By Tim Hansen
I was told at the time I was old enough to understand that I was the exact reincarnation of John Wilkes Booth, and that when I finally became a man, I would, discriminately of course, kill the President of the United States in the coldest blood imaginable. Having such an honorable duty hanging over my head, I began to collect the President's series of stamps, pasting each one in my book with youthful fervor. I really thought that I might see one of these famous gentlemen walking along the rocky paths of our commune and bean him with my slingshot. You can imagine what a traumatic blow it was to me to find out that my mother's notions about me were only so much talk, and that she and her guru friend had been thoroughly zoned at the time they'd told me. Being Americans, they never saw the need to renege on the lie when they were straight. I sit on the end of Pier 39. Three sea gulls play tag high above. As I watch, the biggest of them cuts away from the group and dips sharply to the right. It hangs a moment in mid-air. For a second, I don't think it's moving at all. Then it tips one dingy grey wing and swoops in over my head. Behind me, someone screams. I turn just in time to see the bird glide in and tear a crab cup from the hands of a fat woman in a purple polyester kimono. The woman shrieks and pouts. She stamps her feet and wiggles. The crowd oohs and aahs as the sea gull makes a smooth arc back into the sky. I turn my face to the sun and laugh out loud. I think this is funny. It's carnival time on the wharf-mid-July and noisy. I like to hide in the noise. I stare at the water far below and imagine the dorsal fin of a friendly bay shark slicing its way through the water as the hungry machine separates my legs from my body. I suddenly decide that I'm going to wait all night for the shark if I have to. It's not a bad thought. It'll get me through the day. A while later, I hear a scraping noise off to my left. I turn to see a sea gull skidding in for a landing. It's the same one that attacked the tourist. It's a big one, with a large bluish patch of feathers forming a ring around its neck. It looks at me for a moment, and then comes up beside me. We both stare out at the water. After a minute, the sea gull talks to me. "Some day, huh?'' I look over at the bird. It ruffles its feathers and snaps its beak. I decide not to say anything. I'm in no mood to talk. It's quiet for a while, and then the bird speaks again. It has a deep voice. I decide it's a guy. "Your girl leave you? " My resolve melts and I speak. "How'd you know? " I ask. "I could tell," he says, scratching at the pier with his foot, or whatever it is birds have. "My old lady took off a while back." "Really?" I say. " Where'd she go?" The bird stares out toward Alcatraz, where the waves are just beginning to slap at the shore. "South," he says, kind of lonely and far off. "I didn't think sea gulls flew south," I say. The sea gull leans his head back and lets out a sharp coughing sound. I think he's laughing. "Naw," he says. "She went down to Acapulco with another guy." "Tough luck," I say. ''Tell me,'' he says. Together, we watch the shadows swallow Alcatraz. Then the bird jumps. He drops straight down, wings at his sides. He almost hits the water. At the last second, he tips his wings and goes straight up. In another minute I can't see him anymore. Later, the sun goes down. No sign of a shark. I decide to go home and sleep this off. Maybe kick back on the bed and flip through my stamp book. Maybe not. Walking home, I wonder if Gloria is in Acapulco with another guy. I awaken to the sound of trumpets. They herald my arrival. They howl the swallows back to Capistrano. They announce another glorious broadcast day on KBAY-TV. I open my eyes, stare at the TV, and close them again. The phone rings. ''Hello?'' "Hi, Ter. Gloria. I've been thinking__'.' "Yeah, I'll bet you have." "Please don't be upset. Forgive me. I want you back." "Sorry, chick. I'm strong now.'' "W-what do you mean?" ''I mean__'.' I wake up and answer the phone. It's my landlord. He tells me that if I don't pay the rent by five-thirty, he's turning off the power. I tell him to go ahead, and send in the sharks while he's at it. He hangs up. Some people call me a cynic. By eight-thirty I'm out of bed and in my bug. I cruise up Van Ness to a Chevron station and fill the tank. I hit a 7-11 on Bay and pick up a six-pack of Classic Coke from a pretty