This time I brought a beach ball for Jane. I’d brought her something each morning—fresh oranges, strings of seaweed, dime store t-shirts, postcards of big-titted California girls. She was still sleeping hard, knees curled to her chest. I stood above her in our corner of the dining room in Uncle Charlie’s Seafood, the boarded-up restaurant two blocks from the pier where we’d been squatting three weeks. No one else was there that morning, which was nice. Usually there’d be five, ten others.
I held the ball above Jane. It was banana-yellow, glossy, smelling like plastic and fire pit sand. Someone had written “FUCKERS FUK YOU” in thick black all across it. I’d found it earlier walking the strand. The wind rolled it to my feet. I laughed reading the thing, but it seemed another cryptic sign. I was glad we were finally leaving that afternoon, heading back north.
8:30. I’d been awake since 5:00, easing along the beach, the strand, the neighborhoods above Venice Beach. Couldn’t sleep anymore. Too much had happened in the two months since we’d come south, and my gut was constantly tight, my hands trembling.
“For you.” I bounced the ball off Jane’s hip.
She squinted up. “Jesus, Brandon.”
I held the ball firm. “Today’s proverb.”
“You write that?”
“Came this way,” I said, dropping to Jane’s forehead, laughing. “Time to get out of this shithole.”
Jane stood quickly. Clumsy with sleep, she lunged at me. “Give that thing.”
“Words to live by.” I handed her the ball.
Her short black hair shot every direction. Her blue eyes landed on mine. “Don’t fuck with me this morning, Brandon.”
She wore the t-shirt I’d bought her four mornings earlier—“Frankly, Scallop, I Don’t Give A Clam”—the day-glo fabric barely covering her thin, tanned legs.
“This is perfect for our last day.” She smacked the ball across the dining room, over the dusty booths and dank carpet. Mildew, salt and the lingering smell of restaurant butter held. The ball ricocheted off tipped-over tables and chairs, settling in a slant of white light razoring between boards. This was a place people had once laughed, had drinks and a good meal with people they cared for, wanted to be with. Now all that was gone.
“Fuckers fuck you!” Jane winked, mock-scowling. “Got a cigarette, Paco?” She puckered her lips. “Put one right here.”
I wanted to kiss her, but never would.
I liked Jane, had for a long time, but she’d been Andy’s girl—Andy, my older brother, now dead. Seventy-two days earlier he’d left a party drunk and ended up walking the interstate at two in the morning. Got run over, then dragged 500 yards. This was back in Casper where we’d always lived, and it was three days before Jane, Andy, and me were heading south, moving here to Venice Beach, or Hermosa, or Santa Monica. It was Andy’s idea, mostly. We were going to get movie-type jobs, or beach-type jobs, or maybe get residency and transfer our credits from the community college and get into a Cal State school. Our friend from high school, Kelner, had been down here since graduation. He was going to set us up. We’d had enough of Casper—cowboys, the Great Plains, dust, fucking Brokeback Mountain clichés pretending not to be.
Then Andy was dead. Suddenly we were all at his closed-casket funeral, Mom and Dad crying and drunk, Jane holding my hand and shivering. Then Jane and I drove south anyhow— unmoored, sad, so fucking angry. We made it to Kelner’s. He helped us for a time, got us temp jobs, introduced us to his friends, who, like him, were very into pills and X and Fireball. Jane and
I spent our money, then we spent what we had of Andy’s. We sold the car for $2,500, and spent that, too. Then we owed Kelner money. He made a move for Jane one early morning, figuring he had the right. She stabbed him in the thigh with a fork. I punched him in the neck. We walked out, and into friendless So Cal. Three weeks ago. Shipwrecked with $200, playing like everything would be alright.
Standing nervous in Uncle Charlie’s, I could just hear the hush of waves through the musty walls and cracked windows. It was a sound I’d gotten used to, one I have sometimes missed. The air was saline, heavy. Seagulls screamed. A stereo thrummed somewhere close.
“Pack it up,” I said.
“Our ride’s at noon?”
“One,” I said. “We meet at Kelner’s.”
“That fucker,” Jane said, walking to retrieve the beach ball.
Outside we sat on a bench drinking 7-11 coffee and smoking. Jane held the ball and we didn’t talk. It didn’t seem possible that we’d been living there for any amount of time, and I’m sure we were both hoping we’d never be back there.
We walked the strand, Jane cradling the beach ball. Kelner lived in Hermosa, six miles down. Two weeks ago, after I’d come groveling, he loaned me some more money and arranged a ride back to Casper with his stepdad, Jack. We were finally out, which seemed a joyous failure. It was hard to think about going back to Casper, but I knew now that we’d learned how, we’d go other places soon.
“Can I show you something?” I said.
“I’ve still got Valium,” she said. “Want one?”
I waved no. She swallowed the pill dry.
“There’s someone,” I said, “who I’ve been following.”
“A movie star?”
“No,” I said, side-stepping joggers, rollerskaters. “A guy who looks just like Andy.”
Jane stopped, gasped, stood straight. “Don’t.”
“I found him a week ago,” I said.
