“Feeling sorry’s an ugly color no matter who’s wearing it.”
They killed this dude Litivenko with a cup of tea. Sure he was a spy, but you can kind of wrap your mind around it. Some comrade claims to have valuable information, agrees to get on a plane and meet in London. A busy sushi place, hiding in plain sight. They have miso, the tuna roll, a piping hot cup of sencha—next thing you know, Litivenko’s dead. I wish someone cared enough to do the same to me, that I was woven into the equation that tight, but fuck it. It’s easier once you realize nobody cares. That you could just back up slowly in a packed jury room and slip out the door forever without a soul looking up from their phone. All these people narrating the trifling moments of their lives, poised to render judgement on some geeze who could get three-to-five just for holding and all they want to know is who’s spinning at Mighty that night. It’s a lousy feeling, right? To know you can disappear without anyone ever wanting to find you. Without having an enemy. I mean, it doesn’t have to be international intrigue, all that James Bond shit. No need to drag the KGB into the picture, but come on–there’s gotta be someone, anyone, who wants to throw you up against the wall screaming how you fucked up their life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all about malice. I’m equal opportunity—passion is passion. Maybe it’s a girl you dated when you lived that summer with your Nonna in Vallejo, she shows up at your door five years later and just wants to let you know that you were the most creative person she ever met. Maybe she tells you even though all her friends have three kids but are still too young to rent a car, that she’s a painter now living with a bunch of artists in that old rice factory on the west side and that it all came together the time you climbed over the gate spikes and scrambled up the bridge stanchion, the whole city blazing below, a sea of fuses spitting hope and you yelled release the kraken! See, it’s not all gloomy. A girl comes out of nowhere, sings the gospel, then disappears. What’s more capital than inciting a riot in someone?
But it didn’t happen like that. No, now you’re in the jury room and they’re calling names through a busted mic and you’re not on the list. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want to serve. Sit in a box and listen to each side playing chess while the old man next to me clears his throat eighteen times a minute. I’m not a fool. But still I’d like them to know that I’m a fair-minded person. That I wouldn’t let emotion get in the way. It’s a fucked-up sensation knowing they pick the guy with the waxed mustache and his pants tucked into his socks to make the call while you, no matter how much skin you’ve put into the game, you could just moonwalk straight out the door and security would be too busy talking up some white chick with mall bangs to notice.
You know what’s a shittier feeling? The one person who does care, we’ll call her Toni, she comes into the kitchen while you’re cooking arrabbiata and tells you straight up: she’s moving to Long Beach.
There are dudes who use maps and dudes who don’t. Gotta have a precise route, a script for all the nonsense, but when you ask them they say just playing it by ear, bro. I should have known. That map-fucker Roland was always lurking and Toni, she only mentioned his name when I pressed. I’d say something like the drug rep brought kebabs for the office today, huh? Guess Roland was the odd man out because I know Roland is a vegetarian, has that ashy look you get from washing pizza down with Muscle Milk. Toni would brush it off and say you know Roland, he barely comes out of his bunker. If I didn’t ask, you’d never know they worked elbow-to-elbow at Vista Radiology. That’s a red flag, man, when your girl doesn’t talk about somebody she sees every day. Like an alcoholic who pours himself a drink while he recites the headlines from his home page, small-talking a storm around the fact that it’s his sixth Jack of the night.
I don’t know, maybe that’s unfair. Maybe it’s my own shit. Toni, I can’t deny it, she’s unrivaled. When I was a kid, my dad told me about some famous racehorse who was so fast he never lost, and when he died they did an autopsy. Found out his heart was twice the size as normal. I always thought of Toni that way—a bigger heart than the rest. She even did that fundraiser, the triathlon for a cure. Had to learn how to ride a bike first because she grew up on a houseboat. Hard to find a real hippie in Sausalito these days, let alone second-generation. Her parents were pickers who escaped the Imperial Valley. They just said screw lettuce and hitched it north. The bike riding part, that was tough to watch because Toni is all legs, gangly to a fault, but she never let up. And she kicked ass at swimming, which makes sense her growing up on a boat and all.
