[“The Cowboy Hat” posts works of fiction, poetry, essays, and the like about the American West and the Mexican-American Border Region. Although not necessary, mentioning a western-style hat in the work is encouraged. Submit to email@example.com for review and consideration for publication. People whose work is accepted receive a $50.00 Coupon for use at VillageHatShop.com.]
“I’ll go to Rome eventually”, Eric thought to himself as he dispassionately entered another gallery piece for the auction house into the computer. It was a Matisse. He wrote a short paragraph for it utilizing what he had learned in an Art History class. If not Rome, maybe Paris, or London. He was interning for more “Real World” experience, which meant working long hours without pay, while working toward his Masters. He wanted to explore an international studies course in Rome, but, reluctantly, decided that it was smarter to save money and stay in the city. Besides, now he had an extra $5,000 to put toward school expenses and books.
“I’ll just take my lunch now,” said John, Eric’s supervisor. “You want me to bring you back a coffee?” John was burdened with the same boring task as Eric, but didn’t hide his contempt as well.
Eric was startled by John’s unsolicited outburst that cracked like a whip over the faint humming of the computers. Eric’s eyes started to burn after blinking from staring at the computer screen for too long. “No, I’m fine,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“You sure? I won’t even charge you extra for a handling fee.” John laughed.
“Alright. Suit yourself,” John said. Then, “Hey, how far are you?”
“I just finished the Matisse,” Eric said.
“You did? Damn!” John exclaimed. “I had a real funny one for the Matisse.”
To make work less boring, John would cleverly insert jokes and innuendos into his descriptions of the gallery pieces. He was particularly proud of describing the Venus de Milo’s presence as being “touching.”
“Fine,” John continued. “Since you stole the Matisse one from me, I get that weird Egyptian cookie-jar-lookin’ thing.”
“That’s a Canopic Jar,” Eric corrected him. “They used them to store vital organs that were removed during mummification.”
“Whatever. You can have that hat.”
“I don’t know anything about hats,” Eric rebutted.
“Make something up,” was John’s response. “I’ll see you in an hour.”
Lunch breaks were 30 minutes.
Eric’s eyes glared along the wall as he followed an imaginary John through the brick. Then he turned around to examine the hat.
It was made of straw and well-worn. It looked like the kind Eric had seen cowboys wear in old photographs. Around the crown, a brown leather band was strapped with three distinct round Conchos with grooves radiating from the center fastened in it on the front. Eric slid his fingers along the brim and down a piece of string to lift up the gallery tag. It said “Jack Horowitz Hat,” sloppily hand written in blue ink.
After a few moments of contemplating, Eric decided against John’s advice and typed “Jack Horowitz” into the Wikipedia search engine.
The first thing Eric noticed was a black and white photo of a man in a straw hat holding a spear and smiling next to four African tribesmen, while standing proudly over the corpse of a lion. His eyes darted from the photo to the Overview.
Jack Horowitz (1872- 1935) was an adventurer and anthropologist that led many expeditions over every continent documenting hundreds of species of wildlife and preserving historical artifacts from ancient cultures.
Eric scrolled down the screen.
Born on a ranch in what is now Montana, Jack Horowitz developed a love for nature at a very young age.
Eric had passed through Montana, once. It was on a family vacation to visit relatives in Portland. He didn’t mind long car trips. Minneapolis was a place he always wanted distance from. He remembered fogging the car window with his breath and tracing the peaks of the mountains.
In 1888, age 16, he found work as a cook’s aid on a ship. The ship was captained by Henry Morgan Stanley and destined for East Africa to map the coastline. During a storm, he fell overboard and had to tread water for two days before rescue. While being pulled aboard, Captain Stanley reportedly leaned over the side and said, “We’ll need the dishes washed before supper.”“
He was sixteen?” Eric blurted out. He scanned the room instinctively to make sure no one had witnessed his brief loss of composure. He knew he was alone, but couldn’t stop himself from checking. He confirmed his solitude and returned to reading.
By 1889, he had fallen in love with East Africa and decided to stay. He had already found a job as a safari guide for a local outfitter that catered to royalty and the wealthy elite. He enjoyed making sketches of the animals he saw and began unofficially documenting them in his notebooks. He especially loved visiting the Ngorongoro Crater because of the high concentration of wildlife.
He used to go exploring the woods behind his house with his brother when they were kids. In the summer, they’d spend all day making trails and climbing trees. He got along well with his brother back then.
In 1891, he left East Africa for England to study Biology and Archaeology at Cambridge University. He was admitted as a favor from a professor whose life he saved from a pride of lions. The pride had surrounded the professor, but Jack had brought the help of twenty or so Masai warriors who extracted him to safety. Eric was a business major. He wanted to study philosophy, but everyone told him he couldn’t make money at it.
At Cambridge, he graduated second in the Class of 1895. During his studies, he enjoyed reading “The Origin of Species,” and, upon graduating, joined an expedition to the Galapagos Islands.
He always wanted to go somewhere tropical. He had been to Daytona Beach for Spring Break once in college. It satisfied him at the moment, but frequently looked back on it as a waste. He read on about how Jack Horowitz began leading expeditions around the world funded by museums and governments and worked closely with other researchers. He even assisted Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition of East Africa in 1909.
In 1933, Jack Horowitz was one of the leading archaeologists trying to piece together the lost history of the Inca Empire. In 1935, he contracted an undocumented disease in the jungles of Peru and died while en route to compare artifacts with Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu.
Eric stopped reading.
He picked up the hat and inspected it with new found reverence. He thought about the greatness of the man that used to wear it and felt connected to him through it. He saw the thundering herds of wildebeest and heard caws from brightly colored birds. His breathing became deeper as he began to feel the blood swirl in his chest. Then, slowly, he lifted the hat and placed it on his head.
John returned to the room with his face buried in a complicated text message. He looked up smiling, expecting to see Eric. But Eric was gone, and so was the hat. He was on his way to the airport. The hat deserved to see Macchu Picchu.
