Thursday, September 25, 2014

Chapter Thirteen




          “Please don’t shoot him!” a man in his late sixties, possibly early seventies, was yelling, running and tripping through the sand and grass. “Please! He won’t hurt you! Please!”

Hildy had been staring into the powder blue eyes of the wolf, over the top of her gun sight, for at least a full minute. Possibly longer.

Without question, the animal was an immediate threat to her person, and she’d been rigorously trained for situations with wildlife. But once the wolf had seen her, had come face to face with her, it had stopped.

No movement whatsoever.

And she hesitated.

Its eyes, the way they stared at her, were practically human. They were also as terrifying as any devil could be, yes, but there was an undeniable sympathy. Like an actual soul lived behind them. And, when the animal had stopped moving, respecting her space, her life, killing it seemed an absurd thing to do.

She had learned to trust instincts like that; they fortified her actions, and denying them always led to trouble.

The old man was practically falling down the last hummock, stuttering, “P-please. He’s my dog. He’s a g-good boy. Please. He was just curious.”

Hildy didn’t look away from the wolf, but she lowered her pistol slightly, aiming at the sand below.

With the old man’s last steps between, he unbuckled his belt and yanked it from his pants. “Wally, sit.” The enormous wolf sat down and the man steadied himself at its side. He fed the tip of his belt back through the buckle and slipped the loop over the animal’s head, pulling it tight around its neck. “Good boy. You’re a good boy. What a good dog.”

Hildy lowered her gun the rest of the way, but held it with both hands still, as if she were about to take a shot, and raised an eyebrow at the old man.

The old man nodded gratefully and tried to catch his breath. “My name,” he puffed, “is Stanley Ramos. I live just there.” He pointed north, toward the end of the cape, and huffed, doubling over. “Thank you for not shooting him. My dog.”

“That is not a dog,” Hildy corrected.

“It is,” he wheezed. “He’s a Wolamute. It’s a mix. A hybrid.”

Hildy took a moment to assess. Then she took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders. With her left hand she reached back and pulled her jacket away, and slid the tiny Glock back into its holster with her right; pressing hard until she was sure the tension of the brown leather scabbard held securely. She stood on her tip toes and looked up the bluff for the house. There wasn’t one. All she could see was the top of an overgrown English Laurel that ran across, east to west, from the cliff edge.

“Do you have time for a cup of tea?” the old man offered. “I’d like to properly apologize. I’m very sorry he scared you.”

“I wasn’t scared,” Hildy lied, bending over to pick up her notepad, still not taking her eyes off the dog. She felt instantly guilty for her indignation. Obviously she had been frightened. People who aren’t frightened don’t normally threaten to shoot the things they’re not frightened of. And, just honestly, it was a terrifically terrifying animal. Enormous, in the exact shape of what you’d imagine a killer to be.

It was obvious the old man knew as much. But he said nothing. He just looked at her with kind eyes and pursed lips. And she was grateful.

“It’s the least I could do,” he insisted.

“That’s nice of you,” Hildy agreed.

“Oh good,” he said smiling. He immediately turned away and led them all back up to the road, his makeshift leash in one hand and the waistband of his pants in the other.

People were often overly nice to Hildy. Always atoning for imagined offenses and feeling it necessary to stay in her good graces, because of her position. Because of her badge. It was always uncomfortable, and sometimes even weird.

Because there was no way to differentiate between the people who couldn’t help themselves from being unreasonable accommodating and the people who might be planning to rob a bank later. They might be courting her favor to possibly aid them in some elaborate deception. She had to alert. She had to stay vigilant. So she declined every kindness. She had to. And said, “No, thank you,” over and over again, effectively alienating everyone.

But this time she said, “That’s nice of you.” This time had to say, “Yes,” if for no other reason than to make sure that ridiculous beast was properly confined, and restricted from any future wanderings.

And she did feel like tea.

Back up on the street, she could see everything that had been hidden from her down in the twisting sand trails, along with the surrounding details that had gone unnoticed upon her arrival, due to an enveloping experience with Celine Dion.

