him. Him. David found himself smiling, against his better judgment. Him. He started laughing again. His head hurt.

The voice was Tobi. The picture was Tobi. It was all Tobi. Tobi. Tobi. Tobi.

A memory of smooth, olive skin, hard back muscles, round buttocks, a devious, evil-looking smile under two disconcerting, innocent coffee-colored eyes washed over David and swamped him, pulling him completely under and burying him. The scenes playing in his head hit him and had him the way one of those unexpected huge waves gets you. You know, the kind that sometimes a guy gets in a set at the beach on a day you thought was calm and a total waste, surf-wise, which surprise and amaze you – a monster wave you can climb out onto and snap into and ride for what seems like hours.

This wave carried David away. He let it. It was the second time Tobi had done that to him. Tobi was the guy David had just spent the wildest 120 minutes of his life with, the guy whose phone number was in his back pocket. That Tobi. The Tobi.

The 1,000 watts of pure David happiness beaming out through his incisors filled a smile that hurt David’s face. It was actually kind of embarrassing. But he couldn’t stop it.

“How you gonna get my stuff back to me, huh, Jimmie?” said Tobi – it sounded as if he was in a big echoing metallic place, the insides of a forty-foot high tin can. But David remembered, his cell never did pick up very well.

“That’s David, the name’s David, Tobi. And who’s this Gustavo dude? You told me your name was Tobi”

David wasn’t smiling anymore, the frown was back, the headache was worse. Yeah, maybe it had been too good to last.

Then bam! Something exploded right next to him, literally right fucking next to him.

The headset tore at his ears as he jumped at least three feet into the air. Athletic, even for David. “Shit! Fuck!” Some scrawny, young, buzz-cut guy with a skateboard had run quietly up behind him, thrown down his board right next to David with an echoing crash – a gunshot – and rolled like hell downhill, a short, blond bullet crouching and laughing, disappearing neatly at the bottom (with a whooshing sound as he skidded sideways on the gravel) into an alley on the left. David flung his hand up to give him the finger and neatly tossed Tobi’s phone into oncoming cars in the process.

Part of him was cool as a cucumber. That was interesting, David. How did you manage that? But he didn’t stay cool for long. No.

He wrenched himself sideways, desperately managing, just barely, to slap the cellphone with his other hand towards the street curb (missing the windshield of a surprised and irritated Fiat driver) imitating a volleyball professional punching an invisible ball over an invisible net in a spectacular save at a Pacific Beach All-Pro Invitational tournament. The driver wasn’t impressed. She was actually quite angry. David realized he was pointing his middle finger directly at her. She gave him the finger back, as did the woman sitting next to her, and the two of them accelerated on into the rest of their lives.

The earbud’s wires snapped his head upwards and backwards – the wires, of course following the phone’s rapid course changes. David ending up stumbling downwards and forwards, falling over and through his own bike, skipping lightly and desperately on his tip toes, trying like anything to keep from crash landing on his own face in the gutter (and looking, he supposed, to the random citizen pedestrian on the street, to be a scruffily dressed, attention-loving, wannabe diva ballerina choreographing with mountain bikes for some kind of performance art). It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. But David wasn’t trying for pretty. He was aiming at living. And no surgery.

He continued, stumbling, falling completely over the sidewalk, and loudly deposited himself at considerable speed into a trash-filled bed of scraggly, city-maintained ice plant, in which he promptly skidded to a long, lubricated, sliding stop on his knees and his face. At that point he fell backwards, and with a few choice obscenities, plopped down on his ass.

The phone was gone. The headset was nowhere to be seen. David’s ears ached, as if he’d had some kind of impromptu ear canal elective surgery. On top of everything else, someone couldn’t stop laughing behind a garage halfway down the hill. The laughter sounded blond and young. David tried not to listen to it.

For a moment everything was quiet (well, as quiet as a busy city intersection during the daily evening gridlock could be, even with a laughing garage in the background). Then, David noticed what seemed to be a talking weedy plant standing in the aforesaid city-funded landscaping sticking upwards into the evening sunlight in green prickly defiance. There were sounds coming out of cracks in the sidewalk.

“What the fuck? You still here, bro? Jimmie? What the fuck?”