Grand Haven, Michigan
The boots are scuffed and layered with dust,
The Colt pistols oiled, with no sign of rust;
The spurs are tarnished, the straps wearing thin;
And his stampede strap is pulled tight to his chin.
The gunbelt and holsters have faded with age,
Tooled with scratches from miles of sage;
He constantly squints from days in the sun,
And he’s known, sometimes, to be good with a gun.
A bag of Bull Durham is tucked in his vest,
And a huge red bandana covers his chest;
His roping cuffs have softened with wear;
His quirt is made from braided horsehair.
The chaps are blackened from a thousand fires,
The leather gloves snagged and torn by wire.
His old pants are wearing out in the seat,
And the threadbare shirt is just right for the heat.
The Winchester’s stock has long lost its sheen,
But its action is smooth and impeccably clean;
His shotgun is never far from his side,
Its two nickeled barrels carried with pride.
His duster protects him from winds ‘cross the plain,
A faithful, worn cowboy hat fights sun and rain;
As he rides the prairies his heart knows the joy
Of the freedom and spirit that make a Cowboy.
Green River, Wyoming
“I’ll get out here.” It was midway down the coast and this beach looked inviting. My idea was to hitchhike California – Oregon to Mexico – hugging the western-most roads the entire way. I had time, as much as I wanted. It was the summer of 1972. I had just graduated with an MA and a teaching credential but with no interest, just yet, to look for a job. The war in Vietnam was winding down and years of pressure from my local draft board were finally over. I had a vague notion of continuing this trek to Mexico to study with Ivan Illich of Deschooling Society fame, a sort of guru of the most left-leaning educational philosophers at that time who had founded a learning center in Cuernavaca. But for now, it was – means and ends – a meander down the California coast. I stopped when I had the notion. Sometimes I pitched a tent on a beach or in a state park or would hike for a night or two in the redwoods or mountains. The beach today was south of San Francisco and west of Palo Alto, Stanford U about an hour’s drive away. I found a nice spot and stretched out – took out and readied my most prized and expensive possession, a new 35-mm SLR Minolta camera – rested my head on my backpack, and opened my copy of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: “ ‘Now I am hungry,’ said Pablo. Pilon got up and went to the door and looked at the sun. ‘It is after noon,’ he said. ‘Pablo and I will go to Torrelli’s to get the wine, while you, Jesus Maria, go to Monterey for something to eat. Maybe Mrs. Bruno, on the wharf, will give you a fish. Maybe you can get a little bread someplace.’” My hat was pushed forward shading my eyes; I was someplace between the read and a snooze when the whirlwind struck. “Help.” “Please Help.” I looked up to see that this holler belonged to a woman frantically running towards me. She was holding a little boy, accompanied by a young teenage girl. While playing on the beach, the boy had cut his hands on the rusty lid from a tin can. His hands were badly bleeding. Without introductions and while pointing to my backpack, the child’s mother asked whether I had first-aid supplies. I did. I flushed his hands with the water from my canteen and followed with hydrogen peroxide. I then applied an antibiotic ointment and wrapped his hands using a roll of gauze secured with adhesive tape. During this time, the mother was either thanking me or calming her son, “Everything will be alright Griffy. We’ll drive straight to the doctor. We’ll be there in an hour. That’s a brave boy. Don’t worry.” As swiftly as it arrived, that’s how abruptly the whirlwind left. Griffy’s mother instructed the girl to gather up their belongings post haste. They were shouting thanks as they hurried off to the parking lot. I settled back into my life of leisure.
As I write this, thirty-five years after the fact, I can’t recall exactly how much time elapsed before I realized that my camera was missing. But I considered the following: Griffy’s mom and /or young companion, no doubt, gathered it up and carried it off in the rush and confusion. It was early afternoon. They would discover that they had inadvertently taken my camera within a couple hours after they arrived home. With a one-hour return drive (they would of course make that return drive, right?), I would have my camera back in a few hours. I would wait. Four hours later, with no sign of them and daylight soon to become an issue (it was much easier to catch a ride during the day time), I instituted Plan B. I had had four hours to think about Plan B. I walked to the road and pointed my thumb east, towards Palo Alto. If my camera was not coming back to me, I was going to it.
Most university towns in those days had what were known as “drop-in centers”. The specific name might be different from place to place and they were staffed by people whose qualifications varied, but ostensibly they served a very similar function. These were storefronts where someone could get free, or very cheap, counseling. A person manned a phone and individuals in the community having a mental health emergency (like a “bad trip” for example) could call, or drop in, and talk to a “counselor”. I say ostensibly because these places often doubled as hangouts for the more active and community-minded people in the “counter culture”. I inquired on the street if such a place was in Palo Alto and indeed there was one. When I arrived there, I told my lost camera story and presented my plan. The people agreed to help me, but I couldn’t begin implementation until the next day. As a bonus, they had a cot in the office and that’s where I would sleep. In those days I kept a journal (as I remember it, I thought “diaries” were for girls) where I made very irregular entries. I did make one that night: “August 1, 1972 – Palo Alto, California. Kent Hamilton [? – I don’t remember who that is/was] would call this day indelible. I’m certain I’ll remember it. An unforeseen set of circumstances has me in Palo Alto, Cal. My camera came here first – it got carried off in the frenzy of cut hands, and interrupted a very slow, laconic, unhurried trip down the coast of the Pacific. I waited for hours for it to come back and when it didn’t, I followed it into town. We are here together now and when we unite I can continue on my way. Until then, I’m eating Chinese food, finding the waitress very nice, and going to see Cabaret at the movies later. Fate becomes clearest when I don’t deceive myself with plans.”
