By Scott Gardner Merrick
©1983 by Scott Gardner Merrick, rev. June 2020
The morning’s first mile was pure pain in a package, and the package was six feet tall. Every swallow of last night’s beer seemed to have settled around his mid-section. Will’s chest felt as if it had atrophied overnight: breathing came with almost overwhelming effort.
Come on legs. Feets don’t fail me now. Jesus, each single stride had to be written up in triplicate and submitted to both houses of his muscle and bone congress before it could pass. Into the cool October morning. Toward Vasona Park.
He was counting, as he often did, and his chronometer was flashing hundredths of seconds in its gray pool of digital ripples. He could stop the blasted thing with the pressure of one forefinger on a little plastic nipple, or he could tweak another to show his lap time, making the digits at least appear to hold still while all the while the little devils marched inexorably onward under the display, awaiting still another tweak to blurt out how much time they had measured while Will was not watching.
But he just let it roll, and his footfalls sent reverberations through his whole body, and he moved on through Los Gatos.
He was leaving a hillside parking lot, just at the park’s western edge, when he hit the lap button at 800 double strides. “09:23.43.” Not a bad pace for the mile one. His sweat had now broken under his pale blue parka, his hands were no longer cold; and he knew that his second mile would be easier, faster, and definitely more picturesque now that he had entered the park. Wind rose and fell like the earth’s patient breath, billowing the tall evergreens’ robes and undressing by tantalizing stages the red and yellow-gowned deciduous sweethearts of Fall’s Ball. White fluffy clouds slid swiftly across the bright blue autumn sky, their shadows rushing over the earth like dark, caressing hands.
Slightly off-center in the long, narrow lawn that bordered the far end of his paved path, there stood a single thin tree. A little birch, or a teenaged oak? Will wasn’t very good at trees. Trees were one of the many subjects he regularly reminded himself to learn about. Seeing this one, he reminded himself yet again to investigate the topic. There it stood, alone, maybe twenty feet tall, no doubt at one time very full, now oddly poignant with most of its incredibly bright yellow leaves spread out around its thin trunk like a vibrant yellow shadow upon the dark green grass, the rest fluttering wildly and helplessly in the October wind, clinging to the branches for...what? For dear life? For old times’ sake? For the home team?
The flock of coots who filled the lawn between the tree and the lake were waddling slowly toward the water’s edge, obviously having given up on the mystery of the tree.
Will imagined with a great deal of self-satisfaction that those last brave leaves clung to the lonely little limbs in order to strengthen the spirit of anyone who chanced to see. And on he ran, so strengthened, now smiling.
He loped along the asphalt trail he was growing to know by heart, around its circle and back the way he came, once again along the cool shaded trail by the east side of the lake. As he emerged from the shelter of the trail’s wooded enclosure, the wind once more began to blast him. It had picked up.
On his way now out of the park, Will hit the long gradual rise which led to its front gate. Huge brittle leaves dragged their fingernails across the chalkboard of the asphalt road, and the runner's heel-ball-toe contact with the earth occasionally crunched a leaf or two, cracking in the wind. He was feeling good, feeling fine, smiling broadly through his cooling sheen of sweat and pushing on into the wind.
He thought of a child’s hand (his own?) held out into the stream of air out the window of a speeding automobile, the hand’s angle changing so that it rose and fell of its own accord until it settled absolutely level and cut evenly into the wind, held aloft by nature, flying a mile a minute.
He thought of a horse named Thunderbolt he had ridden in Tennessee as a boy. That horse was the fastest he had ever ridden. It loved to gallop, lived to gallop. A canter was insulting to Thunder. A lather on his blazed forehead was the first indication of his approaching the place where he lived to be. If horses smile, Thunderbolt smiled as he ran.
Will thought of an eagle he had once watched soaring along through the crisp Alaskan sky.
He imagined he smelled the ocean as he sprinted over an imaginary beach.
He smelled thick smoke, saw flames lapping the edges of darkened windows, heard screams in the night. Explosions rocked him.
He stopped in his tracks. He bent forward, both hands on his thighs. His heart trip-hammered in his chest. He felt helpless and suddenly close to tears.
After several moments and a dozen or so deep, slow breaths, he carefully straightened upright. He stood still. He took another deep breath, looked around with an uncomfortable sense of self-consciousness, feeling as though he had committed some sort of public indecency. He set out for home at a slow jog.
Will was addicted to running.
There are all sorts of addictions in this world, and Will Gardner had flirted with quite a few of them. He felt that he could afford the luxury of a smile today as he remembered the skinny, brittle, college dropout speed freak he once was.
Even today, eleven years after that fastest of facts, the thought of buzzing supercharged through the dark crystalline night tickled some perversely nostalgic nerve in his mind. A couple of years ago he had gotten ahold of some fine crystal methadrine and had snorted the stuff with high hopes. He had gotten off, all right, gotten buzzed, got high; but the irregular sets of jack-hammer solos that his heart played in his chest cavity scared the living bejesus out of him. You might say it gave him the fear of god. Goodbye, Speed.
Addictions. Addictions. There was, of course, Will’s long and tender relationship with the bottle.
His first job, at age 14, was hawking paper cups full of rapidly watering down iced Pepsi Cola at the Fairgrounds Speedway in his hometown of Nashville.
“Ice cold Pepsi Cola.”
“Ice cold Pepsi cola.”
“Getcher ice cold Pepsi Cola.”
And so forth.
After a sweltering Saturday night of this, he and the older guys would stop, on the way home, on a darkened side street in the shanty side of town. One brave, or stupid, older boy would enter a shack which, if was indeed a real store, bore no signs to call anyone’s attention to it. Torturous minutes later he would emerge, having laid out half the group’s earnings for wrinkled brown paper bags containing cold quarts of beer. Everybody got one, even the 14-year-old.
In the hot summer night. The bubbly bitter coldness. Had a way of growing on you.
Will’s dad, still in Nashville but not with Will’s mom, once (or was it many times?) had told him that “Every bad thing that has ever happened to me in my life was while I was hitting the booze.”
Will loved that man. Now, at age 31, will could rifle through his own file of private embarrassments, his own safe deposit box of ugly scenes, his own mason jar filled with senseless tears, his bucketful of broken dreams. Was there one of those ineradicable memories not shadowed by a smiling, congenial, well-intentioned, thirst-quenching can of beer? Or a snickering shot of tequila?
Addictions. Addictions. Cigarettes. Will was the only one of his parents’ four children who had taken up The Habit. Three years of Camel unfiltered. His dad’s brand. Repeated bouts with bronchial pleurisy convinced him to quit. The decision made, Will Gardner was a non-smoker. Instantly.
Will smiled at that one, too, but for a better reason. Some addictions are better than others.
Sarah Moore had been a regular player in Will Gardner’s life for about half a year now. She was tall, slim, wore her thick long blonde hair in a hundred pleasing ways; and she had a laugh that was memorably and uniquely hers. She shared her laughter and her body with Will often enough to keep them both pleased and happy.
Sarah lived upstairs in Will’s apartment complex, on the top floor in a bright, sunlit, one-bedroom apartment which was the mirror image of Will’s less lit one in the basement of the complex.
They had achieved a natural balance between the two abodes—the Penthouse and the Dungeon, they called them; and they split their time together almost equally between the two. That yin and yang was one of the facets of their relationship that made everything else seem to fit.
Pieces of their separate lives dovetailed into place like the work of some gentle genius of a craftsperson deity. Will loved it. He loved her. He, the poet-singer-guitarist, loved her, the actress-dancer. He the part-time librarian, loved her, the cocktail waitress. It was all okay.
“Oh shit, Will,” Sarah moaned one morning as the dreaded Troll pounded across the ceiling of the Dungeon. It was 5am and Will had been dreaming of he and Sarah and Sally.
Sally was a waitress in the coffeehouse that had been the scene of Will’s most recent gig. She was dark haired, perennially suntanned, wide-grinned, and shapely in a deliciously Rubenesque way. She had two children and had recently been hinting that a third seed might be germinating. Will, in his responsible mind, thought Sally was warm and sweet, but not his type at all. His conscious mind had formed very definite preferences, all of which Sarah satisfied quite fully.
In his dream, however, Sarah and Sally and he rolled languidly naked together. Nipples and mons, clitorises and tongues, one swollen penis and three smiling mouths all merged liquidly and sensuously into one urgent roiling experience of wanton sexuality.
“Holy fucking shit,” Sarah exclaimed. Will awakened with a start, instantly cognizant of a monumental erection.
“What is he, giving an Arthur Murray dance class up there?” Sarah rolled out of the squeaky old bed and looked under, apparently searching for something. “I worked until 2 in the morning, we crawled quietly and considerately into bed at 3, you have a 9am job interview, and at 5 o’clock in the morning Leadfoot decides to go balls out for the Guinness World Record in bedroom floor stomping!” She slid open the closet with a resounding BANG. She peered within. “Where are my...,” she found them, “shoooooooes.” The final word oozed out with such malignancy that Will still only half awake, felt a twinge of concern. Most of Will, however, was still endeavoring to hold on to the spirit of his dream. There was still a chance that, in dream heaven...
WHAM. WHAM WHAM WHAM!
He sat up with a start.
Whamm wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham! WHAM!
Sarah had her blue canvas shoes, the ones with the hard-plastic soles, pulled over her hands. She was doing a marvelous imitation of a clogdancer. Clogging across the white spackled wall. She continued along the wall with it until she climbed up onto his wooden trunk, then from there up to stand on the top of the high dresser. She had access to the ceiling now.
WHAM. WHAM WHAM WHAM! Whamm wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham wham! WHAM!
Loving Sarah was not easy sometimes; but never, no, never was it boring.
What the hell, he thought, and he tried on his biggest smile. It fit pretty well. The whole half-mile walk he had worked to chase an uncomfortable feeling out of his mind. To the remembered soundtrack of Sarah’s wham, wham, whamming, flitted by in his mind the images of fire in the dark night. He shook his head, chasing the image and the sounds away. “Get thee from here,” he said to himself, and all of it receded into the present.
If anyone had seen his face as he strode up to the long, low, red brick library building that Wednesday morning, they might have judged him certifiably wacko. His mouth stretched first to one side, then to the other, his full black moustache going along for the ride. His eyes squinted, then bulged, squinted and bulged. His nose crinkled up and flared, crinkled and flared.
He was stretching his face. This was a series of exercises he had picked up in his theater training, and he always ran through them before going onstage.
They helped his smile fit.
A kindly looking elderly lady, white hair in the predictable bun, fumbled a little nervously with the door before admitting him into the bright warmth of the town library.
“Anyone who owns a dog can’t be all bad,” she smilingly submitted.
Will, confused, cast quick glances about him until he saw outside the tinted glass door, a huge black furball of a dog. It energetically wagged its bushy tail, along with most of its hind half, and smiled broadly what might but for the posterior gymnastics be mistaken for a snarl.
“Um, he’s not mine,” Will replied, again slipping into his easy smile, “but I hope a cat will help me meet approval.”
Brief, shared laughter, the tinkling of little pieces of social ice.
“Actually, I think he might belong to the postwoman. I saw him following her earlier. You must be Miss Riley.” He outstretched his hand, still smiling. He saw, appraising the pleasant looking, elderly woman who he judged to be in her seventies. Will’s first notion of her nervousness was summarily dispelled as she glanced coolly at her wristwatch and raised a strong voice to carry past him.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to sit in the sun for a little while longer; we won’t be opening for three minutes.”
The pockmarked young lad who had taken the place of the dog outside the glass door rolled his eyeballs, tucked his stack of books up under his arm, and awkwardly moved away from the door as Will stole a glance at his own watch. Above its calculator buttons the digital display read “8:58’20” but although it was later than Miss Riley thought, he judged it a bit early in their relationship to correct her.
“Yes,” she returned her attention to Will, “Yes I am. And you are, if my records serve me well, Mr. William Gardner. Interested, I gather, in a position with us as ‘Library Assistant.’” Will could literally hear the capital letters. “Well, William, please come sit down, will you, and we will talk.”
The following Monday Will was once again doing his librarian imitation. He wore his round gold wire-rims and a tucked in button down blue shirt with his most presentable jeans. It was strange getting used again to walking while he had his glasses on; for years he had only worn them when driving or watching a movie.
They made the floor, or the road, seem closer.
The next best thing to freedom is books, he told himself. He had not been employed outside of theater or music for six years, other than that emergency six weeks in a Missoula Montana, liquor store.
Will had come down to Los Gatos in midsummer. He had visited San Francisco once before, ironically as a fulltime librarian at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. A twenty-three-year-old whiz-kid of a public servant, traveling with his twenty-nine-year-old whiz-woman banker wife, on one of their conveniently correlated two-week vacations. Out to See de West.
Another life, long ago, far away.
He was instantly infatuated, back then, with Northern California; and so long after that other life had become a distant memory, and shortly after the road theater tour of Alaska had finished up back in May, he had just packed his Guild guitar in its new blue road case, hopped aboard the Matanuska inland passage ferry in Juneau, and eased down the Inland Passage over deep gray-green water, through spruce enshrouded islands, past cavorting sea otters, beneath scores of bald eagles, and, yes, through the Northwest rain (rain of many cadences, rain of many rhythms) to Seattle.
His buddy Dave had been babysitting his ‘65 190Dc Mercedes there, and after a few days with friends in the Queen City, off roared the great white diesel beast to creep almost blindly through and past the angry mess of the Mt. St. Helens aftermath and then to slip along Highway 1 to the finest city of them all, the city of the saint who loved the wild things, San Francisco.
And now here he was, in Los Gatos, all six feet of him and his fingers, too. Neat and tidy as you please.
His black hair was neat and tidy, too. He had left a foot of thick black ponytail in a wastebasket back in Seattle.
His moustache was trimmed and tidy, and his hazel eyes were bright and healthy. His clothing was just right for this workplace. Just a little longish, but neat. And tidy.
The next best thing to freedom is books, he told himself again. He would repeatedly do so while convincing himself that he simply wanted “normalcy” in his life. His four-month stint in Alaska had burnt him out, musical competition for work in San Francisco was insular and intense, and the club managers he had met while checking out the possible gigs uniformly replicated in their behavior that part of the human anatomy that only opens and shuts to excrete lumps of solid waste or stinky gas.
He only wanted a normal life, and Sarah for a while, and to run.
Back in June, back in June, on a hot afternoon, he had driven the beast to Santa Cruz, just drifting, wanting to check it out. Returning to San Fran he took a little side trip, pulling off Highway 17 into Los Gatos for one reason:
“Beer,” his mind said.
“Beer,” he whispered to the Beast as he pushed the ignition button in to quell its clattering old diesel engine.
“A beer, please ma’am.” he almost whispered to the pretty blonde waitress inside the elegantly appointed fern bar. It was early on a Monday night, and there were only four or five other customers.
When he slipped her three ones to pay for the Heineken, he realized he had done it again. Out of habit, he had paid an Alaskan price for a California beer. With effort, he smiled and said, “Thank you.”
He could hardly snatch back a dollar, though that would have still left a generous tip for the service of one beer.
“It’s only a dollar and a quarter,” the waitress said, “or are ya’ll tryin’ to impress a pooah lil workin’ girl, suh?” Her mock southern accent was quite well delivered.