Roland, on the other hand, that weasel grew up kissing asses and taking names. Kind of guy who nods while he pretends to listen, convinces you he’s convinced, then the moment you let down your guard you feel something sharp between your shoulder blades. Like that time at the retreat in Sonoma when Roland left me and his girlfriend by the pool, took Toni out to the tenth hole to show her how their boss had passed out in a golf cart. Fuck Roland, always making it out to be a private matter, an inside joke just for those privileged enough to be in the loop. Like me and his girlfriend wouldn’t want to see a pie-eyed rich dude drooling on his sweater vest.
If that wasn’t enough, at dinner Roland takes me aside, tells me he’d like to smoke, then when we find a private moment and I pass him the joint he says no thanks, brother, I need to be ready for the next chapter and I say the next chapter of what? and he says my life. If Toni can hear shit like that come out of Roland’s mouth all day and still not write him off, then I guess I’m misinformed.
Okay, I know. Gotta check my shit. Feeling sorry is an ugly color, no matter who’s wearing it. The bottom line is that all I really wanted back then was love. Get your ass beat for saying that out loud some places, but truth be told it’s all there is. Took me a while to admit it—I’m terrible on my own. One bad decision after the next, like that time I invested two months pay in Antoine’s bible herb company, thinking devout shoppers would want God to bless their bbq rub. Or the summer I convinced myself one of those chin-strap beards was a good look. Some people, they need solitude just to see straight, to sleep at night. They can close their eyes and let the dead air inspire any number of dreams. Get rich that way. But me, I need to hear the hydraulic brake chattering on the owl service bus at three a.m., let my leg rest heavy on Toni’s ass while I listen to her breathe so slow that I want to wake her up to make sure she’s still alive. Some of us, we need to be slapped with an ice cold hand now and again just to make sure we exist. Sounds crazy, but sometimes I feel like that. That I’m not here. And when you think you’re not here, you start seeing things that might not be what you think they are.
Toni, man, she was the first person I ever met who made it beyond the shadow. Made it clear that weight of being alive. Like the time we hiked out to Chimney Rocks and saw all the burned stuff in the clearing, all the cut flowers scattered in that sinister shape. We were freaked out it being so remote and all but Toni, she gave me this look, grabbed me by the hand and pulled me down and started kissing me.
Or that time Nonna caught fire. She’s dozing off in her chair in front of the fireplace and we hear a pop, all look up from the TV but don’t see anything. Then, a couple minutes later, smoke starts rising from Nonna’s head and I have to grab that Snoopy pillow and smother the ember on the back of her sweater. Laughing and crying shit, right? Like that show I saw on Discovery—ship drops anchor in some tropical bay with emerald green water, then you look up and see liquid fire rolling down the side of the volcano as it wipes out the village. Beauty and the beast all wrapped in one. With Toni, it was always the gravity of being alive without begging after it. Thing is, I should have waited to show up on Toni’s doorstep and tell her how much she meant. I should have, but it’s hard to hold back when you’re not really here.
Sometimes you bump into things you wish you didn’t. At first they seem unimportant, even funny. But they stick with you, lay dormant for a while then when the conditions are right they come to life and fuck with your head. I was waiting in line at Best Buy when this woman in front of me, a few years wiser and real pretty like she called her own shots, she tells her friend that she saw her husband trip and fall the other day. He didn’t know anyone was watching, took a hard tumble and rather than laugh it off, he got real angry. Throws a grade-A tantrum, kicks the ground in some useless attempt to teach it a lesson. The woman said having to witness that was a deal breaker—she lost her respect for good. Her friend told her that she was being extreme, that her husband was such a nice guy and the feeling would pass, but the woman was adamant. She said it would have been different if her husband knew she was watching but something about it being a private moment, a pure moment, shined a light on his true self. There was no putting the genie back in the bottle. She told her friend it was over as she dug around in her purse for her wallet.
