Nick believed anytime he entered a book store, he might meet the woman missing in his life. His last five girlfriends going back two years were all products of casual encounters in the literature aisle.
He’d gone a full month without a girlfriend and was tempted to call some of those who said they never wanted to see him again. The best candidate was Rosie; she had simply intoned, “I don’t want to see you anymore, is that okay?” How can rejection be ‘okay’?
One Friday he decided to go to the bookstore at 8 p.m., and if nothing clicked there, he’d call Rosie the next day.
He was leafing through The Tale of Two Cities again—Dickens was about a third of the way down the aisle—when he saw a very pretty girl walking towards him. He could tell she stopped at Fitzgerald. Maybe she was interested in that new movie, The Great Gatsby.
“Are you a Fitzgerald fan?”
She looked up from a book with a polite smile. “I’ve seen you here before.” She turned back to the book.
Nick took a step forward—this isn’t going to be easy. He was by his own admission an uninspired paper pusher for a state agency. The only time his mind went into high gear were moments like this, when the next “line” would determine if he would score a date.
“I’m president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Club, that’s why I asked.”
“Funny, I haven’t seen you at any of our meetings, Nick!”
Jared was going stir crazy during the pandemic. His parents and sister contacted him regularly by Skype. His boss said he could manage the e-platform for the business remotely—no office to commute to anymore. Staff meetings involved 20 talking heads on Zoom. He had broken up with his girlfriend at the beginning of the pandemic while his handful of friends preferred masked encounters. He only left his Los Angeles apartment to buy groceries.
One night his dad phoned him. “Jared, we want you to stay at our cabin—it has internet now. Bring lots of food with you so you don’t have to go out. And use whatever we left behind. Okay?” He jumped at the opportunity to leave the city for his parent’s place in Big Sur–they wanted to stay at their Sacramento house near hospitals.
Two weeks later Jared sat on a wooden lounge chair on a deck with a distant view of the Pacific Ocean. There were no car horns, police sirens and people shouting—those everyday noises that surrounded his apartment building 400 miles away. Life was good again.
One day he decided to celebrate his new life with a bottle of wine. But the wine he brought was already consumed, so he checked the kitchen cupboards where he found an unopened bottle of wine with a homemade label: “The Choice, cabernet sauvignon, 14% alcohol, 2002. ” The cork was tight, but he managed to pull it out with a pop. He winced at the dark red color when he poured it. Once seated on the lounge chair, he took a sip. Nice. There was about an hour of sunlight left when he saw a large yellow and brown butterfly floating in front of him. Its wings were unusual—they appeared to have claws. In fact, the butterfly landed on a wood railing in front of him and deftly picked up an insect of some sort with one wing. Jared quietly but quickly left to get his camera, but on his return the butterfly was not in sight.
That night he called his father to report the sighting of this unusual butterfly. His father said he hadn’t seen any butterflies in years. When he told his father about how he enjoyed drinking “The Choice,” he was stunned to learn that there was no wine in the cabin, let alone homemade wine.
“Son, you aren’t taking drugs are you?”
“Of course not, dad. But I’m not making up stories either.”
His father added, “Your sister used the cabin last, so check with her about that bottle of wine.
Jared decided to work out on the deck the next day with his camera nearby so he could capture proof that there was a giant butterfly. He hadn’t told his dad that it looked like the butterfly had clawed wings.
But 24 hours later there were no butterfly sightings. That evening he called his sister who acknowledged leaving a bottle of wine at the cabin.
“It was a friend’s private label—too strong for me,” she said. “I had strange dreams afterwards.”
“Was there a butterfly in your dreams?”
There was no immediate reply.
“Sis, are you there?”
“No, but there were tiny flying dinosaurs.”
Jared’s mouth was opened wide–he couldn’t speak.
“Just kidding,” said his sister. “My head was spinning, but that was from too much alcohol.”
A few days later he saw the butterfly fluttering over the railing. This time he took a photo. After enlarging it on his laptop, he decided the wing was simply torn. He emptied the homemade wine in the sink.
“The nicest comment I’ve ever heard about Jon was that he was uncouth,” said Ed, turning towards his wife at the dinner table.