Huge tussocks of pampas grass lined the left side of the street, sand spilling over the curb at their bases, and led up to a thick laurel hedge in the distance. As they got closer, she could see that a tall wrought iron fence with beautifully ornate fleur de lis finials stood in front of the hedge, holding it at bay, so closely that the morning glory that grew throughout intertwined them both. A matching dual gate, seven feet tall, was open on both sides of a one lane blacktop drive that continued straight at the bend, north, where Vida Seca Lane turned east and led off underneath the overpass to Kincheloe State Park.    

She followed behind the old man, and his dog, through the gates, past a beautifully landscaped garden. In the center of a ring of pink rose bushes sat a granite bolder that appeared to have been cut in half in. The rock was flattened and polished on the open side and bore large deeply chiseled letters that simply read VIDA SECA CEMETERY AND CHAPEL.

“That’s one of the rocks they used to build the dike that wrecked the town,” the old man said, nodding to the sign. “But it worked out so nice for us, my dad had them haul up one of the biggest stones left from when they blew the thing up. He was so happy, he used it to make the sign.”

“You’re kidding,” Hildy said, familiar with the town’s history. “That’s from the dike?”

“Sure,” the old man said, slowing down a little as the blacktop driveway began to incline. The great grey and white dog, noticing his master’s labor, gently kept going, pulling him with the leash in the direction of a stone chapel at the end of the graveyard.

“What do you mean that it worked out nicely?”

“Well, it’s a business. My family owns this cemetery. It was twenty-five acres on the edge of town with just a view of the channel, you see. Which was nice enough, I guess. But when all that land fell into the ocean, and all the buildings and things that were in the way washed out to sea, we eventually got this cliff and an ocean view,” he breathed heavily and smiled, pointing to the west, then quickly grabbing his pants before they fell.

There was a wrought iron railing that matched the outside fence, but only three or four feet high, running around the edge of the cemetery, guarding the cliff edge.

“We only lost an acre or so, and none of it had been used. So, when they were finally sure it was all safe, dad had the cliff face shored up with sand colored concrete, and word got out. Business started coming in from miles around. There’s a shortage of picturesque resting places, turns out. We started charging more for plots. And the people who could afford it didn’t mind paying a little more. So we charged a little more after that. And then a little more even. And, after a while, it got so we really only had to bury a few people a year to make a living. So it was nice. As nice as grave digging can go, anyway.”

Hildy nodded and smiled with what she imagined was her impressed face, and motioned to the backhoe parked in front of an open plot. “New clients?” she asked playfully.

The old man was crestfallen. He looked suddenly ashamed and remorseful. “I suppose there’s no hiding it. It is what it is,” he huffed. “Oh don’t look so sad. I’m fine. My father, he was a man of great faith and great wisdom, and I loved him, and the one and only thing he made me promise before he died was to never dig in the day time. It’s impolite to the grieving families.”

Hildy looked around, to gauge for herself what an imposition the old man’s backhoe and fresh pile of earth were being on the surrounding widows and orphans in their time of mourning. But she didn’t see them. She couldn’t see anyone. The entire cemetery was quiet and deserted as far as she could tell.

“Not many locals can afford to be buried here. And driving two hours over the pass, in the middle of the week, just to spend a few minutes at grandma’s grave. It just isn’t practical,” he shrugged. “We’re pretty dead around here on the weekdays.”

Hildy looked up as they walked.

The old man looked over.

She cracked a smile.

He laughed, “That was my father’s favorite joke. Made mom furious.”   

          Hildy laughed at him.

          “No. I don’t think I’m doing anyone any harm. And, the truth is, I just can’t stay up that late anymore.”

          As they walked, Hildy brushed up against the side of the great big dog between them, even laying a hand on him a time or two.

          “And…” he continued, as though he needed one more explanation to account for his actions, “there was a message on the machine this morning. Must have called in the middle of the night. Terribly sad. A Richard Burton died. Suicide. No funeral. They want to get him in the ground as soon as possible. Anyway…”

          The old man trailed off as they reached the chapel. Hildy followed them on a red pebble path around the side of the old stone building. All of the windows were stained-glass and the shingles on the roof were heavy black wood. On the backside of the chapel she saw the kennel that Wally had obviously escaped.