I mean, I understand on a certain level. My father always told me it’s what you do when no one’s watching that matters, but it just doesn’t seem right. You take a tumble and that’s it? One and done? That’s alot of pressure. I always wondered if it would be that easy for Toni to issue my death sentence, but I could always laugh it off, convince myself it wouldn’t go down like that. Never in a thousand years did I think Toni had it in her to fall out of love, to ask the cashier for a gift receipt and walk out counting her change like it was nothing.
Toni wasn’t paddling. Should have seen the red flag, considering how outdoorsy she is. I had surprised her with what I figured was once-in-a-lifetime—kayak into McCovey Cove during the playoffs and try to shag a home run ball. The ballpark, it’s right on the water. You hit it deep enough over the right field wall, you get what’s called a splash hit. It was madness out there—alot of passive-aggressive types, even more beer. All the boats were in a swarm. If you capsized you didn’t need to know how to swim, it was that packed. The guy in the next boat over could finish shotgunning his Coors Light with one hand and drag you to safety with the other before your hair got wet.
I’ll never forget, there were these dudes in loin cloths blowing a conch shell and leading chants. They had a pig on a spit in their canoe, carved out a fat slice for anyone who could answer trivia questions about Orlando Cepeda. Then this guy on a paddle board dressed up as a panda went nuts, snapped off their outrigger because he thought it was taking up too much room and damned if he wasn’t going to retrieve a ball to commemorate.
So Toni and me, we’re in the thick of it. Behind us there’s this couple in an inflatable with a Just Married sign hanging off the side. They’re wearing Reds jerseys, representing their hometown and getting heaps of shit from the crowd. I felt sorry, it being their honeymoon and all, so I start talking to them. The guy, Brandon, he’s straight ahead. Works at an assembly plant that makes jet engines and his wife Jadalynn, she didn’t suffer any bullshit. I heard her tell a guy thanks, I didn’t know male menopause was real until you just said that and when he splashed her she calmly pulled a cigarette from behind her ear and asked him for a light. Turns out Brandon and Jadalynn were first in line at the courthouse, signed the marriage license then hopped on a plane. Once they landed, they came straight to the ballpark. Now that’s some spontaneous shit. Better than our two-year engagement any day.
Toni was polite but I could tell she thought I was being too friendly too soon. Someone skates across hell’s half acre, I’m going to be a good host. I invited Brandon and Jadalynn over after the game for a nightcap, a little local wisdom to help sort out the rest of their stay. Toni reminded me we had to return the kayak so I called the shop, promised to bring it back first thing Sunday. The owner was cool about it once I told him we had been at the game. And you know what? The Reds routed the Giants but Brandon and Jadalynn didn’t even gloat. That shows some class. At least I thought it did.
After a couple glasses of wine, people like Toni more than me. A guy says that about his girlfriend, it sounds like he’s jealous but something about Toni holding court, I don’t know what it is, it makes me happy. With me you get a consistent product—the practical jokes, the signature cocktails, hopping in the car at midnight and driving up the coast—but things really get interesting when Toni’s in the zone. She just makes everyone feel at ease, so they don’t have look over their shoulder. Puts the pillows on the floor around the coffee table, brings out almonds in a margarita glass, uses the paring knife to make little lemon twists for our drinks while she asks questions that are personal but you don’t mind answering. She makes us all feel connected, which isn’t easy to do.
Toni also has a reputation as the lighting guru. Hangs a red scarf over the lamp in the corner, fine-tunes the dimmer I installed on the ceiling fixture with surgical precision. Might not sound like a big deal, but having shadows across your face can really make a difference. People don’t know it, but they just want to chill in that kind of light. I’ve even seen her get Carlo to stop picking fights and light candles. Man, I wish I had that on video. Carlo would have some explaining to do.
Anyway, Brandon and Jadalynn, they took their own cab. Had to go back to the pub where the bartender let them stash their luggage which was good because it gave us time to clean up. Toni poured some vanilla extract into the kettle and I was assigned the task of putting out fresh towels in the bathroom, using the old ones to dust off all the photos.
