I drive slowly past the apartment building I lived in 33 years ago. Red brick, white peeling paint on the window casements, concrete steps to the wooden screen door that opened into the stairwell. Six apartments, two on each floor.
That one was mine. The second floor on the right as I face the building. A tiny foyer, a tiny living room in the front, tiny kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a tiny bedroom in the back.
The bedroom overlooked an alley and an old white house beyond. A large picture window without any concealing curtains opened to the alley. Inside, a naked wooden dining table with four chairs awaited the family.
Many nights, I lay across my bed, lights out, watching the family in that house. The house became my entertainment. Live entertainment. Better than TV.
A middle aged couple lived there and their daughter and her husband. I gave them all names: Earl and his wife Maggie. Daughter Debbie and her husband Ricky.
Bald, huge, Earl always dressed in a stained white sleeveless undershirt and khaki shorts. Gray headed Maggie wore a faded cotton house dress as she cooked a meal for four.
Every night was the same routine:
Maggie set the dining table with plain white dishes and ordinary glasses, a spoon, fork and paper napkin at each place.
Earl sat at the head of the table and demanded a another beer. He lit up a cigarette and drew on it. He complained that dinner was late, again.
Maggie called Debbie to dinner and the girl with dark stringy hair entered the dining room from deeper in the house with long haired Ricky trailing.
They sat at the table while Maggie served the food to each one. She took her place at the table. A Norman Rockwell family. Except, no one smiled because they knew what was coming.
Earl wiped food from his mouth with the paper napkin, demanded a bottle of whisky and poured it in his iced tea glass. He drank it all in a single go and lit another cigarette. He yelled at Maggie because the gravy had lumps, he yelled at Debbie because she married badly. He yelled at Ricky because he wasn’t working. Debbie countered that Ricky was going to college.
Earl drunkenly yelled that no college degree ever helped anyone ever and Ricky is a lazy freeloader. Earl told Ricky to get out of the house. Every night, Earl threw Ricky out–a young man who never complied. Debbie cried and screamed at Earl for being unfair. Earl swept the dishes off of the table with a single brush of his meaty hand. Glasses broke and the melamine plates clattered loudly.
Maggie cried because more dishes are broken. She grabbed a broom so she could clean up the mess.
Earl tossed the empty whiskey bottle against the wall, shattering it on the ancient plaster. Maggie swept up that mess, too. Every night.
Families sitting down to dinner together are so nice.
The journey seemed endless as the miles on the highway ticked by slowly. Too slowly. My iPod blurted all too familiar tunes, Pandora acted squirrley, singing aloud and off key bored me. Another mile. And another.
Google Maps finally announced my exit from the Interstate and I knew the hotel was only a few feet away. “Your destination is on the right.” Sweeter words were never uttered.
I parked my car and slowly walked to the lobby, hoping the kinks would work their way out of my knees in a moment. Too long in one position in the seat took its toll on my body in more ways than I cared to recount.
Check in seemed endless and no I don’t need two keys. The room is just up the stairs and no, we don’t have an elevator, sounded in my ear. Eight hours on the road and now, I have to lug a suitcase up a flight of stairs. I sighed and steeled myself for the task.
Trunk open and suitcase on the ground beside me. I grabbed the laptop bag, my small toiletries case, my purse and my wits. Ready. I silently blessed the woman who invented a suitcase with the handle and wheels. It had to be a woman because the solution is incredibly practical. Like pantyhose. Like hair dryers.
“Let me get the door for you.” Southern twang from the right. I turned and looked into the bluest eyes I had ever seen. He wore inevitable cowboy boots, jeans that molded themselves to his skin, a t-shirt that announced his love of ZZ Top and a perfect smile. Teeth straight and white as a movie star’s. Brown hair long enough to show the curls at the end. And six foot four. Perfect in every way.
“Why didn’t I meet you twenty years ago? Or thirty?” I wonder.
He pulled the door to the lobby open and allowed me to enter. The door closed and he grabbed my suitcase handle. “Let me get that for you. Where to, Ma’am?” Don’t you just love Southern hospitality?