The following morning, upon awakening, I initiated my strategy. I had identified the major (only?) local newspaper in Palo Alto. I placed an ad in all capital letters in the “Personals” section: GRIFFY’S MOM. DO YOU HAVE MY CAMERA? The drop-in center allowed me to use their phone as a contact number. Someone would be there at all times of course to answer it. I surmised that “Griffy” was an unusual name and someone who knew the family – in this not so big town – would read the ad and contact Griffy’s mom. She might even be on the lookout for something like this herself. I paid the three-day rate, but the ad would not begin to run until the next day. So I had time to kill (from my time-killing life). Off I went to Stanford. Which lectures by this world-class faculty shall I attend today? I began with Chinese History. I liked this lecture so I returned to it in the days that followed. I don’t remember which other lectures I visited, but I did “attend” Stanford for four days; strolling around campus and soaking up the atmosphere. But I’m getting ahead of the story. At the end of the first day that the ad had run, I returned to “my place” feeling confident that the message from Griffy’s mother would be waiting for me. Not so. Nor would it be there for the three days that followed. I was disappointed, but not defeated. It was time for Plan C.
I had learned, during these days, that in California – as distinguished from Michigan where I was from – it was legal for doctors to advertise in the Yellow Pages [This was controversial for, in those days, some perceived it as crass and unprofessional for doctors and lawyers to advertise.] Here, all the doctors were assembled in one place in one book. Bingo. I located the pediatricians, about 20 or so, and went to work: “Do you have a patient named Griffy, about five years old, whose mother brought him to see you on Tuesday at about 1:00? His hands were cut at the beach.” (For the sake of the dramatic, I might write that this performance was repeated down to the very last pediatrician in the book. The fact of the matter is, it’s true.) I was down to the end of the list and called the number:
“Yes, Griffy’s my patient.”
“I’m the guy from the beach who dressed his wounds.”
“I heard about you. You did a good job.”
“Thanks. How’s Griffy doing?”
“He’s doing quite well.”
“Here’s the reason I’m calling.” [And I told my story]
“Oh. They’ll be glad to hear from you. Here’s the phone number.”
Within an hour, I was tossing my backpack into the trunk of a fancy sedan. Griffy’s mom introduced me (as Griffy’s hero) to her mother as I climbed into the shotgun seat. The girl from the beach (? – a niece, family friend, Griffy’s babysitter – I can’t recall) made four of us in the car. After saying my goodbyes to the friends at the drop-in center, we headed to their home in Atherton, California. As we drove, I told the story of my escapades over the past four days. Perfunctorily, she expressed some surprise that she missed the ad and added that she was planning to place a full-page display ad in the student newspaper at the university that she knew I had attended (I – or a t-shirt – must have mentioned it at the beach). [I wouldn’t have been there to read it, but there was no reason to point this out.] That was the long-and-short of the lost camera discussion, never to return again. We drove into the family’s neighborhood, huge homes on big sprawling properties, then pulled on to their driveway and up to the house. I was escorted to the guest bedroom. I had a proper shower for the first time in I don’t know how long followed by a lovely dinner served in the garden. For the evening’s entertainment, we went to Foothill College – where Griffy’s mother’s mother, a graduate of Smith College back east, was a Trustee – for a performance of the play My Fair Lady.
The following morning I was driven to good location for catching a ride heading west. I hitchhiked back to the spot where I had left the coast. I then pointed my thumb south and continued, with my camera, to Mexico – and beyond.
San Diego, California
What was it about this guy? He wasn’t the man in the room that made the most money that was easy to see. His attire belied whatever status nice attire affords a man. The old Dodge pickup in the muddy part of the driveway surely didn’t advertise any celebrity. He spoke quietly, almost bashfully whenever a question was aimed his way, yet most of the other men wanted to speak with him, or at least be within his sphere of conversation.
The older women, not really old but more mature and dignified than any of the roving wild herd of divorcees, slinked by like house cats on a potent strain of catnip. He drawled out the ‘yes maam’s’ and ‘honeys’ like they were the currency of the day. From the looks of things he would be cashing in his chips sometime this evening too. It was easy to see that the moneyed women at the event knew the value of a battered Resistol and an equally worn pair of ropers.
The youngsters ran about and pestered him from time to time until one of the parents would swat them away or he himself would send them off on an impossible dare or mission. The teenagers only wanted a nod of encouragement or just a remembrance of their name from him.
Still, whatever quality it was, was hard to pinpoint. How could she get inside the circle without being too obvious? What notion or quest would help her penetrate the tight-knit circle that had grown to two deep by now? She couldn’t just force herself on him or into the fray. That would just be rude. She didn’t have the luxury of time to grow older and more refined like the ranch ladies vying for ’shotgun’ in the old Dodge.
He already had a beer, and besides, she didn’t want to just be a waitress. What circumstance would at least get her introduced to this man, maybe old enough to be her father but from the pattern of his speech, and the cut of his clothes she surmised he wasn’t that far along. She would just have to lie in wait and take advantage of whatever opportunity offered itself.
She was chatted up a while by a local-yokel if there ever was one. A banker from out in the area of the hill country that spouted new subdivisions with cutesy sounding names like, Heritage Ridge or Mustang Run. He loaned San Antonio doctors money so they could go play cowboy a few weekends a year at their cookie cutter ranchettes. Five to eight acres apiece, nothing so big as you couldn’t handle it, but big enough to run a quarter horse or two if the mood hit you. Poor Mr. Bankerman, she mused in her mind, you got the costume but measured against the man in the circle you’re way out of your element. She shifted her stance partly to keep the late evening west Texas sunset from blinding her but mostly to keep a vigil on the man holding sway in the growing group off to the left.
That’s when she noticed he was gone! Where was he? She’d only been caught up with Mr. Compounding Interest Rate for a few minutes, so she thought. Hell, there he was, he was right on top of her. “Evenin’ Ted,” with a nod was all he spoke to Mr. Savings and Loan. “ Howdy ‘mam” with a direct look into the eyes and a quick tip of the Resistol’s brim comprised the greeting she got. Short, sincere, honest and heartfelt as any introduction she had ever had before. He was walking toward the big house with two men that looked like old friends or partners. And so, that was that, the man she was so enthralled with for the entire evening had come and gone and she was taken so by surprise that she couldn’t mount a proper comeback or introduce herself. She could have kicked Mr. Two Points over Prime right in the nuts for blowing her one chance until she noticed he was just as angry as she was about not being able to converse with the ‘big-guy’.
Her moment for glory seemingly passed, she asked ‘Ted’, “ Who is that man?”
