“Malibu” … a short story by SPB

I saw the coyotes again, right before Vivian arrived, feral as their own appetites, crawling through the bush beneath the worn mahogany slats of Sharon and Patrick’s deck. At least I think they were coyotes, mangy-looking and mean as they seemed. They might have been just some ravaged lost dogs for all I knew; but I fantasized them as coyotes, as long-toothed sentinels, guarding all the ghosts who refused to leave the house, and that fantasy kept me going for the early days of my visit. Whatever they were, coyotes or mere dogs, they seemed to have purpose and they didn’t seem half as lost as I’d been feeling, stuck out here, mourning Melanie, strengthening my bones, waiting for Vivian to arrive. Not that I needed Viv as much as I once thought I did. I’d been off my crutches for two weeks by then, and my hobble had somehow mutated back into a stilted stride. But I was still stuck; even though I was somewhat better, I still couldn’t drive, and wasn’t sure I wanted to. And walking along the Pacific Coast Highway, even for exercise, seemed as ridiculous as speeding drunkenly, depressively, down it, which is what put me in my recuperative state in the first place.

Seems like that’s all I did that year, wait. Wait for food to get delivered from the health food spot down near Malibu Canyon. Wait for Patrick to bring me shampoo and soap on his rare trips into the city. Wait for the mail guy to deliver the books I never read and the flat red Netflix envelopes of DVDs I never watched. Waiting for weight, too, it seemed, because I shed many pounds, waiting to get better, waiting to stop missing Melanie, waiting for the seasons to change when of course they weren’t going to change all that much, not here in California. That year in Los Angeles was like one long never-ending almost-summer day, poked through with some rain and some wind, but always, inevitably, summertime. So I made the seasons change with the music I played. I let Joni be the fall and Miles be the winter and Sarah Vaughn’s Gershwin concerts comprised my spring. And I prayed. Thanking God for giving Sharon and Patrick the good taste and foresight to have the sleek stereo system that they kept on some complicated altar-like shelves in the den.

I could hear the phone ringing somewhere inside, then Sharon’s soft voice answering like she was scared of who it might be, though she would know it was Patrick. No one else called Sharon or Patrick anymore except Sharon or Patrick themselves, if one or the other happened to make some trip out into the world. I could hear her laugh, crawling up and down some musical scale she carried around in her head, yet still a bit nervous, matching the clattering coffin-shaped wind chimes hanging over the deck. Which told me that it definitely was Patrick, calling from the car as he made his way back from his trip to the pharmacy to get me more drugs. This errand was his sole procrastination, from either sleeping all day or hovering over me, and he always called to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. I could hear the plonk-plonk trod of Sharon’s clogs against the hardwood floors as she brought the phone out to me. She turned the stereo down after she handed me the phone.

“Patrick,” I said. “Did you get lost or something?”

His laugh, too, was like an annoying musical instrument interrupting the tunes on the stereo. “I just had the funniest memory of little Jase,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I’m not dying,” I told him. “I’m still here. You don’t have to check on me every second.” I hung up the phone and handed it back to Sharon, standing right behind me, her hands in front of her in that expectant way, like we were on the verge of some breakthrough she wanted to be ready for. “When he calls back, tell him to pick up some of the Doc Bronner’s soap,” I told her. “The peppermint kind.”

The phone rang again and I turned back to watch the coyotes watch me. I think they were the same ones that had been rummaging underneath the deck the first time I’d visited three years before, for Jason’s birthday party. I’d named them, with Jason’s help, Snoopy and Benjy, because those were the names of the only famous dogs Jason had heard of. And it only fit that the coyotes underneath the house would be so anointed by fame; it was all, at that time, all Jason, or any of them, knew: with Sharon’s soap opera and Patrick’s Golden Globe and the parties and the lines of blow and the excitable air of entitlement that hung over the family like a suspicious, wavering halo, this house had been blown-through with the heavy Hollywood breath of fame. Benjy was the larger one, the mangier one, prone to growls whenever Snoopy tried to snatch something out of his grip. Snoopy was smaller and wilier, silent and cunning. And they were still the same now, truly the only things that really hadn’t changed. The fame may have eventually ebbed, as the sadness of Jason’s death eventually slowed the ambition and flowed like molasses across the glass walls and oak rafters and parquet floors, but the coyotes had stayed, roaming underneath the deck like taunting spectres of Jason’s youthful interest in them.

