Chapter 19 – Backward, Ho!

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The sun was warm on his bronze skin and it sparkled across the water in a rolling wave of glitter into his squinting eyes behind wraparound Oakleys. The negative ions floating invisibly in the air, a positive thing, combined with the salt spray to invigorate and energize his spirit like a bellows breathes life into a fire. At a warm eighty-six degrees, the stretch of Santa Monica Bay that crested onto the beach near Moonshadows restaurant, a Malibu legacy, held just about everything Scott could ever want in life. Whenever he was on the board or playing volleyball on the beach or even skating the strand that ran like a thin bright river alongside the Pacific Coast Highway, he felt as though he could live in those moments forever. He was in his natural habitat. He was back in the womb, it was so elemental.

So when the storm clouds moved in above him and shaded the sun and the wind picked up, Scott’s mood darkened. It was an unwanted intrusion and he was thrown down into a shallow sandy wave that dumped early and he washed up toward shore, sand-covered, his board yanking his leg as it begged to go back out, and salt water snuck up his nose, stinging. This was not in his plans for the day. He hated cloudy days. He hated having his plans interrupted.

As he lay there, the sun suddenly came back out and he was immediately buoyed by it, the wash continuing to remove the sand and gently foam around him with every wave. He thought to just lay there a while, warmed by the sun and cooled by the shallow water as a genuine smile broke through his dour expression and just before a light sleep overtook him and his face relaxed.

Sometime later, maybe only minutes or seconds, the board leash tugged again and he awoke, the sunlight streaming through his eyelids before he dared to open them unshaded. Then the sunlight was extinguished again and he opened his eyes to see what had changed in the sky above him. But when his lids fluttered open, there was no sky.

Instead, there was a woolly mammoth of a figure standing above him, blocking the sunlight like a solar eclipse and like the same, it was disorienting. Scott could not make out the face for the shade it was cast in. He could make out blood red board shorts that were the size of a parachute, billowed around tree trunk legs which contrasted between their orange-tufted pink color and the concrete-block-thick muscles. He was relieved only by the observation that he could not see up inside the long shorts from his angle below.

“Compinche! Dude!” the voice whined. “Time to go to work!” The voice should have been raspy and booming, but it was tinny and nasally and Scott knew it to be the kind of voice that he could never be married to if it were a woman’s. It would drive him nuts like a dog whistle for a Rottweiler.

Scott reached up with his hand and shaded his eyes to see better and was about to recognize who it was when another wave from a coming high tide covered his face and he sucked in water and his eyes stung and all of a sudden he was drowning in a foot of water. 

More clear water covered his face turned upward toward the returned sunlight refracting violently in the water all around him. He was panicking, he realized. “How odd,” he thought in the middle of it all. “I never panic in water. I passed my Junior Lifesaving test.

Scott floundered and thrashed in the liquid world just below the surface. Had he been aware that the summer air was only inches above his head and the soft sandy bottom only a couple of feet below, he could have simply stood up to right himself. This is the reason lifeguards have to approach a drowning victim with caution, and from behind. Drowning people thrash about and resist in desperation, jeopardizing their own salvation.

I let go of his hand!” Scott thought, as he breathed in another mouthful of water. It was the last thought he had.

Before he consciously registered it, he was vomiting up the water he had involuntarily taken in. The sun was back in his face, a bright red glow beyond his closed eyelids with an Acme Anvil falling on his chest over and over like he was Wile E. Coyote. When he opened his eyes, his own mother’s fearful but strong face was staring down at him and the lifeguard had let up on him.

“I let go of his hand,” Scott said out loud to her. “I always blamed him for it,” he admitted inside, having believed all of these years that his older brother, Donald, had let go of him first, almost pushing him away to fall sideways into the chest-high water. But it wasn’t true. His mother’s face smiled at him, lovingly.

Then Scott remembered that his brother told him of his mother beating the lifeguard into the water to deftly catch Scott up in her arms and carry him to the beach where the lifeguard met her, helped her lay him down on the hot sand and started pumping on his diaphragm.

How could she have carried me?” he thought. “I’m almost twice her size.

Scott raised his dark and muscled torso, his hands and arms supporting him from behind and he looked further out into the water, the sun now lowered on the horizon but still warm and relaxing. Out beyond the swimming area buoys he could make out a small figure splashing about. It was a young boy of about six years old, as far as Scott could tell, and he was yelling something to Scott. The lifeguard and his mother just sat a little bit away in the sand, chatting about something inane and they did not seem to notice the boy. The boy went under. Then came back up, his arms reaching, waving. He was so far out, Scott thought. “I’ll never get to him.” Scott did not move from his position.

The sun reached the water’s horizon straight out from him and it almost blinded Scott, the silhouette of the small figure flailing in the water barely recognizable then, floating further out until he was just a small black dot in the middle of the huge orange half-sun sinking into Pewaukee Lake, it’s reflection spread inward from the sun toward the beach, just like on a postcard. 

Scott closed his eyes but the brilliant orange globe persisted in his vision, the small black dot of the boy being swallowed down into the burning lake, bright as any light will stay with you if you stare at it long enough.

He wanted to get rid of the light and thought he just might be dreaming it and so opened his eyelids barely a crack. The standard, warm tungsten lightbulb above the bed headboard was blazing away and he had to blink a few times, turning his head, before he could keep his eyes open.