Vietnamese girl with a Florida-shaped birth mark on her left cheek. I slide an Elvis Costello tape into my cassette deck and head over the Bay Bridge. Gloria lives in a red two-story house in Berkeley, about half a mile from the school. Since it's on a hill, some of the streets parallel each other in layers, and there are at least three streets higher than Gloria's. I claim these streets as mine. I prowl. Gloria's car is in the driveway. A blue Subaru GL. If she's gone to Acapulco, she didn't take her own car. That's a good sign, I guess. Three little kids are playing with a Water Wiggle on one of the lawns. Each time I pass, they get a little more curious. After thirty trips up the street, parents begin to join them. After forty, the streets are deserted. After fifty, a cop pulls me over. "May I see your license, please?" "I'm looking for my girlfriend." "May I see your license, please?" "Okay." He kicks me out of the neighborhood. I don't even get to see her. I drive down to Tower Records on the wharf and buy fifteen records on my Mastercard. I get depressed on the way home and go back. I buy five more. In the car again, I start to cry. I take the records back and beg the clerk to let me return them. She says no way. She says no refunds. She wears leather pants. What does she know? When I get home, I leave the records in the car. If they won't take them back, then I'm going to let them melt. The phone rings as soon as I walk in the door. "Terry?" "Gloria." (I sound very cool and nonchalant here.) "Baby," she says. "I need you. I'm ready to come back." "I tried to tell you, Gloria," I say with a real sad tone in my voice. "But you wouldn't listen." ''I know, I know,'' she cries desperately. ''I never should have scraped my key all the way up the side of your car.'' "Sorry, chick. I'm strong now." "W-what do you mean?" "I mean-" I let the phone ring. Once, in October, I was very sick. I locked myself in my apartment and refused to see anyone. Gloria used her key and came in anyway. She sat with me for two days, right next to my bed. She brought cold washcloths to bring down my fever. She read F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise out loud from start to finish. At night, when I started to shake, she climbed into bed next to me and held me. I wake up in a sweat. The phone is ringing. My alarm clock has stopped, so I check my watch. It's two-thirty. The landlord has turned off the power early. I go to answer the phone, but my stomach climbs to my throat. The room tilts around me. The ringing is louder. I suddenly realize what I have to do. I figure if I go to the beach and hold my head underwater, the ringing won't be so loud. I head for the car. I remember going to the beach once as a little kid with one of the communes. My mother was with a man in a torn-up army uniform. We were all down at the beach, and everybody took off their clothes and had a great time splashing around. The army man showed my mother some top-secret maneuvers on the dunes. I cried. Three or four really chesty girls came up to me, cooing poor baby and stuff like that. They scooped me up and took me out into the waves and threw me around like a sack of flour. I guess it was all right. I tried to find my mother later on. I couldn't, and I thought I might start crying again, so I found my clothes, pulled on my pants, and set out across the dunes. I kept walking, holding back the tears, until I could see someone on the beach ahead. It turned out to be a little girl, about my same age, building a sand castle with empty Del Monte pea cans. I knelt down and started helping her. She didn't seem to mind. So we finished our sand castle, and it was a lot more fun than being thrown around like a sack of flour. Her parents owned a beach house that shot up from the s and like the trunk of a redwood. Her father came out and told her it was time to come inside for dinner. I was invited, and I remember that her parents were very nice people. I'm sure my manners were lousy, but they never let on. After dinner, the girl and her father and I went out to look at the sand castle. The tide had come in, and it was almost gone. The girl and I were all set to cry, but her father told us not to be upset, that the ocean was just taking back her own, as she did every night. We didn't understand it, but it sounded good. When I began to set off down the beach back to the group, the girl's father stopped me and pressed a five-dollar