"Cut loose from the noose"
-- AC/DC, Back in Black
I'd like to say that I rode back into town like the conquering hero, but that would be a lie. I didn't even slink in through the back door. There was no one who knew I was coming back, which I suppose echoes the way I left. I doubted there were many more who would care, and I only cared if one of them cared. AC/DC's Back in Black was playing through the stereo. As my old CO used to say: It's something, and that ain't bad.
I hadn't been born in Portland, but it was the place I'd called home for the majority of my adult life. I wasn't sure if I expected the city to feel different or not, but didn't feel like it was my home anymore. I wondered if I had a reason to stay.
I wanted to start in an area I remembered, but not too close to what had been my home territory. I really didn't want to talk to anyone who knew me until I was ready to get down to it. I just wanted to see places I remember, and look at people who looked like I could know them. I drove out to Laurelhurst, out in Northeast. I parked a couple of blocks away from the high street. I was still coming up on things from the side. Going to have to break myself of that. I saw the sign for the Laurelthirst. It was a pub I remembered eating at once. They were open and were serving food, which was more important than any sense of nostalgia.
I stepped in and caught the eye of the man behind the bar. He was a tall man with gut that spilled over his belt. He wore a faded Split Enz shirt. An Australian band that was best known in the US for a handful of songs. After the band broke apart, the smaller tighter version that reformed had greater success as Crowded House.
"How many are you?" He asked. I looked behind me.
"Just me," I said.
"Well," he said scanning the room, "if you'll give me a sec, I can clear off that booth in the back. Or hey! There's the small table in the window, that's open, bet you want that one?"
I fought against instinct and nodded. I sat in the window, but at least my back was to a wall. I told myself to take the opportunity to people-watch.
I glanced briefly at the menu. The details changed from place to place, but they still served the classics. I folded it and put it back down on the table in the universal signal that I was ready to order. It caught the notice of the waitress. Her skin was a light mocha. Her hair was long and wavy. It compensated for her thinner frame. She had the feel of someone's favorite aunt.
"Figured out what you want?" She asked when she got to my table. She didn't bother climbing the single stair to my table, but leaned up to rail. She saw no need to wear a bra.
"Two eggs, over-hard; sausage; toast, sourdough; coffee," I ordered. She chuckled.
"You're a man of few words, aren't you," she said
"Thank you," I said.
"But you know the important ones," she winked. She jotted down my order and left.
I watched the world out of the window. It was early October, so the trees were beginning to turn, but the weather was still mild. That would change soon.
How much had changed since I had left? There were more people out than I first thought was normal. I reminded myself that it was Sunday. Most people would have the day off, so they would be those who wanted to be out, and not just those who needed to be. It had been a while since the day of the week mattered to me in that way. I could count the number of times I had taken time off on my hands.
Teenage girls still refused to wear coats. It was nice to see that some things didn't change. Instead they would wear sweaters or shirts with long sleeves. As the weather turns cold, they tuck their hands into their sleeves, and walk in a stiff-armed way that reminded me of zombies. There seemed to be more couples with small children than I remembered.
Down the street was The Laurelhurst Theater. Rising real estate prices, and changing tastes have been the death knell of small theaters. I had an affection for them, so it was nice to see that it was still around. Inside there would be tables between the rows of seats. One would probably go with a group of friends, order a pizza, a pitcher or two, and watch a classic movie or some small-run new film.
It didn't seem that different so far. There was nothing obvious that had changed. Small things were different, but that to be expected. There were changes in fashion, chain stores continued to replace local merchants, but in the big things it more the same than different. The city felt like a coat I hadn't worn it some time. It still fit that same, I was the one who had changed. It had been comfortable once, and it probably could be again, if I eased myself back into it. In the mean time I had eggs and toast and good coffee that wanted to be eaten.
I pulled out a notebook from my pocket. It was time to plan, and that was something I did very well. I planned and researched. I opened to a blank page, at the top I wrote "Becks," and underlined it twice. Below I wrote "Address," and "Phone #" I left plenty of room for each entry.
I took it slowly, alternating between eating and taking notes. Occasionally looking out the window to clear the pallet. I picked one face out of the group on the street. So much for my theory that I wouldn't see anyone I knew here. Portland may be the largest city in the state, but it only had a population of about a million people. That may sound like a lot, but it is surprisingly easy to find a needle in that haystack. In point of fact, I was counting on it.
I had a choice, I could slip out of sight and not let him see me, or I could stay where I was. Perhaps he wouldn't notice, or he would and I would take it as it came. I fought my desire to get up and not be seen, but if I were going to be back, I had to be back. I might as well face it now, because it might begin with Roland, but it wouldn't end with him. What does not kill you, and all that. Still, I hoped he wouldn't notice.
He walked by the window, and there might have been a flicker in his eyes, but he kept walking along. He was the quintessential Portland yuppie: REI windbreaker, cup of coffee in one hand, phone in the other. I took a bite of toast, thinking I had dodged that bullet for a little longer. I heard the door open and Roland's voice call out:
"Hey Quinn! That you hombre?" He called out.
There was no avoiding him now. I suppose I was going to have do this sooner or later. Call this one practice. I closed the notebook, and turned around and put a happy smile on my face. I even felt it, or something similar. I came back by choice, after all. I wanted to be back, but the hardest part of doing, was the doing.
"Hey Roland. How have you been?" I said.
I held out my hand. He took my hand and shook it hard. He sat, not exactly invited, at the seat opposite me next to me.
"Dammit man! Is that all you got to say?" He demanded.
