Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 37: The Gravity Car

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The first of May, and Mill Valley is gorgeous, the trees bursting with chlorophyll, the weather a mid-70s California perfection, fog banks tickling the ridges with natural air conditioning. We should all feel insanely guilty. I take to the hills for a hike, all the way up Throckmorton to Crystal Falls, a delicate little descent stashed into a redwood grove as if a contractor had put it there. I backtrack to Old Mill Park and find a free production of A Comedy of Errors in a grove behind the library. I can only stay ten minutes, but it’s good to drink in the old language, feel the enrgy from the audience and chuckle at the backstage facilities, a wall of blankets hung over ropes.

When I arrive at the Depot, I order a passion fruit smoothie and find a table with plentiful shade. A covey of techno-nerds sit at the next table, exclaiming over their cats.

“You’re looking awfully intense.”

“Great. My first murderous thought all day, and I’m busted.” I get up to give Molly a kiss on the cheek.

She settles into her chair with a cup of coffee. She’s wearing a knit black top that reveals quite a bit of cleavage. This is a recent trend.

“Perhaps they should have sent you to jail,” she says

I hold up a hand. “Listen carefully.”

“I swear sometimes that cat thinks he’s human!”

“Ew,” says Molly. “Y’know, I spent a year working on a patient who was using her cat’s death as an excuse for not dating.” She sips at her coffee and surveys the square. “What an incredible day.”


“Do you miss the celebrity?”

“I can honestly say no. Having Stan on my side, I figured a quick dismissal was in the works. So I didn’t get too attached to the spotlight. At heart, I’m a drummer. I like to be in the back, pulling strings. I got a basement full of Humboldt County plants, the free publicity is bringing new customers to the store, and I’m thinking of starting a modest speaker series.”

“Fantastic!” Molly gives me the magic smile, but she holds it for much longer than usual.

“So what’s with you?”

She laughs. “I sort of wondered if I was… radiating. I’m seeing someone. A fellow psychologist. I met him in Carmel, at a seminar on suicide prevention. Bernardo Cantafaccio.”

“Jesu Christe!”

“Yeah, I know. And he was born in the Bronx. He took me to a roller derby match. Who knew that I would love the roller derby? It’s so sexy and empowering, all those tough chicks pummeling each other. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go on.”

“Who deserves to go on more than you? You spend an extraordinary amount of time listening to other people’s problems. And I am so glad you’re getting attention! This also explains the low necklines.”

She glances downward. “Well would you look at that? I had no idea.”

“My white honky ass.”

“I’m under orders from Bernie. He’s very… appreciative.”

“Okay. Now I’m just jealous.”

We have maxed out our flirtation limit, which sends us into a familiar no-man’s land, the place where I would be Bernie were I not stuck on the great invisible girlfriend.

“Any news?” she asks.

“Not really. No contact with Sass. Nothing from the missing persons network.”


“Jacob has also gone missing. The boy is a bit of a flake. Not that I blame him.”

Another dead end, another silence. A breeze rolls down from the ridges. Molly sighs, ecstatic. I know exactly what she’s feeling. Love is a tactile sport, and all of her nerve endings are wide open.

“Come on,” I say. “I want to show you something.”


I take her to the end of the square. Perched upon a set of steel wheels is a flat, open rail car, really just a glorified box, eight feet wide, twelve feet long, with five benches. The plaque reads Gravity Car. I hop into the front bench and pat the seat next to me.

“What the hell is a gravity car?”

“Say it’s 1928. You and your financier husband, Bernard Candlefloss, take a long weekend away from your San Francisco manor. You take a steam train up to Mill Valley to see the mighty redwoods, but once you arrive at the depot…” I flip a thumb toward the coffeehouse. “Boom! Dead end. You’re right up against Mount Tamalpais. No way you’re getting over that. But here’s the genius part. The way back is completely downhill. So. When you’ve seen all the trees you can stand, they bundle you into this simple-looking device and you coast all the way back to the ferry docks, equipped with nothing more than a brakeman to regulate your speed.”

Molly smiles. “Fun! Do you know, I never actually realized The Depot used to be a train station?”

“Well what did you think it was?”

“Marketing gimmick?”