bill into my hand. I'd never seen one before. I went back over the dune and never saw them again. My mother took the money. I don't know what she spent it on. So, I'm on my way to the beach. It's about a forty-five-minute drive in my bug. I turn up the tunes and coast along 101 at fifty-five miles per hour with the wind blowing steady from the east, and cooling expected later in the day. I sure hope Gloria doesn't get caught out in this heat. Her Vuarnets might melt and stick to her nose. Zappa comes on the radio. "Magdalena.'' I was thirteen years old in my Zappa days. It was just like any other phase, I guess, except when you're thirteen years old and you like Frank Zappa, you have a pretty fair chance of growing up diseased. I don't think I escaped in time; even a few years of Cat Stevens didn't help. Gloria still likes Frank Zappa, though she'd never admit it. I suspect she has a whole stash of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in the back of her closet. Anyway, after a while I get tired of coasting along at the designated speed limit and flick the hyper-space switch under my dashboard. The music of John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra playing the theme from Star Wars blares out of the two ace quality speakers I have mounted in the bug. I zip along through the stars, crushing planets like croutons and shooting Gloria with my lasers. I arrive at the beach in exactly forty-five minutes. As soon as I pull into the parking lot, a phone rings. It's in a phone booth, blocking my way to the sand. But I'm brave, and I get out of the car and take a few tentative steps toward the beach. The phone continues ringing. I know it's Gloria, but I'm scared to answer, scared to think that she's been watching me and knows where I am. Standing in the danger zone between the car and the phone. What do I do? I take a deep breath, grit my teeth on the seventh ring, and leap for the car. I land safely in the driver's seat and initiate take-off. John Williams and I are outa there. I laugh in triumph, the phone ringing in my ears as I fly down the highway. I'm pleased with myself. I'm on the coast highway, heading south. I've got plenty of tapes and enough money to last for a while. I only wish Gloria could see how responsible I'm being with my life. A master of my fate, a ruler of my destiny. Indiana Jones has nothing on me. Up ahead, I see two white BMW's. Of the three available lanes, they occupy the inside and outside, travelling parallel at approximately the same speed. I am terrified. There seem to be two people in each car. Probably a group of weekenders down from Marin County, out for a pleasant picnic on the beach, complete with a metal picnic basket and straps to hold their wine glasses in place. I pop John Williams out of the tape deck and put in the theme from Mission Impossible. I sit up straight, turn up the stereo, scream real loud, and flip the hyper-space switch. I pass them easily, right up the middle. I refuse to live in fear. The world outside stans to look less like northern California and more like southern California. I pull over at a truck stop to get some gas. I go inside to have a burger. I sip on a Coke while I wait. There's a guy in the next booth eating a salad. He's wearing tinted glasses and a red, white, and blue jogging suit. I lose my appetite. Just as I go to the counter to pay the check, the phone next to the cash register rings. One lady comes to take my money, another one goes to answer the phone. I want to tell the second lady not to pick it up, or at least tell the first lady to take my money. I begin to shake. I can't say anything. The second lady holds the phone to her breast and scans the place. In a panic, I throw my money on the counter and run. I burst out the door, dodge several gas pumps, and dive into my car. I'm outa there. Gloria and I had been together a year and a half when she decided we should date other people. ''Nobody special, Terry,'' she said, washing the dishes. He's a millionaire. He's taking her to a basketball game on a Thursday night. Gloria hates basketball. I suggested a double date. Gloria scraped dried scrambled eggs from a plate. Thursday night at seven, I was parked about a block down from Gloria's. A white BMW pulled up to her house. The guy got out, and he had on a red, white, and blue jogging suit. I figured he had to live in Sausalito or Corte Madera, that jogging suit netherland between