          He led the dog into the cage and pulled the belt off over his head. “That’s a good dog,” he said, shutting the gate and throwing his weight into it, knocking the latch straight again. “At night, I close the outside gates and just let him roam the grounds. Not even as a kid did I sleep a night so soundly as I have with Wally walking around. He really is the best dog in the world.”

          “I see that now,” Hildy agreed with a nod. She looked down at her feet. “Hey, I’m the one that needs to apologize. I almost… I came really close…”

          “Don’t give it another thought,” Stan said, shaking his head as he lashed the gate shut with his belt. “I’ll get a chain for this gate. And neither one of us will ever have to worry again.”

          Hildy’s cellphone rang and she smiled at the kind old man. “Thank you,” she said. “I have to go.”

          “No tea?”

          “It’s the sheriff,” she said with her phone in her hand, “I have to go back.”

          “Then no tea.”

          “Maybe some other time,” she said, smiling at him and walking away. “Thank you for everything.”

The old man waved and turned back to his dog. Wally had stood on his back legs and put his huge paws six feet up on the kennel wall, waiting for Stan to come over to him.

As she walked away, Hildy answered. It was the medical examiner calling from the sheriff’s phone, presumably having it held to his ear while he stood there in his latex gloves. He asked her to hurry back. Hildy didn’t ask for more, but hung up the phone knowing of only one reason for a woman like her to be asked to hurry to a scene. She looked over at the backhoe and the pile of dirt, at the wrought iron railing and the horizon beyond, then took a deep breath and ran.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chapter Twelve

Wally the Whale



          Stanley Ramos had felt, after turning sixty, that sixty wasn’t old. And he was right. It wasn’t. By no means did the man have a foot in the grave. But every year after it had taken a little more effort in the convincing.

          So, after turning sixty-five, he bought himself a new backhoe, with a nice wide scoop to make up for how slow he’d gotten. A new dog, to keep the grounds and him safe at night. And had taken to doing his digging in the middle of the day. A shameful practice, his father had said, but Stanley couldn’t stay awake past midnight anymore.

If you had to do all of the things that needed doing, you needed to do them however you could manage doing them.

          And that went for everything.

          The Tillamook County Animal Shelter had never had an abundance of puppies. Mostly they had vacation runaways, decrepit mutts, and three-legged pitbulls. So, uninterested in taking home a jaded beast, and only wanting to raise a pup himself, but being in his pocket a little bit after buying a brand-new backhoe, he left his name at the front desk and waited. When the shelter finally called, Stan was eager. A litter had recently become available.

          It took him no time at all to pick the largest and most confident puppy. Of the four Husky type dogs—the lady called them—one outweighed his three brothers by twice as much. He sat unbothered behind the stainless steel cage doors. The other three puppies played and nipped and wrestled at the back of the kennel, while the large one sat alone, and looked out into the hall.

Stan stood in front of the kennel and whistled to get the puppies’ attention.

He waited to make sure they all saw him and acclimated to his presence.

Then he lurched.

Not at them, of course. But he did come off the ground a little bit, and very quickly so, settling in an athletic position with his arms ready in front of him.

Three of the four dogs flinched, and two of those yelped.

The puppy in the front didn’t move a muscle. He might even have narrowed his eyes at the old man.

“I’ll take the big one,” he’d said.

“Are you sure?” the young lady in stained jeans and a blue T-shirt with the shelter logo on the breast asked.

“I’m sure.”

“It’s probably a mix, but Huskies have so much energy. Even if you take him to the beach every single day, you’ll never be able to run it out of him. He’ll never be tired. You’ll be up all night with him, every night, for the rest of your life.”

“That’s exactly what I need.”


“I have the perfect place for him.”

“Then I’ll start the paperwork,” she’d said. “What do you want to name him?”

“He looks like a Wally to me.”

After that, he built a chain-link kennel around the backdoor of his apartment, behind the Vida Seca Chapel, and began buying enough dog food to feed a sled team.

It soon became clear, when the puppy grew to Stan’s waist, that it was no kind of Siberian Husky. And, at a year, when he weighed more than Stan did, that he was not all Malamute either.