Will new she had noted his confusion. Not to be outdone, ne leaned a little forward in his chair, gazing up into the bright clear blue eyes above him. “Well, ah ayadmit it was a mistake, ma’am,” he drawled, “but if ah can impress you with mah mistakes, just imagine the miracles ah maht be able to perfoem eon-tentionally.” He grinned widely, happily, and a little stupidly.
The fruits of this victorious moment were to be harvested naturally, in stages, over the following weeks. First Sarah’ laughter, then her attention, then her company; at last her naked body next to his. Will would later half-jokingly tell her that he knew her heart had been won in that first moment, even though the surrender of that most prized of prizes was the last to be tendered.
All else aside, three days later he was a resident of Los Gatos, California, having emptied the old Mercedes of all his belongings and piled them into the dark basement apartment. For the first time in two years of traveling, playing music, acting on the stage, and in general sowing wild oats, he lived somewhere.
The summer eased by in a bright procession of hot, clear, dry days, spent soaking up California sun beside the apartment house pool.
It seemed that most of the tenants in this, the largest apartment complex in the area, were either retirees or workaday sorts. Will and Sarah were by far the pool’s most frequent denizens. They would lay out nearly every day under the bright blue sky, sweating luxuriously, and occasionally diving into the cold, clear water to swim and to cool their lean bodies.
Highway 17 lay a stone’s throw away, just the other side of Los Gatos Creek, a constant reminder that the Pacific Ocean butted up against the land a mere twenty-five miles away, just beyond the lush, forested Santa Cruz Mountains. The constant sound of cars and trucks rushing past on the freeway soon took on the nature of something that had always been there, like the ocean, making its own place in the world, like the rhythms of the surf.
It was a summer filled with sun and with water.
It was a summer that bore the fragrance of suntan oil.
For those first couple of months, Will had played around. Played music that is, in local clubs and coffeehouses, and once in the outdoor amphitheater at Old Town, in an outdoor concert. He had hounded a dozen different venue managers and had managed to build up one night a week in each of four different establishments.
Every time he played he would arrive an hour before the first set, lug in his small but heavy Peavey sound system, set it all up in the best way he could to compensate for each space’s acoustical atrocities, play three or four sets, break down the system and load it into the Beast. Finally, he would collect his forty or fifty dollars in cash from the manager.
Too often the manager would offer a review as well as the agreed-upon compensation.
Will did not mind a little criticism; God knows everybody has his own opinion of what they want to hear in a drinking establishment. It was the arrogant attitudes and mediocre musical tastes that galled him. He put out. He put out well and with polish and charm and style. He sang happy songs and sad songs and new songs and old songs and songs everyone knew and songs that he had written. His arrangements were original and thoughtful, and his stage rap was positive and friendly. Sometimes even funny.
“Don’t you know some ‘oom-pah-pah music?”
“If you want to keep playing here, kid, learn some Loggins and Messina. Our customers are the kind of people who get into Loggins and Messina.”
“You need some more Country stuff. Lotta Texans here.”
“Cut out the C&W, man, nobody likes that crap.”
Finally, tired and consistently underpaid, with his savings wilting fast, he had happened across and ad for a fulltime job in the Los Gatos Memorial Library.
He applied, thinking “The next best thing to freedom is books.” What the hell kind of freedom was there in playing music when you had to lay your soul out before swine to do it?
A breather sounded good.
So here he was, courteous and bespectacled, efficient, and enthusiastic.
And neat. And tidy.
If there were one thing that drew Will into running, it was that freak-out last September. That freak-out not only nearly scared him to death, that freak-out almost killed him.
It began with the news that Dave was dead. Dave Denny was not actually a close friend of Will’s but a man ill trusted, admired, and liked. A letter from a mutual friend informed Will that Denny had been suddenly, senselessly, and painfully plucked from this life by the indiscriminate hand of cancer.
Will was aware that Dave was ill, but the feeling he had gotten last Spring back in Seattle was that Dave’s health was on the mend. That was undoubtedly the impression that Dave, out of care for his friends or perhaps just out of expediency, had fostered. Now, too late, it was clear that Dave had known otherwise: he had seen is own death approaching, had watched it for quite some time, had made peace with it, had been ready for it.
Okay, he was dead. Will could accept that. He cried a little, more for his own loss than out of sadness for Dave; and then he called Sarah to ask her to join him for a drink. On their way out of the building they ran into Christopher, an acquaintance who lived in the apartment complex, and the three of them ended up hopping from bar to bar. To bar. To bar.
Will’s one-man wake began with a shot of Tullamore Dew with a Guinness chaser. Maybe his mistake was not sharing the weight a little. No doubt Sarah would have gladly talked with him toward working out the pain of his loss, but—partly because of Chris’s presence and partly because he didn’t really understand his feelings himself—Will couldn’t seem to bring himself to talk about it.
The night was cold, the crisp crystal cold of a Northern California autumn eve. As they stepped from the apartment building the clouds of their breaths appeared under glaring floodlights, shone briefly, then disappeared.
The three set a brick pace through the wide alleys to University Avenue, then were compelled by the narrow University Ave. sidewalks to march single file for a stretch. Chris and Sarah chatted, Sarah filling the evening air with light conversation. She sensed Will’s moodiness—how could she not? It was almost palpable. She let him stride ahead, feeling that whatever was bothering him, he would get it out in his own time, if at all.
That odd tension continued as the tri sat at the bar on the upper level of C.P. Hannigan’s. The restaurant level below was, as usual, buzzing with activity; and the bar itself was so rowdy and loud that conversations needed to be shouted to be heard at all. Like some unique beast with a character all its own, the noise level rose and fell, built again, evened out, rose further, fell again. Sarah perched on the barstool between the two men, and the conversation continued to be primarily between Christopher and her. When Will and something to say it was sociable enough, but it was as if he were mentally stripping every sentence to the bare bones of meaning before speaking it.
His smiles were over smiled, his laughter over laughed, his silences leaden.
And he drank straight Irish whiskey with black draft stout beer as a chaser. His first drink evaporated immediately and his second survived only slightly longer. He nursed his third, cupping his giant glass of ice-cold stout with both hands like a cold man curls his hands around a hot coffee mug to warm them.
Finally, Sarah shouted above the din, “Will, honey man, you’re awful quiet tonight. You okay?”
Will tore his eyes from his beer. The frosted glass was no longer frosted. His hands were wet and cold. He returned Sarah’s concerned expression with a smiling mask, and he raised his own voice to shout back, “The nervous novice bank robber pulled out his pistol and shouted “’Aw-aw-aw-aw-right, motherstickers, this is a fuck up!”
To the laughter of everybody in their immediate vicinity, he straightened, chuckled, and was once again seemingly of this world. Kenny, the brawny bartender, brought another Tullamore Dew, waving aside payment.
Shortly it was decided to move on to Pedro’s, the Mexican restaurant housed in the low adobe building across the street. There Sara ordered nachos with cheese and guacamole and Chris a quesadilla. Will had two Dos Equis and proposed popping into Cary Nation’s for an Irish Coffee.
There was no second to that notion. In fact, it was promptly vetoed by Sarah: “I never go into work when I am not in to work. I learned a long time ago, buster,” she leaned into Will’s face, brandishing a cheesy nacho, “not to flaunt my time off if I value it.” CRUNCH went the nacho, “And I do. Value it.”
Chris had a lady-friend who worked at London Oyster, so off they went to sit at the bar there, singing old songs to the accompaniment of the grand piano bar in the corner. Sarah had a glass of white wine; Chris’s girlfriend was not there, so he ordered a Heineken and continued his conversations with Sarah. Will had two Old Bushmills and a Budweiser, and a sudden desire to see what was happening at Number One Broadway.
Hannigan’s had been loud and boisterous, Pedro’s dark and warm, the Oyster mellow and musical; but Number One was something else altogether. Bright and high ceilinged, its huge expanse was furnished with unmatched but tasteful antique chairs and sofas, all set up to create the pleasant illusion of many little rooms without walls. Plants spilled from the high rafters, filled deep shelves, and sprung from pots beside the overstuffed chairs.
Soft rock and roll music vied for what little sensory focus the assembled clientele had left to give and scores of conversations under-currented beneath that. Down the street at Hannigan’s, people had competed with the sound system (and with each other) to make themselves heard, and that was just right for the kind of place it was—a wild Irish pub. But here, amidst surroundings that were richer, softer, they conversed.
The whole place seemed to glow softly. In fact, upon entering, will had the vivid sensation that his glasses had fogged over. Only he wore no glasses.
He shook his head roughly and the sensation passed. Lingering traces of soft edges refused to dissipate around light sources.
The room was alive. So alive. Dave Denny was so dead.
Somehow, they were seated. Will ordered a double Dew. Sarah and Chris were playing backgammon. Will ordered another double. He had to go to the head. He finished hid drink. Another double came before he could work up the resolve to go relieve himself. Dave. Dave liked his Irish. He did. Will’s voice arose from a deep, deep well within him. Gonna fucking go. Blow this pop stand. Play your game. Dave doesn’t give a shit. I’ll fly out the door. Get away fast. Go for a walk. Be alone. Stand up. Run for the door. Fall into, through it. I’m okay. I’m all right. Santa Cruz Avenue I can walk down Chris propping me up. I’m all right. Okay. In the dungeon. Covered with a blanket. On the sofa. I’m okay. Where’s Sarah. Sarah. I’m okay. I’m just crying. Where’s Sarah. Her place. Knock on the door. Lean against it. Sarah inside. Chris inside. Sarah and Chris. Nothing true. Nothingforevertrue. In my own dungeon. Bottle of red wine. Gallon of the shit. Drink it all up. It smells like vomit. Pour it out over the floor, over the tables, over the walls, over the sofa. Don’t even like wine. Sarah did. Did. Bitch. Nothing is true. Oh, here they are. Cute couple. Jabbering at me. Defending themselves. Only talking. World full of talk. Talk sounds like vomit. Both hands up quickly, popping Chris, side of face, side of face. Term is boxing the ears. I’m okay. I’m only crying. Tears like rust. Or bad red wine. I’m only packing. Drawer full of socks and underwear poured into backpack. Guitar. Nobody here. Fuck them. Fuck them both. Where to run. Can’t leave myself. If I sleep maybe I’ll die. I pray the Lord. On the floor. Beside the door. Sleep. My soul.
Three days later, forgiven, incredibly, by both Sarah and Chris, wearing his monstrosity of a black and blue face like a badge of shame, he went out for a run and ran all the way to Vasona Park until stitches in his side bade him halt. That was mid-September, and now in the middle of December, he had not missed a morning. Running.
Will ran. He ran gently and long. He ran easily and gracefully and rhythmically and assuredly. He ran about, away, along, but no longer amok. He ran for fun, for freedom, for fancy, for finding that freaky fleeting feeling only flying feet could foment.
He ran like the wind, breezing by earthbound people with his strengthening lungs pumping power to his lean muscles and his blood coursing through is veins like a river.
He ran, in fact, like a river, flowing along the path of least resistance, energy backing up within him on uphill stretches like a lake behind a dam before bursting over sure as flood.
Will ran like the running fool he was.
Vasona Park was one his most frequently paths. It lay nestled in between Highway on the east and University Avenue on the west. Blossom Hill Avenue hemmed it in on the south side, and the dam at the north end of the little lake ended the park’s northward sprawl.
On weekends the park was a beehive of activity as people of all ages, nationalities, and lifestyles vied for the choicest heave picnic tables and barbecue pits. Even early on the weekend mornings, the coils of smoke that peeled away gently from the dozens of charcoal fires bore enough tantalizing smells to send any runner’s empty stomach into growling conniption.
They were a pretty friendly lot, these Californians.
Oh, the occasional obese redneck would vent his own insecurities on a trim runner-by, but usually in a mostly harmless manner, with a look of disdain or a cutesy wolf-whistle. Never had Will been provoked to respond.
Of all the people he saw in the park, the old folks were the best. No doubt about it.
Will had a deep respect for the elderly. Anyone who had made it into the present day, through all that past, with any degree of sanity, had earned Will’s unbridled admiration. It was theirs to lose. He had only one surviving grandparent, a sharp-witted octogenarian Granny who lived in Nashville, and he thought the world of her.
He sometimes wondered if he would be able to make it into his own old age with any sense of humor left. If, that is, the world itself survived that long, a dubious possibility at that.
One of his favorite songs was John Prine’s “Hello in There,” a haunting ballad that Will himself performed often, and with deep feeling:
“You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day.
Old people just grow lonely
Waiting for someone to say
Hello in there,
Will never ignored an old person even if he was ignored by them, which was a rare occurrence in his experience. He was convinced that Prine’s song was really true, and determined not to make anyone, ever, feel lonelier.
There were a hundred twenty some-odd units in his apartment complex; and since the apartments were mostly small, the rents were reasonable for the area, and downtown was only five or six blocks away. It was a popular place for the elderly to live.
Most of them were friendly and generous. Much of Will’s furniture had been given to him by old people whom he’d met casually; and his tomcat, Boomer—big, fat surly Boomer—had also been a gift. A little old lady down the hall had received the critter from a well-meaning grandchild, only to find herself allergic to furry felines. Will had answered a notice on the mailroom bulletin board and had been presented with a rather large gray “kitten.”
“Looks more like a cat to me,” he quipped.
“My granddaughter, bless her sweet heart, tells me he’s only three months old. No, I think he’s just a little big for his age, Lord knows, his main activity is eating, why he sleeps a lot, but I really do think he eats even more than he sleeps, would you like another little cookie, young man?”
In the park, Will often saw the same faces when he ran. One old fellow seemed to be there always, at least for the first couple of months Will ran. Wearing a pair of dark wool trousers and an old-fashioned tweed touring cap, lost inside a plaid greatcoat, the elderly guy would be slowly making his way along the bicycle trail, cane in hand, gazing about him as if taking in the entire world at once through his own finely woven filter of experiences. He would always smile but only once did he speak.
The old guy had just crossed the wooden span over Los Gatos Creek, from the oak Meadow Park side into Vasona Park; and he stepped aside, off the narrow trail (which also bore the vestigial narrow-gauge track of the Billy Jones Railroad) to allow the approaching runner passage over the bridge.
He smiled, and Will realized for the first time the incredible old age of the man. “He must be near a hundred,” Will thought to himself. “I hope I’m that together, hell I hope I’m even alive.”
“I wish I could do that,” said the old man. Not enviously, not at all bitterly, just a simple statement of fact as he continued to smile and gestured with his walking stick toward Will’s gently loping legs.
Will felt that a response was not really called for. He smiled back and gave a little wave as he passed.
He only saw the old man a couple of times after that; but a few weeks later, when he trotted across the little bridge again, he realized that he missed him a little. Will was aware that anything could be keeping the man from his daily constitutionals, and he pointedly refused to speculate further on the matter.
Another old man pedaled his bike around Los Gatos every day. His checked pants were tied with rubber bands at the cuffs so as not to catch his trouser legs in the cycle’s chain. The beaten wire basket attached to his handlebars bore an obviously handmade wooden box, an all-weather luggage bin, upon which were pasted assorted vintage bumper stickers of the “Make Love, Not War” ilk.
Another dapper gen with a long white ponytail could be seen on the streets of town at almost any given time. He often wore a brown bowler hat, which smartly complemented his neatly tailored three-piece suits. From a distance one thought one saw a man of elegance and distinction. But as one drew nearer, more often than not, the whole effect would be spoiled by numerous fresh abrasions distributed willy-nilly about the man’s face, accompanied by the asphyxiating odor of days-old cheap gin.