the City and San Rafael. They still think jogging is chic there. He went in and came out a couple minutes later with Gloria. He inserted her into the white monster and off they went. With me in hot pursuit. I've never been much of a basketball fan. I can probably name ten or more NBA teams, but I don't follow the games or anything. Still, there I sat in the parking lot, listening to the game on my car radio. Every time the crowd roared, I imagined that I could hear the Millionaire and Gloria cheering right along with them, refreshments of one kind or another sloshing into their laps. I'd have been inside watching them through binoculars or something, but I barely had enough money to buy gas. By the time they came out, my back was all cramped, but I sat up bravely and followed them out of the parking lot. We headed over the Golden Gate and right down into Sausalito. The BMW pulled up in front of a massive condo, and I took cover in front of a semi-massive condo a block and a half down. Gloria and the Millionaire went inside. Twenty minutes later, I was out of the car and casing the joint. They were sitting on the couch together, sipping wine and nibbling cheese. From my perch in a large, itchy bush, I shook my head. I'd always hoped nobody really did this stuff. I sat tight until the guy started to make his move on her. I considered being cool and walking away from it all. I considered trusting Gloria to do the right thing. I considered getting in my car, paying the toll over the Golden Gate with my last two bucks, and going home to bed. I considered again and chucked a rock right through this guy's living room window. I got out of jail five days later. Gloria wasn't waiting for me. She wasn't there to punch me in the arm, call me a big lug, and say she understood. She wasn't there to smile and say that she'd stay with me from that mo- ment on. She wasn't there at all. So the sun sinks way too fast into the ocean, and I'm on the highway heading south. A sign tells me that L.A. isn't too far off. For a second, I consider turning around and heading home, but then it's too late. Everything slides downhill into L.A. Even me. I fumble in the glove box for a tape, and finally latch onto one. It's dark in the car, and I can't tell which one I've got, but I figure it doesn't really matter. I figure wrong. It's Lionel Richie: no one's cure for heartache. I listen anyway, because I feel I deserve the pain. Two weeks ago, I drove past a place selling wood stoves. A sign out front said: HEATING BILL OVER FIFTY DOLLARS? MASOCHIST. I got all choked up when I read the sign. I drove straight to the Dairy Queen, where I bought a double chocolate-fudge sundae and dumped it on the ground in the parking lot, feeling very guilty. A masochist. That's me. Lionel takes me within an hour of the City of Angels. I pull into a parking lot at a 7-11, go to the phone booth, and take the phone off the hook. Then I cry myself to sleep. Three months after we'd met, Gloria and I were sitting on the couch at my place, watching Letterman. She was brushing her long, brown hair with thick, careful strokes. The brush would travel from the top of her head and move slowly down her back with a hollow, hushing noise. I asked her if I could try. She smiled and I moved behind her. Her hair tickled the back of my hands as the brush reached the end of each stroke. After a while, I dropped the brush to my side and ran a hand through her hair. Gloria reached back, and somewhere in the strands of hair, her fingers met mine. . . . Sounds of knocking. An ethnic guy with greasy, curly black hair is standing there, wearing one of those famous red and white 7-11 smocks. He is knocking and peering, peering and knocking. I sit up and roll the window down a crack. He doesn't waste any time. "Hey man, you can't sleep here. This ain't no steenkin' hotel." I make a quick mental calculation. Reseda, I think. No, not Reseda. Corona. They still talk like this in Corona. "I believe the term is mo-tel," I say. "Huh?" he shoots back. "Mo-tel," I repeat. "You take your car to a mo-tel." "Tu madre," the guy says under his breath. "I got some friends who can move you to a mo-tel for sure!" ''I'm sure you do," I say. "And I'd really like to stay here and meet them, but I've got a Circle K and two more 7-ll's to hit before I get a full night's sleep." I back out fast enough to run over his feet if he's not quick. He is. He dives out of the way, and as