David, grimacing and squinting, navigated his way on all fours towards the sound, echo-locating it – a bat hunting a moth in the night – swerving his head this way and then that way and then this way again. In the distance, downhill, he heard more of the faraway laughter. A bleating cube of metal found its way into one of David’s bleeding hands and he placed it carefully on one of his throbbing, bleeding ears. His hand felt wet. He wiped it off without thinking on his pants and left a long red-black streak on his new cargo pants. He closed his eyes, shaking his head, trying to concentrate.

“Yeah? Tobi? Gustavo? Gus-tobi? What? Motherfucking what? What do you want?”

“Hey, pues Jimmie, you know man, you gotta do what you gotta do – I mean, it’s all me man – Gustavo, Tobi, it’s all good man. I’m called Tobias, dude, named the same as my father’s brother. Gustavo’s the ID I use up here in the states, but Tobi’s the real thing. I told you true, man. I didn’t lie – would I lie to you Jimmie? Would I? Why would I lie, Jimmy? So, dude, you know, I’d love to sit back and shoot the shit and all, boss, all day, but I really need to get somewhere quick and I really need to get my stuff back, man, so, how soon can you …”

David put the cell down for a second, down by his waist. Distant laughing was intermittent now, punctuated with an amazed mumbling as if someone was telling a really funny story to another someone who really wanted to hear it, and the story was turning out to be too good to be true, and then… Then, there were two people laughing, no maybe three or four.

Cars swooshed by. David was kneeling and bleeding on the sidewalk. He sighed and looked at the phone, and then inexplicably, he felt happy. Out of nowhere.

O.K. All right.

David was talking to Tobi again. It was exciting. O.K. Tobi’s voice was exciting. The fact that David was holding Tobi’s cell was exciting. That round behind of Tobi’s was exciting. No. This was too much. Loco. That’s what it was. That’s what Tobi had been whispering to him, sometimes yelling in David’s ear, over and over again an hour ago or so ago – mi juero loco. David wondered what it meant exactly. It had to be a compliment, right? He shook his head. Loco.

A tiny Tobi rattled on and on, somewhere down in the vicinity of David’s kneecap.

“…and I’ve got no money on me, and I mean no money, bro, none, nada, zero and by the looks of your wallet bro, you’re as broke with a wallet as I am without one, not saying you’re…”

David opened his mouth to say something. Then it dawned on him. Tobi had his wallet.

“…and all, so yeah, so when can you get my shit back to me? Bro? Hello? Anyone there? Jamie? I need my junk back. And vice versa, man. You need yours. I told you I got someplace I gots to be boy and right now. So, without you, dude, I’m up the fucking creek without the fucking paddle. No way of getting there. So what do you want to tell me, boy? Huh? Hello?“

Tobi started hearing a laugh. It was a laugh, a dangerous laugh, that David had just heard under entirely different circumstances a half hour before – a laugh which had gotten him into all kinds of trouble. It was a kind of knowing, beckoning, welcoming, low and sexy rumble that made David’s knees go all watery and his eyes glaze over and his breathing go all funny. The feeling a hypnotized bird gets faced by a hungry snake. Yeah, David was fucked. Just fucked. As usual.

Tobi continued to kind of laugh and talk and laugh and talk all at the same time (something Tobi was especially good at, David couldn’t get enough of it) and David couldn’t put the phone down even if he’d wanted to – which he didn’t.

“And you must be a popular boy – you’ve gotten like three phone calls in the last ten minutes – someone named Elizabeth keeps on calling you, and a guy named – wait a sec, here it is – Michael. He your boyfriend, Jimmie? You got a boyfriend you not telling me about, Jimmie? Ha! Hey, live and let live, that’s what I say. You do what you gotta do, right? But back to me, Jimmie boy, we gotta…”

Fucked. David took a deep breath and started talking.

“Look, I’m David OK? And I don’t have a couple of names the way some people do. It’s David, just David. D. A. V. I. D. David.”

It was babbling, he knew it, but he couldn’t help it.

“And don’t answer my phone. OK? Never. As in not ever. Especially Elizabeth, all right? All right? Toe bee? (Tobi was still laughing, he didn’t stop, he always had a great a time, apparently). David tried to sound severe and angry. It wasn’t working. David could not get enough of Tobi’s voice. He loved it. It was honey dripping into his ears, as his brains oozed out at the same time. He was smiling his idiot’s smile. He was. He could feel it from the inside. God help him.

