Category Archives: Townsend Walker

Cold Beer

Last night Marlene walked into the cantina.  Of course it wasn’t her, couldn’t of been, but looked a lot like her: blonde ponytail, crooked half smile.
+++++Hard for Jack, seeing her at Pedro’s.  A dive on the beach, sitting on stilts, thatched roof, colored bead curtains, a shorted-out neon sign that only managed the P and o’.
+++++Jack sat in a wobbly chair near the front door; hollow cheeked, veined complexion, slack blue eyes, hit-and-run blonde beard.  He and Enrique had been crowding the table with beer bottles and butts.  What they did most nights, if they weren’t out fishing.
+++++When Jack arrived in Cabo, he planned to stay no more than a month.  He hung on and eventually cobbled together a shack  at the edge of the barrio with rusted sheet metal, some tarred planks from the pier and plastic sheeting.  Enrique showed him where to find the stuff and helped lug it up the hill.  The shack kept the rain out. Good.  And the heat in.  Bad. That was two years ago.  He could go back if he wanted.  Hard to get started though.  He got up at noon.  Down to the cantina for a drink and a bite, another drink.  Well, certainly couldn’t leave at three.  Heat.  But then you didn’t want to start after six, especially since the next town was a couple of hundred miles away and only desert in between.
+++++Her image never changed.  Marlene.  It was because of her son they’d met, a bright towhead, short and wiry.  Jack taught fifth grade at Highland Elementary in Visalia.  Thomas didn’t mix much with the other kids, picked on a lot.  He watched over the boy in the school yard.  Didn’t stop every tussle, just the ones where Thomas faced off with more than one kid.  Got to learn how to get tough, but you don’t need to be maimed in the process.
+++++Thomas lived with his mother, but hadn’t met her; no father around.  She didn’t have time for the parent-teacher conferences: classes during the day, work at night.  They’d handled it on the phone.  Few formalities; only: How’s Thomas doing?  What does he need to do to bring up his English grades?  Okay, I’ll see it gets done.
+++++Last day of school Thomas brought in a note from his mother.  She wanted to show appreciation for taking care of her son.  Didn’t want to do it sooner, while her son was his student, but now.  Could he come over for dinner Sunday?  There’d be the three of them.
+++++He put on slacks and a sports coat and drove out to a housing development just north of town.  Sort of raw feel to it, sawn ends of lumber everywhere, newly set concrete and roof nails still shiny.  Lawns coming in.
+++++Thomas and his mother were at the door waiting for him.  He’d met her before, at the Spice 1 Club, the kittenish one called Nikki.  He’d gone there for a bachelor party for one of his ski buddies.  This evening she wore a buttoned-up print blouse, tan chino skirt, ballet slippers, blonde hair pulled back and a shy smile.
+++++“Pleased to meet you Ms Brown.  I’ve enjoyed having Thomas as a student.”
+++++“Call me Marlene.  He says without you he’d probably be three inches shorter.”
+++++“Reckon everybody needs a bit of taking care of some time in their life.”
+++++They went through the house which had been furnished by the same people Jack used, Ikea, but his was raw and jangly, too-bright reds and blues; hers was matched browns and comfortable.  In the back, a small patio, a postage stamp lawn and beds of multi color pansies closed in by a pine pole fence.  Heat waves rising from the grill.  Jack tossed a Frisbee with Thomas while she cooked.  Steaks, baked potatoes and salad, strawberries and ice cream for desert.
+++++She kept the conversation on him.  Where he’d grown up: Santa Rosa, where he went to college: University of Nevada, Reno, how he ended up in Visalia: best job offer he’d gotten.  He’d majored in math in college.  Teaching paid off his student loans until he figured out something else.
+++++“I like the people here, low key, friendly,” he said.  “And there’s Bear Mountain and Tahoe for skiing.”
+++++“Skiing!  I love to ski,” Thomas cut in.
+++++“You’ve been once,” his mother reminded him, “and fell down ten times.”
+++++“Yeah, but I still like it.  Maybe next year I can get lessons.”
+++++Jack thought about offering to take him.  He liked the kid, Marlene was easy to be with and he wished he’d had some chances as a kid.  He was four when his folks broke up, resented the hell out of both of them for leaving him, raised by an aunt, in and out of trouble.  Timing didn’t seem right to say anything to Thomas.
+++++He asked Marlene about herself but all he got was that she’d moved from the L.A. area a couple of years ago.  Visalia was a good place for kids and gave her the chance to study nursing at College of the Sequoias.
+++++Thomas started yawning and his mother sent him off to bed.  She wrapped him in her arms and embarrassed him with a big sloppy kiss.  When he came over to Jack, he didn’t know what to do and they ended up in a hug that was more angles than curves.
+++++Next day he went for a hike in nearby Sequoia Park.  Morning was foggy, no one around.  He passed through the oak stands, trudging uphill along Ladybug Trail, mist hanging in the upper branches, Spanish moss grazing his face, Marlene’s lips on his cheek as they’d said good-by.
+++++He got lost in his thoughts and what he knew about her.  Until a week later.  Ran into her at the hardware store.  In cut-offs, dirty sneakers and grease smudges on her face.
+++++“Damn sink backed up and the landlord is out of town.”
+++++“Can I help?”
+++++Back at her place Jack crawled under the sink to check the drain.
+++++“Hey, move over.  I want to see what you’re doing.  You might not be around the next time something goes.”
+++++A whiff of perfume invaded the small space as she wedged herself in beside him.  He showed her the coupling nuts to loosen, then scooted out.
+++++Two minutes later.  “Okay, new one’s on; come back in for a check.”
