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
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.
"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 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?"
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.
"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 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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
''Nope, not too bad. Little warm, though.''
"Warm?" he laughs. "Kid, it's chilly today! You 're not from around
here, I'd guess."
"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
''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
"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
"The 'Bay Area,' huh? "
"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.''
She traces a circle in the sand with her bare foot. ' 'You been here
''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.
"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? "
"Have you told her? "
"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.' '
"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.
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
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.
"Gloria, it's Terry."
"Gloria, I love you."
"I need you , Gloria. I'm sorry."
At first I think she's going to hang up. Listening closer, I can tell she's
"Where are you?" she asks.
''Come home, Terry.''