19 January, 2009
CHAPTER THREE: JUST OUTSIDE THE DOGFISH, ONE A.M.
coyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Just outside the Dogfish the air is damp and cold and full of distance, the distance of the ocean, the breakers, the jagged twin arched rocks beyond the breakers, the sky ablaze with stars hanging above the rocks. All these distances hover in the air.
Wilbo is leaning on a post, his mind emptied of thought, his heart rattling uneasily in his chest, staring at his little brother, Arno. Arno is not leaning on anything. He stands, shivering in the buzzing red Budweiser neon. Finally, he speaks.
“Wilbo. I’ve been saved.”
This doesn’t tell Wilbo much, but it increases his uneasiness. “Yeah, OK,” he says, nodding his head.
“I’ve been saved, Wilbo. Did you hear what I said? I’m a new creature. Look at me! Can’t you see the difference?”
“Yeah, Arno. I see a difference. You’re sober. And you forgot your sweater.”
“Don’t mock me, please, Wilbo. This is important. This is the most important moment of my life.” Arno looks down, looks at his hands, rubs them together, takes a deep breath.
“I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”
The words hit Wilbo like a hard punch in the stomach and the pain radiates down his legs, up his spine, out his arms, making his fingers tingle. When it reaches his head, his vision fills with swirling phosphenes. He feels dizzy. He stumbles. He clutches the post. He feels disoriented, like it could be any time of day or night. He has no idea why he feels this way, and he makes no response to Arno’s words.
Arno continues. He hasn’t noticed Wilbo’s reaction. “I know it sounds crazy, Wilbo, but you know what I was like. I was going to hell. There were only two possible fates for me. One, I would die a drunkard and go to hell. The other… But can I tell you the whole story?”
Wilbo slaps his arms with his hands, trying to bring sensation back into his shoulders.
“Well, maybe we can go somewhere warm. I don’t mean back in there.”
“We could sit in my car.” Arno offers, indicating a dusty green Ford Falcon parked across the street.
So they cross over, Arno unlocks the car, and they get in. Arno sits in the driver’s seat. Inside the car with the windows rolled up it’s quiet and smells like mouthwash. Arno starts the engine and lets it idle as the cab slowly fills with a close, musty warmth.
“It happened last night.” he begins. “It was still early. I wasn’t so far along yet, although I’d had a few. I was walking on Albatross Street, down by the cannery, when all of a sudden I heard this music- voices singing, and a piano- really incredible piano playing, it sounded like Fats Waller. That’s what caught my attention, the piano playing. Like Fats Waller. But then I noticed the words they were singing. Come home, come home, they were singing, Jesus is tenderly calling, come home! And all of a sudden I felt this incredible sadness, right then and there my eyes started to fill with tears. Sadness! I had this thought- what a wretch I am-a wretch! Look at the mess I’ve made of my life! I don’t know where it came from. Up to that point I was just rolling along, riding the waves, you know what I mean. But suddenly I was filled with remorse. It was something I’d never thought of before. A wretch. I was a wretch!
“So I turned the corner and there was this…you won’t believe this, this is so incredible… there was this building that was never there before. I swear to God, that building was never there before. It was all like blue, and glowing blue, like the walls were made out of glass and there was this blue fire burning inside. And there were these tall, stained glass windows with pictures in them- scary pictures, monsters and demons, and there were these like bat-like creatures with wings. They made me nervous. But the door was open and the music was just pouring out of the doors. I don’t know how I had the courage. I just walked right in.”
Arno shifts in his seat and rubs his hands together vigorously in the warm air streaming from the heater. “Do you believe my story?” he asks. “Or do you think I’m just making it all up?’
“It doesn’t sound like the kind of story you’d make up, Arno.”
Arno turns again and faces forward, looking out through the windshield. A black and white tabby cat is perched on an orange crate just outside the empty storefront of a darkened market. They watch together in silence until the cat jumps down and disappears into an alley.
“OK, then, I went in.” Arno continues. “The light in there was blinding, I could barely see. It was a strange sort of golden light. There were pews, all full of people, but there was this man in the back pew- he smiled at me and moved over, and he handed me a hymnal. He was a black man. I think maybe all the people in that place were black- I can’t really remember. That’s funny, I can’t remember that. Anyhow, he handed me a hymnal and then he went back to singing. His voice was big and powerful except it was a little off key. I tried to sing but I couldn’t read the words because of the tears in my eyes. Every time they sang come home, come home, I just got more tears in my eyes.
