The Mystery of the Red Vines
Zelda can almost count the seconds to Edward’s approach. It’s that first moment after the lunchtime rush, as she stands at the counter and wonders if it’s time to clean her station. Edward’s ten-speed, a motley of rust and banana yellow, rolls left to right across the asphalt. He slows for the speed bump, curls into the courtyard and locks his bike to the railing.
Edward wears, at all times, a British workman’s cap, which makes one suspect a bald head underneath. He will enter the coffeehouse with his gaze fixed to the tiles, sneeze once, wipe his pug nose on the sleeve of his plaid shirt and ask for a small Sumatra.
“What’s the full name, Edward?” says Zelda, savoring her bitchiness.
Edward produces a slight twitch of his leftward lip. “Sinatra Sumatra.”
Zelda smiles. “Mr. Sinatra appreciates your effort.”
Edward hands her three dollars – no tip – and adjourns to the corner table, where two plate glass windows and a square column provide a solid shelter. He comes to collect his Sinatra – brewed with cashews, cocoa and honey – and returns to his lair, where he spends the next three hours staring at the screen of a beat-up laptop.
The payoff to tolerating Edward’s grungy presence is the arrival of Jackson Geary, a ray of sunshine with curly blond hair, brown eyes and a lanky frame that Zelda has made use of in her more private moments.
“Beautiful Zelda. How goes it, Miss Curve?”
“Just fine, Mr. Fastball. The usual?”
“Yes! I would not want to disrupt the ecosphere by having anything else.”
“You got it.”
Jackson wields his big-toothed smile, hands her a five and walks away. Zelda cashes four and drops a single into the tip jar.
Istanbul not Constantinople is a blend of Ethiopian beans, cardamom, pistachios and two leaves of mint. Zelda pours the hot water, stirs it to a creamy froth and watches it drain into the cup. She tops it with two more leaves and hands it to Jackson, who gives a smart nod and returns to Edward’s Corner. For the next half hour, the coffeehouse will ring with the music of Jackson’s laughter as he relates the day’s events to his mumbly pal.
Another coffeehouse intrigue is Carson Alameda, a handsome attorney with the county prosecutor’s department. Working the evening shift, Zelda became acquainted with Carson and his wife Roxy, who liked to drop in after seeing a film three doors down. They were a friendly couple, but not particularly affectionate. After switching to days, Zelda began to see Carson with a beautiful young blonde, Stacey. They appeared to be colleagues – she often heard bits of conversation about court cases – but lately things have progressed to a dicier pattern: Carson on the make, Stacey attempting to fend him off without hurting his feelings.
“Bye, Miss Curve!”
Jackson and Edward, heading out. They load Edward’s ten-speed into Jackson’s truck, circle the lot and vanish. Zelda divvies up the tips, gives one half to Courtney and waits on a bench near the movie marquee. Soon enough, Zarita fast-steps across the lot, wearing a Giants jersey and hat.
“Baseball night!” she cheers, and gives Zelda a hug. “Hey! Who’s the babe with Carson?”
“Part of our continuing soap opera,” says Zelda. “Quickly, let us away.”
When they arrive at San Jose Muni, the lights are taking full effect. Z and Z cut through the tunnels beneath the stadium, electing to ignore the snack bars so they can make the first pitch. Zarita takes them along the first-base side to the top of the bleachers. Zelda settles next to her and takes in the view: the still-green foothills to the south, an endless suburban sprawl to the west, the sun just beyond the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“I forget,” she says. “Why do we sit all the way up here in kingdom come?”
Zarita twitches her lips. “A better overall view of the game. A better chance for foul balls. And, it’s too high for annoying children to climb.”
“Listen to you! What kind of mother are you going to be?”
“Absent. Yo peanuts!”
A rail-thin vendor with a rusty beard turns in their direction.
“Two what?” he retorts.
He grabs a pair of bags from his carrier and fires them at Zarita’s face. She catches them with ease, one bag per hand.
“Six bucks, please!”
Zarita hands seven dollars to the guy next to her and it travels up the row. Mr. Peanuts counts it and yells “Thanks!”
An older guy in front of them turns to Zarita. “We could use you on our church softball team.”
“Sadly, my talent is limited to bags of food.”
Zelda cracks a shell and consumes the contents. “You are a born center of attention.”
Zarita smiles. Her dark eyes gleam in the stadium lights. “Unless we’re walking away.”
