Thursday, October 3, 2013
The Prologue Noir
The conversation replaying in Riley Birch’s mind happened months ago, but no detail had been lost. He remembered it all, and, so long as he kept his eyes closed, it was easy. It was all right there, playing out in front of him; the greatest night of his life. It was the night he’d met her. If he had to complain, which he didn’t, nor did he want to, it would only have been to say that the exactness of the experience was a bit unnerving. Only because, no matter whether he attributed the perfect recall to his long life as a detective, or a symptom of having too much adrenaline in his system, if he stopped focusing on what was actually happening to him, even for a second, he could lose himself to the memory; sitting there on that velvety cushioned chair, drink in hand, as happy as he’d ever been. It was nearly out of body, and that, considering, was a little worrying. He had no idea how these things customarily went, and, truly, no one alive could have prepared him for it. But there was nothing to be done about that now. So, what he was grateful for, and all that really seemed to matter now, was that he could hear her voice. She was telling him all sorts of things. A little about the décor of the bar and how it reminded her of her dead husband, but mostly just everything she knew about Bayocean, the city by the sea, and how she’d fallen in love with it. Seemingly for no other reason than they were drinking in the same room, she’d just started telling him why she’d gone there in the first place and how she’d smiled again, and managed to live a little, all thanks to a spacious suite overlooking the Pacific. Birch closed his eyes tighter. He could feel the chill in the bar now. With every moment that went by, it all became clearer. More real. The air conditioners had been running on high. Not that even the warmest weather in Bayocean required them to, but because, without them, the body heat of just a handful of people lounging in those dark and squishy chairs, or even just the band in the corner, smoldering all by themselves, could raise the temperature a dozen degrees. Of course she couldn’t really be there, telling him those things –a fact Birch kept reminding himself of. But, every so often, he didn’t, and then she was there. Really there. Sitting beside him. Her perfume so sweet and light; like a rose bush making love to a gardenia after midnight. It almost made him laugh. And probably would have, too, had he been able to breathe. Birch tried again to take a deep breath, and failed. The air simply refused to go any farther than the back of his gaping mouth. His ribs were broken, and a handful of them had found their way into a lung. He’d forgotten about all that for a second, but, once reminded, he couldn’t believe he’d ever been able to think about anything else. The pain was terrifically nauseating. He desperately wished it would stop, but, more than that, he wished he could manage a breath just deep enough to speak her name. If he was going to have a last word, he felt it might as well have been her name. He managed to mouth it, “Talia,” and it was enough. In spite of the pain, he smiled. She had kept that kind of power over him from the beginning. The second he’d entered that casino bar, and saw her sitting there, he hadn’t been able to help himself. He walked right to her. And, before he’d made it all the way there, she’d stood to greet him. As if they’d known each other all along. Like they’d just lost track of one another in the dark, and come together again after a moment apart. She’d even halfway hugged him before asking him to sit down. After that, Birch was lost to her. After an hour or two, the band hadn’t let up, even for a breath between songs, but wound down into a slow, melodious shuffle. And, whatever magic was spilling out of the deep and murky souls of the wizards in the band, it only added to the wonder of the conversation he was having with the woman. The first round had come and gone long ago, and he couldn’t stop thinking that his life could have used more nights like that. But, he supposed, every man could use more nights that were perfect. However, this night and the time he’d spent listening to her talk, getting to know her and laughing at her jokes, could easily have been the most incredible thing he’d ever done or been apart of. He hadn’t any children. No lasting relationships. His work had consumed every ounce of energy he’d ever had. And, looking back, the only man he’d ever really considered his friend had died because of him. He’d gotten Henry killed, and he still couldn’t think about him without feeling debilitating shame. His whole life was mostly very painful, and, the few parts that weren’t, were really very boring. Except this right here. This one night with Talia. This was as nice