Toni yelled from the other room that Jadalynn seemed nice.
“Straight ahead,” I yelled back.
“The way they get excited when they talk about food is just like us,” Toni said.
“Why do they have southern accents?” I said. “Is that normal for Ohio?”
“Some people think you sound southern, too.”
Toni came in and inspected one of the photos I just dusted.
“Nobody thinks that,” I said.
“At work. They say you have a drawl.”
“Who at work?”
“I don’t know. Everyone.”
I couldn’t handle the thought of Roland thinking I had a drawl.
“It’s not a bad thing,” Toni said.
That’s when there was a knock on the door. Toni gave me a look like I better pull it together, so I went and grabbed the wine out of the kitchen.
Brandon and Jadalynn picked up where they left off. They had just watched this guy busking in Union Square play beats on his ipad through an amp and sing numbers. No words, just numbers.
“I asked the guy if he knew any love songs,” Jadalynn said.
“And he sings us the ‘Star Spangled Banner’,” Brandon said. “All sixes and sevens.”
Their easiness broke the ice between me and Toni, which was a good thing because right before they showed up it felt like it was about to get real. We sat down in the living room and I poured red wine into coffee mugs. When they asked what I did, I told them I work with metal, make sculptures from junk. Repurposed planter boxes out of old street lights, file cabinet pyramids—shit like that. On weekends, I set up a stand at the intersection in Pescadero, catch the day trippers heading home to their gardens. Toni told Brandon and Jadalynn I was selling myself short, but I wouldn’t let her show them pictures, not when there was still wine that needed drinking.
“Man, that’s awesome,” Brandon said. “It’s not easy to pull something like that off.”
“That’s rude, Brandon,” Jadalynn said. “You make it sound like a con.”
I liked Jadalynn defending me, but Brandon was right. In some ways, it kind of felt like a con.
“If you had all the money in the world, what would you do with it?” Toni asked, bringing everyone back into the fold.
“I’d probably be one of those crazy ladies,” Jadalynn said, “who builds a house with upside-down staircases and doors on the top floor that open to nowhere. You know, one of those houses that’s never finished.”
“Jesus,” Brandon joked. “Wish you would have told me that before I said I do.”
“I saw this show once,” Toni said. “Where they interviewed five people then toured five houses and you had to guess which person lived in which house. I’d never guess yours would be doors to nowhere.”
“When you put it that way…” Jadalynn said.
“No, I think it’s great. Sometimes we make too much sense. At least I do.”
I refilled Brandon’s mug before he asked.
“What would you have guessed if Brandon was on the show,” Jadalynn said.
“Hmm, you’re putting me on the spot…” Toni said, kind of blushing. I could tell her shy gene kicked in.
“The house with the sex dungeon,” Brandon said. “Accommodates up to six.”
Jadalynn reached across the table and punched her husband in the arm, but she was smiling.
“Toni doesn’t like to talk about it,” I said. “But if she had all the money she’d buy a fleet of vans, install the best screening equipment and go out to all the poor neighborhoods.”
“Screening equipment?” Jadalynn said.
“For free mammograms,” I said. “She works in radiology and sees how mostly the rich ones get tested.”
“Wow, that’s… serious,” Jadalynn said to Toni.
“Impressive,” Brandon said, giving Toni a high five.
Toni hated too much attention. She smiled and got up to fetch more almonds. Jadalynn asked where the bathroom was and followed her out.
“Your girlfriend’s a triple threat,” Brandon said, clinking my mug.
“She is,” I said. “Sometimes I wonder why she sticks around.”
“That’s a cop-out, dude. I’m sure you have your moments.”
I tried to recall some adventures we might have had the past few months but my thoughts kept going back to logistics, to hedged bets.
“Y’all plan on getting married?” Brandon said.
“We’re engaged,” I said.
“Gotta start somewhere.”
“How did you know it was time?” I asked.
Brandon sat back on the couch and picked up the photo of me and my mom from the table next to him. He had this funny look on his face.
“Dressed for success,” he said, inspecting the photo. “You guys at a graduation?”
