(Semper Fi Jordan...Tôi yêu con gái KaSandra...Anh yêu em Tuyet)
a novel by nicholas sheridan stanton
Municipal Cemetery, Long Beach, California, November 24, 2004
Settling into the back seat of Sandy's big Lincoln Navigator I buckled my seatbelt. I reached out to accept the heavy wool blanket his wife Laura was handing back to me and nodded my appreciation. “Thanks,” I said meekly wrapping myself snuggly in her kind gesture. She studied me for a second then leaned over the seat and slapped me good and hard on my exposed thigh, the wet denim enhancing the cold sting.
“HEY!” I shouted, startled by her brazen attack.
“HEY MY ASS PATRICK!” Laura hollered.
“What do you think you’re doing coming out here in the middle of a thunder storm and acting all crazy and stuff? Are you trying to send Monica to the nut house?” she asked, demanding a response. I didn't have one.
“Well, are ya…huh?” Laura asked again, pressing for an answer.
She was so mad that she shivered while she ranted. She waited for me to answer for a millisecond then spun 180 degrees in her seat, curtly crossing her arms, totally frustrated with me. We both just sat there waiting for Sandy to start the car. Laura turned slightly toward her husband, rolling her eyes in my direction.
“You talk to him!” she said frustrated, watching the colors of the stoplight bleed from red, to amber, to green in the watery windshield. Sandy sighed, looking at me in the rear view mirror. “She’s right ya know, this shit has got to stop man!”
I looked at Sandy in the mirror, apologizing with my eyes and waited for him to nod an acknowledgement. Laura had resolved to remain silent the rest of the ride home. In spite of her fire and ice treatment I was beginning to fell a little like my old self. My life had a purpose again, a reason for getting from one day to the next. Pulling the blanket tighter around my shoulders I leaned forward and stuck my wet head into the space between my friends, like a dog begging for attention.
“I did some thinking today,” I said staring at the radio. My friends remained silent, listening for signs of the old Patrick, the sane Patrick.
“Look, I’m sorry for all the time I’ve wasted feeling sorry for myself, it was wrong, I know.”
“I just feel like I died with Gabby, you know what I mean?” I blurted, offering a nonsensical explanation for my behavior.
Sandy and Laura kept quiet, giving me space. Truth was they'd already decided how to deal with my grief on the way over. They agreed to be loving, but firm. Apparently Laura was taking the tough love versus the psycho babble approach, which seemed odd as she was a licensed psychologist? They were prepared for an emotional breakdown and had a working plan on how to talk me off of the ledge. But the breakdown never came.
“Really, guys, I think I’m okay now,” I said, hoping for a little feedback.
“I can’t explain it but I feel it. Maybe you can Laura, you’re a shrink.” She turned and glared at me.
“Sorry, I mean Doctor Laura,” I said apologetically.
“I just can't let it go, ya know?”
“I mean I was so worried that Monica or Papa would fall apart that I didn’t notice that it was me losing my mind, is that crazy or what?”
“Yep, I think so Pat, I think so,” Sandy replied.
Laura reached over and combed my wet hair with her fingers, apparently the ice was melting. We enjoyed a quite moment together, listening to the muted sounds of traffic as we drove toward home.
“Grief is normal Patrick, mourning is accepted, my goodness, it’s expected. But the time for those feelings came and went long ago. Are you getting my drift?” Laura asked softly. I nodded and reached up, taking her hand and pressing it against my cheek.
“Thanks,” I said, leaning way back into the seat.
“Don’t mention it!” Sandy replied cheerfully.
“I was talking to your wife! You just drove here, she did all the head shrinking,” I said, covering up like a boxer in case Laura spun around to swat me.
“There you are! I haven’t heard that lilt in your voice in so long, welcome back stranger!” Laura said cheerfully.
“Thanks doc,” I replied.
“Hey, pull into Jack-in-the-Box over there, I’m starving!” I exclaimed noticing the clown across the street.
“Oh come on Pat, not Jack-in-the-Crap, we can do better than that. How about steak and eggs at Curley’s; it’s just down the street dude?” Sandy pleaded.
“No, no man, let’s just drive through and get a dozen mystery meat tacos. That’ll hold me until I can get cleaned up, and introduce myself to my wife.”
“I'll take everyone to the Macaroni Grill later tonight for a make-up supper, okay?”
“Come on man, what do ya say?” I pleaded, talking directly into Sandy’s ear.
“OK, OK, just sit back ya homo, and stop slobbering on me, jeez Louise!”
"I think I liked you better when you were crazy, at least you were quiet!"
“SANDY LUCCI, do we need to have the tolerance discussion again?” scolded Laura, covering her smile with the back of her hand.
“Goddamn it Pat, see what you did, now I'm in the doghouse!” complained Sandy, as he turned sharply into the drive-thru burger-joint.
