She couldn’t see the ocean from where she stood on a grease-caked cement step just outside the kitchen’s back door. A row of bungalows— identical dark boxes, some with glowing windows—blocked her view. She could hear the water, though—the steady, dull thunder of the surf reminding her that it was close, at the edge of both the Seaside Resort and the continent. And she could smell it, a sharp tang that battled for supremacy over the smells of steak, seafood, and smoke that blew out from the kitchen. Towering above the bungalows, underlit by the resort’s floodlights, incredibly tall palm trees swayed on their skinny trunks in the evening breeze, looking like skyrocket bursts frozen in time at the ends of their own contrails. A sliver of crescent moon dangled above them, high and distant.
Kerry Profitt was a daughter of the Great Plains, born and raised near the confluence of two great rivers in Cairo, Illinois. But the Mississippi and Ohio, powerful as they were, had nothing on the Pacific Ocean. The ocean was magical to her, its depths and mysteries were boundless, its call irresistible. She had made a point, since hitting La Jolla, California, for her summer job, of keeping it in sight whenever possible. Bad for the skin, all that sun and salt air, and she, with her complexion like fresh snow (“whitest white girl I’ve ever seen” was what Brandy said) knew better. But she couldn’t deny the ocean’s magnetic pull.
Lost in thought, she didn’t see the shadowed figure slip into the alley, didn’t know she wasn’t alone until the voice startled her. “Hey, Kerr, where is it the swallows go back to?”
Startled, she managed to keep her cool, and she smiled when she recognized the voice. She knew it belonged to Josh Quinn, one of her housemates, but it took her a moment to refocus her gaze and pick him out in the dark alley. His skin was every bit as pale as hers, but by choice, not genetics, and the black of his hair came from a bottle, unlike hers. He looked as out-of-place in the valet’s uniform—white shirt, maroon vest, black pants—as a lion on a kindergarten playground.
“Umm … Capistrano, I think,” Kerry replied after a moment’s consideration. She was used to this kind of thing from Josh, king of the nonsequitur. If his middle name isn’t Random, it should be.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he agreed.
Since it didn’t seem like he was going to take the discussion any further, she decided to press the point. “Why?”
He struck a match in the darkness and shielded it with cupped hands to a cigarette held between his lips. “These tourists, man,” he said around the butt. Then, blowing out a plume of smoke—away from Kerry, because she would have killed him if he hadn’t—he continued with an exasperated tone. “They’re like those swallows.”
“The ones in Capistrano?”
“In what way?” You had to ask, she immediately chastised herself, bracing for the answer.
“Some of them seem to come here every summer, like clockwork.”
She had noticed the same thing, though without the bird metaphor. “Good for business, I guess,” she pointed out.
“I guess. But this one guy—you know the kind, enormous gut, Texas accent, gold watch that cost more than everything I’ve owned in my life put together—yelled at me just now because I didn’t turn on the heat in his Mercedes.”
“The heat?” Kerry asked with surprise. It was a fairly cool night. They all were here, close to the water, and balmy eves, she had learned, were not so much a southern California thing. Once the sun went down, the day’s heat fled fast. But even so, far from wintry cold.
“That’s what I said. Only it was more like, ‘Dude, are you freaking crazy? It’s August!’ And he was like, ‘I told you last year, if it’s after dark, I like the heat on when you bring the car around. It takes time to warm up.’”
“But you didn’t work here last year,” Kerry pointed out.
Josh jabbed the glowing end of his cigarette at her to emphasize his point. “Exactly,” he said. “But you think reality matters to this guy? Like I’m the first Goth valet in California history or something, so it couldn’t have been someone else he told last year. He’s so convinced it was me, he stiffed me on the tip.”
Kerry pushed aside the hand that held the cigarette. She had made clear, plenty of times, what she thought of that habit and couldn’t understand how he managed to reconcile it with his vegan lifestyle. “Hey,” he had said when she’d raised the question once, “who said life was free of contradiction? Anyway, it’s a vegetable. If tobacco had a face, I wouldn’t smoke it.” Sympathetically, in spite of the noxious weed, she rubbed Josh’s bony shoulder. “There are always a few pains,” she said. “But most of the guests are pretty nice.”
