by Nicholas Gustavson
After his flight home, Chip decided to get sloppy drunk. Teenagers could treat each other this way, he reasoned, breaking up via text messages, but grown-ups? Specifically Trina, texting him about a trial separation? Have the decency, he’d typed, to talk in person. Her reply?
You’re never home.
How was that an excuse? He’d been busting his hump all year, frequent flying Sunday through Friday to Chicago. For what? To pay their Manhattan Beach mortgage and finance her South Bay lifestyle. He explained it again. She didn’t reply.
Trina wasn’t home when the Uber dropped him off. He checked their garage. Yup, she’d taken her yuppie cart somewhere. She couldn’t have gone far, he figured, not with the cart’s maximum distance of 30 miles on a full charge. Probably SoulCycling class, or busting out thrusters at that outdoor gym on Harbor Drive. That made him chuckle. Trina obsessively purchased Groupons for new exercise classes; CrossFit, Bikram Yoga, Contemporary Pilates, G.I. Joe Bootcamp. Hell, she’d probably join Stroller Strides if she could borrow someone’s baby.
There’s a word he hadn’t spoken since forever. He said it again. Still sounded bad. It hadn’t sounded good since last summer, when they’d spent a hot Saturday night in the emergency room at Little Company of Mary. The waiting room sucked, crowded with nightlife casualties, and their hysterical friends in party dresses and blood stained blazers, no one anticipating this conclusion to their night. When the nurse called Trina’s name, they went in and listened to a harassed physician read out Trina’s dropping HCG levels like a sailor sounding out ocean depths. 4600 yesterday. 68 today. Mark goddamn Twain. What happens, he’d wanted to ask, when she hits bottom?
He knew the answer of course. The egg breaks. And after the egg broke, after they’d driven home to their immaculate house, where they’d presumptively assembled an heirloom-style crib from Pottery Barn (stupid, he knew, stupid) he heard the shell around their marriage cracking too.
He left the house on foot, not bothering to shed his work clothes. Half hour up the Strand, sweating through his slacks, he turned uphill. Time for that drink. He spotted a trucker hat lying on the curb. It looked new. What the hell, he thought, and picked it up. The hat fit nicely over his thinning hair.
He didn’t realize he’d reached El Porto until he surfaced on Highland and saw the Beach Hut across the street. Except it wasn’t the Beach Hut anymore, just some hair salon. Funny how things change. He used to inhale loco moco there after surfing, back when he was single.
He hadn’t used that word in forever. Last summer they were destined to become a smiling trio. But now? He’d been on board for trying again, for a rainbow baby, but she wouldn’t have it. Eighteen weeks in, Chip. What if it happens again? He’d told her he was willing to take that chance. She couldn’t bear it, she’d told him, before disappearing into her phone.
He headed south. Sharkeez was gone, replaced by a fish restaurant undergoing construction. Still open during remodel! the sign said. Sorry, he thought, don’t want sawdust in my beer. He forgot how much El Porto had transformed itself. Then he remembered Sharkeez, where he’d cruise girls with his friends in that low ceilinged, pirate ship of a building, had sailed across the street and commandeered Harry O’s.
Harry O’s! They’d elbow their way to the long rectangular bar, Joe’s Band playing, and the women’s bathroom door opening on the dance floor, offering up embarrassed girls straight from the toilet. Then he’d stumble down Harry O’s steps and run to Hillary’s Hole in the Wall for a last drink before stumbling home.
Chip wanted to try Hillary’s for old times, but he remembered it was now Bora Bora steakhouse. No, that was gone, replaced by Four Daughters, a breakfast place he loved walking to with Trina on weekends.
Then it hit him.
Pancho’s hadn’t changed. There was a bar, and entertainment too. He walked through the rustic doors, into a dim lobby and felt a thrill. He’d celebrated so many birthday dinners here, and danced to the house band, what was its name, Day After Daze?
The cantina was mostly empty. He took a seat at the bar. Crossfit Games played on mute (maybe Trina had tickets). The bartenders looked the same, maybe with whiter hair. He removed his new hat and placed it on the bar. He ordered a Corona, nice and cold. The bartender chatted with an older couple at the end of the bar. They looked like regulars. He downed his beer and ordered another.
When the Crossfit stuff ended, the bartender switched on the Dodgers. The bar began to fill with the evening crowd, and Chip felt embarrassed — he was that solo guy at the bar. He checked his phone. No messages. He texted Brian. Brian responded, something about a babysitter and he and Kathy had reservations on Abbot Kinney. Chip texted Alex, but Alex didn’t respond. He ordered another Corona and a lobster taco plate. Alex texted back, something about working. Great. He almost texted Trina. She hadn’t texted him, so forget it.
He heard giggles. He swiveled around, his loafers catching on a girl’s purse. She glanced his way. He realized she was mid-selfie, arms around her best friend, a stick raised with a mounted miniature camera.
“Hey girls,” he said, louder than he wanted, “I can take your picture.”
“That’s what my selfie stick is for,” she said. “So I don’t have to ask you.”
Rusty. What’s it been? Twelve years, since he’d asked out anyone besides Trina? He finished eating. The crowd filled in behind him, elbows and purses pressing against his back. He decided to close his tab. Walk home. You can’t go back, even though Pancho’s menu, with its glorious history printed on page one, says you can.
