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Number Sixteen: John Wayne
The Duke stands tall and wary-eyed, cowboy hat, buckskin vest, a shotgun slung over his shoulder. He looks young, fresh-faced – perhaps an early John Ford movie. Another pre-fab mold. The green runs uphill to three slots, leading through tunnels to the barrels of three Colt .45 pistols, rendered in concrete with impressive authenticity. The center pistol offers the best shot, while the left and right result in wild ricochets off the high border walls.
It’s gotten to the point where David needs to make appointments with his own sons. He enters Beach Treasures at five o’clock and finds Pablo among the gee-gaws, the only table that’s not in the spacious back room. He appears to be talking to himself.
“Yeah. The thickness of the dough – real inconsistent. Saturday? No, that’s good. I’ll save the emergency card for when I really need it. Don’t wanna be the pizza man who cries wolf. Ha! All right, Lou. Thanks, man.”
Pablo spots his father and turns; David’s relieved to see a Bluetooth ear-clip.
“Oh no! He’s gone cyborg. I’ve lost my human son!”
Pablos smiles and stands to give him a hug.
“I’ll be right back.”
“Latte?” says Pablo. “Sprinkle of chocolate?”
David spots the second cup on the table.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll forget your birthday, but coffee’s important.”
“Amen, brother.” David sits down and takes a sip.
“Uncovered John Wayne today.”
“Wow! Mr. Blaine doesn’t mess around with the minor icons, does he?”
“Ain’t too many prefab molds of Rosemary Clooney.”
David gives him a quizzical look.
“Infomercial. Three in the morning.”
“So when do you start with the greens?”
“Not till April. Even on sunny days, the concrete needs low humidity.”
“Pretty tough at three feet above sea level.”
“Gerry Kolder hooked us up with some concrete magicians in Centralia. Old, semi-retired dudes. They know all the tricks, and they’re into the artistic nature of the project.”
The Bluetooth hums; Pablo hits the ignore button. David feels duly flattered.
“So, um… what’s the deal with you and Mom?”
“Well. You’re hangin’ with Abbey. Mom’s walkin’ all over town in that workout suit. Something’s up.”
David takes a moment to assess. Pablo’s twenty, not as delicately wired as Derek. He’d best just out with it.
“It looks like divorce.”
Pablo goes silent, which for him is quite the rare occurrence. He buys some time by sipping at his mocha.
“Geez. I been so busy, I didn’t realize it had gone that far. Was it the weight thing?”
David rubs at a spot of grease on his knuckle.
“Yeah. I was having a problem with it. Your mother quit the ice cream shop to work on it – I thought – then she found someone who liked her that way.”
“A chubby chaser?”
“Yeah. How come everyone knows that expression?”
“Welcome to the Age of Information.”
“Yeah. Cyborg. Well, so, I guess I took that as license to spend more time with Abbey.”
David realizes he is grossly euphemizing, but he is not about to speak the words “sleep with Abbey” to his eldest son. Pablo leans back in his chair and stares out the window. The sun is hiding behind a thick bank of clouds; the western horizon is a quilt of silver and gray.
“So what’s with all the power-walking?”
“Your mom got dumped.”
“Oh! Now that is fucked up.”
“I just hope she’s not doing it for me.”
“Hmm. Too late?”
“It might not be, except that it’s Abbey.”
“Yeah. She’s pretty cool. The guys at school… Well…”
“No no. Tell me.”
“Well, you know, teenagers, pack mentality. They’ll pick on you if you’ve got a zit, much less an entire missing limb. ‘Hey, Ms. Sparling said she could use some help. Could you give her a hand?’ Har har har. ‘Ms. Sparling gave us extra homework today, but I don’t think she has any right.’ Ho ho ho. But I’m betting every single one of them wanted to bag her. She’s got that Sylvia Plath gangsta pirate thing goin’ on.”
David breaks up. “I can’t wait to tell her that.”
“Hey, you didn’t hear it from me. But, Dad…” He puts a hand on David’s arm. “Let’s keep an eye out for Mom, okay? I don’t think she’s as strong as the rest of us.”
“You got it.”
A man is sliding his card into an ATM, cursing under his breath.
“Geez,” says David. “Somebody’s having a bad day.”
Pablo leans forward.
“That is a prime opportunity. Let me give you the rundown. Man walks in, discovers they’re about to close, and his girl’s not here yet. Strike one. Calls his girl, gets her order: double mocha, whipped cream. Barista makes two mochas. Guy wants me to pay with his card, barista says, Oh I’m sorry, the reader’s down. Strike two. Guy says, But I’ve got no cash. Foul ball off the foot – ouch!”
“Ooh!” says David. “Those hurt.”
“Who you kiddin’? We play slow-pitch.”
“So the barista says, Well we do have an ATM over there.”
“And it’s rejecting his card. Strike three, over and over and over.”
“He’s also picking up stress off the barista, ‘cause she’s a new girl, she already rang up the purchase, doesn’t know how to void it, and it’s gonna mess up her till.”
David gives him a look. “Have you been listening to me at all?”
“I am the idiot savant of the retail world.”
“I believe it. But what’s the prime opportunity?”
“Hold on. Gotta let him leave first.”
The wall of tchotchkes allows them to eavesdrop as the man negotiates an IOU.
“Really, I’m really sorry. But I’m staying right up the street, and I’ll be back first thing tomorrow.”
The barista gives an unconvincing “Okay” and the man slips out the front door with his mochas.
“Follow me,” says Pablo.
They head for the counter like a pair of federal agents. Pablo flashes his best smile.
“Hi. How much were those mochas?”
“Oh,” she says. “Um, seven-fifty.”
He slaps down a ten.
“Keep the change. And don’t you dare tell him who did this.”
This just about melts the barista.
“That is so sweet!”