When he took Wally in to get his last vaccinations, the vet told Stan he was a Wolamute, an Alaskan Malamute and Timber Wolf hybrid, and asked him never to bring him back. Though Wally was well enough behaved when Stan asked him to be, he scared every other animal in the clinic so badly there was fear of injury due to panic.

It was that kind of panic that Stan was begging the Lord to avoid now. There were a dozen emergency vehicles down the bluff, and he was sure that’s where Wally had gone. Just to investigate. He was a very curious dog, afraid of nothing, and a chaser of everything. Perfect traits for a cemetery guard dog.

Not so great now.

Stan had just finished digging a new grave and had walked up to check on Wally. He knew the strange sounds coming from down the bluff were driving him crazy. But Wally was gone before he got there.

He wasn’t a digger. Or a climbing escape artist like some smaller dogs. He just forced his way through things.

Looking at how the galvanized self-latch had given and spun away from the post, Stan could imagine how hard Wally had pushed. He would have stuffed his nose through first and then growled and slammed until his head was clear. By that time the latch would have been turned sideways enough for the door to just swing open.

A nice thick chain wrapped around the gate frame was probably long overdue.

“WALLY!” Stan screamed as he ran toward the fire trucks.

There was no sign of him on the street. And no one appeared to be alarmed in the distance. Certainly no one seemed to be worried about a giant roaming wolf-dog.

Stan set his tongue behind his teeth and whistled as loud as he could.

He stopped running and looked all around him, halfway between Vida Seca Cemetery and The Channel Inn.

He whistled again.

There was a howl.

Stan pushed through the huge pampas grass hedge and walked out onto the bluff.

Then he saw them.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Chapter Eleven

The exploring heart



          Regardless of how cute firemen were, they were absolute shit at keeping secrets. And that, Hildy had long realized, was not only an undesirable attribute for a companion—a workplace relationship more or less hinging on the man’s ability to keep her high ranking police official’s cup size out of the emergency services newsletter—it was a liability at a crime scene.

          Though, Hildy also believed, it wasn’t like they could help it.

Statistically, ninety-six out of every one-hundred firefighters were men. So, unless you had twenty of them in a room, which no station on the coast housed, any given company was likely all male. The job then demanded those men spend their days together; cooking, cleaning, sleeping, showering, and heroically risking their lives with each other, two to three times a week, depending how twenty-four on and forty-eight off fit the calendar.

You had to accept that those things in combination perpetuated a sort of battle buddy, locker room, auto shop, slumber party atmosphere. And that those boys were just going to tell each other everything.

So, however frustratingly fruitless any early attempts at romance might have been for Hildy with the all-American, muscly crew-cuts, it was just as well. And her current observations on the bluff were all but expected.

The somewhat sensitive information—the identity of the former sheriff’s department captain, Birch Riley—had spread from first responder to first responder with embarrassing speed. Eventually, she suspected, even making its way into the cabin of the fire truck where the three teenaged witnesses had been asked to wait. And, if even one of them had a cellphone, in a matter of hours the entire coast would know who the dead man was. But, heartbreaking as the situation was, the breach wasn’t that dire.

Each year between five and ten people washed up on shore, and all of them were accidents. All of them just tourists who didn’t know any better, or thought it couldn’t happen to them.

And, the truth was, nothing could be helped now.

A Bayocean police officer had brought up Mr. Riley’s pants and wallet from down on the beach, retrieved from half a mile north of where the body had been found. And Craig Allman, the Bayocean chief of police, had simply walked back to his rig, radioed dispatch to run the driver license number, and waited. The old man’s ears had obviously begun to fail him, his volume turned up, and the return call was overheard by far too many people not to have leaked.

All it ever takes is one little mistake.

Despite her lacking confidence in anyone who couldn’t remember to shut their car door when using a radio at a possible crime scene, and Hildy having seriously considered taking over right then and there, her job was to support local teams like this. Not to step in and just do it for them.

She tempered herself, allowing the chief to continue the all-important legwork without reprimand; valuing his self-confidence much more than exacting a teaching moment that could happen just as meaningfully at the end of her visit. And passively observed as the Bayocean Police Department attempted to find where Mr. Riley had been staying—the address on his license was more than sixty miles inland—looked for his car, and began discerning who he might have been in contact with over the last forty-eight hours.