He was the last remaining soul in this barren place he called home. It had been at least a month since he’d been able to ride out to the nearest town for supplies and food. Anyways, his horse was too weak to make the ride in. He decided to wait it out…there was bound to be someone passing through who could send for help. He would never leave this place, not now. Too many memories here. He nodded his head as he remembered all the familiar faces in town- both family and friends. Gone now…moved out or dead. Only he remained now, and he took some pride in that. He was the town’s guardian.
The sun was unforgiving in this place. The dust blew in sporadic waves of tumbleweed and debris. The ramshackle shack creaked and groaned as it had 80 years before. The tin roof sat haphazardly on its rickety frame and threatened to blow off with each gust of wind. He’d grown up here amongst the false front stores and dusty streets of this old mining town. He took off his Stetson, dusty and sweat stained. He sat down on the steps of his family’s homestead, abandoned years ago when work dried up here. It was deathly quiet here with the exception of the wind whistling through the cracks in the buildings, but then he was accustomed to being alone. He loved this place…the quiet beauty of the surrounding hills and of the weathering buildings. His steel blue eyes looked far off into the distance and his wrinkled, leathery face relaxed a little and a smile came to his lips. His chest rose and fell one last time. The wind suddenly caught the Stetson, and lofted it into the air far beyond the town limits.
Days passed. A trail of dust followed the automobile that roared through the 200 mile stretch of desert and finally into the center of town. The vehicle stopped and a man dressed in a navy double-breasted pin stripe suit got out. He surveyed the town as he donned a Montecristi Panama. “How much for the town?” The driver mumbled something and the man said, ” It’s a deal then…I’ll have my crew out here to make way for the highway.” With that, the man got into the car but paused momentarily as his eye caught the figure sitting on the steps of the shack. The car turned and sped off into the twilight of the arid wasteland.
As I slowly rolled past the address scribbled on my note pad, I couldn’t help noticing the garage.
I’d always wondered about those double garages that are shared by two homeowners. The buildings sit between the houses at the end of a single driveway. This one was on a hill and had a little stairway that was poured between the two ribbons of concrete.
The garage building was divided right up the middle by a line separating the two colors of paint. The left half was painted the same color as the house on the left, and the right half matched the color of the address on my pad, 2712 E. Montecito.
I knew the garage was the reason I was here. The woman on the phone pleaded hysterically for me to help. Her husband was missing. She repeatedly mentioned the garage and the next-door neighbor.
I guess it was the way she said it. Or maybe it was the sound of her voice. Because, I hopped in my car and beat it over.
Of course, I hadn’t had a case in a week. I had been sitting in my office downtown throwing darts at a picture of Humphrey Bogart on the wall, near my Stetson Tom Mix hat, which I hadn’t worn in a month. Hell, I hadn’t ridden my horse Largo in a month. Bogie was the reason I’d started out as a detective. Sam Spade my ass. The most exciting cases I’d ever had in Tucson were tracking runaway girls from the Country Club Estates and repossessing cars. The girls were usually found with their boyfriends in some cheap flop on East Speedway Blvd. Repo-ing the cars was just a matter of getting up earlier than the dead beats that hadn’t made their payments. Phillip Marlowe my ass. The photograph of Bogart was placed in such a way that his nose was the bulls-eye. By now it was pock-marked and there was a cluster of darts sticking out of the middle of his face like the tail feathers of an unplucked Thanksgiving turkey.
When the phone rang, I didn’t grab it on the first ring, even though I could have. You want to give the perception of being busy, so I threw a couple more darts before I answered. One of them went out the window.
She gave me her plea and her address. I got my Chevy Coupe out of the self-service lot on First and Eastland Street and headed down Broadway Blvd. It was raining again and the river was as gray as the sky.
The neighborhood was pretty typical for the near east side. Small, neat houses with well kept yards. The war had brought a lot of skilled laborers and had filled these neighborhoods to capacity. She had a scrawny pine tree in the front, probably the only survivor of the scrub forest that used to cover this part of the valley.
I didn’t have to knock on her door, she came running out as I parked in front of her place.
She was dressed like a “bobbysoxer” even though she was thirty. Plaid skirt, saddle shoes and a tight white cashmere sweater. My mind began to wander.
She reminded me why I was there, and as I shook myself to attention, she gave me more details.
Her husband and the neighbor guy got in a fight over the divided garage. Apparently the plug next door was a drinker and was pretty sloppy about where he left his yard tools. His name was Dixon and he was a night watchman at the mill in Oro Valley. She told me that sometimes he would come home at seven a.m., get tanked up and mow the lawn in his undershirt. Her husband, on his way to his job as a bookkeeper, would have to move all Dixon’s equipment to get his car out of the garage every morning. This had been going on for three years and was blowing up into major battles. One day the lawn mower, the next day the rakes and finally an old pickup truck that Dixon was using to haul stuff to the dump.
Of course the little woman liked to sleep in. She never got up and fixed her hubby breakfast, so she only heard the commotion. Beauty sleep. The previous morning she had heard a serious blow-up that culminated in what sounded like a brawl. By the time she finally made it to the window, she saw her husband’s Plymouth drive off, but she hadn’t seen him since. The receptionist at his office said he hadn’t shown up for work and he was usually very regular.
“It’s been twenty-four hours, I’m really getting worried.” Jeezus I was having trouble concentrating. I hadn’t seen a tan like this up close in a long time. “Paul just wouldn’t leave without letting me know where he was going.” she went on. “And we were getting along so well since I came back from Los Angeles.”
“I’m going to have to talk to Dixon, do you think he’s home?” I asked her. “I’ve heard him over there yelling at Irene all morning. You won’t have any trouble finding him, follow the beer bottles,” she said.
I knocked on the wooden fly screen door. Nobody answered. It squeaked as I pulled it open and let a couple of flies out. The front door was slightly open and I could hear a radio inside playing a Rinso jingle. I called out and immediately heard footsteps heading my way on the wooden floor.