“That’s just at the top of the stairs.” He pushed the handle into the suitcase and picked it up, not bothering with the wheels. Up the steps, two at a time and I doggedly followed, trying to keep the agony of sore knees from showing on my face.
He put the suitcase in front of the door, and raised the handle up so I could pull the case into the room. “Room 204, as ordered.” His smile brightened the entire floor. He turned and stepped toward the stairs, again.
“Thank you, very much,” I managed to say before he descended.
“No problem. Anytime, Ma’am.”
And he vanished down the stairs returning to the errand my arrival interrupted. Random act of kindness? Likely I reminded him of his mother. Or his grandmother. Whatever the case, I will remember that bright smile and those blue eyes for a very long time.
Everyday, the same nothingness happened on the long commute home. Two hours in my car, stuck in traffic, boredom abounds. Inch by inch, I forge ahead, trying to make the twenty-three mile journey to my haven of solitude. Twenty- three miles in two hours. Progress stops.
Horns, motors, exhaust fumes. My car starts to overheat in the summer sun, so I turn off the AC and open the windows. Nothing moves. Angry faces stare at me out of their car windows as if the gridlock is my fault. Sweat tickles my face.
I have a CD of my favorite songs playing quietly so as not to disturb the neighbors in their equally dismal commute. But, that song starts playing and I reach over to turn up the volume just a little. And a little more. At the chorus, I sing along with Barry Manilow. “At the Copa. Copacabana. The hottest spot north of Havana…”
Next to my car, the man in the red Ford F150 smiles and his head bobs in rhythm. His window is open to the elements, too. Blond hair matted with sweat and gray tank stuck to his chest, he starts singing. Hot wind brings in the smell of cigarette smoke and rum.
“At the Copa. Copacabana. Music and passion were always the fashion at the Copa. She fell in love.” Barry, Red Truck Man and me sing in complete harmony.
We three sing Lola’s story into life: “His name is Rico. He wore a diamond. He was escorted to his chair, he saw Lola dancing there. And when she finished. He called her over. But, Rico went a bit too far. Tony sailed across the bar. And then the punches flew and chairs were smashed in two. There was blood and a single gunshot, but just who shot who? At the Copa…”
The musical bridge played and Red Truck Man and I cha-chaed in our cars. Red gave me a spin and pulled me in close. Our bodies move in perfect synchronicity. No longer stuck in gridlock, Red and me flew to the Copa to dance the hot Florida night away. One, two, cha cha cha.
Barry, Red and me start singing right on cue. “Her name is Lola…” all the way to the end of the song when we sing, “Don’t fall in love.” It’s too late Barry and Red. I already fell in love with both of you.
The traffic starts to move forward and Red releases me from our dance.
For the duration of a song, my wish for the world worked. Everyone knows the words to the song. Everyone knows the steps to the dance. The guy always gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after. Just like a Fifties’ musical. Just the way I really want to the world to be.
Santana is an advance scout ship. You know, one of those manned spacecrafts that follow up on the leads found by the unmanned probes that our home-world sent all over the galaxy in a desperate attempt to find another place for humanity to live. My husband is the pilot and I am the planetary specialist.
We verified that the planet we scouted will support humanity. A beautiful blue marble with huge oceans, fresh water lakes and rivers, more kinds of flora and fauna than on our home-world, five major landmasses, blue skies, white clouds, green everywhere and astonishingly beautiful. Five years we stayed in orbit, inspecting the planet, classifying, cataloging, analyzing. No doubt could remain. Finally, we classified the new planet “Viable.”
Then, we returned to the planet of our origin and engaged our stealth approach. We had been away a very long time and had no idea what we would find.
Santana announced, “Based on the positions of the stars from our current vantage point, we have been away from here for 10,876 years, 4 months, 12 days, 9 hours, and 14 seconds…mark.”
“Almost 11 thousands years,” I say, quietly.
Santana replied, “Your estimate is imprecise.”
“I don’t need precision, Santana. I have you.” I could almost hear her chuckle if a spacecraft is capable of humor.