His wife looked at him with sad eyes. “Ivy is my best friend—I don’t want her to get hurt. That’s why I am asking about him since he works with you. And what do you mean by ‘uncouth’?
Ed cleared his throat. “The street term is ‘asshole’. I honestly think he acts the way he does to get attention—he has no friends that I know of. How did Ivy ever get hooked up with him?”
“Ed, she isn’t hooked up with Jon—she went out on one date with him and I guess it went well. She says he’s very funny and she wants to see him again.”
“Didn’t know that. Maybe he’s changed. I hope he has for everyone’s sake.”
“I might as well tell you now. I told Ivy we could double date if she wants.”
Ed let out a string of expletives followed by an apology for the foul language.
A week later Ed was parked in front of Jon’s house with his wife in the passenger seat and Ivy in the back. Jon’s plan was to go bowling for beers—losers pay
“Ivy, are you going to get him?” asked Ed
“Jon said for you to beep the horn when you arrive.”
Ed hit the horn once.
“Sorry, Jon said two quick beeps, a pause, then one more beep—it supposed to be some kind of military code.”
Ed looked at his wife who blushed. “Come on, Ed, just do it,” she said.
Ed complied with a frown.
A few seconds later Jon’s garage door opened with Jon sitting in a wheelchair. He slowly turned the wheels towards the car. Ivy got out of the car and met Jon in the wheelchair at the end of his driveway.
“Are you okay? asked Ivy.
“We’re going bowling,” said Jon. “I think this wheelchair should be worth some points for our side.”
Jon rolled up to the driver’s window. “Ed, you have room in the trunk for the chair?”
To Ed’s surprise Jon bowled extremely well in the wheelchair while Ed who was cursing to himself nonstop, registered three 7-10 splits in the first game.
Later that night Ed and his wife sat up in bed. She was reading a magazine while her husband stared at the wall.
“I’ve never seen Ivy laugh so much,” she said.
“That wheelchair gimmick wasn’t funny.”
“Oh, you’re sore because you bowled poorly.”
Ed put a hand on his forehead. “Honey, I have one of your headaches.”
Johnny Brooks’ voice boomed over the mike: “It’s not over till the fat lady sings.” He was doing the play by play of a high school basketball championship game for a local radio station in Central California. The next day he was out of a job. The station manager said the image of a fat lady was sexist and inappropriate.
But there was more to the story than political correctness. Brooks was lucky to have a job, any job. He was pure bred goof off with a penchant for the “ladies” as he called them. His latest fling was with the station manager’s wife who enjoyed Brooks’ company, not his potential which she calculated as zero. When he called her to say he’d been fired, she laughed and said, “see ya round, honey” before hanging up.
Brooks looked at his cell phone as if he could see the manager’s wife in miniature. Eventually, he put the phone down gently on a table at a Starbucks where he’d been nursing a grande for the past hour. This was his crisis moment, although he did not yet recognize it. There was something different about his latest losses—a job and a dalliance. He was having a brief sense of clarity, admitting for the first time he deserved his fate. He was 30, unemployed and late with the rent on a studio apartment with a hideous canary yellow kitchen. He peered out the window into the parking lot at his only hard asset, a ten-year-old Honda Civic with a full tank of gas. He took a sip. Skip town, or…skip town.
Five hours later he was a state away and down $32 for another tank of gas. A duffle bag of clothes rested in the back seat. He thought about driving back to retrieve a box of photos, a pair of sneakers and a heavy jacket from his apartment. If he had read Updike’s Rabbit Run, he might smile at the connection while parked on the side of a narrow road somewhere in Oregon. But Brooks didn’t read much, instead, he accepted that he was alone and stuck with his lazy, wasted life. He knew if he got one break, he’d seize it, work his ass off and never look back at his sorry past. He fell asleep in darkness and missed daybreak until he was startled by knocking on the driver side window.
It was a woman with a face weathered by hard work in the sun. She said her name was Daisy and she lived a half-mile up the road on a farm that she worked with her son. This was his break and he knew it. He asked if she needed help. She smiled and said he could put fence posts up for a few days.