The elderly ladies were numerous and individual one and all. The most flamboyant was the aged French aristocrat who frequented the library and was fond of ratting on the old bicyclist.
“Pardon moi, thees old fart in the corner? He ees using the pen knife to cut out the newspapier article. I see heem, what weel you do about thees? I seeeeee heeeeeeem,” she hissed.
No one likes a fink. Especially an arrogant one. None of the library attendants ever took any action beyond a little warning or two, against the old man; but the high and misplaced royalty found herself the focus of close scrutiny by the entire staff.
C’est la vie.
Not all the senior citizens of Los Gatos were strange. The vast majority of old folks were robust and normal and friendly, and they seemed to glow with an appreciation of life gleaned from living out their wan years, at least, in what has been described as “the perfect climate.”
As Will’s California days fell one upon the other, his routine became set, and it was everything he wanted. It began to seem as if he might always pass his days and nights in this easy California mellowness, say goodbye to showbiz, and, daily, say hello to day-to-daying it.
It felt right. It felt good.
Until the dreams began.
It was late October when the first waking one came to him. Running through the park on the cool windy morning after a very civilized night on the town with Sarah.
She and Will were practically living together now. Their relationship was becoming what might be called “serious.” Who would propose first was a question unto itself.
Will had fully intended to do so the night before, and he had wined and dined her in the best of styles with The Question on the very tip of his tongue. All the beer and dancing had led to some wild lovemaking, which had been quickly followed by deep sleep, and The Question had gone unasked.
Now he ran through the fall morning with some difficulty, counting his footfalls to clear his mind, and taking in the autumnal visual drama with a deepening sense of wonder. He allowed himself to ponder the meaning of a half bare tree which stood in the lawn in the northeast corner of the park. He watched the flock of coots edging toward the lake. They were funny birds, cartoon critters, the lot of them. He headed for home and became lost in his thoughts.
The runner’s high is a wonderous sensation that the body is conquering miles without effort. It is a state akin to the most advanced level of meditation, only locked into the smooth repetition of active physical movement, so far from the calm repetition of a meditation’s mantra. Images familiar to him began to filter through his euphoria. The sailing of a child’s hand in the wind. The horse he had once loved and ridden daily. Eagles he had admired in flight. Ocean mists.
Without warning the completely alien image of a fire burning out of control intruded upon his mind’s screen, shattering his pleasantly altered state into a million lost and excruciatingly painful emotions, focusing all his being upon fear. His body halted, his pulse outdistancing it dangerously. Instinctively, he allowed it all to flow over him, within him, through him, and, ultimately, away from him.
The beginning, it was of what could only be the end.
He was alone in a small pitch-black room. He had been there a long while. A very long while. He felt unnaturally accustomed. Time was cold. Time was smell. The smell of earth, the sound of martial drums, always three beats of a kind. Sets of three beats. Boom. Boom. Boom. Clatter. Clatter. Clatter. Thud thud thud. Silence. The pervasive odor of earth. Dull roar of time. Click-pat Click-pat Click-pat. Silence. The dull roar of time. “It’s very tight in here,” he ached to cry aloud. Only he knew. There was no one to hear. “It’s very tight,” he longed with all his heart to cry out, to weep aloud, “very tight,” but his lungs would not expand to take in air, “very tight,” or to expel the words, “very tight in here.”
“Willum, Will honey. Baby. Wake up,” Sarah was shaking him at first gently, then with increasing urgency.
“Verynithenr,” he whined,” then shouted “VERYNIGHTENEEEEEER.” He was awake.
Sarah was sitting up. She had him enfolded in her soft but strong warm arms. She rocked him gently until his labored breathing steadied.
“Wow,” he said quietly.
“Another heavy? It was more a statement than a question.
“I guess,” he responded, adding, “Hey, I’m...sorry.”
“What for,” Sarah grimaced, pointing to the ceiling as Tub-o-lard thumped heavily across it, “I’ve been awake a while.” She sighed, turning her attention back to Will. She studied his tired face with concern.
He began, “Boy, maybe...,” then hesitated, but he pressed on, serious enough to really say it, “maybe I should see a shrink, Sarah. I mean, you know I’m pretty together, and I know I’m pretty together, but whatever is conjuring my dream life seems totally ignorant of my basically good old boy character.”
She hugged him gently.
“I mean,” he continued, “some fucking thing in my head is doing a number on it.” He sat up in the dim light of the little tensor lamp. He looked at it for a while and it seemed to stare patiently, doing its job, as if waiting like everybody else for the nighttime to get back to its own business. “What do you think, baby? Is your sweetheart a quarter bubble off plumb?”
Sarah missed a beat. She looked him straight in the eyes as if to speak, but something about them gave her pause. She recovered. “Oh, Willum, I don’t know. This has been going on for weeks now, though. All I do know is that you have got to get some rest somehow. Or stop running. Between being up half the night with nightmares and getting up at six a.m. in the morning to run, and working eight hours a day, you’re not going to hold up for long.” She smiled, “You know?
He did know. But despite the lack of restful sleep lately and despite having just this week sneaked up to his four mile a day goal, he had not felt better in years. He hardly drank alcohol at all these days, and to his mind that was the best development of all.
Or almost the best.
Will stole a glance at Sarah’s right nipple, which peaked sleepily over the edge of the clean white bed sheet. She noticed his look, and his expression metamorphosed into a lustful leer which yielded its sought-after reward: The nipple hardened almost instantly.
“Oh not?” he whispered huskily, “I’ll bet I hold up. Long enough.”
His left hand moved to her pale round breast, brushing the nipple ever so slightly. It hardened even more as his hand traced in its cup the curve of her shapely bosom. His own naked body shifted to allow his lips access to that prize.
As his tongue, followed by the soft moist embrace of his lips, found that treasure, she sighed and laughed a quiet little chuckle. He knew he would hear that laughter the rest of his life, whatever happened between the two of them. She lay back a little, her hands softly smoothing out his lean, muscled arm, rubbing the strong arc of his back.
After, they lay together in silence for a long while until he looked her and laughed. For a moment Sarah just stared at him, certain that he had stripped his final gear, until Will managed to point a finger at the ceiling. Before long that laughter was doubling both of them up and bringing tears to their eyes.
It wasn’t really all that funny.
The pounding noise from above had stopped. Completely.
Every workday at one o’clock Will would take a lunch break. Most days he would sit outside in the deliciously cool, warm, Northern California air, with his cheese and celery or his leftover chicken or his PBJ, and he would read a book or a magazine.
The only times he would resort to the library staff room were when it was raining, and this autumn and early winter had been—so he had been told—unusually dry. Will had never before lived in a place where people actually complained about a surplus of Clear, warm, blue-sky days.
Back behind the south edge of the Civic Center building, a vacant lot—overgrown with scrub vines and ivies, littered with broken bricks and unnamable wildflowers—was his retreat of choice. The remnants of a long-crumbled cellar wall backed up snugly against the hill which formed the lot’s back edge. It was here that Will, with a rarified sense of security and ease, would often pass his daily free hour.
Sometimes he would dig beneath his sweater and pull from his shirt pocket a little spiral notepad. A stubby, eraserless library pencil would appear in his hand, and he would scribble song lyrics across a page in his tumbling longhand:
It’s the middle of December
And roses still upon the vine
Bid my thankful heart remember
It's on Pacific Standard Time.
California isn’t heaven
But it’s as close as earth does get:
Lord, our accounts may not be even
But what you owe me I’ll forget.
Do you still remember
When it was cold, and I was cryin’?
It was only last September
And not Pacific Standard time.
And so on.
Early in his new “career,” Will considered taking his run at lunch time. But there was no shower at the library, so he stuck to his early morning runs and built new lunch habits of relaxed reading, writing, munching, and meditating. Also, by early afternoon on most of these warm autumn days, the smog level was so pronouncedly high that he doubted the wisdom of inhaling any more California carbon exhaust fumes than were absolutely necessary.
The brisk mornings were the ticket.
Besides, the Italian ice parlor was only a block away from work.
The absolutely, positively most incredibly marvelous side-effect of regular running is this: one can eat the goodies that without the running would otherwise balloon one’s belly and buttocks, render flabby one’s flatulent fanny, and engender the jumboest of jowls. A runner can dine profusely. A runner can pig out at will. Or at Will.
Will had always enjoyed good food, but he had been an overweight child until age fifteen. After he grew tall and slim, he knew that he never wanted to be fat again. So, after years of minor league neurosis about his weight, after years of avoiding desserts, and after years of intermittent fasting or fad dieting, he had found the Way. And the Way was Running.
There was a little spot on North Santa Cruz Avenue that made its own chocolate flavored frozen yogurt. A cookie shop in the basement of the Lyndon Plaza produced giant peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. A person could not stand in the center of Los Gatos and throw an empty box of See’s Chocolates in any direction without hitting a restaurant serving up exceptionally good cheesecake.
And, yes, there was the new Italian ice shop on Main Street, just a block away. For a dollar, the Dolce Spazion served an eight ounce paper cup containing two scoops of the richest, creamiest ice cream on the face of the earth, and in the center of that luscious mound of frozen frivolity there stood a tiny white plastic spoon, its small size designed to slow the shoveling process so that one might better appreciate the exquisite delicacy.
Will had read that the famed marathon champion Bill Rodgers habitually arises at 3 a.m. for his fourth meal of the day, to feast on cola, cookies, “and mayonnaise, which he will eat out of the jar with a spoon.” Rodgers, at 5 feet 8 ½ inches tall, weighs in at 128 pounds.
That is the Way, and the Way is Running.
On the rare mornings when Will’s work schedule and Sarah’s sleep schedule did not overlap, the two might run together.
In the beginning Will was hesitant. He had been slowly and sometimes painfully building his endurance and his distance until, after two months of work, he was running four miles a morning every morning of the week. Mindful of his own beginnings, he knew that running with Sarah was going to a) cut his mileage, b) slow his pace, and c) probably prohibit his “double stride” counting, by which he both measured his distance and quietened his thoughts as he ran.
The self-centered side of his brain said, “Uh-uh, no way.” The friendly side said, “Aw, come on, you will enjoy the company.” The loner in him told him, “Discourage her.” The lover said, “Bend.”
After a couple of runs with Sarah, Will’s self-absorbed loner showed signs of taking the contest. He was getting a little grumpy. His record keeping was going to hell in a bucket since he could no longer count accurate mileage, and frequent walking breaks made time keeping inconsequential anyway. In a metacognitive irony, he felt like an asshole for feeling so selfish.
The lover was fighting dirty though.
It all came to a head, as it often will.
Will entered his apartment after a long day in the Children’s Library wing. A million kids had wanted a million books that absolutely no one could find. Everyone who came through the turnstile had a unique problem that could only be solved by one or another extraordinarily imaginative interpretation of library policy. His glasses frames had snapped, calling for the application of a wad of scotch tape that made him look like a nerd with a wart on the side of his head. Three employees had been out sick. A billion kids had returned a billion overdue books.
As he closed the door on his darkened Dungeon, the familiar sound of cat paws scraping the glass patio door. The monster wants in for dinner, he thought. Then he caught a whiff of cat shit. Kitty poop, Feline bonbons. But if Boomer were outside, then how…
He switched on the kitchen light and moved into his living room. On the floor, clearly carefully placed, was a display. Sara, he cleverly deduced, had wanted his attention.
He had left her in his bed that morning after a solo run and a shower. They had talked about running together but he had been careful not to wake her, telling himself he was just being considerate.
Now his blue and white running shoes, his fifty-dollar pride and joys, his new blue podiatric pals, were side by side. There on the carpeted floor.
Each shoe was filled, like a little canvas candy dish, with a neat pile of litter coated kitty turds.
“Gee, Sary, thanks for using the tissue paper. You made your point without ruining my shoes.”
Sarah smiled insincerely through the screen window of her upstairs apartment. Silence.
“You made one hell of a point, yessirree you did.” Will shifted his weight and glanced around. Thank God no one was watching this little scene. He had rung her doorbell once, waited, and had rung again. The window by the door, the south facing window which accounted for most of the extra light that distinguished Sara’s bright apartment from Will’s Dungeon, had slid open. There, standing at her kitchen sink, she stood, fake smile out of place on her beautiful face.
“Um, only one question, then I’ll go, okay?” More silence. “Okay,” he hesitantly responded to himself. “This is just a little thing, but it’ll help me to understand fully all the more subtle and far-reaching ramifications of the point you so eloquently and odoriferously made tonight.”
Sarah’s smile vanished. She knew what was coming. Before he could ask, “What’s your fucking point, Sarah?” she slammed the window with a bang and disappeared from the kitchen. Her bedroom door shut within with a muffled thud. That sound replayed in his memory well into the lonely evening until Will was fairly sure he understood the problem.
The problem was not that he felt like an asshole. The problem was that he was acting like one.
The next day on his lunch break Will walked out to the Running Shop and bought the pair of blue running shoes that Sarah had coveted but for which she had been unwilling to pay the steep price.
He couldn’t be accused of a cheap ploy. An expensive one? Maybe.
That night they had a long talk during which reluctance to discuss the matter gave way to rational conversation, which lost ground to heated argument, which produced apologies, which brought tears and hugs, which led to bed and tender lovemaking.
Ever since, they ran together more often and enjoyed the experience thoroughly. From the complex, they would run out University Avenue and into Oak Meadow Park, through it on into Vasona Park, over the wooden bridge near the lake’s edge, then home via the Blossom Hill park entrance. Sarah’s endurance guilt quickly and steadily. Will gave up, several times a week, his preoccupation with miles and minutes, and he learned to truly enjoy the gentle pace, the smiling conversation, and the occasional kiss.
He had loved running and now, thanks to Sarah, he could run loving.
God, she was a beauty. Beside him in the early morning California sunshine, her breath visible in light puffs as it merged with the morning air, her cheeks aglow with the first flush of exertion, her blue eyes twinkling with mischief; she ran.
They shared chat about what was sore this morning, what muscles felt better, how beautiful were the late autumn leaves, and how funny the sleeping ducks looked with their iridescent green necks tucked around under their wings. They made plans for the day or the night, talked about Christmas, which was bearing down on the world, and they traded family secrets.
They sometimes held hands and ran as one.
Sometimes Will was certain he would have to scoop his heart out of his shoes at the end of one of these runs, he had been so sure that it had melted and oozed out his toes.
Never, on a run with Sarah, had one of the weird, alien visions occurred. That was perhaps the most immediately therapeutic effect of running with her. The time was approaching when Will would consider curtailing his beloved solo runs altogether. Things were getting spooky during those.
10—los gatos creek trail
Will ran the Los Gatos Creek Trail for the first time the sixteenth of December. He was alone.
The morning was unusually warm, even for Los Gatos, this December sixteen. Nine o’clock in the morning he had to be at work; so, as usual, he was up and out by six-thirty. The smog was fairly dispersed this morning. The Santa Cruz Mountains looked close enough to reach out and touch, and the blue sky enhanced vividly their dark greenness as he ran down University towards them.