“My dad’s funeral,” I said.
“Sorry to hear that,” Brandon said.
“Yeah, well, he drank beet juice every day, got up at five in the morning and did these exercises from the Royal Canadian Air Force but it didn’t make a difference in the end.”
“That’s a shame,” Brandon said. “And he was probably one of those guys who tips thirty percent.”
“Even when the service sucked.”
Brandon put down the frame and leaned close, sort of whispered.
“You know, truth be told, our decision to get married wasn’t as chill as it sounds. This was a bad year for Jada. Her mom, she sounds a lot like your dad. All about the details—picture of health, generous to a fault. Anyway, she worked as a court stenographer and got hooked up with this dude named Joseph. He was under the gun for tax stuff, real estate fraud—one of those whatever-collar crimes—but he got acquitted. After the trial, Joseph approached Jada’s mom and asked for her number. He was a charming guy, you know, a little flair like he probably knew how to ballroom dance. So they started dating. We went out to dinner with them one night early on. The guy seemed alright—laughed when things were funny, acted polite when they weren’t. He only had one beer and put his hand on the back of her mom’s chair when he talked. So Jada and me, we’re thinking—just like her mom—that this guy got acquitted for a reason. Well, just like they always say—things arent’ what they seem. The two them were driving up to the lake in Celina on a Friday night, stopped at a motel. Joseph, he’s taking a shower and there’s a knock. Jada’s mom, she doesn’t have a reason not to, opens the door and that was it.”
I wasn’t sure if I was understanding what it seemed like Brandon was trying to say.
“Some guy shoots her in the chest. Steps over her body, walks into the bathroom and finishes the job. Turns out that Joseph owed serious money. A contractor with mob ties in Philly.”
“Holy shit,” I said.
I just sat there shaking my head.
“So you know what it’s like for Jada. Losing someone close like that, the one who least deserves it.”
Brandon filled my mug this time.
“Enough with the buzzkill,” he said. “It’s the playoffs, right?”
“The game seems kind of unimportant now,” I said.
Brandon clinked my mug.
“When we tell people we eloped,” he said, “it comes across like we’re barefoot on the beach when in fact I thought maybe by getting married I could shine a little light on what has otherwise been a fucked up year.”
Toni and Jadalynn came back into the room.
“What did we miss?” Toni said, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“We were just talking about how much we all have in common,” Brandon said.
Jadalynn gave Brandon a look like she knew he told me.
“Like what?” Toni said.
“You know, stuff we all do,” Brandon said, looking over at me with a grin. “Like speed up on the freeway when someone tries to pass you.”
After digging through the trunk I found the pump and went back upstairs. Jadalynn was rubbing her shoulders to keep warm so after I filled the air mattress, Toni put on the flannel sheets. October is the only time of year it’s warm enough to sleep with the windows open, but coming from an Indian summer in the Midwest, sixty-five degrees can salt your game in a hurry. As we said our goodnights, Brandon and Jadalynn told us they decided to rent a car the next day and drive to Santa Cruz. Their lone demand was taking us out to breakfast—one final hurrah before hitting the road. Toni and I said we knew a good spot on 22nd.
“We like cheap and cheerful,” Brandon said. “Especially the cheap part.”
Laying in bed, I told Toni what happened to Jada’s mom. She just stared at the ceiling and listened. There were no follow-up questions about what the boyfriend could have done to trigger such violent payback, no desire to figure out why messed up things happen to decent people. I figured Toni would at least connect the dots to my dad, how his own father smoked and drank and beat his ass but lived to ninety-seven, while my dad never raised his voice and still didn’t live to see his forty-fifth birthday. Ask me how it felt knowing that I’m not alone when it comes to losing someone too soon.
“Brandon and Jadalynn seem like they have it right,” I said.
After waiting two years to take it to the next level, I thought the hint of marriage might resonate with Toni.
“Someone dying is a shitty reason to get married,” Toni said.