“Then the music stopped and this woman got up and started to speak. She said that we all have this home that we can barely remember. It isn’t the home we live in now and it isn’t the home we grew up in, but it’s our real true home, nonetheless. It’s the one place where we’re happy and safe and there’s no fear or pain or anger. There’s love there, real, true love, love that never betrays. And the cool thing is, there’s no death! It never ends. You can live there forever!
Then she just started saying, come home, come home, come home to Jesus! Leave behind your life of sin where every path leads to heartbreak and sorrow.
“Then the piano started playing again and people were singing softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…time now is fleeting, the moments are passing… though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon… Some people were getting up and starting down the aisle. I don’t know. I don’t know why I did it. I just got up and started down the aisle. There was this big long railing there and people were kneeling down. A woman took me by the arm and led me to the rail and I just fell down on my knees. There was a man standing there. He was wearing a purple robe and he put his hands, both his hands, right on my head- this head, this greasy head- he covered the entire top of my head with the palm of his hands and then it was like… I don’t know, it was like landing on the ground… it was like an eagle landing on its nest after hovering over it for a long time. It was like coming home. I was crying and crying and people all standing around me, they were saying Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! They all had their hands on me…”
Arno is bent over the steering wheel by now. His voice is shaking and there are real tears in his eyes. “Wilbo. I’ve been born again. I’ve been saved. I’m never going back to that old way of life.”
Suddenly he sits up, straight as a board, as if he remembers something, or as if he suddenly realizes where he is. “Wilbo.” He says, gravely, “There’s something I need you to do for me. There’s a promise I need you to make me.”
Wilbo is caught off guard by this turn in the conversation. The story up to this point had been strange but in a lulling, somnambulant sort of way. He was listening, but part of his mind had been drifting, trying to connect the dots.
“Uh.. Ok, sure, what’s that, Arno?” he says.
“I need you… to promise me… you’ll stop drinking.”
It’s as if there is an audible pop in Wilbo’s head. Suddenly he is fully awake, fully attentive.
“Now, wait a minute!” he says. “Up till now, this was all about you. What does my drinking have to do with it?”
“It’s still all about me, Wilbo. It’s all about me. I’m not at that point yet, where I can make a difference in someone else’s life. It’s just that I need someone who can support me, a brother- someone who can stand beside me and walk with me and hold me accountable. You’re my brother, Wilbo.”
“Yeah, but Arno, I don’t have a drinking problem.”
Arno sighs, a long, slow exhalation. The sigh says, I wish I didn’t have to say this. “Wilbo, if you drink, you have a drinking problem.”
“No, Arno, I don’t have a drinking problem. I like to drink. It’s not a problem. I don’t get fired from my job because I come to work drunk. I don’t go on extended weekends and wind up getting picked up by the cops in the back of a dumpster. I don’t break windows in my house and hit my wife on the head with chair legs. I don’t run over little old ladies in my car. I don’t…” Wilbo catches himself in mid-sentence and reigns himself in. He is getting too wound up with this list of atrocities, torn from the pages of Arno’s life story.
“I know, I know, you don’t have to remind me.” Arno’s voice is mournful. “It’s a sin, Wilbo, that’s what it is, a sin. I’ve been a sinner. I’m still a sinner.”
“No, no, no, let’s not talk like that, let’s not get sin mixed up with this. It’s just that there’s some people that can drink and there’s some people that can’t. It’s not a sin. It’s more like an allergy.” Wilbo reaches out and gives his brother a gentle shove on the shoulder. The gesture feels phony. But he continues. “Hey, man, I’m with you. I’m glad for you. Really. I want to support you in every way I can. I just don’t see why I have to stop drinking.”
Arno sighs again. It is a brand new skill he has acquired- the art of sighing. Wilbo wonders how he could have picked it up in such a short time. “Listen to yourself, Wilbo, Listen to the excuses you’re making. How can you say you don’t have a drinking problem when you have to make so many excuses? First you say, I’m your brother; I’ll do anything I can to support you. But then in the next breath you say, but I won’t give up drinking! This is the one thing I’m asking of you. It’s the only thing I’m asking of you. Wilbo, I would call that a drinking problem.”