Zelda scans the field, trying to see who’s pitching. “I’m sorry, what?”
Zelda stares at her.
Zarita covers her mouth for a stage aside. “Due to that fine ass of yours.”
Zelda laughs. “Fine ass!” The guys in front of them try really hard not to look. Zelda lowers her voice. “Humongous ass.”
“Hey, I’ve got brothers and they tell me the truth. That junk in your trunk is a hot commodity.”
“So why am I not in the ballet?”
“Would you stop with the ballet already? The ballet demands a certain body type and you ain’t it. If my brothers ever saw you doing that pole dancing stuff they would faint dead away.”
Zelda sets her gaze on the outfield and thinks, And yet, I have no effect on Jackson Geary.
“Hey, check it out. Gigante’s up to something.”
Gigante (Hee-gawn-tay, Spanish for “giant”) is the mascot, a gorilla/caveman hybrid with patches of orange fur to go with the team colors. At the moment, he’s standing near the first base coach’s box in a tuxedo jacket and bowtie, approaching a mic stand. He proceeds to lip-synch the national anthem to a recording of some overdone opera singer (reminiscent of the guy who does the Mighty Mouse cartoons), striking various dramatic poses. Nearing the big climax, he drops to his knees and raises his arms, Pagliacci in full lament. The bit has Zarita snickering and giggling.
“Hilarious!” she squeaks.
Zelda raises a fist. “Play ball!”
Their best pitcher, Enriquez, is on the mound, going against Stockton’s ace, Gnarley. Naturally, it’s a slugfest. Batters are rounding the bases like horses on a carousel. By the fifth, the Giants are clinging to a 10-9 lead, and Stockton has once again loaded the bases. The Giants manager goes out to rescue his third pitcher and brings in a lefty.
“I don’t think I can take much more of this,” says Zarita. “It’s a freakin’ football score.”
“Hey look,” says Zelda. “Gigante’s up here.”
Gigante stands before a squad of Little Leaguers across the aisle, working his favorite shtick. He offers a fist-bump, then when the kid goes in with his knuckles he changes it to a high-five. He offers the next kid a high-five and changes it to a fist-bump. The third kid goes in with his knuckles then smartly changes to a high-five and meets Gigante palm-to-palm. Gigante grins (not that he has a choice) and shoots the kid an index finger: You da man! A parent asks for a photo; Gigante gathers them around in various body-builder poses. He steals one kid’s hat, tries to put it on his enormous head and then, disappointed, tosses it to his teammates.
Gigante turns to go but freezes, holding his hands to his face as if he’s spellbound.
“Zelda. I think he’s looking at you.”
“Nuh-uh. You’re the babe. Go ahead, say hello.”
Zarita gives him a wave, but Gigante stays frozen.
“See? Nothing. You try.”
Zelda gives him a finger-wave. Gigante comes to life and goes into a bashful-boy act, staring at his shoes, scratching his head. He eventually works up enough courage to blow her a kiss.
“What do I do?” asks Zelda.
“Blow him one back!”
“There’s no future for us. He’s a gorilla.”
Gigante drops his shoulders, as if he’s been rejected.
“Now look what you’ve done!”
“Oh, okay.” Zelda stands and blows him a kiss. He catches it and falls to his knees, raising his arms like a sinner come to Jesus. Then he stands up, waves her over and points to his cheek.
“He wants a kiss on the cheek.”
“Typical male. Always pushin’ for more.”
“If you do not kiss that mascot, and we lose this game, it’ll all be your fault.”
“Is this a superstition you just now made up?”
“Of course. But it’s true. Besides, you’ve got an audience.”
Zelda looks around to see that the entire section is watching their little drama. A lady two rows up shouts “Kiss him!” and the Little Leaguers pick up the chant: “Kiss him, kiss him, kiss him…” Gigante eggs them on, waving his arms like a conductor.
“Oh my gawd,” says Zelda. She pops up, shuffles down the row and lays a smooch on Gigante’s furry cheek. He reacts with a double spin and wobbles down the steps, intoxicated. The section roars its approval. Zelda curtsies.
“That was awesome,” says Zarita. “And I got that last part on video.”
“I feel like such a slut.”
“Hey, he rejected me. How do you think I feel?”
“Yeah yeah. Tell it to your fifty boyfriends.”
The Giants win, 13-12. And thus are superstitions born.
