From Hard Reset: A Martin Gardens Novel
You have to go back to start over. Back as far as you can, back as far as possible within world and time, and then back a little farther. You have to start at that place that is both familiar and unknown. A place populated by hazy, half-formed memories that float unresolved just below the surface of mind’s reach. The place where the downfall began: A backroom of repressed memory festooned with guilt, regret and shame.
I put my suit jacket across the passenger seat and climbed into my MG. An old car, an old acquaintance, really, the only constant in three decades of false starts, minor triumphs, and a lot of self-abuse. Just a machine made of metal, glass, and rubber, but most people have a special car in their personal history and this one was mine. It was the first car that I owned, the first place in which I experienced sex, the first refuge available during the turbulent years of high school. A car with so many imbedded memories it was like a family member and, like a family member, not without foibles, eccentricities and shortcomings. It carried my best friend Tom and me for an ill-prepared Easter break’s journey 200 kilometers deep into Mexico’s Baja California, with two beat up surfboards strapped to the roof and the blissful ignorance of teenage optimism packed in the back. We were on a quest, two mavericks of the Senior class, tipping our toes into the sea water of independence, searching for adventure and maybe a chance to get laid, writing our final adolescent chapter in bold strokes: It is a rite of passage for every teenager on the cusp of maturity to embrace recklessness, and we were not to be denied.
Then, after a miraculously uneventful week that climaxed our final night in a garbled Spanglish solicitation with two senoritas in Ensenada and resulted in one Mexican blanket rather than one evening of wanton fornication, the car stalled a block from my driveway and refused to start. Ever since, the legacy of ownership has required that I prop open the hood or crawl beneath the chassis at the most inopportune occasion to fix something. As a result, I have a collection of scars on my knuckles, palms and forearms from third degree burns and abrasions, a split thumbnail that refuses to knit after thirty years, and compromised hearing from gasoline that dripped into my right ear while I was repairing a ruptured fuel hose. Each time that the car fails, I’d find a way to get it going. Even with all the unreliability and trouble, I could never bring myself to sell it. The lessons learned at the price of inconvenience and indignity served to teach me one fundamental truth: the most defining personal characteristic is not integrity, not virtue, not even honor. The most defining personal characteristic is tenacity.
I rolled down the sloping driveway, released the clutch and the engine fired. I checked the instruments, flipped on the lights and checked Stray. He'd be in the same place when I returned, at whatever time, standing guard and patiently waiting. I turned onto the street and a mile later entered freeway traffic. Cars sped past at terrifying speed. Semi-tractors with double trailers that dwarfed my diminutive British GT; contractor’s pickup trucks laden with tools, building materials, and ladders weaving from lane to lane; a charge of motorists sipping coffee drinks in one hand and talking on cell phones with the other. Nobody drives freeways as fast as drivers in Southern California: And nobody drives as well. Considering the number of vehicles and the speed at which people drive, the freeways should be a nonstop demolition derby of gene pool attrition.