On top of that, her presence here was all but superfluous, and would soon be unnecessary altogether. The coroner, the medical examiner, and the sheriff from Tillamook County were on their way. And, if they finished quickly enough, after she listened to their speculations, and gently lectured the chief for his carelessness, she’d enjoy the slow drive down the coast to Mo’s. With any luck, she’d make it to Lincoln City just in time for lunch. She’d have clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, to-go, and walk down the sand to a nice pile of driftwood she knew of, where she’d sit and stare at the trees that grew out of the rocks in Siletz Bay. There was something about them that spoke to her soul. Maybe it connected her to the earth and the unity of all living things; or maybe there was an easy correlation there to some calming childhood memory; or it just reminded her of the bonsai in Karate Kid III. She didn’t know.

“I’m going to take a look around,” she said to Craig Allman, the grey-haired chief, breezing past him without waiting for an answer. She clenched her jacket tight at the collar with her free hand, blocking her neckline from the breeze, and marched around the body bag, North through the sand.  “If the medical examiner gets here before I’m back,” she called over her shoulder, waving with her leather-bound notepad, “call me before they finish.”

She didn’t totally hear what the nearly deaf police chief had mumbled to her in reply. But a sergeant nodded as she passed him, obviously comprehending, and that was good enough. Someone would call her.

It was late morning in summer on the coast, and just the feeling of the beach air on her neck, in her ears, was plenty motivation to take a long walk on a seaside cliff like this one. Not to mention the view. There was a breeze, cold under the clouds, but everything felt so full of life, so sweet and thick; she felt, if she was brave enough, she could reach out into the air and touch it with her fingers.

Touch the spirit in the wind.

It was a ridiculous idea that she was too mature and accomplished to be having. It all stemmed from too many lonely nights of mindless television before bed, she had no doubt. It seemed only seconds earlier that all she had wanted in the world was someone’s hand to hold. And where had that idea gone? That sounded wholly easier and more natural than reaching out and grabbing God. But now she suddenly wanted to try. And, she supposed, sometimes, especially when she felt this alone, the more whimsical thoughts were the ones that kept her going. And, understandably, could feel the most pressing.  

She looked over her shoulder. Hildy had already walked a hundred yards, but there were men milling around behind her all the way up to the road. She’d never be able to walk far enough away from them not be visible to someone. She sighed and smiled and let go of her jacket collar. She continued to walk away, as casually as possible, and reached her hand out in front of her as she went; doing her best to ignore her instincts, the ones begging her to be cool.

The breeze floated through her fingers and over the back of her hand. It filled the green canvas sleeve of her jacket and she shivered. But only for a moment. The cloudbank, having been drifting all morning in what could only be described as a more-east-than-north sort of direction, had just drifted far enough to reveal the sun.

Steadily, more and more warmth blanketed Hildy, starting on her shoulders.

On her back.

Through her coat.

Through her hair.

The backs of her legs.

She walked on with one hand stretched out in front of her along the sand trails, weaving around low knolls of thick beach grass and hummocks of lavender with wild strawberry borders.

Then, two hundred yards away from her job, from the men, from death, she wandered in front of a small cypress, dwarfed by the sandstone on which it grew, and was totally hidden. She looked around, dropped her notepad into the soft sand, reached both hands high in the air, took the deepest breath of her life, and closed her eyes.

Everything but the breeze and the sun and the rolling roar of the ocean ceased to exist. She wasn’t happy. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t anything. There wasn’t anything to be. Not worried or afraid. Not fulfilled or wanting. She just was. Quiet and still.

Which, when she eventually opened her eyes, made the large, well-groomed, fluffy black cat appear even more out of place than it might normally, or otherwise, have been.

It sat unmoving, staring at her, standing in the sand with its head cocked slightly to one side. Like it had been enjoying a leisurely stroll of its own moments before happening upon some crazy person with her hands stretched to Heaven.

Hildy put her arms down.

The cat sat.

She bent over, keeping her eyes suspiciously on him, found her note pad by her feet and stood up again.

For a long moment neither of them moved.

The breeze shifted.

