Authors: Marlys Millhiser
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For Joy and Mike,
Long may you love
Thanks to Wendy Hornsby and Jan Burke for the Long Beach update and to Kate Gonzales and Mary Maggie Mason for their sense of humor.
her Toyota into the drive and stopped at the obelisk. White and pink obscenities already marred its new coat of dark olive paint. She stuck her card into its slot, knowing the black metal grate of a gate wouldn't open for her without further persuasion, and stared between bars into the courtyard with a sigh so deep it had a trace of voice in it. Bags of groceries redolent with celery, ground coffee, and spicy cold cuts filled the seat beside her, and the backseat, too.
She could see the gate to the alley clear across the courtyard in the dimming dusk. Mrs. Beesom's light was on over the door to her kitchen, lighting up a raft of bird feeders and the rear of her ancient Olds 88. Libby's Jeep Wrangler was gone.
Charlie stepped out of the Toyota. Her feet hurt, her head hurt, her stomach hurtâeven her hair felt like it had an ache. Time for a break.
One whole week without the killer commute, the telephone glued to her ear, worried writers, prima-donna writers, office politics, studio execs, and harried producers. No teleplays, book proposals, manuscripts, pitches, or story treatments. No office meetings, business lunches, screenings.
The point of the obelisk opening the gate to the courtyard was so you didn't have to get out of the car and expose yourself to roving gangs of criminal kids, increasingly Asian and ruthless, who were supposedly responsible for the graffiti that graced convenient surfaces.
Charlie slugged the obelisk in the appropriate places and caught her foot before giving the damn thing a kick, having almost broken a toe last night. She noted some new obscenities on the compound's wallâall in English and spelled correctly, like their predecessors. And some squiggles that suggested petroglyphs.
When the gate swung open, she grabbed her card, jumped back in the Toyota, and gunned it into the compound before the portal closed on the big bad world.
Charlie swung in beside the looming Oldsmobile and stepped out into her own little fortressâwell, she and Libby shared it with three other households. But tonight it seemed exceptionally secure because she was home, yet she wasn't home.
A bag of groceries in each arm, she managed to open the kitchen door, switch on the lights, and kick off her shoes. Back out in the free airârich with the ocean smell of the bay tonight, though her home was some blocks inlandâshe felt the cool of the concrete through the feet of her pantyhose.
That was another thingâno pantyhose for a week. Just sloppy sweats and comfortable shoes, shorts on a warm afternoon. On her last trip to the car, Charlie nearly tripped over Libby's cat who, instead of hissing with surprise and mauling Charlie's hose with her in them, rubbed his jowls and neck against her leg and mewedâlike a real cat.
“Libby must not have fed you again.” But Tuxedo's food bowl beside the refrigerator was about a third full of dry food mixed with foul-smelling meaty food. He always saved a portion of his dinner for a postmidnight snack so he could regurgitate it on the stairs to the second floor on his way to bed. Tuxedo was the one part of her vacation she could have done without.
But once she'd changed into sweatpants and shirt and fuzzy slippers she figured she could even put up with the cat. Charlie could hear him still outside meoyowling as she filled the refrigerator and cupboards with provisions for her getaway. This was not only her home and her fortress. This was Charlie's hideout.
She nearly forgot and answered the phone while making herself a fried-egg sandwich with ketchup. Betty Beesom's voice on the answering machine in the living room reminded Charlie not to answer the phone because she wasn't home.
When she took the sandwich and a tall glass of milk out to the patio, Tuxedo Greene grew more insistent, pacing back and forth, pinning her with those big, luminescent eyes.
“If you want to go in the house, you've got your own door. Shut up and let me enjoy my retreat.”
The sea breeze washed the car exhaust from the air. Night birds called in the trees. Airliners circled overhead. The roar of rush hour sounded far away. The egg and bread soothed her stomach, the milk seemed to wash away her aches.
Maggie Stutzman's house was dark, her parking spot next to Jeremy's Trailblazer empty. Her house and Charlie's faced the street and formed the front corners of the compound. Jeremy Fiedler's house and Mrs. Beesom's fronted the alley and formed the back corners. High masonry walls coated with stucco and topped with rolled razor wire and broken glass attached the small homes, forming what the city termed a “condominium complex.”
Betty Beesom and her husband had at one time owned a small house in the middle of a large lot. In the boom days, before cuts in military spending hit Long Beach hard, a builder had talked the widow into the scheme by practically giving her one of the houses.
There were few secrets inside these walls with muted lighting spaced along them. Charlie didn't know anyone outside them in the surrounding neighborhood.