soon as he hits the pavement, he's back on his feet with a big rock in his hand. He lobs it at my bug, hitting the back windshield and sending a spiderweb of cracks crawling to the roof of my car. I slam on the brakes, do a 360 for effect, and bear down on the guy. I hit the gas. He gets out of the way pretty quick, leaping up on the hood of a black Mustang. He twists around, trying to get my plate number. I keep my plates in the back window, and they fall down all the time. I give the guy one last laugh, back up, and get out of there. I don't mind ethnics at all. It's stereotypes that bug me. I avoid downtown L.A. altogether. I decide to hit the beach, so I get on the Ventura Highway and coast along in the slow lane. This is the territory where I spent a lot of my childhood. Gloria and I talked a lot about coming down here sometime, but we never did. So now I'm down here without her, and it feels good. The wind in my hair, the smog in my lungs, the spice of youth in my veins. It feels like death. Just like death. There's a beach every other block down here, and not one is nearly as nice as it once was. I almost stop a few times. I want to find a beach without phones, where I can get some rest, but nothing feels right. Not alone. I am overcome with grief. The last six months wasted without calling her once. My foot grinds into the gas pedal. Bugs can be pretty fast little cars, if you're lucky enough to have a friend who can work on them. I'm lucky. I'm up to 95 miles an hour and my little car is hardly sweating it at all. Then I get it into my head to plow into the back of a semi. I can see the collision, hear the crashing of glass. The truck is up ahead, three hundred yards to the left. I won't feel a thing. I cross two lanes with a quick jerk of the steering wheel. Horns blare. I reach 100 miles an hour with a little more effort. I feel like crying but I don't. I just want to get to the truck as fast as I can and atomize a few particles. Gloria may even come to the funeral. That might be nice. Just when it seems I'm going to get my wish, and the truck is only 100 yards ahead, I glance off to the beach on my right. I slow down so fast I nearly cause a pileup. It's the same beach. There's my mother, and the army man. There's the four chesty girls. There I am, being thrown around like a sack of flour. I signal and get off at the next exit, making my way back to the beach. It hasn't changed much. When you see something you haven't seen since childhood, it usually looks larger or smaller than your memory, but this beach looks about the same. There's a family with a hibachi, frying up steaks, and about ten teenagers playing volleyball. It's amazing, otherwise. The sameness of it all. Except for the phone booth. It's white and blue, a rectangular closet up ahead on the left. I drive up alongside it slowly. And smile. Someone has torn the phone from its brackets. It won't be ringing anytime soon. I pull the bug onto a small, sandy patch of parking lot and get out. It's an unusually cool day for an L.A. beach, but warmer than I'm used to. I get out, slip off my shoes, and toss them back through my open window. This is the place. I walk out on the beach. It immediately puts me in mind of all those novels and movies where people go back to the places of their childhood and learn new and important things about their lives. The volleyball crowd is moving to the soothing strains of Van Halen. Nothing new and important for me there. The mother of the hibachi family is reading Green Eggs and Ham to one of her kids, a little blond guy wearing a red plaid bathing suit. There may be something new and important there, but I'm not in the mood. I walk out and let the surf wash over my feet. The water isn't too mucked up; I could probably even swim in it if I wanted to. But the thought of all those novels and movies comes back to me, and all the cathartic ramifications of bathing in my childhood memories keeps me out of it. I kick up some sand and walk down the beach. I know where I'm heading, but I try not to think about it too much. My analytical mind is too busy wondering what it will mean if the house isn't there anymore. And if it is, what if it's run-down, with paint peeling from the rafters? The symbolic possibilities are astounding. It's smaller than I remember. That doesn't mean it's small, not by any means, but memory's a tricky thing. It's a respectable, expensive-looking place, and the paint