Thursday, January 26, 2012
“Yes… it belonged to my father… and to my mother after he left us. My father left it with me but I didn’t want it. I gave it to her. He used to keep pictures in there. It’s the only thing I have from my parents… or from my childhood for that matter. I used to hate it when I saw my mother coming at me with it in her hands… it meant I was in for one of her long reading sessions from the Old Testaments. I thought about throwing it away more than once, or at least hiding it from her. Now I’m glad I didn’t.”
I picked up it up thumbing through the tissue-thin pages. It was chock full of old pictures. I picked one out at random… a little boy maybe eight years old wearing a cowboy hat and a holster with a toy gun with his arm around a little girl a few years younger who was dressed like an Indian. They both stood smiling self-consciously into the camera. I looked from the picture to Billy and back at the picture.
“Is this you?” I wondered, showing it to him.
“I think so…” he said, turning the picture over. The year 1983 was written on the back. “I don’t know who that little girl is though… she seems so familiar…”
“You were such a cute kid,” I laughed, taking the picture from him and placing it back where it came from. “And my God but how you’ve grown into such a handsome man! You have a way of making my toes quiver, Billy Austin.”
“I remembered who that little girl was in the picture you showed to me,” Billy told me later that night while we lay tangled in each other’s arms and legs and blankets. “She was my sister.”
“So you have a sister!” I said, sitting up to look at him. “What’s her name?”
“Her name was Pearl… Pearl Ann… that’s what I would call her when she aggravated me… little sisters can do that, I suppose.”
“Where is she now?” I wondered.
“She died when she was seven years old. She got sick and never recovered. My parents didn’t take her to the doctor… I guess they didn’t have the money… or maybe my mother thought prayer would heal her. She was a very religious woman… she believed that the power of God resided in everything and if a person was devout enough, God would take care of them.”
“I’m sorry, Billy,” I told him. “That’s so sad.”
“I used to take care of her when she was little. I wasn’t much older than her but no one else would do it. I tried to make sure she had clean clothes to wear to school. I had to wash them out by hand in the sink and hang them up to dry. I didn’t care so much about my clothes but I knew how I got teased for wearing dirty stuff to school and I didn’t want her to go through that.
“We’d have to be careful around my father. He’d get drunk and the tiniest thing would set him off. We used to hide in closets and play games… just the two of us. At night we slept in the same bed and we’d whisper each other to sleep… at least I whispered her to sleep. Most nights I couldn’t get to sleep. I’d just lay there staring up at the ceiling thinking that there must be some kind of magic in the world and if I could only learn how to do it I might be able to wish us both away to somewhere warm where there was plenty to eat and no one was ever mean to anyone else.
“She got sick one day. At first I thought she just had a cold… it was the dead of winter and the place we lived was never warm… the old radiator pipes rattled like something was inside trying to get out but whatever was in there sure wasn’t heat. My mother put Pearl to bed. At first she seemed to get better but then she started to cough. She couldn’t stop. She coughed so much that she vomited. I heard someone knock at the door and I thought it might be a doctor but instead a group of people all carrying bibles came into the bedroom and started praying over Pearl. They all looked up at the cracked ceiling like they could see God up there.
“While they were all praying I snuck off. I remember it was very cold outside… the wind was howling and snow was blowing sideways. I didn’t have a coat to wear. I put on several shirts and my jacket and my two pairs of pants and I walked eight blocks to the nearest drug store. The only stores in our neighborhood sold liquor. When I walked into the store there was a mean-looking woman behind the counter. She stared at me as if she knew I didn’t have any money. I walked around looking at kid stuff… you know… candy and toys and things like that… until another customer came in and distracted her.
“I went to the medicine aisle and stuffed bottles of cold and cough and flu remedy down my pants. I would have asked the lady if I could just have it but I thought she’d say no and I didn’t know of another drug store close by. I couldn’t take the chance. I walked home. By that time the snow had worsened and it was even colder. When I got home I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet and my nose and ears felt like bees were stinging them. I didn’t care. I just hoped the medicine would help make my sister well.
“All the prayer people were gone. No one noticed that I was missing… I heard my mother and father arguing in the kitchen… I couldn’t hear their words but they both sounded mad. I went to our bedroom. Pearl was breathing funny, like she had something in her throat and couldn’t cough it up. I warmed up the medicine by holding it against my stomach and then I gave her a spoonful like it said on the label. She was so weak she couldn’t raise her head. The medicine didn’t help. By morning she was dead.”