Zelda takes a moment to breathe. The lunch rush was one long avalanche of grumpy customers. Her store of phony cheerfulness is nearing empty. She eyes the napkin dispenser – also nearing empty – when a smear of yellow and rust crosses the window.
Edward enters, wearing an even darker aura than usual, along with gray bags under his eyes. And a three-day beard. He pulls on the bill of his cap and mutters, “Sinatra… Sumatra.”
“Edward!” she coos. “You’re teachable.”
“Hope for you yet.”
He hands her three singles and drops a quarter in the tip jar. This is the first time he has ever tipped her.
“Thank you,” she says, and goes to her station to begin the alchemy. She’s handing Edward his drink when she hears the jangling of bells.
“Oyez! Oyez! Flower girl.”
This is Connie of Connie’s Flowers, a shop at the other side of the center. She and Zelda have a running exchange program.
“Calla lilies! Wow.”
Connie, whose every outfit features at least one bell, waves a jingly sleeve. “Poor things were on death row. Still pretty, but a little saggy around the edges. Kinda like me – haw! I bring them here for one last glorious cotillion before they meet with the Dumpster.” She sets the vase between the biscotti and the apricot bars.
“Kona Caramel?” asks Zelda.
“You know my price. But first, I brought something to sweeten the pot.” She places a brown bag next to the register.
Zelda smiles. “Connie! How nice.”
“Well, open it.”
When Zelda sees what it is, she loses all sense of decorum.
“No! Oh my god, oh my god. I love you, you’re awesome!”
“Well eat one already.”
“No, I can’t. I need to wait till after work, when I can relish it. You know what, though? Let’s get a picture. Who can…”
Zelda scans the coffeehouse and realizes there’s only Edward. She takes Connie by the elbow and walks her over. Edward gradually lifts his eyes from his laptop.
“Edward, can you be a doll and take a photo?”
Edward puts out his hand. Zelda gives him her iPhone and poses with Connie and her box of Red Vines licorice ropes. Edward hands back the phone and returns to his laptop.
“Thanks,” says Zelda. “Oh, Connie. I washed your last vase. Let me get it from the back.”
The Z-girls arrive early and load up on peanuts, hot dogs and beer. Zelda spots Gigante leaning over the railing, conducting a boisterous pretend argument with an umpire, who settles the matter by tossing him from the game. Gigante is stomping away when he spots Zelda, falls to his knees and waves his arms in worship. Zelda pulls him to his feet and kisses his cheek. He puts his hands over his heart, looks to the sky and leaves to greet a mother and her two sons.
Zarita pokes her shoulder, sing-songing, “Zelda’s got a boy-friend!”
“Yep. And last night I found out why they call him Gigante.”
“Wicked! You are wicked.”
They climb to the bleachers to their usual spot and set about dressing up their dogs.
“A hot dog without mustard,” says Zarita. “What are you, Al Qaeda?”
“And yet, the planet continues to spin.”
“Hey, any news on Carson Alameda?”
“Not much. Came in with some younger dude today. His handyman. Phil Garrow. Carson was very big on him, said he can do anything. It was a little weird, actually.”
Zarita laughs. “Maybe he’s saying Phil can do you.”
“Hmm, and maybe I’ll let him.”
“Hey, my entire love life is a guy in a gorilla suit.”
The bleachers begin to vibrate. “Hey,” says Zarita. “That is funky.”
The PA is cranked up, delivering a jam heavy on electronica. Zelda sets down her dog and stands, working her hips in slow gyrations.
Zarita laughs. “You are much too good at that.”
“Hey! Check out Gigante.”
Gigante has commandeered a stretch of grass near the batting circle and is sculpting the groove, a couple of running-man moves followed by a leftward slide, back to the right, then a ripple that flows from one side of his body to the other, something like an old pop-and-lock but smoother. He finishes with a James Brown shuffle, hovercrafting toward the dugout.
“Dah-yum!” says Zelda. “How does he move like that in that big ol’ costume?”
“Outfit?” says Zarita. “Do you mean to imply that Gigante is not real?”
Zelda bends over and twerks toward Zarita’s face. Zarita swats her right rump. “Keep that thing away from me!”
“Now you know you’re just encouraging me.”
Zelda worries that she’s becoming one of those pathetic, obsessive sports fans. The days are dull and interminable, and it seems to have everything to do with the fact that her Giants are on the road. She knows what comes next: a small herd of pet cats, daily selfies on her Facebook page, nightly visits to a karaoke bar. And failing to notice customers who are standing right in front of her.