Dixon looked like the cartoon character in a razor blade ad. No 12 sandpaper on a jaw that stuck out like an anvil. His two hundred and fifty pounds were evenly distributed around his middle. Before I could open my mouth to introduce myself, he bellowed out “Whaddaya want?” in a voice that was preceded by a wave of breath that nearly knocked me over. It was all I could do to smile and hand him my business card.
He held it up in the light to read it, turned it over to see what was on the other side, wadded it up and threw it back at me.
“I’m here at the request of your neighbor, Mrs. Price.”
“Tell that bitch to turn down that jungle music.”
This guy could scratch his belly and talk at the same time. Progress.
“She wondered if you had seen her husband Paul?”
“Yeah, I seen him. He was heading off to work, with his tail between his legs yesterday.”
With that he laughed. It was a witticism. He should be writing for Jack Benny.
“You haven’t seen him since?”
“He wouldn’t have the nerve to show his face around here.”
“Was there some sort of fight between the two of you?”
“Yeah. Two hits. I hit him and he hit the ground.”
More laughter. He started to choke. Benny’s ratings would soar.
“Look, smart-ass, I don’t have time to waste on corn.” I had to be the tough guy once in a while.
His face turned as sour as a kosher dill. Then it started to turn red. When he went from scarlet to crimson, his face exploded like the noon whistle down at the train yards. He sent a haymaker right at my head. I dodged and came at him down low with a quick one-two. His stomach collapsed and he began gasping for air. Some yellow-green liquid spilled from his mouth and nose as he went down on his knees on the wooden front porch.
“Like I said, I don’t have time for this.” I gave him in my best Bogart. “What happened yesterday morning?”
“We had a scrap. He was pissed about the truck blocking his way. I knocked him down. He limped over to his car and then drove across my yard and down the street. That’s the last I saw of him.”
“If I find out there’s any more to this, I’m coming back. And, pick up my card, if you think of anything else, I’m gonna hear from you. Right?”
“I’ll call you. Just get the hell off of my property.” He had definitely lost his bravado. He’d probably go in and slap Irene around as soon as I left.
When I walked back to the Price house, she was standing there watching me. I think she was aroused by the violence, because she had turned very flirtatious.
“I can see I called the right guy. You really get things done, don’t you?” she purred.
“We’ll see about that.”
I told her I would check out some sources, but, that her husband had probably gone to see a doctor or had rented a hotel room to hide out and lick his wounds for a while. I asked her for a photo of him and she went back into the house. I could hear her rummaging around in the roll-top desk near the front door. She came back out with one of those amusement park strips, four shots for a quarter. They were both in the photographs. In each frame, she struck a different pose. In each frame, he looked straight into the camera, without a smile.
I went back downtown to the Sherlock Building and rode the cage elevator up to my office on the third floor. I dug my office bottle of Jim Beam out of the bottom desk drawer and picked up the telephone. After I called my friend Marty down at the DMV and asked him to check out the license plate number that Mrs. Price had given me for her husband’s Plymouth, I poured two fingers in a fairly clean glass and downed it neat.
Days like this made me want to go sign up at Chaparral College and study economics. Another domestic violence situation, only this time between two neighbors. Over a lousy shared double garage. It was still raining outside and I was starting to get depressed. I kept thinking about that cashmere sweater. I went back down to the newsstand in the lobby and picked up a pack of Camels. Just as I reached my outer office door the phone started ringing. I got inside on the third ring and Marty was on the other end.
“I just got a call from Lieutenant Barnes down at homicide.” Marty sounded a little stressed, it wasn’t his day either. “He asked me to look up the registered owner of a car. Funny thing is, it was the same license you just asked me to look up. I stalled him off, I didn’t want him to think I got the number from the files too quickly.”
“Why was he calling?” I was hoping Barnes had given him an incentive to work quickly.
“It seems they are just now dragging that Plymouth out of an arroyo down by the Air Force base” he said.
“Jeezus, was there anyone in it?”
“He didn’t say. But I gotta go, I’ve got to call him back, right now.”
I hung up and went down to the parking lot again. I drove straight down the East Barraza-Aviation Parkway. The Parkway took me a couple of miles south and down to Avernon Way. As I drove over the bridge I could see the tow-truck and two black-and-whites parked right at the edge of the arroyo. The tow-truck had the Plymouth on its hook like a thirty-pound salmon. As I took a left off of the bridge and drove down towards the arroyo, I could hear the rides over at the amusement park to the north. Never too early for a thrill.
Lt. Barnes stopped me with a raised palm as I got too close.
“What the hell are you doing here, gumshoe?”
“It seems you’ve picked up a car I was looking for.”
“So, were you also looking for the stiff that was crammed in behind the wheel?”
“Have you I.D.’d him yet?”
“No, maybe you can help us with that, smart guy.”
Stephen H. Sasser
To hear the papers tell it, Sean Fear is in hiding. The papers say Sean is suicidal, that a string of call girls working under the cover of night is the only thing keeping him among the living. But everyone knows the papers always write around—or near—the facts and the fact is Sean is a major movie star and major movie stars rate higher than the president in importance. That’s Gina’s favorite line.
What the papers don’t mention is the armed security guard at the gate to Sean’s Mulholland Drive house.
“Jesus,” Gina says, shifting in the back of the idling cab as she adjusts the blue-gray Daisy Mae Western cowboy hat I bought for her for our trip, saying, “Everyone in Hollywood wears a hat,” a joke I was sure she would laugh at. Gina massages her bloated stomach, our unborn little girl. We’re having trouble agreeing on a name. Last week the choices were Lori, Judy, Susan or Maple. Before we boarded the plane in Phoenix I suggested Gina. Sure I was trying to be funny, but I was trying to be endearing, too. Naming our child is not our only problem.
“Look at that,” I say, pointing out two more guards near the front of the house. The bay windows overlooking LA are curtained, the palm trees lining the driveway still. “Is Heidi here?” I ask.
“You asked me that on the plane,” Gina says.
“I know. What did you tell me? I forgot,” I say. The question seems more relevant now, is all.
“I told you yes.”