“Maybe to you,” Josh countered. “You can spit in their food. All I can do is adjust their seat backs wrong, and the potential threat level just isn’t the same.”
Kerry laughed then and punched the shoulder she had just been rubbing. “I’ll tell you what,” she offered. “I’ll trade places with you for a day. You deal with complaints about food being too hot or too cold or too spicy or too bland, and guys grabbing your ass and winking at you like you’re going to go, ‘Oh, you’re just so handsome. I’ll put this tray of food down and meet you in the alley.’”
“I guess it depends on the guy,” Josh suggested with a smile she could see in the glow of his cigarette embers as he inhaled. “Hey, my principles are nothing if not situational. And believe me, I’m not under any illusions that you have an easy job either.”
“Summer jobs aren’t supposed to be easy,” Kerry replied, ignoring his jokes. “They’re supposed to be brutal and demeaning and ill-paying. Toughens you up for the rest of your life.”
Josh nodded. “I guess you’re right.” He flipped his smoke to the sidewalk and crushed it out with his shoe. “So, you ready to jet? Waiting on Mace?”
“Waiting on Mace,” Kerry confirmed. It had become a house motto over the summer. Mace Winston was never ready on time for anything—he was the only person she had ever known who was perpetually late leaving work. She was more than ready to go—her headache from that morning had never really gone away, and working in the noise of the crowded dining room had just made it worse.
Before Josh could reply, Mace came through the kitchen door. He was a dishwasher, and the hairs on his muscular forearms were plastered to his skin by the water that had leaked into his rubber gloves. Even the sleeves of his T-shirt were wet. His broad, handsome face was flushed from the hot water he’d been working in, a line of sweat sitting on his upper lip.
He tossed Kerry a lopsided grin, as if something hurt in a place too embarrassing to mention. “You’ve got to start encouraging those folks to eat less,” he told her. “Fewer side dishes. Better for their hearts, and better for me.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said with a laugh. Neither of these guys were people she’d have been likely to hang out with under other circumstances, but over the course of the summer, they’d become close friends. Whenever she was talking with them, Kerry felt an easy, pleasant sense of comfort envelop her like a warm blanket on a cold night. It almost— but not quite—overwhelmed the sense of impending disaster her dreams had left her with and the headache that accompanied them. “Now can we go home?”
The others offered consent, as if either of them would be likely to argue in favor of staying and working awhile longer. Kerry took one last glimpse toward the water she couldn’t see, breathed in a final lungful of ocean air, and headed for the parking lot with the others.
The Seaside Resort at La Jolla, to use its full name, was as soulless and impersonal as most large corporations. But it was also a corporation that recognized the fact that its business was largely seasonal, and to help it through the busy summer season, it hired a lot of temporary workers. Summer help came from all over the world—Prague, Sydney, Heidelberg, Minsk, and even the exotic climes of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. So the resort offered, as one of its worker-friendly perks, a roommate-matching service. Kerry had signed up, filling out the requisite forms and answering a slew of questions about things she wouldn’t even have talked about with the aunt and uncle she lived with. She was slotted into a house in nearby Bird Rock with five people with whom she had in common only the fact that they all worked for Seaside.
After a few weeks of initial discomfort, though, everyone fell into a kind of casual routine. Kerry, Josh, and Mace shared the house with Scott Banner and Brandy Pearson, who had come out from Harvard as a couple, and Rebecca Levine. The couple didn’t get to share a room since there were only two bedrooms in the small cottage, and nobody was willing to cram four into one room so that two could have the other. But Brandy and Scott still managed plenty of alone time in the house, and they’d both had tonight off. They had said they were going to a movie, and as Mace pulled his massive baby blue Lincoln Continental onto the narrow driveway, Kerry noticed that Scott’s RAV4 was still gone.
“Guess the lovebirds are still out on the town,” Josh pointed out, echoing Kerry’s observation.