He had walked by the trail entrance dozens of times. A hurricane fence with a chained and padlocked gate supported the carved wooden sign whose green painted letters proclaimed:
LOS GATOS CREEK TRAIL
TRAIL HOURS---DAYLIGHT TO DARK
Beside the impregnable gate, the gap between two steel poles allowed a hiker, jogger, or bicyclist to hoist himself and/or his bike over two fat logs mounted knee high and horizontal. Spoilers. Enforcers of the posted rules.
NO MOTORCYCLES OR MOTORIZED VEHICLES.
Will climbed over the logs, cutting off his stopwatch, and walked down the deep decline marking the trailhead (taking it easy in deference to his weak left knee, which he always taped to avoid further injury). At the first level ground he punched the watch’s button again and ran, easily at first, testing the dirt and gravel terrain, carefully avoiding gulley drainage cuts and larger stones whilst counting in his head.
His counting was, by now, fairly automatic. He used his right footfall out of habit, counting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-2-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-3 and he fully realized that sixteen hundred steps may not actually have constituted precisely a mile, but at this early stage of his training he figured that it was good for his psyche to give himself a long average stride and thereby possibly award himself better looking times. He was the only one who saw them, and in any case his legs were longer than average. That “100” was his signal to hit his lap button to freeze the elapsed time on his watch’s screen so that he could at his leisure glance at his time enough to memorize it for notation after the run. Meanwhile, the watch was still working on his mile number two, and he was still counting in his head.
The trail, while a bit uneven, was pleasant to run. It meandered lazily along between Highway 17 and the Los Gatos Creek, the highway for the most part above the trail and the creek below.
At spots along the trail, a steep wall of dense scrub brush choked the highway view trailside while a nearly vertical concrete trough/wall invited the careless to a quick careen and a cold bath. Will was reminded of the time he had walked right into a bunch of parked shopping carts outside the Safeway. He’d only owned his new digital watch a day or two, and he was on his way into the store after a run, messing with the watch, not looking where he was going. It was a good thing he had made an ass of himself there, he now thought, than to have made a cripple of himself in a place like this.
Patches of cool shade and shadow gave way to bright sunshine and the rich, humus smells of autumn. Five more days and it would be winter, officially, and here was the kid, breaking his second sweat of the day, wearing nylon running shorts and a light sweatshirt over his “Barrow Whalers” sleeveless basketball shirt.
He thought of Barrow, back in March. It had been sixty degrees below zero, the sun barely having encroached upon the white and blue crystalline world, becoming a red red sunset before it had really finished rising. He wondered what it would be like to be there now, just days before the Winter Solstice, the longest night. Little did Will know that one day far into the future, the citizens of Barrow would successfully vote to revert its name to “Utqiagvik.”
He thanked God, whoever that was, for the warm sunshine he was running through and that he was wondering about Barrow and not experiencing it.
Smiling now, Will approached what might be the end of the trail, but he discovered instead a duplicate “NO MOTORCYCLES...” sign and a that the trail continued on up a sixty-plus degree hill. He leaned into it, shortened his stride, more by decree of the incline than of his own volition. He pressed on.
At the hilltop the trail levelled off once again, veered off to the left to avoid crossing Highway 17, and aimed itself across an open field toward Lexington Lake. Will did the same. Through the pass lay the prize that was Los Gatos and beyond, the belly, San Jose. Dense layers of dark smog lay upon her upper belly and torso, but her thighs lay open to sunshine and clear blue sky.
My god, he thought, I will be back to this place. Maybe on a mutual day off he and Sarah could pack a picnic and run out, lunch, and walk leisurely back in.
He took in the lake. Lexington Lake, which did double duty as a reservoir for this part of the South Bay area and a recreation destination, was very low for this time of the year due to lack of rain. So this is why everyone is complaining, thought Will; and justifiably—a water shortage brings great concern to a town and surrounding area so densely populated. He ’mused for a moment, feeling the sun’s warmth washing over him. Before he knew what hit him, he sank into a waking dream of long ago.
Clickick. Clickick. Clickick.
That same sun shone hotly. The town’s dirt streets crisscrossed below as he (flying? Gliding?) approached the Main Street Bridge. It was constructed of unstripped cedar logs. The steep grades at either end of it led up to East and West Main Streets.
He glided up this grade. Floated. Or walked. Or both.
Before him was a wooden town, and he moved down the dirt road that was East Main. People ambled about, dressed in period clothing, like they were extras in an old Western movie. Horses stood at hitching posts, patient like plastic toys. A buggy raced toward. In silence, complete and smothering silence, the buggy, drawn by two galloping dark horses, approached, out of control.
As Will froze, oddly without emotion, the beasts connected with his body. A sharp tug, then they had passed behind him.
Now it was nighttime. He walked. Moving through this silent world, now shimmering strangely all about him.
Enmeshed in that solid cushion of silence, he turned and entered a building over which hung an imposing wooden sign. The letters made no sense to him. One long string of bit indecipherable block letters, an & symbol, and another, still longer batch of unreadable letters.
He was inside a small office that was filled with the pungent odor of leather, oak, and something else. Leather, wood, and something more bitter. The odor of silence?
Piles of paper crowded the surface of the ancient desk. Some of the visible papers were maps. Some were charts. Some were lists of names and numbers. He moved closer to the list of names and a hand, an old, black-sleeved hand reached out as if it were his, and it pointed.
It pointed to a name. As with the sign, the name made no sense to him, but he could see the format—last name first, comma, first name, middle name, all garbled letters, up there near the top of the page of paper. A number beside it.
Clump. Clump. Clump.
Cold silence, the silence cold now.
Earthen smell. Will struggled to awaken.
Then CLACK CLACK CLACK click click click and a cascade of clitters and clatters and thuds, all in sets of three of a kind and Will struggled with all his might to awaken.
Silence. Darkness. Then BAM, BAM, BAM!
Ears still ringing, Will wrenched open his eyes and burst out of the dream.
He was still sitting against the boulder. A single cloud hid the sun.
He checked his watch. Hardly any time had passed, although he felt he had been asleep and dreaming for hours. He stretched.
For most of the run home and for most of the rest of the day, Will spent time wondering if those last three BAMs he had heard were part of the disturbing dream, or if they had been sounds in the real world. Never, never was he to figure that out. He would come to believe that it didn’t matter. He had experienced them, so they were real.
On that December sixteen, after his run, he was at work. He spent the better part of his lunch break at the library’s card catalog. In between checking out books, during brief respites when no one needed librarianlike assistance, and in the quiet solitude of the workroom while his hands were busy fitting new books with crisp clear plastic jackets, he had concluded his logical journey.
Something was going on. Something substantial. Something meaningful.
There was a mystery here, something that had God knows what to do with him, but some unreal thing that had some connection with reality.
Too many of his nightly dreams, too many of his waking visions, too many of his growing inventory of memories from these were recurring with too much consistency and regularity. Was he going batshit nuts?
He had, damn it all, begun to look at the world around him, his world, at least in part through the experiences of someone, yes of “some one,” whose identity was unknown to him. At least consciously unknown.
He was going to do some research into the history of this town. He was going to find out who or what was responsible for the ongoing obscene and frightening violations of his mind.
And, by God, whoever that was, he was going to make them stop.
12—running lark avenue
Early on a cold December morning, a tall, dark-mustached man emerges from the belly of the large L-shaped stucco building. His breath is visible in clouds which trail behind his loping figure for a bare instant before disappearing. He approaches, and he is in some sort of pain, or is lost in some difficult thought process, or is about to cry. Perhaps all of these are true.
He jogs directly toward us, his face disturbed, his breathing heavy. He runs to us and through us with a little pulling sensation that is oddly familiar.
Early in the cold December morning, the same figure approaches the corner of University Avenue and Blossom Hill Road. He smiles now, his bright blue shoes repeating their strides more easily and more quickly than before. As we watch, his smile turns to a scowl, he casts quick glances about him, and, catching the green walk light he quickens his pace, pulls through us again then sprints across Blossom Hill into Oak Meadow Park.
A fleeting birdlike sensation of passage, over trees, above the lake. We are standing on the overpass of Lark Avenue, above Highway 17. The runner approaches us, up the hill, a panting, plodding figure emerging from thin gray smog. Traces of the earlier scowl remain upon his face like the yellow crust of breakfast’s egg yolk. He looks around as he runs as if he expects to discover someone following him. He does not yet realize that he is not being followed. He is being led. He passes through us for the third and final time this morning, and we turn to regard his receding form. As it disappears. Into the cold December morning.
Will stood in the shower with the palms of his hands pressed flat against the wall beneath the shower head, his feet against the far end of the tub’s floor, and let the near-scalding water wash his flushed body while yielding his calves and heel tendons to the stretch they literally ached for.
He had just endured the smoggiest, most difficult, and most disturbing run of his brief running career. It was the smoggiest because had chosen this morning a new run from his Los Gatos map, gambling that at six-thirty in the morning the freeway overpass could not possibly be too layered with traffic exhaust fumes. Wrong.
It was the most difficult because he had awaked twice the night before with variations upon a nightmare, all underscored by the “three beat theme” with which he had become all too accustomed, visually and almost physically enhanced by licking flames, and partly because he and Sarah had ended their night arguing about the artist versus the cocktail waitress, the artist versus the librarian, the artist versus the world. They had finally achieved a truce, but his spirit today was edged with self-doubt. Maybe he was wasting valuable time under an illusion that he was “taking a break.”
The run was the most disturbing because, for the first time since the weirdness began, not a single alien image had assaulted his solo run consciousness. There had only been the creepy sensation that he was being followed.
He felt almost angry at that, as if the bearer of the unsettling messages were letting him down.
This was getting complicated, he thought, as he straightened up, out from under the shower’s stinging jets. He reached for the shampoo.
That night, after work, he stayed at the library until closing time, nine o’clock. When the lights dimmed at five until nine, he reluctantly rewound the microfilm and tucked it back into its little Dewey-indexed green cardboard box. It was labelled “Los Gatos News, July 1, 1887”—December 30, 1892.” He returned the box to its appointed shelf in the small side typewriter room which doubled as a research area.
He left the library feeling like a child who had been ordered to go to bed before finishing a very challenging jigsaw puzzle.
The following Monday Will and Sarah took the Beast up Highway 280 to Los Altos, where Sarah’s dentist hung his proverbial shingle.
Will wore running shorts underneath is baggy jeans and his favorite old baby blue sweatshirt was pulled over his old faithful “Barrow Whalers” tee-shirt. His brilliant blue running shoes snuggled his sweat socked feet.
At the dentist’s office parking lot, he kissed his lovely honey goodbye, pulled off his jeans, and leaned for a minute against the old white Mercedes. Doin’ de Sheehan Stretch. He breathed the cool December air deeply and slowly, intentionally, from the solar plexus, quenching his lungs with its nourishing substance, tagging each fully appreciated bundle of oxygen with a message to his blood: “Sustain me. Sustain me.”
He had been up half the night, awakened repeatedly by the mercilessly hammering footfalls of the One-Ton-Centipede, unsuccessfully trying to sleep, he had finally fallen—or rather crawled—into that shallow sea of half sleep, half dream where neither half owned controlling interest in his body’s corporation.
Will carried with him into that unsettling landscape the conscious intent to dream about Sarah, about lovemaking, about helium balloons and juggling clowns. His attempt to direct his dream live was a last ditch stand in a flagging battle for self-control. He had reluctantly arrived at the understanding that someone, some one, was trying to communicate with him through his dreams and through his very imagination; but he had not been able to lean into the message. Though part of his mind wanted to open up, to accept the cable from the “one,” the majority of his conscious mind steadfastly refused to sign for it.
The perceptual subject line was too disturbing.
Three beats. Click. Click. Click. Or Thump, Thump, Thump. Seemingly infinite variations on that theme. A choking claustrophobia. Aloneness. Not solitude, that peaceful version of being alone, but aloneness, the constriction of isolation and the absolute awareness that one has been forgotten. Not “loneliness,” which implies the possibility of resolution, but aloneness, stark and austere and soul chilling in its essential clarity, its finality. Then fire. Old fashioned wooden structures engulfed in roaring flames. Papers on a desk. Teams of horses galloping. That oddly gentle tug, like something plucked out of his dream body. Circling around, always, like the refrain of a song, the three beats. Clack. Clack. Clack. Pat. Pat. Pat.
Pound Pound Pound. All. Is. Cold. All. Is. Dark. It was very cold and very dark. Heat from flames should stifle. So what is this overwhelming sensation of closed in coldness? Can cold stifle? Smell of peaty earth. Earthworm castings, pervasive. Immobility. Aloneness. Pat. Pat. Pat. Echoing in the external night. The internal, eternal night. Aching. To be. Not alone.
“Help me,” the cold voice whispered.
“Help. Me,” it pled.
“Please, Will, help me,” Will whispered aloud in his sleep, spoke it with an urgency from he knew not where. Sitting. Bolt upright in his bed. Alone. Knowing he had spoken aloud. Certain he had been spoken to. His heart jumped into his throat. His whole flesh crawled with large, tight goosebumps.
Through early morning Lost Altos, Will ran back toward Highway 280 from the dentist’s office.
The novelist Herbert Gold wrote, “Sometimes a person feels blue and running makes him rosy.” Will began to feel rosy hear the end of his first mile. He had seen other runners on his way, out in the morning, and it looked to him as though his own pace were faster. He felt serious about his running. Proud of it. In it.
They all are into their last mile of their morning twenty, he told himself. Keep the ego in check and just reap the rewards this run brings you. Feel how your brain seems to have become such fast friends with your feet. Feel breath finding and dusting out the far corners of your lungs. Feel the unbelievably smooth interface of all your body’s organs and muscles, the strength in its bones, the forwardness of its thrust.
He did some sprinting in spurts during his second mile, and took it easy and slower for his third, until he found himself approaching the long, low building in which he could imagine Sarah sitting, jaws wide open, teeth being scraped of plaque. Ewwww. He still had a quarter of a mile to go before he completed his four miles for the day, so he turned into the vacant parking lot next the dentist office.
The sign read “St. Paul’s Lutheran Church,” and was a fine parking lot.
A truly wonderful parking lot.
Level and black topped, it was as empty as a parking lot can be. Bright new white lines had been added very recently, obliquely obliging the congregation to pew vehicles in an orderly fashion. Over a row of these lines Will ran. They spread out like chevrons beneath him, in stark white contrast to the black asphalt. Will sprinted up them and down them, and as he did so his conscious mind continued counting.
But as his eyes went just slightly out of focus, those lines that passed rapidly below took on the nature of a wire wheel, upon which he ran, sprinting for dear life, never leaving this cage and never getting any closer to his destination.
“4-5-6-7-400,” he spoke aloud, slowing to a walk, walking one more length of his little course, allowing, for the sake of progress, the thought to finally, truly, take shape in his mind.
Someone was buried where he did not belong.
That some one did not Rest In Peace.
For whatever twisted reason, it was up to Will Gardner to help.
14—a little light history
Patent Nov. 11, 1897
Patent Nov. 9, 1880
HORNE’S ELECTRO-MAGNETIC BELT
(The Only Genuine.) Received 1st Premium State Fair
Electro-Magnetic Belt’s New Style $10, Electro-Magnetic Belt’s Extra Appliance $15, Electro-Magnetic Belt’s 9 Improvements $20
GUARANTEED ONE YEAR. BEST IN THE WORLD.
Will positively cure without medicine—Rheumatism, Paralysis, Neuralgia, Kidney
Disease, Impotence, Rupture, Live Disease, Nervousness, Dyspepsia, Spinal Disease,
Ague, Piles, and other diseases.