isn't peeling from the rafters. A couple of other houses have sprung up around it. A man's voice comes to me from the balcony. "Nice day, huh?" He isn't old, probably in his mid-forties, wearing red OP shorts and a yellow sports shirt with a baby stegosaurus on the left breast pocket. I smile. ''Nope, not too bad. Little warm, though.'' "Warm?" he laughs. "Kid, it's chilly today! You 're not from around here, I'd guess." "Up North." "Oregon, Washington?" "No," I say. "Northern California. San Francisco." "Oh," he says. "The Bay Area." It's always cracked me up how people say that like it's a dirty word. The ''Bay Area,'' like it hurts them to say it. There was a time when San Francisco was known for its architecture and trolleys. The guy doesn't say anything for a full minute. When he does, it isn't apologetic. ''This is a private beach, you know.'' I look out at the waves. "No," I say. "I didn't know that." "Yup," he coughs into his hand. "It is. You'll-" Just then a really pretty girl walks up behind him and looks over the rail at me. "Don't bug him, Daddy. He 's hardly a bum, you know." She smiles at me. "Hi," she says. ''I'm Jenny." "Terry,'' I say. The guy, who I guess is her father, looks at me distastefully. He doesn't want his daughter associating with any known "Bay Area" people. The girl walks down the back stairs and out onto the beach. "Jenny," her father warns, " I don't - " Jenny turns and looks up at him. The guy shuts up, and after a moment, he turns and walks inside. Jenny looks me in the eye. "Should I apologize for him?" she says. "Is it your fault he's that way?" She laughs. "Maybe. A little." We walk down to the edge of the water. She doesn't say anything for a while. I follow suit. Then, after a few minutes, she turns her face to the sun. "The 'Bay Area,' huh? " "Yeah.'' "I lived there for about a year and a half in '82....'.83. In San Rafael. Dad couldn't understand it. He said, 'Where are you ever going to find a man there?" "Was he right?" ''I married a guy there.'' ''Is that an answer?'' Jenny laughs again. She has a nice laugh. ''He wanted a ride to work. I wanted a husband.'' ''Oh.'' She traces a circle in the sand with her bare foot. ' 'You been here long?'' ''A few hours.'' "Staying long? " I smile. " Got any ideas?" We sit on the beach for about an hour. The conversation is light, easy. When it cools off a little bit, Jenny runs up to the house to get the hibachi and a couple of steaks. We fry them up and bake a couple of potatoes, have a little salad and some wine, and then go for a short swim. I use a pair of trunks belonging to her ex-husband, Jerry. We dry off just before sunset, climb one of the dunes, and watch the big guy go down. We're quiet for a while. Jenny pulls her knees up to her chin and rocks softly. "You love her, don't you? " she says finally. "Who? " "Whoever it is you 're running from. You love her." "What makes you think I'm running?" Jenny just looks at me. ''Gloria,'' I say. "Nice name. You love her? " "Yeah.'' "Have you told her? " "Yes." "When was the last time?" I hesitate a moment, then say: "Six months ago.'' Jenny nods. "I had a fern once. It didn't get enough sun in the back room where I kept it.' ' "Died?" "Yeah.'' "We broke up," I say. "My fault." Jenny turns to face me. "Really?" she says. The tide comes in below us and the sound of the waves grows louder. A light, warm breeze starts up. "Your folks rich? " I ask. Jenny nods. We talk until about three o'clock in the morning. Not too much about Gloria, a little about Jerry. Mostly we talk about music. Zappa and Hendrix, the Raspberries and Elton John, even Elvis Costello and Lionel Richie. We sleep on the beach that night. At one point, I wake up shaking. Jenny holds my hand until I go back to sleep. I don't dream. At ten o'clock in the morning, Jenny takes me into the house. The place has changed quite a bit, but I don't really remember that much about it. Jenny's father looks up at me distractedly from the kitchen table, where he sits reading the paper. Jenny leads me to the den and pushes me inside. She shuts the door, leaving me alone. Alone, that is, except for the phone. She answers on the second ring. ''Hello? '' "Gloria, it's Terry." Silence. "Gloria, I love you." Silence. "I need you , Gloria. I'm sorry." At first I think she's going to hang up. Listening closer, I can tell she's crying. "Where are you?" she asks. ''L.A.'' "Terry?" ''Yeah?'' ''Come home, Terry.''