Cherry blossoms burst in shocking pink, along the street to my left, as I drove on Magnolia Boulevard West. On my right, the bluff fell away to the marina, Elliott Bay, and the city skyline below. I had to take the final step off the pole. As the TV lady in Ashland had said, we redeem ourselves in our own fear and suffering, and find ourselves, and everyone else, to be loving and free. I swung Hui on to Elliott Avenue, and headed toward Highway 99, Interstate 5, and the Mount Baker district of Seattle.
Parked beneath those burgeoning, billowy trees by her windows, Renee’s car stuck out like a cherry in whipped cream. The street stood still under the late afternoon cloud cover. The only sound came from the tennis courts, across from her apartment building, where a tall, red-headed man in whites hit bright green tennis balls, served up by a machine. “Thwop, Thwap. Thwop, Thwap. Thwop, Thwap.”
I drove past her place, scanning the sidewalk, and parked about a block away. As I made my way back, I stayed in close to the buildings, walking in a crouch, heal and toe, crisscrossing each foot, like Musashi Miyamoto, approaching an opponent with his wooden sword.
I stood under the trees by her window, and felt their massive green force. The susurrous leaves and soughing branches seemed to pull me into them. I looked up into the tree before me, and spotted a branch just above my head. I extended my arms and jumped. My fingers grabbed the knobbed curves of the wood. Walking up the trunk, I pulled myself on to the low branch. From my vantage point in the foliage, I surveyed the street. No cars or persons appeared. The only sounds came from a twittering bird to my left and the robotic cadence of the tennis match on the court fifty yards away. When I was kid of ten, I climbed trees in Amelia Earhart Park near the University. As I swayed in my perch, in those days, high above the world, nobody paid attention. A man in a tree, up against second storey apartment windows, is a different story. It could cause misunderstanding.
I found the next branch above me, grasped it, and lifted myself. I squatted just below the level of Renee’s living room windows. Although she told me that she had double pane glass, I could hear the jubilant horns in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, coming from inside. “Dah, dah, dah dah.” I slowly raised myself until I was looking in the room. I heard a voice, from below.
“Excuse me, sir. Sir?”
I looked down at a woman in her fifties, wearing a black business suit, white blouse, and black tie. She wore a white name tag on her chest, but it was indecipherable. Her hair was a strawberry blonde helmet, above a rutted field of a forehead. I stared into her pie-sized, brown eyes as she called me.
Pulling on an upper branch and stretching my body, I peered over the window ledge to get a view inside Renee’s apartment. The row of leggy geraniums blocked my view.
“Sir, I must insist you come down immediately.” The woman pointed both index fingers at me and began to shake her arms and move her feet in a small circle.
I stepped on a burl on the trunk and rose to the next branch. I could see the dining room table, covered with scattered papers and a computer. The sound of an oboe carrying Beethoven’s famed theme from the Fifth seeped through both panes of glass. I noticed movement to the right. Renee walked in from her bedroom, raising the sleeves of a baggy, pink sweatshirt.
“Sir, if you don’t come down from there, I’m calling the building manager to climb up and pull you down.”
Renee headed for the dining room, passing a few feet from the window. I locked my legs around the branch that I sat on, and waved my arms. “Renee,” I shouted. “Renee.”
“Okay,” the woman below said. “I’m going to get him.” She walked away.
“But, I know her,” I called after her. “She’s my girlfriend.”
“The love of my life,” I said to myself.
I turned back to the windows. Renee squinted, with her hand like a salute over her eyes, looking as if she were trying to believe what she saw.
“Renee, sweetheart. I love you! Please.” I shouted, waving with both hands. “Let me in.”
Renee stood with her hands on her hips, weight on her back leg. Her hair was up, revealing her long neck and the sparkling lemon-lime peridot. She was the most beautiful woman I could imagine. I watched her expression, through the twigs, leaves, and thick glass, go from the heights of surprise to a twinkle of mirth.
She waved her hands back at me. “Dan, get down from there,” she yelled.
“Not until you let me in!”
“No, go away, you crazy idiot.” She turned and hurried into her room, closing the door.
I stood, wedged in the crotch of the tree, imagining the musty scent of those geraniums. I waved goodbye and then bumped my way down the rutted bark and twirled knobs of the tree. At the bottom, I dropped a few feet to the ground and took off running, before the argus-eyed matron returned with her posse.
The short story, "Coup de Grace," from the collection, Spirit of Tabasco, published by Anaphora Literary Press.