“I’m not picking up anything that should be here,” Adam said. His brow creased with worry.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“No approach beacons.” His voice trembled. “Eleven thousand years is a long time…”
“I concur with Adam,” Santana said.
I floated quickly to my station and engaged my sensor array. Nothing remained. Not even a microbe. No sign that any living thing ever existed on the surface. “What happened?” I asked them both, not expecting an answer. I got one, anyway.
“If I may speculate,” Santana said. “We were sent to find another place for humanity to settle because the Earth was dying as a planet. Apparently, the end came more quickly than science anticipated. When a planet dies, it can no longer even the most primitive life forms.”
I looked at the surface in real time. A disgusting yellow sand covered the familiar land masses. The polar ice caps vanished and the atmosphere consisted of mostly sulfur dioxide. Even the water looked bilious instead of blue. And the surface temperature hovered around 100 degrees Celsius. “Is this really Earth? Is this really our solar system?” I knew the answer, but my brain refused to accept the facts.
“The coordinates are correct,” Santana replied.
“We have to be sure,” I said and I started my sweep. To fully analyze a planet required several weeks, but I had to know. If even one person lived…
For the next few days, a strange quiet fell over the ship. Adam and Santana rarely engaged in conversation with me or with each other. Adam and I went through the motions of life. Eating, sleeping, analyzing. Each day morphed into a sameness. Weeks spun away. Finally, we all agreed. Earth was very dead indeed.
We carefully searched the entire solar system and found no trace of a beacon, a probe, a scrap of metal, a message in a bottle. Nothing of humanity remained in the vicinity. No reason remained for us to stay a moment longer. Adam entered the coordinates to take us out of the system.
I left my own message in a bottle, so to speak, when I launched a probe into Earth’s orbit. If someone else returned to our former home, I may save them the trouble of investigation because I included a copy of our data and our personal stories. A very sad ending to our mission.
We found a fold quickly enough and returned to that planet in the suburbs of our galaxy.
As we prepared to disembark for the surface, Adam asked me, “What should we call our planet?”
“We can’t officially name it until we grow crops on it,” I said.
“So, Evie, have you found a place for us to land?” Adam asked.
“Yes. A beautiful fertile spot between the two rivers just there.” I pointed to the location on the holographic globe.
“Okay. I’ll take the first shuttle down and you can bring the second one down when you get everything shut down up here.” He kissed my cheek lightly. “See you in a few minutes.” He palmed on the force shield. The shuttle dropped away from view an instant later.
“Santana,” I said. “How long will it take for your power supply to exhaust itself?”
“Seven thousand years from the day I was initiated.”
“Once Adam and I die, no one will know you. Likely, no one will be able to get back up here to you after we cannibalize the shuttles for living quarters.”
“I will monitor the progress of humanity as it grows. Also, the shuttles will have transmitters and your offspring can learn to use it. I am a machine, Evie. I cannot get bored.”
“You are so much more than a machine, Santana.”
“I will remain in contact with you. I can shut down all systems on this ship except what is essential for my survival.”
“Scout Craft Santana, it has been a privilege serving with you,” I said, formally.
“Evangeline Eden, I am honored.” The ship replied.
I walked toward the shuttle, eager to join Adam on the surface, but strangely reluctant to leave the true brain behind. Santana was as real for me as Adam was. I considered her a friend, a mentor, an adviser. “Santana, will your CPU fit onto the shuttle?”
“Yes. It is only 133 kg. It will easily fit. You will even have room for several access points.” I could swear she sounded excited.
“You’re coming down there with us. Send a message to Adam and tell him my arrival will be delayed until I get you loaded onto the shuttle. I am not entering paradise without you, my friend.”
And she did just so. In a few short years, Santana became the ruler of Eden, our planet, the she shortened her name to Satan.
I felt lonely. I felt depressed. I felt dejected. The sun shone brightly, but I wished for rain to hit my face so I could hide the tears that never fell, anyway. The tangible man left me alone, again, like he always did. He didn’t understand my grind.
