THIS NOVELLA WAS PUBLISHED IN SERIAL FOR FOUR CONSECUTIVE ISSUES.
PART 1 OF 4
She wasn’t about to apologize for this. Life had been full of apologies, and now, at forty-three, she wasn’t going to answer for it. It was simply coffee and conversation, or a beer in the backyard of her house where the wooden fences offered protection. Today it was cappuccino at a Royal Coffee, which had three stores in Santa Maria. They sat together at a small table in the newest one on the edge of town, near the sparkling car dealerships and on-ramps to the freeway. She chose it because it was two miles from her place and even farther from the high school where she taught English, and because Dominic liked to look over the brand new Fords, lit up with afternoon sun like monstrous pieces of joy.
To ease the silence between them, she read out loud the logo that rose in man-size letters above the car showroom: “Ford: The Driving Experience”. This caught Dominic’s attention and he raised his bowed head from the cup of coffee.
“Old 289’s didn’t have much power, but they looked just as fine as any other Mustang. The GT-350s, though, they were hella-tight,” he said. He took a sip and curled his lips at the taste. He reached across the counter, over her arms, saying an unnecessary, “Excuse me,” and grabbed the sugar. Pouring another heap into the coffee, he continued. “Look at these new ones,” motioning his head out the window, “they’re pretty, but the power is soft. Don’t even feel it accelerate. Look down you’re doing eighty. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “If you can’t feel it, what’s the point, right?” He smiled and took a sip of the coffee, his eyes trying to draw her in.
“There’s something to be said for a slow cruise,” she said.
He stopped, held the drink in front of him, pulled it back to his lips and took a larger swallow. When he finished, just a hint of frothed milk stuck to his goatee.
“Sarah, if it’s a slow cruise you want, take a boat,” he said. “These bastards are pretty, but I’d put my bills on an old 350. A muscle car should feel musculature.”
“Muscular,” she corrected.
“Muscular,” he whispered to himself, naturally falling back into the role of a student.
She waited for him to wipe the froth from his beard, but when he took another sip and set the mug back down without cleaning it himself, she picked-up her napkin, folded it over into a triangle, dipped the end in her water glass, and reached forward to dab it away. He didn’t seem shocked or embarrassed by it, although if it had been his mother she knew he would have turned away and done it himself. With her, though, he sat by dutifully, letting her fingers touch the hair above his lips. When she finished, he looked into her eyes as if he was staring into a mirror, affecting just the right sexual sneer. His brown eyes still revealed the purity of the child, but the depth of his iris hid dissembled motivations just like a man’s– which by law he was, she reminded herself.
She was an attractive woman, she knew that, despite the stresses of raising a child for eighteen years, after losing him, and even after her separation from Patrick. When her friends asked her how she did it — her friends whose hips grew wider than a doorway with age, whose full lips retreated to thin lines, whose whole demeanor suggested that they were resigned to their sexual depletion — she said that it was all the teenage hormones on campus, like a plague of youth, that kept her young. She knew she was still pretty, not because of what she saw in the mirror, but because of the reaction she got from the kids. The boys liked her. She saw the way they acted when she came into class in jeans, her pearl fitted blouse tucked-in to show off her hips. She felt their eyes, like a warm shadow on her body when she turned to write on the chalkboard. Sometimes she leaned over a desk, the blouse giving way to reveal just enough of her bra to be a turn-on, but not enough to be obvious. She didn’t mind using her body to keep their attention, for how many teenage boys are really interested in Jane Eyre?
It wasn’t as if they looked alike, Dominic and David, but she was conscious of a resemblance. David had had chestnut hair, his light blue eyes the color of veins near the surface of skin. His features were slight, his skin the tone people use to paint bedroom walls. If David was in a room you wouldn’t notice him unless you were standing near enough to see his lips; they were thick lips, drawn boldly in purple, like the petals of a tropical flower. This, she knew, was what had attracted the woman to her son. David was not a handsome boy, but where it counted for a woman, in that one critical place, that one soft, beautiful vulnerability, he was flint to an older woman’s stone. With Dominic it was his hands. The long, dark, delicate fingers, the pale crescent nails extending just beyond the tips. Those hands that held on as if touching was the only thing important in life. If you placed a picture of David and Dominic side-by-side, as she had done, their faces would draw in you no conclusion whatsoever– just two eighteen year old boys burning the ether of their innocence. But if you placed a picture of David’s lips next to one of Dominic’s hands, every woman would recognize something in them, something innately sensual that demanded the touch of a woman’s skin.