“Good point. So, anyway, on nights when the ghost of Jasmina Kelly Copper Contrevic takes away my ability to sleep, I come here, and I sit in the front seat, release the brake, and I coast all the way to Sausalito. On especially bad nights, I gaze down Miller Avenue and I picture the silhouette of a kinky-haired woman, a bedraggled wanderer walking in my direction. Then I release the brake, I scoop her up in my arms, and we go for seafood in Tiburon.”

Uh-oh. Now I’ve done it. Molly’s crying.

“Molly! It isn’t necessarily a sad thing.”

“I know.” She wipes a hand across her cheek. “But it’s so… fucking romantic.”

A well-placed f-word can really crack me up.

In late June, I took a spontaneous trip to Yosemite. I had something to get off my lifetime list: hiking the Mist Trail to the Vernal and Nevada waterfalls. I had read reports of record snowmelt, and arrived at the footbridge beneath the Vernal to find the water pounding the rocks with a thrilling white fury. At the other end of the bridge, I found a missing-persons flier with a tragic story. A young woman, hiking with her Greek church group, was splashing in the waters above the falls when she slipped. Two male friends saw her being carried away by the strong current and raced over to help. All three were swept over. The snowmelt had prevented search teams from venturing into the rapids below the falls, and two weeks later they had yet to find the bodies.

That day, I punished myself. I climbed hundreds of granite steps to the top of Vernal and kept going, climbing hundreds more to the top of Nevada. Toward the end, I had to stop every twenty feet to gather my strength. A fellow hiker saw my condition and handed me some snacks. A seeming eternity later, I stood on a bridge over the Nevada, watching the engorged river hurl itself into a granite chute and over the precipice. I filled my bottle from streamside and drank and drank, then I rode my ruined legs along the blue granite cliffs. Just after sunset, I regained the Vernal footbridge with its young Greek faces. To pay for one stupid mistake with three lives. I envisioned a park ranger exiting a secret portal to pull a switch and halt the falls till morning, when the day’s first hiker would trip a laser and set them back into motion.

“Whatcha got there?”

High school girl.

“Oh, hi. Ansel Adams.” I flip it around, a two-page spread of Half Dome.


“I’m thinking of putting in a section on the environment.”

She turns to a shot of Tuolomne Meadows in winter. Then she giggles and says, “What?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re kind of… staring.”

“Oh! Sorry. It’s your hair.”

“I know. Isn’t it weird?”

“Let’s say ‘unusual.’ It reminds me of someone.”

“Someone else has this mess? I feel sorry for her.”

“Nonsense! It’s beautiful. But I was trying not to sound creepy.”

She gives me a quick study. “Nope. I know creepy, and you ain’t it.”

“Good to know.”

She leans on the counter and takes a scan of the store. “So is this where you go to get a God-ectomy?”

“I don’t guarantee it, but it’s certainly a good place for challenging old concepts.”

She purses her lips. “I have observed lately that religion is used largely as a rationalization for killing people who disagree with you.”

I laugh. “Me: choir. You: preaching.”

“So where’s a good place to start?”

“Hmmm… I am betting that you are looking for a little affirmation of your suspicions. A little courage to drive you forward.”

“A fire under my ass?”

“Precisely. Head for the philosophy section up front and check out Christopher Hitchens. Or, if you’re into the science-based angle, Richard Dawkins. Or, for the blue-collar female, Julia Sweeney.”

“The comedian?”

“And recovering Catholic.”

“Awesome possum.”

She goes off to browse. I try very hard to look like I’m working. She returns with Hitchens’ God is not Great.

“That book will blow your freakin’ mind.”

“Good,” she says. “It needs to be blown.”

I swipe her card and wait for the approval. “So. Since we have concluded that I can’t be creepy, how come I haven’t seen you around here before?”

“’Cause I’m from Michigan. I’m spending the summer with a friend from college.”

“You’re in college?”

She smiles. “I get that, too.”

“Young-looking, gorgeous hair. Is there any end to the indignities that you must suffer?”

“Okay. Semi-creepy.”

“Too late! I have immunity.”

She folds her arms over the counter. “You are a card.”

“Atheists are funny people. I’m Paul.”

She shakes my hand. “Maggie.”

“What is it really?”

“Magdalena. Boy! You do have me pegged.”

“I run into a lot of biblical names. Raised… Lutheran?”

“Now you’re just playing regional probabilities.”

“Okay. You got me.”