Wasn’t he supposed to be doing something right now? He couldn’t remember. Well, for one, he should get up off of his knees and stop imitating a coffee table. Where was his bike?

“Yeah, Tobi, yeah, look I know, but…”

Tobi, of course, interrupted him as if he wasn’t even talking.

Maybe he didn’t hear David. Maybe the chain lubricant that David had dropped the phone into that morning had finally lubricated its way into a critical cellphone chip location and his phone was drastically if not terminally ill. Maybe.

Or maybe Tobi was an unstoppable force.

“Right, right, Davy I got you – no boyfriend, a girlfriend. It’s cool. I’m down with that. Swing both ways. Got it, bro, got it. But I have to say it, man, I gotta say bro, when you swing you really know how to swing. I mean, I’m going to be sore for a week. Ay! You something else. The gift that keeps on giving. But I’m sure you hear that all the time, huh? Davy boy? Anyways, I bet, Davy, I bet you want your phone back safe and sound, don’t you?. We both want our phones back. Yeah, we got that in common, yeah, that and a whole lotta other things.”

The last comment started Tobi up laughing again. This time it didn’t stop for a while. David hung there waiting, miserable, face blushing, wanting to hang up, but unable to stop the flow of sweet Tobi out from the phone speaker, through his bleeding ears, into David’s waiting brain where the poor neurons were being continually massaged into a hormonal mush the likes of which he hadn’t thought possible before. Yes, he was fucked. Well and truly. It was scary, actually.

“You want to get your phone (which is kind of crappy bro, I gotta say it – you need a new phone man), so do I, Davie, so do I. I mean I want my own phone back as well. I like my phone fine – you ought to look at getting one just like mine – I got it cheap, man. I can show you where you can get a cell half off every day of the week. Anytime. There’s this store. My cousin’s the manager. Your wallet, your hoodie, I want all my shit back as well, so bro, we got a deal, huh? Davy? When and where stud? When and where?”

David was distracted (if it were possible for him to be even more distracted than he already was) by the sound of rifle shots, which were actually approaching skateboard wheels on uneven sidewalk, pushing, apparently, energetically and heroically uphill. He didn’t dignify the sound by turning around. He did, however, keep his peripheral vision on Level Red, Full Alert – just to be on the safe side.

After a quick agreement to meet back at Tobi’s hotel room, the earlier crime scene of the two hour long “swinging” session, David pedaled, thoughtfully, back down the hill, observing the city life around him, and pumping his wiry body steadily and purposefully towards downtown and the hotel.

His back, his neck, his shoulders were both relaxed and tensed. It was a weird feeling. Whatever it meant, it felt good. But, David was definitely fucked.

He rode. He stopped. He dialed his voice mail. He started riding again slowly, partly watching for buzz-cut kamikaze skate boarders, unconsciously eagle-eyeing it for the occasional but deadly flapping-driver’s-side-door (eager to open and slam him into the emergency room), but mostly he was thinking. David spent what little mental energy he had available on trying to whip together a reasonable explanation for his being a couple of hours late for dinner with his Elizabeth.

Nothing came to mind. His mind was nothing. It was empty and it echoed. Not good.

He stopped and called Elizabeth, (what the hell?) figuring on winging it like he usually did (even though it usually sank him almost irretrievably into even more trouble – but David was an incurable optimistic), he got her voice mail multiple times.

Then a figurative pitcher-full of ice water poured down his figurative back, right in the middle of sliding through an intersection.

And what about David’s phone? Why was David using a stranger’s cell phone, some guy named Tobi – or Tobias – or would it show up as Gustavo? – of course it would – what was he going to say to Elizabeth? What? What?

Fuck! Shit. Shit. Shit.

He had so much explaining to do in his near future. So much. Too much. Way too much.

The first person David had to explain all this to was David himself. Explain? Explain what was going on? David didn’t know. David didn’t know what was happening to David anymore. And if David didn’t know, how would he make anyone else understand it, so they’d know? Did anyone else know? Did they understand it? Did they? If someone did, please, tell him. As soon as possible. Please.