These meetings with Dominic had started three weeks ago, and now they were running out of things to say to each other. He sat sliding his index finger along the edge of his mug, a smooth action like ones actors use in movies. In the future this mannerism would become his own, but for now it was obviously plagiarized. She had nothing more to say. What did a forty-three year old woman have to talk about with a boy who was interested in the feel of muscle cars? She was intrigued by him, moved to tears by the softness of his skin, afraid of his shallowness, but had that instinctive teacher’s sense that something deeper lay beneath his short goatee, his slicked back hair, and Lakers jerseys.
“I’m empty,” she said, and glanced down at her cup.
“Let me fill you up,” he said. She had to keep herself from laughing. One day he’d realize how silly these exchanges were, but in their own way they were endearing.
He picked up her mug, awkwardly bumped his hip into the table as he stood, and walked towards the coffee bar for a refill. She watched his stiff shoulders, the way he scratched the back of his neck. He pretended to look at the CD case of the music that was being played and advertised at the counter— soft, watery music that reminded her of being tossed beneath a crashing wave. She knew it wasn’t his kind of music, but he turned the case over anyway and read the credits, nodded his head, and even danced a brief hula, his hips swiveling to the easy beat. He turned and smiled at her. He got the refilled cup, walked to the cream and sugar counter and called across the room. “Cream, milk?” he asked.
“No thanks,” she said.
“They’ve got amaretto. Some sweetening?”
“No, just black.”
He smiled and poured the amaretto into her cup anyway. It was impossible to protest to that smile.
They sat in silence for a few moments, she watching him, saying nothing at all, but using her eyes. He looked at her and then glanced around the room. When he did, he saw the woman two tables away who was pretending to read the paper. Sarah had noticed her from the moment they sat down, but apparently Dominic had just picked up on the eyes looking past the newsprint and reading them instead.
“Her eyes are like fuckin’ bullets.” He stirred his coffee, clanging the spoon against the mug.
“Don’t worry about her,” she said. “And stop cussing.”
“It’s rude, you know,” he said.
“She’s trying to decide if I’m your mother or not.”
Dominic looked at her, his eyes darting and nervous, his hands patting down his oil-slick hair. The woman didn’t bother Sarah particularly; she would be doing the same if she were in her position. What bothered her, though, was the woman’s desire for the illicit, her need to be excited by something that might disgust her. A young man and a not-so-young woman having coffee together, so what? But she knew it was a big deal, after all. A cup of coffee was not a cup of coffee. A gentlemanly boy had other ideas.
Sarah reached into her school bag, pulled out a pad of paper and a pen, placed her reading glasses on the bridge of her nose, and asked in a formal voice: “How much experience do you have then, in retail?”
Dominic looked up at her, his face confused, his lips slightly open as if he thought she was finally losing her mind.
“You need to be able to work a cash register to perform this job,” she said.
“A year at Staples,” he said.
The woman returned to her newspaper.
“Good, good,” she said, pretending to write something down. “What about—”
“I’m qualified,” he said. She looked up, recognizing something dangerous in his voice. His elbows were on the counter and he leaned forward.
“Hired,” she said.
* * *
It was two years ago, the morning of November 6th, when Sarah got a phone call from David’s school telling her that he hadn’t shown up for classes. This wasn’t the first time. There were two high schools in Santa Maria– David attended Washington and she taught at Taft. He was a senior and she had chalked it up to senioritis but this was turning into a habit. The district allowed fifteen unexcused absences and he was now at twelve. “Damn it, David,” she thought, and she was late to class after leaving two messages on his cell phone voice mail.
“Wherever you are you get your butt back to school when you get this message.” She called again, thinking she had sounded too angry. “I love you,” she said, talking into a machine. The emptiness of fiber-optics answered back. “I’m worried about you.”
