Hard to believe it’s been over three years since all those murders went down. Even harder to believe that Vanderhof basically walked, but he did. As he had said, that’s why they have attorneys, my friend—in his case, a stable of them, high priced, ruthless and feasting on technicalities. Once those boys blew a hole in the handling of the DNA, the case fell apart and the judge had no choice but to let Vanderhof off, at least when it came to Connie McPherson’s death. The DA’s office had done their share of bungling, as usual. So had he cops. Then there was all that stuff that you and I weren’t supposed know or understand. The murders of Rick and Colby came under that heading.
In any case, unable to pin anything else on Vanderhof, they gave him five years for killing his daughter. Involuntary manslaughter, momentary insanity. He served three and a half of it and walked back out, a free man.
I saw him there towards the end of his sentence. They had transferred him down to a nearby low security facility for his final thirty days, working on his parole and terms of release. I was driving out the canyon one day and spotted him along the side of the road, spearing trash with a stick. It was hard to miss that big, Slavic looking mug. His mouth and smile took up half of his face.
Well nobody ever said that life was fair. By the time you’re twenty-one or so, you ought to know that down in your gut. That or you’re a fool. Just look back and anywhere around you. The proof is every which way you turn.
I remember my old man always saying this about life over the years, “At least I won’t have to be around to worry about it.” That’s pretty much the way I’ve been feeling these days. Half the homes down on the waterfront got swamped last winter. You can say the seas aren’t rising but now everyone down there has a sump under their house. Two years ago, they let Placento Corporation build a big research facility out in the canyon. God only knows what they’re doing out there. A big shot resort company took over the old trailer park last year and now they’re trying to con the city council into letting them build a yacht harbor up on the north end. The council has been selling the town to highest bidder for the past twenty years so you know where this thing is headed. The only thing standing between us a dredging barge is the Coastal Commission. Their decision is supposed to come down next year.
I was okay with one thing the council saw fit to approve this past winter—permitting the High & Dry Bar & Grill over on the backside of town When they did, they also okayed a discreet little neon sign—vertical, with a martini glass and the name of the bar. It’s tasteful and seems to fit the darkened, back alley atmosphere.
There is something about bars and flashing neon signs. You sit in there on a rainy night with the sign going on and off and you’ve got something going.
I had taken up my seat at the bar one evening when, speak of the devil, Vanderhof pops in. An autumn feeling came in with him through the opened door.
“Hey,” he said with a big smile and a slap on the back for me. “How are you doing? Still one mortgage payment shy of the streets?”
“Actually, two,” I said. “I’ve built up a bit of a war chest.”
Vanderhof smiled at me with seeming admiration.
“I don’t know how you do it,” he said.
“I don’t either.”
Vanderhof was still smiling at me with seeming admiration.
“You know, I never did say, hey, fuck you, but no hard feelings. It’s water under the bridge, right? We’re pals?”
He held out his hand and I shook it. Peace on earth and all that.
“Well, listen, I’m meeting some folks for drinks and dinner so I’ve got to go, but hey. Let’s you and me go grab a drink some night and reminisce.”
“I’d just as soon forget.”
“Sure, whatever you say, partner. You’re all right with me.”
You’re all right. Go tell that to Steve McPherson.
Off Vanderhof went into the din of laughter and tinkling glasses. I tried to picture him sitting there in jail for three and a half years, knowing he had ten, fifteen billion dollars waiting for him when he got out. And here I felt good about having a few mortgage payments stashed away in the bank.
I had been playing with my Ivanhoe for several minutes when I felt another slap on the back. I looked up this time to find Eric’s big, sunny smiling face looking down at me. In the old days, when he was bartending, he always kept his hair pulled back tight in a ponytail but now it was like someone had given him a wild perm, and he had slept on it.
“Wow, man,” he said. “Long, long time. How are you?”
We shook hands. His felt like old parchment paper from all the art work and clay he had thrown.
“Where’s that doll, Gina?”
“Hell, who knows. Where do they all go?”
“Wow, man, yeah, that’s a thought. They’re like all waiting around for you with all the old socks you lost somewhere.”
“Yeah, that is a thought.”
“So, what are you doing?” he said.
“Enjoying the blinking lights in my highball glass.”
“You mind?” Eric said, waving at the bar stool next to me.
“It would be my pleasure.”
I got lost in old memories as Eric was ordering a drink. When it came, he toasted to me.
“Cin cin,” I said.
“What’s that?” Eric said.
“Something I heard it in Italy once. I think it means ‘to your health’ but it always makes me think of clinking glasses.”
We touched glasses again and drank. Eric was busy looking around. There was an abundance of beautiful women in the High & Dry Bar & Grill. Eric was smiling from ear to ear at the sight of them.
“Fixing to start all over again?”
“Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “And you?”
“I wouldn’t know how anymore.”
“Too bad, man. Too bad.”
Eric was searching the room again. Then he looked back at me.
“Hey, remember those two blondes who came into the Renaissance that night?”
“It would be hard to forget them.”
“Wham, bam. Don’t you wish it was always that easy?
“I don’t know if I’d characterize it as wham, bam.”
“It was wham, bam for me.”
“You’re a dog.”
Eric seemed to relish his reputation, in a charming way.
“I’ll never forget what you said to that one doll,” he said. “She came in all cranked up on something, skirt up to here and spilling out legs and long, blonde hair and beautiful stuff everywhere.”
“‘So what are you in here for?’ she says to you, and you say, ‘I hadn’t really thought about it until you walked in.’ Man, that just took her right out of gear, didn’t it? She sat down and just melted onto your shoulder. A hundred miles an hour to zero in nothing flat. Wow! Walked off with you like she didn’t even have a friend.”
“Enter Eric to the rescue.”
“Yeah, man! Jesus. I wonder where the hell they’ve all gone?”
“With all your old, dirty socks, remember?”
Eric slapped his hand on the bar.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got to go. I’m supposed to be picking up this waitress after work at the English Cottage.”
“And here I was feeling sorry for you.”
Eric smiled and shook my hand.
“See you around, partner.”
I watched him head out the door and up the street, my thoughts swept away by the blinking neon light, chasing after old times and remembering a trip I had made up to Seattle one year. Somehow I ended up in cheap hotel downtown with a bottle and a blinking neon light outside my window. Right out of the movies. You couldn’t make that stuff up.
I left the bartender a tip and headed out the door myself. My first impulse was to head down towards the sea but something was calling me the other way. I turned right and headed up towards the top of town. There was a real nice feeling of autumn in the air. It made you think of rain and maple leaves.
Up at the top of the block, I turned right again and came around to the English Cottage. The French cut windows were filled with laughter and cheery faces. A fire was burning in the hearth. Mike was playing something by Cole Porter.
I took that knife in the heart and headed down the street, quickly coming to another memory. God, so many years ago, upstairs in one of the old wooden buildings, a small bookstore in back where they held poetry readings on Friday nights. What a bunch of characters. Right out of central casting. A cluster of lost souls. They would have fit right into a gig with Socrates and chestnut trees. Having found themselves in an empire, they had few places to go.
There was one cat who always tugged at my soul. Tall, gangly, pale, lost. He had been rewriting the same poem for twenty years. I remember being away myself for a few seasons and coming back to find him there on a Friday night, reading the same goddamned poem.
The mean, green scene, etc., etc.
About twenty minutes of that and I had to walk back out. There was rain in the air that autumn evening. The stars were high up in the sky. A few lost souls reading poetry to each other on a Friday night, but something about it had made me feel at peace. It was good to be dead to all the things that started wars in this world.