Timing in life is everything. If Brooks hadn’t been fired, or the manager’s wife hadn’t hung up on him, he might have continued his descent in the quicksand of his life. Broke and with few options left, Johnny Brooks relished the opportunity to put calluses on his hands for the first time in his life.
Bert’s wife, Marge, had three older brothers who rarely visited, surprising in a way since Bert and Marge had a cabin in the Sierras with a view of Lake Tahoe. The brothers were somewhat mysterious in their goings on. Despite Bert’s 35-year marriage to Marge, he knew little of Tom, Lance and Bruno other than they were now over the age of 70. He had a long list of questions for them developed over the years, ones he knew he’d be reluctant to ask since the queries would sound like a police interview.
One spring day when the snow was almost gone from the higher elevations, Marge announced at the breakfast table that her brothers were coming for a visit in a month. Bert was stunned at first, then asked loudly, “Why now?”
“Let me freshen your cup,” she said. Bert kept his frown. She poured the coffee, then sat down.
“Tom has prostate cancer, Lance is newly divorced and Bruno is out on parole,” she added. “So, they thought this was as good a time as any to catch up and make closures.”
“Closures? What’s that mean?”
“Without being melodramatic, I think this may be their last visit.”
“Is Tom going to die?”
“No, not yet—he’s the healthiest of the trio. Lance may be drinking again and Bruno is stranger than ever—drugs I suspect.”
“Great, sounds like a fun group as always.”
“They’re my brothers…”
Bert raised his hands in front of his face. “Stop,” he said. “I didn’t say they weren’t welcomed. I just hope their visit will be short.”
“Here’s one for you. If Bruno is on parole, how us he allowed to be in Nevada?”
“Good point, I’ll ask him.”
“You’d believe his answer.”
“Can’t you be nicer?”
“Ok, but no liquor in the cabin—I don’t want Lance to torch the place.”
“He said he’d been sober.”
“For how long?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Do I have to be here?”
A month later the three brothers were seated in chairs on the cabin’s deck with the shimmering blue water of Lake Tahoe in the distance. Marge was inside making hamburgers and salads while Bert watched her from the edge of the kitchen. The front door was opened and he could hear the brothers talking but he couldn’t distinguish the voices.
“Bert is sure a nice guy.”(Lance).
“Yeah, our sister is sure lucky (Bruno).
“I think he’s a prick.” (Tom)
“Why bro?” (Bruno)
“He seems distant, like he doesn’t want us here.”(Tom)
“You’re wrong—I like him.(Lance).
Bert edged closer to the front door to find out what brother was making negative comments about him. He didn’t see the cane that Tom had laid against the dining room table. His foot caught it and sent it falling to the ground—Bert’s legs got tangled in the cane, and he fell face forward with aloud thud.
Tom was the first one into the cabin. He stared at Bert’s crumpled body next to his cane.
“Are you okay?”asked Lance, pushing Tom aside.
Bert looked up and smiled. “I feel stupid.”
Bruno added, “Let me help you up.”
On his way up with Bruno’s assistance he saw Tom frowning and thought to himself, two out of three isn’t bad.
Less than a year later Bert saw Lance and Bruno at Tom’s funeral. He thought how he had disliked Tom simply based on what he had heard eavesdropping on the brother’s conversation at the cabin. They had never actually spoken to each other after Bert tripped over Tom’s cane. Now it was too late to make amends.
“At some point, and I want to be politically correct here, a hit man or woman has to retire if he or she is lucky enough to reach a ripe old age. At a time like this it is important to have a hobby…”
Dennis tapped the mike, then squinted as he tried to assess the audience’s mood. He usually had a smile and a light laugh by now. But tonight there was nothing but silence, so he went off script.
“Am I keeping you up, or is it that you didn’t like checking your gun at the door?”
He heard a laugh, one laugh.
“Who was that I think it might have been the gentleman over there with the bulge in his vest pocket.”
His brother stood up with a very large bulge in his sport coat vest pocket.
“You must be Vinny?”
His brother was a fall back ploy in cases when Dennis’ opening was going flat, although it was doubtful that anyone in the audience knew Vinny’s true identity unless they caught the act at some other club when the laughs weren’t happening. So, Vinny played a great hit man and the laughs became roars on this night just as had been the case whenever Vinny stood up.