Screenwriter that Patrick once was, before mourning became his daily profession and, next to sleeping, his nightly hobby, he couldn’t have crafted a better scenario. Here I was, almost eight years after the death of my ex-fiancée, recuperating in the home of my ex-girlfriend Sharon and Patrick, her new husband, waiting for his ex-wife to return from Madrid to accompany me back to New York to jump-start my life. All these exes floating around like atoms in a bell jar. Since all the deaths—my Melanie and their Jason—we were all better at disconnecting than we were at connecting, and it crossed my mind that we knew it, that it was, really, how we did stay connected, grieving co-habitants in the slumbering wood-and-glass expanse of their home.

I heard a shattering smash, then a shouted curse and I turned to see Sharon, kneeling in front of the stereo, peering close at the floor. I went inside.

“I dropped a glass,” she said. “I’m trying to find the pieces.”

I knelt down next to her. “Here,” I said, handing her a towel from the bar.

She muttered thanks and dabbed at the floor with the wet towel. “Don’t walk over here without the lights on, Nick,” she said. “I don’t want you to get cut.”

“Sharon,” I said.

“You’re all healed now,” she said. “Just be careful is all I’m saying.”

“You need to go back to work,” I said.

“I like taking care of you,” she said, glancing at me then glancing quickly at my crutches leaning on the edge of the couch. “And Patrick needs me here.”

“To watch him sleep all day?”

“He goes to get you things,” she said. “He doesn’t just sleep.”

I took the towel from her and grabbed her elbow and pulled her to her feet. “Yes,” I said. I sighed. “Yes, I’m all healed now.”

* * *

“Hey!” Vivian shouted as she barged into the house some time after midnight, dropping her carry-on bag near the front door and rushing right to the den to turn the stereo on. “Wake up, people.” By the time I’d come in from the deck and found her in the den stripping the paper cover from a rum bottle cap, Patrick and Sharon were stumbling into the room, their robes flowing behind them, their eyelids fluttering like wings of little birds too nervous to take flight. Sharon silently took glasses from the shelf over the bar and lined them up for Vivian to pour our drinks. Patrick pointed the remote control at the stereo, bringing the sudden blast of music to a less ear-splitting volume.

Noooo,” Vivian said. It was a nasally whine. “The ghosts are too loud here. Turn it back up.”

Patrick ignored her. Vivian poured patiently then took her glass and swirled her finger in the brown liquid as she herself swirled about the room, finally landing, legs-up, on the quilted edge of the big couch that doubled as my bed when I found the courage to sleep.

“Welcome,” Vivian said. She looked up from her upside-down state and wiggled her cocktail glass in the air, sloshing some on the couch.

Sharon went to her with the bottle and topped off her drink. “We should be welcoming you,” she said. “It’s late, Viv.”

“It’s early in Spain, dear. Earlier than I can remember.”

“Your flight was due in at noon,” said Patrick.

“I had to make a stop,” Vivian said. “Kill me.”

“All my bags are packed,” I said. “I’m ready to go.”

Vivian said, “What? You’re quoting folk songs now?”

“Those who can’t write, quote,” I said.

Sharon said, “What do those who won’t write do?”

Vivian flipped herself around so that she was now sitting correctly, her back to Patrick and Sharon, facing the glass doors leading out to the deck. Her eyes were fixed on the darkness outside. “I need a cigarette.”

“I need to go to bed,” Patrick said. He tied his robe belt tighter as if he were cold.

“It’s not like you have to go to work in the morning,” Vivian said. She didn’t turn to face him.

Sharon said, “We’re going to the cemetery tomorrow.”

“You’re welcome to join us,” Patrick said. The utter lack of passion in his voice made the offer as uninviting as possible. “I’m sure Jason would appreciate that.”

“I’m sure,” Vivian said.

• * *

In the morning, I found Vivian in the kitchen sipping from a huge mug of coffee, the newspaper damp and spread out before her like she’d eaten lobster for breakfast.

“They’re gone,” she said as a greeting. “And I’m still here.”

“Better to quote show tunes than folk songs?” I said.

She didn’t say anything. I went to the coffee maker and poured myself a cup of joe. I leaned against the counter, knocking my head against the glass cabinet doors behind me. I watched Vivian run her finger down a column of blurry words in the newspaper.

“You spilled your coffee?”

“I spilled the brandy I was putting in my coffee,” she said.

“You should have gone with them to the cemetery,” I said.

“The dead don’t give a shit about us looking at their tombstones,” she said. “They laugh at us in heaven when we do that.”

“So you believe in heaven but you don’t believe in honoring the dead.”