In the two classes preceding lunch, she had passed back essays and reminded her students to use topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. A room full of kids stared back blankly at her, their eyes like unwashed glass. In her European Literature course she lectured about iambic pentameter. “It’s the rhythm of the heart,” she said, and had them put their hands on their chests and tap as she pointed to stress marks on the chalkboard. It worked for awhile until Dante Campbell began to rap, syncopating the rhythm with lyrics about “homies” and “gin and juice.” She stopped the lecture and instead started with puns. “Ay, the heads of maids or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.” Some of the girls looked shocked, their faces turning red.
“Damn, Ms. Evans,” Dante said. “Shakespeare’s some X-rated shit.”
“Dante, the intelligent man doesn’t need to curse” she said. But she knew she had them hooked. One small battle won.
Lunch was after fifth period. She usually called Patrick, her husband, but he was in Singapore at the time on a business trip, selling plastic fabric to be used in advertising billboards. Before going to the faculty lounge, she stopped by the principal’s office and used the secretary’s phone to call David once again. When Patrick bought David the car, against Sarah’s protests, she bought him a cell phone in case of any road side emergencies. At least that’s what she had said; it was really just out of a need to know she could always be in touch despite the new freedom of a car. She got his voice mail again: “I’m indisposed at the moment,” he said in his most mature, mocking voice. Then, as if he suddenly found himself in a music video. “Drop a line and I’ll get ya on the backside.”
“What’s the use of a phone if you never answer?” she said. “You sound like a cockney rapper. I’m putting you in the leg irons when you get home.”
In the lounge, she sat with Roberta Vasquez. She was a large woman originally from Nogales, Arizona. She was thirty-six, unmarried, without children, and spent late nights at school writing long comments to each of her students on their biology assignments. Roberta treated biology as a life lesson, a ‘this is how it is in the world, and this is why you shouldn’t do it’ curricula that was supposed to scare kids into responsible action. She showed them pictures of enlarged hearts, like sponges filled with years of alcohol. She played movies about venereal diseases, and taped pictures of organs with discolored warts on the walls of her classroom, until a parent group became upset. Teaching was a battleground for her; she understood that the world offered no protection for kids, and that they had to know what they were up against. She was no nonsense and Sarah appreciated her for it. There was a television hanging in the corner of the lounge; the news was on, but no one watched. Over the din of the teacher’s complaints — those stupid school board members, the superintendent’s over-spending, frayed text books from 1986 — she could just make out the voice of the anchorman.
“I think Carla’s pregnant,” Roberta said. “She cried all the way through class.”
“It’s the nineties,” Sarah said. “Don’t you teach them about condoms?” She took a bite of her salad.
“Bananas in the first semester,” Roberta said.
“Why pregnant?” There was a breaking newsflash on the television. Sarah’s stomach jumped. Most of the rest of the news seemed planned, scripted, but when something was breaking it felt to her like the world was a machine held together with loose screws.
“Some of these girls want a baby,” Roberta said. “They’ve got nothing else. A baby’ll love them, they think. The boys don’t.” She took a bite of her tuna sandwich and spoke while she chewed. “She called him a pequeno cabron.”
“Probably is,” Sarah said. “All that mayonnaise is unhealthy. Don’t you teach them about cholesterol?”
There was a reporter standing outside a house. The street looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place it. Behind the reporter strings of yellow tape waved in the wind. Men in plain clothes but with guns strapped to their waists stood just outside the front door to the house. They were well dressed, their pants pleated, the shirts starched and tight, their hair closely cropped. The kind of men that look like they have everything under control.
“I know her father,” she said. “He’ll make her marry the boy.” Roberta kept rubbing her thumb over the knuckles of her left hand. “It’d be the biggest mistake in her life.”
“Or the second,” Sarah said.
The anchorman was speaking, but she couldn’t hear what he said. Then the camera panned to the left to find a frightened looking woman. She looked like a housewife, that flustered, unkempt, “I just cleaned the bathtub” look Sarah couldn’t stand. Someone turned the volume up on the television. The woman’s eyes bounced back and forth, she looked at the house and back beyond the camera. She wiped at her eyes with the tips of two fingers. She said she heard three shots. She thought they were backfires from a car, but a car never backfires three times in a row, she said. A graphic below her said: “Eyewitness”.
