There was a hushed silence in the car, like train passengers who settled in a lull dullness of not wanting to be on the train with strangers. Doug strained as far away from Natalie that he could get in the Toyota.
“Beauty!” She nodded at the ocean, shiny blue-green foam and gray beaches. Northern California pretty.
“Right!” Doug muttered. She put her hand on his and he smiled, the leaky windows rushed air, conversations impossible and that was a good thing, because Doug did not want to move out of Oakland. The commute to his job at SFOC—the official nickname of the airport by all the baggage handlers, Same Fucking Old Crap, who flogged overweight suitcases and string wrapped paper boxes into the belly of overheated airplanes —would be a nightmare.
The newspaper ad had read: Delightful old mansion by the sea. Room to grow. Room to live by the sea. Handy-man special: Dwight D. 543-776-3435. Leave a message.
She would be the handy-man. Girl. And she was the one that needed to grow. She was the one that needed to live by the sea. Life ended, living was an afterthought she couldn’t think about, after Andrew had been killed. Head-on collision in a cop and robber chase. The second most common way to die when you’re a cop. In Oakland. And Andrew had been a good one. A good man. Husband. Father.
That had been four years ago. Andy remained sullen.
And Doug filled up an empty spot in her bed not in her heart, but she knew he was a big part of her not-living anymore. He was a motion she was doing, and he didn’t know and wouldn’t care. Doug wanted to stay in Oakland where he could hangout and watch the Raiders games with his homeboys in Nasty’s on Ninth Street and drink beer until he puked in the alley.
Nate rubbed a palm up Doug’s leg hoping he would lean her way. He put-in at a convenience store coming up on the right, giving her the universal symbol—the fist to the mouth guy-thing—saying he was in need of a cold beer and most likely a long pee.
He jumped out before the Toyota had hardly stopped rolling.
“Wanna get out?” Nate turned. Andy and Dixie were tangled in the backseat. There was little enough room for a lankly boy and a brushy dog. Andy cracked his door, without speaking, and jumped out to follow Doug, leaving Dixie.
“Com’on. Let’s go pee.”
The pup stared after Andy. At the word go she perked, and she jumped out the two-inch crack pushing past Nate as she opened the door.
Dixie found a patch of green and Doug came out with a six-pack of Miller Lite, letting the wooden screen door slam behind him. She started for the store, and they pasted each other without a glance, giving a broad path in their opposite directions. Doug was a stocky guy, but he hadn’t grown into himself enough for her to consider him a man, his needs boy-like when she was maturing, going over the edge of thirty.
There was a mist—as if rain had forgotten how to fall, that teased a dance above ground—hanging above Nat’s head as she headed for the door of the old store. They were on old Highway 40 heading north toward Elk and Mendocino, a picturesque two-lane road winding over the hills near the sea, but not right on the ocean like Highway One. And it was a good thing all those cliffs and sheer drop-offs—while breathtakingly beautiful—took Nat’s breath away, made her nerves grind more than Doug’s asshole attitude about using one of his precious day’s off to do something beside sit and drink beer.
A buzzer buzzed in the store and gray frizzy-headed woman, of an ambiguous age between 70 and 140, stood up behind the oily counter-top ready to check out what might be left of today’s only customers. The drafty building felt wet as the outside mist lingered invisible on the inside. Mist and fog made the hills of Northern California famous for its wispy tendrils moving in updrafts like the manes of ghost horses, wild and forever free, roaming the lush seaside. Nate wrapped her sweater around her waist in spite of the fact that it was so close to June.
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