He needed the restroom. When he finished, he made for the lobby. Then he remembered the trucker hat. He’d left it on the bar. Forget it. But he wanted to go home with something tonight, some memento. He squeezed passed shoulders. His old seat already occupied — the hat gone. He scanned the crowd, spotting a girl wearing it cockeyed, her ponytail poking through the back.
“My hat!” he said, pointing.
“No, my hat!” She clutched the bill. “I lost it today.”
“I found it. But you can have it back.”
“I already haves it back.”
He realized she was slurring. Not drunk, but getting there. She looked youngish, maybe mid-thirties. Pretty eyes, but peeling skin, and he wondered how many sunburns she had left before skin cancer. “Hat thief!” she shouted, poking his shoulder.
Someone cheered, and the opening chords of “Jessie’s Girl,” ripped through the cantina. Chip saw the band, the drummer tapping the hi-hat, the guitarist launching into the first verse about Rick Springfield’s changed friendship with Jessie. The crowd bubbled. Normally Chip turned off Jessie’s Girl, but when the band reached the chorus and the crowd joined in, Chip decided he loved it. And the hat girl was still watching him.
He didn’t know how to ask.
“Maybe I should thank you,” she said.
He took her hand and they forged a space for dancing. Her ponytail whipped him and he liked her hands on his shoulders. She didn’t seem to mind his awkward feet. The Outfield’s “Your Love” followed and Chip sang all the lyrics. When the band covered “Little Red Corvette,” Chip watched in amazement as the guitarist burned up the fretboard.
“He’s good,” he shouted.
“He should be,” she replied. “He’s Eric Dover.”
He didn’t know that name. Maybe he could tell Trina—
After “Boys Don’t Cry,” the girl needed a margarita, and not a skinny one. He led her to the bar and ordered Naughty Maggies — Pancho’s version of the Cadillac.
Things got sloppy. A spilled drink. Chip wearing the trucker hat askew, the girl tossing it on the bartender’s head. They ordered more Naughty Maggies. He remembered leaving with her, skipping out the door, down the hill. Once barefoot in the sand, the darkness blanketed them and the waves roared louder than the Pancho’s band. Her mouth tasted like Margarita salt.
He didn’t get very far before the thing pressed against his back. A man’s voice in his ear.
“Get down, face in the sand.” Strong hands, pushing him down. “Don’t look up.”
Sand in his eyes, Chip didn’t dare move. Stupid cops. Busting them for indecent exposure. Hell, they didn’t even get indecent yet.
The girl screamed. The man hissed. Struggling sounds. Something seemed off. The cops wouldn’t do this, would they?
He felt lopsided. Spinning. He stole a glance and saw a guy, more like a boulder crushing the girl. Didn’t look like a cop. Bulky jacket. Chip shut his eyes, heartbeat hammering in his ears. A wave crashed. She screamed again.
Something popped. He felt sobriety clawing back. Wait. He’d heard about this before, in the news. Didn’t the bad guy escape?
Chip sat up. The man wasn’t watching him. He figured he could run away. He might even make it. Trina. Gotta stay alive for her.
But the girl. He couldn’t just leave her, could he? The man looked like he was crushing her, and that’s when Chip reacted. He lunged, clumsily, and the man caught him with a cocked elbow. Chip’s nose spurted, but the motion whipped the gun hand from the man’s pocket, and Chip saw the barrel-shaped index finger, and the hammer was the guy’s stupid thumb.
Embarrassed, enraged, Chip swarmed him, hammering sloppy punches on the man’s head, kicking him with stockinged feet. Chip’s middle finger snapped. The girl landed a kick against the man’s jaw. He had enough and scurried away.
Chip wanted to follow but the girl needed help. He crawled to her, but she kicked him. “Don’t touch me!” She took off running down the beach. Chip chased her but she was fast. She reached the Strand and disappeared up a side street. He tripped on something. Lying on the sidewalk, he dialed the police with a shaky thumb. He shouted details into the phone, but the dispatcher only wanted his location and the victim’s name, and he realized he didn’t know her name.
“She’s got a trucker hat,” he said, before passing out.
When Chip regained consciousness, he found himself in the waiting room at Little Company of Mary. This time in a wheelchair. Someone pushing him outside into the sun. When he squinted, he saw Trina’s yuppie cart parked arrogantly on the sidewalk. Trina, in her Lululemon, sitting behind the wheel. She helped him into the passenger seat.
“Nice parking job,” he said.
“You should see the other guy.”
Despite the nose brace, he could smell her body butter. He decided he liked it. Smelled like breakfast.
“The nurses say you’re a hero. Did you really save that girl?”
He felt weird talking to her about it. He didn’t know where to start.
“Look, about last night—”
“Save it.” She started the cart’s motor. “Let’s talk later. You need sleep.”
Sleep sounded good. But, breakfast—
“I’m hungry. Let’s get breakfast.”
She seemed sympathetic. An outpouring of sympathy before she turned him out?
“Okay, sure,” she said. “Where?”
Naughty Maggie. Hospital Drugs. The open cart, sun baking his immobilized arm, his finger in a brace. Eric Dover.
“I mean that breakfast place—Four Daughters.”
“You want four daughters?”
“How about we settle for one?”
Jessie’s Girl. What was she saying? Trina removed her sunglasses. She’d been crying.
“Look, after this, I—” she said. “Maybe, okay?”
She drove off the curb, jostling his broken nose and finger. Chip didn’t feel pain. The fluffy wind blew like powdered sugar through his nose brace. The cart’s electric motor purred. Magic gas, he thought, maple syrup and honey butter. B