At times, when I need an inspiration for a new short story, I read… song titles, usually without even knowing the song. When a title gets my attention, I start weaving a story around it. One singer that I absolutely adore, while not at all listening to his songs, is Tom Waits. Have a look at his albums and the titles therein, and you can’t help but chuckle (Well, if you have that kind of humor). Just to give you a few examples: Tango Till They’re Sore, Chocolate Jesus, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, Cemetery Polka, I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute, Is There Any Way Out Of This Dream, Warm Beer And Cold Women, and, after all, Bad Liver And A Broken Heart.
There’s only one way to have a happy marriage and as soon as I learn what it is, I’ll get married again.
– Clint Eastwood
”I can’t believe you old fart slept with my daughter!”
I looked up from my beach chair, but, being blinded by the sun, couldn’t make out her face.
“Hi, Maureen,” I grinned at her. “A good morning to you, too. Would you mind stepping out of the sun?”
“She’s half your age!” she yelled at me, still blocking access to a much-needed suntan. “Don’t you have any scruples?”
“Maureen,” I responded without losing my calm. “You just had another fight with Laura. Am I right?”
“None of your business,” she snapped at me.
“How did you know?” she added much calmer, obviously confused. Finally, she yielded away from the sun, pulled another chair next to mine, and sat down, still looking furious.
“Listen, Maureen,” I grinned at her. “Imagine you had a fight with your mother, and imagine you told her you had slept with her uncle. How would that make her feel, and, especially, how would you feel about that?”
“With her uncle?” she asked curiously.
“With her favorite uncle.”
I watched her as she thought about the right response. You could almost hear her brain ticker as she digested the idea, and finally, it came to her.
“Oh, I see what you’re doing here,” she exclaimed. “You think she said it only to hurt me.”
I didn’t say anything. I just looked at her.
“She wouldn’t do that to me,” she said, almost pouting. “We have a great relationship!”
Then she sat silently, watching the ocean.
“It would have killed her,” she said finally with a grin slowly growing on her face.
“My mother,” she continued. “It would have killed her. Not literally, of course.”
Then she laughed out loud. “And I would have enjoyed it tremendously!”
She looked at me with a big smile on her face. “So, you didn’t sleep with her.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, I can’t make any statement. I promised.”
She thought about my remark for a second, and then she nodded and finally relaxed.
I had come to Hampton Beach a few days ago, and on the way from Boston, I had picked up a hitchhiker. Her name was Laura, twenty-five years old, and, as strange as it may sound, she was a runaway. Basically, she had enough of her family and the everlasting fights between her mother, who drank too much, and her father, who cheated on his wife. I know the whole story because she had told me every detail on the drive to the beach with the continuance at the hotel bar the same night.
And for the record, I didn’t sleep with her. My daughter is two years older than Laura, and I wasn’t ready yet to chase women her age. Maybe after gaining some distance from my family, I might do it, but not quite yet.
I still don’t know how Maureen, Laura’s mother, had found us, but she showed up the next day, and they had a terrible fight in front of me. By the end of the day, they had calmed, and we spent some lovely time dining in the seafood restaurant across the street.
“How come you know so much about the mother-daughter conflict?” Maureen finally broke the silence between us. “Sorry, I’m just curious.”
“Oh, I have seen it many times. My wife and my daughter fought all the time.”
“Are you still married? I mean, you are obviously here without your family.”
“Yes, I am still married,” I answered and looked at my wristwatch. “For another hour or so.”
She looked at me, confused.
“In about an hour, one of my friends will serve her the papers,” I grinned. “Honestly, I don’t know which one of my buddies will have the honor. They said they will have a raffle just about now to find out who the lucky winner would be. They promised to video the whole thing and upload it to YouTube.”
I looked at Maureen. “None of them liked my wife, and, to be honest, neither do I anymore.”
I took a deep breath and thought for a few moments on how to explain it as short as possible.
