Part 10

It was sophomore year at West Mid-High, and I was running for band president.  My opponent, Jake Evans, had run a smear campaign against me.  It wasn’t really a mean-spirited campaign.  It involved a few posters with slogans like Brian Roberts’ mom wears Army boots.  But it worked.  Each of us were required to give a speech before the vote.  I made no campaign promises.  I really only ran for the notoriety.  I lost.

When the band director, Mr. Watkins, called for candidates for vice-president, I raised my hand.  Jake’s running mate won.  I ran for every office that day.   I lost every one but the last, because no one ran against me.  I won the position of band manager, whose responsibilities included setting up and putting up chairs so that the janitorial staff could vacuum.  I would do such a poor job at being the band manager, that Mr. Watkins would have to ask Chris Manning, the other tuba player who I suspected of being mildly retarded, to help me.  I would quit after a month.

After rehearsal, as I was putting up my tuba, a flute player approached me.  She wore big pink framed glasses and had poofy bangs.  She didn’t look me in the eye at first, she just watched as I put my beaten up school tuba into it’s worn case.

She said, “I voted for you.”

“For president?” I asked.

Her smile was playful when her eyes finally met mine. “For everything.  I thought, this guy’s not going to give up, so neither am I.”

“You felt sorry for me, ” said.

Her grin widened.  “Maybe just a little.”

“Great.  Thanks.”

“No!  C’mon.  It’s not like that.  You just seemed like a nice guy.”

This was the first conversation I’d ever had with Cheryl Tully.  I’d never even noticed her before that moment.  She was just one of the nameless gaggle of flute players who never came to the back row with the tubas and trombones and who never hung around at the end of rehearsal because all they had to do was put their flutes in a little case and head out for second period.

The next time I saw her was in fifth period geometry.  I paid closer attention to her.  She wore a blue knit sweater, tight jeans with zippers at the bottom of the legs, and Nike Velcro high-tops.   I found myself staring at her perky breasts while the teacher explained isosceles triangles.  I wondered if she would go on a date with me, so I did what any red-blooded American teenager would do:  I passed her a note.

That Friday night, I took Cheryl to the pizza place next to the movie theater and bought her a Coke and a hamburger, onion, and mushroom pizza.  I don’t remember what we talked about but she kept telling me how funny I was.  I wasn’t trying to be funny at all, but I took the complement anyway.   I paid for her to play Ms. Pacman in the small arcade in the back corner of the restaurant.  I watched over her shoulder.  I still remember the smell of her hairspray and perfume.  I wondered why she agreed to go out with me.  She ran with a much cooler crowd than I did.  I didn’t really have a crowd.  She was pretty good at Ms. Pacman.

It was November and the temperature was dropping.  I’d been on very few dates and didn’t have the courage to hold her hand as we walked over to the theater to watch Dirty Dancing with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze.

“So what about Jake Evans?  Do you really think he’ll be a good band president?” I asked as we walked passed the soft serve yogurt shop.

“Jake is an asshole.  All he cares about is being noticed.  Like he just wants the notoriety.”

“Yeah, what an asshole.”

I spent half the movie checking to make sure I didn’t have bad breath and gathering the courage to hold her hand.  She made it easy on me, though.  She put her hand on my leg and I put my hand on top of hers.  A warm feeling ran up my hand into the rest of my body.  My stomach fluttered.  I held her hand the entire rest of the movie, despite the sweat that poured from my hand.

The kiss was just as difficult for me as the hand holding.  I’d only kissed three girls.  Once at church camp at an old mission school in southeastern Oklahoma.  Another at summer band camp at Kansas University.  And the other after a date with the pregnant girl from driver’s ed.  I didn’t know she was pregnant until she came back to school a year later.  It was a scandal.  But this felt different.  I was going to see this girl at school the next Monday.  I didn’t want to screw it up.  We walked in the cold around the plaza twice before I finally turned to her and leaned in for our first kiss.  I was much taller than her.  She craned her neck and rose up on the tips of her toes to reach me.  It only lasted for a few seconds, but I felt a bond form between us as our lips touched.  Her lips where firm and smooth from playing flute.

I asked her to go steady on our second date.


Part 9

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Rent,” she said, smiling.

I took the bills and a few coins from her outstretched hands and counted it.

“Twelve dollars and seventy-five cents?  This is rent?”

“That’s all I have.  They don’t tip well at Farid’s”

I tried to give the money back.  “Amy, you don’t have to pay rent, I –”

“I’ll pay what I can.  Also, I’m going to need a key.  I’m tired of breaking into your house.  By the way, you need a new lock.”

“Great.  Thanks,”  I said noticing her bare feet.  “If you’re going to have a key I feel like I need to know more about you.  I don’t even know your last name.”

“Pensiero,” she said.