Bro. Bro. Calm it down. Twitch the old stress-volume knob down a notch or two. A little slower, now. A little easier. Smooth. Comfortable. Right. Like that. The very first thing to do, bro, the very first thing is you’ve got to do is figure it all out. Figure what you think it means yourself. Get it straight. So to speak. Yeah. Whatever. Whatever that is. He had no idea anymore.

What do you want, David? Where are you going, David? What in the fuck do you think you are you doing, David?

Nothing. Nothing came to mind. The universe, apparently, wasn’t going to go all soft and slow and comfortable for him. Not for David. Not today.

And David’s night was just about to begin.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Friday 6:41 PM

 

David hadn’t gotten very far down the hill, going back the way he’d come, before messages on his voice mail he’d dialed into had him biking in slow circles, one-handed, in a 7-Eleven parking lot. The more he listened, the slower he felt himself pedaling. Slower. And slower. So slow, eventually the slow pretty much became a stop, and he was standing still. A car waiting to park eventually honked at him. David didn’t hear it. He was staring sightlessly straight ahead of himself (he seemed to be doing a lot of that today), moving jerkily backwards and forwards, balancing on his bike, bouncing his front wheel once a second against a pink, graffiti-covered wooden fence on the far side of the store’s parking lot. He closed his eyes.

Above the messages, David could hear a kind of scuffling going on behind the fence every so often. It sounded adolescent and malevolent. No. Not again. He didn’t particularly want to know at the moment, just what surprises the fence might have in store for him. And because he didn’t, he wouldn’t. Besides being inconvenient, paranoia was exhausting. Instead, he listened carefully to small, tinny, urgent voices called to him plaintively from what was fast becoming a glass and plastic oblong David-torture device.

For some reason, new messages for David were showing up on Tobi’s cell phone preceded by a tiny trumpet fanfare, the sound of a large number of insanely energetic snapping fingers and what sounded similar to a Russian Men’s Chorus chanting “Ha! Cha!” in a kind of Forties Swing Beat. The car honked at David again. From the perspective of the many and frequent shoppers at the convenience store, it looked as if David was doing some kind of spontaneous Urban Public Performance Art, bouncing and dancing his bike against the pink fence. Most shoppers didn’t look very much as if they were enjoying it.

David ignored their shaking heads. He did move his bike a little farther down a pothole-filled alley, away from the parking lot and their pointed stares, and the inconvenienced honking, and continued bouncing satisfyingly into the fence over and over again with an audible ka-chunk, sometimes in time with the Men’s Chorus, sometimes in a kind of syncopated beat, as he ducked and flinched his way through his unretrieved voicemails.

A familiar voice hit his eardrums. It startled him, he jerked back, and the new scab on his ear started bleeding again.

“Baby, this is Elizabeth, Could you pick me up a little sooner than we’d planned? I need to stop on the way and grab something at the drugstore – like maybe 5? See you in a couple of hours, Baby.

“Davie, this (static) your dad. I know it’s been a couple of years, well, more like, well, – fifteen maybe? – shit, that long? Well… (long pause) (static) fucking small town airports (static) cell towers, never (static).”

“Davie, dad. I don’t know if this thing is recording or not (static) but (static), I have (static) and, so you have (static).”

“(static) what do you mean, hold my hand out the window, fuckin’ ridiculous every single time you need to (static).”

“Dave, it’s Elizabeth. So tell me, just when were you thinking you’d pick me up? I’ve been waiting out here for half an hour. Can we even get there by 6? I’m getting worried. You’ve got me worried, Baby. It’s, let’s see, it’s 5:36 now. Dave? Are you OK? I hope everything’s all right. So, I’m outside in front of my apartment. Waiting. Like I said. God! I hope nothing’s happened to you. OK. Well, all right. Looking for you. Is that you? Dave? No? Well. I’ll see you soon, right? I hope. Call me. As soon as you get this. Well, Bye.”

“Like this? Over here? Yeah. O.K. All right. Yeah, there’s one bar. Fuckin’ crazy. Hope you can hear this, Davie, I flew in from Vegas, and have a layover in San Diego for a couple of hours (static) need to talk to you. Face to face. I’ll (static) past Security in Terminal 3 around 6 tonight. That’s today bud. See (static) there (static) fuckin cell (static), my arm’s only so long, (static).”