Each of the houses had a sunken patio, with identical flower boxes arranged for privacy and the parking spaces in between them. Visitors had to park in the street. Jeremy also had a Ferrari but kept it in a private locked garage some miles away. He was an odd duck who kept odd hours. His Trailblazer was there, but his house stood dark. He worked out in a health club not far from here, might even now be walking home.
Charlie sprawled on a lounge, letting go of tensions incrementally, sucking in sea salt and dead-fish smells.
Tuxedo Greene exploded onto the glass tabletop beside her, knocking over her empty milk glass. If cats can bristle, he did. A tiny, malnourished kitten when Libby found him abandoned in a McDonald's parking lot, he'd grown into a sleek, slender teen who was now a formidable, muscular tom. His coat was black, his toes and a V-shaped blaze on his chest, white. At the moment his coat and tail puffed to make him twice his size, and the white of his chest and the yellow of his eyes stood out as if animated.
“I take it you are trying to tell me something, cat.”
Cat meorowelled. They don't really meow; they do all kinds of irritating language things, if you listen to themâwhich Charlie preferred not to. She didn't like cats, particularly this one. But she loved her daughter beyond all reason. And Libby loved this animal.
This animal puffed some more and then exhaled. He jumped onto her lounge, close enough for her to smell the horrid cat food on his breath when he said something else, then leapt to a planter full of blooming plants. Tuxedo stared at her over his shoulder, his eyes expressionless yet weird and somehow momentous. Then he disappeared, dispersing petals.
Charlie relaxed into the lounge again, feeling chilly and drowsy, trying to persuade herself to take her dishes in and sprawl on the couch instead, watch some TV. Options, so many optionsâthat's what this disappearing act was all about.
We aren't trying to talk ourselves into anything here, are we? I mean, we aren't afraid of a real vacation for once, right?
Charlie's inner voice was in the habit of voicing her fears and uncertainties, just so she wouldn't overlook them. She ignored it, but there was now an edge to her mood that even the commute and the cat hadn't managed to generate.
Charlie was almost to the kitchen door with her dishes when she dropped them to break on the quarry-tile paving of the patio because the cat screamed.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“If you was home, I'd tell you how sick I'm getting of these cat fights, that's for sure,” Betty Beesom said, careful not to look at Charlie.
Charlie, with whisk broom and dustpan, had cleaned up the shards of glass and pottery as well as she could under the light above the kitchen door. She set them carefully on the edge of a planter before putting her arm around the older woman.
“Mrs. Beesom, just because I'm taking my vacation at home doesn't mean you can't talk to me.” The home vacation had actually been Betty's idea, after Charlie's disastrous, if profitable, one in Las Vegas last fall.
“Oh, I know I'm just a nosy old lady who gets on people's nerves. But we all worry about you. We want you to get a decent rest this time.”
a nosy old lady who got on people's nerves, but Charlie worried about her, too. Her eyes were always red and teary. She blinked a lot. “You're a neighbor and a good friend. Let's go look for those cats so you can get some sleep tonight.”
Tuxedo sat on top of Jeremy's Trailblazer. He and Hairy Granger ruled the nightâin the compound and the alley, anyway. Hairy was middle-aged, so Tuxedo, in his prime, reigned as king of the hill at the moment. Hairy lived with the Grangers across the alley from Betty, and until about a year ago cleaned Tuxedo's clock regularly. Now it was the younger cat's turn.
The turf wars were noisy. If you kept the cats in, they kept you awake. If you let them out, the neighbors suffered. They were both neutered, but when Tuxedo started spraying the baseboards, Charlie had a cat door installed.
“Libby's at the Esterhazies' tonight, and Mr. Esterhazie called to say he'd see she stayed out of trouble and got home all right,” Betty said.
“You know Ed Esterhazie?”
“Well, I know he's Esterhazie Cement.”
“Concrete. And he called Maggie, who told me. Maggie's out with that man again. Jeremy's home and said not to bother you. Here I am talking to you.”
“You're not bothering me.” I kind of love you. I
need a vacation.
They were circling the Trailblazer, their eyes on the cat on its roof. He hissed and spat, arched his back and quivered his tail.
“Think he'll bite us?”
“I guarantee it, if we can catch him. Let me do it. You just keep him nervous on that side. If Jeremy's home, why aren't there any lights on in his house?”
“Maybe he went out again. MaybeâCharlie, something moved in thereâ” Betty backed away and Libby's cat flew off the Trailblazer, his forelegs out like a falling squirrel. Charlie looked into the vehicle and the manic stare of Hairy Granger.