"I would rather be anywhere else, but here"
-- Elvis Costello, Oliver's Army
There was no way I could say that finding Becks had gone well. Was this really all some kind of silly rescue fantasy? I remembered that ghastly time as an adolescent. I'd imagine that if I could just rescue the girl I liked -- the one I could never bring myself to talk to -- from a burning building or some such, that she'd fall into my arms, instantly in love. There would be no need for the awkward courtship, no risk of rejection. It would be good and pure, and completely impossible. The drink burned on the way down. It tasted worse than before.
I went up to the bar and ordered another. I tried to get it down without letting it touch my tongue. I left some money on the counter, I don't know how much. It was more than enough and that was all that mattered.
"Sorry about the ruckus," I said.
The bartender shrugged. From his standpoint, we'd just provided a little free entertainment. Once I left there might be some conversation about us: were they married? Lovers? Having an affair? Anyone seen them before? That would be as far as they would think about what happened. If someone came in a hour later and asked for descriptions, they would have precious little to go on. Some at the bar would remember that Becks hit the table, but no one would be able to accurately estimate our heights.
There was little point, but as I left the bar I took a different route back to the car. I didn't fight as my body followed routine after my mind stopped caring. There was no sign of Becks, or Vance. I found myself hoping I would get stopped or mugged. Some purely physical digression would be a welcome relief -- that was something I could understand and control. A foul mood was descending, and there was little that I could do to break it.
I had screwed this all up -- again. What had I been I thinking? I should have taken this slowly. Tail Vance for a bit. Learn his habits. See if I caught any sign of Becks. Then I would make some inquiries of those tangentially connected to them. Find out if there was any reason to be concerned. To do the job properly it could take as much as a week, but I could get the basics in a day or two. I didn't do any of that. I did everything but come in, guns blazing.
If I hadn't been deluding myself into some rescue adolescent fantasy, then what? Telling myself that I was just too used to seeing the underbelly of life didn't have the surface area to cover it all. I didn't like what it said about me -- that I would rather think of Becks hurt than to think about talking to her. I sped up, not caring if I was seen.
It's not that I thought of Becks as helpless. She first caught my eye because she was capable, more so than most people. She was younger than I was, but not so much as to matter. She was older than her years, and I had enough cultural references swimming around in my head for someone decades on either side of my age. People were what I found interesting, not their age.
There are any number of adjectives to describe Becks -- shy, smart, pretty, neurotic, frustrating, etc; all of the things that mix together to make a person -- but incapable was not one of them. Yet I'd allowed myself think she was, so I wouldn't have to think at all.
I got into the car and drove back to the motel. I pulled off all my tools and packed them neatly back into the case. I stood the case on the table and zipped it closed. When I was child I spake as a child, and now I had put away my childish things. I'd take them back with me to Portland. There they would sit safely out of the way on some high shelf, ready and waiting, but there wouldn't be a need for them anymore. I'd left all that, and I wasn't planning on ever taking another job that would need them.
I had to put an end to this way of living. I didn't own more than I could pack in a hurry. I didn't keep anything I didn't absolutely need. I didn't do my laundry in public because that would leave me exposed, and slept in my clothes so I would be ready at a moment's notice. I was always looking over my shoulder, always listening for footsteps or unexpected sounds. I never walked into a place without knowing how to get out. I never looked at a person without planning how to take them out. That wasn't the way for a normal person to live, and there was no point in going on like that.
I opened one of the bottles. I didn't care which one. I didn't bother with a glass -- that would just take time. I had a huge pile of self-pity that I didn't want to keep waiting. I tilted back and took a long swig, then another. I placed it back onto the table and walked to the bathroom. I washed my face, and then pressed my forehead against the mirror. I wasn't sure if I would let myself cry, or if I wanted too.
I had been in this movie before. It was all too much like that moment three years ago when my old life had ended. I'd drunk myself into a stupor listening to Chris Isaak's The End of Everything over and over till I could no longer stay awake. I was sober enough the next day when I woke and the call had come, but the trio of shame, grief, and pain were still with me. I took the offer. What did I have to lose? It wasn't like I had anything to live for. If I kept on like this I would just do it all again. Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.
The memories started coming to me and wouldn't stop: that night with Becks, every fight with Judy, huddling in an alley wondering if the truck would ever come, how long it took the cigarette to glow red and it would be ready to use, tonight's conversation... Why don't I get the happy memories? Something with puppies and bunnies and soft fluffy clouds would have been nice.
I washed my face again. I walked to the bed and stared at it. There was no way I was going to be able to sleep like this. I reached into my pockets and pulled out my car keys and dropped them there. I had no idea where I was going, but I wasn't going to drive there. People forget it, but a ton of metal and glass attached to four wheels and an engine is a very effective weapon. I was in no condition to be wielding one. I was pretty sure I still preferred to live than die, but wasn't going to be putting it to the touch. I walked out into the night.