“Does anybody else know where you are? Don’t you have friends?”

“No.  Not anymore.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t want them to know where I am.  My dad knows all of their parents.  Look, can’t we just—”

“Ok, ok.  I’m being nosy.  I’m just concerned about you.  Pensiero.  Is that Italian?”

She rolled her eyes and walked back into the kitchen.

“Let me buy you dinner,”  I called after her.  ” No more questions, I promise”

“Are we going to your sad little pub with the greasy fish?”

There was something about the way she looked at me in that moment that brought back memories of a former life.  It was in the heat of late July and I’d forgotten our anniversary.  I was trying to make up for it by surprising her with a fish dinner.  When we arrived at the restaurant she turned to me and said, “Really?  This is where you take me?”  I brought her daisies every day for a week after that.  She didn’t like greasy fish either.

“How about Chinese? You live a few blocks away from the best Chinese food on the west coast.”

It was getting chilly outside.  I grabbed my brown corduroy driver hat and my wool pea coat.  I tossed Amy my scarf as she pulled on her hoody and we stepped out into the night air to head for Hon’s.

“They have the best Dan Dan Mien.  It’s kind of on the other end of Chinatown, but it’s worth the walk,” I said as we crossed Hyde Street.

We walked in silence for some time.  I couldn’t get Cheryl out of my mind.   I never deserved her.  I was a crappy husband at best, but she stood by me.  She was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

I stopped to dig out a pack of cigarettes  from my coat and lit up.  I sucked in a tiny bit of smoky comfort and let it roll out of my mouth into the damp air.  Before I could offer her one of mine, she was already lit.

“You shouldn’t smoke, you know,”  I said.

“Go fuck yourself,”  she said, smiling.

We both laughed and walked on.  We saw an old long-bearded Chinese man smoking a pipe riding a bicycle.  We spied on a young couple who’d ducked into an alleyway to make-out against the cold brick wall.  I dropped a few dollars into a guitar case while a street-worn black man picked out an old blues tune.  The smell of ginger, garlic, and fish sauce permeated the air.

Finally, we arrived at Hon’s Wun Tun House.  People stood outside the entrance laughing and talking loudly.  After being alone in San Francisco for so long, it felt good to be out with somebody.  I opened the door for Amy and she looked me in the eye as she passed the threshold.  It was difficult to read what was behind her dark eyes.  They were impenetrable.

The young hostess led us to a table in the back next to a fountain with a statue of a fish that spouted water.

“So, Brian.  You’re not from around here are you.”

“Why do you think that?”

“You have an accent.”

“Oh.”  I’d never had a strong Oklahoma accent, at least by Oklahoma standards.  But what little accent I had, I’d tried to remove from my speech.   I didn’t like people asking me where I was from because that question inevitably led to more questions…like why I left.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  I kind of like it.  So where are you from?”

She fixed me in a stare.  I couldn’t escape her.  It was as if she’d cast a spell on me.  And for that moment, I was helpless.

“Oklahoma,” I said, the word catching in my throat.

“Oklahoma.  Like the song.  OOOOOOOOOOOOOh-klahoma where the–”

“Yes, like the song.  Look, how about you don’t ask me questions and I won’t ask you either.”

“Fine.”  She began to study the menu, her hair dark falling across her face.

I studied her for a moment  She even looked like Cheryl a little bit.

 

 

 


changes

Ok.  If you’re following this, you need to know that I’ve made a few important changes to the story.  Brian is no longer drunk, divorced and lonely.  He’s just drunk and lonely.  When Brian dreams of Cheryl, he dreams fondly of her…not bitterly.  Also, Brian doesn’t take the train to and from work.  He works a few blocks down from Union Square.  So he walks.

This is what happens when you write willy-nilly for a few chapters and then decide to actually plot out the book later.


Part 8

I wasn’t always like this.  Growing up, people called me Lucky.  I had an uncanny knack for finding money everywhere I went. Quarters, dollar bills, fives, and, on three separate occasions, twenties. This drove my older brother Mike absolutely crazy.

One time, at the county fair, I had found two twenty dollar bills, one under a flattened popcorn box in front of the ring toss and one on the floor of a port-a-potty. 40 bucks! Mike had never in his life found anything higher than the fifty-cent piece he had found waiting in line to ride the elephants at the circus two years before.

“One of those twenties is mine!” Mike had shouted at me on the way home, sobbing, superman t-shirt stained with vomit. “I was going to use that port-a-potty and you went first!”

I, who had puked on Mike while riding the Ferris wheel, shrugged my shoulders and handed over one of the twenties. That settled him down.  I disputes never lasted long.

But that’s not really how I came to be known as “Lucky” Roberts.  It was because of something that happened when I was 5-years-old.