“I’m sorry. Can I help you?”
He looks up from his phone, a swarthy gent with thick black hair. “Oh! No problem. I’m waiting for my fiancée. She hates it if we don’t order together.”
“You… look familiar.”
“Oh, um. Phil. Phil Garrow. I work for Carson.”
“Ah, Carson. Man about town.”
“Frankly, he’s a douchebag,” says Phil. “But since he employs both myself and my future wife, you didn’t hear that from me. Ah, speak of the angel.”
He opens the door for a beautiful blonde and greets her with the kind of kiss that would fill three paragraphs of a romance novel. Zelda sighs. And then realizes it’s the same woman who’s been fighting off Carson’s roaming hands. She tries to maintain a neutral expression and serves each of them a Llamadeus, a blend of Peruvian coffee, Austrian chocolate and beets.
With no soundtrack whatsoever, Jackson Geary bursts through the door and unleashes a smile.
“Miss Curve! I am dying for a cup of coffee.”
In a flash, Zelda realizes that she is not a baseball widow, will have no pet cats, no karaoke addiction, because the thing that she has been missing all week is Jackson Geary. She hands him his Istanbul not Constantinople, watches him greet Edward – who has apparently been here all week – and makes plans to replace all the garbage bags in the coffeehouse, which will obligate her to put her fine ass on display.
It seems that, for this particular game, they have pulled out every between-innings gag in the book. They drive an old van onto the field and two players try to smash the headlights with thrown baseballs. A man tries to chip-shot a golf ball from atop the dugout into a wading pool on the field. Then there’s the beer batter. The announcer chooses a batter from the opposing team (Inland Empire), and if he strikes out, beers are half-price for the rest of the inning. Zelda always feels a little bad for the poor shmoe, who must feel like he’s Public Enemy Number One. But she still joins the chant: “Beer batter! Beer batter! Beer batter!”
He takes a fastball on the outside corner. The umpire rings him up.
“Yaaaaugh!” The crowd erupts; half of them make a dash for the beer stand, including Zarita.
“One for you?” she asks.
“Yes!” Zelda watches Zarita trot the steps, then settles back to enjoy the game. A bouncy collegiate blonde in a Giants jersey skips down the aisle.
“Hi! Gigante would like you to be in a game of musical chairs.”
“Next inning. If you win you get a free jacket!”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
The blonde goes deadly serious. “One does not turn down a request from the Great Gigante.”
Zelda falls silent; the blonde slaps her shoulder. “I am totally screwing with you! But come on, it’ll be fun.”
Which is how Zelda finds herself on the field with a teenage boy, a middle-aged man and three inflatable chairs. She immediately gets the hierarchy: the man will go out first, followed by Zelda and the teen, leaving the little girl to win. Gigante marches a circle around them, hyping the crowd as the announcer makes the intro.
“And now, please direct your attention to the third-base line, where four of our victims, er, fans, will attempt to…”
He cranks up “I Feel Good,” and the contestants circle the chairs. When the music stops, Zelda is in a perfect spot. She plops down and watches as the man elbows the teen aside and dives for the last seat. Uh-oh. Douchebag alert. Gigante takes away one chair, and the music starts up again. The man’s got a hunter’s look in his eye, but Zelda’s got a plan. When the music stops, he makes a dash, but Zelda tosses a hip and clips him. The man takes a full spin and falls down in a heap. He looks surly for a second, but he sees Zelda’s wicked smile and starts laughing. For the finale, Zelda stays right behind the little girl. When the music stops, Zelda is directly in front of the seat, but she keeps going, chasing the girl all the way around to grant her the victory.
Gigante lifts the winner into the air, hands each of them a wrapped gift and requests the usual kiss from Zelda. As they’re leaving the playing field, the blonde assistant walks past and says, “You were awesome!”
Zarita welcomes her back with a churlish expression. “Oh sure, I get you a beer and you’re off becoming famous. There will be no living with you now.”
“No,” says Zelda. “There won’t. Thanks for the brewski.”
“So open your box! Let’s see what you got.”
Zelda sets her beer in a cupholder and undoes the orange-and-black wrapping. It’s a box of Red Vines.
Zarita chuckles. “Well that’s just random.”
Photo: "Leo," acrylics on canvas, Michael J. Vaughn