“But it wouldn’t help you, for me to stop drinking. You’re the one that needs to stop drinking.”
“I know. I know, Wilbo. But I’m weak. I’m so weak. And the demon is strong. I could get sucked back in so easily. If I knew that my own… my own brother was beside me, holding me up, walking the distance with me… it could save my life, Wilbo. You would do it to save my life, Wilbo. If you can’t do it, you must have a drinking problem.”
The words hang there in the cab for a long time. The only sound is the whir of the heater fan and the occasional misfiring of the untuned Ford engine. Wilbo has absolutely no idea what to say. He feels trapped. He feels stuck in a moment of time that isn’t moving either way, forward or back. The thing he would most like to do is get out of the car and start walking. But that would be wholly inappropriate.
Finally Arno speaks. “I won’t bother you anymore about it tonight.” he says. “Let me take you home.”
Good, Wilbo thinks, this is coming to a close. “No thanks, Arno,” he says. “I’ll walk. I’ve got to do some thinking.”
Arno nods. “Yep. I bet you do.”
Is there a trace of smugness in the voice? The irritation it conjures propels Wilbo out of the car without another word. When his feet hit the pavement his knees buckle and he almost falls. Arno rolls down the window.
“You’ll make the right choice, Wilbo,” he calls out. “I have faith in you. God bless you, brother!” Then there’s the sound of the Falcon, grinding into first gear.
As the car rolls away, a little wind picks up and a tin can tumbles off the crates in the alley by the market. There’s a scuffling sound from behind the boxes, and an irritated feline complaint.
Wilbo is not watching his brother disappearing down the rattling wooden slats of Gull Street. In fact, he’s facing the other direction, along the wharves and pilings of the warehouse district. At first his mind is so distracted he doesn’t know why he’s doing this, but then he sees.
Someone is approaching from a great distance, a small thin figure, moving very slowly, weaving slightly. A female, for sure. He can tell by the posture and the little things she does, like strumming the segmented links of a cyclone fence with her fingers or forming basket-shaped circles with her arms above her head. At one point she does a full pirouette, circling a trash can at the entrance to Pier Nine. She’s a little bit off. She stumbles at the end, but catches her balance and continues her approach.
It occurs to him that he has been watching her for a long time, through the windshield, sitting in the front seat of Arno’s car while Arno was speaking. He can half-remember the moment she first appeared from around the back of the cannery, then only a tiny, undulating dot of movement. His mind remains vacant, refusing to process all that has happened, his eyes absently fixed on the approaching figure.
At the place where the gravel of the access road meets the wooden planks of Gull Street, she sees him. She stops abruptly and her twirling arms float down to her sides. She stretches her neck and presses her head forward, inquisitively. Then she speaks.
“Hey!” is all she says.
Unable to think of anything else to say, Wilbo responds in kind. “Hey!”
She scrunches up her face and blinks. “Hey, is that you?”
“Well… it’s always me, no matter who it is.”
“No, I mean, it’s you. It’s really you. You’re the person I came to see.” She steps forward under the street lamp.
Even then the recognition is not immediate. He’s not sure. So many people pass before him, every day, and not just casually, not the way they pass by Earl at the tilt-a whirl who takes their tickets with his bored face and his wrinkled hands. But this girl- does he recognize her or does he not?
She’s very young, and slim, and strange, but not strange like a madwoman, or a creature from outer space, or a demon from the spirit world. Her strangeness is deliberate, a work in progress, a self-statement, a lifestyle made flagrantly visible. Her hair is impossibly red, streaked with strands of gold, like a sunset; it cascades over her shoulders in a magnificence of disarray. Sequins sparkle in her hair and on her eyelids, over smears of lizard-belly blue mascara. Seashells and colored stones dangle from her ears and from a silver chain about her throat. She wears a thin black rayon dress tied at the waist with a blue silk sash. She is barefoot. Her ten toes are painted in ten colors, with a complete disregard for chromatic harmony. She is very pretty.
When the recognition comes it’s like waking up in an unfamiliar room from a numinous dream about which he remembers nothing. When he speaks, his voice is paper thin.
“Who are you?”
