From a novel in progress…
It had turned out to be one of those days along the far northern California coast—damp and dreary with a steady drizzle falling and a thick gray sky hugging down closely to the forested hills. If you have ever been up to that part of the country, you know what I mean. There are days when it rains in buckets and the air is scrubbed clean and it seems as if all that is defiled in this world has been washed into the sea. Then there were days like that one when it was just damp and wet and gloomy and you wanted to crawl in a hole.
I had driven into Eureka about ten that morning, more or less in that gray mood and not really needing any help from the weather. Probably black would have better described me. Sometimes I just woke up feeling like it was the end of the world. Then I read the news and thought, hell, just as well if it was.
It sure seemed to me on that day that the bullet of modern civilization had been spent. The joy had definitely gone out of things. I had memories of a time long ago when hope and vitality ruled the day, just as once there had been seafaring men, casting their nets with cheery hearts and setting sail for Milesian shores, but now nothing seemed to make sense and nothing seemed to work as it once had.
Like I said. Sometimes it was best if I never got out of bed at all.
Around two that afternoon, I found myself dragging and stopped by Stella’s Café for a pick-me-up cup of espresso. The café was empty when I walked in, save for an attractive brunette sitting alone at a window table. She had short cropped hair, dark, perceptive eyes and a light dusting of freckles. The freckles lent a strange quality of youth to her beauty, as if she might still be carrying books home from school.
She was petite, delicate in bones and looked to be in her early thirties. A Corgi lay curled up under the table. Two, large cloth bags sat by her feet. The woman was staring out at the street with a funereal air. The scene had shopping cart written all over it.
A waitress and cook were still cleaning up after lunch and probably wanting to go home at that point. The place did not serve dinner.
I ordered my espresso and stole a glance at the woman. She returned my look but quickly looked away again—as if I had caught her stealing. I may have been reading my own black mood into things but the situation sure felt grim to me.
I grabbed my espresso when it was ready and headed for the street. Then, halfway out the door, I decided to hell with it and went back to the woman’s table.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” she said with a smile that failed to stick. Meanwhile, her hands had commenced to rearranged things on the table, as if building ramparts and turrets against all would be intruders, including me.
I shrugged and gestured at the chair across from her.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Oh…um…no, I guess.”
I sat down. The Corgi shifted away from my invading feet. The woman looked up at me with another pained smile. Her turret building continued.
I found myself staring involuntarily at her sensuous lips and freckles but quickly shifted my attention back up to her eyes—as if I too had been caught stealing.
Our eyes locked and I caught a flash of inner fierceness behind the woman’s apparent gloom. In fact, she looked for all the world like a hawk with broken wings, both enraged and helpless over its condition.
“Steven,” I said and held out my hand.
“Oh, Colette,” she said and offered me her delicate hand in return.
“Colette. That’s a beautiful name.”
She nodded and quickly looked back out the window. I waited until she looked back.
“So, it’s probably none of my business, Colette, but you sure look like you’re having a roll in the barrel here.”
Involuntary, my eyes glanced down at her two bags on the floor. Her eyes followed mine. She looked back with another one of her pained smiles.
“Is it that obvious?”
“Something doesn’t feel right.”
“And that’s your job in life? Checking on the helpless and downtrodden?”
“Well, you look like you’re taking it hard and what’s a man supposed to do under the circumstances? Ignore you?”
“That’s usually how it works in this world, isn’t it?”
With another one of her pained smiles, Colette looked back out the window. A moment later, I noticed her wiping at tears.
“Hey,” I said with a cautious touch of her arm. I handed her an unused napkin from the table. “It’s all right. If I have this pictured correctly, we can fix it.”
Her eyes darted a look of hope my way before returning to her vigil outside. The Corgi, having sensed all the emotion, sat up and looked from her face to mine.
“What’s his name?” I said.
The big ears pricked up. I called and he waddled gloomily over to my side of the table. They were a pair, those two.
“So, you were saying?” Colette glanced quickly my way and back out the window. “About fixing this?”
“Oh, if you need a place to stay, I have a spare cottage you can use.”
Her eyes flashed my way again, this time with a bit more hope.
“And the catch?”
“Nothing. Just don’t burn the place down.”
She stared at me.
“And that’s it?”
“That’s it. Unless you have some burning desire to complicate things. No pun intended.”
She shook her head slowly from side to side.
“I’m struggling here. Who are you and why are you trying to help me?”
“I’m just a guy who senses a bad situation and has the ability to do something about it. That’s all.”
She turned her head slightly askance.
“This is really starting to feel like a reality TV show or something. You’re not secretly filming this, are you?”
I shook my head. Colette sighed and looked wearily back out the window.
“The truth is, Hugo and I were down to sleeping in my car tonight.”
“And now you don’t have to.”
Colette turned back and reached for my hands.
“Please tell me you’re not making this up.”
I shook her hands in response.
“Of course not. Why would I make up something like this? You need a place to stay and I happen to have one.”
Colette squeezed my hands, closed her eyes and whispered “thank you,” as if speaking to the gods.
“Truly, Steven,” she said upon looking at me again. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re offering to help me, but even for one night off the streets, I’d be eternally grateful.”
“It’s all right. Trust me. Everything will be okay now.”
Colette scoffed and let go of my hands, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. She very much wanted to believe in me. It was that or the end of the world.
Lost in her beautiful eyes and the freckles, it occurred to me suddenly that she might not have eaten.
“Are you hungry?”
“Oh, I’m…really…don’t worry about it.”
I went over to the counter and came back with three muffins and another espresso.