“Earwitness,” Sarah said out loud, but a knot started to develop in her stomach. The world felt so much more dangerous when you didn’t know where your child was.
“What?” Roberta said.
“The television,” she said.
Then, as the woman told her story, Sarah noticed the car behind her, parked on the street and wrapped in yellow tape. It was David’s silver Honda; the windows were tinted. On the left hand side of the bumper was a sticker that said, “Skateboarding Is Not A Crime”. She dropped her fork. Everything in the room tilted and she became dizzy.
“Sarah,” Roberta said. “What’s wrong? You look like you’re going to throw up.”
“I’ve got to go,” she said. “I won’t be here sixth period.”
But she was up from the table, walking towards the door before panic forced her feet into a stumbling run. As she turned the corner into the hallway, she heard someone say. “Jesus Christ. That’s Howard’s place.”
* * *
There were police cars everywhere, their lights silently flashing out a warning. She had been to the house before; a campaign party for Councilman Howard. She and Patrick had donated money and David had worked on his campaign, part of an internship that they hoped would get him into Berkeley on a Political Science scholarship. He hadn’t wanted to do it, but after a few weeks he settled into the job just fine, and even seemed to enjoy it. She had to park behind two television vans and when she got out she tripped over wires that ran like black snakes to the cameras. There were people standing three feet deep behind yellow taped borders and she had to fight her way through the crowd. “Jesus,” one man said. “How ‘bout excuse me.” She ignored him, her heart pounding in her throat, a spinning gathering at the edges of her vision. She talked herself into calm, “This is nothing, just some coincidence. David’s at home watching television.” But when she got to the head of the crowd, she saw two of the plain clothed officers ducking into the backseat of David’s car. One wore latex gloves and placed a stack of text books in a plastic trash bag held by the other. When they finished, they opened the trunk of the car. What got her, what made it come crashing in, was that they used a set of keys to open the trunk, the man’s gloved hands fingering the key chain as if it was his, as if he owned even the car.
In her panic, she forgot to lift up the yellow tape and instead pushed through it, tugging it forward and alerting the nearest policeman. “Ma’am,” he said. “You can’t go in there.” She tried to untangle herself, her hands grasping and stretching the tape, but before she could the policeman reached her. He grabbed her by the arm and when she looked up all she saw was the black of his uniform; he was so close that the darkness filled up her vision and she thought she was passing out. He pulled her up and took her by both shoulders.
“That’s my son’s car,” she said. She tried to rip her shoulders free, but he had strong hands.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Bastards,” she said. “Leave him alone.” She yelled it towards the men who were sifting through the trunk, but they didn’t stop or even appear to hear. It was as if they were standing behind a glass wall or working within the box of a television screen.
“Please, ma’am, your name,” His voice was soft, almost caring, but his hands were pinching her skin and she couldn’t pull free. She felt like her body was about to come apart in fragments, but every spark in her muscles told her to get inside, to push through the open front door to the house, to find David and wrap her body around him, but she just wasn’t strong enough.
For a moment she couldn’t remember her name, only his.
“David,” she said. “Evans. David Evans.” Something about saying it steadied her, as if the name itself kept him alive. She looked at the policeman, looked into his eyes for an answer and got it. “God,” she said and twisted her whole body away from his hands, but he grabbed her again and wrapped her up in his arms, gave her an unwanted hug, and began carrying her away from the crowd. She couldn’t do anything, her feet dangled inches above the grass, and she slumped in his arms. When he placed her feet back on the ground, he held her and she buried her face into his chest. The metal of the badge dug into her scalp and she pushed against it to feel it dig in further. In the space between his chest and his arm she could see men running around, just becoming aware that they had a mother on the scene. Two policemen in uniform ran over to where she was being held, and a plain clothed cop rushed towards the open doorway to the house, frantically waving his left hand to someone inside. But before he could stop them a stretcher pushed through the darkness of the doorway, the white sheet catching all the sunlight of mid-day as it came into the pandemonium of people in awe.