“But the engagement is off, right?” I say, trying to redeem myself. Appearing to pay attention is half of anything.
Gina nods, shifting again, impatiently wanting the Mexican cab driver, who is listening for something he could sell to the papers, to stop the cab. Anything he could learn from me and Gina would be tame compared to what has been said since someone sold a tape of Sean and an unknown minor to the news.
I pay the cab driver, who thanks me in Spanish, a supposed beautiful language but a language I hate, and drives away. The left taillight is out and the right one blinks lazily as the cab driver gets one last look.
“Are you going to carry my bags?” Gina asks, still pissed since my recent announcement that I was going to quit my sales job where I litter the world with sporting goods. Littering is what Gina calls it.
She demanded to know why I was quitting but I told her, hey babe, relax, I got a master plan. She doesn’t like talk like that, my Hollywood talk, but I know she’s just upset about what has happened to her brother.
I was the one who suggested we visit, trying to be a nice guy.
The guards posted outside the front door seem to know who we are, the taller one nodding in a way that suggests he’s seen me before and it gives me the heebie jeebies.
Sean opens the front door.
“Michael,” Gina says, relief in her voice.
“Hi, sis,” he says, his dark eyes lighting up under his white baseball cap. As they hug, Sean makes a theatrical move to avoid Gina’s bulging stomach. You love the theatrical moves.
“Hey, Sean,” I say. We shake hands. Gina has asked me to call him Michael, especially now, but I’ve only ever known him as Sean. When he was Gina’s brother Michael, he was off in California, becoming Sean Fear. Michael is the skinny dark-haired teenager in Gina’s family album at home; Sean is blond, tan, and fit. Besides, once you start calling someone Sean, you can’t just start calling him Michael. “How’s Heidi?” I ask.
“She’s inside,” he says, helping with our bags.
The air conditioner in the long hall blows down from the ceiling vents, cold. The sudden change in temperature makes me shiver. We leave the bags next to the expensive teak and marble thing under the mirror. I run my fingers along the inside of a bisected rock up on a shelf until the voices in the front room tell me I’m lagging behind.
Heidi is sprawled out on the brown leather sofa, her head all the way back like a murder victim. She tries to come to life when she sees us but can only manage a smile and a weak salute with her thin arm. The sun outside sneaks in around the dark curtains, white and hot.
“I need to rest a little,” Gina says, leaning against the smooth wall.
“This way,” Sean says.
The air conditioning vent in the bedroom is closed and I open it, the chilled air pushing its way around the room, chasing the hot air back on itself until the whole room is cold. Gina settles comfortably on the bed, her body swallowing most of its surface.
“Do you need anything?” I ask. I’d be glad to get her anything she needed.
“No,” she answers. The room grows colder.
“I’ll just be in the kitchen,” I say. “If you need anything–”
“Okay,” she says, closing her eyes.
I survey the landscape before I go, watching her enormous belly rise up and grow, every day the baby becoming that much older, too old now for the abortion I’d suggested anyway, so why couldn’t she forget I’d even mentioned it. It was just an option, one so far removed from reality as to be the words coming from the television, but words she can’t forget. If I could get them back, I’d erase them from my vocabulary.
I close the door and Sean is asking Heidi if she needs anything. Heidi hears, but doesn’t answer.
“She’s still upset,” Sean tells me when we’re alone in the kitchen. “I don’t blame her.”
“At least she’s here,” I say. “You’re lucky to have her, I mean.”
“She is great,” Sean admits. “Do you want anything?”
I do, but say I don’t.
Sean pours himself a glass of grapefruit juice and I tell him I’ll have one, too. We sit at the kitchen table and the shine from the clean tile coupled with the low hum of the stainless steel refrigerator gives the impression of time travel.
Sean sighs and then smiles, seeing I am uncomfortable, not knowing if I want to talk about his problems or not. I don’t really, there’s nothing to say, I’m a little uneasy about him, not used to seeing him without his movie star smile. Looking at him, all I can see is the tape, him and the girl, silhouettes on hotel sheets, maybe the Ritz Carlton, the two this way and that, up and under, in and out. On the tape all you hear him say is, “that’s good, that’s good.”
Before I’d seen the tape, I imagined Sean dazzling women in bed; I liked to think about Heidi especially. His quick, short movements on the tape erased that image and Gina momentarily stopped talking about him all the time. It’s the one thing you get tired of, hearing how great Sean is.
“How’s the baby coming along?” he asks.
“Three more months,” I say. He seems ready for the next subject, his mind scanning for a common bond.
“Gina still working?” he asks.
I nod, not wanting to tell him that she quit her court reporting job not because of the pregnancy but because the stress of his ordeal was too much for her concentration. This small lie forces itself from my lips before I really consider it, before I figure out Gina will probably mention that she quit her job.
The grapefruit juice tastes like acid in my mouth.
Heidi calls his name and he stands up, automatic, going for the cupboard. He tilts a brown plastic bottle, producing a blue tablet. “She needs this,” he says, apologetic. He’s gone and then he’s back again, before I can think of anything to say.
Later there’s a knock at the door and Heidi turns from the kitchen cupboard and is gone, out for the night with her friends. In what I guess is a move to be closer to her, Sean casually fits himself in the mold Heidi leaves in the leather couch.
Gina doesn’t wake when I lie down next to her, and I listen to the silence in the house, no phone ringing, no television, no upstairs/downstairs neighbors thumping or screaming—nothing. Outside, the sun begins to fade. Gina begins to snore and I turn on my side to watch her sleep. I put my hand on her stomach and she opens her eyes. “Hello,” I say.
“Hi,” she says. “Where’s Michael?”
“He’s in the front room,” I say.
She touches her cheek. “I don’t feel so good,” she says.
I put the back of my hand to her forehead, feeling the heat. Her face tightens and I draw back my hand. She doesn’t say anything but gets up and goes into the bathroom, checks her face in the mirror and heads for the front room.
I remind myself that it means everything to try. That you don’t always win when you try is a bitter pill, but I’ve learned to accept certain defeats against the victories that come now and then.