The cat’s attention suddenly turned to the shrubs around them, then to the tree behind her. It lifted its nose and searched for something in air.

It went rigid.

Quickly, it lowered its body to the ground, looked up at Hildy, then darted straight past her and disappeared through the cypress to the south. For a moment, Hildy couldn’t help but feel that it had wanted to tell her something important. A thought that was all but lost as she once again dropped her notepad and pulled her gun, the one that lived sheathed against the small of her back, to point it at the wolf in front of her.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Chapter Ten

Death and Diners



          Canner took a lengthy sip, set his mug on the darkly stained oak table, and checked the parking lot through the enormous bay window they’d been seated next to. He turned back to Chloe, sitting across from him, shrugged, and began slowly tracing the grain of the table with his finger.

          There were two servers wearing black shirts and charcoal pants, a young woman and a gangly young man with an unfortunate haircut, that were rolling silverware into black napkins two tables behind Chloe. They had been talking amongst themselves, minding their own business, in such low voices that they could hardly be faulted for the content of their stories. But, with every overheard word, Canner could feel his cheeks turning a little pinker.

Of course they were the right age to be talking about those sorts of things. And Canner knew mundane tasks done with members of the opposite sex encouraged that kind of exchange. And it wasn’t like they were talking about anything absurdly vulgar either. “Naked in the front seat of your car?” the girl had giggled to Haircut. “It was my dad’s car,” the boy then confessed. But their whispers were all carrying down the open bank of windows, Canner could hear every word they spoke, and it was becoming incredibly uncomfortable. Should he mouth to them “I can hear you”? Was that the dumbest and most uncool thing he could possibly do? What was Chloe thinking right now? Could she hear them? Was she facing the wrong way and missing all of it?   

          “Who had the breakfast burrito?” a sharp-featured forty-something woman asked, unexpectedly standing, rigidly straight, beside them.

She was sensibly dressed, a white V-neck with khaki shorts, and held a beautiful black ceramic plate in one hand and a steaming pot of coffee in the other.

          “She did,” Canner sighed, thankful for something to say.

          Chloe raised her hand and nodded with a smile.

          “Then just coffee for you?” she asked.

Before Canner could respond, the woman looked away and leaned in to set Chloe’s plate in front of her. She bent over just far enough for a dramatically sparkling diamond necklace to slack away from her shirt. She stood up again, as straight as Canner believed anyone could stand, and began to tip her pot toward his half-full mug.

“Oh, no thank you,” he blurted, quickly reaching out to put his hand over his mug, guarding it from her.

A small dollop, larger than a drop, smaller than a pour, of scalding coffee escaped the lip of the decanter before she could stop.

It landed with a quick and quiet sizzle on the back of Canner’s hand.

The woman looked down at him, dead into Canner’s eyes, and raised her eyebrows in such a way, with a mix of total sureness and apathy, that it made it instantly and inarguably clear that he was to blame, not her.

The hair on the back of Canner’s neck and forearms stood on end and, even freshly burned, and still flushed with embarrassment, his skin ran cold.

“This is a fresh pot,” she said, her eyebrows still raised but now looking down at Canner’s reddening hand. “Do you want some ice?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said, removing his hand to rub it on his jeans under the table. “Thanks,” he added.

“Enjoy, you two,” she said with rehearsed and unbelieved sweetness.

As she walked away, her sharp eyes scanned the whole room, landing for a moment on the two silverware rollers who hadn’t breathed a word since her arrival, then moved on to every other table. Canner thought that it wasn’t just them that had quieted. That the entire dining room had gone a little still with her in it.

          “She did nearly ruin your coffee to cream ratio,” Chloe admitted, cutting into her burrito. “But you almost lost your hand.”

          The door to the kitchen swung close behind the woman, and the normal din of the restaurant returned.

          “Some things are worth fighting for,” he said seriously, rubbing a thumb over his new red welt and showing it off to Chloe. “A scar from my battle with the evil restaurant owner,” he grinned.