Send for illustrated catalogue, free, Also,
RUPTURE GUARANTEED RELIEVED
Or cured. Send for Illustrated Catalogue. Hundreds of Cures.
W.J. Horne, Prop. &Manuf’r.
792 Market St., San Francisco, Cal.
Beware of Frauds Without Patents.
That was the sort of thing that would slow him down, as he cranked and cranked his way through microfilmed pages of newspapers nearly a hundred years old.
Jesus, he thought, what a great Christmas present. If only old W.J. were in business today, Will would buy a truckload of the things. He would send one to Dean Martin, whose liver could undoubtedly use the boost. Jimmy Carter could kiss his piles goodbye as soon as he strapped on J. Horne’s Electro-Magnetic freakin’ Belt. And Ronald Reagan would certainly benefit in a hundred ways with relief from his countless undisclosed degenerative diseases. If only the damned thing were guaranteed for four years.
Will had never really been very interested in history, well aware that it was written by the victors in all cases; but this area of the country was steeped in enough fascinating true stories to fan the sparks of his interest into at least a glowing bed of embers. And, after all, he was in search of fire.
He had begun by closely scanning two books in particular: George G. Bruntz’s History of Los Gatos and James Edwin Addicott’s Grandad’s Pioneer Stories. Poring over them at home, he had learned that there had been several fires of significant proportions in the city’s past.
There had also been not an insignificant number of murders.
References abounded to scores of murders in the late nineteenth century, rampant highway robbery (Will could understand the popularity of this last pastime, the winding mountain roads thick with hiding places), and frequent cattle rustling and stick-ups in town.
Of the murders, public stabbings of drunks and wives took second place only to the victims of the infamous mass murderer Lloyd Majors. Old Lloyd, who ran a saloon beside the Christian Church on West Main Street, was fond of robbing and murdering intentionally overserved clientele and then tossing their lifeless bodies into a lime-filled pit in his cellar. Will wondered if Lloyd would stare at the dead bodies before tossing them downstairs to decompose. If so, he mused, old Lloyd might earn the nickname “Stare and Toss It Majors.”
Nothing like a little Farrah Fawcett Majors joke to lighten up reality.
Majors never came to justice for these killings, discovered only after he was hanged in Oakland for his part in hiring two thugs to find and steal the hidden savings of two Summit farmers. The farmers refused to talk, despite having most of their fingernails pulled out. The hoodlums shot and killed them both.
Reporting back to old Lloyd, the hired goons were bought off with “$5 each, and a shot of whiskey and told to get the hell out of Dodge” (or in this case, Los Gatos). Majors clumsily attempted to cover up the dirty deed by arson and left town himself, wreaking criminal havoc in Oakland before he was apprehended there.
Will could picture this guy in wild and dangerous Oakland, but here in Los Gatos? Quiet, sleepy, little Los Gatos?
There were accounts of other misdeeds, but in none of could Will—wired Will, tired Will, Will of the bloodshot eyes—garner any connection with his own currently daunting problem. He felt farther away from a solution than ever.
In the “Fires and Fire Protection” chapter of the Bruntz book, he found accounts of two fires in the late 1880’s. The first destroyed the Los Gatos Co-operative Winery, then located in the area that was now Villa Avenue, behind the current Los Gatos Civic Center. In addition to the building, a thousand gallons of brandy were lost, burning late into the night. Much machinery and distilling apparatus were lost as well.
That must have been quite a blaze, thought Will: Los Gatos, one gigantic heated snifter.
The other fire made Will sit up and take notice. He once again stayed late at the library, this time with a particular research mission. In the little typing side room, he sat leaning over into the ancient film viewer to read from the Los Gatos Times, July 31, 1891, reading...
A DISASTROUS FIRE!_________________SUBSTANTIAL BLOCKS AND LARGE BUSINESS ESTABLISHMENTS REDUCED TO ASHES._________________Quick Work of the Flames.-Efforts to Save Exposed Property.-NarrowEscape of the Whole Busi-ness Portion of Town.
Damage, $75,000.-Insurance, $35,000
A few minutes after ten o’clock Sunday night, one of the most disastrous fires in the history of Los Gatos, broke out in the wooden building in the rear of Place & Fretwell’s furniture store. When first observed by night watchman E.F. Reynolds and others, the flames did not seem large, but Mr. Reynolds lost no time. Giving instructions to parties west of the bridge to get the hose east as quickly as possible, he started for the Presbyterian church to ring the alarm-bell, crying out fire on the way. In the meantime the flames, which had been smouldering in Place & Fretwell’s finishing rooms, burst out with the fierceness of a young tornado. By the time Mr. Fretwell, who saw it from his room in the Rankin Block, could get over to his place of business the fire had entered the salesrooms. He opened the door and took 9ut his jewelry work-bench and tools, but dropped the latter on the sidewalk and before he could go back to get them the flames had shot out at the door so hot that he could not go near.
Dr. Callender went into his drug store and found no fire, but in a few seconds the destroying elements bursted in and enveloped the room.
G.S. McMurtry and Bernard Lee entered the Los Gatos Store, but explosions of cartridges in H.J. Richardson’s hardware establishment had begun a rapid fusillade and were followed by an encore from the Los Gatos Store, hence Messrs Lee and McMurtry beat a hasty retreat.
The hose was coupled in two sections, one to the hydrant at the east end of the bridge, the other to the hydrant at the northeast corner of the Taylor property. It was soon seen that the hardest fight would be to save the Arlington on the east, and the stove and tinware establishment of G.R. Lewis, so one section of the hose was operated at the east and the other at the west, while men with buckets and wet blankets fought the flames which burst forth many times from the buildings on the south. T.W. Cox and others applied the fire hose belonging to the Ice Company to protect the Ice Works. Many willing hands were at work taking the goods from the stores of Lewis and Marks on the west ant the harness and buggies from Mr. Woodhams’ and the groceries and feed from Whitney & North’s. While the fight was raging on all four sides, the atmosphere was calm but the heat was almost stifling.
The great danger to The Arlington caused necessary alarm and the furniture was removed as fast as possible, while the flames gained on the building. The tall tower, the small turrets and the windows on the west, were points that could not be well reached. The water could only be thrown to the finish on the southwest corner occasionally, and the heavy cornice was soon burned off and fell with a crash over the heavy porches below, scattering the flames. This building burned slower than the others. Within an hour from the time the flames touched the outer walls, the building collapsed, all the walls going out except the south side which fell in, the main tower having probably directed its movement in that direction.
Dr. McMurtry and a few faithful men plied small hose and wet blankets to the Doctor’s residence on the exposed side, saving the building.
Still another gang were at work with water on the Rankin Block to put out the live coals which hailed down on it.
The west wall of the Willey Block divided the flames on the west so that the fire from the burning of Towle & Mansur’s store and the Barnes building, could be controlled by a well directed and continuous use of water. This was not chance game and to the worthy effort of a few men belong eth saving of not only the buildings of Lewis, Seanor and Woodard, but the bridge and possibly the west part of Town.
By 11:40 the flames were under control, but not until some of the best business establishments of the town were destroyed. The origin of the fire is unknown, but is thought to be incendiary.
The mail in the general delivery of the postoffice was saved, the drop-letters and the mail in boxes being destroyed.
During the fire several explosions occurred. After the flames were fairly under control the magazine in the rear of H.J. Richardson’s hardware store went off. A tunnel had been made in the side of the hill where the powder was stored. The earth and stones were scattered in every direction. John Baer, who was in the Ice Works at the time, was knocked down, but not seriously injured. The explosion was heard for miles.
The following buildings were destroyed: The Arlington hotel, C.H. Woodhams’ carriage and harness establishment, the San Jose Water Company’s office, the Los Gatos Store and I.O.O.F. Hall, the Postoffice building, H.J. Richardson’s hardware building and the plumbing shop of E.W. Potter, the Willey Block, Towle & Mansur’s fruit store and H.W. Barnes’ art store.
Postmaster Lyndon removed the few articles saved from the Postoffice to the south room in the Farmers Union building, where improvised boxes and pigeonholes were made to assist the work of the office. The books in the safe were all right but all the stamps were run together. A Postoffice Department agent was down on Tuesday to adjust the loss, but the matter of a permanent location and the refitting of the office will be attended to later on, yet the inspector and Mr. Lyndon will hurry matters as fast as circumstances will permit.
By Tuesday noon all the safes which went through the fire were opened and the papers were found to be well preserved. Of course the books were badly damaged.
The newspaper report continued with a detailed list of how much financial loss had been inflicted on each business, as compared to how much insurance each one had carried. Nearly every business had been grossly underinsured.
Will turned off the old machine and rewound the microfilm with one hand, rubbing his tired eyes with the other. He felt at least as confused as he was intrigued. The descriptions of explosions and flames and, yes, the whole scene painted by this primary source account fit, locked in with his dreams and waking hallucinations; but still there was something important he had not set eyes on. Some connection not yet made.
All his current conjecture would not prepare him for the truth, some of which he was to learn the next day, when his lunch hour inspection the raft of old photographs along the south wall of the library’s lower level would lead him to a few revelations, a set of new questions, and his own commission of a slightly criminal deed.
The entire wall was filled with framed photographs. They lined up like movie-goers, like school children, like white crosses in a military cemetery. They stared back from the wall at anyone who chose to stare at them.
They did not accuse; they did not indict; they did not blame. Locked within their uniform thin black picture frames, they pressed against the glass that contained them, seeming to state, matter-of-factly, “What is past is indeed just that. We are present.”
The most elegant brick buildings still stood beside wood framed shanties, stood now and forever upon the captured image of the ground to which, in fact, they had long since surrendered to history.
Crowds of people, forever assembled, posing self-consciously under blaring summer sun, seemed to share a common doubt that all this folderol would amount to anything. There was a formality about them that truly conjured up the most basic magic of the frozen image. These human beings were into something heavy here: They were bequeathing something to posterity.
And here they were.
Charged as it was by his intense bouts of research, Will’s whole being seemed to tingle with anticipation. He felt a gently recurring shock of recognition as he absorbed one scene, then another, and then moved on to yet another. All were at least minimally described by matching black framed, typed captions.
Civil war veterans line up for parade, Memorial Day 1885. The Union flag is a ghostly cloud at the end of its staff, unable to hold its pose for the requisite long exposure.
The May Day Parade float presented by the Imperial Home Bakery in 1900. Horse drawn coaches, horses and coaches alike standing draped with banners proudly proclaiming, “ACE CREAM SODA TODAY,” NEW PROCESS IMPERIAL BREAD, TRY IT, and “WE STRIVE TO PLEASE ALL TASTES.”
A large crow at the train depot, gathered together at that river of steel to greet President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison on May 1, 1891. Hundreds of dark clad backs to the camera, the image of a stationary train slashing the photograph, all detail lost to distance. Near the center of the foreground only one sun bonneted little girl, her face featureless, is turned toward the camera holding her mother’s hand. She is too small to see over the heads of those in between her and the President, and too old for her mother to hold in her arms. She probably has to pee.
From one photograph to the other Will carefully progressed, forward and backward into time, until, glancing at his watch, he realized he had spent all of his lunch hour plus the better part of another one lost, completely, totally, lost in the wall full of eternity.
He dashed upstairs and babbled apologies, immersing himself in work, organizing books on a cart according to that key precedent set by Mr. Thomas Dewey and then filing them in their appropriate places on the shelves with the vigor of a true penitent.
He didn’t want to be perceived as a slacker, but his guilt over his misstep was mixed with aggravation over being forced by schedule to abandon the wall. He had neglected to eat, an occurrence not unusual these past days. Who could think of food when he was, like the ghosts who posed stiffly for those old photographs, into something heavy?
He spent the rest of the day in that half here, half there condition, knowing at the heart of his heart that a little more time spent in front of that wall (that wall, the wall) would yield him answers upon which his very sanity depended.
16—a quiet walk home
After work, he walked home slowly, savoring the cool December air, his spirit slinking quietly into a gentle melancholy as he moved like his own ghost through the colored lights of Christmas.
This little town was really quite lovely.
He crossed the Main Street bridge, above the freeway, and paused halfway to gaze at the lights sprinkled twinkling throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The sun from behind the mountains painted wisps of clouds a dayglow pink.
An aerie sad guitar tune unfolded in his mind’s ear. Gentle hammers-on, pensive trills, and plaintive bending notes issued from the strings of his heart through the strings of his memory’s guitar. All was as it has ever been, all was futile, and yet, despite every indication to the contrary, the human heart stubbornly clings to hope.
Will’s own vision scanned the green clad mountains for an answer to his own deepest questions, while beneath him, each one with its own purpose, its own destination, vehicles rushed into and out of the mountains.
Through the wire grid of the sturdy hurricane fence, Will found himself absently gazing into the stream of oncoming traffic that poured toward him and rushed beneath his feet and away behind.
A giant semi-trailer rig approached out of the mountains as if in slow motion. Its primal roar built as it drew closer, the driver now gearing up upon hitting level road after his long steep descent.
The rig was so tall it appeared to be bearing down upon the sole pedestrian on the bridge above it. As the truck drew level with Will, it hung there for the briefest instant. His heart felt the gentle tug his dreams had made familiar (the horse connected with his body, he felt a sharp tug, then a pull away behind) and the sensation was gone. The truck, too, had passed below him. He shook his head, half expecting to feel its contents rattling. He closed his eyes fiercely.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Stifling cold.
He reopened his eyes, blinking to steady himself. He continued homeward, along University, slowly repossessing his senses in the here and now. Old Town’s trees, draped with tiny white lights, danced in the wind. After work shoppers waited in queues of cars for their own turn touring through the parking lot in the halfhearted, likely futile hope of finding a vacant space.
He walked on slowly, dreamily.
The “painted ladies” of University Avenue, the two-toned Victorian houses, smiled at him with fresh Christmas wreathes of holly or eucalyptus. Inside those houses, color televisions filled their front rooms with dancing images and cast flickering shadows upon the darkened walls—negative flames lapping negative walls.
(Flames, bright tongues licking windows. Screams in the streets, explosions in the night.)
He shook his head roughly again, picking up his pace toward home.
When he arrived, the apartment was dark. Flicking on the dining room light he spotted a note on the table.
Boomer mewed and pawed at the patio door, but before crossing to it to let him in, he picked up the note. It was brief, handwritten in Sarah’s pretty, flowing cursive style. It was to slip him just that one little notch more deeply into himself. “Dear Willum,” it read, “I’m working late tonight and I’m really tired, so I’ll see you tomorrow night, okay?” It was signed, with a small m, “me.”
Not “Love, me.” Not “Smooches, Sary.” Not “I love you.” Just “me.”
Will smiled, but only with his lips. His eyes stayed sad. At least, he thought, she hadn’t written, “Fuck you and your nightmares, too,” or “You and your creepy theories can crawl back under the rock you crawled out from and wait for the next full moon to reappear.”
Still, his first mistake had been to talk to Sarah at all about the thing that was beginning to take shape in his mind. He had felt he needed to discuss it and had tried to talk with her about it. He had to admit that the whole thing did sound a little H.P. Lovecrafty or Edgar Allan Poey to anyone who was actually dreaming the dreams and smelling the smells and feeling that tiny gentle tug as those horses, those horses…
(…passed through him as if by magic.)
