Michael Brown

The Paradise Wars and Clark Ransom Thrillers

Off Pebble Beach

Part One: Darkening Waters

Michael J Brown

Mother had invaded. As I raced down the jetway, I saw she had left three messages. I could stop and listen, but she’d survive.

I rented a 2000 Acura TL, a year newer than the black one in my Rhode island garage. This one — an anthracite pearl — illuminated the late morning fog as I streaked down the Pacific Coast Highway, devouring sea, cliff, and sky.

An ocean of poignant green swells rode shotgun as I drove through Moss Beach, San Gregorio, and Monterey until I turned off Seventeen-Mile Drive by Pebble Beach and reached my hotel perched above Spanish Bay.

A staff, in black blazers, sported ties in all the colors of a roll of Necco wafers. After giving the doorman my keys, I got in line to register. High mirrors reflected a beach below, while ebony vases in front of teak walls staged long-stem calla lilies. It was so California. And although I had lived in Providence with John the last thirty-five years. This was coming home.

My bayside room, white and moss, matched the view. John, still in Rhode Island, would have taken the left side of the bed. I took the right.

I had left Providence at 3 a.m. to make an early flight out of Boston. My eyes closed. Cherubic young men, flinging tangerine and mint ties, danced and lulled me into a sweet nap.

***

The chatter from the opening reception woke me. I went down and found a spot on the marble deck cantilevered over the bay. Elbows on the balustrade, I stared out to sea and listened. God they were easily impressed by mediocre wine and “artisan” cheese.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder, “David?”
I turned. I didn’t recognize her.

“You don’t remember me.” She stated it as a fact.

Please! Not another spinster from a former conference? I smiled feebly then turned back to the view. An orange sun dove towards the amethyst band at the horizon.

“You don’t do you?”

“Don’t what?”

“You have no idea who I am? Because, I refuse to believe that you’re blowing me off.”

“Of course I know . . .”

“Maybe I’ve changed more than …. I won’t torture you any longer. It’s Joy.”

What? I had guessed a fifty-something ex-pat from Nice, with whom I had shared an ’82 Latour in Singapore. It had taken me three days to dump her. But who in the hell was Joy? “Joy! You haven’t changed. Not a bit.”

She added, “Remington. Joy Remington.”

Did not help. No connection at all. My gaze wandered through the faces that circled the patio in a dance of conversation and kiss ass. And then there were the young men, waiting for me. I couldn’t waste more time with her nonsense.

I nodded and moved forward.”Good to see you, Joy. We’ll run into each other. I’m sure.”

Her eyes widened.

She gripped my sleeve, just as my phone rang. Mother. I sent her to voicemail, trying to free myself from Joy’s grasp, but her grip tightened.

The phone rang again. I twisted away, trying to free my arm. Another ring. I yanked and broke free, my hand coming down on the balustrade. Looking out, I saw someone on top of the cliff across the inlet.
The phone insisted. The figure moved toward the cliff’s edge, as had Mother tossing Dad’s ashes into the waves.

Ring. I sent the call again to voicemail. I should call her back. But my mind got hooked, stuck on that day Mom scattered Dad. Stuck on that day, the last day of my last year at Terra Nova.

There it was. I remembered Joy.

***

Joy braked the just about new ’63 Electra in our driveway. I hopped in the front seat, and Michael followed. I slid away from Joy and pressed my thigh against Michael’s and asked if he had heard from Stanford.

He said no, and Joy backed out, I looked at the house. The TV flickered ghostly against the drapes of my parent’s bedroom.

I had peeped in to tell my parents I was leaving. Dad, glasses slipping off his nose, snored. Alfred Hitchcock his favorite was on, but Friday was also the end of another tired-to-the bones week at South City Cable where he was day-shift foreman. Mom, propped on pillows beneath her crucifix pierced with last year’s frayed palms, read Leon Uris’ Armageddon, nodded at my announcement, and said to my Dad, “Jack, you have to read this. It’s about the war.”

I turned forward as the car hummed down Barcelona, our street, and I said to Michael, “We know you’re getting in,” meaning I wasn’t.

Stanford had never accepted more than one a year from Terra Nova. Michael had a 4.0, was a statewide discus champion, and a sure thing.

Joy, thinking it OK to listen in, added, “They’ve never let in two, but this time you two are so close.”

I looked out the window at the hills the moon had turned phosphorescent and had sent cascading towards the sea. What did she know? She was in none of the top prep classes.

She seemed too small–and smaller yet being Twiggy flat and wearing that loud paisley dress–to drive. But we let her drive that night, and being too young ourselves, every night.

I watched Joy as she steered that black Buick, shaped, my Dad said, like the landing craft that had dumped him on Omaha D-Day. We dropped towards the moonlit line of houses that edged the dark Pacific. At the last stoplight before the beach, Michael pointed south and Joy pulled on to the coast highway, distancing us from home, Linda Mar, and from the City, San Francisco, ten miles to the north.