“Okay,” I said finally. “This is my life in a nutshell. Young artist – me – meets a young, spoiled princess. They fall in love, marry, and have two kids. I had to give up my career and became an employee at my father-in-law’s consulting firm. My son is now a physics professor at MIT, and my daughter got married just last week. With both kids out of the house, I had the idea of resuming my career as a painter. So, I took the 60,000 dollars I embezzled from the business and took off.”
“That’s terrible,” she protested. “Your wife must be heart-broken!”
“Oh, I doubt that very much,” I grinned. “Remember? I just told you about my daughter’s wedding.”
She nodded, yes.
“Well,” I continued. “During the reception, I had a heart attack while I was alone in the bathroom. I wasn’t feeling well and hoped that splashing some cold water into my face would help. One of the waiters found me about an hour later and called the ambulance. They asked the wedding party if they were missing someone, and they, including my wife, couldn’t think of anybody. Turns out, my heart attack was only a mild one, and the hospital released me the next day. When I got home, my wife accused me of having spent the night at the local bar. Needless to say, but this little episode broke the camel’s back, and I left. She doesn’t know, though, as of yet.”
Maureen was speechless for a few moments. “That’s terrible,” she murmured.
She turned to me, “What are you going to do?”
“Going west, I guess. I was thinking about opening a store for organic food. Californians are crazy about organic food. And while waiting for customers, I will paint.”
“Aren’t you afraid, they will come after you after you embezzled their money?” she asked.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “They will never know. That money comes from years of submitting fake travel reports. Business trips I never made, but charging the mileage, that sort of thing. I cashed all the checks and kept it in a safe in my office.”
“Are you serious?” she looked at me.
I only shrugged my shoulders.
“My husband has a safe in his office,” she said, more to herself than to me.
And he’s cheating on you, I thought but didn’t say it. It would only worsen the current mood.
“And he’s cheating on me,” she added. Well, she had to say it. The good mood I had enjoyed this morning was gone, and, as a result, two long faces were sitting in their beach chairs, not enjoying the beach and the early fall’s sun.
“I need a drink,” Maureen broke the silence after several minutes of giving in to negative energy. “Care to join me? I’ll pay.”
Then she corrected herself, “Well, considering your 60,000 dollar travel budget, you should pay.”
“Maureen, it’s not even lunchtime!”
“What’s your point?” she laughed and pointed to the man walking by our chairs, whose shirt read, “Vodka – It’s not just for breakfast anymore.”
You won’t find too many bars open before noontime at Hampton Beach after season. Still, it appeared we had stayed at the perfect hotel to accommodate Maureen’s cravings. She started off with a Vodka-Martini, while I ordered a Pinot Grigio at the bar.
“How come it is I who gets the manly drink?” she teased me. I swallowed all the wisecrack comments that came to mind and just grinned sheepishly. She was still vulnerable, and I had to admit, I had started to like her.
Her mood improved with the second martini, and I dared say, “You’re not very concerned about your liver, huh?”
“Well, look at you,” she shot back at me with a big smile, “Mr. Heart-Attack.”
“I drink, and I may end up with a damaged liver because I was in love once and am not anymore. You already have a bad heart. For the same reason, I may add.”
“Yes,” I laughed. “Look at us! Bad liver and a broken heart.“
“You got that right. Time for another drink.”
I waved to the bartender, a happy young man, thrilled by the thought of a good tip at a time that he hadn’t expected to have any business at all, and we, Maureen and I, had any intention of running up the tap.
After drink number three or four – I don’t quite remember – Maureen felt comfortable enough to share her life story with me, how she moved from Grand Fenwick…
“Grand Fenway?” I asked. “Where’s that?”
“Fenwick,” she corrected me. “Grand Fenwick. It’s west of I-495, north of Worcester, far away from any Interstate.”
I shook my head. I had been around New England, but Grand Fenway didn’t ring a bell.
