An Afternoon At Sal’s Place


An excerpt from my novel in progress, Love In A Dying World

Determined to do something good in this world before I left it, I called and arranged a meeting with Wickerman. When I arrived at his place an hour later, the storm had finally broken. A wonderfully jig saw puzzle sort of day was unfolding along the coast.

“Right on,” Wickerman said when I explained about Benjamin and what his band of protestors had planned. Wickerman’s squinty eyes were sparkling.

I never mentioned that this circus was to take place right in front of Wickerman’s splashy resort. And not knowing this, Wickerman whipped out a roll of hundred dollar bills and quickly counted out two grand.

“Is that enough?”

I shrugged and he counted out another grand.

“More?”

I shrugged again and he added yet another thousand. Wickerman followed me out the massive front door. The last I saw of him, he was both watching me drive off and enjoying the rustling palm trees of his coastline view.

I honestly had no idea what I was doing anymore, but I knew one thing for certain. Kate was going to get a knock on her front door before I boarded that plane back east.

I stopped back at my house, made a few phone calls and went by to drop the money off with Benjamin. Theus was there and explained to me what they had planned. A searchlight outfit, a guy with his elephant and rajah outfit. They expected a couple of big shot reporters to show up.

I left them making protest signs and went motoring off in the direction of Kate’s house. My heart trembled at the thought of my mission. Fear loomed over the entire enterprise. Half an hour, tops, and I would be knocking on her front door. How would she respond? Or would she respond at all?

I could say I just happened to be in her neck of the woods, if she bothered to open the door. And if she didn’t, so be it, but I was determined to find peace with her before I left this world.

As a matter of prudence, or apprehension, or both, I decided to stop by my friend Sal’s jewelry shop before showing up unannounced at Kate’s door. Sal was right down the street and it couldn’t hurt to get a second opinion. Probably I was going overboard. Setting myself up for a fall.

Sal’s store wasn’t much to look at. He was an artisan, not a retailer. There was one long glass display case in front, a huge safe to the left, a desk with a lot of papers piled on top of it to the right and a door leading back to his workshop.

When Sal glanced up from behind his display case, his dour look almost made me turn around. What’s gotten into me? An hour with Sal and you needed pills.

Sal had a big black cat and it was quickly making affectionate passes at my legs. It was a very handsome cat, with fancy white spats and jowls. Finally, it jumped into the display case and stared up at me through the glass.

Sal said hello from behind the display case and asked how things were going with Kate. I explained that nothing had changed.

“Shit man. That’s too bad.”

“Oh well. The whole world is going mad. What the hell are you going to do.”

“Man, quit trying to solve everybody’s problems!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sal was working on a gold ring and glanced up at me with a bum horse look. There was a set of jeweler’s glasses on top of his head and they came down while he looked again at the ring. Then the glasses were back on top of his head. The glasses were the equivalent of a welder’s mask, but with two high powered lenses in place of a black screen. The glasses kept going back and forth as we stood there.

Finally, Sal set the gold ring down and glanced at me with the same, ‘you’re trying to sell me a bum horse’ look on his face. I stared back, thinking Sal should have been in The Wild Bunch. He looked like one of those Mexican bandits, with long, dark scraggly hair and a waistline that had gotten way out of hand.

Sal wore T-shirts the way overweight women wore muu muus. There was a blending of comedy and grief in the man that I doubted I could ever properly capture.

“What?” he asked when I continued to stare at him. “What?!” he said again.

“Nothing,” I said. There was no hope of explaining myself.

“Well, fuck, you can’t think like that!”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like it’s all over because of a woman!”

“Not that I’m trying to convince you of anything, but it feels that way.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Well it’s pointless.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say.”

“That’s not what I meant! Shit, there’s always another woman. You want problems, think of all the people starving in this world. And if you feed them, they’ll just have more babies and make things even worse!”

He looked up at me from the ring, nearly out of breath.

“I mean it! It’s just one big evolving state of calamity! You solve a problem and a worse one takes its place! Who has time to worry about a woman?”

How depressing, but that’s what it was like talking to Sal. If you didn’t already feel like shooting yourself, he made sure you did.

“Shit,” Sal went on. “I saw this program on PBS the other night, about how these rogue plant and animal species are hitchhiking all over the globe. I mean, we have all these ships and aircraft, and they’re supposed to be making our lives easier, but all they do is drag around all these foreign species and it’s fucking up the entire world!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, I’m telling you the truth. Don’t look at me like that!” I half laughed at his bum horse look. It was part wounded dog, part anger. He returned his attention to the ring and polished it another time.

The black cat was back at my feet so I leaned down to pet it. It was twenty pounds if it was an ounce, a male, but sweet as a kitten.

“He’s my buddy,” Sal said.

“Yeah,” I said, thinking Sal needed a buddy all right. Twenty-five years of marriage, a nice home and he was down to living in his shop.

And there I was, worrying. When it came to women and troubles, the man made me look like a piker.

My thoughts drifted back to the time when Sal first filed for divorce. I had known nothing about his personal life up until that point. Our relationship had been one of jeweler and cordial customer for twenty years. Then he’s going through divorce and suddenly we’re pals.