“Well, what kind of a greeting is that?” she answers. “You know who I am. I helped you make all that money today. I came all the way down here just to see you. I got the address from the napkin. You said it was your business card.”
Wilbo stills his breathing and relaxes his eyes, allowing them to rest on the details of the apparition before him. “Well, what do you know about me?” he asks.
“I know your name. It’s Wilbo. Like Bilbo. Like Bilbo Baggins. I asked around. You have a lot of friends, you know. I went to this place called Mac’s Burger shack. . He’s got all these pictures you drew up on his wall. He calls it the Wilbo museum. And you play this accordion thing, and people give you money.”
“It’s a concertina.”
“Yeah. Concertina. I love your act. I want to be part of it. I’m a dancer.” She does a funny little leap after she says this. It starts out graceful but it ends up clumsy, and she has to throw her arms out at her sides to catch her balance. Maybe the clumsiness was just part of the act.
Wilbo blows off a big lungful of air. So much at once! He shakes out his hands from the wrists. He shakes his arms from the shoulders. He shakes his head from the neck, trying to shake off the past, as best as he can. Here and now! Like those silly birds in that novel by Aldous Huxley. Attention! Attention! He must be here and now.
I’m sorry,” he says. “I just had a rather unsettling conversation with someone. Forgive me. What’s your name?” he extends his hand.
She takes the hand but she does not shake it. Instead, she does a very strange thing. With a swift and precise motion she draws the hand toward her and places it, palm down, on her chest, on bare skin just above the neckline of her black rayon dress. She covers it momentarily with her other hand, then releases. Wilbo quickly draws it away.
“Claudia,” she says. “Claudia Jenkins. I come from the land of the palm trees and the parking lots.”
Wilbo chuckles. “Oh, you mean Los Angeles,” he guesses. But the moment he says it, he notices something else about her, something he missed on first appraisal. Her left eye is swollen and puffy and a pale blue bruise is just beginning to form under the patina of her make up.
“Take me in there,” she says, nodding to the Dogfish. “Buy me a drink. Let’s talk business. I told you I want to be part of your act.”
But Wilbo is troubled. “What happened to your eye?” he asks. “Someone hit you! Did that just happen?”
Claudia raises her hand- both hands to her face, but she does not touch her eye. Instead she makes a screen out of her cupped palms, furtively trying to hide behind it.
“Oh shit, does it show? Shit, I didn’t think it would show. It wasn’t that bad, really…”
“That just happened, didn’t it? Somebody hit you. Who hit you?” He reaches out and takes her wrists, gently, pulling down her hands to reveal the eye. “You’re going to have a shiner in the morning. Who hit you? Was it that guy you were with today?”
She lowers her face and he feels her try to raise her arms again but he keeps his hand on one wrist.
“Nobody hit me,” she says to the ground, “I mean, yes, somebody hit me. But he won’t hit me again. He’s gone. He’s so gone, that guy. He’s gone and a half. I don’t ever want to see him again. Come on, take me in there. Buy me a drink.”
Wilbo looks up the Dogfish. At that moment the door flies open and some people tumble out, laughing robustly, slapping and hugging and singing. He feels a strange, confused sadness. Sure, why not? They could go in there; he could introduce her to Carl and Doralina and old Blue Lake Pole Bean himself. They would like her. She would fit right in. Maybe a little younger than the others, but she would fit right in. Yet something is in the way. It’s almost as if some kind of a curtain is being drawn between where they stand and the pub door still swinging.
“Oh, let’s not go in there,” he says, “I’ve already spent my time in there. Let’s just walk. We can walk and talk. They call that the Socratic method.”
“Well, shucks, I was looking forward to getting completely plastered tonight. I was kind of counting on you to help me find my way home.”
At another time Wilbo might have found these words tantalizing, full of the promise of secret, forbidden pleasures. But instead, he is washed over by a wave of tenderness and regret.
“Let’s walk,” he says, taking her arm, “There’s better things than that for you to do tonight. Come on and walk with me, and tell me all about it.”
He finds himself leading her by the arm, gently, firmly, away from the Dogfish. Without giving any thought to a specific direction he starts along the narrow trail that leads past the outbuildings behind the Dogfish, down to the ocean.
“Are you safe now?” he asks. “Will he come back? Will he try to hurt you again?”
