Not All Who Wander
Cathi didn’t need a clock. She could tell time based on what was going on outside the wide front window of Ukiah Tool & Equipment. When Bob Farrell honked the horn of his white F-150 in passing every day, she knew it was 11:43am. She’d grab her purse and head to lunch. In the afternoon, the lumber trucks that had passed in a steady stream all day would slow to a trickle, usually right around 4:28pm. Noticing the absence of their rumbling tires and knowing the sawmill closed at five, Cathi would begin wrapping up the days business.
But, today at 3:58pm, Cathi was twiddling a pencil like a helicopter blade, making small scrape marks in the ledger she kept for Bob Smith. She once hadn’t thought it possible to find a plain old Bob Smith. Then she learned that Ukiah is full of them. They own the right size pants and rarely pull them up. They leave their work shirts untucked and wear baseball caps bearing the name of the local tool shop, where they’ve been spending cash long enough to have earned a freebie.
It was 4:01pm now, and the man who’d been pacing in front of the T&E for over an hour was no a local. Mid-thirties, he wore a ringed t-shirt, cargo pants, fashionable sneakers. He’d been chattering into a cell phone quite some time.
Cathi had made two calls to her girlfriend Sharon. Now, she grabbed the phone again.
“He’s still out there.”
“ What’s he doing?”
Cathi glanced out the window.
“Yapping into his phone. Then he goes over to that tree, you know the one by the used car lot?”
“Then he just sits. Sits and types into his phone.”
“What a weirdo.”
“Every once in a while he goes back to his car. Then he goes back to the tree or starts talking on the phone again.”
“How long’s he been out there?”
Cathi checked the sun’s position. “About an hour and a half.”
“An hour and a ihalf/i??”
“Maybe he’s stalking you.”
“Don’t be an idiot. Besides, if he was stalking me he’d have to get through Dale first.”
“He’d have to wait in line.”
“Sharon, shut up! That is nobody’s business.”
“Maybe his car broke down.”
“Tow truck would’ve showed by now.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
Cathi watched him. “One thing’s for sure, he isn’t from around here.”
Cathi explained his outfit.
“You’re right,” Sharon said. “He’s from another planet.”
The man suddenly hung up his phone, turned and made his way toward the store.
“Oh my God he’s coming!”
Cathi slammed the phone down then tried to look natural. The man opened the door with an authoritative swing, the way a man might use gym-toned arms to take hold of a woman. Cathi pointed her pencil at the ledger to imitate work.
“Hi!” He was still in the doorway, knob in hand.
“Hello.” Cathi swung her chair to the right and pretended to be typing at her keyboard.
“What town am I in?”
That stopped her.
“Ukiah,” she said. “California.”
“Okay.” He swung the door closed again.
Cathi took a moment then snatched at the phone. He swung the door back open.
“Is there a diner around? Something that’s not, you know, Denny’s or full of fried stuff?”
Cathi set the receiver down then looked toward the ceiling where all good answers hang. “Well, there’s the Pickens Café,” she pointed south, “three miles that way. And if you go back to Goodleyville,” she pointed north, “there’s a whole bunch of stuff but it’s mostly Jack in the Box and McDonalds. And there’s the Club Capella.”
“Club Capella. It’s down the road about four miles. Kinda pricey but nice. Steaks and chicken, that kinda thing.”
“Perfect.” He pointed north. “Four miles?”
“Down and to your right.”
“On the right. Got it.” He began to close the door.
“Yeah, I know what you mean about the whole fried thing,” she added. He reopened the door. “Not for me, either.”
“Yeah,” he nodded and smiled. “Two days on the road. Just can’t take another drive-thru.” He gave a little wave. “Thanks.”
He closed the door, and it stayed closed a moment. Then it opened again.
“Did you wanna come with?”
Cathi twiddled her ring-heavy finger.
“Ah,” he said. “Just checking.”
“Always worth asking. Take care now.”
He closed the door. She watched as he crossed the lot to a silver import and drove away. Cathi speed-dialed Sharon.
“He asked me to dinner.”
“I told you he was stalking you!”
“He wasn’t stalking me. And he’s not a weirdo.”
“What is he then?”
Cathi thought a moment.
She would try to refocus on the ledger, but whenever her mind wandered, and it did wander often, her eyes would shoot back to the window and the empty space where his car had been. She thought of her husband, and of her date tomorrow night with Roy at the Best Western.
She flipped over her watch. 4:52pm.
She grabbed her sweater and purse and ran to the door.
The silver import stood out front Club Capella. Cathi strode coolly toward the hostess station.
The hostess was young and beautiful. They always were. Club Capella had a long history of attracting upwardly mobile talent.