          A young man walked out through the swinging door that the woman had disappeared through. He was younger than the silverware rollers, not nearly as nicely dressed, maybe a dishwasher or a busboy, and looked warily out across the restaurant. When he found Girl and Haircut, he quickly ducked over to stand behind them. They each acknowledged his existence, though neither turned or stopped working, and they both listened politely to whatever it was he was telling them. When he was through, the silverware rollers smiled and nodded over their shoulders. Then they ignored him until the boy understood he was being dismissed, though he smiled as he left, like a kid who’d just gotten to tell a great secret.

When they were alone again, Girl looked seriously at Haircut.

“Do you think someone killed him?”

“No,” he laughed. “People wash up on the beach all the time.”

“Not naked, they don’t.”

“Yeah they do. All the fat one’s do.”

“Shut up. That’s gross.”

“Seriously. When they flop around in the surf their clothes fall off.”

“No they don’t.”

“Yes they do. It’s because of their shape. Like greased watermelons.”

“Dude,” Girl squirmed, “that’s so making me gag.”

“It’s just geometry. Convex angles keep clothes on. Concave, clothes off. The opposite of how it works in my car.”

“Your dad’s car,” Girl snorted, “and that is so mean.”

“He was a cop though. That’s weird.”

Girl looked seriously again. It was exciting to be worried. “Right?”

“Ex-cop, I guess. Whatever. But who knows if anything Jack tells us is true.”

“No. It is. Jules texted me earlier. She and the guys are the ones who found it. She said it was so gross. Cope pulled it out of the water. Can you imagine grabbing an old dead naked guy?”

Canner’s heart sank into his feet. He could feel it flubbing in his flip-flops.

He didn’t know what to do. There was no way this was real.

Chloe set her fork down and took a drink of water. She wiped her mouth with the black cloth napkin that had been in her lap and set it on her plate. “I’m done. Let’s go. Birch is obviously not coming.”

Canner leaned to the side and reached for his wallet. He took out some money and fumbled around with it, trying to make sense of the numbers on the bills. Adding them together was impossible. How much did food cost? Should he leave a tip? His hand stung still. How much was the tip supposed to be?

He threw a twenty on the table and took a deep breath before standing up.

“That was gracious of you,” Chloe said, nodding. She stood up and zipped her sweatshirt to her chin. She walked away slowly, waiting for him to follow her, but stopped short of the door to the parking lot.

“Concave,” she said to Haircut, holding up her hand in the shape of a C, “is the inside of the angle. See? It makes a cave. Concave.”

Haircut and Girl stared at her confused.

“You got them backwards. You would describe a fat person as convex.”  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Chapter Nine

Catwalk clarity



Part of the wisdom that comes with getting older is recognizing the patterns in the day to day, and then smartly anticipating them as they invariably, unavoidably, come and go. Like the tide. Or your teeth. And then, if you live long enough, long enough to become truly clever, you might also begin to appreciate the things in this world that some, even most, might take for granted. Like the tranquility of gardening. Or how much nicer baby wipes are than toilet paper. And then, if you live even longer than that, long enough to become honestly enlightened, long enough to accept the truth in all things, it might become painfully clear just how easy it all could have been. Like the small amount of grace required to relent the proving of your point. Or to please your mother.  

          It’s a state of mind that we are all moving toward, and hopefully grow into before our ends. That, along with every good life, there will come a few bad days. They’ll be here soon. Concede them. That the most enjoyable actions and activities are usually the simplest. You’ve already done most of them. Remember to do them again. And that there aren’t actually very many reasons in this universe worth getting your whiskers in a twist. Arguing with loved ones will only make it worse. Arguing with strangers will even more. So, as often as you can, accept them.

Or call the police.

Or move.

          Coincidentally, in that space of being where we all aspire to someday peacefully end, is nearly the identical state into which a cat begins. But, unfortunately, if you start out as more or less perfection, there really is only one direction to go. And the slow stubborn progression away from calm, balance, and dignity is the curse of all sons and daughters of Bastet.

Charlie had been noticing with more and more frequency that he was spending his emotional budget in far less efficient ways. On matters like breakfast. This morning, it tasted undeniably like someone had spilled the whole thing on the floor, and then, thoughtlessly, brushed it back into his bowl without removing the collected hair and lint. In previous years, a little less sleep or his coat failing to lay flat, regardless the number of compensatory naps attempted or how relentlessly he’d licked himself, would not have resulted in his present funk.