I was worried that this was going to get ugly. My back was to the wall and my side to the glass. I was boxed in, but at least there was a table between us. I put a foot at the table's base, so I could push it into him if it came to that, and then I saw him smile.
"I mean hell," he said, "one day you're here, then it seems like the next nobody knows where you are. Not even a clue. Then I run into you, just sitting here in your seat, calm as a Buddha like you'd always been there, and you ask me how I am doing?"
He shook his head.
"So how are you doing?" I asked again to turn things around on him, at least for a moment. I took another bite of toast.
"I'm keeping it real," he said. "We bought a house near here about a year ago."
When I knew Roland before, he had been living with a woman named Nicole, so I assumed he was talking about her. With Roland it could be hard to tell. He assumed you knew everything about him until corrected.
"I haven't seen you around," he said, "so you can't be a regular here. How long have you been back?"
"Just arrived," I said. I didn't want to expand on that subject. "I was hungry, so I thought I would come over here and have brunch."
He nodded in agreement. "Good place for it. Nicky and I come hear a lot. There is another good place on the next block." He gestured behind me. "Where have you been? What have you been doing?"
I filed away the fact that he and Nicole were still together. There was a band on his left hand, so amended the mental note to assume they were married.
"I'm not sure I can give you an answer you'd like," I said.
He looked puzzled. I was going to have to put it in a way he could relate.
"I took the kind of job you have to keep confidential." I said.
"You were a spy?" He asked in mock-excitement.
"Do I look like a spy to you?" I asked.
He looked me up and down critically.
"No," he shook his head, "no martini." He said, dismissing the thought.
I would agree, I was certainly no Bond.
"I had to sign the mother of all Non-Disclosure Agreements..."
That would give him something he could latch on to. Roland was used to NDAs. He worked in the software industry here. He was used to projects you couldn't talk about.
"It must have been," he said, "if you can't even tell me where you've been." He leaned forward, conspiratorial, "Can you at least give me a clue? Anything?"
I shook my head and winked, "You know how it is, Dirty Deeds..."
"...Done Dirt Cheap," he finished for me with a laugh. It was a song by AC/DC, off of the Back in Black album. Few bands survive the death of their lead singer.
"Don't know man," he said playfully, "maybe you really did become a spy. I'm just going to have to assume, if you can't tell me more."
I sipped my coffee. I tilted my head to the side in a shrug.
"Well," he said, "one of these days you got to give me more to work with -- at least a clue."
"Sure thing," I lied.
"You know what I don't get about you, man?" he asked.
"What?" I asked.
"Why does a gadget freak like you, waste his time with pen and paper like that." He pointed at the notebook on the table.
"When was the last time a pad of paper ran out of power or crashed?" I asked. Roland laughed out loud.
"Good point," he said, "but it still cracks me up."
Roland looked down at his watch.
"I actually got somewhere I need to be," he said. Nicky is going to roast me as it is, but it was great to see you! You back for good?"
"I got no other place I need to be." I said. That wasn't a lie.
"Great!" he said, "We have got to get together and catch up soon. We can play twenty questions about this job of yours."
He wrote a number on my napkin.
"Call me," he said, "deal?"
I nodded, and he got up to leave. Jeanette, by the English Beat, began to play. Crowded House may have been a phoenix rising from the ashes, but they were the exception. General Public never had the same spark as what came before it.
I let a swig of water push the bile back down. It had almost felt normal. It gave me a little more confidence that I could do this. I don't think I'd had a real conversation the whole time I was gone. I did everything I could to avoid any real attachments. It was safer all around that way. I looked at Roland's number. I took the napkin and neatly folded it once, then twice, and put it into my shirt pocket. Who knows? Maybe I'd even call. Even though I was relieved he was gone, I wasn't ready to throw away this fetish of my return.
Besides, Roland was a good guy, probably the best person I could have picked to meet first. He was superficial, if it's possible to say that without being mean. He coasted on the surface of things. He didn't really have any close friends that I knew of, but he did have any number of people he could hang out with. He drifted easily from scene to scene. He wouldn't think that much about a guy who disappeared one day, and didn't show up for a couple of years. He'd just smile, ask how you had been, and offer to buy you a drink.
I pulled out my phone and put it on the table next to me. It was a high-end model, but there was nothing particularly special about it, it was all stock. I chose it because it had a large bright screen and could connect to the net. With it, time, patience, and knowledge I should be able to find the answers to the questions that wouldn't require direct legwork. The modern world is a stalker's dream.
I opened the notebook again, and wrote down the last known phone number I had for Becks, and did a reverse directory search on it. No results. I drew a line though the number. I then tried a somewhat more specialized site that carried some unlisted numbers. No results. I put a question mark next to the last known address.
I had a couple of different options what to do next. I could try a little social engineering -- call the phone company and try and bluff the information from the billing department. Or I could use a legal research service. Everyone leaves some kind of trail. There was no reason to break out the laptop just yet, or break any laws. I could find out the old fashioned way with legwork and patience. The practice would do me good.
If I couldn't contact Becks directly then I was going to have to come at it another way. I made two additional entries to my list: "Known Associates," and "Known Locations." Under "Known Associates," I listed "Simone -- friend, Ray -- (ex?) bf, Wilson -- brother" and Under "Known Locations" I wrote "The Space -- studio, Cinema 21 -- theater, The Anchor -- bar, Reno's -- club." All I had to do was decide which thread I wanted to pull at first.
It was still early in the day, just coming up on noon -- too early for bars and clubs. The studio had too much chance to be seen, and I wasn't quite ready for talking to those people. So I guess I was going to get to see a movie after all.