My latest victory is getting Gina pregnant. Monthly visits to the gynecologist had pointed to me as the prime suspect in the crime of Infertility. The militaristic precautions I’d taken with women in college seemed laughable now.
But this victory—like all my victories—came on the heels of defeat. The night before we found out we were pregnant, we’d gone to the grocery store together, as always, and when we got to the checkout line, our groceries for the week already bagged and in the waiting cart, my check required a manager’s signature. I explained to Gina about the small problem we’d had a few weeks earlier while the line behind us grew.
The manager was forever in coming and I was embarrassed as people started to leave our line for lane 12, opened up by the delay. “If he’d just come and sign it,” I said. “I cleared this up last week.” The check-out girl, a high schooler with short brown hair, just smiled. “I cleared it up last week,” I said to Gina, who wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She left me with the check-out girl, walking straight out to our car.
Finally the manager did come, the same manager I’d cleared this matter up with the week before, and I thanked him for taking so long. Seconds after, I pushed our cart to the parking lot where Gina didn’t help me load the groceries. The grocery store was the last in a short run of defeats, coming after the disconnection of our phone and the near repossession of Gina’s car.
“I’m going to sleep,” Gina says, coming back in from the front room. “Michael wants to know if you’ll pick up some stuff for dinner.”
“Sure,” I say. I want to kiss her goodnight on her lips, but settle for the flaming skin of her cheek.
Sean is inside the garage with the garage door closed. His body shrinks in the yellow light and he tells me, “Don’t let anyone give you shit,” pointing at the plates on his charcoal convertible Mercedes: FEAR.
He hands me a folded slip of paper, the list, and a set of keys, which sink like gold into my hands.
“Be right back,” I say. He waves and steps back into the house when I click open the garage door.
I creep down Sunset Boulevard, hoping to attract attention. I pick up the car phone and pretend to talk to my agent, or an adoring fan who somehow got my cell number. I pass a wall-like billboard for Sean’s new movie. The movie is doing better than it might have, is one way to look at it.
I cradle the phone with my shoulder as I turn a corner, imaging what that looks like to the average pedestrian when the phone shrieks in my ear. My shoulder drops and the phone lands in my lap where it rings again. Not sure if I should answer it or not I reason it might by Sean so I punch the Send button.
A sharp crackling comes across the wire. “You can’t hide what you did,” the man’s voice on the other end says. I’m slow to process the information and before I can say anything the line goes dead. I coolly insert the handset back in its cradle but my heart is trying to beat itself free of my chest. The voice sounded like Sean’s. I dial Sean’s number—I’ll ask him something about the groceries when he answers—but the recording reminds me that he’s changed his number.
Somehow the grocery store Sean described is not where he said it would be, or I turned left when I should’ve turned right. Instead, I’m at a place called Out of Water, a club with valets that look like action stars. I pull into the parking lot and turn around as a valet steps toward me. I can’t hear what he says over the din of honking, cars moving tentatively through the late night rush hour, trying to negotiate among crowds of careless jaywalkers. I inch into the stream of cars and fiddle with the radio to avoid the stares of the driver who I’ve cut off.
“How do you know Sean?” a voice asks.
A woman as beautiful as any movie star comes up alongside the passenger side door.
“This is Sean’s car,” she says. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” I say. “Who are you?”
“Darlene,” she says, smiles. “Can you give me a ride home?”
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“I live at Highland Gardens,” she tells me. “Vine and Outpost.”
I nod, pretending to know where it is. “Where is Outpost?”
“I live right below Sean’s house,” she says, climbing in. Her nearness makes me accidentally rev the car, and the valet looks over at us.
The scene: me and Darlene cruising a convertible Mercedes down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Wide shot of other vehicles slowing to look in, some honking as they pass. Cut to: Interior of car. Night. Present. Darlene picks through Sean’s CD’s with her slender hands, her thick hair flowing majestically over her bare shoulders. Not finding anything, she turns up the radio instead.
“How do you know Sean?” I ask. You’d love to get more dirt, to keep piling it on.
“I worked on his last movie,” she answers. “I catered it.” She waits a beat and then says, “You never said who you were.”
“Jake,” I say. Giving Darlene a fake name thrills me but isn’t enough of an erasure to make any real difference. I’ve imagined this scenario before but the fantasy was edgeless and the certain realities of cruising in a Mercedes through Hollywood with a beautiful woman doesn’t inject the joy I always imagined it would.
Breaking from traffic, I speed down an empty stretch of road to accelerate the feeling of the wind whipping around us.
“And how do you know Sean?”
I think what to say. Finishing the lie seems impossible, so I blow it by telling her I’m married to his sister.
“Left the wife at home?” Her tone is that familiar mock I know so well.
“Up at the house,” I tell her. “She’s pregnant.”
“And you’re riding around in Sean’s car picking up strange women?” she asks, laughs.
“I’m supposed to be picking up dinner,” I say.
“It’s after nine,” she says, pointing to the luminous numbers between the gauges.
“Yeah,” I say. I feel failure generally.
“You must be excited about having children,” she says.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but agree with her.
“I want to have kids,” she says, adding: “Someday.”
“Why?” I blurt out. The desperate tone of the question is too revealing and I’d love to get that one back, too.
She has to think before answering: “Security.” The word drifts in and out of the car, hanging around uncomfortably until I come to a stop sign and it floats away.
“So much can happen,” I say. “A lot can go wrong.”
“A lot can go wrong when you’re single, too,” she tells me. “And you don’t have anyone to help you out.”
I think about the last time I helped Gina out and realized it wasn’t so long ago, last week when she was trying to decide whether or not to work after the baby was born. It didn’t matter to me, I said. When she was sure I wasn’t just saying it, she decided not to. We don’t need it, I said. This she didn’t believe, but she didn’t know about our new fortune, the money in the bank from selling the tape of her brother I found in a box forgotten in the storage shed I was forced to rent to house some of Sean’s excess shit. The one you should want to get back you don’t. This victory is a double victory, the genius of the caper and the money to boot. It wasn’t all about the money, though. I’ll admit it helps things out to see the great Sean Fear squirm a little. A triple victory.