I spent the better part of my childhood living in a small farming town in rural Oklahoma. Most of the boys in the town had a fascination with tractors and I was no exception.

“Uncle” Ray owned and operated a small farm. He was a quiet, bachelor farmer who had a gentle way with children. He always had an unopened pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint in the bib pocket of his immaculate overalls for every child who might come his way.

“A whole pack for each of us!” Mike had exclaimed after meeting Uncle Ray at the county fair. Every kid in town knew and adored Uncle Ray.

It was a sunny late September day and Ray, who was also well-known to my father, was harvesting the ripe soybean crop.  Mike and I were enjoying a rare ride with Uncle Ray on the old, open-top John Deere, chewing our gum with great vigor.

Although Ray was known for the level grade of his fields, no field could be without a dip here and there. Ray had been watching carefully for just such a dip when the left side of the tractor dropped with just enough force to throw me off of the tractor.

The next thing I remember, I was lying on the ground two-and-a-half feet from the back end of the combine, untouched, chewing my gum.

Many theories sprang up around town to explain what had happened on that day. Some speculated that I had fallen into the pothole and that the tractor had shifted enough for the combine to roll squarely over me without touching me, but none of the other farmers would believe that one of Ray McCoy’s fields could have a pothole deep enough for it to be possible. Others suggested I had somehow been thrown clear over the combine or that I was cast aside and only rolled behind the combine after it had passed. But, by far the most popular theory was that it had been a miracle. More specifically, that I had been protected by an angel.  But whatever it was, I was known as Lucky from that day forward.

I didn’t feel so lucky any more.  Where was this angel now?  Why had she abandoned me?

When I awoke, Amy was already gone.  I hoped that she was at Farid’s, but I wasn’t certain.  Then it occurred to me that I didn’t even know her last name.


Part 7

It was a three month contract with an option to hire.  My software project was mostly complete, but the IT manager had already lined up two more projects for me if I wanted them.  It was good money, and it was as far away from Oklahoma as I could get without leaving the continental United States.

After work, I walked to Farid’s cafe.  It was a little hole-in-the-wall off Union Square stuck between two major retail clothes stores.  The only sign on the store front was a blue neon in the window which said Hot Coffee Here.  It would be easy to walk past without ever noticing it.  But Farid served the best coffee and scones in the city, at least the best on my route between work and home.  And he needed a waitress.

I grabbed the help wanted sign out of the window and walked over to the counter.  Farid burst through the kitchen door with a garden salad, two club sandwiches, and two coffees on a serving tray.  He delivered it to a young couple in the corner.  Most of Farid’s customers were tourists.

He blew passed me saying, “I’ll be with you in just a moment, my friend”.

In just a few seconds he returned with another tray.  This one held coffee for the two older gentlemen by the door.

“Ok!  What can I do for you, my friend?” he said, rubbing his hands on his apron. ” You come back to complain about the food?  Is that it?” he said with a wink.

I held up the sign.

“I see,” he said, “you need a job.  Your boss finally say he don’t want you around no more!  Is that it?”

“That’s right,” I say, ” I need a job mopping up piss poor coffee off your floor.”

“I see.  You just come to insult Farid in his own humble place of business!”

We both laughed.

“Ok ok…listen, I have a friend who needs a job.  A young lady.”

“Ahhh, a young lady.  How young?”

“She’s nineteen.  You’ll like her.  I’ll vouch for her. She’s very pretty,” I added to clinch the deal.

“Pretty.  Yes.  Good for business.  The last waitress had more hair on her lip than my own mother.”  His gold tooth gleamed as he smiled.  ” I can’t pay much.  And half my customers don’t even tip. You sure she want to work here?”

I nodded.

“Ok.  Here’s what I’m gonna do.  You send her to me at seven a.m. tomorrow for a breakfast shift.  If I like her, she can take the lunch shift too.”

“Thanks a lot, Farid.  I owe you.”  I shook his hand and headed for the door.

Farid was my only friend in San Francisco.  I first met him when I came to town for a conference nine years before.  I’d come to town every year since for the same conference, and I’d made his coffee and scones my morning ritual.

The walk from Farid’s to my flat near Chinatown was entirely uphill.  For the first few weeks I lived there, I would arrive home drenched in sweat, but eventually my body acclimated.   In fact, I’d never been in better shape.

I arrived to the smell of fried onions.  My appetite was immediately kindled.  I found Amy once again in the kitchen.  She’d changed clothes.  They looked new.

“You know, you really ought to shop for something else besides booze,” she said without turning around. ” All I found in your fridge was fuzzy green Chinese food and a bottle of Smirnoff. ”

“You bought food? ”  I reached into my pocket for my wallet, “I much do I owe you?”

“Nothing.  I swiped your Visa card from your wallet this morning.”

I quickly checked my wallet.  The card was gone.

