There was a hushed silence in the car, a vibration, a voice humming a sound that soothed her in way that she had not felt since Andrew, or maybe it was Andrew singing his approval of her decisions.
Just the tires.
Nat glimpsed at the Pacific.
Doug strained as far away from Natalie as he could get in the Toyota.
“Beauty!” She nodded, trying to draw his attention to the shiny blue-green foam and gray beaches. Northern California pretty.
“Right!” Doug muttered. She put her hand on his leg and he grimaced like she had stabbed in the groin, but adjusted in the seat, letting her come in. The Toyota’s leaky windows rushed air, conversation impossible, and that was a good thing, because earlier Doug had made his distaste for leaving Oakland loud. The commute to his job at SFOC—the official nickname of the airport by all the baggage handlers, Same Fuckin’ 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. Room to grow. Room to live by the sea. Handy-man special: Dwight D. 543-776-3435. Leave a message.
She could be a handyman. Girl. She was the one that needed to grow. She was the one that needed to live by the sea. Life ended, living had become an afterthought she couldn’t think about, after Andrew had been killed. A head-on collision and he was gone in an instant, doing his job, in the narrow hallway streets in the city. The other guy lived and sued the city for all he could get.
It was the second most common way to die when you’re a cop. In Oakland. Andrew had been one of the good ones. A good man. Husband. Father.
That had been four years ago.
Doug had filled 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 her repetitive motion, 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 at Freakin’ Freddy's on Ninth Street, drinking beer until he puked in the alley.
Nat rubbed her palm up Doug’s leg, taking a finger a bit too high, and he leaned her way without smiling. Their argument over just looking at the house by the sea had gotten nasty fast. He put-in at the old store coming up on the right, doing the fist to the mouth guy-thingy, meaning he was in need of a cold beer and most likely a long pee, any reconciliation had been overridden by his needs.
The Toyota had hardly stopped rolling before he was out, heading for the neon beer sign flickering in the store’s dark window.
“Wanna get out?” Nat turned.
Andie and Shelia lay tangled in the backseat, with little room for a spindly girl and her brushy dog. Andie cracked her door, lost in her muteness, and trailed Doug, leaving Shelia. Shelia was supposed to be Andie’s therapy dog, but Shelia had adopted Andie’s sullen mood instead of drawing Andie out of her shell. But like all the other repetitive motion sins her life, Nat let Shelia be, allowing the pup to fall into a lazy place next to Andie.
“Com’on. Let’s go pee.”
The pup stared after Andie. At the word go she perked, and she jumped out the two-inch crack pushing past Nat as she opened the door.
Shelia found a patch of green and Doug came out with a six-pack of Miller Lite, letting the wooden screen door slam. Nat started for the store, and they passed each other without a glance, giving a broad path to their opposite directions. Doug was stocky, but he hadn’t grown into himself enough for her to consider him a man, his needs boy-like where she had matured.
Grief had a way of making a person grow; she had been unwillingly jerked into a different line of traffic that Doug could not maneuver. To share her feelings with him would have been a dishonor to Andrew, like she had cheated on him in the worse way, not by sleeping with Doug, but by giving him a piece of her heart. The only thing she had allowed Doug was to get off the same horrible exit she had been forced to take, he had been more lost than she when they meet, at Freddy's, the neighborhood bar. She had let him hang on to what little she had to offer.
There was a mist, as if rain had forgotten how to fall, that teased a dance above ground, lingering an arm’s reach above Nat’s head as she headed for the door of the old store. Wisps of ghostly horsetailed fog rolled against the cliffs as the cold air from the sea pushed against the warm updrafts from the interior valleys which made the coast famous for its whimsical fairy-forest feel.
“Would you slow down!” She’d complain, slapping at Doug’s arm as he speed around the curving cliffs and sheer drop-offs on Highway One. While breathtakingly beautiful, the cliffs took Nat’s breath away.
“Pussy!” he snickered as he turned onto a slower high road, giving in to her anxiety about the cliffs for a while, but the only way to the house was to take One back to the sea. But his asshole attitude about using one of his precious day’s off to do something other than sitting and drinking beer, made his foot heavy on the gas.
A buzzer buzzed over the door as Natalie entered the damp darkness of the old store and a gray troll-age woman rose behind the oily counter-top glowering at Nat’s interruption. The drafty building felt as wet inside as the outside. Nat wrapped the dirty sweater she had found under the Toyota’s seat around her waist in spite of the fact that it was so close to June.
“Hi! Can you help me? I’m looking for Albino Road,” Nat asked. A county map had been taped on the counter top between the cigarette lighters and faded Beanie Baby’s. Someone had long ago covered it with clear strapping tape to protect it from greasy hands and dirty dollar bills.
“You the...willow...weaver?” The woman stuttered, eyeing Nat, peering at her with cat-slit eyelids.
