Standing in the parking lot at "Vahl's" on the almost deserted salt marshes at the tip of the San Francisco Bay. The sun drops behind the Palo Alto hills so fast I can see it moving the last couple of inches like Apollo got himself a pair of rocket boots. Even though I'm standing near the center of town and it's Friday night, I can't see a soul. I may as well be back in Antarctica.
When the last glistening sundrop vanishes behind the hill I search for the green flash, but don't see it. No seven years' good luck for ice boy today. Instead I have a tape loop going in my head. Jon Astley. Jane's Getting Serious. I know why she asked me to come here to this spot, right now. She must have wanted to watch the sun set with me. If she hadn't gotten stuck in traffic, she'd be here now. Then what would you be doing, William?
Ye gods. Perhaps you would like to explain it to yourself, Billy-bob Hoobler: Exactly why are you meeting a single woman alone at a bar on a Friday night when Charlene and the kids are out? What are your intentions? Speak into the microphone.
A car goes by and as improbable as it is I could find someone familiar all the way down here, I'm praying nobody inside that vehicle knows Charlene. A panel truck goes by and I'm wondering if Charlene's had me followed. Suddenly the empty town is full of private investigators and television crews.
Damn, Will. If you feel this guilty before she gets here, you must have something on your mind you're not admitting.
The silver Mercedes pulls into the gravel driveway beside my black shark and Kat pops out as if on bubbles of champagne effervescence. She pulls an elastic tie out of her pony tail, shakes her head twice, and her strawberry blonde locks fall to her shoulders. She's wearing a black, low-cut stretch top that contrasts her flat, thin tummy against her wider hips. Her black leather skirt is about fifteen micrometers from being illegal in twelve states. Though I've known the woman for almost ten years, she has never looked as gorgeous to me as she does right here, right now in this parking lot at the end of Silicon Valley civilization.
On another day, another me would urge her into the back of the Mercedes and help her out of that skirt. On this day, this me is quivering like a rabbit in a hunter's crosshairs.
She strokes a metal tube against her lips, pouts and kisses the air, then says, "What's up, Billy-bob? How come you're not waiting inside with a drink for me?"
I realize I'm scratching my head and rubbing the back of my neck about ten seconds after I do it. Shove my hands deep into my pockets. I haven't broadcasted insecurity as loud since I was on a blind date in college.
I say, "Could you stop calling me that? I'm 'Will', now. And do you always dress that way at work?"
"Will. Gotcha. How the hell am I going to call you that when you've been Billy-bob to me for your whole life?" Then she tells me she dresses like she's gunnin for homeys on Friday when it's wear-whatever-you-want day. It's been a tough day at the office and she's dying for a Grey Goose martini with two olives. I'd be listening to her more closely if she hadn't wrapped her arm around mine, then slid her hand down my forearm to touch the palm of the hand in my pocket.
Yesterday at the coffee shop I'd have growled and nibbled her neck for fun. The distance she put between us made it safe. Today I'm nervous. I have the libido of a half-eaten box of Corn Flakes. The safety is on. The bullets are still in the box on the shelf at home.
"What's with you today?" I say.
"I read more of your book. That scene where Mitch finds Anna in the hotel having sex with her old roommate and two guys," she says, opening the leather tufted door to Vahl's.
"Did you like it?" I ask, naive for about as long as it takes for the 't' dipthong in "it" to pass through my teeth. This, dear William, should be obvious to you by now. And I'm going to ask her what she liked about it because I had gone so far out of my way not to describe any body parts or groans that it couldn't be porno--I'd wanted something more metaphorical--but she's not going to answer me.
