“Lady’s name was Marsha. Seven years ago, I sat in an over- heated kitchen that smelled of Meyer lemon and left- over Chinese take-out.”
Rummy coughed. “Marsha. Wonder what happened to her?”
“Ask around town. Put one of your boys on it. If she’s anywhere in North America, they’ll find her.”
He shook his head and stared out the window. Silence overtook him. I sensed she was more than a casual mention.
In the distance, a lonely pleasure craft approached the pier. I followed its navigational light and thought of Ella, of how she had slipped away in the wee hours of morning.
Noticing the light on the masthead, Rummy straightened and turned the key in the ignition. His mind worked overtime, one step ahead of potential trouble.
“I’ll tell you this much. Marsha differed from other dames. Real down to earth, didn’t care for the club. I met her at a Queen City Laundromat. Saw her standing next to a dryer, reminded me of one of the Carter sisters. A Brunette with cat eyes, juggling an armful of sheets and blankets. On top of the dryer was a basket. On a stack of folded towels, slept a baby. We talked. She told me the kid slept better on a dryer. Something about the rumble and shake. Afterwards, I carried the whole load: folded sheets, towels, and kid, four blocks to her apartment.
“You’re a good man, Rummy,” I said.
He shrugged and rolled the window. Salt air was life to lungs. The hum of the boat’s engine grew louder as it slipped alongside the pier.
“Couldn’t stand there and watch her carry a heavy load. I fell hard for that gal,” he said. “Want a shot?”
I nodded. “For Marsha.”
Rummy reached beneath the front seat and pulled out a paper bag. Inside was a bottle of Glenfarclas. He loosened the cap and raised the bottle to his lips.
“My buddy Earl works for Liquor Control.”
We laugh, inhaling the scents of spice, fruit, and my mother’s Christmas Cake.
Moonlight shines silver on Rummy’s silvered head. He leans back. “Marsha. Put me under her spell. Said she lived nearby. Turned out to be four blocks and three flights of stairs. “
I asked her,”You do this every week?”
“Twice,” she says.
“At the door of her apartment, she offers me a glass of water.”
I shrug knowing this is how it starts. Simple beginnings and difficult endings. This was how it began with Ella. I had offered to fix her mother’s car.
“Who offers a guy a drink of water? Marsha had a soft voice, sounded like a lullaby. From the moment she looked at me, I was bewitched by those emerald eyes. That evening, I’m sitting in her kitchen, chewing on ice and thinking to myself, Leave. Except I stay and order take- out. After dinner, I watch her toss a dish rag, hear a splash. Bubbles shoot mid air, reminding me of those carny fairs that set up on boardwalks. Her Basket Boy reaches up, grabs a bubble. Pop. You listening Roy?”
“Remember those machines that pump bubbles? Moms, Dads, Sailors, Women- it’s all sound, lights, and movement. The Ball and Bucket Toss?”
I smile, certain of summer memories: the ocean, the salt and sun. Long stretches of highway, miles and miles of lemon groves. Road side diners that appear out of nowhere, like a cheap trick mirage.
” What a racket,” he said. “Some hatter hollering, ‘Winner every time.’ They place the Bubble-Lou machine at the entrance, lure you into carnival chaos. Once inside, it’s all illusion. Humans are fools. ‘Step right in, open your wallet, you’re going South, anyway.’ And monkeys. There’s always a monkey in the mix.”
As I listen to him speak, I see myself, twenty-one again and standing at a truck stop off the US 99. The scent of oleander hangs heavy, reminding me of Sundays on the farm. A hand lettered sign, nailed to the siding of a roadside diner, reads: ‘Swans‘: Lyon’s Coffee, Fresh Farm Eggs, Bacon. The diner is a glorified shack perched on a sinking foundation. White paint hides rot. A one- eyed wooden swan graces the lawn, which is more patch than grass. At the side of the diner stands an abandoned rig, once full of raisins and figs. A woman stands on the front porch. She’s reading a book.
A high pitched yelp sounds out of nowhere. A child, faded bath towel pinned as a cape, darts past. Whooping and hollering, he circles me. His weapon, a bubble wand fashioned from a coat hanger.
“Yo. Settle down.” I say.
The woman glances over and smiles.
“Bo. You heard the man.”
On the porch step is a metal bucket filled with soapy water. An empty mason jar, wrapped in strips of tape, waits for coins: Tips.
I drop a dollar.
The woman raises an eyebrow. “Bo. Thank the man.”
“Thanks Sir.” He stands at attention and salutes. I should tell him I’ve never enlisted or taken an oath. Before I speak, the woman interrupts.
“Awful nice of you,” she says. “Bo’s saving for cleats.”
“That right?” I soak her up: hair piled high, lips the colour of spun sugar. She looks barely out of her teens. On one tanned shoulder perches a Parakeet.