“What? No—I’m sorta lost. Albino Road?” she asked, tapping the worn map. The old woman’s gaze with her bloodshot cat-slits made Nat rub her arms to warm the chills that erupted under her sweater.
“No! You ain’t lost, hon! Dwight D by here this morning. Coffee—” she said. She cocked her fizzy head toward the burnt smell of a grimy Proctor Silex percolator “—said you was coming!” She added a witchy belching laugh to her knowledge of Natalie.
“I think you have me mixed up with someone else!” Nat said, sensing Andie coming up behind, knowing her silence, trying not to let on that the woman rattled her nerves. Doug had ruffled them, and this old rag shook what was left of the dried exoskeleton of her nerves.
Andie pushed a couple packs of long Slim Jims along the map.
“Go get my purse, honey!” Nat took her gaze off the old woman for an instant, giving her a chance to keep talking.
“Not! Dwight D says you was coming to look at the house, an’ says you’re the next weaver—”
Doug’s head popped in the door Andie had left open. “Get the hell out here, would’ya?”
The woman gawked at Doug’s black Oakland Raider’s jersey and punched a few keys on the cash register ringing up the Slim Jims.
“You with him?” The witch cocked her head in Doug’s direction as Andie dropped Nat’s wallet on the counter, sighed, reaching for the beef jerky, and turned.
“What the hell?” Doug barked, but he let the door slam and that awful buzzer buzzed his escape.
Nat jumped. “I—” Nat started. “I don’t know?”
“You ain’t with him. You’s just with him, that’s all.”
Nat fished for a couple of dollars for the Slim Jims and as Andie left, Shelia yelped hungry outside the door. She held out her hand for the witch to drop coins in her sweaty palm.
“What’s coming for you ain’t come yet! Albino’s the first left. Don’t turn right you’ll swum with the fishys. House’s at the deadend, top’o hill. Can’t miss!”
Nat backed up, butting open the screen door, and buzzer screeched like it was the old woman screaming. But she was grateful Andie hadn’t heard the woman, and now that fun dancing mist unloaded into full-fledged rain as she ran for the Toyota. She tip-toed skips over the mud holes that had not been there a few moments before, splattering her bare ankles with dirty water. She had dressed, choosing a short flirty green skirt and a pullover blue blouse, so not only was she freezing, she was muddy as well.
“Shit!” She climbed into the driver’s side since Doug sat with the door open, one foot dangling in the rain out the passenger-side.
“Damn!” He smashed his empty can with one hand, smirking because he knew she’d bitch about drinkin’ and drivin’ so he didn’t attempt to get behind the wheel if he had a beer, or ten.
Her keep quiet glare pushed him back.
“Buckle up!” She blurted back to Andie. “Now!” As if a piece of strapping could protect her from a witchy bitch telling Nat she was the next widow-maker or willow tree or worse. Shelia munched Slim Jim wrappers on the console between the bucket seats, and she pushed on the dog’s head. “Get back!”
“Albino Road is the next right. We’re almost there,” she said, slipping the clutch the first time she pushed it in, and chugging the Toyota out of the milky potholes. The windows fogged, and Nat swiped at the driver's side glass with her elbow, the dirty sweater only making a bigger mess. Doug cracked his window without saying a word, and the fog lifted inside the hot car, and she could see the road.
“Fine idea moving to the country!” Doug said, saluting her with a tip of his beer.
Around the bend on the mountain side heading to the sea a worn sign read: Duarte Sheep.
“That’s it!” she said, downshifting and slipped the clutch trying to make the sharp left without slowing down.
“You need to buy us a new car. One you can drive!” Doug blurted.
Windblown cedars that lined both sides of the dirt road hemmed in the Toyota swayed in the breeze left behind by the sudden cloudburst. The Toyota chugged, burned some oil, and made it to the top of the hill and into the clearing. The air there was fresh and the wet spruce tips glittered in the sun.
Even Andie moved forward to look out the window. “Holy—” she muttered cutting off the end of her expletive.
“Would’ya look at this place!” Doug said, putting down his beer.
Nat had the Toyota moving so fast that when she slammed on the brakes to keep from lunging into a white picket fence, its four near-bald tires fishtailed in the mud. She missed the fence by an inch, but she tossed Doug one of those go-to-hell-how’s-my-driving-now-asshole looks, as she jerked on the emergency brake.
Shelia let out a howl and Andie jumped out with her, spinning in circles on top of the world.
“Oh Andrew look! Look!” Nat leaned on the car door, and faced west toward the Pacific, Hawaii, China and parts unknown. The ocean shimmered like a sheet of silk billowing around the Earth. Blue frost and green emeralds tossed together. Andie turned, with the first smile on her face in a year, looking back to see if Andrew would be standing next to her mother.
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