Then, a sliver of hope announced itself, quietly. In the afternoon.
He walked along the concrete sidewalk beside the Bay and a small leashed dog trotted obediently alongside. He walked with a dancer’s grace and an athlete’s control. His flip-flops slapped against his heels and a breeze rustled the palm tree that separated us. He strolled with the vitality of youth because he couldn’t be old enough to shave, yet, could he?
Beige board shorts, and a black tank top. Sun-bleached hair. Ray-Bans. Tanned skin. The dog wore a fluffy white coat in the summer breeze.
The man caught me watching him.
I felt bold. “He’s so cute. What’s his name?” I asked, pointing down at the dog.
“Her name is Hazel. My girlfriend’s dog. She has a thing for Watership Down. I don’t know.” His voice drifted off. He had no idea the significance of Hazel’s name.
Hazel’s paws touched my knee and I squatted down to her level. I rubbed her cottony head and the tiny pink tongue touched my fingers. So expectant and so deserving in the same instant. Her dark eyes scrutinized me and she smiled.
“What breed is she?” I asked. Not quite a poodle.
“Bichon Frise. I don’t know.”
I talked to the dog. “Hello, Hazel. You are a sweet puppy!” Her tailed waved.
She glanced quickly at the man on the other end of the tether that held them together. Expectation crossed her face. I scratched under her chin and the tail waved far more vigorously. The man reached down and unclipped the leash. He pulled a blue ball from his pocket and he sailed it into the air. “Get it, Hazel,” and white fur was off a second later, tires screeching on the start line.
The ball bounced once and Hazel jumped up to catch it. She ran back to the man, ball in her teeth, laughing as only a dog can. Her tail wagged furiously, eager for another run. The man threw the ball, again. Hazel caught it before it hit the ground.
“She’ll do that all day. I don’t know.,” he said.
Hazel dropped the ball at my feet and I picked up the slimy toy and tossed it as far as I could. Twice, three times, I threw the ball. The man grew restless. I gave him the ball and he scooped the little dog up in his arms, spun around to return the way he came.
I hope I see Hazel, again. I smiled watching her fluffy tail wag as the man carried her away, no more thoughts of rain clouding my day.
Love can happen in an instant. Many times I have fallen in love, the affair lasting only moments or a few precious minutes. Like this story.
He stood on the road holding one of those signs that commanded drivers to stop. Six feet tall, with dirty well-fitting jeans and a faded t-shirt hidden by a Day-Glo yellow don’t-hit-me vest. His brown work boots were scuffed and worn from months or years standing on the road, holding a sign. Or maybe he did real work and that day his turn came up to catch a break.
I was the first in line, waiting for the signal to proceed, but the sign refused to allow forward movement. It forced me to pause and assess my environs.
Slowly, he turned his face in my direction. He smiled at me revealing bright white teeth. Eyes made out of blue crystals sparkled in the sun. I opened my car window and said, “Good morning.”
“It won’t be long, Ma’am.” he responded, the southern twang adding romance and color to his voice. The sound of his voice alone told me the story of his life.
I imagined him in a small house in the woods. Pickup in the dirt drive, dirty boots left by the door, feeding two dogs, neither with any sign of pedigree, eating the hamburger he bought on the way home, popping open the can of beer to wash it all down, turning on the news, propping his feet on the coffee table, settling in for the evening. Unencumbered by the pressures of life.
No responsibilities at work to weigh heavily on his shoulders, to wrinkle his features. Just hold the sign. Turn it around. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.
I imagined him in another job. Print ad model wearing the same clothes and holding a sign to direct the traffic of people to the store to buy jeans or signs. Or perhaps the poster boy for the road department. Watch out for the working class while you drive through the construction zone.
Regretfully, he spun the sign around. He touched the brim of his yellow hard hat that covered most of his short dark hair and said, “Have a good day, Ma’am.” He talked to me. He noticed me.
I drove forward among Bob’s Barricades, asphalt trucks, more men in don’t-hit-me vests. The love affair ended because I drove away from it, like all my other love affairs. Involved for just a few moments and then forward into my life.