My red Mustang rumbling at the curb, I glanced into my side mirror. A steady stream of cars, as far back as I could see, rolled east along Los Feliz Boulevard. What, they evacuating Glendale? Come on, dammit. Blinker’s on. Give me a break. Look at this guy next to me, won’t even make eye contact, lunging forward just to make sure I don’t get in. People forget who they are when they drive. Nothing personal. Just another faceless windshield blocking the road. I stomped the gas pedal and jammed in front of the next car in line. The driver in a Dodgers cap hit his horn. I saw him in the rearview mirror, jawing at me for three blocks. At the left curve on to Western Avenue, I watched his white van shrink behind, as traffic fell away and I hit sixty, around and down the hill and through the green light at Franklin.
“You know my mechanic doesn’t close for another six hours,” my brother, Mitchell, said, eyes riveted on the windshield. “And it’s only two miles away.”
“You asked for a ride to pick up your car. Maybe you’d rather walk.”
“Why you so edgy?”
I checked the side mirror and cut into an opening in the left lane. “I’m not, and I wish everyone would stop saying that.”
We didn’t speak for half a mile. Mitchell and I spent time without talking, probably from hours spent holding hands in the back seat of our parents’ air-conditioned car when we were kids, as the adults in front ignored each other.
Just past Hollywood Boulevard, I slowed for a parade of cars and intersecting jaywalkers, between the stores, shops and motels on both sides of Western.
“Where are you headed, after you drop me off?” Mitch said.
“Over on Fairfax?”
“That’s the one.”
“When’s the last time you went there? Fruit and vegetables to you means cherry coke and potato chips.”
“I don’t know. Years.”
“And you’re going why?”
“Meeting someone.” I punched it through a yellow light at Sunset.
Six blocks later, Mitchell said, “Want to share?”
“Who you meeting?”
“Swanson. He called last night and said he wants to talk.”
“Brett Swanson? You mean your Brett?”
“Who else would it be?”
“How about the Hillside Strangler?” Mitchell said. “Why would you cross the street for that fool, Meer, let alone listen to anything he has to say?”
“Because my time has come.”
“What does that mean?” Mitch said.
I pulled up for the red light at Santa Monica Boulevard. A tall, dark, curly-haired woman in candy apple red lipstick and a red and white polka dot dress with white collar and cuffs and white patent leather shoes crossed in front of us.
“Wonder if the circus knows she’s missing,” I said.
“Not edgy, huh?” Mitchell said.
“Got a stomach ache,” I said. “Anyway, Brett’s in town. He says he has something he wants to tell me.”
“Like `It was all my fault. Take me back’?”
“Doubt it. Whatever.” I leaned forward to check my eye makeup in the rear view mirror. I ran my fingertip over the inch-long scar above my right eyebrow. Mitchell drove me to the ER for stitches the night Brett split my head.
“Meer, he left you for some gym rat, and, if I remember right, didn’t call, write, or try to get in touch with you for what, seven, eight years?”
“Where’s your car at?”
“I told you. The garage is on La Brea, near Beverly.” Mitchell said. “So you’re going to meet him because he thought of something he has to tell you after all this time?”
“Mitch, I really am not in the mood.”
“I’m trying to understand why you would put yourself through that, Miranda? The guy treated you like a dog.”
“And I never had the chance to thank him, did I?”
“What are you talking about?”
“A joke. But, I’m not the person he dumped, Mitch. And I have some things to say to him.”
I heard a horn behind me and looked up at the green light. I sped out to lead the other cars.
“You doing this in a public place?” Mitchell said.
“Serving Brett a fresh slice of your spite pie.”
“The Coffee Bean.”
“Should be plenty of witnesses there,” Mitch laughed.
I swung a left into oncoming traffic, off Beverly on to La Brea. “Tell me where,” I said.
“Right there, next to the Chevron. Drop me and I’ll run across the street. Thanks, Meer. As always, riding with you is an unparalleled experience. I appreciate your help.” Mitchell jumped out of the car. “Head butt old Brett once for me,” he said and closed the car door.
I peeled out, into the blare of an RTD bus horn.
As I turned off Fairfax into the Farmer’s Market parking lot, I thought
about Mitch’s reaction. He had it exactly right. Brett shows up out of nowhere with something he has to tell me and expects me to trot back to him like some jolly Chihuahua.
I stabbed the horn, and swerved around a Camry, taking up the lane. “Move it, granny! What’re ya doing?” I scowled, across the length of the front seat, at the elderly driver, frozen, head barely clearing the steering wheel. I raced to the end of the row, and careened into the back of the packed lot.
This place is a zoo. I don’t care if there’s no place to park. I’ll park up at Griffith Park, if I have to.
I cut into a spot in the last row, turned off the engine, and slid the shift lever into park. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes to spare.
Next to me, a Nordic looking couple, with four towhead kids, from about twelve to two, got out of a black SUV.
You will never be the mother of my children. About the last thing Brett shared with me, right before he screwed his trainer, Lydia Downes. Then, he left. The divorce papers arrived in the mail six months later. Master of tact and aplomb, that man. Five minutes, better go.