Will shuddered. It was just as well, he thought, albeit ruefully. He had a little breaking and entering to do tonight.
17—a little crime
Will pulled off his worn Frye boots and spent a minute rubbing his tired feet. Boomer paw-pawed over and looked up at him with the quizzical expression he often assumed. What’s up, Dad, his eyes asked.
Cats do not like the world to be askew. Oh, they will adapt quicker than humans to turns about in the game plan, or even to sudden rule changes in the game itself; but in their furry little heart of hearts, they would just as soon see their favorite napping pillow stay just where it always has been, their food dished up and served just when and where it has always been dished up and served, and their master or mistress maintaining the same moods as always.
New moods especially disturb them. When Will’s marriage had abruptly nosedived into marital oblivion, he had been the master (if one can be the master of a cat) of a four-year-old tomcat named Dangerfield. The first day Will had walked away from the tiny white frame Knoxville cottage, in order to “think things over,” he had not really known—or admitted to himself—that he would ever return.
But Danger had. That night Danger had run away, simply packed his little kitty knapsack and split.
Will pulled himself out of his memories, changed into some sweat socks, and pulled his elastic knee brace up over his ankle. He peeled off his jeans and slipped into his cotton briefs and over these pulled his dark brown terry drawstring pants. He added a dark tee shirt and a navy-blue sweatshirt.
Into his old waist pack, which was just a zippered bag on a webbed belt, he tossed a pencil, his apartment key, his key to the library, a penlight flashlight, and his little blue spiral notebook.
He slipped into his running shoes, hiked up his left pants, and pulled the brace into position. It had not yet dried completely from his morning run, and it encased his knee in elastic coolness.
He stretched for two minutes.
He put out the bewildered cat.
He locked the sliding glass door. He ran. He ran the even mile to the library in 7:32:`06, his fastest mile ever. Inside of twelve minutes he found himself once again leaning into the old microfilm viewer.
He was looking for any reference to cemeteries.
The reels creaked, splitting the dark silence of the empty library. He wound the metal crank slowly, avoiding the distraction of advertisements. He would stop to scan the obituaries, and total quiet would consume the building until his breathing sounded too loud to him. Above the glowing screen of the reader and past it, the darkened windows of the typing room.
At last he found what he didn’t know he had been looking for. Its discovery took him so thoroughly by surprise that for a long while he stared blankly at the advertisement in front of him.
As his eyes went in and out of focus on the block letter ad fitting snuggly upon the page, it fell just as snugly into place within the jigsaw of the broad mystery he had been living. His mind raced over possibilities while his body settled into a sort of suspended animation. All notion of time left him. He sat still as the night, as quiet as quiet as can be, until a glowing shape which gradually appeared outside the typing room window moved.
That movement at the periphery of Will’s vision caused him to turn his head a little to the left. As he did so he experienced the odd sensation that, although he was undoubtedly turning to look left, he had somehow left his head behind.
Sort of a gentle tug.
The luminescent shape outside the dark window moved again, extended something like an arm from something like its chest and pointed something like a finger straight at Will. That should have frightened him, but he felt nothing. As if he were asleep, and this was not happening. He felt not cold, but frozen.
But if he were asleep, how was he standing up without a sound? How was he passing through the glass windowed door and following the shimmering, phosphorescent presence through the library stacks to their south wall? He risked a look behind him without turning his head. He saw his body, his own body, sitting there, leaning into the old film viewer, just where he left it. That felt perfectly natural.
He followed the glowing thing, knowing that was what was expected of him, and found himself (himself?) standing before a smaller wall of photographs he had not yet explored. The Essence, or the Presence, or the Whatever, which seemed to possess no identifiable features now, once again raised what should have been its arm to point directly at a picture near the center of the photos.
He couldn’t be asleep then. He must be awake. He must be standing unfeeling before a display of framed pictures, calmly experiencing what he could only call a ghost point at a picture.
He must be…
On the verge of tears. His heart must be thundering in the cage of his chest. HE must want to scream, “GO AWAY!” and so with all the urgent necessity that his mind could muster, with all his force of will, with all his courage, he summed up the energy and shouted, “GO AWAY!,” and although the shout came out as a hoarse whisper, the apparition lowered its “hand” and, holding out both arms toward Will as if to embrace him, it shimmered once, twice, and disappeared.
He came to his senses all at once. He was there, occupying his own body, and the effect was staggering.
His hands trembled, his ears rang, his eyes throbbed as if with the afterimage of the brightest light, he smelled Sulphur, and he tasted fear.
Legs shaking as if they would buckle out from under him, he approached the photograph which had been singled out from all the rest. He unzipped his fanny pack and without looking at it fumbled within and brought out his penlight. He clicked it on. He focused its beam upon the photograph.
Two men lounged stiffly on wicker chairs. Four more stood formally on the wooden slat porch of the shop building. The carved wooden sign over the two painted shop signs read “G.D. WILLEY BL.” One long sign horizontal sign, its black block letters stark against its white background, proclaimed “CENTRAL DRUG STORE.” The other one was straight out of Will’s recurring dream, and it bore the same information as did the ad in which Will had only moments before lost his senses. It was the sign for the Place & Fretwell furniture store, the store where the fire had ignited on July 26, 1891, the scene of his dreams, and it read, in addition to the names of the proprietors,
“FURNITURE & UNDERTAKING”
At once every farmed photograph on that long wall dropped to the floor and the sound of glass shattering was the only sound in the world.
Will was halfway home, flying like the December wind itself, when he began to feel he was being followed. He could discern no one behind him, and yet the feeling persisted until he had locked his door behind him.
That night, alone in his basement apartment, he sat up in the living room. Every light in the room shone brightly. A paperback novel sat open and unread in his lap. He slept not at all.
18—miss riley’s suspicions
Miss Riley sat back at her desk in the library’s office. It was Wednesday morning, and she was alone in the library. She had come into work early to clear up some paperwork left undone the previous day. So unlike her.
She spoke into the telephone. Frequently, as she talked, she scratched abstract little lines into a scrap of paper on her desk. Her pencil moved slowly and deliberately. At intervals, she would tap her pencil on her desk until her grip on its skinny orange length was as far down as it could arrive, at which point she would simply turn it about and tap the eraser end on her desk. It was a never-ending game she played, tapping and twirling, tapping and twirling, then pausing to sketch her little lines.
“I am absolutely, beyond any shade of any doubt, certain, completely certain that that microfilm viewer was not left on when I quit this floor to leave last night. Why, not a single person even used the thing yesterday evening, and the very last thing I did was to exit through the typing room from the staff lounge after making sure the lounge was clean and those lights were out, and it was dark as dark can be, I remember plainly, so I called you, Robert. Yes. I know it’s your day off but…”
“My point, sir, is that someone has been lurking about in our…”
Silence. Longer this time.
“No, Robert, and that is precisely why I am so concerned, Robert, I think it must have been an employee.”
“Well, I think that is pretty obvious. Nothing was broken, so a key was used. Nothing was vandalized—those young high school rufgians we call “students” would have at least knocked some books about a bit.”
A very long silence. The quiet of a sleeping building. Miss Riley, with a great deal of concentration, added heavy straight-line perpendiculars to her parallel squiggles.
She tapped her pencil to its end, twirled it about.
“That is why I called you. I need your authorization to call them. We have little complaint, you know. All we really have is a microfilm viewer left turned on overnight. I was a little concerned that you might laugh at…”
“All right, I will. But can we do that? I mean, isn’t it a violation of civil rights or something? Not to mention the morale prob…”
“All right. I will. Yes. Goodbye.”
The rattle and click of a receiver being placed in its cradle was followed by the briefer clicking as the receiver was once again taken up. Seven muffled clitters as seven numbered buttons ere depressed in rapid succession.
“Hello. This if Miss Riley at the Los Gatos Memorial Library. I have a question about lie detector testing. Perhaps you can help me. Polygraph? Oh, yes, polygraph. Well. Same thing, isn’t it?”
19—40 years ago today
Saturday dawned blue sky crystal clear and Will, too tired from another restless night to motivate himself onto the road for his morning run, satisfied himself with running the mile to work.
He toiled the morning in the Children’s Library, repeatedly shaking off a groggy feeling and forcing himself to direct his wandering attention to work at hand. More than once in the course of the morning he screwed up some simple clerical task and chided himself for his lack of concentration.
Not that he was actually counting, but it had been two weeks since he had slept more than an hour or two without awakening in a cold sweat to the sound of three beats of a kind. Knock. Knock. Knock. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
Sarah had not been around for several days now, and Will could not really blame her. He could think nor talk of nothing else but his dreams or his speculation about their source. And as for sleeping together, well. Will wasn’t doing much sleeping lately. And neither was anyone else trying to sleep in the same bed. Even Boomer had given up his preference for the foot of the bed and was curling up each night on the kitchen table.
The ogre living above Will’s apartment was becoming increasingly active lately, adding to the sleep disruptive environment. Will’s complaints to the manager had gone in one ear and out the other, eliciting promises of action that were as empty of substance as Will’s nights were of sleep. He was on the verge of direct action, of confronting the villain (or villainess) directly, something he had avoided out of suspicion it would only worsen matters. However, it was getting to the point where matters could not, as far as Will could see, get much worse.
Something, or somebody, had to give.
Will spent his lunch out at the microfilm viewer.
A reread of the Bruntz book had led him to seek out the January 16, 1958 issue of the Los Gatos-Saratoga Times-Observer. Its headline read, “Dulles wants summit meeting on ‘on condition,” and the Cold War was in a cool rage.
On page three, Gene’s Country Liquors (“Opposite Post Office”) ran an ad detailing the recipe for a “Happy Apple Knocker,” two ounces of apple juice, and ounce of vodka, and the juice of ½ lime (or one tablespoon lime juice) over crushed ice and shook it all together.
Will looked up. Miss Riley as staring at him with an odd expression on her lined face, through the glass door. He checked his watch, verified that he still had plenty of lunch time left, smiled quickly and renewed his scrutiny of the microfilm. After a moment, she disappeared. Will just looked back up and she was gone. His skin goosebumped over, and he took a deep breath. That must have been a dream. It was all running together in the cloudy reaches of his memory. The photographs still hung where they had always hung.
He cranked the reel and searched on.
The First National Bank offered a whopping 3% interest on savings and actually paid postage both ways for save-by-mail customers. Frank Sinatra starred with Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak in “Pal Joey” at the Los Gatos movie theatre. Second billing was James Cagney in “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
40 YEARS AGO
George Place recalls cannery workers sitting on head stones at old cemetery
By Jim Sims
Motorists who speed through the Intersection of Saratoga and Santa Cruz avenues, beware. The ghost of “Little Willie” Turner may rise to haunt you.
No one knows for sure just who “Little Willie” was, but George Place, proprietor of the Place Funeral Home, knows that he was buried in the old Los Gatos cemetery near the present intersection. When the cemetery was moved to its present Almaden Road location, some of the graves were left sine no one would pay for their removal. “Little Willie” was one of those who stayed in the old burial grounds.
A Lost Gatos family originally gave the cemetery site to the Los Gatos school district on the condition that it would revert back to the family when and if the land was no longer used for burial purposes. Hunt Brothers, however, bought the property and used the land for a cannery and its housing project. Most of the graves were removed, but a few were left. The headstones on these were tipped over and buried. Much of the area now occupied by Little Village was made into a living area with cabins for the cannery workers. The Live Oak inn was part of the original cannery Cafeteria. Place relates that cannery workers often sat on the headstones and monument while eating their lunches before the removals were completed.
Place’s father, E.E. Place, founder of a furniture store and mortuary, began removing graves from the old site in August, 1908. The last burial to take place in the old cemetery that year was at midnight. The midnight burial came about after removal of graves was started. The city did not want to remove a new interment and so obtained injunctions preventing burials taking place in the old grounds. Place says that an old man insisted that his wife be buried in the family plot and not in a new cemetery. To prevent the city from serving him with an injunction he and his friends made a midnight burial on Saturday. The city offices were closed and the processes of law could not stop the man from burying his wife as he promised.
Another man whose remains are probably under Little Village or Santa Cruz avenue was George Teasdale. He is best known for the unusual gift he left to Los Gatos children many years ago. He bequeathed about two hundred dollars to the school district to be used to buy candy for children at Christmas time. He had started the practice himself some years before his death and wanted to see it continued.
The money was placed in a bank and is still drawing interest. The sum presents a problem for the school district today. No one knows what to do with the money. Teasdale died in 1873 and when the cemetery was sold 30 years later no one offered to pay to remove his grave to the new site. His headstone was tipped over, buried and perhaps lies beneath the passing cars or scurrying feet of busy people.
Place believes that when the streets are widened the construction crews may come across several such graves of forgotten people. Although Place has the only complete file of grave resignation and a map of the old cemetery, it is difficult to determine if the graves were removed. The remains of Teasdale and “Little Willie” may yet come to light. Until then it is hoped that Willie doesn’t mind too much the humming of automobile tires and the tramping of feet over his head.
20—the el gato
The El Gato Coffee Shop is a narrow little room sandwiched in between the Grog and Sirloin on the one side and the Little Village Real Estate offices on the other. Whomever built the place was very creative. Its long, narrow shape is about the only possible configuration that could be squeezed into that particularly elongated, skinny space, but it works. It wedges deeply recessed into what was once an alleyway, slightly raised above street level, on Santa Cruz Avenue.
A veritable miracle of utilitarian design.
In this it is not unique along the streets of Los Gatos. There is a nifty little shop just down the street, called “Nature’s Alley,” which is just that—an open-air former alleyway—converted with a high degree of imagination into a tasteful plant store.
This morning all of the twenty or so stools at the long counter of the El Gato were claimed, and the one nearest to the cash register, farthest from the door, was occupied by a tall, lean, dark haired man in his early thirties. His gray running shorts and pale blue sweatshirt were not out of place, even in the last week of December, at least not in Los Gatos, California.
He sipped his black coffee measuredly, and even at that slow pace had consumed four cups of the thick, richly aromatic stuff already. He had only taken a couple bites out of the jelly doughnut on the bright white saucer in front of him.
Mostly he seemed to just be thinking. Or listening? Intently.
The pretty young waitress with the wavy long red hair was beginning to get a mild case of the creeps. She wondered if she should give Merle a call.
Merle was the owner of the El Gato Coffee Shop, and he had been very explicit with instructions when he had hired the pretty young waitress with the long red hair, “If there is trouble of any kind you call ol’ Merle, he only lies five blocks away, off University, and he’ll be her before ya can say ‘Jack Splatt.’”
“Ol’ Merle” was kind of a good ol’ boy. And he was a big one. Weighing in at close to three hundred and fifty pounds, very little of it muscle, most of it doughnuts. But it was established fact that he had very little time for troublemakers. “Lord knows,” Merle had told her often enough, “the burden of making back the small fortune I just spent on remodeling the front of this place so it don’t no more look like a greasy spoon, not to mention the fortune I lost closin’ down for a week to do it, sure don’t allow for no slack when it comes to takin’ in doughnut money.”
The pretty young waitress waited for the last of the coffee to drip into the aluminum pot of the coffee maker. She tossed her pretty hair over one shoulder and stole another glance at the man at the end of the counter.
She hated to bother fat ol’ Merle. Merle lived with his father, took care of the old guy, was always talking about him. He seemed to be getting a little better about his complaining lately. They must be getting along better.