“I’m meeting someone, thanks.”
“Maybe the gentleman in the corner?”
Across the room she saw the phone pacer.
“Yes. Thank you.”
The window beside his table had a full view of State Street, most of the details of which, she thought, were lost on visitors. Cathi strode across the room with all the sex and swagger she’d learned after high school.
“So I see you found a new window to loiter in front of.”
He stood and offered her a seat. She waved him off, but when he insisted, she sat. Cathi smoothed her skirt and he slid a dark wood chairs in behind her. Decades ago she’d wiped them down with a bar rag and spray bottle.
“So,” he opened. “You know the place.”
“I guess the ring wasn’t heavy enough to keep you away.”
“Girl’s gotta eat. I didn’t want you to think Ukiah’s an unfriendly town.”
He nodded then picked up a menu. She did the same and looked out the window. A lumber rig rolled north, bed stakes folded up.
“What brings you to town?”
“Highway. Ukiah just happened to come along when I got hungry and tired of arguing.”
“Arguing with who? Whom. Whatever.”
“Girlfriend. My ex.”
“Chased you outta town?”
“Kinda.” He opened his mouth, then offered his hand. “I’m Ed. Edward if you prefer.”
“Ed... Cathi. With a C. And an I.” She looked into his eyes. “You were going to say.”
“I was about to say. Right, the girlfriend. Nasty.”
“What set her off?”
He sighed. “I gave flowers to a friend. Single mother without much joy in life. When the girlfriend found out she started a rumor that the single mother and I were hooking up.”
“Jealousy can run pretty thick in our blood.”
&n bsp; “For her it’s like a poison she can’t bleed out. Dad’s an alkie, Mom’s a gold digger. She got the worst of both worlds. Drinks herself stupid and trolls the local bars looking for a golden ticket.”
“Sounds like a catch.”
“Yeah, like typhoid.”
Cathi realized she was with a man in possession of a reasonable IQ, who’d likely studied around the world. It made her feel small, undernourished. Her spirit craved something. It made her nervous and foggy to think of what it was.
“So, you two. Done? Called off?”
“Off and running. Hundreds of miles away.”
“So you’re running.”
“How long have you lived here, Cathi with an I?”
“Fifteen years. Worked in the same place almost the whole time.”
“Ah, stability. The bedrock of mediocrity. But, a good quality in a lady.” Ed looked around. “Speaking of which, some shotgun toting husband isn’t going to suddenly pop through the door..”
“No gossiping little mouths around us?” He looked specifically at the waitresses buzzing about the room.
“I’m not really… in their class anymore.”
“Well, I’m not trying to come on to someone’s hot wife but… you’re definitely at the head of their class.”
“Yeah, like an old school marm. But thank you. In this town, it’s easy to fall from grace.”
“I can’t imagine it’s a terribly long fall.”
She paused. “Not sure what that means.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to be insulting. I’ve only been here a couple hours but I think I’ve seen the nouveau-riche. Ten year old Mercedes, wearing marked-down, five-year old designer clothes.”
“OK, so maybe our social ladder doesn’t climb so high. It’s what we have.”
“So if it’s not what you want, why don’t you run away.”
Cathi looked into those eyes. “I can’t decide if you’re a prick, or…”
“Or if I should tolerate you just long enough to buy me a steak.”
Ed caught a waitresses eye. A young thing bounced over, ponytail a-wagging. She watched Cathi browse the menu. When she bounced away Cathi watched Edward’s eyes; they didn’t watch the girls ass motor away. Instead, he turned and looked out the window. It was getting dark.
“See anything interesting?”
“You tell me.” His gray eyes cut the darkness. “You watch this road every day, don’t you.”
Cathi sighed. “The most unusual thing I’ve seen out that window in a long time…”
“Some guy on a cell phone.”
“I’m flattered. Kinda sad but, flattering.”
Her shrug made him smile.
“What do you want, Cathi? Besides a steak from a prick.”
“I’m sorry I said that. You’re not a prick. Some more intelligent talk would be nice.”
“Easy. Not getting enough?”
Cathi shrugged again. “It’s easy for a girl to get laid in a tool store. Find a man who can fuck her mind right, that takes some doing.”
“What about the men in the background?”
Cathi leaned back, smile cracking slightly. “Men?”
“Unsatisfactory husband opens a biiig door.”
“You’re pretty smart for an out-of-towner.”
“Ukiah has a corner on the smarts market?”
“We do. We even have a club. And I’m the president.”
When the waitress glided up with two of Capella’s finest steaks, Edward & Cathi leaned back and let them be delivered. They spread napkins over their laps then posed forks and toothed knives at their dinner. This time, though Cathi was too busy to notice, Ed watched the young thing bound away.