“All right Dave, what’s going on? I walked over to your apartment, and your car is here, but you’re not. Your phone works. Your friend Michael says you were on your way home. So where are you? We’re all here. Where are you?”

“(static) FUCK (static).”

“Dave old chum, old pal of mine, Sir Michael here. No biggie, just thought I’d give you the heads up. I don’t know if you know, but Elizabeth’s been buzzing your door and mine for a few minutes. She’s sitting down on our front steps. Exactly, precisely, right in front. Sitting there. Blocking the front door. She doesn’t look very happy. Not a happy camper, D. I’d buckle the armor on if I were you, maybe wear a fire-proof suit. Just a friendly F.Y.I. dude. Good luck man.”

“End of new messages.”

“Shit. Shit. Shit.”

And just like that, David was pumping out of the parking lot, heading back towards the hill again, faster, much faster this time. The street and the hill were nauseatingly familiar. Maybe it was just that David felt nauseous. It was all starting to feel Obsessive-Compulsive. A young David, doomed by his inner (and outer) demons, is forced forever to ascend and descend the same San Diego hill, day after day, year after year. Can no one stop him? Does no one care?

He breezed through intersection after intersection. He hardly saw the intersections, to be honest. Sure, he was heading in the opposite direction of Tobi’s hotel and the waiting Tobi, and sure, it was the wrong direction for his long-lost, forgotten waiting parental unit, sitting in an airport cell-phone hole somewhere at San Diego International, but it was in exactly the right direction for his car and for Michael’s apartment, and his apartment, and the waiting Elizabeth.

One out of three. That was the best he could do for now.

When was it all going to stop? When would it slow down? When could he figure out what was happening to him and at him and to him? Was a little clarity so much to ask?

A familiar, buzz-cut head peered out from behind a garage on an oddly familiar alley as David swung by. David cut a fat tire track across some anemic grass, jumped a curb, and hit the next street flying, missing the alley entirely. The head had a surprised, disappointed look about it and David saw what resembled a pail of water sloshing about in two hands thrust suddenly back behind the fence. He heard yelling and a metal bashing sound. Mr. Buzz-cut stared yearningly after him, shirt and pants wet as David propelled himself spectacularly out of range. David gave him one cool backward glance, and allowed himself the smallest of victory smiles. This period: Bikers 1, Skaters 0.

And he pedaled on.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Friday 6:49 PM

 

David lived in a converted bowling alley. It’s last name had been The Turquoise Desert Family Recreation Center, and before that something about starlight and blue moons (you used to be able to see the burnt out neon signs hanging from the roof), but it had been semi-abandoned for years, sold to condo developers and turned into a mixed-use project with signature, genuine, pre-distressed hardwood floors, courtesy of the ex-bowling lanes. People said it was haunted. But people said a lot of things. Parts of it were fussily fancy. However, David (and Michael) didn’t live in the many-and-large-windowed condos facing the inner courtyard with Plaza De Taos ornamental balconies and pleasingly cracked adobe-like colonial arches with genuine Tuscan columns and heavy, red, ceramic roofs running everywhere over every possible roof-like surface.

No, they didn’t live there.

David and Michael lived in the low-income section set aside in the third floor efficiencies over the alley facing north in the shadowy backside of the former bowling lanes that the condo developer had been forced to offer for the financially embarrassed. Basically their whole section of the building had the appearance of a structure that had been constructed hurriedly from miscellaneous contents of returns and discount bins at the local Home Depot.

Except they did have gorgeous blond hardwood (pre-distressed) floors throughout their tiny floor plans. But really, David wasn’t complaining. It was a great place. And the price was right.

David wheeled his bike slowly along the back alley, threading his way on a path through the cacti and the xeriscaped stony desert garden at the back of the condos and held his breath as he neared the side path that led through the elaborately sculptured Alhambra Gate into the courtyard. He started to cross the open space, and froze (luckily) when he sensed a distant gravel path crunching under an impatient foot some distance away. He peered carefully through a round, rod-iron, flower-encrusted hole on one side of the gate and held his breath.

He could see Elizabeth pacing, back and forth only ten yards away. He’d never seen her pace before. Although, to be honest, Elizabeth looked great – pacing and stopping and looking around, her dress kind of clinging to the various ample curves on her body in a wet t-shirt kind of way. Or more likely, David thought on closer observation, clinging in a bent-out-of-shape-beside-oneself-sweaty-just-run-a-number-of-blocks kind of way. But still, Elizabeth looked great.