She risked another appraisal of the man in the blue sweatshirt.
He looked pretty burnt out, all right. She had seen him around. He was kind of good looking and she wasn’t above some man watching. Plus, she had a bit of a weakness for men with moustaches. She had seen him running through the streets of Los Gatos often, even saying “Hi” or “Good mornin’” to him once or twice. But he had never been into the El Gato before, and he had never broadcasted the kind of weird, on the edge vibes that were literally pouring off of him now.
Jesus, she though, there he goes again. Turning around to glare at the people coming in. Every time anyone came up the new wooden steps into the place he turned around and glared at them.
Clop clop clop. A lady with hard-soled sandals ascended the steps. The guy, sure enough, started slightly, turned the upper half of his body around, and GLARED at her. That does it, thought the pretty young waitress with the wavy long red hair, that’s bad for business, there’s nothing subtle about that at all, I’m calling Merle.
She turned to pick up the phone and dialed Merle’s number, but when she turned back around, all she saw was the back of his pale blue sweatshirt as he bounded out the door.
His feet never even touched the steps.
“Mr. Gardner, even if we could ascertain the precise location of the gravesite, I’m afraid we would at least need a name before we could begin paperwork to exhume a body for re-interment.”
“The name will be on the headstone, buried with the grave,” Will repeated, “I’ve already told you the.” He heaved a heavy sigh, not the first he’d parted with during this conversation. “Listen, Mr. Farley, I know this is unusual, God knows I know that, but you’ve got to believe me. There is a body buried there that does not belong there. Don’t you have records? The newspaper article says there’s a map. Here,” Will dug into his pocket for the xeroxed copy he had made.
Farley cleared his throat. He had seen some strange ones, but this was a prize winner. In his 35 years as a funeral director at Cosgrove he had never…
“Here,” Will said, pointing a shaking finger at the pertinent paragraph. As cool as Farley’s office was, beads of perspiration were welling up on the young man’s face.
The elder man reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a pair of wire rimmed bifocals. He slipped the glasses onto his pudgy face and read impatiently. He cleared his throat again, waving his hand in the air, replying “Yes, yes, I have read all this before, but you must understand, Mr. Gardner, that although a map of the old cemetery does exist—though not in our possession—the map, which I have personally seen, is plotted and coded with numbers, and the numbers, Mr. Gardner, refer to lists. I am afraid that most of those lists were lost in a fire, I believe in 1890 or thereabouts. That is one reason why some of the descendants of the deceased were never successfully contacted during the original move. I assure you that every reasonable effort was made, but you have to understand that the means of communication at the turn of the century were fairly limited. Yes,” he eased back into his plush office chair, “I am as certain as you are that there are a number of deceased in that large area that, as you say, ‘don’t belong,” but, and I’m sure you will agree, we simply cannot go mucking about with pickaxe and shovel underneath shops and sidewalks on the basis of,” Farley peered over the rims of his bifocals, “dreams, did you say?”
“Damnit, old man!” Will shouted, and for a flicker of an instant violence hung in the small office. He caught himself and inhaled deeply. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he paused, “I apologize.” He took another deep breath. “What if I paid,” he asked, “What if I paid, what would it cost?”
“I’m afraid, sir, that, even with the permission and cooperation of the landowner, an exhumation of this nature would not come in under, let us say, somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars, perhaps more.”
Will looked lost, and Farley saw it, adding, “In addition, of course, to the cost of re-interment.”
At this last Will slumped ever so slightly into the leather chair. The older man, removing and folding his spectacles and leaning closer to the younger, assumed an expression of total sympathy. It was so complete that a less practiced actor would have pushed it past the point of believability, but Farley made it work. It was, of course, his stock and his trade.
“I’m truly sorry, Mr. Gardner,” he oared softly, “perhaps after you’ve talked to the landowner and thought this over, perhaps we can be of some assistance.” He smiled gently, paternally. “My own advice, young man, which I do feel constrained to give, is to…”
Will’s look silenced him. There was an underlying threat to it similar to those with which Farley had some experience, in the faces of the young, in the faces of the left behind.
“Well.” The funeral director concluded. “If you will excuse me, sir, I do have business to attend to. Good day.”
After Will had quit the office, Farley picked up the telephone and dialed the number of the Los Gatos Police Department.
22—vigilance, and sarah
Will walked somnambulantly home, mulling over the whole mess. It as if his thought were the ingredients of a thick stew, and they had all been thrown together in one big bowl, but the chef was beginning to suspect he should have chosen a larger bowl.
Still he stirred it all about, hoping the mixture would blend and become something, not overflow, and not just remain a bowl full of stuff.
The body was under the El Gato Coffee Shop steps.
It was a tortured, forgotten soul. He was sure of it.
Perhaps there were other such souls scattered about underneath shops, streets, or sidewalks; but this one was the only one that mattered.
To Will, at least, this soul mattered crucially.
“Little Willie may be satisfied with his lot in death. Maybe he is under the bar at the Grog and Sirloin, thought Will. Maybe he’s entertained nightly by all the talented, underpaid musicians who played there. Maybe he is delighted by the clinking of ice cubes in highball glasses, cheered by the melodious mellifluousness of laughter, entertained by loud voiced arguments over football games and real estate markets. Perhaps “Little Willie” has indeed gone to God and his soul couldn’t give a rat’s ass where his corpse rotted.
But Will was absolutely certain, beyond a shade of a doubt, that whomever it was who was killed by that team of runaway horses back on East Main Street, that soul was now reaching into Will’s dream life and encroaching upon his conscious perceptions, and that person? That human person was not resting in peace.
Will did not have a thousand dollars.
But he did have a shovel.
The notion that—as Webster defines “vigilance”—“when the processes of the law appear inadequate,” the law can be taken into one’s own hands, has a richly cultivated, time honored history in Los Gatos, California.
A bitter controversy between teamsters bound through the Santa Cruz Mountains and owners of a tollgate set up at the south end of town lasted a solid year. Despite court action prohibiting and punishing groups of men who, in 1877, cultivated a penchant for tearing down the tollgate and throwing it over the Main Street Bridge, that process was repeated over and over again until the County Board of Supervisors declared the road public in 1878.
In 1883, a convicted and particularly brutal murderer named Garcia was dragged out of jail and treated to a lynching party in his own honor, held, again, at the Main Street Bridge. It was a really swinging party.
And just before the turn of the century, it took one vigilant, public minded soul two tries to burn down the shack which had long been used as a makeshift jail by corrupt authorities. Even the local paper commended the burning of “the sweat box,” as it was commonly called.
Will wondered what the local paper would have to say about a little public spirited, altruistic, graverobbing.
“Hi, Willum,” came Sarah’s voice from the other side of the door. He was fumbling for his key as his door swung open. The interior of his apartment was uncharacteristically bright and cheerful for this time of day. Something sweet-smelling sizzled on the stovetop. Sarah stood before him, smiling warmly, her long blonde hair tied back, her beautiful breasts pleasantly straining a bright blue long-sleeved leotard. Will’s silly red scotch plaid apron was cinched around her tiny waist.
She kissed him quickly and turned back into the kitchen, and his eyes were drawn to that lovely behind. She was poured into a new pair of jeans he hadn’t see her wear, and they fit her like a second skin.
“I took the liberty, she tossed over her shoulder. “Your gloomy old pit was a mess, your cat was starving, and what little I’ve seen of you lately suggested to me that you could use a good meal, or any meal for that matter, and since it’s the maid’s year off, I figured, well, nothing ventured…” She glanced up from a frying pan full of chicken, wooden spatula in hand, and the silence hung in the air for a moment.
It fell. “Will. I miss you.”
He stood there. Sarah set down the spatula with a soft little click, stepped over to him and, reaching up, took his tired face gently in the soft smooth palms of her hands.
He felt like crying.
He needed a friend. Badly.
“Will, honey,” she whispered, “you look like shit.”
He did cry.
After hugging him closely for a few moments, Sarah turned off the stove and led him into the bedroom. She sat on the bed, pulling him down beside her, and held him in her arms, rocking him gently while he sobbed.
When his store of tears seemed exhausted, she held him tighter still until they kissed, and their hands began to wander. In a sweet rolling waking dream of hands and flesh, they made long slow love until they had spent their bodies last thin dimes. They fell fast asleep.
Sarah awoke sometime later, sometime well before dawn, to discover that Will was no longer in bed with her. She had long become accustomed to his rising at odd hours, so she fell back asleep, dreaming of earth. Deep. Brown. Rich earth. Cool to the touch and fertile smelling, she dreamed that she ran her fingers through its richness, and all was as it should be.
He dug it.
With quiet little scoops of a garden trowel, his shovel standing sentry against the shadow clad wall of the adjacent building, Will on his knees, all dressed in dark clothing, face smudged commandolike from where he had feverishly and futilely attempted to wipe away the sweat oozing from his pores into this cool December night, he spooned it out.
From under the steps.
In front of the coffee shop.
He breathed deeply and slowly as he worked in an effort to get his racing blood under control. His heart drummed in the night like an alarm signal to the world: HERE! IN HERE! THUMP…Thu-THUMP!
At three-thirty in the morning on a Monday the traffic was sparse on North Santa Cruz Avenue. The occasional headlights had so far announced the occasional car far enough in advance for Will to creep behind the little shrub that stood beside the shop’s entrance. Still, he was completely exposed to the eyes of any but the most disinterested passerby. He could only hope (and each time he did that shrub crouching thing he did hope) that any passerby would be disinterested. So far there had been none, but how long would that luck last?
A car swept slowly away and he half-crawled back to his deepening pit.
He was on his belly, lying prone, and stretching now for each trowelful of dirt, piling it up at the far side of his deepening hole.
His arms and back felt about to break when, out of the periphery of his vision he caught the flashing red lights. He froze.
He hugged the earth for all he was worth and prayed they would go away. If they were not looking this way, they might, though surely the sound of his heart and his labored breath would call his game.
To his amazement, the squad car sped up toward him and continued past, its siren engaging.
But something in him had snapped. His resolve. Or his courage. Or both. Whatever it was he could not force himself to go on without it and he picked himself up, spitting dirt, and reached for his shovel. To run away.
Came the stage whisper from within the gaping hole at his feet, “Will. Help. Me. Help. Me. Will.”
And then he was beside the pit, shovel flying, and then he was down inside the thing, throwing earth recklessly out above him, inhaling the damp dirt-filled air, cutting through the roots of living things in a mad rush to reach something dead. His heart drummed in an accelerating rhythm, rising to crescendo along with the shushing beats of the shovel as it sliced through the rich brown earth, rising, rising, building, shush pu-pump shush pu-pump shush pu-pump until where he had expected another shushing sound there came a single, shovel arresting thud.
But it wasn’t stone, and it wasn’t wooden It was not a headstone and it was not a casket. And the odor that suddenly filled the newly dug pit left little doubt in Will’s mind what this shovel had struck, and what he was standing upon.
What happened next was only natural. Anyone in his shoes would have done the same. He pissed, down his leg, into those shoes.
Flashing red lights once again filled the night.
Only this time they were bright, so bright, and a piercing white searchlight sliced through the air between the street and the newly dug grave.
Curiously, this moment, Will was not afraid. He had no time to be afraid because he was running at full sprint directly at the police car.
It was the only thing to do. He could have stayed in the pit, or he could have crawled slowly out and quietly, calmly, and rationally answered the officers’ questions. Instead he chose to do the one thing he knew he was good at.
The jig, as they say, was up.
The instant he hit the sidewalk he heard a shout from inside the patrol car, but though it was loud the words were unclear, as he was already off, running hard and fast, south on North Santa Cruz, buying himself the few moments it would take the car to turn about and follow. Surely they would not shoot at an obviously unarmed man. A gunshot blasted through the night.
It did not “ring out,” like a gunshot on television or in a movie. It was loud as a cannon and its loudness ended abruptly. No ricochet sound followed, either, and Will allowed no opportunity for a second shot. He pivoted sharply into a brick encased doorway and stopped. The screeching of rubber on a paved road told him to break for it.
He broke for it.
He ran hard for Bachman Avenue, cut left there, pounded down to the first parking lot, cut sharp left again, and pushed himself on into another lot at a full speed.
The siren began to wail as Will pressed for an opening in the shop buildings lining North Santa Cruz. He spotted one as the flashing lights and the wailing siren entered the parking lot with another screech and he threw his body into it.
It was a dead end.
He had misjudged. The alley he had entered stopped dead at the rear wall of another shop. He realized he had trapped himself, this time completely.
If he tried a repeat of the earlier trick, the officer, or officers, would probably blast him into the next century. His only fragile hope was that the driver of the patrol car would make the same mistake Will had made and assume that the alleyway went through to the street beyond.
It came into view, stopped with a shriek of rubber and for an instant, just for one millisecond, it was over.
Will had sent the signal from his brain to his arms to raise both hands high.
The car peeled out again bound for the storefronts around the block.
Will took one deep breath, held it at the top, and exhaled slowly, pausing after all the air was expelled from his lungs, before slowly and deeply inhaling again. If there had been two policemen in that patrol car and if one had been left waiting at the mouth of this alley, this might be his final breath.
When his lungs were full, he ran.
He ran straight across, over uneven asphalt, between small shops, through the empty parking lot, to University Avenue as distant sirens wailed and he pivoted hard left at the sidewalk and powered up his legs again. He sprinted the distance to the intersection where University cut across Saratoga, actually by then State Hwy 9. It was as open an area as God makes and his only hope now was luck.
Now, as one sedan full of travelers—following their headlights to Saratoga, or to Monte Sereno, or even to San Francisco via the “scenic route”—whooshed past, Will whispered “vanish” to himself and without a break in his stride bolted across the intersection and ran for home.
He leaned hard into his future as he ran.
He never once looked back.
Suppressing an irrational urge to set his stopwatch in motion, he concentrated on making time with his body. No “Long, Slow Distance” here. His body was time. Time was his body.
This was Running.
Will accomplished his apartment door at full speed. Breathing hard and incredibly fast, he let himself into his apartment as quietly as he could.
He wanted to laugh out loud; but a short time later, showered and glowing, as he stood naked before the mirror and stared at the skeletal figure he had become over the last month, he wept soundlessly.
Finally, drying his tears and his body, he slipped into bed beside the sleeping Sarah. For the first time in nearly a month, he slept peacefully.
He slept for two nights and for two days.
24—a little explanation
He was running on the beach, and it was the Capitola Beach, his favorite, and there was no one on that beach but him. He wore no shoes, he wore no shirt, he wore no shorts. He was as naked as the sand itself, as naked as the ocean, as naked as the sky. If the sky could be said to be wearing the wind, so he wore his smile, all that the moment called for.
He ran without any effort at all, feeling the splash of salty smelling ocean water mix with the salt within his own bare body. Cold wet and warm wet, mingling under the intense summer sun. A single seagull skirted off the shore he ran along, swooping purposefully toward the sea’s rolling surface, only to pulls out of its dive at the last instant and heave itself heavenward.
He raced under the cooling shadow of the rickety old pier, which yearned out over and into the sea, the sea, mother ocean. The heat of the sun slapped his skin as he emerged from the shadows. On he ran, into the littler beach on the pier’s other side. He ran for the giant boulders strewn over the beach’s outer reach.