She taps the book. “If this is any good, I’ll be back.”

“In that case, you’ll be back.”


“Bye, Maggie.”

She’s about to hit the door when I am struck by the temptation to push my luck. “Hey, Maggie.”

The lookback sends her ringlets flying.

“If you’re bored on Thursday, my band is playing the Throckmorton Theater. It’s a benefit for Japanese tsunami victims.”

“What kind of music?”

“High-powered rock with an aggressive empowered chick singer.”

“I am so there.”

“Fantastic! I’ll look for you.”


I watch Maggie cross the street. I’m feeling a little puzzled. Jailbait is not exactly my style.

The Throckmorton is a cute old place, outfitted with the usual early-century Greek touches (pillars, cornices, archways). Its standard offerings are local theater groups, touring acoustic musicians, the occasional stand-up comic and lots of Rotary meetings. It’s a little odd for rock groups – especially our openers, Pitch Black Providence, a speed-metal outfit with a “lead screamer.” The cushy theater seats keep everybody a little sedentary, but it’s nice to feel like you’re actually being listened to. Our first set is a little less kinetic than usual, but we’re playing sharper, enjoying our songs as if we had just created them.

I head out to the lobby for intermission and run into Javid, equipped with an asymmetrical upswoop of hair and a small silver earring.

“Uh-oh. Someone’s been living in San Francisco.” I give him a big old hug and he grins.

“I feel like I am myself for the first time in my life.”

“That is always the best thing to be.” Past Javid’s shoulder, I spot a head of kinky hair. “Hey. ‘Scuse me a sec, wouldja? I just have to say hi to someone. As a matter of fact, I think she might be your type.”

Javid smiles. “Excellent.”

Across the lobby, Maggie is studying a wall full of photos, big stars who played the Throckmorton: David Crosby, Carlos Santana, Robin Williams, Joan Osborne. I tap her on the shoulder, but it’s not Maggie. I stare and stare, waiting for the illusion to drift away. I reach out and discover that the illusion is flesh and blood.

Five minutes later, I’m still afraid to let go. The lights are flashing. Pamela paces into the lobby.

“Paul! We’re back on in… Holy shit.”

Jasmina pulls back from my shoulder and gives her a smile. Pamela waves and turns back for the auditorium. I wipe a tear from Jasmina’s cheek. She wipes one from mine.

“If I play another set, you’re not gonna…”

“Hell no.”

I kiss her and walk backwards for several steps.

Long after load-up, and an ad hoc press conference from my bandmates (and Javid, who is beside himself), I manage to smuggle Cinderella down to the gravity car. The leafy crowns of the residential forest hum with the light of a three-quarters moon.

“You didn’t answer one damn question.”

She laughs. “I should run for office.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

She squeezes my hand. “I’ve got lots to tell you. But first I need to tell Molly.”

“That makes sense.”

“I will offer you a highly compressed rundown. It seems that my two selves decided to have a reunion, and Kelly decided that this reunion had to take place in Montana. After unearthing an event so traumatic that both of us had suppressed it, my two selves met up somewhere in my cerebellum to create the new, improved hybrid you see before you. Jasmina Kelly.”


“I have only to visit the proper government department to make it official. Anyways, I also ran into Jacob – okay, was rescued by Jacob – and he helped me track down my daughter.”

I have to lean back in order to display my full surprise. “Maggie?”

“Maggie. She’s staying for the summer. I hope she didn’t freak you out too much, but she was dying to check you out. I have to admit, I was also using her as a spy. I… wanted to find out if you had hooked up with someone else while I was gone.”

I’m staring at her like an idiot. This effect may last for weeks.

“So?” she says.

“Oh!” I shift on the seat and pull a rolled-up bandana from the pocket of my jeans. She works it open, looking puzzled.

“My amethyst!” She dangles it, watching it sparkle in the moonlight, then she gives me the kind of kiss I’ve been dreaming about for six months.

“I’ve been carrying it with me ever since you left.”

She gives me a smile, the one that oscillates, and sits in my lap. I lose myself in the labyrinth of her hair. We are renegade planets, stellar objects who have finally given in to Newton’s laws. She taps a finger on my nose.

“So. What the hell is a gravity car?”

“Close your eyes and hold on tight.”

I reach down and release the brake.

Photo by MJV

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