When it came to Sal’s failing marriage, it was the usual stuff; too many years, all the passion gone. So Sal filed for divorce and moved into his shop, never expecting he would be burrowed in there for most of five years.

Every time I stopped by to say hello during the divorce, Sal would be out there with his papers spread all over the glass display case in front, thumbing through ledgers and recounting every god awful detail of the sordid affair. His once docile wife had hired an attorney. The attorney had put a private detective on Sal’s tail, and worse, had a CPA looking into his business affairs. That’s what really got Sal pissed off. A woman he had been able to keep under his thumb for twenty-five years suddenly wanted the jewels, the house and lots of money; lots and lots of money.

Sal would fish around among the papers and show me a ledger.

“See,” he’d say. “Here’s everything I’ve sold in the last two years. It’s nothing! She thinks I’m rich! She’s nuts! How do I convince these people?”

Then he’d start fishing around for another ledger.

I was reminded of Lenny Bruce at the end, reading transcripts of his trials in place of a standup comedy routine, obsessed with every detail of the shaft he was enduring, unable to think of anything else.

Finally, two plus years later, it was over and Sal had somehow managed to keep the house. It was an enchanting thing, tucked away behind the nearby hills. I remembered driving over into the valley the first time and thinking, wow, what a little Valhalla. A thousand times driving by those hills and I never once would have guessed what existed behind them.

A year or so later, I happened to be in Sal’s neighborhood and stopped by his shop to say hello.

“I’m getting married,” he told me.

I smiled and offered my blessings.

“What?!” he said.

“Nothing.”

“You think I’m nuts.”

“No,” I said.

He showed me a picture of her.

“She’s got a great ass.”

I stared, not much impressed by the woman and disheartened by his comment. Great ass. That’s not what a man said when he truly adored a woman.

“I really love her,” he added.

“Well, that’s good,” I said. “I wish you all the happiness in the world.”

I went home shaking my head. Something didn’t smell right about it, but I had learned long ago. When it came to other people’s love affairs, you kept your mouth shut. Love truly did make people blind, and any attempt to meddle only came back to haunt you.

It wasn’t until my mother had passed away a short time later and I saw how my father took it, that I came to realize how hapless a person became after being in the same relationship their entire adult life. There my Dad was, an octogenarian and trying to score a date, something he hadn’t done for almost sixty years. He’d been going around and around on the same set of tracks. He had little more than that one point of reference.

In Sal’s case, he may as well have been sixteen years old when he first got divorced. He didn’t know which way was up. He didn’t know his head from his ass. He just knew, whatever the problem was, you found another woman to fix it. And it didn’t much matter which one.

Six months later, Sal was getting divorced again. It was no surprise to me. Nor the fact that this woman was taking him to the cleaners. A marketing consultant, she was far more cunning than the first wife and got her hands on his lovely, hidden valley home, sending Sal back to his shop.

Down along some railroad tracks, a winding street of industrial buildings to your right, the shop tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac, in the corner of a nondescript Spanish style commercial complex, with the interstate freeway hard up against the back of the building. When all was quiet at night, you could hear the drone of passing traffic.

There was a cot stretched out in back next to Sal’s polishing wheel, a TV, microwave and an ample supply of Scotch. Sal had gotten himself quite comfortable there over the previous few years; maybe a bit too comfortable.

Then, at least Sal exuded some measure of peace. He had the cat to keep him company. The wives and the coterie of lawyers were all out of his hair. He certainly seemed to be more at peace than I was.

“What?” Sal said as I scratched the cat and watched him working on the ring. “Don’t look at me that way! I’m telling you the truth.”

He was still on his bit about indigenous species. The magnifying glasses went up and down, the eyes looking at me then back at the ring. The cat jumped off the display case and went back to having a thrill with my legs.

“Okay, it doesn’t fuck up everything, but, you know, these new plants and animals take over all the indigenous species. Then some scientist introduces another foreign species, thinking to get rid of the first one, only they find out the second one has made things even worse than the first one. See? We’re never going to fix this fucked up world!”

He was out of breath again.

“What does this have to do with me being in love?” I asked him.

“Nothing, man! Everything! There’s just all this shit we can’t control!”

Half an hour of going around in circles and the man had finally said something indisputable.

“What?!” he said again as I continued to stare at him.

“Are you saying that Kate’s an indigenous species?”

“No! Fuck man. Quit saying shit like that. I’m just saying you probably shouldn’t go over there. You want to control this woman and you can’t!”

“I want to tell her I love her.”

“And let her kick you in the balls again.”

“Maybe she will. But I still want to tell her I love her…It’s true.”

Sal looked up from the ring.

“Shit, man. You’re just a hopeless romantic. Like me.”

I almost laughed through my sadness.

“What?!”

I offered the man a sardonic shake of the head. There was no point in trying to explain it. Both of us hopeless romantics? We weren’t even in the same galaxy cluster.

Leaving for Kate’s a short while later, I feared much of what Sal had said was true, especially that one observation. I wanted to control all this shit I couldn’t control, which went against the grain of everything I was trying to do with the last few days of my life. The idea was to stop fighting. Good intentions were no better than bad ones. Want something and you found frustration waiting for you right around the next corner.