+++++Jack squeezed in beside her, closer maybe than necessary, “Hey fellow, you’re in my space.”
+++++He made the pretext of a thorough inspection, tightening up the nuts, testing the pipe.
+++++They squirmed back out, stood up, looked at one another.  He reached for her, but she turned, went to the refrigerator, pulled out a couple of beers and led him out to the patio.
+++++“Thomas is going to be sorry he missed you.  He’s off with the scout troop camping in the Sierras.”
+++++They sat sipping their beer listening to the whirr of lawnmowers and the buzz of hedge clippers from the neighbors’ yards.
+++++“Nice being here.”
+++++Jack stared at the fence, thinking about her. His last relationship had ended a year ago; it took all of two months to go from inferno to ash.
+++++“Good to have the company.”
+++++Marlene lay back on the chaise, legs stretched out, eyes closed, but he noticed every now and again she glanced over and her face wrinkled up.
+++++“Hey, what’s the matter?”
+++++“Nothing.”  She turned away.
+++++“You usually frown while you’re drinking beer?”
+++++She faced him, tears on her cheeks.
+++++“I’d hoped to tell you before you found out.”
+++++“Tell me what?”
+++++“You were in the front row in a yellow Hawaiian shirt about a year ago.”
+++++Jack tried to appear clueless.  Her eyes wouldn’t let him.
+++++“Yeah, I saw you dance.”
+++++“That’s not the kind of person I am.”  She straightened up in the chair.  “But the money lets us live here.  Thomas thinks I work night shift at the hospital.”
+++++He moved over and put his arm around her.
+++++She’d been sixteen.  Classic tale of the cheerleader and captain of the football team who split with his scholarship to Ohio State when she was three months pregnant.
+++++“The easiest thing would have been an abortion.  But I could feel him growing inside me. When his heart beat the first time I knew he was mine, mine to take care of.”
+++++“I wasn’t assuming anything, okay?  The person I know is a good mom with some dirt on her face.”
+++++Her parents threw her out of the house.  Stayed with a friend who’d just had a baby.  Waitresses, lookers, good tips, surviving.  Then her friend found a topless place in Orange, Marlene followed, real money.
+++++“My friend got into drugs, Thomas was about to go into kindergarten, so I moved up here to raise him.”
+++++Jack’s miracle started that afternoon.  That’s how he thought about time with Marlene.  A rough start though.  A couple of weeks after they fixed the sink, a party at one of his buddies’ houses.  People spread all over the small ranch house and into the yard, beer floating in ice tubs, ribs in the Weber, guacamole dip and taco chips on every table.  End of the night, one of the guys who’d been at the Spice 1 Club with Jack recognized Marlene.  Beer-fueled Pete shouted out, “Folks, this here is Nikki, star of the Spice 1 up in Fresno.  Lady knows how to get a party going. Why don’t you do that dance for us and show us those fine titties of yours.”
+++++Marlene blushed and turned away.  Pete’s date clapped her hand over his mouth, only to have it ripped away.
+++++“Shut up Pete,” Jack said.
+++++“Why?  I want some action.”
+++++Jack stepped into his face and cold cocked him.  Pete’s head bounced off the floor.
+++++Jack pulled Marlene outside.  “Sorry, that won’t happen again.  Not as long as you’re with me.”
+++++“Honey, thank you for defending my honor, but this isn’t going to work, you and me, if you beat up on every guy who makes a smart remark.  I can handle it.  Promise.”
+++++Jack sputtered.
+++++“Take me home; I bet Pete calls in the morning.”
+++++They married at the end of August and he moved into her place.  She quit the Club and went to school full time.  Two years later, a degree and ER nurse at Tulare.  Jack decided fifth grade was the sweet spot in education.  “The kids do what you tell them and want to learn something besides.”  Went on to get a masters in curriculum and instruction at UofP.
+++++Ski trips, hiking and horseback riding punctuated the next seven years; the three of them.  The only fights were about Thomas: He needs to be studying moreGive the kid a break, it’s Lakers/Celtics tonight.
+++++The night Thomas graduated from high school, honors and a scholarship to Claremont,  they picked him up from his graduation party and drove down to Vegas for their own celebration.  Next night Jack won big.  They packed up and headed north.  Talked about what they’d do with the cash: forty-five thou.  Jack and Thomas ran through a list of boats, ski gear and electronics they would buy.  Marlene let them spin.
+++++“Enough of that you guys.  What about a trip to Africa, climb Kilimanjaro.  You claim the Sierras are too tame.  Nineteen thousand feet satisfy you?
+++++“For starters.”
+++++“After Kilimanjaro we’ll chase gazelle across the Serengeti on horseback.”
+++++Jack leaned over and kissed her left cheek.  Thomas popped up from the back seat and kissed her right one.
+++++Highway 99, ten miles south of Visalia, Marlene and Thomas dozed; Jack hummed Over the Rainbow and chewed gum to stay awake.  A broadening glow of light lined the crest of the mountains to the east.  The road was in the dark.  Other side of the road, coming toward him, he saw a truck swerve.  Shards of divider-concrete crashed against his windshield, the wide eyes and toothless gasp of the driver, the chrome grille, the flood lights inside the car and Marlene’s scream.
+++++Jack sputtered awake, toppled on his chair and rubbed his eyes.  Enrique was there next to him.  “You still want this beer?”
+++++Jesus.  From such happiness, deep bone, deep gut happiness to nothing.  God, please let me forget, goddamnit let me forget.  Bring on the OxyContin, bring on every beer Enrique can find.  I can’t go back.  I had a miracle.  I’ve wrung Visalia dry.