Scott had fallen asleep with the light on, the jittery, gray-scale snow fell inside the small tube TV on the tiny desk at the bed’s end, no competition for the high wattage lamp. He reached up, closing his eyes, and switched the lamp off. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the ambient light coming in from outside and the off-air television. He went to pee, half expecting to see the big log in the toilet again, as that traumatic sort of sight persisted in his brain like the persistence of vision he just dreamed about. He decided not to chance it and left the bathroom light off, sitting instead, and thinking, “Gross, gross, gross!” He flushed the toilet before putting a T-shirt on and crawling back into the bed. At least the room was still somewhat warm and the wall furnace seemed to still be working, but he needed the comforter now.

~~~

In the morning, Scott awoke to many thoughts about his dream that his mind had been working on ever since he had fallen back to sleep. It was one of those rare times that he remembered most of it in the morning and felt that it might be of some consequence. 

He thought, “That boy who was drowning way out beyond the swimming area. He was probably me, right?

And, “I have to tell Donald I believe him now that he didn’t let go of my hand.

And, “Man, Mom was something! To get me out of the water so fast...

And, “Why did I let go of his hand? I was safe while I was holding it and when I let go of it, everything went to hell. I almost died!

And, “Was that Todd standing over me, telling me to get back to work? I’m dreaming of him already? Christ. Not good.

And finally, Scott focused in on one question that might be crucial, if not particularly uncomfortable and quite possibly distasteful to consider. He asked himself, “What sort of advice or rescue or protection have I rejected?

~~~

After leaving the almost derelict house the night before, Scott had stopped at the Sonic - again - for something quick to eat. “This cannot become a habit or I’ll look like this food soon,” Scott thought as he happily crunched on a ketchup-laden onion ring, its color more of a dark brown, instead of golden, indicating that the fryer grease hadn’t been changed in a good while. Scott knew about fryer grease, having been a short order cook at the age of fifteen after Lakeside Supper Club’s regular cook quit in a drunken rage and Scott, then the dishwasher, had to step in and start flipping burgers, searing steaks, and making pizzas from scratch. Scott reached out the window and flipped the light to order another bag of rings.

After he was stuffed beyond being able to move, he sat in the Jeep, the drive-up tray still affixed to the drivers door and piled high with Sonic’s contribution to job security at the Los Alamos landfill. 

He didn’t know where he was, metaphysically speaking. He was tired. He didn’t feel like he knew what the hell he was doing with this remodeling business. He certainly wasn’t happy, as he would have defined it back home. And no one seemed to miss him yet. There were no texts, no emails from the people he knew, and yet people who were his “friends” were posting updates to Instagram and Facebook - he hated Facebook. Most of his friends hated Facebook, yet there they were updating like they were reporters in the middle of an impeachment hearing. Scott woke his phone. No notifications except the voicemails, which were relegated to the status of junk mail. No one he knew would bother with phone messages. They’d just text or email.

He didn’t want to go back to the Turd, but since he didn’t know whether there would be funds to pay for a motel at all, he had to be careful. He wondered how Betti could pay for all of the things that still needed to be done, much less correcting all the crappy work Todd and his so-called “help” had done.

He had to find a better place to eat on a regular basis that wouldn’t require him to get a line of credit to pay for two weeks worth of eating. Three weeks? Scott didn’t think that anything more than the kitchen cabinets could be fixed and finished in a week. Then the countertops and backboard tiling, the sink, the electrical outlets along the counter, under cabinet lighting... 

“What the fuck?!” He said aloud. What if it turned out to be even more time?

After he pulled the Jeep into the motel parking lot, it both depressed him and comforted Scott that the same old man was on duty at the motel. Scott asked him to make sure the room was clean and Old Man told Scott if it wasn’t, to come back and he’d give him another room if wanted. Scott had the thought again to call Betti, but then decided that if the electricity didn’t come on by tomorrow, he’d call her for sure. He hated confrontation and he knew that he labeled a lot of issues that needed communication with people as confrontation and so was able to feed his avoidance issue on that basis. That his internet was less than reliable at the motel was a great backup for this.

When he finally looked at his phone after a very hot and long shower, there were two texts, two legit emails and one new voicemail. The two texts were both from Brent, just asking how it was going and if he would be back any earlier as he may need his moving buddy before the end of December. 

Why did he wait so long to tell me about that one?” he thought. Scott and Brent had a long history of helping each other move. Between them, they counted about  fourteen moves in the last ten years, what with them attending colleges in different cities and states before they both settled on the Beach scene in LA and separately began the rent control boogie. 

Scott imagined some of the moves that were especially noteworthy, especially the one when they were on the road with the band during the summer of his sophomore year of college and they had to leave the apartment in the middle of the night because they were three months behind in rent. They had gotten word from another tenant that the landlord was going to bring the sheriff’s department to evict them and confiscate anything of value the next day. Not waiting to risk  being forcibly separated from their music gear, the Toyota Corolla wagon Scott owned at the time was quietly loaded up with amps, bass, and keyboards and their few personal belongings the night before and they snuck out of town at about 3am. 

The next night they had to do the same thing at some national park in South Carolina  after sleeping in and on top of the Toyota in a campsite they couldn’t afford. Leaving early, feeling terrible about it again, they left just before daylight and headed north, burnt out, crusty, and not knowing what the hell they were going to do next.

One email was from a client Scott had worked with in the past year. They needed more work done. “Just Great,” Scott thought. “They have to wait ‘til I get back. Hope they will...” The other email was a bill from the LA Department of Water and Power. He’d pay it online when he got back in two weeks, no problem.

Scott’s breath caught in his chest when he tapped the Voicemail icon in the Phone app and saw the list of new voicemails. The earlier ones were listed as robocalls as he’d labeled the numbers a while ago. But there at the top of the list, the most recent voicemail was unmistakable with only a glance at it. It was the past calling him backwards, a cold and firm hand around his wrist that snaked like a vine up his arm, around his shoulder and under his arms to wrap around his chest, tightening it, threatening to squeeze tears from ducts that had sealed themselves against this emotional attack of the heart. “Christ, why now?” he asked no one, but then he asked the Universe why now. The Universe simply shrugged. Then just... disappeared.

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