“Believe me. I’m doing this entirely for myself.”
Pablo returns to the table, followed by his puzzled father.
“I’m not sure I get this. Why didn’t you just offer to pay for it while he was still here? Then he wouldn’t be leaving with so much anxiety.”
Pablo takes a deep drink and addresses the issue like a lawyer summing up.
“The random act of kindness is a tricky endeavor. One must always consider the psychological state of the recipient. In a primal, hunter-gatherer way, this guy spent those ten minutes being entirely emasculated, by closing time, by cashlessness, twice by technology – and by failing to provide for his woman, in the presence of a female barista. Imagine if a teenager offered to save his sorry ass, followed by the obligatory thanks-yous and offers of repayment. By the time he got out of here, his dick would be half its original size.”
David lets out a yelp of a laugh, and a pair of headlights sweeps the front window. It’s the same guy, leaving in his truck. He gives them a suspicious look.
“Nope,” says Pablo. “For that guy, tonight is a lost cause. But tomorrow… Tomorrow he’ll show up with his blood money and discover that the universe is looking out for him. He’ll have a fresh start, and he will feel much better about life. As for me, for the rest of this week, if I get a pissy customer, or Eric shows up late for work, or hole number 17 is a tribute to Adolf Hitler, I’ll look back on this and think, Hey, that was pretty cool.”
David slaps him on the shoulder. “Son, you are a lot more complicated than people realize.”
Pablo lets out a crackling laugh.
“Yeah. I get that a lot.”
The crowds have thinned out, but Charley offers some reassurance. Tonight’s crowd, a hundred-plus, is more than enough to beat the profit margin. It also gives Salmon Hall a loungier, friendlier feel, and allows the trio to be more spontaneous. Two songs in, Billy calls a huddle around the piano.
“All right, boys. The usual andante of ‘That’s All,’ once through, then take it into a medium bop swing. And keep going until I’m done with… whatever it is I’m doin’.”
Another mystery – but these days, Isaiah and David are pretty nonplussed by anything. Billy sings at the stand-up mic, with that special feeling that David has not yet figured out. At the tempo change, he shuffles to his left, snaps his finger and extends a hand. A beautiful brunette appears at stage left in a flowing white dress spangled in waves of silver. She crosses the stage in a trot, two hops and three spins. She takes Billy’s hand and he drops her into a dip. He brings her back up in slow motion, gives her a kiss and spins her away like a top, catching her at the last second and turning to face her. They do that Broadway thing where they slide to the right as their feet go forward, backward, forward and backward and then they stop. Billy puts his hands together high above her head, like a matador preparing the coup de grace, and waves her one way, then the other, her arms swinging out like a fan.
Billy pulls her close and lifts her, one of her legs pointed horizontally as if she’s relaxing on a couch, then spins her through the air around his body. He sets her down till they’re standing nose-to-nose, holding for a moment as they break into grins. Joyce counts “One-two!” and they hop side-by-side for matching tap combos. The beginning is a standard time-step, but after that it gets pretty wild, ending with that move where the dancers flap their arms, seeming to pull their bodies into the air as their toes roll out tattoos underneath.
Billy hops back, they wrap their arms together and spin rightward, taking turns whipping each other into the air. When they come to the end of the stage, Billy plants a foot, Joyce places her feet next to his and he uses an arm to drop her to the side, till she’s at an angle twenty degrees from the floor. They thrust out their free arms in a final pose, and Isaiah cuts away mid-measure to send out a final chord.
Their hundred-plus go pretty nuts. Billy gives Joyce a big smooch, and she runs offstage, waving to the crowd. Billy heads for the drums and sits on his throne, catching his breath. Isaiah plays a bit of Ukrainian dance music, bringing a weak smile.
“No way, pal! Woo! Excuse me a minute.” He takes a drink of water and a few more breaths.
“Okay. I owe you… an explanation. Six months before what I like to call the Horrid Event…” a beat for laughter “…a friend of mine convinced me to play Nathan Detroit in a production of ‘Guys ‘n’ Dolls.’ Problem being, I couldn’t dance. Never stopped Sinatra, right? So this friend introduced me to a dance teacher, a lovely lady by the name of Joyce Quinlan. Like any good student, I fell in love with my instructor. The amazing part was, she fell in love with me. What the national media never knew… Hey! Do me a favor. When I say ‘national media,’ give me a big melodrama boo. Here goes: What the national media…”
“Tree-mendous. Thank you. What the foul-smelling marauding jackals never knew is that I proposed to the lovely Miz Quinlan, and the lovely Miz Quinlan said yes.”
He pauses for a mixture of oohs and handclaps.
“That’s a Salmon Hall exclusive right there. The only person I ever told was my bass player. That little choreography was something we worked up for our wedding day.”
Billy goes quiet, as if somebody pulled his plug. He turns away from the audience to wipe his eyes and clear his throat. David gets a chill at the back of his neck. Billy turns, takes a breath and gets it all out at a shot.
“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Joyce… Quinlan… Saddle.”
Joyce runs into Billy’s arms as the stage succumbs to chaos. The two musicians abandon their posts to join in, and then comes a whole ragtag squad: Abbey, Thomas, Pablo, Gillian, Parthenia and a couple people nobody seems to know. The last to arrive is Charley Nations, grinning wildly. Isaiah sneaks out of the scrum to play “Love and Marriage,” sung by everybody except Billy. He gives Joyce a honeymoon kiss and shoos everybody from the stage.
“The nerve of you people! Any more hi-jinks like that and I’ll have my man Namraq break your legs.”
He stares at Namraq, standing guard at the steps, until the big man cracks a smile.
“I knew he had teeth.” Billy sits behind his drums, takes another long breath and laughs.
“Well! That’s the first half-hour of our show…”
Photo by MJV