“Too bad for them,” Mace said, without a hint of sympathy. The driveway ran alongside the house, crowded on one side by the neighboring house’s oleander bushes and on the other by the cottage itself. There was room for both cars if the RAV4 got tucked in first, but when Mace’s monstrosity had pulled in as far as it could, the RAV4’s rear end wouldn’t clear the sidewalk. Which meant he had to park on the street. Mace had urged him just to block the sidewalk a little, but Scott was full of Harvard-induced social activism and refused to in case someone came by in a wheelchair. Kerry admired the stand he took, but couldn’t have said for sure if she would be as noble if she had to be the one looking for street parking late at night.
The cottage was dark, as if Brandy and Scott had left during the day and had forgotten that no one would be home until after eleven. Rebecca had been working early shifts, and was no doubt already sound asleep—the girl could sleep anywhere, through anything, Kerry had decided.
The nearest streetlight was half a block away, largely obstructed by a big willow tree that overhung most of the miniscule front yard. A low hedge ringed the front of the house, bisected by a flagstone walkway that led from the sidewalk to the front steps. Their landlord paid for landscaping. If it’d been left up to the six of them, Kerry was sure everything would have died by July.
“Somebody could’ve left a light on,” Josh complained, fumbling in his pocket for keys. “I can’t even see the front door.”
“Like they’re gonna think of that,” Mace replied quickly. “Probably too heavy into lip-lock mode when they walked out. And Sleeping Beauty was most likely out before the sun went down.”
Having no flashlight handy, Kerry, who was not yet out of the Lincoln, hung back to hold the door open in case its dome light could cast a little illumination to help Josh. With considerable and fluent cursing, Josh managed to jam his key into the lock and got the door open. Inside, he flipped switches, and light blasted out from the coach lamp by the door, the windows, and the gaping doorway.
Light that etched, among other things, a pair of legs sticking out of the hedge. Male legs, it looked like, clad in dark pants, feet in what Kerry guessed were expensive leather ankle-high boots. She realized that a far more appropriate response to noticing the legs would have been to scream rather than, well, noticing them.
But the scream, practiced so often recently in dreams, wouldn’t come. It caught in her throat like a chicken bone. Instead she barely rasped out Mace’s name, since his back was still visible in the doorway.
He turned, gave her a questioning look.
“Mace,” she said again, a little more forcefully.
“What’s up, Kerry?”
She pointed toward the hedge. Taking a step closer, she could see that the man, whoever he was, had crashed through the brush and was laying mostly covered by its greenery. “Umm … he doesn’t belong there.”
Finally Mace noticed him. “Oh, Jesus, Kerry. Get inside, I’ll call the cops.”
“I don’t know if he needs cops,” Kerry said, inching closer. “An ambulance, maybe.”
“He’s just some drunk, Kerry,” Mace argued. “Fell down there and couldn’t wake up.”
But Kerry didn’t think so. She’d been around enough drunks—held the hair away from friends’ faces when they got sick, dodged clumsily groping hands at parties, even tucked her own uncle Marsh into bed a time or two or ten—to know the stink that wafted around them like a foul cloud. The closer she got to this man, though, the more she knew the smell was all wrong. Instead of the miasma of alcohol, there was a familiar metallic tang. The man in the hedge was very still and silent, and she moved closer still, as Mace watched, frozen, from the doorway.
The smell was blood, and it was thick in the air around the man.
Crap, she thought. He’s been stabbed. Or shot.
She knew there was no way he hurt himself that much falling through the hedge. He’d have been scratched up—could even have put out an eye on a branch—but he wouldn’t have opened enough veins to kick up a stench like a blood bank on two-for-one day. Kerry had nursemaided her mom for years while cancer had spread throughout her body, finally taking the older woman. Kerry was no trained doctor, but she’d learned a little something about emergency medical care during the ordeal, and she had a feeling that this guy was going to need everything she could offer and then some.
Another smell, underlying the one of blood, nagged at her, and Kerry suddenly realized that it was a faint electrical stink of ozone, as if lightning had struck close by.
“I don’t think he needs the police,” she repeated, leaning forward to find the man’s wrist in hopes of checking his pulse. By now, she noticed, Josh’s lean form had appeared in the doorway, silhouetted behind Mace. “At least not first thing. He needs a paramedic.”
The hand she had been groping for clamped around her forearm with surprising strength. “No,” the man said, his voice an anxious rasp almost indistinguishable from the rustling sound his motion made in the hedge. “No doctors.”