“I can’t believe your parents didn’t take her to the hospital,” I said, shaking my head. I had heard stories before of parents letting their kids die while trusting in the power of prayer but it never made sense to me. “They should have been arrested.”
“My father left a few days later, right after the funeral. I remember they didn’t have the money to buy a coffin. I heard someone pounding on something in the shed behind our apartment. When I peeked inside it was my father. He was drunk. He was using old plywood piled against the wall to build a coffin for Pearl to be buried in. He saw me and said come here you little son of a bitch. He always called me that. He made me hold the boards in place while he nailed them. He told me how my sister would be buried in a little graveyard just outside of the city in a small town where he had grown up… where his parents were buried and one of his brothers. He said to remember where it was because there was a grave waiting there for me too. He said that was the one thing I would need in life.”
“What a horrible thing to tell a little boy,” I said. There were tears in my eyes… I was shaking… I realized for maybe the first time that I wasn’t the only one of us who had a rough childhood… who had been terribly abused. “I’m so sorry, Billy.”
He pulled me close wiping away the tears rolling down my cheeks with the back of his hand. I laid my head on his chest, feeling it rise and fall like the ocean outside our window; listening to his gentle heart beating… neither of us said anything for a long time. I thought he had fallen asleep when he spoke again, very low, almost in a whisper, as if he might have thought I had fallen asleep too.
“I’d always been frightened of my father,” he said. “He never called me by name… he’d say get over here you little bastard… most times it was to give me a beating. I remember the last time I saw him… he came into my room with that old bible in his hands. I acted as if I was sleeping… I thought he might hit me with it. He stood by my bed for a long minute… I lay very still, not daring to move a muscle. And then he laid the bible down beside me and left. I never saw him again. I didn’t want the damned thing. I gave it to my mother. Sometimes I dream about that night, only I don’t act like I’m sleeping. Instead, I sit up and I say goodbye to him. And he says goodbye Billy.”
Thursday, January 19, 2012
The ocean changed its face as she drove north on the coastal highway… the peaceful Malibu Hills beaches giving way to craggy shorelines ravaged by raging waves. Allison had borrowed mom’s red Mercedes convertible and she drove with the top down, smelling the sea breeze and sometimes feeling the spray of water breaking on rocky cliffs. She drove slowly. The day started out splendid blue with patches of white clouds tinged gray at the edges turning cloudier as she made her way north.
She stopped at a High Tech Burrito joint for lunch. The girl behind the counter asked if that was her red Mercedes convertible in the parking lot. Allison said, “No, it’s my mom’s.” The girl seemed disappointed. A little later in the afternoon she felt tired and in need of a drink, stopping at the Costanoa lodge just outside Ano Nuevo. She called from the parking lot to make a reservation. Yes, we have a room available, the woman who answered told her. When the valet asked her if it was her car, she said yes, it is. He seemed impressed. She liked the look in his eyes. She told him to be careful with it and handed him a twenty dollar bill. He said, “Yes, ma’am,” and after unloading her luggage and taking the keys from her he drove it away, slow.
Once she settled her luggage in her room, she went to the bar. She was the only customer. The bartender asked to see her identification. He was very good looking with black wavy hair and a twinkle in his dark eyes. He said he was sorry but he didn’t want to be arrested for serving a minor. She laughed and handed him her driver’s license.
“You take a nice photo,” he said, handing it back to her. “What will it be?” She ordered a vodka martini with an olive. The bartender said they all come with olives. Allison blushed.
“I don’t go to many bars. I usually stay home and drink.” The bartender said that his name was David and that it was a good idea to stay home if you were going to drink. He said if she needed anything to just call to him and he walked to the other end of the bar and started wiping glasses and putting them upside down in a rack that hung from the ceiling.
She stayed a week at the Costanoa lodge. She tried to sleep with David the bartender on the fourth night she was there but he got angry when she told him he’d have to wear a condom and he lost his tiny erection, got dressed, and left, calling her a ball busting bitch. After that, she ordered room service and drank on the veranda overlooking the ocean. The sun seemed to melt orange into the waves as it set and the nights were chilly.