“I believe that you honor people when they’re alive, then you don’t have to worry about it when they’re dead.” She turned to face me. Her eyes looked spent, used up, like she’d wasted too much time looking at things she really didn’t want to see. “You’re not using the crutches anymore?”

I stepped away from the counter and did a little turn and a little ta-da move. “Look, Ma, no limp.”

“That supposed to be some kind of joke?”

“Take it any way you want,” I said. “You should have gone to the cemetery. I visit Melanie’s grave.”

“That’s guilt, and you know it,” she said. “You ran away from her that morning and you’ve been trying to run back ever since. Ran yourself right off the road.”

Then she gave me a head-to-toe once-over with her dark exhausted eyes, taking in all of me, like she was sizing me up, I imagined, for a coffin or a death shawl.

“You’ve lost weight,” she said.

“Waiting will do that to you.”

“So now it’s my fault?” She looked back at the soiled newspaper. “I guess it’s my fault that you’re still here in the mourning house instead of being back in New York living your life? I guess it’s my fault that you were cheating on Melanie while she was setting up an event at the World Trade Center, too?”

“That’s the meanest thing you’ve ever said to me,” I said. “And you’ve said some pretty mean things.”

“I’m honest,” she said. “I’m more honest than any of you.”

* * *

When Patrick and Sharon got back to the house, I was out on the deck watching the coyotes skulk around, eying each other with wary grins.

I was trying to figure out a way to capture them and bring them back to New York with me when I heard Sharon open the glass door and step outside. She didn’t join me at the rail; I knew she was watching me, trying to deduce whether I was ready for company. I saved her the work and reached out behind me. She took my hand and came to the rail then wrapped her arm around my waist, moving close. She smelled fresh as lilacs, but also sad, as if the stench of Patrick’s tears had somehow worked itself into the fabric of her blouse.

“You were out like a light when we left,” she said.

“The sleep of the dead.”

“Not funny.”

“Wasn’t trying to be,” I said. “How’s Patrick?”

“He’s upstairs.”

“Vivian left,” I said. “She went to Beverly Hills.”

“How he was ever married to her,” Sharon sighed, shaking her head. But she didn’t finish the thought; the sigh did all the work any mean words could.

“She’s threatening not to take me to New York.”

“I’ll take you,” she said.

“I can go alone,” I said. “I’ll hire someone when I get there.”

“You shouldn’t be alone,” she said. “Moving’s such hard work as it is.”

“Living is hard work,” I said.

Patrick said, “It’s easier than dying.”

We turned around to see him standing just inside the glass doors. He kept his eyes right on us, avoiding the horizon. “Why don’t you guys come inside?” he said.

Vivian said, “There’s way too much glass in this house. Glass and sadness.” She did a full turn, her gaze landing on every wall. “And where are the pictures? There are no pictures in this mausoleum.”

“Mausoleums don’t have pictures,” I said.

Sharon said, “Sit down, Viv.” She stood frozen between the couch and my luggage, her arms outstretched, like she was waiting to catch Vivian when she fell.

Vivian had returned from her sojourn into Beverly Hills laden with glittery shopping bags. She’d handed each of us a wrapped gift, and sipped from her snifter, smiling and swirling around the room, sloshing drink from her glass like she could rinse away the house’s sadness with it. Patrick handed his gift to Sharon. Sharon placed it next to her own gift on the arm of the couch.

“There’s too much glass,” Vivian said, “and the coyotes outside scare the hell out of me.”

“Sit down, Vivian,” Patrick said.

“I don’t want to sit down. I could barely sleep. Now I can see why Nick can’t sleep here. This house is haunted. You can hear the ghosts all night long.”

Patrick said, “You’re high.”

“I’m happy,” she said. “And I’ll be happier still if you open the presents I got you.” She sipped from her glass. “Then Nick and I can go to the airport and fly all the way to New York City.”

“I’ll open mine,” Sharon said. She took her gift from underneath Patrick’s and gently tugged at the elegant fold on the end of it as if she didn’t want to damage the gilt-edged paper. “Thank you, Viv.”

“Don’t thank me until you’ve seen it.”

Sharon slipped the small box from the wrapping, the paper remaining box-shaped like it held the soul of the container inside. She opened the small hinged box and stared down into it, her head cocked to one side. I recognized the look on her face. She didn’t care for whatever lay inside; she was trying to find a graceful way to accept it.

“It’s a broche,” Vivian said. “It’s a symbol of death and mourning. I figured you could wear it next year when you and Patrick go back to the cemetery. It’s Greek, I think.”

Patrick held out his hand. “Let me see.”