“Alright, tacos for now, but I’m warning you, I’m eating my weight in pasta and meatballs tonight, so bring your checkbook Rockefeller,” he added driving up to the clown to order.
Laura and I busted out together in a giggle fit. It felt good to laugh again; to let myself go until my side hurt. This was my new beginning, my reunion with my life and my loved ones. It would begin with twelve greasy tacos and a root beer from a hamburger stand run by a clown. There was much to do, much to plan, and much to hide. In due time I would know where I must go, what I must do and who I must draft in order to follow through with my promise to Gabby. Beginning today, from this moment on, time was running out for those who were responsible. I have always been a man of my word; I would keep the promise I made this day.
The Pantry, Los Angeles, California, November 25, 2004
At last, a whole dry day! Twenty-four hours without a raindrop, WOO HOO! Winter was still more than a month away, according to the calendar anyways, but everybody in the waterlogged State was already praying for an early spring. It's a well known fact that ‘Southern’ Californians can’t deal with wet weather. Be it f-o-g (fucking overcast gunk), or an old-fashioned mid-western cloud burst, it was as if they were seeing rain for the very first time. God forbid it should rain an entire day! For goodness sake, this was the Promised Land, wasn’t it? Well, at least it was supposed to be. You didn’t have to be a native Californian to believe that claim. If this were a perfect day it would have a huge sherbet colored rainbow sweeping across a cloudless blue-on-blue sky, reaching from the Hollywood Hills all the way over to Malibu. Sounds corny, but you know what, there actually are days just like that here! Rainbow or not, today’s clear sky promised a welcome change from the bleak soggy weather that had been ruining the State's reputation for several weeks now.
Linda Bradley sighed reaching for the salt and pepper while she gazed dreamily out a large bay window. She seasoned her perfectly basted eggs without looking at them, skillfully hitting the eggs and hash browned potatoes without spilling a single granule onto the tabletop. She had this routine down pat. After all, she’d been coming here better than two years now, ordering the same breakfast each and every time. It was her way of putting her day in proper order before fate’s devilish minions lined up the usual collection of mishaps and challenging circumstances that routinely dictated the pace for the day. Monday through Friday, rain or shine, Linda started every workday at The Pantry; you could set your watch by it. True, it was a little out of her way, and it wasn’t in the best part of town, but the food was always good, the coffee was always fresh and hot, and the service was always warm and friendly. They really made you feel at home here, never a sour face or bad attitude on any of the staff, these people were terrific! The staff went out of their way to make everyone feel at home, to feel welcome. That was nice, and she appreciated it more than they could possibly know. The smiles she got here every morning helped to defuse the tears and angry outbursts she'd experience on the job. She could count on those like clockwork as well.
Here she was just honey, sweetie, or darlin, the small town girl from Cedar City, Utah. She missed that part of her life more and more lately. Sometimes, she would wonder what her life would have been be like if she had followed her heart instead of her brain? She'd made a lucrative career as an over achiever, pleasing everyone but herself. But she didn’t like having to create an alter ego, the hard edged persona responsible for her success. That bitch was cold and hardhearted, with sharp ninety degree angles at each corner, tailor made to navigate in the black and red world of briefs, balance sheets, and bottom lines. Exactly the qualities one needed to make it in this job, unfortunately. She was good, very good, and too good sometimes, she thought. Shoveling some eggs onto her toast she took a big bite to change her train of thought and avoid an argument with herself.
This was also part of her daily routine, debating and daydreaming with herself. Mentally sparing with her softhearted conscience over sound business decisions she had to make. She had to work at keeping her soft hearted, socially liberal instincts in check. Those precepts were deeply rooted in her subconscious, firmly planted there early in life by mother and dad, the two dearest people in her very private world, it was a side of herself she showed to nobody.
She couldn’t remember the exact circumstances that led her from there to here, but she understood this was where she belonged. Smart and tough, Linda Bradley was someone who could separate her business responsibilities from her personal convictions. Some people might confuse her corporate dedication with cold heartedness, but that would be near sighted and unfair. She cared deeply, and she agonized over every case that crossed her desk and came before the board for review. She was aware that there were always more than the facts to consider in these matters. Every brief she read was about real people, with families who loved them, families not unlike her own. If their file made it to her desk they were in dire straights. Vulnerable and desperate their hopes rested won Linda's ability to balance responsibility and conscience. Her job was important, vital, and rewarding, but sometimes it sucked like a Hoover on steroids!
This was the reason she made this daily pilgrimage to The Pantry. A little slice of home put her in a safe place emotionally. The home cooked meals, the hometown smiles, and the non-stop chatter countered the stress she of delivering bad news to good people. Whatever doubts lingered from the day before were dealt with here, alone, before she resumed her duties as board chairman of the LA Trauma Center.