I pushed open my door and banged the SUV. “Shit,” I said, staring at the fragment of chipped paint, and then watching the back of the Towheads, as they walked away from me. They were just out of hearing range. I swung both feet on the ground and stood, ran fingers through my newly cut and dyed black hair, and put on my Ray-Bans. The Coffee Bean was directly across the expanse of blacktop. I walked behind the young blonde family, keeping my distance. Although the lot was filled with cars, I saw only a few other people outside the mall. The air felt heavy and the L.A. sky hung leaden with high thin gray clouds.
Wonder what Brett looks like, I thought. Suppose people don’t change that much in eight years. He was depressed: skinny, black circles, unwashed. Black. Said he felt he was falling into a black hole. Talk about edgy. Never knew who I’d get from day to day. I made a joke, standing in the kitchen with him and Mitch. Said if he got any riper, we would have to pickle him and put him in a jar. He clubbed me with the cupboard door, and ran into the backyard.
At the door to the Coffee Bean, a guy coming out held the door open for me. He was mid-thirties, stringy dishwater hair. As I entered, I peered into his face. He smiled, offering small even yellowish teeth in full lips. Brett’s left front tooth was chipped, crooked, and gray.
I stared at that tooth on our first blind date, sitting across from him in a booth at Mel’s on Sunset. It was like a hypnotist’s pocket watch. I could not look away. I thought it was cute then, part of his roguish appeal. Then, as the glow dimmed between us, it became a moldy gate, leading to the shadowy moist maw beyond. Finally, his torpid tongue tip flicked its jagged edges, through scissor-blade lips.
I looked around the Bean. About half of the dozen or so tables were taken. I scanned the male faces, without recognizing Brett. I ordered a triple latte and took it to a table in the back corner, positioning myself with a view of the door.
11:08. He’s late? Ironic. He used to get pissed at me for never being on time. Said he could never understand how I could be so inconsiderate. If I did arrive on time, I would wait out of sight, five, ten minutes, then walk up, just to watch him seethe.
I sipped my coffee and decided to give Brett ten minutes. I watched for him on the sidewalk, outside the plate glass window.
The first time we did it was in a tent. I stepped in through the opening and saw him sitting naked, at the ready, on the dirty lumpy floor. Hot, sticky, primal. After that, for months, we screwed four, five times a day. At the end, we hadn’t had sex for probably a year. An argument over barbequed burgers marked the end.
I told him I thought it was time to flip the patties.
He said, “You know as much about grilling meat as I do about douching.”
“You are a crude ignorant fool,” I told him.
“Give me the spatula.” He grabbed the utensil in my hand and tried to wrestle it away. I yanked his beard, and then he stomped my foot. I left him the meat and didn’t talk to him for two days. We never found the fire again. He told me I was frigid and had a problem with intimacy. Talk about black. That is a black pot. I knew it wouldn’t fly higher after that, but I held on for dear life. Until he informed me of his workouts at the gym, with Lydia.
I glanced at the window, as a tall, slender man in tan Dockers, a tucked in red Polo shirt, and white leather running shoes, strode parallel to the window, toward the door.
Must be. Same walk but better posture. Got in shape.
Brett pulled open the door and entered the Coffee Bean. He put his hand to the side of his close cut sandy hair, while he scanned the tables. I raised my arm and motioned him over. Brett stepped toward me, smiling. I stayed in my chair as he approached.
Looks better. More presence. Probably on Paxil. Arrogant fool. Just what I need, him on top of the world. Shit.
Brett stood before me, and offered his hand. I shook it from my seat, and felt his warm, smooth fingers wrap around my clammy palm. .
“Miranda, it’s a delight to see you,” Brett said, his dark eyes glassy. “You’re looking good. Changed your hair color.”
“Thanks,” I said. I pulled my purse and coffee cup closer, to hide my shaking hands.
Brett slid out the chair across the table and sat. He looked at me for a few moments and smiled.
The moldy gate’s gone, I noticed. White, glistening teeth, too. Damn.
“How have you been?” Brett said. “What’s it been, five, six years?”
I grabbed the sides of my seat. “It’s been eight years, Brett.”
“Really? That long since we last saw each other?”
“Last saw each other?” I threw my hands down on top of my purse. “Do you even remember who I am? We were married, and you left. I never heard from you again. Any of it ring a bell?”
Brett’s face sunk and his eyes glazed, as if he’d witnessed a mugging. “Okay, okay,” he said, looking to both sides.
“Do not `okay’ me,” I growled. “You walk in here and talk to me like I’m someone you bumped into on the street. Let me tell you something, you made a big mistake thinking this was a good idea.”
“Meer, please. I just want--”
“Don’t call me that. You have no right.”