I told her how he lived in an apartment up near Ocean Park, how I saw him sitting on his steps, smoking, how he looked so much like Andy—shaggy brown hair, handsome blue eyes, a day’s growth of beard, reading some worn novel—that it made my skin flash cold. I explained how I’d stopped on the sidewalk no more than twenty feet from him. He looked at me, smiled, and I began to sweat. I turned away, then back. I made two fists, shoved them in my jeans pockets, and walked by, taking one more look.
“You’re fucking nuts,” she said. “Hold this.” She gave me the beach ball.
“It’s not that I want to be,” I said. “He works at Lex’s Coffee.”
Jane got teary, punched me in the chest three times pretty hard.
“I want you to tell me if I’m making this up,” I said, starting to walk again. Jane caught up to me as we passed the muscley dudes lifting weights in their caged outdoor gym.
“You don’t even mention his name for weeks,” she said, grabbing at my arm, turning me. “You don’t even let me mention his name. And now?”
I told her how I’d been back to see him each morning since, waiting behind a row of palms for him to emerge. When he did, my vision blurred, my fingers went numb. I followed him as best I could, my brother. “It’s following a ghost,” I said. He was Andy—in mannerism, in gait, in voice.
I pulled loose, handing her the ball. “Lex’s.”
“What could make me?” She turned her back, hugging the ball.
I walked the half-mile with my head down, not knowing if Jane was behind me, though I hoped she was.
He walked out just as I got to Lex’s, marching back the way I’d come. He walked fast like he was mad, or worried about the workings of the world. I wanted to say his name, to reach for him. Andy’d possessed this look, too. The night he left that party, then died, it was because some shit-hook Casper cowboys had pulled their patriot routine out. Also because Jane was all fucked up, showing her tits and making these dudes feel like they could have her. It all made Andy crazy, then exasperated, then just sad. “At least we’re out a here, brother,” he told me, and walked.
On the cracked, gum-spotted Venice Beach sidewalk I watched him stride. I wondered what Andy would do if he’d had the chance to see this man, or if they could ever exist on the same piece of earth, or if maybe part of Andy was really living in this other human. I wondered if there was another me out there.
A full block down Jane stomped toward both he, and me. Neither of them looked up as they closed. Ten strides from him Jane raised her head, and he raised his. A staccato, dream-like moment.
She dropped the beach ball. It bounced twice, settled in the dry gutter. She threw her arms wide, then over her head, then to her mouth. She said something I couldn’t hear. The guy stopped, cocked his head, maybe laughed. Jane walked to him fast, still talking, or crying. He put his own arms out as she walked straight into him. She hugged. He kept his arms out, let her remain.
“I’m sorry!” I thought I heard. “We’re here now! I’m sorry!” I crouched, lit a cigarette, bowed my head, shaking. I looked up. Jane was on her knees, hugging at his leg. Two women walked by. He shrugged, pat her on the head. Low clouds skirted beneath the sun. A strange moment—gorgeous and maddening, unlike anything you ever expect. I watched Jane heave and tremble at his leg, and it was impossible we’d be gone in three hours, rolling north again, heading back to a familiar place, impossible she and I had come here at all. I touched at my neck and felt my heart speed. I listened to the gathering wind. Sand rushed against my ankles. The chalk smell of those tiny stones rose like smoke.
I didn’t know yet that there would be times we would talk intricately about this brutal carved-out moment and this exodus in California, and times we would act like it never happened. Jane would find an ordinary life eventually, as eventually would I, and now fourteen years later I rarely see or hear from her, though she lives eight blocks from me here in Casper. There are nights on my way home from the bar I’ll walk by the squat gray bungalow where Jane lives with her son, a black-haired six-year-old I’ve never met. I’ve heard the father is a guitar player from back east, a one-night hook up. I’ll stand on the sidewalk across the street from her place, watch she and her son float across the living room’s wide front window, silhouetted in the orange and yellow light, silent.
I wonder if she’s happy. I wonder if she ever asks that about me, or if she ever watches me come and go from my quiet little duplex. I’ve imagined Andy in that house with her, that they have a life together—friends and hobbies, favorite recipes and TV shows—and that the kid is his, which offers a measure of comfort. Sometimes, too, I imagine myself in there, with her and the kid, that the kid isn’t mine but I’m good with it.
I water the flowers she leaves at his grave—white carnations, daisies, simple pretty flowers. She keeps bringing them these years later, but that doesn’t surprise me. So much is known now. I wish it wasn’t that way, that we still didn’t know how to survive, or add up the world.
Once. We tried to make that not happen. Once. We tried to disappear. We fucking tried. Or at least it seems that way some warm, late nights like this.
Christian Winn is a fiction writer, poet, and teacher of writing living in Boise, Idaho. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Chattahoochee Review, Santa Monica Review, Greensboro Review, Bat City Review, The Pinch, The Strip, Phoebe, Revolver, Every Day Fiction and elsewhere. His debut collection, NAKED ME, is recently out from Dock Street Press – dockstreetpress.com – who will also be publishing his collection of novelettes, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME, early 2017. You can find out more, or contact him at christianwinn.com.