“Yeah the meat’s pretty good here, even if it’s a little tough at times.” She cut a square off her New York choice and lifted it to her mouth.
“I was talking about the local talent,” he motioned with his fork.
“Oh. Yeah. I guess so. If you like 18 year old community college students. How about you, Ed? Aside from psychotic bitches who start nasty rumors what’s your taste in women like?”
“I let them come to me.”
“Oh really,” she said to keep from laughing. “Chick magnet, huh?”
He sipped his wine and dabbed the corner of his mouth. “No such thing. One guy I knew, but it was really the drugs that kept women close. Certain women. They either wanted to mooch or fix him.”
“Neither sounds very attractive.”
“Neither does the DEA knocking down your door at 9am.”
She nodded, chewing. “That’ll make a guy go limp.”
“I think the coke did that first.”
The young waitress bounced past again.
“So?” She cut her steak again.
“So how many girls you know that have been discovered here?”
“You mean, like, been made famous?”
“None. That’s not the kind of discovery you look for here.”
“Hmm. What then.”
“Speaking as a Capella alumni, Class of ’96, you come looking for someone in a ten year old Mercedes who’ll let you buy clothes off the five year old designer rack.”
“Don’t be. You were right on.”
He waved his fork around the room. “So why did you leave?”
He crunched his brow at her.
“Owns the tool place you were standing in front of. He came in one night with his wife. He’s like a local celebrity. His wife’s a hag. He offered me a job. I thought I had my eye on the right target. I’d come to work for him, woo him away by ‘working late’ and slip right into that house on the hill.”
“Wouldn’t you know I got screwed? Turns out he loves his wife. Idiot. Second day on the job I crawled under his desk, pretending to be looking for something I’d dropped while taking dictation. I’ve always loved how naughty that sounds. ‘Dictation.’ Anyway, I’m down on my hands and knees under his desk and I ‘accidentally’ slid my hand up his thigh. Jesus he jumped like I’d dropped hot coffee in his lap.”
“You didn’t get fired?”
“I said ‘sorry, I lost my balance.’ By then I’d been away from Capella too long to get hired back. On Monday, when I realized I wasn’t going to be fired, I pulled my desk up in front of that window and settled in.”
Edward hmm’ed. She cut into her dinner. She didn’t notice as he gently dropped his steak knife, then leaned under the table to retrieve it. Cathi felt a slow, warm palm slide up the inside of her thigh, saw the empty chair in front of her. His hand was slow, not unwelcome. She caught her breath, letting her eyes close a little.
“Don’t,” she whispered.
Edward reappeared. He waved at the young girl for a new knife.
“Am I fired?”
She took another bite of steak. “Just.. keep your advances above the neckline.”
The waitress set a new knife at his wrist, smiled and turned away. “Not gonna lie. The holy land looks pretty nice down there.”
“All the same I’ve got someone else to pray to it.”
“Sorry, I lost my balance.”
“You sure did.”
They ate in silence. Finally, he said:
“It’s not enough, you know.”
Edward raised a hand and motioned for the check. Cathi watched the exchange, confused.
“Not enough to fuck someone in the head and deny you want to fuck them somewhere else. It’s not natural.”
“Maybe not for men.”
“Oh, don’t give me that ‘men want one thing’ line. We’re not just here for steak. But it might just be possible that in your fourteen years beside that window, it’s become more important to stay in control and get your mental orgasm than to consider any other kind might come along with it.”
The girl slid the check on their table. Cathi waited until she was out of earshot.
“That’s really not fair. And… what? ‘Mental orgasm?’”
“Yeah.” Edward glanced at the slip and slid four twenties from his wallet. Cathi felt a rush between her legs and her face grew flush. She watched him slide the bills onto the check tray for the girl.
Ed pushed his chair out and stood. His car keys jingled. She’d stopped eating and crossed her arms.
“Yep.” He reached out to shake her hand. There was a sincere strength and politeness. His arms really were tone.
“It’s what I do best,” he said, then stepped away. He passed through a hallway, a small bar, and returned to the light traffic on State Street. He unlocked his car door. A voice called from the dark porch.
“You’re an actor.”
Cathi appeared on the porch. “It’s what actors do. Create a scene, break a heart and walk off into the sunset. And like all the other actors, you’re a chicken shit. Hiding behind a story. So things with the girlfriend got tough. Big fucking deal. Break up with the bitch. So I wouldn’t let you feel me up. Doesn’t mean I didn’t want you to, maybe later. And you’re gonna walk out on that? Can’t I just let myself enjoy a good mind-fuck, and can’t you just give it to me?”