She leads me through an archway, under an aquamarine tube sign that buzzes, "Cocktails", into a darkness that blinds me. After a few seconds I realize we've crossed from reality into a Humphrey Bogart movie. The walls are sea green and covered in paint-by-number renditions of pelicans and fishing boats that could almost pass for art in the gloom. There are booths along the walls, upholstered in black vinyl that was tacky even when it was new, now cracked and showing wisps of 50-year old ivory fluff. Behind the bar rows of stemmed cocktail glasses are each illuminated from beneath by colored lights that in the era of art deco could only have been called, butter, salmon, and aqua. The bar forms a perfect square in the center of the room under a dusty crystal chandelier.
"It's still World-War Two in here," I say to Kat, fighting the urge to whisper, noting there isn't a dark hair left among the patrons who may as well have been painted on their chairs like Hollywood props.
"I know," she says, squeezing my wrist. "Just look at these people. They must have come here to dance when they were dating."
"Do you get the feeling none of these couples are married?" is what comes out of my mouth when Kat steps to the bar, orders me a dry rob-roy with a twist, and then the Grey Goose martini she's jonesing for. Some of the septuagenarians glance at me. There's a few same-sex couples around the corner of the bar. Two men in fedoras raise their glasses to me, and I wave a salute with two fingers to the forehead. A female couple regards me like I've fallen off a garbage truck returning my smile with scowls. Everyone else has their face hidden behind gnarled shaking hands. Not a wedding ring to be seen among these pre-baby boomers. James Cagney should be showing up at any moment to hose the place down in machine gun bullets.
Kat takes our drinks and leads me to one of the corner booths where light has apparently been outlawed. It's so dark I bang my knee against the table trying to get into the seat. Bad karma already. Goddamn, Charlene, I'm going to be a good boy, I promise.
"I mean, look at this place," Kat says. "It's got soul. Not like Birk's in Santa Clara. That place is so sterile you could eat next to someone's appendectomy."
"Sterile is absolutely not a word for this place. If you cut yourself here you're going to need fifteen cc's of vancomycin just to kill the cockroaches," I say.
She slides next to me so her hip is touching mine, then touches my thigh with one hand while taking a sip of her drink with the other. Oh god. I hope she doesn't take this the wrong way.
I wince and say, "Sweetie. What the hell are we doing here?" In the dark her eyes reflect light like surveyor's lasers. Salmon. Why the hell would someone want anything colored 'salmon'? "Are we really going to talk about my book? Really?"
She smirks and puts down her drink, staring into the table with her eyes at half mast.
Okay. That didn't work. Screw the senstive guy shit. Let's get back to the usual Billy-bob and Kat show. "What I mean to say is, what the fuck did you drag me all the way down here for, you treacherous wench? Are you trying to wreck my marriage? Do you want me to bend you over the table and take you right here in this Edwardian cliche for a gin mill like a New Zealand ewe?"
Now I'm grinning because I'm so clever I can spew crap like that on demand. I should be in movies. Really.
The smile is blown from my face when she looks up, bats her bedroomy eyes, does her Mona Lisa imitation and says, "Would you?"
And I gasp as if she's just grabbed my balls. Holy shit. I think she did. That would explain the beads of sweat forming on my forehead like dew on a Tom Collins glass.
She leans over, kisses me, and my nerves blast with such terror that even though I don't know what her tongue feels like, I know I should because it was against mine a millisecond ago.
"Oh my gawd, Kat," I whisper. "What are you doing? I thought we were going to talk about my book."
"Sure," she says. I see her close her eyes to kiss me again, and I do too, then freeze. Fuck.
I pull away from her. "No really. I thought you were going to tell me what you thought."
"I love it," she says, running her hand up the inside of my thigh, tipping her head, closing her eyes, a mark-IV torpedo coming in for the death run.
"Cut that out," I say, Bugs Bunny style. Then I'm repeating, "holy shit," watching myself slide out of the booth to her amazement.
"Kat? What's happening here?" I'm saying as alternately I rub the back of my neck, step sideways first to the left, then the right, and bite my hand while shaking my leg. "Kat, damn." And visions of us naked together are flying through my skull with the speed and accuracy of uranium tipped anti-tank missiles. I want to have sex with her so bad my head is turning inside out and memories of my kids dressed in pajamas with bunny feet are spilling all over the beer stained carpet.