Part of me knew she was right but for the first time in years, after hearing Brandon and Jada’s story, I finally had somewhere to tie off the rope. It brought me around, this feeling of not being alone. The weight, the significance was something I needed. What Toni said about a shitty reason sounded more like me, and my stance was more like hers. I figured this is how progress is made.
Drifting off to sleep, I could hear Brandon and Jadalynn fooling around on the air mattress. She was trying to be quiet. I wanted to put my leg on Toni’s ass but she turned away sending a clear message I needed to stay in my corner. I started to conjure up scenario’s about Roland, like when I called work on Thursday and Hannah told me Toni was on a break. Then I asked if I could talk to Roland but Hannah said he was out, too. Later that night, I asked Toni if Vista ever allows its employees to take breaks at the same time, and she said no. I told her that’s too bad, it would be nice to get some fresh air with a co-worker now and then. She looked at me funny, said it was a weird thing for me to say. Not sure why getting fresh air is so weird. That is, unless you got something to hide.
So back to the arrabbiata. I was cooking it for Toni but she wouldn’t eat. I could tell she was pissed but instead of throwing shit she decided to fix the mosaic on the fruit bowl. I wanted her to yell what I knew she was thinking—that with me, friends are always suspicious and strangers always get a pass. I wanted her to look me straight in the eye and say the meanest thing she could—that I was a con with bad instincts. But she just sat there at the table squeezing little drops of glue on little squares of glass and pressing them into place. That’s when Toni got a text. She disappeared into the bedroom and came back out with her overnight bag.
“I hope you figure things out,” she said, then walked out the door.
I went to the window and saw Toni getting into Roland’s car. She didn’t look happy, but she didn’t look back, either. I sat on the couch while the pasta boiled over and made the flame spit. I wanted to put my fist through the wall, to feel the weight of something unmistakable driving me into the earth, but all I could do was float there as I wondered why two complete strangers would fuck me over like that.
Turns out that when Toni got up to pee in the middle of the night, Brandon and Jadalynn were gone. I could hear Toni rifling through her jewelry box looking for the missing wedding ring her Nonna gave her. Toni told me to check on the car saying I was naive to always leave the key under the seat. I put on a shirt and went downstairs to the garage. At first I was relieved—the car was still there—but then I noticed the strap hanging over the windshield. The kayak was gone. I wasn’t sure how they got it from point a to point b, but bigger mysteries have needed solving so I didn’t dwell. I went back upstairs and tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, but something was really eating at Toni. She slept on the couch for the rest of the night. I got up early to make her favorite dish—a peace offering to set things straight—but Toni went into the bedroom and closed the door. If I knew she was packing, I wouldn’t have been so nonchalant.
I turned off the stove and put on my boots, decided a trip to the Recology yard to sort through some scrap metal would help clear my mind. I drove slow down Army Street, kept the radio off and the windows open. When the Acura didn’t signal and almost clipped me, I didn’t let it get under my skin.
It was quiet down at the yard. Dion let me in, said I had an hour before he was heading home to watch the game. He asked me how I’d been, if I was still tapping that fine piece of ass. I could have told him the truth, but I didn’t.
I headed to the back, as far from the office as possible. Dion had some good stories, but I was all talked out. There was a stack of fiberglass panels I’d never noticed before. One by one I pulled them off and tossed them as far as I could. Underneath, I spotted what looked like the fan housing of a jet engine. I took this as a sign, regardless of whether it was assembled by Brandon in Cincinnati, or whether that was even his real name. As I dragged the fan off the stack and rolled it to the car, I decided I wasn’t going to let Roland get on with the next chapter without a fight.
I may have bad instincts, but I never fall down.
My suspicions were confirmed. Toni had transferred to the Long Beach office of Vista, but when I found out that Roland had skipped town, too, well that was all the proof I needed. I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to move in so quickly. It took me awhile to find an address. I was tempted to put on a voice, call the office pretending it was official business, but something about that was too backhanded, too cowardly. It was something Roland would do. After a few weeks I got Nancy on the phone. Not wanting her co-workers to know, she called back from the car to tell me Toni’s new address. Turns out Nancy’s boyfriend had pulled a disappearing act a few months back, and she understood what I was going through. She made me promise I wouldn’t do anything crazy. I assured her that all I wanted was to clear the air with Toni, let her know that I’d been taking inventory and still had faith there was a way to make things work. I couldn’t guarantee what would happen to Roland, though.