He moved away from the car. “What are you saying.”
She stepped off the porch. “I’m saying get your ass back inside and give a lady what she deserves.”
Edward rolled his eyes, smiled and started inside. “Suddenly she knows what she wants..”
She followed, half-shouting, not caring who heard. “Yeah, I do. It’s a hazard of growing up. I don’t expect you to give me a house on the hill or a ten year old Mercedes but you can at least have the courtesy of finishing a lady off. I’ve had enough of men getting theirs and walking off..”
“You think this is about me getting mine?”
They approached the table. The young thing was picking up her money. A bus boy had already cleared his plate. Cathi’s was still in his hand.
“Will you be rejoining us?” said the girl.
“Yes. May I please have my dinner back,” Cathi said to the bus boy. He set her plate down and ran off for fresh utensils.
“May I have a cup of decaf, please.” Edward settled back in. “Jesus you step away for a minute and they wipe you away like you never existed.”
“Where were we.”
“Yeah, where were we.”
“You were going to diddle my mind.”
Edward laughed. He started describing the trip and a book he wanted to write. “I figured it exists somewhere out here. On the road.”
“Romantic illusion, the road,” she said. “Too many men lost on the road. I see them walking by my window all the time. Carrying their lives on their backs, hair bedraggled and clothes unwashed, still walking around looking for the ‘60’s.”
“I think it’s just an excuse.”
“To run away from anything that might ‘control’ you. Rather than stay in one place and fight it out they take off ‘on the road.’ Oh, what a surprise when all those neuroses pop out of their bag in the next town.”
She watched him, looking down at the table, avoiding her. She leaned down so close to the tabletop her chin practically rested on it.
“So, this book?”
“What about it?”
“Ever going to write it?”
“Well, I’ll have to believe you. But you know, the best books I’ve read have been written by people who toiled over them in their spare time at home, after work, you know, between loads of laundry.”
He seemed genuinely leveled. He pushed his coffee away.
She looked at him.
“Can I go now?”
Ed looked out the window briefly. “I’m thinking home. If I leave now I can be home in about 7 hours.”
They stood. She held out her hand and led him down the hall. Back in the relative privacy of the porch she kissed him, gently first, then deeper.
“It’s not gonna be seven hours.. ‘cause.. you’ve got at least two hours of work, buddy.”
He held her door then climbed in on the driver’s side.
“Wait,” he said. “How do I know you’re not just using this as an escape and I’m helping you avoid whatever’s bothering you?”
“Would you shut up and drive us to a hotel.”
The Best Western sits atop a slope opposite the city’s hill section. In a third floor room, while Ed showered, Cathi burrowed into the sheets. She looked at the bedside phone, thinking of Sharon. She shook off the thought then strolled to the bay window; the tool store glowed in the overflow of spotlights from the saw mill. She closed the drapes, turned, slid back into bed and waited.
She start flipping channels, landing on a CSI rerun. Detectives talked about motive, having enough evidence. Then they cut to an interrogation room, where a witness browsed a series of photos. The witness pressed her finger into a black & white mug shot. The detectives looked at each other. Then the camera showed the photo.
It was Edward.
Cathi shot up in bed. A few moments later, the bathroom light went off and Edward reappeared. She looked at him on the TV, then where he stood in a towel.
“I was right.”
“You are an actor.”
He saw the familiar episode. “My last big piece. Hey turn it up, I’m about to die.”
Detectives in bullet proof vests drew guns and stormed Edward’s run-down house that looked suspiciously like Crenshaw. He foolishly rose from the couch, shotgun in hand, only to be promptly blown away by three merchants of justice. Cue the deep synth music, a close-up of trained law enforcement darting in half-speed through gun smoke. Detectives peered steadily. Justice: served. Witness in the doorway nods slowly. Yes, it’s him. Victim cries. Detective places a hand on her shoulder. Case closed. Music. Credits.
Cathi watched the scrolling words, alert on her haunches. “There you are!”
“There I am.” He switched off the TV. “You were right. Actors are good at creating scenes then disappearing into the wings. Tomorrow I’ll get in the car and go home.” He slid in bed beside her. “Start a novel.”
Cathi kissed his clean-shaven lips. “What’s the first thing you’ll write?”
In the morning she found the obligatory note. She would eventually dress and head home, but not until after room service delivered a breakfast of champions, the one she’d had after so many nights with Roy. And like a good sundial she positioned herself in the sunlight coming from the window, eating quietly, staring out at the hill section, watching Ukiah beginning to move below, traffic gliding along the highway. She imagined Edward in there somewhere, not lost anymore, no longer wandering, heading now to the next big scene.