Undeterred in my vision of a happy reunion, I pulled out of Sal’s place and headed down towards Kate’s house along an old country road. A farmhouse and open hills were off to my right. Persimmon groves carpeted the land below the hills. The vestiges of that bygone era rolled by me on one side. Cars zipped down the freeway on the other.

I passed a Christmas tree farm, then a firewood lot. My thoughts were jogged to happier times. Kate and I had driven together along this same road many times, always in love, always holding hands.

Five minutes later I was parking across the street from her house. Part of me wanted to run away. All of me wanted to sweep Kate up into my arms. My heart raced with adrenalin over the impending encounter.

When I knocked at last, there was silence. The usual sound of her dog barking did not materialize.

I knocked several more times and gave up. It was like the woman had divined my intentions and got out of Dodge.

I started home feeling utterly dejected. All those machinations and nothing. All I had was an empty heart. Life had been so much cleaner with my earlier plans. Help a friend. Leave everything to Kate, then check out. Those intentions seemed noble enough. To want something and be rejected only led to more grief.

Along the way, I decided to stop by this farmers market. I was hungry and the cupboards were bare. Maybe I’d get a sandwich and some of their homemade soup.

The store was about a mile and a half from Kate’s place, and going in, I thought, wouldn’t it be funny.

And, then, there she was, fondling the tomatoes on the produce aisle. With her head turned away from me, she was unaware of my presence until I had circled around to her right. Her eyes snapped at the sight of me.

“Hello Kate,” I said.

“Oh, hello Michael.”

“What were the chances?”

She laughed her gloriously melodic laugh.

“You probably came in to get some hippie potions.”

“Actually, no. Maybe a hippie sandwich.”

“Avocado with sprouts.”

We laughed.

“Something like that. How’s your Mom?”

“She’s okay…Now.”

Kate related how she had fallen on Thanksgiving Day and how they had spent the rest of the holiday in the emergency room.

“There’s always the silver lining.”

“Yeah. There weren’t any broken bones. This time.”

“She’ll probably live to be a hundred.”

“My sister and I are planning to bubble wrap her.”

We laughed again.

“Well,” I said.

“What? You’re in a big hurry.”

“No. Of course not. Let me grab my sandwich and I’ll wait for you outside.”

We crossed paths again twice among the aisles and smiled awkwardly. Then I was waiting for her out by my truck. She came out with one grocery bag.

“So, how are you, Michael?”

I hesitated, wanting to be honest, yet knowing I couldn’t.

“What?” she said.

“It’s the same story. I love you with all my heart. No one else will ever do.”

She seemed to blush.

“And you? I suppose you’ve got yourself a new man.”

“No. There’s no one.”

“Do you still love me?”

“Yeah, of course I do.”

It was said with all the sweetness in the world.

We stared.

“And we’re apart because…”

“Oh, Michael, you know. I’ve just been so overwhelmed with work and my Mom and everything. It feels like I haven’t had a day off in over two years.”

It was said with her usual sweetness. It was said with all the weight of the world.

“What?” she said when I shook my head.

“Then why don’t you let me come by and help you?”

It was her turn to shake her head, and my turn to say, “What?”

“I don’t understand how we get to this place where we can’t just pick up the phone and call each other.”

“Kate. When months and years go by without seeing the person you love, it’s rather hard to act normally.”

“Oh sure,” she said.

I made a face at her and she laughed.

“Well, I’d better get back to my Mom’s place before she has the next accident.”

“Yeah. I need to get on with my work as well.”

“What are you doing?”

“Flying back to New England tomorrow. Trying to help my neighbor find her missing daughter.”

“Oh no,” Kate said.

“Yeah. I’ve just learned she’s alive. Now if I can only get her to come back home.”

“Call me, okay?”

“Sure. Maybe I’ll call you when my flight gets in. I hear there’s a cold snap going on. They probably have snow on the ground.”

“Better take your baked potato slippers and polar bear robe.”

This was in reference to my sheepskin scuffs and fleece robe. Everything in Kate’s world was right out of Alice in Wonderland.

“It was good to see you, Kate.”

“It was really lovely to see you, Michael.”

I gave her a hug and waited as she drove off.

Back at my house, I went down to my desk and sat there in a state of blissful shock. How in the hell had that happened? A couple of hours earlier, I had no hope in my heart. Now I was filled with songs.

How bittersweet. Having tasted bliss again, I did not want to leave it.

After a spell, I booked my flight for a little before noon the following day. I dreaded the idea of getting up early, and worse, fighting rush hour traffic on the way to the airport.

They had no convenient flights going into Providence so I booked one into Hartford. It was just as well. Go see my relatives living in the area. Hopefully break bread with them. It wasn’t like California, where everything from my past had been plowed under long ago. My aunts and uncles lived in the same homes they had bought as young couples.

Once everything was arranged, I felt exhausted and crawled back into bed. Kate was in my thoughts. It had been so good to see her. The very idea that she was in my life brought peace to my heart. So much sorrow had been locked up inside my chest. And suddenly the stone was dislodged.