I left the city around noon and once I hit LA, traffic on the 110 slowed to a crawl. As I sat in the car, I rehearsed different scenarios, the outcomes of which depended on whether Roland wanted to go toe-to-toe. The thought of them living together—her using his razor to shave her legs, the negotiations about who was going to move the car for street cleaning, him reaching over her to turn off the light on the nightstand—it made me sick. Still, I was hoping they had gone out for happy hour after work so Roland’s buzz would slow him down and I’d have the advantage of being stone cold sober when I got an inch from his face and told him that a coward dies a hundred times before his death. Knocking out Roland’s teeth would make the world a better place, but I knew it would have to be the last resort. If things got physical, rest assured, Toni would be gone forever.
When I finally got there—the bottom flat of a two-story on Gaviota—the sun was already down and the wind was blowing shit around. There were some kids out front messing with a palm frond that had fallen onto the sidewalk. One of them had a lighter. When I walked past, they just stood there frozen like I couldn’t see them, like if they didn’t move there would be no consequences. I told them to go home not so much because I cared about pyromania, but because I didn’t want an audience for any possible altercation.
From the doorstep, I saw a light through the blinds, heard music like I’d never heard Toni play before. They were singing in another language—Indian, maybe—and the wobbly drum beat didn’t let up. I knocked gently, not wanting to give myself away, hoping to have a few stunned seconds before Roland could figure out his alibi. I listened for footsteps. I used to deliver for Giorgio’s back in the day, and you can predict a lot about someone’s state of mind by the sound of their footsteps coming towards you. I leaned closer and waited, but it was quiet.
Then the door opened. Not a cautious gap, but wide. Toni stood there as though she expected me. She was wearing a skirt and looked thinner, her toenails were only half painted. I looked over her shoulder expecting to see Roland lurking with a bottle of nail polish in his hand.
“You brought a hurricane with you,” she said, as a gust knocked over her neighbor’s garbage can.
“I thought I might need backup,” I said.
I wanted to hug Toni but knew better. She invited me inside, gave me a look to let me know Roland wasn’t there. I sat down and told Toni I liked the new couch, that orange is a color that doesn’t get enough credit. It took a minute to reset, to stop twitching and let go of everything I’d programmed myself to do. She grabbed me a beer from the fridge and sat down on the edge of the coffee table. There was a shadow across her face. It made her look older, more beautiful. Like she cared.
“You’re still the lighting guru,” I said.
Toni smiled. She gave a little nod of agreement, accepted the compliment which was something that didn’t happen before. There was a sense of calm about her. It wasn’t a sad calm, but a slow, optimistic burn. It felt different than the day she walked out. Sometimes Toni called us The Mutual Excluders but I didn’t know what exactly she meant. She would explain that life doesn’t always have to be either/or. Sometimes it can be in addition to. We had always operated in the black and white, but sitting there—broken up in a house cursed—it felt like I was more a part of the equation than before.
“We’ve been through some stuff,” Toni said.
She wasn’t talking about the past few months, but the bigger picture. I’d never known Toni to take inventory, to get sentimental. It caught me off guard.
“Like the guy on the motorcycle,” she reminded me.
It was a drive we took down the back side of Mount Hamilton. The beginning of spring, birds were chirping, there wasn’t a soul for miles. We came around the corner and saw this bike just laying in the middle of the road. We pulled over and got out. Just beyond, there was this dude motionless on his back. We get closer, his eyes are open and he’s got a pool of blood around his head. We knew he was dead but we still tried to talk to him. I’ll never forget that pool of blood—it was thick, holding its shape. I could see the reflection of the oak tree hanging over us, the leaves fluttering every time the breeze kicked up. Toni tried 911 but there was no cell service so we carried him off the road and laid him down on some moss in the shade. It was hard to leave but Toni pulled me away and gave this look—we’ve done all we can. Once we got into range, we called an ambulance and told them what happened.