“You’ve got to worry,” Michael laughed. “It’s who you are. You can’t help it. Of course we’re both getting in.”

“Glad that’s settled,” Joy said then squealed, “Oh my God, did you hear Donna is dating Carl?”

Donna was president of the Honor Society, and Carl: the class’s biggest JD. “ No way! It’s got to be gossip,” I said.

“Girls like Donna love bad boys.”

Like little Miss Virgin Puss, Joy, would know? I knew Carl. If anything, he was my bad boy. Last summer he had asked me if I wanted to see his dick. When I was done, he handed me a Trojan. “Here Davy. You’ll need this before you know it.” After a couple of months of sitting on it, the rubber’s ring had embossed my wallet. I tossed the billfold in the Safeway bin at Linda mar shopping center, praying my Mom hadn’t already seen it putting away clothes in my dresser.

Michael and I kept talking as we glided south towards Half Moon Bay. The highway rose and fell, sea and cliffs streamed past, while Joy, a silhouette, drove.

Without Stanford acceptance letters in hand we ran out of things to say. Michael lay back and closed his eyes. I shut up and let my thigh press against his. Through a crack in the window, I heard the rise and fall of the crashing waves. The moonlight seemed to be from a dream, and the tires murmured like a lullaby …

Then, the car lurched.

“What the hell?” Michael jumped.

“Sorry.” Joy had yanked the car back from the shoulder that edged the cliff’s drop to the rocks below. “Too quiet, and last night the twins were sick. Didn’t sleep much.” She reached for the radio.

***

Now here, more than three decades later was the same, once willowy, pixy Joy Remington from Terra Nova High, now solid in Michael Kors heels and sensible in Ann Taylor. “My God Joy! What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?” She laughed. “I’m a localization manager.”

“How? I mean where?” ‘How’ was a little rude, even if I had gone to Stanford and Brown, and she, if I remembered right, barely graduated from Terra Nova, and according to rumors, pregnant. What was she doing here?

“I’m at Microsoft. My colleague’s giving the keynote.”

“Really?”

“Yes, David, really. I had a life after driving you and Michael around.”

A waiter came up to us, all pink and ethereal; in his mint-colored tie offering baked pear and brie, which I accepted fixating on the boy’s blonde curl, hanging beneath his perfect ear.

Joy refused the hors d’oeuvre, and the boy turned to leave.

“Wait a minute, please,” I said. “Joy, are you sure? These are so good.”

“Im’ sure.”

The young man caught my eye and blushed, before moving on.

“God he’s cute. I could eat him up. Do you think he could tell?”

“You weren’t exactly subtle, David.”

“What a cynic, Ms. Remington! I’m sure he’s a kid from a state-college about to return to his coed after summer break.”

Her hoot took me aback. What? Was she assuming I was some sort of predator? After waiting for months to make this trip, the bitch was not going to make me feel guilty. I would bed every young man — precisely like this waiter — every chance I got.

“Gotta go, Joy. Meeting a friend for drinks.” I headed into the crowd.

All the self-important jabber annoyed me more, and it did not help that I was blocked by the barricade of a woman. Salt-and-pepper buzz cut and a mannish suit, I pegged her as a Cambridge dyke.

“David, wait!”

It was Joy. Panicked I pushed against this wall of a woman, “Excuse me.”

She ignored me. I jammed an elbow into her kidney, and shoved past. Standing in the lobby doorway, the other side of the crowd, I saw that the woman had stopped Joy. Joy was trying to slide past. Joy looked up once. I moved away quickly.

The opposite side of the party I stopped, took a deep breath and let go; I scanned the marble terrace in the day’s last light. Joy had moved on to a conversation with a group of women. Leaning over the balustrade, I looked out to sea. Up the shore, otters slid into the already black water. When I could no longer distinguish them from the shadows, I went in to dinner.

At the banquet room’s entrance, I saw a single chair, not reserved with a bag of conference crap or a tacky garment. I headed quickly for it. Before I made it, she was there. “David, I found a table for the three of us. For your friend as well.”

Ah yes, my fantasy friend with whom I was having a drink. I brushed her hand away and continued to the table I had chosen.

“I don’t understand. What did I do?”

I pulled out the single chair, sat, and began conversation with the man to my right. Only then, did she give up. She crossed the room to the three seats she had found and sat alone.

The man, older than I liked, was nonetheless striking with a certain sophistication, good wardrobe, and a smile that promised sufficient wit.

A blast of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire heralded this year’s conference theme: Pacific Rim Languages. The cornball opening ceremonies had begun. My table mate and I launched into tirades of barbs aimed at the plebes around us, and before Johnny got to his second verse, I had forgotten about Joy, Linda Mar, and a time thank God that was past.

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One Reply

  1. Tom

    Great, I can’t wait for the rest.

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