“So you’re a runaway and a thief now.  Is that it?  By the way, congratulations.  You have a job.  You start tomorrow morning at seven.  Don’t screw it up.   And give me my card back. ”

She pulled the card from her back pocket laid it on the table and returned to the stove to stir the onions.

“Thanks for cooking.  No one’s cooked for me since…”  I stopped short.  I could feel the pain of the past rising in me.

“Since what?” she asked, licking food off her finger.

“Nevermind.  I could use a drink.   Do you make those, too?”

She ignored me.  I opened up the kitchen cabinet that had become host for a dozen bottles of various fine whiskeys, selected a Balvenie 15 year, single barrel, and poured a double neat.  I swished the scotch around the glass a couple of times and then held it to my nose.  Assertive. Dry, fresh oak. Heather. Rooty. Coconut. Lemon pith.  I told myself that it was a hobby.   But at the end of the day, when I’d be drunk enough to pass out, all whiskeys are the same.  They made me forget, at least long enough to go to sleep.  And I’d spent the last four months trying to forget.

“I’m glad you’re here, Amy.”

She pulled a pound of beef out of the package and dropped it in the pan.  As I turned toward the living room,  she spoke softly, “Thank you.”


Part 6

Window in a morning light

There she was, just as she’d been weeks before.  She tapped at the window.  I was wobbly on my feet and my head was thick was sedation.  I was also nauseous; overdosed on painkillers and booze.  I opened my door to her once again.  Her eyelids were heavy with exhaustion.  Her hair was damp from the fine mist that enshrouded the city.  She was silent.  No smart remarks.  She walked straight to my couch and covered herself with the wool Indian blanket and went to sleep.

Half the time I’d known her she’d been asleep.  I took my usual hangover cocktail of Alka Seltzer, Pepto Bismal, and Dramamine and settled into my favorite chair.  I was growing used to the sound of her breathing while she slept.  My dreams were chaotic and fragmented.  I chased a tornado in a beat up old truck down an Oklahoma back road.  I lay on the street staring up at a stop light.  I saw glimpses of Uncle Ray driving a tractor. I fell from  my office building on Sutter Street.

I woke up to the smell of garlic and eggs. My stomach had settled and it was a welcome smell.  I hadn’t eaten since the following morning at the hospital.  Perhaps she was beginning to trust me.  That made one of us.

I found her in the kitchen in her bare feet humming quietly and standing over my gas stove.    I watched her for just a moment, fascinated by this girl who was quickly becoming a fixture in my life.  She must have sensed my presence because she turned around to look at me.  She bit her lip and studied me for a minute as if she was making some kind of decision.

I began to say good morning, but my voice caught in my throat.  After clearing it a little more violently than I intended I said “Well look at you.  You didn’t run away.”

She empty the pan onto two plates and laid them on the kitchen table.  She’d also made coffee which she poured for me as I sat.

“Thanks for breakfast, Amy.  I usually have–”

“Scones and a cup of coffee at the cafe on the way to work.”

“Right.  Smells great.”

The sun was already shining through the tiny window on the kitchen wall.  I’d overslept and would certainly be late for work.  I took in a quick breath and let it seep out slowly.

“I’m gonna be late,” I said as I began to get up.

“Who gives a fuck.  Sit down and eat your eggs.  I don’t make garlic eggs for just anyone.”

I sat down.  I guessed that she’d found my newspaper on the porch because she picked one up and began to flip through it.

“I can’t believe anyone still reads these, ” she said as she made her way want ads.

“Looking for a job?  Wait.  Shouldn’t you be in school or something?”

She ignored me and flipped the paper over to look at the next page.  The smell of coffee and newsprint always made me think of my father in his ratty, blue robe sitting in his easy chair with his reading glasses reading the Oklahoma Daily.  I’d never been up early enough to know exactly what time he actually got up in the morning, but I knew that it was early.

“Maybe I’ll get a job at Farid’s place where you bought me that crappy cup of coffee.  There was a help wanted sign in the window.  Waitress.”

“You might have to lie about your age.”

She smirked and laid the paper down.  “You don’t even know my age.  Why should I lie about it? ”

“Amy, I seriously doubt he’ll hire anyone under eighteen.”

“Like I said, why should I lie about it when my drunk uncle Brian can do it for me.”

“Uncle, huh.  I thought I looked old enough to be your Dad?”

“I lied.  You don’t look as bad as that, at least while your sober.  And when would that be?”

“Funny.  So what’s going on here?  Are you staying or are you running?”

She brushed her hair away from her face and took a bite of eggs.  She set her fork on the plate and looked me with her dark, enigmatic eyes.

“Staying.”


Suspended

I’m suspending this series to focus on The Smell Collector.  If you’d like to see more of “Bay City Runaway”, drop me a note and I’ll think about it.