"What's wrong, Billy-bob? Isn't this what you wanted? The other day at the coffee roasting house..."
"Please call me Will. Please? Look, the other day at the coffee roasting place--goddamn. I thought we were doing what co-ed friends were supposed to do. We joke about having sex and masturbate about it but we never actually do it, for chrissakes. Kat. What are you doing to me?"
"You still masturbate?" she says, and a couple of the people at the bar turn to look at me jiggling like a two-year old that has to pee. Kat says, "You should be ashamed of yourself. You're almost 43 years old. A married man with children. Where do you do it? In the shower?"
"Goddamn you will you stop? Please. I can't think."
"I don't want you to think. I want you to do it," she says, and now I'm twirling circles because I keep thinking to leave, then thinking of something to say to her, and thinking to leave again. "You're acting like a baby again. I'm just kidding you. I'm kidding. Really. Come back and sit down before you wear a hole in the carpet and wet yourself."
She pats the seat next to her, and I slide in because ironically, it seems the safest thing to do.
She opens her small purse and pulls out a couple of pages from my manuscript. Even in the dark I can see lines all over the paper. There are arrows and edits. Entire paragraphs crossed out and sentences written in the margins. The thought of going over the technicalities calms me down. Maybe she was just kidding me. See good 'ol Billy-bob sweat.
"Damn, you really had me going there," I say, taking a slug from my drink and wiping my forehead with the cocktail napkin. And we start to go through the text. I realize she's left most of the scene intact, but has changed a few seminal points. Typical editor-writer argument.
Then, because God's true intention for my life was to be slaughtered for food, I walk right into the rotating knives. With righteous indignation I spout, "what the fuck is this line, 'he gently cupped her breast...' Men don't 'cup' women's breasts. They 'palm' them like basketballs. They pinch the nipples and knead the breasts. Men don't 'cup' anything. You make it sound like some kind of antediulvian religious practice."
The words, "show me", go right past my head and into the crowd of old people. I don't even hear them, but I see every geriatric skull twist toward the booth as Kat grabs my hand and slides it up under her shirt.
"Now that's entertainment," squawks a geezer.
"Show me the difference," Kat's saying as her nipple pushes between my fingers. "Show me cup, and show me palm."
When I get the guts I look straight into her eyes, and now I see it. She can't hide from me anymore than I could from her. All the tightness in my guts drips away. A steel rod that I didn't realize had been running from my skull to my legs falls out.
I slide my free arm around her shoulders and pull her in toward me while I take my hand from her breast. My chin on her shoulder I feel her face against my chest. "What's the matter, honey? You know this isn't going to happen. We've known each other too long and I love you too much. What's going on?"
She says nothing. Her shoulders rise and fall, first slowly, then more quickly. One of the old guys comes by and hands me a bunch of cocktail napkins I'd been scanning for. He says, "No problem," to my thank you. He's had them in reserve. Been waiting to give them to me from the time we walked in.
"You get to be my age, you've seen everything twice," he says to me, and then walks away.
Kat whimpers a little bit as she sobs, sniffs, takes one of the napkins, then goes back to hugging me and says, "Jarred and I had a big fight. Really big. I think the wedding is off."
I rock her gently, whisper to her that the world will be okay. She and Jarred have been together for years and there's nothing that could happen in a week that couldn't be undone. Now she's one of my children afraid of the thunder. How quickly everything can change.
"You never toad me you yoved me before," she says, unable to pronounce the 'Ls' because her nose is stuffed.
"Well, I do. Not like I want to marry you, love you. But I love you, love you. You know?"
She nods into my chest. "I love you too, Will."
next episode is in The sound of rain on a corrugated steel roof
last episode is in weird headless death cult of writer apostles