Her heart jumped to her throat, and she tried to yank her arm free. But the man held fast to it, even raising his head a little to look at her. A stray beam from the streetlight shone through the leaves onto his right eye, making it gleam like something from a Poe story. “Promise me, no doctors,” he insisted. “Take me in and give me shelter or leave me here, but let me live or die on my own terms.”
Mace and Josh had both come down from the doorway and hovered over Kerry and the wounded man like anxious seagulls at the beach, looking for handouts. “Dude, let her go,” Mace ordered, snarling. “Or I’ll really put a hurtin’ on you.”
She heard Mace shift as if he really did intend to attack the wounded man, and then she did something that surprised even her. She spread her one free arm—the man on the ground continued to clutch her right arm with a grip so powerful she didn’t think she could have shaken it—over the man, as if to protect him from whatever Mace might have in mind. “No!” she shouted. “He’s hurt bad enough. Leave him alone or help me bring him inside, but don’t be stupid.”
“I’ve got to wonder about your definition of stupid,” Mace said, sounding petulant.
“He’s right, Kerr,” Josh added. “You want to bring some bloody stranger into our house?”
“You guys both missed Sunday school the day they talked about the good Samaritan?” Kerry shot back over her shoulder. “If you don’t want to help me, just get out of the way. He’s losing blood and he can’t stay out here overnight.” She pushed her way deeper into the thick hedge, feeling the branches scratch and tear at her skin like a hundred cats’ claws, snagging her long, fine black hair and the fabric of the white cotton dress shirt that, with snug black pants, was her restaurant uniform.
She reached around the stranger’s head with her left hand, hoping she could ease him up out of the hedge. Holding back the worst of the branches with her own body so he wouldn’t suffer any further injury, she found the back of his head and slipped her hand down to support his neck. His hair was long in back, and matted with sticky blood. Never mind the tears, the bloodstains would make her uniform shirt unwearable.
“That’s crazy talk,” Mace complained behind her. She ignored him and drew the man slowly forward.
Josh unleashed another string of colorful profanities, but he knelt beside Kerry and shoved branches out of the way, helping to bring the wounded man out of the hedge. “I guess we need to get the mug out of our bushes anyway.”
“You’re both crazy, then,” Mace opined. Kerry couldn’t see Mace, but from the sound of it, she gathered that he had given up on them both and was on his way back inside. She found herself hoping that it wasn’t to get a baseball bat or to call 911.
What do I care? she wondered. The good Samaritan thing had been a flip response to Mace and Josh’s moaning, but it wasn’t any kind of lifestyle choice she had made. She guessed that, as Josh might say, it meant the reaction she was having in this case was situational. Something about this battered, broken man in their bushes played on her sympathy, and she was unwilling to leave him there or to go against his stated wishes by calling the authorities.
With Josh’s assistance she was able to disentangle the man from the hedge. In the light, the blood on his face was shocking—dark and glistening and obviously fresh. He might have been handsome once, but age and the damage caused by whatever had done this to him had taken care of that. She felt, more than ever, an urgency about getting him inside, getting his bleeding stopped, and trying to prevent shock.
“Can you stand up?” she asked him, not sure if he was even still conscious. But he forced his eyes open again, raised his head, and looked at her with something like kindness. His mouth curled into an agonized smile.
“Not a chance,” he whispered. Then his head drooped, his eyes closed, his muscles went limp. For the first time, his grip on her forearm eased. She touched his neck, felt the pulse there.
“He’s still alive,” she declared.
“But he’s deadweight,” Josh said. Josh was, well … “lean” was a polite way to put it. “Scrawny” was more the truth. And the stranger was a big man, probably a little more than six feet tall, weighing a couple hundred pounds. “You think we can carry him?”
Kerry spoke without hesitation, without doubt. “We can carry him. You take his feet.”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Josh said. He used the name that the housemates had applied to Kerry ever since they’d become familiar with her stubborn streak, “Bulldog.”
Hoisting the stranger’s shoulders, she grinned at Josh way down at the other end. “Woof.”
Kerry Profitt’s diary, August 11–12
Just for fun I looked back to see my first impressions of my housemates. Thinking to compare them, I guess, to current impressions.