“Thank you…again. And forgive me if I seem overly cynical. I don’t seem to have any hopes or dreams left in this world.”
“It’s okay. I feel the same goddamned way half the time.”
“You? Really? Why?”
I held out my hands as if to say, look at the goddamned situation we’re in.
“Sometimes I feel like taking up the wood flute and finding a cave.”
That got a more sincere smile out of Colette. I nodded sardonically in return and joined her in looking out the window.
“It seems like there’s nothing left but madness now, doesn’t it?”
“Please. Don’t get me started.”
She broke off a piece of a muffin and pushed one of them my way. I held up a hand. She nibbled.
“You know,” I said, still looking out the window. “We keep all this shit stuffed inside of ourselves, until I think the shit stuffing becomes a bigger deal than the original problem.” I glanced over at Colette, who had smiled a bit. “It’s true, right? There has to be some way of letting it out. It’s that or go mad, and I’d say we’re all about half mad at this point.”
I looked back out the window. Colette did too with her own thoughts.
“Steven,” she said some moments later. “Everything that could possibly go wrong in my life has over the past few years.” She smiled her sad smile. “Then I walked out of a job three weeks ago…I know, foolish of me but I just couldn’t take one more day of working for Mastuh in the corporate world.”
“What?” she said at seeing me smile. “It’s true.”
“I know. Or I should say, I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”
“Well, I never wanted to be there either but I was and finally could not take one more second of it. It’s like someone was forever looking over my shoulder, waiting for a chance to give me crap and grind me down.”
“So how did you find yourself in that situation in the first place? You don’t seem like the corporate type.”
“Oh, I’m not. I assure you.”
“I’m a Julliard trained dancer, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Colette shrugged and looked away.
“Wow. Okay. So what happened with that?”
“The Russians. Really. What did they do?”
“I know, real funny, isn’t it?”
I shrugged penitently.
“Oh, I had run a private dance studio for a number of years. Successfully, mind you, and then the Soviet Union collapsed and thousands of refugees from the Russian dance troupes quickly emigrated this way. And they’re so cutthroat, they’ve made it impossible to make a decent living anymore.”
“Tell me about it. So, I became a lackey in the business world.”
Over the next half hour, Colette filled in the details of her story. How, after five years of being kicked around on the lower rungs of corporate America, she had been chewed up, spit out and left with thirty grand of credit card debt and an aging car. Forced to give up her apartment three days earlier, she had started up the coast, with no idea where she was going.
Driving off a cliff had become an option. And there we were.
“I have a great book idea for you,” I said when she stopped.
Colette looked at me hopefully.
“The Confessions of a Julliard Trained Bag Lady.”
Seeing her wounded, I quickly reached out my hands.
“Sorry. I suppose it wasn’t very funny under the circumstances.”
She shrugged and sighed deeply.
“So, please. I’m so fucked up right now…”
My mouth fell open. I would have expected a nun to swear first.
“Oh, yes. Fuck is one of my favorite words.”
“I never would have guessed it.”
“Yes…well…we all have our dark side, don’t we?.”
“I guess we do. So you were saying.”
“So, I was saying. Please explain about this cottage of yours. I’m so afraid this bubble is going to burst.”
“It’s not going to burst. I have some land up the coast and the cottage is tucked away in the woods. And, as I said, you can use it.”
“With running water and everything?”
“Ooohhhhhhhh, so you wanted the one with running water and electricity. Well now, that’s a different story.”
Colette stared, waiting, her tentative smile wavering between anguish and uncertainty.
“Yes, running water and every little amenity. I assure you, it’s quite cozy.”
“And when would I have to leave?”
“When would you want to leave?”
“Probably never,” she said with a nibble at her muffin.
“Well, I suppose we’ll both be long dead before we need to worry about that.”
She reached for my hands again.
“And you really mean this.”
“Of course I do.”
“So, is it too much to ask if we can go look at it right now?”
“No, that’s fine. I need to get back to the ranch anyway.”
I stood up. Colette took the last bite of the muffin she had been eating, gathered the remaining two into a napkin and grabbed her espresso. I downed the last of my espresso and grabbed her two bags. They felt like they had rocks in them. Colette had one last look around the table and joined me in heading out the door.
It was a quiet street, and particularly so at that hour.
“Are you parked nearby?” I asked.
“It’s the convertible Celica over there.”
I nodded. It was an older model, with what was left of the original red paint rusted down to the metal in places and the top held together by duct tape.
“Come on, let’s get you loaded up,” I said and walked her across the street.
With Colette and Hugo safely inside the car, she hit the power window. It required an extra hand to get it down
“So, I guess I’m following you?” she said.
“You can lead if you’d like.”
She took a playful swipe at me.
“I’m in that truck up there,” I said with a laugh.
“So which way are we going?”
“North up the coast a few miles. Just follow me.”
Seeing Colette’s hesitancy, I touched her forearm gently.
“It’s okay. Just relax and accept this gift from the gods.”
“I know. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
I touched her arm gently again and headed up to my truck.
All the way out of town and up the coast, I kept an eye on Colette in my rearview mirror. She was glancing this way and that, as if she might lose heart and turn back. For all she knew, I was a serial killer.
The farther we went, the more she appeared to grow apprehensive. When I turned onto a gravel road shrouded by redwoods, Colette paused for a long moment before ultimately following me in among the trees. No doubt she had been expecting a driveway, not a mile long journey into the forest.
I kept to a slow pace, so as not to spook her any further, and kept one eye on the rearview mirror.