After the show the brothers sat in a dark corner of the lounge eating hamburgers and drinking scotch.
“Hey, I think we should put me in at the top of every show,” stated Vinny.
“Bro, you like the limelight don’t you?” asked Dennis.
“It helps. But keep your powder dry. I ‘ve got big plans for us.” Dennis studied his younger brother’s reaction. It was accepting, but in a resentful way, he thought.
Later that night Vinny was behind the wheel of a late model sedan with Dennis in the passenger seat, eyes closed, but he was very much alert. He was ten years up on his little brother and reluctant to concede that Vinny got most of the laughs. When Dennis started out with lounge comedy, his brother was a goof-off in high school with no ambition beyond the next pool game and, he was by Dennis’ own admission, a great pool player. But that was 25 years ago. Now Dennis was having trouble remembering his lines. He needed Vinny more than ever, but to concede that he’d be admitting his career as a headliner was ending, if it hadn’t ended already.
“You want to drive, Bro?”
“Do I look like it,” responded Dennis, eyes still closed.
“Can I put on the radio?”
“Sure, kid, only nothing loud.”
Vinny didn’t see the tears sliding out of the corners of his brother’s eyes.
Maybe l let him jump in at the top. He’s a good kid and really good at playing a dumb tough guy. I’ll give him the news at the next motel.
Soft jazz from the car radio put Dennis to a dream sleep where he had a heart attack about a mile from The Comfort Zone Motel. He didn’t die, but his speech was slightly slurred. The car jolted to a halt on the gravel parking lot.
“I can talk,” announced Dennis.
“Hey, goofy, what’s up?” asked Vinny.
“Okay, let’s start the gig with you at the top—you’re ready.”
Six months later Dennis and Vinny were a warm up act a major Vegas hotel.
Jimmy snuck down the stairs into the garage. He had to sneak because the wooden steps were worn thin in the middle and creaky—easily heard from the floor above where his parents were sitting, although dad was asleep in an oversized chair while his mom sat in another oversized chair knitting in a trance like state—her fingers moved quickly but she didn’t appear to look at where they were going. It was 1960 and he was 14, hooked on rock and roll music. The station wagon radio was his goal. He didn’t want his parents to know he had taken the car keys.
He closed the door between the basement and the garage to insure no music escaped from the wagon and into the house. Jimmy opened the car door quietly and quickly put the key in the ignition and turned it to the left to the accessory position. He turned the dial until he found his song, the number one selling record in the country, Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry.” The record was so hot that some radio stations like the one he had on would play Lee’s song back to back. Jimmy hoped he was listening to the first go around, such was his teenage mindset.
It was close to 8 p.m., the usual time for the number one song to be played. Jimmy was proud of his timing. When the repeat of “I’m Sorry” was finished, Jimmy turned off the radio, took the keys out and headed to the steps, only, this time the basement door didn’t open. He tried all the keys on the chain, but none fit. He was locked in the garage.
Five years later tears welled up in Jimmy’s eyes. He was in darkness of the jungles of Vietnam, an M-16 cradled to his chest. This was no trip to the station wagon, but that was what he was thinking about while waiting for the platoon sergeant’s orders.
He whispered,” I’m Sorry” as if it were a prayer to God. His parents often joked about the night they retrieved their son from the garage. He asked God for the chance to hear that story one more time back home.
Suddenly the vines were slapped loudly by enemy fire. Jimmy readied himself—all thoughts of the night in the garage were gone. He lay on his stomach…
Fact: 11,465 U.S. teenagers were killed in the Vietnam War–no record of how many were Brenda Lee fans.
Tom jerked the leash, bringing his dog to a swift halt. At a bend in the trail about 30 feet away he saw what looked like a malnourished coyote. He had passed a sign warning of coyote sightings. Champ’s tail was wagging—his dog loved all other canines.
The coyote, if that’s what it was, moved slowly, almost in a stalking mode. Then he saw a white-haired woman with a face mask walking slowly around the bend. The coyote was her thin old dog.
“Is your dog friendly?” asked Tom when she was close enough not to yell.
“He’s old,” she replied.