“Do you have a name picked out?” Darlene asks.
I tell her we’re having trouble with that one.
“I’ve always liked Madeline,” she says.
Gina and I discarded Madeline early on, but I don’t tell Darlene that.
“What do you think about—,” I start but the car phone rings and I freeze up. It rings twice and Darlene asks, “Aren’t you going to get that?”
“I don’t think it’s for me,” I say.
“Maybe it’s Sean wondering where you are,” she says.
“Sean knows where I am,” I say and the ringing stops.
“Here,” Darlene says, pointing.
I pull in the circular driveway.
“Thanks for the ride,” Darlene says. “Tell Sean to hang in there. In this town, you’re never out for long.” She waves and is gone through the lighted lobby. From the driveway of the Highland Garden Apartments I can see the darkness cloaking Sean’s house, the houses above and below twinkling with yellow light.
I notice a pair of sunglasses in the passenger’s seat and though I ‘m not sure they’re Darlene’s, I want to ask her what she thinks of the name that suddenly pops into my mind.
The brown linoleum in the lobby squeaks under my feet and the air smells old and metallic. The night clerk tells me Darlene’s apartment is beyond the pool, on the second floor. The light from the pool illuminates the pink apartments and you get the feeling you’re standing in the palm of a giant, outstretched hand. I realize I’ve forgotten the number the night clerk told me and I’m about to turn back when I hear voices from the darkened corner of the pool area. Squinting, I can make out two figures on a chaise lounge.
Darlene suddenly appears on the second floor balcony above the pool and I hurry towards the stairs, not wanting to interrupt the two poolside lovers, who are moving so hard and fast the legs of the chaise lounge are scraping the kooldecking. Darlene disappears and I peek at the two by the pool again and am caught in Heidi’s gaze, her ditzed out expression blank as a sheet of tinfoil reflecting the moonlight back into the black sky. She appears to be reaching out to me, her arm stretching up but then suddenly dropping to her side, her head rotating and then obscured by the body on top of her.
I tuck the sunglasses into my pocket and rush through the lobby, not hearing the night clerk’s question. All I can see is Heidi shipwrecked on the cement beach.
Sean is waiting for me in the kitchen, a look of concern comes over his face when he sees me. “What happened?” he asks. “Didn’t the car phone ring?”
I measure the look on his face and the seizure I’m about to have subsides when I sense he doesn’t know anything. “I got lost,” I tell him, which can always be true. I make up a story of wrong turns and he is relieved. “Where’s Heidi?” I ask.
Unconcerned, without a missing a beat, he says, “She’s staying with her friend.”
“Are these yours?” I ask, nervously producing the sunglasses.
“I’ve been looking for those,” he says, slipping the dark glasses on. He looks over his shoulder, as if trying the glasses on for the first time.
“I’m going to check on Gina,” I say.
“So you didn’t get the groceries?” he asks, disappointed.
“Um, no,” I say. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, his tired face trying for a smile. He goes to the refrigerator and the double doors make a kissing sound when he swings them open. I leave him there in the kitchen, arms spread, hanging onto the refrigerator doors, staring into the light reflected in the lens of his sunglasses.
Currently residing in Boston by way of Montana and Arizona
The rich man was home. Before she left the house to go shopping, his wife had shown him the new sandals she had bought the day before. One pair was white with fake jewels all over. The other pair had Indian turquoise and silver thread on a brown leather base. She was upset that the rich man didn’t say that they were “cute”. The plumber had been to the house earlier to fix a plugged drain. The rich man wondered who ever bought Drano because his wife always contended that the plugged drains at his house were beyond Drano’s capabilities and required a professional plumber.
There was a knock at the rich man’s door. He was wearing an old, well-worn, felt cowboy hat, leather boots, leather jacket; he carried a satchel. He introduced himself as Roberto Sanchez. He said that he had come across the border looking for work. He needed work. He said that he had no money. He had to have work. Up Mount Soledad, he carried a pair of iron contraptions with leather bindings that when fastened to one’s legs and under one’s boots could be used to climb trees by digging the protruding spikes coming from the inside of the insole into the tree trunk. Roberto Sanchez wanted the job of climbing the rich man’s palm trees and removing the dead fronds from under the live growth at the top. He was hungry and he was cold (even though the air temperature was mild). He very much wanted the rich man to provide this work for him. Roberto talked very slowly, deliberately, politely. He asked for a cup of coffee so that he could take some medicine that he was carrying in his pocket. After the rich man brought him the coffee and he took the medicine, Roberto began again to speak about his skill, experience, and thoroughness as a tree trimmer and gardener. Roberto Sanchez was in his fifties. He had come across the border to find work. This was a man that the new immigration laws required that the rich man not hire. Not only was Roberto Sanchez from a different country and culture, but he was also of another time. The rich man’s neighbors had warned him to be distrustful of strangers on the street.
The rich man saw in Roberto Sanchez’s proposition an opportunity to do something worthwhile this day; to make his afternoon meaningful. This man needed a job and the rich man had work that needed to be done. The rich man thought to himself, “it is unusual for a man like this to be soliciting work on this street. Does he mean to do harm?” and “this man is intruding on my peace and solitude today”. But he also thought, “This man needs work and is in front of my house asking for help”. The young son of the rich man was bouncing a ball nearby and listening to the conversation. The rich man saw an opportunity for his son to learn a lesson in cross-cultural communication, the value of hard work, compassion, and charity. Roberto Sanchez said that the job would lake about a week to complete. He said that he was getting older now and could not work as fast as he used to. The rich man thought about the fact that some neighbors might not appreciate this man on the block for a week; his general description was not unlike the warnings of the Community Alert Program leader. The rich man somewhat resented the dilemma that Roberto Sanchez created for him on this here-to-for simple day.
Finally, in a demonstration of his worldliness and sensitivity, the rich man said, “No trabajo hoy senor. Lo siento mucho.” He then shrank back into his house. Roberto Sanchez walked back down Mount Soledad.
San Diego, California