a thing as he’d ever had. Of course, while halfway leaning over the railing, this railing, the railing that was keeping him from plummeting plainly to his death, even the worst of his memories might serve as an appreciable distraction. A new storm of adrenaline rolled on him. Fight! Don’t give up! Don’t give in to it! Fleeting sentiments, really. They were gone and had left him alone almost as soon as they started. However, before they did, they made it easier for him to admit that Talia really had been a foot too short for him. Also, there had been a crook in her nose that created some discontinuity between the top half of her face and the bottom. And her breasts were too large and perky for a woman her age. Much too nicely shaped to suspect them augmentations. Not that he had any problem with enhancements. It was that younger men were most certainly bound to stare when his back was turned, and he’d known plenty of good men that had been driven straight into madness by that sort of thing. It didn’t take him long to string together her short comings, and what he was left with was a shapely woman with strong features who happened to be shorter than him. He rather quickly resigned himself to love her anyway, and was undeniably grinning again. And, with that, stopped focusing. Then he lost the ability to fight altogether. Reality left him. Talia was drunk. Holy God in Heaven was she drunk. She had absolutely ignored pacing herself. If she had managed to at all, and stayed at that wonderfully hazy balance that Birch had determined happened just after two beers and half a cigarette, her eyes wouldn’t be half as glossy. Not that being drunk was a problem. In fact, if you wanted conversation to come easily, and liked having something in common to talk about, Birch thought being hammered was a fair talking point. And, in that spirit, he let himself get a might further down the road than he’d been in quite some time. “It’s a beautifully odd town,” she’d said, seriously. She hadn’t just said, “It’s a beautifully odd town,” of course. She had said a great deal of things leading up to that; including how she thought God had been very clever to place Patagonia so far out of the way, and which hotels she believed were the best to order room service in. But, throughout a few essential transitions, Birch had been ogling her in his periphery and had completely lost track of what was being talked about. And so, he didn’t know, per se, what exactly it was that had moved them into a historical overview of the town, but, nevertheless, he was happy she was talking to him at all, and there they were. “Is it?” he asked, self-conscious of how unintelligent, or just plain stupid, he might sound to such a fine woman. He wouldn’t have meant to be, but no one ever did, and he couldn’t tell at the moment, which usually meant he was. “Truly,” she nodded, smiling. “It’s unbelievable, really. It used to be twice this big.” “What? What happened?” he asked, hating himself for lots of reasons, some to do with not being handsome enough, having gained a few pounds since taking a desk job and then retiring, but mostly for not being as brilliant as he thought he ought to be. “It fell into the ocean,” she said wide eyed. “Bullshit,” he blurted, wishing he was dead. “No. Really. I don’t know everything about it, and I get the feeling it’s all a bit legendary anyway. But the story goes that, over a hundred years ago, they were building up the peninsula into a world class resort. Bayocean was going to be ‘The Atlantic City of the West’. But there weren’t any roads to get here then, so you had to take a ferry from Portland, the S.S. Bayocean, and that took three days.” “On a three da-ay cruise,” he sang, cleverly stretching the word “day” into two syllables so that it would fit neatly into the Gilligan’s Island theme song. He sighed and tried to recover by asking a simple question. “So nobody came and the town fell apart?” “No,” Talia shook her head. “Loads of people came. It started off as a huge success.” Birch considered it might be a good idea to quit speaking altogether, maybe for the rest of the night, for any and all reasons whatsoever, and tried to move the conversation along by merely looking as interested as possible. “The boat ride, I guess, wasn’t really that bad for the most part. People were used to it taking forever to get anywhere. But the last part of the trip, in the waters between the ocean and the bay, could get wild.” Birch raised an eyebrow and begged her to continue with his heart. “It was so bad, they say, just in the channel, that people lost their luggage and their lunches all the time. And, eventually, a couple kids went over the side and drowned. About where the bridge is now. And that’s when the Army got involved.” Birch looked as forlorn as he thought appropriate for a