Just goes to show how wrong you can be sometimes.
“Can you say insufferable?” I had typed about Josh Quinn. “Gay, Goth, vegan, and obnoxiously adamant about all three. If he keeps it up, I’ll be surprised if he survives the summer. Not that he could be ‘voted out’ or whatever. Not that, to push the metaphor to the breaking point and beyond, this is a reality TV show or anything. The Real World, Big Brother, Survivor—they have nothing on the trials and tribs of six genuine strangers trying to get along in a house without cameras, supercool furniture, and a cash prize on the other end.”
There was more, but why cut-and-paste all night when I can simply scan the folder menu and look it up? Suffice to say, his first impression was the kind that almost makes you hope it’ll also be a last impression.
Mace Winston, on the other hand. Then, I wrote: “Hmm … he’s got a body like Michelangelo’s David—not that I’ve seen under the fig leaf, figuratively speaking. But handsome, buff, and he tooled up in this sky blue Lincoln Continental—except for the left rear, I think he said quarter-panel, which is kind of rust colored and clearly taken from a different car. He said he found the whole thing in a desert canyon somewhere in New Mexico, full of bullet holes and snakes, but he cleaned it up and fixed it up and here he is. He really does wear the boots and one of those straw hats and he has squinty, twinkly eyes like some movie cowboy and somehow it all works for him. I don’t know if there’s a brain in his head. Ask me later if I care.”
But tonight, when the chips, as they say, were down, Mace turned away and Josh came through. Although the heaving and ho-ing would have gone better had it been the other way around, I’m sure.
Ms. Harrington, in eleventh-grade speech, used to give us holy hell when we started with “okay” or “umm.” She said it was just a verbal time waster, a way of saying that our thoughts obviously weren’t well enough organized to begin with because if they were, we’d start out by saying what we really wanted to say.
Boy, was she right.
So … okay. Umm …
There’s a man in our living room, passed out on that butt-sprung lump of fabric and wood that passes for a sofa. We managed to stop most of the bleeding, put bandages on the worst cuts, got a couple of blankets (mine, since no one else would volunteer theirs) over him, elevated his feet higher than his head. Near his head there’s a glass of water, in case he wakes up and is thirsty, and he seems to be breathing okay.
He looks like he lost an argument with a wood chipper. I can’t even imagine what happened to him. Hit by a truck that hurled him all the way across our lawn? Picked up by a stray tornado and dropped there?
But he said no doctors, and that’s exactly how many he’s getting. Why? And why did I argue against calling the police? Rebecca woke up just before Scott and Brandy finally came home. I had the same argument with them that I’d had with Mace, although Scott came over to my side pretty quickly and Rebecca, bless her huge hippie heart, lit a candle and dug right in to help with the bandaging. With Josh already allied, that made four against two—Mace and Brandy. Brandy did a lot of huffing noises and is now either sound asleep, or pretending to be, as I laptop this. Is that a verb yet? If not, how soon?
Other good verbs: To delay. To procrastinate. To put off.
Of course, what I wanted to do with my summer was to lead a life that might, by some reasonable definition, be normal. As opposed to the life I’ve led for the past, well, lifetime. Summer job, summer friends, maybe a summer boyfriend, even. Just, y’know, normal stuff.
I don’t think this qualifies.
And to be fair, they’re entirely correct (and “they” know who they are). We don’t know who he is—he could be dangerous, a felon, a crazy person. Or even, you know, someone from Katy Perry’s band, although maybe a little senior for that. But, to continue being fair, he’s not the one who said “no cops.” That was, not to put too fine a point on it, me. He just said “no doctors,” and maybe he’s a Christian Scientist or whatever. I was the one who said “no cops,” and I’m still not sure why I did that. But it was the right thing to do.
Journaling is supposed to help one figure out one’s own emotions, right? Tap into the unconscious, puzzle out the mysteries therein? Not tonight, Dr. Freud. I don’t know why I trust the old road-kill guy snoozing on the couch. But I do.
Go figure. Go to sleep. Go to hell. Just go. See you tomorrow, if we’re not all murdered in our sleep. Or lack thereof.
More later, I hope.
© 2004 Jeff Mariotte