Apparently, a thought came up, and she grinned.
“Remember the scene in the very first Star Wars movie where C3-PO asks Luke Skywalker where exactly he was?”
I nodded. Of course, I knew. I am a big Star Wars fan.
“The answer was something like, ‘If there is bright center in the universe, you are the farthest away from it,’” Maureen went on. “That statement, in a nutshell, describes life in Grand Fenwick, however, without the prospects of ever making it into a movie.”
A bit more depressed, she added, “Grand Fenwick is the reason why I got married. I was looking for a way to get out of there, and marriage was the solution.”
She waved at the bartender, making him aware that a refill was in order. Somehow, she had lost her thought, and we talked about more pleasant things than our married lives, which came with the potential of spoiling an otherwise enjoyable day.
I don’t recall how long we sat there at the bar, having a terrific time, trying to forget the today until tomorrow, but, at a time when the sun was about to set, Maureen suddenly stood up from her seat.
“Excuse me,” she said without looking at me. “I just remembered there is something that needs my attention. I am sorry…”
And with these words, without anything that even remotely resembled a good-bye, she rushed toward the reception area, then on to the elevators.
Of course, I was disappointed, but also sufficiently numbed by means of many glasses of excellent Italian wine, and I was able to shrug it off. I didn’t have any clue where this would lead when we started our drinking frenzy, and I also didn’t have any specific intentions. It’s just that I had started to genuinely like her. I enjoyed her intelligence, her wit … well, pretty much everything about her. It had been a long time since I had experienced such feelings.
You’re a big boy now, I told myself. You’ll get over it.
I checked my wristwatch and decided it was time to go to bed. I had planned to get up early to make enough mileage in one day, away from New England. I was looking forward to warmer climates, thinking I could do well without the New England winter, which is regularly at least six weeks too long.
The bartender experienced a mixture of sadness – me leaving – and great joy – a great tip, which he deserved.
Surprisingly, I didn’t have great trouble getting up early the next morning, and I went to have a decent breakfast, then I called the valet service to get my car. I was about to leave the room, a duffel bag filled with roughly 60,000 dollars being my only luggage when the phone rang. It was the valet service.
“Sir, we can’t get the car to start,” explained the clerk. “I am sorry. There is a shop just about two miles from here. I’m sure they can help.”
“Listen,” I said. “Just wiggle the shift stick a little bit and try it again. This is an old car, and there is a problem with a sensor.”
He didn’t sound like he believed me, but when I left the hotel, my beloved 1985 Ford Mustang Convertible, roof down, stood running at the curb. I tipped the clerk and threw my duffle back on the back seat. I took a deep breath before I took place behind the wheel, put on my Armani sunglasses, and buckled up.
“Where you’re going, Cowboy?” I heard a voice calling out to me. I pushed up my sunglasses.
There she stood, and for a moment, I forgot to breathe, given the view of a gorgeous woman wearing some very tight jeans and a white shirt that filled a perfectly shaped body.
“Going west, Ma’am,” I answered her question.
“Just north of San Diego.”
She stood there like she was thinking about her next move.
“Take any passengers?”
Playing our game, I looked her up from top to bottom with a short stop at the chest.
She threw her duffel back onto the back seat and entered the car.
“You can breathe now,” she said as she sat down.
I checked the mirror, set the blinker, and steered the car into the road. We drove for a few minutes without further words being spoken.
“What’s in the duffel bag?” I finally asked.
“Oh, about 150,000 dollars.”
I looked at her in shock.
“Keep your eyes on the road, Cowboy,” she smiled. “The money comes from my husband’s safe.”
I grinned and shook my head in disbelief.
“Laura will serve him the papers in a few days,” she continued, still smiling. I was pleased to see her so relaxed; she seemed genuinely happy. But there was still a burning question in my mind, and like she was reading my mind, she turned to me.
“Yes, she promised, she will put the video on Youtube.”