I headed away from the garage, and that whole set of memories. It was the last deliberate choice I made about direction. Occasionally I would run out of sidewalk and would be forced to turn. Otherwise I walked in the direction I was pointed. Even at the late hour, there were plenty of people about. It was LA, so they were mostly in cars. LA sprawls beyond the scale of most cities. This late at night, it would be a hard place to get around on public transportation.
When this happens all I can do is to try to live in the moment, and not let myself analyze everything I encounter. Facts just lead to memories, and the memories would be of things I wished I could forget. I saw how people looked, the texture of people's clothes, and the sound of their voices. Listening to the words would be a mistake. I just wanted to fill my senses until it was over -- sights, and sounds, and smells.
Judy had an amazing sense of smell. There were times when she could tell who I had spent time with just by the smell on my clothing. She lived in a world of smells I was never able to understand. I had thought I had a fairly good sense of smell, until I met her. Sometimes I would ask her to describe what she smelled, and she would just look at me in mock pity, and say it was like trying to describe color to a blind man. At least I think it was only mocking.
No sense is perfect. I have 20/20 vision and can still mistake one person for another. We expect to see some people more than others based on the situation. There would be too many options otherwise. So we use context to filter down the possibilities, but other factors influence the process. One of the last arguments Judy and I had was when she accused me of spending time with an old girlfriend. I hadn't been, but she smelled something that reminded her of Elender and that set Judy off. I hadn't seen Elender in years, and wasn't even sure where to start looking if I wanted to. There must have been some other thought or worry to make her think I had strayed and that led to the argument.
One argument led to another. If things had been solid between us, it might have been different. Maybe she would have realized that she had been wrong about it, or that it didn't matter. Maybe I wouldn't have taken it so personally, but we didn't have that kind of foundation to rest on. So neither of us would fully back down. We were both all too ready to go at it when the next misunderstanding came along. It's not that we stopped loving one another -- at least I know I still loved Judy. We just could never quite reconnect.
Then she died, and I would never be able to take the high road, or apologize, or do anything to end the cycle. There would never really be any resolution between us. Judy and our marriage had been frozen in that moment in time -- never able to change. Dammit, I fell right into the trap. Don't think! Don't think, don't think, don't think, don't think! Just focus on the sights and the sounds and the smells. I kept walking.
The average walking speed of an adult is just over two miles an hour. That's one mile every thirty minutes. I'm a bit more serious about it, doing a mile every ten to fifteen minutes. I suppose I could use that information to figure out how much I had walked, but it didn't seem important. I'd been out long enough to see those who work before the world wakes head off on their commute. The partygoers had gone home, and city was quiet as it ever would be.
Eventually memories stopped rushing toward me -- the reminders of my failures and pain. The old saw is that we are our own worst enemy. I'm not sure if that's exactly true, but I'm certainly in my top five. I had no idea where I was, or even the direction back to my motel. I had definitely walked outside of the area I had spent all that time studying. I was going to have to find my way back somehow.
I was tired, both physically and mentally. I didn't relish the idea of walking back to the motel. I walked until I found a bar named Harrison's. It was in a different class than the one I had been in with Becks. It wasn't exclusive or upscale. It was just a comfortable middle class kind of place, and definitely warmer than it had been outside. My body started to ease out of its tense posture. I hadn't even been aware of how hunched over I had been. I went to the bathroom. The wind had picked up while I had been out and my cheeks were blushed as though I were wearing makeup, and I was generally rumpled.
I cleaned myself up as best as I could. I was feeling self conscious enough as it was. I felt as though someone might shout out at any moment and declare that the unclean one should be cast out. When I was tucked in, smoothed out, and as presentable as I could make myself, I went out and took a seat at the bar. I spotted an acceptable single-malt behind the bar, and ordered a shot with water back. I had walked most of my earlier consumption out of my system, but not all of it. I could still feel that slight delay between perception and action that drinking brought. I didn't care.
I emptied the glass of water and asked for another, then started to work on the scotch. I felt like I could start to see my way clear to the next step. First I'd get myself back to the motel and get some sleep. In the morning I would find myself a nicer place to stay -- a place with a large soft bed, and crisp white sheets. I would slide under the covers and watch movies the whole day. No research, no caution, just mindless entertainment. The next day I'd go out and purchase a real suitcase, and buy enough clothes to fill it. I should buy something tangible, a pocket watch or something like that. I wanted something that would mark this moment in time.