“It’s either Greek or Turkish,” Vivian said. “I don’t remember.”

Sharon held the box out to Patrick. He stared at it as Sharon had, his eyes looking at it though they seemed to be really focused somewhere else. “This is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. He threw the box across the room and it glanced off the glass front of the CD cabinet. The broche inside popped out and hit the floor hard. We all watched it skitter across the floor and slide to a stop in the corner near the deck doors.

“Well then,” Vivian said, “Open yours.” She went to the broche, picked it up and stared at the bent pin on the back. “You broke it,” she said.

“I’m going to bed,” Patrick said.

“You’ll sleep your life away,” Vivian said. “You can’t live if you sleep all the time, Patrick.”

Sharon said, “Sit down, Viv.”

“Stop telling me to sit down. Why must I sit down? Is that what you were doing when my son died? Is that what you were saying when Jason ran through those glass doors and slid off that deck into the bushes down there? Were you telling him to sit down? Is that what you say when you go to the cemetery all the time? Do you kneel at his grave and tell him to fucking sit down?”

I only remember the sound of Vivian’s glass smashing against the floor. Patrick had moved so fast I don’t even remember seeing him jump. It was like he was a ghost, flying through the air effortlessly and wrapping his large hands around Vivian’s throat with an energy and ferocity I didn’t know he’d had in him. Sharon pulled him off of Vivian and the three of us stood there watching her, again, legs-up across the couch, breathing in and out, her hands at her neck, her eyes not exhausted now but accusing, glaring at the three of us, pregnant with tears that refused to flow. Just as quickly as he’d leapt toward Vivian, Patrick was out of the den and running up the stairs. Sharon followed him. I went out on the deck. I leaned as far over the railing as I could. I looked for the coyotes but they were nowhere around. Perhaps they’d been scared off by the commotion inside. I turned to look into the den. I watched Vivian but she didn’t see me. She was at the bar, pouring herself another drink, her other hand massaging her neck. I stepped closer to the door to get a better look at her. She was tapping her foot to the beat of the song rushing out of the speakers. She sipped from her glass. When she took the glass away from her lips I noticed something interesting about her. She was smiling. She picked up the broche and fiddled with it, then held it up to the row of lights over the bar. She looked around the room, which felt different, emptier somehow; something, not just Patrick and Sharon, had disappeared. And it occurred to me, looking at Vivian and her tear-streaked cheeks: anger is sadness, just without the ghosts.

Vivian caught my eye. She smiled, awkward and childlike, like she’d made a new discovery, and her tired eyes gleamed moist in the moonlight. She held the brooch out to me. “I fixed it,” she said.

She had.

Later that night I slept. And when I dreamed about Melanie, as I always did when sleep gripped me into those cruel nightmare-edged vigils for her, she was smiling, and quietly saying my name, and not screaming.

* * *

I was packing my luggage into the trunk of Vivian’s rented Pathfinder when Patrick came out to the carpark. He stood there watching me fit the luggage around Vivian’s shopping bags, his hands shoved into the pockets of his wrinkled khakis.

“I wrote some last night,” he said. “Two pages.”

“Good for you,” I said. “Really.”

“You don’t have to leave, Nick.”

“Yes, I do.”

“He’d be eight now,” Patrick said. “Eight years old.”

I didn’t say anything. I knew my lines for this scene but I didn’t feel like playing it again.

“You know he was happy here in Malibu,” Patrick said. “He loved having the ocean right outside his bedroom.”

I closed the trunk shut.

“Maybe we’ll come to see you in New York,” he said.

I nodded. “That would be good,” I said. “Maybe you can write there.”

“Sharon said the same thing.”

“Sharon’s a smart girl,” I said. “Speak of the devil.”

Vivian had come out into the carpark with Sharon following close behind her. Sharon took Vivian’s bag and put it in the back seat of the car. She slammed the door shut and turned to me. She held out her arms and I stepped into them, hugging her close. Vivian didn’t say anything to anyone. She just got into the car and started it, waiting for me to say my goodbyes. I hugged Patrick then climbed into the passenger seat. I looked back at Sharon and Patrick through the back window. They had their arms wrapped around each other’s waists, and they were both leaning slightly forward to look into the car. Truncated by the concave curve of the glass, they looked like they were about to jump, like a couple on the cusp on some big decision.

“Be careful,” Sharon said. “And watch your legs.”

Patrick just nodded.

My legs didn’t hurt at all. I did consider going back into the house to get my crutches, just in case. But I decided not to. They’d be happier here in Malibu.

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