man his age to be about kids who kicked the bucket before he was born. And swelled a little having urged the conversation along without having to say a single word. Talia was admiring his sensitivity, but was doing it silently, and Birch deflated very quickly. “Why didn’t they just dock on the ocean side?” he managed. “I asked the same thing,” she nodded agreeably. Birch’s relaxed. “Because of the goddamn bluffs.” And he positively glowed when she swore. “So, there wasn’t a harbor for twenty miles up or down the coast, and then, again, no roads to get people here afterwards, so they had to take the boat all the way to resort. And then the oceanside of the peninsula was just one long cliff back then, fifty feet high and totally unclimbable. And the waves crashed right into it, so even if they built stares or lowered a rope or something, there wasn’t any place to park the boat while they did. And, with there being nothing but calm water and sand and mud beaches on the bayside, getting into the bay was the only problem anyone focused on. And then, now, I’ve entirely lost the point of what I was talking about.” “You had started to say something about the Army.” “Right! So the owner of the resort, or the mayor, or somebody wrote some letters to see if there wasn’t something they could do to make the whole thing easier. And, back then, it was the Army Corps of Engineers that answered. Maybe between wars or something. So the Army comes out and says, ‘You just need a couple of jetties, and that’ll fix everything,’ and the mayor or whoever says, ‘Great. How much?’ and the Army says, ‘Two million dollars,’ which was like a billion back then, so the mayor goes, ‘And how much for just one?’ and the Army says, ‘Well, less, but we don’t know if that will do anything.’ So the mayor goes back and tells the townspeople the options, and the people decide one jetty is probably half as good as two, but much better than none.” Birch leaned in with his elbows on his knees, moving his drink around on the dark cherry table, and hoped the story would never end. If the bartender stopped serving drinks, or the band stopped playing, or the ceiling fell right down on his head, he wouldn’t have minded as much as he would have if Talia stopped talking. So much so that when something brushed against his foot, he didn’t bother to shake it away, or to even look down to see what it was. He just watched Talia, and tried to figure out what made her smile so spectacular. “Then what happened?” he asked, taking his head up off his hands just long enough to speak then settling right back down to listen some more. “They built it. Everything changed. And their world fell apart.” “It did?” “Yeah.” “That can happen.” “Yeah.” “The army didn’t know, nor did anyone else, that by building just one jetty, instead of the prescribed two, any balance that had existed at the bay mouth would be completely lost. The currents and the tides shifted so badly that the whole system along the peninsula began to swirl along the coast instead of just wave, crash, wave, crash like normal. It was a blender. There was pressure where there had never been any and waves formed like no one had ever seen. That first winter, the sandstone face began to erode.” “Oh God,” Birch laughed, cringing happily. “Twenty houses, that had originally been built fifty yards from the cliff edge, fell in that first year. Followed by half a mile of paved road, the bowling alley, and the natatorium. They all had the ground washed out from under them before spring.” “What was that last thing you said?” “A natatorium? I didn’t know what it was either,” Talia nodded sympathetically. “As far as anyone could tell me, it was their dance hall, slash swimming pool.” Birch just squinted. He didn’t know why squinting made him look confused, but it did, and she understood, so who cared. “I couldn’t find any pictures, so I just looked up what it was, and all I found was that Natatorium means a building with a pool in it. Maybe Bayocean’s was special. People sure talk about it like it was. But all I can imagine is that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, where everyone falls in the pool at the dance.” Birch nodded, and suddenly wondered if he didn’t nod too much when he’d been drinking. He decided he’d try varying with other agreeable gestures for the rest of the evening so that Talia wouldn’t think he was boring, but couldn’t think of any, at all, and further decided that nodding probably wasn’t as annoying as he’d thought. “Every winter after that, it got worse. And people almost stopped coming, for fear of falling into the ocean while they slept.” “Understandable.” “Indeed. But in the early 30s the State Highway Department finished paving the coast highway, and in the mid-30s they built the bridge over the bay mouth to connect the north