The name tag pinned to her dress reads, Carol Ann. Her feet are bare. One glance about the place and I know I should turn around. All that was missing was a monkey.
“Friends call me Carol. You’ve met Bo and this here is Dickie.” Her fingers reach up to rustle the bird’s feathers.
“As long as it stays on your shoulder, we’ll be fine.”
“I take it you’re not a lover of birds.”
She continues, “Tips go to Bo. He’s joined a baseball team. Organized sports build character. Earning his cleats will teach responsibility. Do you agree?”
I point to the dollar in the jar. “What’s he done to earn the shoes?”
She smiles, tilts her head toward the kitchen. “Step inside, out of the sun. Sorry, didn’t catch your name.”
“Well, Mr. Jackson. Coffee’s on us.”
“Bo. Bring the man a coffee.”
Carol was summer waiting for autumn. I would come to understand how easy it was to learn her. At night she read aloud, spoke of traveling the world.
On the nightstand she kept a well read copy of Life Magazine. She’d leaf through the pages, bewitched by the black and white photographs of old Paris.
“One day. One day I’ll visit Paris,” she had said. “rent a tiny attic room, throw myself into cafe culture, lose myself in art museums.”
“Long way from Bakersfield.”
“There’s this worn down hotel. La Contrascarpe,” she said. “Look.”
How coffee invites words. How twisted, intimate moments, become. How we cling to hope. Before I left California, she handed me a paperback.
“Read it, Roy.”
“Sorry. I don’t read.”
“Start,” she said. “It’s beat poetry. Plain speak. Life as it is.”
On the morning I left Swans, she stood on the porch, apron wrapped round her waist, one arm encircling Bo. She called out, “- and Roy. Don’t be sorry.”
The book became my Bible, the God of Worship: Kerouac. As for Carol Anne? I wrote letters. She wrote back about Junior League and a parts trucker from Alberta. He was set to adopt Bo.
Rummy interrupted. ” You still with me?”
I nod. My thoughts are miles from the pier and his are bullet proof.
“Marsha,” he continued. “What a lady.” He blew a smoke ring into darkness.
I watched it waver, shift and settle.
“Sometimes you lose.”
I nod, staring into the endless night-time sky. Somewhere south of north, was Ella. I had loved her, too. I missed her more.
“Whatever happened to Marsha?”
“Not sure. She had zero tolerance for rounders. First question, ‘What do you do for work?’ ”
He chuckled at the mention. “I countered. Where’s the boy’s father?'”
“Aces,” I said.
“Marsha spoke her mind. ‘Hold a door. Ladies, first. Pick flowers from a ditch. Convince me I’m pretty. Sit with me in the dark.’ ”
Rummy shook his head. “That’s high talk for a guy like me. Back then, I was chasing a Coat Check gal in one of Jimmy’s clubs. I wasn’t familiar with deep conversation and multiple shots of coffee.”
His words felt heavy, serious, truthful. I thought of Jacquie, always waiting. Of how her eyes shone when she spoke of art. The passion and promise of more as she accepted less.
There was a time I had thought her beautiful. I thought of Jock and the way he read the paper, line by line, page by page. The tap, tap, tap of his mug, the coffee refill signal.
There was too much going on in my mind. I thought of Annie. “Mama says Papa thinks he’s the Maharajah.” Annie’s innocent chatter alongside Madeline’s silence. Jock’s beginnings of a smile at his granddaughter’s wit. Moments that grapple conscious. I should go home. Instead I sit in silence, with nature as my witness, listening to Rummy’s words.
“Pass the bottle,” Rummy says. His voice softens.”I was humbled by Marsha’s burning self respect. She wanted nothing from me except company. Marsha was completely herself, unscripted and different from anyone I had known. Aside from my saintly mother. God bless her.”
I watched as he formed the shape of a cross. “To mother,” I said.
Rummy took another drink. “To mother. Mother was a saint. Snuck us out of Poland, hid me in the engine room of a train. She paid dearly for safe passage. Never saw my old man. I learned early on, whenever you see a tear slip like rain from the eyes of a woman, pay attention.” He sighed. “Tears are the sign of a good woman.”
“So find Marsha.”
A right fist, rapped my skull.
“Listen up, Kid,” he said. “I already told you. Sometimes you lose. Stay outta the club. Forget Ella. Say a few Hail Marys and get over her.”
I had a list of names to forget. Ella’s was at the top. Love shakes you up. I knew with time, memories soften. Ella was different. I’d never forget her. Every moment I spent in the company of someone else, I felt her. This is how love is. It haunts. Life becomes dull. Every tree, every flower that once bloomed appears dead. I finally understood the poet.
Ardua Pier: Part Two
Rummy and Roy