By Dick Little, 1362 words
Willoughby Smyth sat chest-deep in his backyard wading pool. The afternoon sun glazed his reddening face and continued to melt his double-tall iced mocha (with whip) in the clear plastic cup he jiggled in his hand. He slowly drifted off, pondering this latest of endless brain-flashes.
If memories were tears, he’d be sobbing. Imagine his brain oozing a steady stream of salty moisture past his nose, over his cheeks, and dripping off his grizzled chin. A dissolute life finally catching up with him. These days, chapter after chapter of his ill-lived days and years played like a vinyl record from his carefully curated collection. He’d lift the tone arm and place the needle in a different groove, but the same catastrophizing continued.
No matter that healthy sunlight dappled the tiny pool waves, that a whiff of breeze rustled the elm tree leaves overhead, that he was living rent-free in a buddy’s apartment in the warm coastal community where he’d lately landed. Willoughby’s memories wouldn’t stop; like actual tears, he had to dry them with a towel to scratch a persistent itch by his nose.
At least he was no longer “Willoughby.” For most of his youth, he’d spent as much time hiding his first name from people as he did correcting his last. Bank tellers, store cashiers, volunteer sign-up sheets, dinner reservations, day after day. The times were beyond counting that he’d silently curse his parents for not settling for something reasonable. Wasn’t the last name penance enough, anachronistically rooted in the
Old Sod. Both parents, drop-outs, somehow found it de rigueur, so Seventies … along with the incense holder (Nepal 1965), tie-dyed shirts, and a collection of Ravi Shankar’s greatest hits, displayed conspicuously beside the still-functioning Harmon-Kardon stereo and twin, floor-mounted speakers none the worse for wear.
“Jeff Smith” he declaimed on the first day of college classes and the name passed parental muster. He even invited friends over. Never, however, any girls. Ah girls, that terrifying terra incognita lying somewhere offshore of his tangled psyche ever since the teenage neighbor girl whose awkward attempts to “like him” left him fumbling without a compass or a map.
After college, however, he did become acquainted with a lovely lass named Amy from a small Northwest town. They moved in together, and then surprise surprise, they were pregnant. Ultrasound told them they were expecting a daughter. Jeff’s internal monitor began beeping like a runaway car alarm. He made an excuse about breaking the good news to his parents back in the Midwest. He wasn’t exactly lying, but he needed time to think.
In fact, he managed to disappear entirely. It was daring and clever, if a bit ghoulish, to have handed off his identity to a hapless hitchhiker, who sadly had the misfortune to die in a tragic accident on I-25 in Wyoming; a freak series of events involving Jeff’s “lost” wallet, whereby he was able to slip out the back door of his previous life and begin another.
From then on over the years, it was odd jobs here and there, cadged lodging from acquaintances, community meals at the local mission, forged eligibility for occasional government handouts. He chose the word vagabond, not wanderer, vagrant, hobo, or God forbid, bum.
Jeff Smith was his own guy, gift of gab and all, rootless, and he liked it that way.
So what on earth possessed him lo these two decades and counting to take the risk? An open laptop, a bored afternoon of aimless Internet surfing, including curiosity to check on the woman who represented his daring escape from the jaws of husbandhood and fatherhood closing around him.
The problem started when he’d gotten word via the grapevine – he swore he’d never divulge from whom – that his old pal Ted McGuire back in the Northwest Corner had made a fortune metal detecting. Truly, it was more than innocent curiosity, rather a longshot of maybe tapping into the gold bullion fortune of his one-time buddy. Had it not been he, Jeff Smith, who’d taught Ted the trade? Trudging along riverside sandy beaches, across busy downtown playgrounds and through wet grassy parks, the two of them taking turns lugging an old vintage model detector that played false alarms like a pennywhistle – not one of the newfangled lightweight gadgets with double the sensitivity, pinpoint accuracy, earphone jack, even digital readouts. Will even knew a thing
or two about good old Silent Ted’s checkered past. Blackmail? Well, call it graymail.
So, what could go wrong with looking him up and giving him a history lesson?
The step too far took place when, just on a hunch he decided to check on his old girlfriend on Facebook. For God’s sake, it’d been over twenty years. But what in the world was he doing signing in as “Willoughby Smyth,” which of course would show up on her page suggesting “People You May Know”? IA and algorithms don’t forget.
An Internet Message followed, then the phone call.
* * *. *. *. *.
Flora Perez got to her Pilates class late.
“Hi Flora,” chorused the five women from their mats, along with giggles.
“Sorrrry,” sighed Flora. “Car trouble.”
More giggles. “Car trouble” was code for “Jerome trouble.” The allusion to a vehicle substituted nicely since everyone in the room could recite from memory details of “Jer-ooohme’s” vintage pickup, pale green, rusting out, and missing part of a back fender.
Flora pulled off her sweats and joined the group lying on blue foam that spanned the gym’s floor. Each of the mats other than hers was occupied by a prostrate body in one stage of rigor mortis or another, from twenty-five to mid-forties, waiting to be twisted and wrapped and abused – hard-core “hot” Pilates for which they paid well. In an adjacent
room, an ominous array of “reformer” machines lurked like medieval torture devices.
After preliminary stretches, Flora called time-out, and the class rearranged itself in assorted sitting positions on the mats. This was Flora’s A-Team, the ones who’d been with her the longest and each of whose biographies she and the others knew by heart. After all, what would Pilates class be without catching up on personal lives, incidents about which the women wouldn’t tell their therapists? It beat discussing bodice-rippers in a book club.
“So bring us up to date,” called Micki.
Flora, expecting the inquisition, gave them the expected sigh. Five heads nodded or tsk’ed in sympathy. They knew the story: that hunky Jerome (at least twenty years Flora’s junior) had his eyes on the cute little newbie at Excelsior, Bilan, who was much more in his ballpark looks- and age-wise. Flora, despite her age, was still okay in the looks (not to mention body) department. But, adding to the mystery was that Flora hadn’t seen a sign that Bilan was remotely intrigued in the young short-order cook slingin’ hash. Flora puzzled over that one.
The windows of the studio were open part way even though it was fall; the heater was on, and the bodies gyrating to Taylor Swift became six space heaters, turned on high. The room smelled of whatever antiseptic Flora used to wipe down the big floor mat and the perspiratory cologne six women’s exertions produced.
Business resumed: huffing and stretching and pretzel-like poses, assisted by hands-on help by Flora who knew her stuff. Toward the end of the hour, the chatter died down as one or more turns of the rack got everybody serious. Nothing masochistic, mind you, but serious, yes, about honing and preserving what God had given the ladies, sending them on their way refreshed and confident that evening, back to jobs or parenting or finding the exact outfit to impress the in-laws. Or the neighbors. Somewhere on the list was a husband or boyfriend.
Fifty minutes and the group was out the door, after hugs all around. Flora locked up and walked a block to where she was parked. She got in the car and started it and would have pulled out, but her way was blocked. A beat-up pickup truck had stopped behind her and wasn’t going anywhere though the road was clear.
The driver got out, and Flora froze.