half of the highway to south, and went out at low tide with a couple hundred sticks of dynamite and obliterated the jetty so everything would go back to normal.” “No kidding.” “Funny, huh? The resort fizzled out. The town barely survived, but it did. And, a long time later, the Indians came and built a casino, essentially fulfilling the original dream of the founders, and then someone opened a swanky jazz club in the back of that casino. And here we are.” The thing that had been brushing up against Birch’s foot had apparently stopped fooling around and was now firmly wrapped around his right ankle. He tried to shake it loose, but it held. He looked down and all he could see were his loafers, argyle socks, and the slacks he’d taken the time to iron before coming out tonight. He could see nothing there, and, he thought, whatever had his leg could keep it. The band quieted even further and played something aching and sweet. The drummer and the bass player felt they had nothing to add and got up to sit at the bar where they watched like everybody else. The trumpet player put down his horn and picked up a Spanish guitar. He tuned it and strummed and soon was playing a solo over the piano and the whole world felt a little smaller. It was too good. The song was connected to Birch somehow, and it was sucking him in. “Are you bored?” Talia asked. Birch stared at her. Snapped out of his trance, he realized the song was all wrong. The band was supposed to play together. They had played together the entire night, before. And no one had played the guitar. And that wasn’t what she was supposed to say next. She was supposed to tell him she had a bottle of champagne in her room and they should go open it and look at the moon from her balcony. “Are you bored? Did I lose you?” “Of course not,” Birch said, shaking his head. “What is it? What’s wrong?” “No. Nothing. I’m fine. Everything’s perfect.” Talia took a deep breath and laid both her hands over Birch’s closest knee. “You’re not fine. I know.” He froze. He couldn’t move. He was sure now that this wasn’t at all how things were supposed to go. But he was too afraid she might take her hands away if he said something silly, and he didn’t want her to do that. “I won’t take my hands away,” she smiled. “Tell me what’s wrong.” “What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “You’re not supposed to do anything. You’re just supposed to be here.” “What do you mean?” “This whole night is for you. Just be here and enjoy it with me.” “What?” “You know, don’t you?” “I know you’re too short for me,” he huffed a little. She just smiled her sweet smile and squeezed his knee. “I’m starting to get a little scared,” he said, looking down, still not seeing what had hold of his ankle, but feeling it being pulled backward under the chair. “What are you scared of? What are you having a hard time with?” “Knowing what matters. I haven’t been able to think of anything that matters.” “No one can, sweetheart. It’s just part of the night. You could have made a million decisions about a million different things, but that was all part of your life. This isn’t. You’re just here. With me. That’s not so bad, is it?” “I’m glad it’s you,” he said, his eyes getting thick with tears. “You can cry.” “I never cry.” “You can cry tonight. Do whatever you need to do.” The man playing the piano stopped and stood. He headed to the bar to stand with his friends. Only the guitar played on. Beautiful and soft. Talia was closer now, nearly in his lap, and moved her hands from his knee to his chest. He could feel his ankle being pulled harder than ever, but she had her hands on his chest, and he didn’t care about anything else. Then it stopped. No more pulling. Someone had turned the air conditioning off in the club and everything felt a little warmer. Birch looked into Talia’s eyes and let go. He couldn’t remember ever being this happy. He stopped trying to think of things other than Talia and then, it seemed, there was nothing that mattered outside of the bar. It all faded behind him. He didn’t care. It didn’t exist. Then he fell. It was at least a hundred feet from the balcony railing to the rocks and the waves below, but he didn’t feel the wind whipping past him as he dropped. He didn’t feel a thing. He was staring into Talia’s eyes, and now she was wrapping her arms around his neck. He plummeted in those same ironed slacks and leather loafers, and the silk Hawaiian shirt he’d bought special for tonight. It flapped behind him like a flag in a storm. Fast and hard. But he was sitting next to his favorite person in the world, who had nuzzled into his cheek. Someone had brought fresh drinks and set them on the table in front of them, and he couldn’t possibly have cared. The man with the guitar began playing his favorite song. Birch Riley laughed. And then he died.