“Refill honey?” asked her server cheerfully, already pouring hot coffee into Linda’s empty ceramic mug.
“Uh, no…well, OK,” Linda replied, a little embarrassed by her startled response. She hated being caught daydreaming, it made her feel like a child.
“How’s the chow this morning sweetie?” her server asked.
“Terrific as usual Dodie, just great,” Linda answered cheerfully. She held up a fork full of scrambled eggs in one hand and a slice of crisp bacon in the other, and then smiled a large toothy smile, top and bottom.
“That’s aces darlin.”
“Give me a holler if you need anything, okay?” Dodie asked rhetorically as she whisked away, already beginning to chatter with the next patron.
“I will…” Linda began, her voice trailing after Dodie's shadow.
Linda shrugged and returned to her breakfast, glancing first at her watch and then at the headline on the morning edition of the LA Times. She smirked at an article about the war looming in Iraq while she chewed on a crunchy piece of fried pork. She fought the urge to jump on the Bush bashing band wagon, it was all the rage among the young urbanites. Shamefully, she admitted to listening in on a few their conversations at restaurants and pubs as they passionately discussed the headlines. Sadly, it was all too clear that most of them had only read the headlines, their diatribe rife with generalities, assumptions, and out right misconceptions of what was actually led the country to war. Linda pushed the dreary newspaper aside and grabbed the Tabasco bottle, sprinkling a generous amount onto her perfectly scrambled eggs.
“Kick it up a notch girl…BAM!” she muttered, doing her best Emeril impression.
Linda spooned some eggs onto her wheat toast, closely studying Dodie as she went about her business. Letting her mind wander she recalled the first time she met Dodie (short for Dorothy) McGregor, the sixty something career waitress, with a smile that melted frowns, and a giggle that inspired side splitting laughter. It was the day she interviewed with the Board of Directors. She'd mistakenly taken the Sixth Street exit from the expressway, or freeway, or whatever, and stopped right next to the restaurant to wait for a traffic light. The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted out the open door of the corner diner and surrounded her car, momentarily disorienting her. Since she was early for her appointment she uncharacteristically steered her rental car into the parking lot and wandered in. Before she could get both feet in the doorway she found herself greeted by a pretty teenage girl with a long blonde ponytail, dressed smartly in a crisp white blouse and pleated black slacks.
“Good morning! Welcome to the world famous Pantry Restaurant,” the young lady said with believable enthusiasm. The girl smiled sweetly and led Linda into the room carrying a huge menu close to her breast as if she were on her way to class. As the teenage hostess scanned the place for an empty table, a loud voice with a thick Scottish brogue boomed over the noisy room.
“Park it at the counter honey, we’re a wee bit busy this morning my dear,” the woman shouted as she poured coffee into a cup.
She was a small woman, pale in complexion, and freckled like a schoolgirl. Linda pegged her age at around sixty or sixty-five, but she moved around like she was half that age! Linda settled in at the counter and peeked over the open menu to watch this tiny dynamo go about her business. She worked the room like a stumping politician on Election Day, no face went un-noticed, and no baby went un-kissed. She was amazing!
“Sorry darlin, it took a while to work my way back to ye,” said the geriatric whirling dervish.
“I’m Dorothy, but folks call me Dodie like the name-tag says,” she added, tapping the small piece of plastic pinned to her white cotton blouse. Linda remembered wondering how her shirt could stay so clean working in a diner slinging hash all day.
“Nice to meet you, Dodie,” she answered, extending her hand which the woman accepted, pumping it vigorously. Dorothy McGregor may have been as feminine as any other woman, but she was not shy or dainty in any respect.
“It’s your first time here, I know. So I’ll give ya an extra minute or three to look over the menu.”
“If ye don’t see what you like, just ask, I’ve got the cooks wrapped around me baby finger luv,” Dodie said with a smile and a wink, holding up her pinky finger and making tiny circles in the air.
Giggling, Dodie spun around on her heels, getting back to her other customers. It was the first time Linda had heard the pint-sized hash slinger’s now infamous cartoon like giggling, and she fell in love with it just like everyone did. Linda smiled, enjoying the short trip down memory lane, and raised her coffee mug to toast Dorothy Alice McGregor from across the room.
“Here’s to ye old girl,” Linda said without speaking.
Dodie smiled back at her, waving first in acknowledgement and then to brush away a short lock of silver-gray hair that had broken loose from beneath her tortoises shell head band. Linda drained her cup and then dabbed at the corners of her mouth politely before getting up. She extracted a trendy wallet from her equally trendy purse and fished out a fifty for the ten-dollar meal, leaving the rest for Dodie and the boys to divvy up. They were like family now, and she always shared her good fortune with family, it was how mother and dad had raised her.