Claudia laughs, mirthlessly. “Oh, for crying out loud, are you worried about him? Are you afraid he’s going to come and try to get us both, like in the movies? No, no, no, it’s not like that at all. He’s not gonna hurt me again. It shouldn’t have even happened this time- I could have prevented it; I could have just ducked. I don’t think he even wanted to hit me. But that doesn’t mean he’s tender-hearted or anything. No, he’s out, he’s gone. He’s so gone.”
“Ok, he’s gone, that’s fine, he’s gone. We won’t talk about him any more. Tell me something about yourself then, Claudia…Claudia Jenkins. Tell me a story.”
After that, she doesn’t say anything for awhile, and neither does he. They walk together in silence, arm in arm. The path leads through a scrub of salt-stunted heather out onto a narrow railed boardwalk that follows the water side of the warehouses.
Claudia finally speaks. “It’s very quiet.”
“It’s nice when it’s quiet sometimes,” Wilbo replies. “There’s a lot of noise, all day long.”
So they walk along a little further, sharing the quiet, but Wilbo’s thoughts are not quiet, nor are they well-formed. Repetition, like the tides, subject to subtle variation; Carl’s eccentrics on the spokes of the wheel, providing the wobble. Arno, he looked so skinny there, shivering in the neon light. Arno’s done this before, bobbing to the surface like a drowning sailor, grasping at a lifeline, letting it go. But it’s never been religion. And this is the first time he’s ever asked me for anything. A mysterious sighting out beyond the breakers, like Captain Nemo’s giant squid, or a ghost ship made entirely out of bones.
“You think I’m sheltered, don’t you? You think I’m a rich and sheltered. And I’m way too young for you.”
Claudia’s voice startles him. It’s almost like he’s forgotten she was there. But no. it’s just that his awareness of her is completely sensual, rhythmic, vibratory.
“You do, don’t you? You think I’m a rich bitch.”
“I don’t know the first thing about you, Claudia. I haven’t formed a single opinion.” Not so, he says to himself. But his opinions are completely sensual, rhythmic, vibratory.
“It’s true, though. I am. I won’t deny it. I come from money. It’s not a thing I’m proud of, but there it is. My father is a record producer, in Los Angeles. He works for Warner Brothers. I’ve met a lot of famous rock and roll stars. They’re all phonies. All of them.”
“You’re embarrassed by your wealth then. You shouldn’t be embarrassed by your wealth. It’s just where you come from- it’s your roots. There’s no inherent value judgment.”
“Oh, of course there is. Wealthy people will always be outside the circle. They can never really experience life. Life is all about struggling and suffering- hitting the bottom so that you can find your way back up again. A wealthy person will never go to the bottom, except maybe as a tourist, where he can just buy a ticket and get out whenever he wanted.”
Wilbo thinks for a moment about his friend, Carl Rogers, and how the sparks would fly if Carl was to get together with this red-haired girl and her untamed ideas.
“Well, there was something about the rich man-how hard it is for him to get to heaven. Easier to stick a needle in a camel’s eye, or something like that. Sell all your stuff and give the money to the poor. Jesus said that.”
“Oh, are you one of those?”
“One of whats?”
“One of those Jesus freaks.”
This one drops a small stone of discomfort into Wilbo’s stomach. “No. No, I’m not one of those,” he says.
“Good. I hate those Jesus freaks. They’re phonier than rock stars.”
Wilbo nods in rhythm with their footsteps. “No, I’m not one of those,” he repeats, quietly. “Let’s not worry about the Jesus freaks. What about you, Claudia? Tell me more about you.”
She gives him a coy look, then pulls herself away from his grasp making a sweeping gesture with her arms, first to one side and then the other, her fingers drawing little spirals in the air.
“I want to dance,” she says, and she pivots into a swanlike swoon, swirling fast enough that her hem flies up, revealing sturdy, shapely legs. “I’m taking classes up at the institute. That’s what I’m doing here. Classical ballet and Turkish belly dance. And Tai Chi. That’s where dancing merges with self-defense.” She produces some graceful gestures of repulsion so effective that Wilbo has to step back. “Josephine Baker, she’s my idol. She taught us not to be afraid of our bodies. Body language should be taught in school- just like French or Japanese. It’s a foreign language to most people.” All this time she keeps moving, dipping and swaying from side to side on the planks, drawing energy toward her with her arms and then flinging it out again through her fingers. Wilbo is amazed, and pleased. If nothing else, this girl has entertainment value.