As she stepped four times and turned, stepped four times and turned in a hazy golden sunset wash of light, David was able to admire and enjoy her – what a lucky guy he was – the crushed rocks on the path crackling underneath her angry feet, her constant spinning and strutting really setting her dark hair whipping back and forth, her hair cascading actually in long waves over her shoulders in a movie-sexy way all in slow motion each and every time she spun on a high heel and reversed direction. Yes, it was beautiful. She was beautiful.

She was going to kill David. He knew it.

He lifted up his bike and held both wheels so not even the turning gears would make a sound, and padded across the open space in front of the gate, still holding his breath. Nothing. The crunching continued, and although he couldn’t be sure, he thought he could her Elizabeth muttering something (probably un-ladylike and certainly uncomplimentary to David) to herself now and again as she walked and turned, walked and turned. David let out a little air. He took a little in. He tensed and got ready to act.

He pulled out his (well, Tobi’s) cell, and quietly dialed Mike’s number, pressing his back against the back wall of the apartment, but before he could connect, the phone practically jumped out of his hands lighting up with some kind of neon display on its side and blaring out (with pretty decent bass) “THAT’S the way uh-HUH, uh-HUH, I LIIIIIKE IT, uh-HUH, uh-HUH, Yes, THAT’s the way UH-HUH, UH-HUH” He jammed the phone into the front of his pants and with horror and despair heard footsteps come to a determined stop in the decomposed granite some thirty feet away.

A small voice complained into his crotch “Jimmie, I mean Davie, I mean, David, boss, you coming? I don’t have all day, dude. I told you, where the fuck…”

Fumbling in his front pants with both hands to silence the damn phone, he noticed he’d gotten the attention of a couple of his neighbors (the retired couple, Ed and Marie) looking out their condo’s corner back window through the black leaves and vines of a wildly exuberant rod-iron balcony overlooking the alley. They were looking at David. They were shaking their heads. Ed stuck his head out the window and was about to speak when David finally found a significant button (of some sort) and the voice on the telephone cut off in mid-profanity, allowing David to pull his hands out of his pants with a diminutive flourish and a great deal of what he hoped was wide-eyed innocence.

David smiled and waved to Ed who said something harsh back over his shoulder to Marie and then promptly closed their window with a bang. After the crash of the window, David heard gravel shifting and footsteps approaching. He threw himself and his bike behind the condo-wide communal dumpster, eclipsed by an enormous spray of almost iridescent purple-red bougainvillea. A bougainvillea thorn caught his pants and quickly, efficiently, almost surgically sliced most of one leg off of his shorts. The phone began to slide out of his pants. David froze. He heard a voice from across the courtyard.

“Davie is that you? Davie it’s Elizabeth. You remember, your girlfriend. The one you were going out with tonight. The one you’ve been going out with on Fridays for the last year. David! David? Are you there? David! Am I talking to myself? David?”

David punched his crotch repeatedly, finally managing to hit redial through the fabric of his shorts, and held the phone in his fist, bunched up with the slashed fabric in his shorts, trying to be still, to be as one with the alley, existing merely as an extension of his bike – just another piece of junk metal leaning against the smelly steel of the alley dumpster waiting for the good waste management people to carry him off to a new recycled life.

***

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Circles and Wheels

What can you learn about life from the city of San Diego - land of beaches, palm trees, mesas, waterless deserts and angels? This book of short stories attempts to answer that burning civic and personal question. What? What is there to learn? Angels are everywhere. In bowling alleys and department stores, on doomed European vacations and the tops of unlikely mountains. Drag Queens are everywhere. In sushi bar murders, in first-time love affairs, in condos and in taxis and just in general. Death is everywhere. In the light, in the dark, in the nostrils of deities. Life is everywhere. In kidnapping the handicapped, in terminal diseases, in haunted public transportation. Circles and wheels are everywhere. That is, if you know where to look for them. San Diego’s a good place to start.

  • ISBN: 9781311215789
  • Author: Anders Flagstad
  • Published: 2015-09-09 01:20:09
  • Words: 144833
Circles and Wheels Circles and Wheels