“You knew exactly what to do,” I said. “I was worried they would think we killed him and you kept saying but we didn’t kill him.”
Toni could have told me I was crazy, that only a selfish jerk worries about his status with the authorities while some mother’s son lay dead on the moss, but she didn’t. I thought I heard Roland pull up out front, but the car turned around in the neighbor’s driveway and drove off.
“We’ve done some stupid shit, too,” Toni said, trying to breathe some air. “Remember Outside Lands? We snuck backstage and played ping pong?”
“You beat that drummer who talks funny,” I said. “What’s that band again?”
“Metallica,” Toni said.
“And he kept blaming the wind even though we were inside a tent.”
I could feel the fight leaving me, a sense of closeness that was bringing everything into focus. Toni got me another beer.
“I’ve been obsessed with this spy named Litivenko,” I confessed. “For the past two months, every time I was down at the Hearth I’d tell whoever’s on the stool next to me how they killed Litivenko with a cup of radioactive tea. How it’s better to have enemies—to be hated—than be invisible. One day this old Irishman with wet paint on his boots yells over to me that if I’m going to tell the story, I need to at least get the guy’s name right. For the love of Christ, he said, it’s Litvinenko not Litivenko. I yelled back for him to mind his own business and he walks over—this skinny old Irishman—and drops me with one punch. Then he walks back to his beer and says there, you’re not invisible anymore.”
Toni tried to hold back her laugh.
“One punch?” she said.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to hurt him,” I said.
“And he was old like gray-hair old?”
“I didn’t know I was fighting Gandalf,” I said.
Toni sat back and bumped the glass vase. I caught it before it fell off the coffee table but she couldn’t be bothered with whether it broke or not.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said. “About Roland.”
I felt a spike of anger, the need to dredge up the box set of inconsistencies and half-truths. I wanted Roland to walk in at that moment wearing some stupid little hat and flipping a toothpick in his mouth, proving to the world that I was right, that he is a douchebag.
“The day Roland picked me up at the house,” Toni said. “That was the last time I saw him.”
Before I could approach the bench, before the lightning round of cross-examination could begin, Toni reached out and touched my face. She looked at me full of hope and I couldn’t help but think about the heart inside that racehorse. Then she leaned close and kissed me. It was slow this time, less either/or and more in addition to.
“I’m scared,” she said. “But I have to prove I can do this on my own.”
Heading north on 101, I could still hear the wobbly drum beat, still smell the perfume from Toni’s scarf hanging over the lamp. My eyes wandered off the road to the steep hills to the west. There was a patch of red that stood out against the dark green slope. The outline was defined, too clear cut for mother nature. I realized they were grapes, that the days were getting colder, shorter, and the vines were about to drop their leaves. I took stock of what just happened, how being four-hundred miles apart can somehow make you feel more connected. It didn’t add up, but I knew not to fight it—sometimes we make too much sense.
The Shell station in King City was humming with yellow light as clouds of dust drifted through. Somewhere nearby a farmer must have been plowing at night. I paid the cashier and, walking back, noticed the car at the next pump had a kayak on the roof. The guy was middle-aged with one of those greying beards that made him look like he knew what he was talking about. He slid his credit card and locked the pump so he could get back inside with his wife. I watched as she flipped down the visor and twisted her hair into a bun using the mirror. He said something that made her laugh. Then she grabbed a toothbrush from the glove box and held it up so her husband could squeeze out some toothpaste.
It wasn’t clear if they had already been out on the water. If they were returning from some drunken circus beyond the ballpark wall, or bound for a pristine lake where you never have to raise your voice. If they had mapped out their journey, or were just playing it by ear.
The husband waited patiently with a Snapple bottle so his wife could rinse.I noticed a crack in the windshield held together with duct tape, but it didn’t matter. They were beyond the shadow. They were both paddling.
Art by Emi Ito.