One morning she saw a familiar figure walking across the road to the tennis courts. He wore a white polo shirt and white shorts and carried an expensive-looking tennis racket. There was a beautiful girl walking alongside of him, their arms intertwined. She was positive it was Alex. She knew his walk… she knew the lines of his body even from a distance. But when she walked across the road and approached the couple now playing a lively game of tennis she realized she was mistaken. It might have been Alex’s twin but it wasn’t him… not unless he’d suddenly grown a few inches taller. The man, whoever he was, had noticed her watching him intently and took her interest to mean something else. He smiled at Allison and winked while the tennis ball struck him square in the chest. Allison couldn’t help laughing. As she walked away she noticed the man’s pretty playing partner apparently saw what was going on, walking to the net with words for the man that Allison couldn’t hear but she suspected they weren’t pleasantries.
“How’s the vacation going, sweetie?” mom asked when Allison called her as she had promised.
“It’s fantastic, mom… I’m staying in Ano Nuevo but tomorrow I’m driving north again. I love this coastline. It’s nothing like the beaches in Malibu Hills.”
“Me and Jamie are taking a break too,” mom told her. “I wanted to let you know we’ll be at the Downstream Casino in Laguna Beach. We’re driving down tomorrow. So if you get home and we’re not there, don’t worry.”
“I’m not going home for a while yet either, mom… I’m going to travel up the coast. I’ll call you again in a couple days.”
Allison drove a few hours stopping in Gualala at the North Coast Country Inn. The food was good but not like the dinners Jamie made. It tasted as if it had been prepared ahead of time and reheated. She only stayed the night there, preceding north on the coastal highway the next morning. She was hung over from having drunk way too much the night before and the motion of the car made her ill. She pulled off into a roadside park overlooking the ocean, got out of the car, and vomited into the weeds.
Kneeling in the sand the sun seemed much too bright, her head hurt, and she wished she had brought something along to drink. But she hadn’t. Looking down the coast she saw a brown two story building perched on the side of the ocean with what looked like a Budweiser sign lighted in the window. She got back in the Mercedes and steered it in that direction. She was right… it did say Budweiser in the window, and above the door a sign read Twenty Nine Katz Bar and Grill. What an odd name for a bar, she thought. But she needed a drink and this seemed as likely a place to get one as any. It was only ten in the morning but the place was open and she was thirsty.
She noticed a dark-haired woman looking at her from the back of the tavern… she was extremely attractive, older than Allison by a few years but that only added to her allure… she found herself wanting the woman terribly. Allison had never been attracted to the same sex before so it came as a bit of a shock to her that she could feel that way. Allison hoped she might see the woman inside as she parked the car to enter the tavern.
It was dim inside the tavern and it took Allison’s eyes a few moments to adjust from the sunshine outside. The place looked immaculate, as if it had been professionally renovated recently. A short older man stood behind the bar polishing the bar top. He nodded to Allison when she sat down on a bar stool.
“Could I have a Bloody Mary, please?” she asked the man.
“Hello, miss… I’ll need to see your identification first, please.”
Allison already had her driver’s license at the ready, handing it to the man.
“Allison Johns… twenty two years old,” the man said handing her license back to her. “I can’t be too careful… the local police are always sending in underage cadets to try and buy booze… and I must say, you don’t look your age, Ms. Johns… one Bloody Mary coming right up.”
As he prepared her drink Allison went to the restroom and brushed her teeth. She could still taste the vomit in her mouth. When she came out her drink was ready and the bartender had moved to the other end of the bar. He was still wiping down the counter. She tasted her drink wishing she had ordered a double… it was very weak. As she pulled the celery stick from her glass putting it to her lips to suck the juice from it the woman from out back walked into the tavern through a door in the rear.
She was even more beautiful close up… and Allison noticed the woman looking at her too, especially when she turned away. She was standing down the bar from Allison polishing glasses. The bartender nodded to the woman calling her over and he said something Allison couldn’t hear before disappearing through the same door in the rear of the tavern. She raised her glass to her lips and drained the last of her beverage.
“Hi… my name is Lisa,” the woman said as she walked up to Allison. “Can I get you another drink?”
“Hi Lisa… my name is Allison Johns… and I would love another drink… thank you. Could you make it a double this time?” Allison held out her hand hoping Lisa would take it. She did… and it seemed as if neither of them wanted to let go of the other’s hand. It was the longest handshake Allison could ever remember and yet when they did finally let go she thought how it didn’t last long enough.