Suddenly she becomes self-conscious. Her arms fold down awkwardly and she careens to a clumsy halt before him.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “I’m acting silly, aren’t I?”
“No, not at all. That was wonderful. I’d really like to draw you some time. In detail, I mean.”
She stares at him for a moment. “I’m attracted to older men. I don’t say that to just anybody. I say it to you because you’re an older man. It can be our little secret.”
“What’s the secret?”
“That I’m young, and sheltered. I don’t want to be young and sheltered. I don’t want anyone to know. I want to be experienced, you know, like Jimi Hendrix. I need some experience, real fast. That’s why I picked you.” She grabs his arm. “Let’s keep walking.”
After awhile the walkway drops down a short flight of rickety steps to a rough pathway carved in the rock and filled with sand drifted in from the beach. The warehouses are behind them now. On the inland side there’s a straight cement wall tattooed in graffiti. Seaward, a jumble of boulders and still, stagnant water disappear in darkness. It’s darker here because there is no man-made light- only the pale glow of the half moon sifting through the fog. The water is quiet enough that they can hear the sound of crickets fiddling in the underbrush.
“What’s that?” says Claudia suddenly, and she squeezes Wilbo’s arm a little tighter.
“Over there in the rocks. I saw something move.”
They stop and Wilbo squats down to peer into the darkness. At first he doesn’t see anything- just rocks and the shadows of rocks and the small disturbance of waves. But then-yes! There is something, a black, slippery-looking thing, bobbing from side to side between two boulders.
“Seal,” he says, “He must have lost his way.”
“Oh!” she cries with delight. “Can you pick him up?”
“Well, they’re not too fond of that. But at least maybe we can say hello.”
Without standing, Wilbo leans over and presses his hands against the nearest boulder, then pulls himself up onto it. The rock is slick and mossy and his foot slides down and lodges on a shelf a few inches below where he had placed it. He thinks to himself: what am I doing? This is crazy! At that moment the black, bobbing, and clearly living thing makes a noise- a long, wheezing, guttural out-breath that ends in what sounds like a bemused guffaw.
“Hey, what’s happening, pal?” Wilbo manages to say as he pulls himself up into a more secure footing.
Silhouetted against the moonlit rocks, the seal rears up its head and upper torso and begins to applaud. It’s front fins slap together, it draws a deep, watery breath and lets out what can only be described as peals of laughter, mirthful, barking, yuck! yuck! yuck! Obviously, Wilbo is the funniest thing that has crossed this creature’s path in a long time.
Claudia bursts into laughter too, but the seal is less amused by this. It ceases its racket at once and slinks back into the shadows, bobbing its head from side to side, scrutinizing this strange new creature on the shore. Wilbo leans over and holds out his right hand, palm up and open.
“Hey, it’s ok, friend,” he says, soothingly, “That’s the female of the species. They can be a little disconcerting at first.”
For a moment the seal seems to ponder this. It cranes its neck sniffling inquisitively at Wilbo’s outstretched hand. Perhaps there’s a fish there, somewhere. But there isn’t, and with a sudden, and decidedly seal-like motion it tosses its head to the side and peels off the rock, headfirst and sideways into the darkness. Wilbo is surprised to hear a splash. He didn’t know there was water there. In fact, there is water everywhere. The rock he is sitting on is actually a small island with water curling and foaming up all around it. How did all this water get here, and how did he get here in the first place?
“Wilbo, what happened? Where did he go?”
Wilbo wheels around to see Claudia standing there bright with moonlight against the graffiti-covered wall. She looks so much like a child it startles him. She could be twelve years old. But then as he stares at her she morphs before his eyes into a full grown woman, smart and sophisticated, old enough to run a business, or to bear a child. Then she turns back to a little girl, then back to a woman, then back to a little girl- it keeps happening, over and over. He blinks to make it stop.
“Oh, I think he went back to tell his friends,” he says. “Hey, would you hold out your hand? It looks like the tide is coming in on me.”