Things would either get better between Becks and myself, or they wouldn't, and there was nothing I could do about that now. She knew how to reach me. It was up to her now. I was going to have to do the really hard part -- get on with the rest of my life. If I wanted to be back, then I really had to be back. Time to down some roots, reconnect with the parts of my old life I still cared about, and build new parts. It wasn't going to be quick, but I had nothing but time now.
I stared at my empty glass and considered asking for another. I really didn't care how lubed I got, but I was tired. I could stay here and keep drinking -- there was a woman at a table who seemed like she might want some company -- or I could go back. My feet hurt and my back ached. My fingers were covered with small cuts from the fire escape. Despite the look she gave me, the room and bed were the more seductive option.
I signaled for the bartender. I asked if he could recommend a cab company, and he offered to call one for me. The bar probably had some kind of arrangement. Old habit kicked in, I put the glass upside down on the bar -- another dead soldier. I switched to a soda, just to give myself a little boost till the cab came. It wasn't that long before one pulled up.
The cabbie wanted to talk about New Orleans -- apparently he grew up there. He insisted that he wasn't a racist, but that those black gangs there would kill you just as soon as look at you. He wasn't a homophobe, but there were gay guys there that liked to roam the alleys for straight men to rape. He was a tolerant man, but those damn hippies really ruined the neighborhood where he grew up. I learned a great many things that I never saw in any of my trips there. It must be hard to be a cabbie. You are alone with your thoughts for so much of the day, and the only way to get them out is to share them with a captive audience. I thought about offering him extra to drive in silence, but didn't have the heart to be that mean.
A couple of anecdotes later, the cab arrived back at my motel. I paid him, and stumbled though the door. I poured onto the bed. I had promised myself that I was going to sleep like a real person, but that took too much effort. I pried off my shoes, got in and hit the pillow. I might have still been clothed, but at least I was under the sheet. Sometimes you just have to take your victories where you can find them. A moment later I was asleep.
I hadn't set an alarm the night before, but when I opened my eyes it wasn't that far off from when I normally woke in the morning. I was sleepy, but there was no trace of a hangover. I could thank my genes for that. Alcohol requires extra water and vitamin B to metabolize. I hadn't consumed enough of either. So there must have been some hard drinking ancestor in my line to whom I was very grateful.
I sat on the edge of the bed and pieced together the previous night. My conversation with Becks was still freshly stamped in my head, but it took a moment to pull the threads of the rest of the night into place. At least I had walked, and not picked a fight or found other trouble. I had been just some depressed introverted figure walking in the night.
I took down all the physical evidence of my previous planning and reconnaissance. There was simply no point in them anymore. Pin by pin, I pulled the map and the pictures off the wall. I stacked them neatly in the pizza box -- they had no appeal for me now. I would toss them out together. I put the generic motel art back on the wall. I made no effort to obscure the pinholes. They could charge me for them for all I cared. It was just a part of the price of doing business.
I stripped and worked out. It was the only time when my mind turned off and action ruled. Not that I had been thinking that clearly lately. I did more than usual. I pushed myself and pushed again. By the end, when I did the leg lift, I held it longer than I ever had. My legs were trembling, and I held it. I could feel the muscles in my abdomen burn, but I held it. My eyes watered and I was grinding my teeth. When I had nothing left, I finally let myself collapse.
I thought about my plan from the night before. It would do me good to cut loose for a day or two. Just live for myself, and more importantly stop living in this old way. Pack up the paranoia and caution into the bag, and put that in storage as well. It was time to invest in myself. LA was a good place for it. I grabbed a change of clothes, and went to take my shower.
I adjusted the temperature to as hot as I could stand it. As the water poured out, it occurred to me that I still didn't know what it meant to be back. Everything I had done so far was focused on one goal, and that had been a mistake. This wasn't a job -- it was a life. I couldn't expect to solve one thing and have everything else just fall into place. I couldn't go on ignoring all the other things I would need to do. Becks could contact me, or shut me out. It was up to her now.
I'd need to decide what I should tell Wilson. I was a dog with two bones. I owed him for whatever trust he'd put in me and I had no desire to betray that, but I also had made a promise to Becks. I was going to need to put some thought into that before I got back. I turned off the water.
I stood in the steam, just enjoying the warmth. I pressed my hands into my scalp and sloughed off as much as I could before I toweled off. I put on my pants and shirt. I was trying to line up the buttons as I walked back to the bed. I caught a flicker of motion though the gap in the curtains. I started to turn to grab the bag, but caught myself and shook it off instead. I didn't need to think like that anymore. There was no need to jump every time some cleaning lady walked by with her cart. I turned on the TV and tried once again to line up the buttons on my shirt. It was proving to be a more difficult task than it had any right to be.
The door burst open with a crash.