The dogs began smelling each other.
“How old? asked Tom.
The woman spoke slowly, “One of us is going to go first.”
He wasn’t certain if she was talking about death, hers or her dog, so he said nothing.
“His name is Jeb.”
Tom said he liked that name. The two dogs had finished sniffing each other and now Champ pulled at the leash in an attempt to smell the reddish poison ivy leaves. Jeb had already moved on.
“Will he come back to you? asked Tom.
“He’ll go ahead, maybe get out of sight, but he’ll check on me—been like that for a long time.”
“If I let my dog off leash, he might run for days,” added Tom. He yanked on the leash to get Champ back on the trail. “Well, have a good walk,” he said before walking past the woman.
After going around the bend, he led his dog to an old wood bench under several giant redwoods. Here he sat down and thought about the woman and her dog. They were important to each other in their old age while Tom’s dog was young and anxious to explore life’s possibilities. Tom wasn’t sure what to do with his old age—it was if he owned it and could put it away in a drawer for use on another day. He guessed he didn’t want to be old much of the time.
Champ had nestled at his feet in the soft brown redwood needles. Tom closed his eyes to savor the moment, but it was short-lived. Jeb was walking towards them.
He stood up and looked for the woman but didn’t see her. He quickly took Champ and returned to the trail to find her, haunted by what she had said: “One of us is going to go first.”
He was going around the bend when he saw her standing still in the middle of the trail.
“Everything ok? he asked.
Before she answered, Jeb trotted by. She put a hand out—Jeb put his snout in it. Tom wasn’t sure she had heard him but now there was no need for a response.
“Yesterday, I was sitting on a patio chair, watching my two dogs run back and forth along the fence. They caught a squirrel, then took turns carrying the prey around the yard until my wife screamed from inside the house. I grabbed the victim and stuffed it into a paper bag. Drove to the park and tossed the bag into a trash can.
“So today I’m in the same patio chair with the dogs running along the fence when my wife screams from inside the house. I didn’t see any prey in their mouths, so I didn’t move. But wife yells again. I run into the house. She’s nowhere to be found. I see the front door is wide opened and I call the police.”
Detective Moran and his hot-shot assistant, Cooper (The Fat Man Murders, 2/14/21), were seated on a sofa, facing the husband in an oversized chair by the front window.
“How long have you and your wife been married?” asked Moran.
“So it’s been 25 years of bliss?” countered Moran. “That’s great,” added the grumpy detective who had been divorced three times.
The questioning continued for another 30 minutes before Moran said he and Cooper would look around the house, the garage and the outside yards.
An hour later Moran sat in the grey sedan with Cooper behind the wheel. The car was still parked in front of Jon’s house.
“Let’s talk for awhile—and count how many times the husband looks out the front window,” said Moran.
“You think he’s holding back? asked Cooper.
“He definitely is,” responded Cooper.
The rookie detective rattled off a list of clues he found during their search.
“Geez-us. Why didn’t you say so earlier?” asked Moran.
“I was still processing info.”
Cooper had noticed unopened mail, including a magazine in brown paper, addressed to the wife, on a nightstand on the husband’s side.
“How did you know it was the husband’s side?” asked Moran.
“That was the one side of the bed that was unmade. And there was a Playboy in the top drawer of that nightstand. Those letters were local with a postmark of last week. The post office can be slow but not that slow.”
Cooper continued, “There were hand and face towels in the bathroom that were clean and two that were dirty. I don’t think the wife has been around recently. Why don’t we check the trash cans in the park for a dead squirrel. I take my dog there every day, so I know there are only two cans and they get picked up every three days, so there should be a paper bag with the evidence if he is telling the truth. Better yet the city has a video camera there to identify vandals. ”
The detectives didn’t find the alleged dead squirrel—not enough to finger the husband, but it was a hole in his story that would widen once he knew they knew he had lied.
In the end the husband confessed to a murder for hire scheme.
Moran asked why he had left mail for his wife on his nightstand.
“I was sloppy on purpose…I guess…I wanted to get caught.” The husband’s voice trailed off and he stared at the wood table top scratched by the handcuffs of prior criminals.
Cooper, of course, received another medal from the mayor.