She giggles. “Oh, you’re silly. How could that happen so fast?” But she out a hand anyhow, and pulls him safely back to the trail, just as a wave washes over the spot where he was standing.
“Tides are like that. Or maybe it was a boat, out on the ocean. A wake can travel for miles.”
“But this isn’t the ocean, though.”
“Oh yeah? Well, what do you call it, then?”
“I don’t know, just some water.”
“Well, how do you think that seal got here, then? He’s going back to the ocean. He’s probably there now. It’s all connected. Up there, around that rock- that’s where the beach starts. That’s where the breakers are. I live up there. On the beach. My house is up there.”
“You got a house? On the beach? Take me there! Take me to your house!” Claudia claps her hands and jumps up and down.
Wilbo’s thoughts are whirling, fast enough to make him feel dizzy. His libido is wide awake but a motion picture in his mind’s eye keeps repeating the image of the girl on the shore, shifting back and forth between a child and a woman. On a periphery of the screen Arno’s dented green Falcon disappears around the corner of the warehouses. Underscoring it all he feels a real, physical weariness in his arms and legs.
“What about your place?” he asks, the weariness bleeding into the tone of his voice. “Where are you staying?”
“Oh, I’m staying in a studio, right above this coffee-house. It’s really cool. Come and see my place then, if you don’t want me to go to your house.”
He’s not sure how she sensed this but the prospect feels safer, a middle ground where he might have some control. He says, “Well, I can walk you there, anyhow. So you’ll be safe.”
Claudia does an odd thing. She leans over and pummels Wilbo several times on the chest with her small fists. “Oh man, there you go again,” she says. “Don’t be so silly. There’s no danger, he’s not gonna get me. He’s not that kind of guy. He’s probably crying in his beer someplace right now, so sorry about the whole thing. But I don’t care. He’s so gone.”
“I don’t mean just him. There’s dangers out there. A woman needs protection in the night.”
She laughs. “Now you’re being old fashioned. That’s cute. But it isn’t wild. You have to be wild or this won’t work.” She grabs his arm and snuggles up to his side. “Come on then, old man. Walk me home.”
They walk in silence, Wilbo fuming in a mix of pleasure and resentment. Old fashioned? Old man! Doesn’t she know? How foolish can she be? She’s young and unprotected. Does she think she’s going to fight someone off with Tai Chi? A woman needs protection! He almost mutters it out loud, under his breath, like an old man might do. But there’s pleasure, too, the way she curls up against him- incredibly soft, like a piece of silk- like a seal! And her voice- the tone of it, not always the words. There’s something saucy and melodic at the same time- a tango melody, perhaps. An Astor Piazolla tune.
They reach a notch in the cement wall. “If you want to walk me home it’s through here.”
Through the notch the path enters the darkened town, up past motels and gas stations and into a little trendy district, bookstores and boutiques and juice bars.
“This little coffee house where I live is so cool,” she tells him. “You should come some time. They have poetry readings and live music. The other day Neil Young dropped by. He just walked in the door and ordered a chocolate milk shake, just like that.” She stops and ponders what she has just said. “He’s a real phony though.”
They meander on through deserted streets until they arrive at the coffee house where once the great phony Neil Young stopped in and ordered a chocolate milk shake. It sits on a corner with big, smoky plate glass windows looking out on both streets. The windows are plastered with posters for concerts and events. Through the glass, a pale blue pole lamp illuminates a jumble of old, shabby and heavily cushioned couches and easy chairs. Claudia pulls out some keys and approaches an unmarked door in the wall.
“I was serious, what I said,” she tells him. “I want to be part of your act. I think I can help you make lots of money. Believe me.”
Wilbo scratches his stubbly chin. “How are you going to do that?” he asks.
“Just let me try. Give me a try. Are you going to be there tomorrow?’
“Yeah, tomorrow. All day. Same time, same station.”
“What time is that?”
“All day I said. It’s a full time job. I’m a working man, you know. I have a strong work ethic.”
She starts nodding her head in big, exaggerated nods. She giggles. “Yeah, that’s right,” she says. “Something my dad would say. Ok, then, tomorrow. You’re going to be watching for me. You’ll never know when to expect me. Suddenly I will just appear. It will drive you crazy, Wilbo. Wait and see.”
Then like a seal into water she slips behind the door and is gone.