There Sarah sunned herself, only as he drew nearer, he realized she was wearing a heavy robe which covered her lithe body from neck to ankle. She slept soundly as he approached, now walking, now quietly panting only slightly from his run. She was. Beautiful.
The sun shone.
The pounding, the singing, the whispering ocean as he stood over Sarah. She stirred slightly, and she opened the cumbersome robe slowly, peeled it open, tantalizingly, and her smooth, her silky, her cool, her taut body was offered ever so gently to him, and he approached as that seagull called out from somewhere in the distance, and called out again, this time more loosely, and again, and it was calling his name, gently, lovingly, singing his name, Will, Will, honey, Willum…
“Love. Wake up baby, oh, sweetie, I hate to wake you, but you really have to eat. Take your time, now, there is no hurry.”
He opened his eyes very, very tentatively. He knew it was Sarah who sat over him, and he knew that he had been dreaming. Ah, but such a dream. It dawned upon him in stages that suggested the opening of that robe. It had been a long, long time, a long time indeed, since he had dreamed a dream of his own, that belonged only to him.
Strange that he had not been more concerned with that, over the past month or two. He had been so confused. So incomplete. So
He careened into full consciousness. “Sarah, Sarah, what time is it, Jesus, I must have overslept.”
“It’s okay, Will, it’s all right, now just lay back here, like the good boy you are. I’ve called your work and explained,” she spoke as a teacher to a child, the palms of her hand on his shoulders gently but firmly pushing him back into the softness of the pillow. “Besides,” she added, “our little Willy is a hero.” That made Will flinch, but Sarah took no notice, “You couldn’t lose a job in this town if you streaked a town council meeting.”
She seemed taken by that image. She broke into here little tinkling laughter.
Will just looked at her, his heart full and his mind thoroughly befuddled.
When she had collected herself and her little fit of laughter had subsided, Sarah continued, “Now comes the fun part. I think I have this whole story under control, although you will have to fill me in on a few details, like how it all fell into place for you. Will,” she gave him a serious expression, lightly brushing a fallen strand of black hair from his brow, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wouldn’t listen to you. I guess,” she paused, “I guess it all just didn’t make any sense to me. Even now that it does make sense, it still spooks me a little. No. Not a little. It spooks me a lot.”
Will started to speak, but Sarah placed a soft warm hand over his lips.
"You’re not allowed to speak for a few minutes,” she again took control, only to yield it again, “only maybe to say you forgive me. Her eyes twinkled. Tears? Or mischief?
Will cupped her little hand in his own and kissed it gently. When she took it back he spoke, “Sarah, I love you. I need you, and,” he lowered his voice to a Soto whisper, “I think I must have you.” He reached for her.
But she had already rolled back out of reach and, from the doorway, said coyly, “Uh-uh, big boy, not until I’ve gotten some answers to some very important questions. Wait one minute.”
From the dungeon’s living room, she called, “Notice anything different?” She returned, clutching a small bundle of newspapers to her breast. She pointed at the ceiling, “You’ve slept for two solid days. You have any guesses why that’s been possible?”
“My god, she’s right,” Will thought. No Thunderthighs, no Leadfoot, no One Ton Centipede. He looked confused again, and he realized he was getting very adept at looking confused.
“You busted him, you sly Hardy boy, you popped him into the pokey.”
Noting Will’s bewilderment, Sarah continued, “Okay, hon, I’ll go slow. Here’s the straight skimmy.” She plopped down beside him on the bed. Squeaks prevailed. “The body you found? You know, the one you dug up downtown in front of the El Gato? Well that was Merle Senior, the lately deceased father of Merle, you got it? Junior.” Once again, she pointed to the ceiling.
“It seems that the older Merle passed away in his sleep this past October. That is, if we can believe his son. And at this point we’re not so sure we can believe any smalltime but heavyweight restauranteur who would bury hid dear beloved namesake under the front steps of his business establishment and then carry on the pretense that all was business as usual, all the while collecting and cashing his dad’s pension and social security checks in order to feed his already well overfed face in the style to which it had grown, and I do mean grown, accustomed.”
“Oops,” she said, covering her smile with her hand, “I think I’ve gone too fast. That’s pretty much the whole story. Damn.” She looked disappointed. “And I was planning to tell it so dramatically. Oh, well. Oh, but I could add that the police know it was you who did the dirty work, excuse me, and that it’s all right that you did it, I mean what happened was they went to Merle Junior before coming here and Merle Junior well he just cracked like a little porcelain Buddha right then and there, confessed to the whole grisly thing, upon which confession he was led off to the hoosegow in handcuffs. God, I’m surprised that you slept through the whole thing, all the hollering and weeping and such going on right up over our heads am I going too fast?”
She was, but before Will could respond yea or nay she continued, “Anyway, at this point you were still in the clear, until the police put a call from your Miss Riley at the library together with a report of a strange conversation you and some funeral director had and came up with little Willy Gardner’s name.” Will flinched again, but Sarah didn’t notice, “boy graverobber. They brought your trowel and shovel here and I identified them, but only after they told me they wanted to thank you and to talk to you about how you knew where to look and stuff. I was able to tell them enough to confuse the hell out of them and to convince them that you needed your rest to build back your strength. But I promised that you would call them as soon as you were yourself again.” She reached out and touched his silent face. Her hand felt so warm and soft upon it, his stubbly face. She heaved a heavy sigh. “So. How about it, my love? Are you? Yourself I mean?”
In answer he pulled her to him and kissed her full welcoming lips. The next several hours were dedicated to determining, as thoroughly as possible, the answer to Sarah’s question.
The answer was an unequivocal yes.
It was a dark, cool, rainy, Northern California Sunday afternoon, and there were not many mourners present to witness old Merle Sikes’ coffin lowered into its proper resting place. January had finally turned into Winter, such as this part of the country would see, and it appeared that life’s own Winter had already claimed most of the old man’s friends, had he any.
A handful of old people stood bent under the green and gray stiped canopy that had been set up against the winter rain. Time weighed heavily upon the little assembly. Time had bent them all, in one way or other, though none, as yet, were broken. Only Merle. Only Merle.
They attended to the proceedings with silent respect. There was a heavy air of seriousness about it, some dimension of meaning beyond that of other funerals. No one spoke. All shared the moment.
Will felt detached from the occasion and at the same time deeply responsible for it. He and Sarah stood a little away from the rest of the party, sharing the shelter of a big black umbrella. Somehow, it did not feel right to be a part of the small circle of elders who stood beneath the canopy. The echoes of the minister’s final words hung for a moment in the air. Then, as if he had never spoken, he was gone. And then, as the cemetery workers leaned into their work of filling the grave, the small group of mourners filtered out into the grayness of the winter day. It was over.
As he and Sarah turned to leave together, a great sense of relief washed over Will. He silently thanked God that there had been no press to sully the event’s momentous weight.
Will had already begun to gain back some of his own weight. His face looked a little fuller, and the dark circles that had become so familiar to him had evaporated.
It was. Over.
Except, that is, for the old gentleman who now made his way up to the young couple.
His face was lined like soft leather, creased by decades of worry, perhaps of pain, but also of laughter. There remained but the slightest wisps of white hair scattered about his bare head. He also carried an umbrella, open to ward off the rain, and he smiled a kindly greeting, speaking gently, “Hello. You, of course, are Will Gardner, and you, young lady, are...Mrs. Gardner?”
Sarah blushed, unseen in the grayness that so enveloped them. She and Will had only the previous day brought the subject up.
“No, sir,” Will interjected, “this is my dear lady, Sarah Moore, and you, sir, are?”
“George Milhous is my name, son.” He peered with almost unsettling sincerity deep into the younger man’s eyes, as if searching for something he might have lost. “Durned if I wouldn’t like a cup of coffee and a word with you, if you would deem to spend a few minutes with an old man. My sister doesn’t keep coffee in the house, says it’s bad for us, but I do like a cup now and then. Are you possessed of a vehicle, son?” He smiled again, and where his previous smile had been laced with gravity, this one held a little mischief, along with a tinge of urgency.
Will could not refuse. Aside from the genuine feeling that a conversation with this elderly fellow might prove fascinating in itself, there were still some questions in Will’s own mind that perhaps the old man could help answer.
“Yes, that old white Mercedes on the end,” he gestured to the parking lot. You are more than welcome to join us for a coffee, Mr. Milhaus. In fact,” he lied, “we were just going to stop for some on our way home.” He glanced at Sarah, who only smiled politely, obviously of like mind.
“Make it George, my boy. Just let me make my excuses to Sally, there. You can drop me home after our chat, can you not. I understand that is a lot to ask, but I live just off Bachman Avenue, up the hill, don’t you know, and I would much appreciate the respite from the old girl, I love her deeply but,” his eyes twinkled, “well, yes. Just one moment, here.” He talked a little more spryly than before as he moved off to speak with sister Sally, who stood at the base of the little hill in the midst of a small group of old folks who appeared to have been waiting for George.
Sarah gently squeezed Will’s hand. They made their way, arm in arm, to the car.
26—an end to it
The gas fire flickered beneath its conical chimney, adding cheerful warmth to the already pleasant environs of the London Oyster. It was a wonderful place to spend any Sunday afternoon, the little tables draped as they were with crisp white tablecloths, the wall of windows looking out over the parking lot and the backs of buildings which fronted North Santa Cruz Avenue. From where Will sat, he could see the intersection of that street and Main. Lazy traffic crawled through the drizzly afternoon, and rain dripping off the storefront eaves intensified the coziness of the dining room.
The restaurant’s Sunday brunch was long over, and a few small groups of well fed and thoroughly champagned hangers on lingered, as if unwilling to venture out of the room’s warm embrace. Glasses tinkled at the bar, and smatterings of lighthearted conversations wafted over to the window table where the three sat.
“Merle, you see, well he was a strange old bird, you know, a history nut from the word go.” George had been a distant cousin of Merle’s and the two had known one another from childhood. “That was his passion, yessir, old books, and letters, why one whole wall in his room, back when he stayed with us, it was just covered, why, literally covered with old postcards, and photographs, pictures cut out of all those old newspapers.” He leaned back in his chair, seeming to picture in his mind Merle’s room. “And I was up in that apartment where, God rest his soul, he must of died, and you know what? There were tape marks all over the walls of that bedroom, you know, like I know he’d done the same thing there, taped up all his old pictures and such, but I couldn’t find a single solitary one of them.”
George sighed and made a little clucking sound with his tongue. He took another sip of his Irish Coffee. “Guess that murdering son of his…” he stopped himself. “no, I shouldn’t say that. Merle Junior never had it in him to actually kill his father. Though he sure acted like he would of liked to. Anyway, I bet that bloated bastard threw all his father’s stuff out.”
He sighed again. “Never replace some of that stuff. Never replace it.”
There was a long silence. Everyone in the room seemed to have been cued to freeze in position. The rain outside fell straight down, in light parallel lines of droplets, and heavier drops from the buildings’ eaves fell randomly, accenting the stillness.
George shifted his frail weight in the comfortable chair and reached around to his hip pocket to bring out a weathered leather billfold. He thumbed through plastic snapshot leaves until he found the one he was looking for, then offered the wallet to Will.
“There,” he said, pointing to the snapshot of two elderly gentlemen, that’s me and Merle, took a coupla years ago at Thanksgiving.” He searched Will’s face for recognition.
Beyond amazement anymore, Will spent a few seconds running, smiling at the old man at in the old tweed touring cap and the oversized plaid greatcoat. What was it he had said? Something.
Will cleared his throat, “George,” he said softly, “I only have one question that I can’t seem to answer. Maybe you can help me figure it out.”
The older man looked suddenly tired, suddenly he looked every day of his eighty some odd years, as he returned the younger’s earnest gaze. “I’ll help you in any way I can, boy. You know that,” his voice broke a little, “You know, Will, I really loved that old,” he trailed off, but he maintained eye contact with Will. “Well,” George dropped his gaze to his coffee, then raised it back up to Will, “What’s your question.”
Will forged ahead, determined to find the answer, if there was one.
“All the dreams about fire, and all the stuff about lost records and the cemetery move and all that. Every bit of it can be explained, as much as any of it can be explained, by your cousin’s obsession with history. I believe he was using the only tool he could to draw me to where his body had been buried. History.”
He looked from George to Sarah and back again to assure himself his point was taken. Will had long since accepted that merle Senior had called him from beyond death, but he didn’t want to make the mistake of assuming that everyone with whom he discussed the matter agreed with that assessment.
No one at this table voiced any interest in contradicting it.
“And it worked. That much I can figure out.” He took a draft of his Guinness and let its cold fizz soother his throat. “And the three beats, that’s obvious too.”
George spoke, “That’s the part that makes my skin crawl, you know, sort of makes a fellow wonder what’s going to happen to his mortal remains.” He smiled a little nervously.
Sarah spoke up, “George, if I may, I really don’t think we can assume that anything that went on here can be applied to the normal business of life. Or death,” she added. “This is a really strange case—of abuse, maybe of murder, and definitely of some kind of spiritual bond between Merle Senior and Will. We could speculate forever about its meaning, but I think we only need to be concerned with its outcome.”
Both men regarded her with profound respect.
"Well don’t look at me like I just laid an egg. I’m perfectly capable of remarkable insight, even if I don’t make a habit of scaring myself half to death with psychic dreams and missions like Mr. Gardner here. You can have those, and with my blessings, my love.” She picked up her own cup if Irish, offered a little silent toast to the two, and took a dainty sip.
Will picked up the thread once again, “There was one other image that really stood out. I mean, it was really its introduction into the stream of my consciousness that spurred me to start doing something about this mess instead of just sort of laying back and letting it all assault me.” He took a beat or two to visualize it, then continued. “It was as clear as anything else that I dreamed, or imagined, and it recurred at least as frequently. An image of a team of horses, out of control, racing toward me, and then…through me, like as if it were the end of my life. But, aside from a kind of a tug, both sharp and gentle at the same time, it wasn’t altogether painful.” He shrugged, “Almost pleasant, in a weird way.”
He chuckled nervously. There.
George, who had been sitting still as a stone during Will’s little monologue, now shifted once again in his seat and cleared his own throat. He held aloft his cup and looked around for the waiter. After he had requested another Irish Coffee, he returned his attention back to Will.
“I guess you’ve connected with more than one side of life and death, Will.”
Will sensed an answer coming but did not see it yet. The old man continued, in a low voice, “Merle, you see, was older than me, so I never really thought much of this. His mother, who was the second cousin of my mother—we were all cousins in those days, it seems like—his mother, I now clearly recall, had died giving birth to him. Medicine back then was not all it should have been, you know, a whole lot of mothers lost their lives giving birth. A great many children were lost, too. And in Merle’s case guess you could say that it was a miracle that either of them was saved.
The tuxedo-vested waiter brought his fresh Irish with a smile, and after that little flurry of activity George completed what he had to say, “His mother, you see, Merle’s mother, was run over by runaway horses pulling a buggy down Main Street.” He inhaled deeply. “Merle was a premature baby, don’t you know? Pulled from the belly of his dying mother. Will. Will, you’ve heard, don’t you see, from the other side of death? And, don’t you see? You’ve heard from the other side of birth as well.” His eyes brightened with understanding. “The other side of birth.”
The rain seemed to patter just that much louder as the three of them gazed out into it, each lost in silent speculation. The old man whispered, half to himself, “My God in heaven,” and then he was quiet, and the rain still came.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.