But today he was practically feral.

It was as though every year it took a little more effort to be happy.

And it became a little less possible to keep his joie de vivre.

Just last week, back home, he’d gotten into an incredibly petty argument with a raccoon. One he’d lived peaceably amongst for years. Over a roast beef sandwich he himself had no intention of eating. But, it seemed, in that moment, he couldn’t help but quarrel. Lines were then drawn, voices became taut, and it had nearly come to blows. Over nothing. And now, and probably for the rest of their lives, there would be awkward glances over their respective shoulders.

Though, presently, his mood wasn’t all the fault of his betraying age.

If he’d had his senses about him, and had been capable of searching out the reason for his heightened anxiety, he surely would have found it in the smell.

Life with his family, with Canner and Chloe, had begun at the beach. But after living a mountain range away for years, and now having been taken back to it, back to the place where everything smelled like cold salty wet and warm death, he had obviously lost all acclimation to its influence. It was familiar enough, having grown up with it, that its significance was easily dismissed. But when nothing had its own scent, and everything swirled in together, overly strong, overly sweet, it was easy to lose your wits.

          Though, even so, he still knew a few things.

Nothing could last forever.

          This moment would pass.

There was hope.

And a nice walk could cure plenty.

He hadn’t gotten too old or too irritable to recall that much.

Nor had it passed his attention that his family was undeserving of all the hissing and yowling threatening in his throat.

The love he had for them had built up a barrier that would always stand between. A sort of compassionate failsafe. And, to the end, that would be more than adequate to cover his developing inequities. So much so that his family might never notice that he had any at all. 

          Which is the thought he had settled on while perched, patiently waiting on the kitchen table, when Chloe opened the front door.

He affectionately brushed against her leg as he ran past her.

She shrieked at him to come back, but he bolted away and slinked down the stairs to the parking lot. He couldn’t oblige her just now. There were things that needed doing, while here, if he was going to find his balance again.

          Though the beach was infested with seagulls and crows, it was also plentiful with pigeons. Seagulls were much too large to hunt. Crows were much too smart. And the wonderful thing about pigeons was that you didn’t need to smell them to find them. Their clapping wings and the enormous piles they left beneath their nests were signs too obvious to miss. Which begged the question, how had the hopeless grey things ever survived more than a century of natural selection?

But, honestly, how had anyone?

It was the pigeons that tempted him downstairs. He’d thought maybe he would sneak up on one. Or maybe he’d just enjoy watching them. But the sound of the ocean soon attracted him to the cliff. And then he found a large weed growing out from the wall at the edge that needed investigation. And by the time he was wondering how the thing had become so wholly alive with caterpillars, he had found his focus.

He felt like himself again. A calmer, wiser being that was not unnecessarily aggravated by anything. And it was in that relaxed moment, when his whimsy and curiosity had returned, that his mind was clear enough to notice something out of place.

Something in the salty sweet air had changed.

Charlie tiptoed into a patch of ice plant, down onto the cliff edge itself, a space no human would have been able to follow, and skirted the wall that separated the Channel Inn from the rest of the sprawling bluffs. He traveled quickly north, staying away from the loose sand that crisscrossed in paths and pooled in open spaces, and glided easily between and beneath the grasses and brush where the plants’ roots offered him solid ground to pad.

He kept his nose in the air when he could; all the while doing his best to separate the wickedness from the wind.

When he arrived at his destination, a clearing close to the abrupt edge of the bluff, he lay quietly at its border, in the cool sand under a knot of lavender, and watched.

There was a man on the ground being zippered into a huge black sack by strange people, and long black ropes trailing off the edge where more of them were climbing up. They appeared to be toting clear plastic bags up from the beach; one containing a shoe, another with a tattered Hawaiian shirt, and another just a wallet.

Charlie remembered the man in the sack fondly. Even though Birch’s scent was broken and lifeless, a good cat never forgets a hand that has touched him behind the ears. He stayed, watching beneath the lavender long enough to wish there had been someone there who might have cried for him. Then he slipped around the clearing without being noticed and continued up the bluff to see what else might be found today.