“I want to tell—“
“I want to tell you something. What I think of you. You’re a coward. You couldn’t even face me. You ran away, like a slinking dog. You told me that you would always be there for me. Then you divorce me by mail.”
People looked at us.
“Miranda?” Brett swiveled his head, his face and ears turning crimson.
“No. I’ve spent years gagging on this shit.” I lowered my voice. “For a long time, I believed it was me, but I realized that you’re the one who gave up. And that makes me feel sorry for you.” I knew I was shouting, and that if I got too out of control, the restaurant would ask us to leave or call security. I wanted my say.
Brett nodded across the table as I spoke, and kept eye contact. His mouth wore a slack smile. I watched his new clean incisor and thought about throwing my cup at it to bring back the old one.
I lowered my voice. “For those first few months that you were gone,” I went on, “with no word, I felt like some fucking war bride whose husband was MIA. I had no idea what happened to you or where you were.” I leaned into the table edge to ease my aching stomach. “Stop a second and think about how that felt.”
“Then, you sent the papers for me to sign. Not even a note. Talk about a coup de grace. A stab in the heart.” I looked up at Brett. “What did I do to deserve that?” I considered reaching my arm across the table and sweeping everything off on to the floor, our coffee cups spilling, scalding black liquid splattering, napkins sailing, Brett scrambling out of his chair. But, I put my hands in my lap and bit my lip.
“What?” I screamed. Every head in the room swung toward us. The large space went silent. I looked over at the counter, where a chubby bald man in a short sleeved white shirt and narrow maroon tie whispered to one of the baristas. “Everything you say is true,” Brett said. “I’m sorry. That’s what I came to tell you.”
I picked up my cup and drank with trembling hands. I thought my stomach might explode. “You’re such an ass. Why now?” I whispered.
“Meer, my mother just died. Fell over dead, of a brain aneurysm.” Brett wiped his forehead with his fingertips.
“Wish I could say I’m sorry, but I never liked the woman. I can’t think of one nice thing to say about her. She was horrible to me.”
“I understand. You know that I had my issues with her. But, as it was, I never had the chance to tell her how I felt. She died in Macy’s. Fell into a display of bras and hit her head on the corner of a shelf. Everything was left unfinished between us. I don’t want that to happen to us. I want us to have closure.”
Staring at him, I said, “Don’t let me stop you.”
“Please, Miranda. I did betray you,” Brett said. He raised his voice: “I committed a mortal sin.”
People at the other tables had turned back to their own concerns and ignored us.
“What do you want from me?”
Brett stretched his arm toward me on the tabletop, his hand on my side, as if he expected me to take it.
“Get away from me.”
“Miranda, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.” Brett said with a serious face.
“Are you in some twelve step program, making amends?”
“I am just truly sorry and hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I don’t want this between us.”
“Quit talking about what you want. I don’t really care what you want. You took what you wanted eight years ago. And left me with nothing.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“What happened to Lydia? Don’t tell me you married her and have four kids now.”
“No, no, it never went anywhere. It wasn’t about her, or us. It was my problem. I do have a family, but it’s no one you know.”
Hearing about his family, and the thought that he had children, made me feel calmer. Even warmer toward him.
“You were hurtful,” I said.
“I was and if there was any way I could change or undo all that, I would. Just know that I came here because I have feelings for you. I always have and always will.” He kept his hand on the table, his clean shiny fingernails a few inches from my coffee cup.
“Okay, Brett. Let’s drop it. Let’s leave it at that and get on with our lives,” I said. “I’m tired of holding on to all this negative shit.”
“So, you forgive me?”
“Sure, whatever.” I picked up my purse.
Brett smiled, showing off his new even white teeth. “Thank you, Miranda. This means a lot to me.”
In the seconds of silence that followed, we both looked toward the door. I stood and Brett followed me out, never having ordered his drink. As we parted at the curb, Brett leaned in for a quick hug. I pushed off on his biceps.
“Let’s do this again,” Brett said. “Next time I’m in town.” He stepped on to the parking lot and turned to face me, his hands at his sides, palms out.
“Yeah, right. See ya, Brett.” I spun and walked off in the opposite direction, toward my car, without looking back.
The afternoon had cooled, with patches of blue sky showing through. A slight breeze kicked up. My stomach felt better.
When I got to my Mustang, the Towheads’ SUV was gone. I pulled open my door and slid into the black leather seat. The smell of the leather soothed me. With my hands wrapped around the steering wheel, I threw back my head and laughed. Brain aneurysm. Oh, my God, Brett. That is your best yet. Wait til I tell Mitch.
I turned the key and backed out of the parking space. I slid the shifter into drive and rolled out of the parking lot. I kept at the speed limit on Fairfax and made every green light all the way up to Hollywood Boulevard.