Half an hour later I exited, crossed the north-south boulevard that bifurcates residential real estate values, and turned into the suburban neighborhood where I’d grown up. The same gnarly oaks and peeling eucalyptus lined the block. A bare lot cul-de sac where I used to ride my bicycle with the neighborhood kids was ringed with two-story, stucco homes. The horse pasture at the end of the block had been enclosed with a cinder block wall and the remaining acreage filled with town houses tightly clustered side by side. I stopped in front of my old house. Outside of a minor change to the landscaping, it looked the same. I turned around in the driveway and retraced my daily route to the high school. For four years I’d walked and then driven those few blocks yet I couldn’t recall a single detail. Another chunk of memory adrift somewhere in the liquor. One mile beyond the high school campus, I pulled into the Westland Hills Country Club. It occupied a broad arroyo at the base of the foothills and comprised an 18-hole golf course, Mediterranean style clubhouse with tennis courts, Olympic-sized pool, pro shop, and restaurant overlooking the links. Terraced lots of the gated Westland Hills Estates overlooked the country club. These were the exclusive aeries of the well heeled; the doctors, lawyers and successful executives during the time of my high school incarceration. In order to provide cultural diversity, as well as a proletarian base for successful sport's programs, the school district was drawn in a north-south swatch incorporating Westland Hills Estates, a narrow buffer zone of middle-class residents straddling the boulevard, and the blue-collar neighborhoods residing below the boulevard. Those high school students who lived in the affluent Westland Hills Estates embodied an elite minority dominating student government, social clubs, college prep courses, and the high school tennis team. The majority of the students came from families south of the boulevard and comprised the better part of the high school football, basketball and baseball teams. The economic division extended beyond athletics. In a state well known for its car culture, class demarcation was obvious when appraising the high school parking lot. In the first row, unofficially designated Senior Only parking was a string of Westland Hills' BMWs, Mercedes, and one blood red Ferrari. The driver was a bench warmer on the varsity basketball team, a position rumored to have more to do with his parent’s societal prominence than his athleticism. Rick Fellows was his name. Not quite six feet (I’m a six footer so the comparison is easy), indolent and soft as if he’d never worked a summer job, he was the stereotypical rich kid with a narrow face and weak chin who turned up his nose at anyone outside his social clique and went sockless year round in leather loafers with metal heel wedges that clicked when he walked the polished hallways. You can’t fault a guy whose father is willing to lease him a Ferrari for his senior year, but that doesn’t mean he has to be an asshole about it.
Tonight, the Westland Hills Country Club parking lot contained the luxury sedans and land yacht SUVs of baby-boomer prosperity. I parked at the end of one row next to a faded Fiat convertible that looked almost as bad as my mottled MG, grabbed my suit jacket from the passenger seat, and walked across the parking lot. A fully dressed Harley Davidson laden with far too many chrome accessories screamed mid-life crisis near the clubhouse entrance. Ahead of me, softly backlit by the entry’s diffused lighting, a woman stumbled and dropped to the pavement. She sat on the sidewalk with a very short red skirt riding high up her waist. Her white, fringed panties had clusters of red cherries on them. She wore shoulder length, light brown hair with those Bride of Frankenstein blond streaks that women favor, an off white, scoop neck blouse and an intricate, Native American silver necklace. She had wide, square shoulders and over one breast was a washed out tattoo. The edges were blurred and the skin lighter in tone as if after some reflective consideration an ill-chosen adornment had been bleached into submission. I offered my hand and she grabbed hold, stood up and stabbed her foot into a bright red pump. On one ankle was a plain silver chain and on her ring finger she wore an aquamarine gemstone set in a patterned silver band.
“Are you all right?!
“Goddamn it! she hissed and squinted sideways.
I nodded as she dropped my hand and straightened her skirt. She brushed off bare legs, looked into my face and then took my hand and poked a two-tone fingernail at the palm. The feint odor of patchouli caught in my nose and something submerged deep in time started at the top of my spine and rippled downward toward my crotch.
“Thought so! I could tell right off!
I turned my good ear toward her and angled my head to keep her lips visible in the diffused lighting.
“You work with these, don’t you?!
“I do, now!
She rotated my hand and studied my fingers.
“Mechanic,! she said as she released my hand. “I’d guess airplane. My dad worked at Hughes.!
She flipped her hair back and then fluffed the Bride of Frankenstein streaks around her ears. She had green eyes, not hard and not soft but with the steady, unblinking focus of a woman who has seen the worst in men and still hoped for the best, a slender nose, and razor thin lips drawn in glistening ocher lipstick. Her cheeks were rouged with the same shade. She stared at me, rocking unsteadily as she adjusted her foot in the bright red pump and clutched my arm as if some support, either leverage to stay vertical or a companion to face the evening, were what she needed.
“Am I right?!
Lip reading is mostly context and guesswork. I'm pretty good at it as long as the vocabulary is simple and the lighting adequate. During my corporate career, only a handful of people ever realized that I had any hearing limitation, and when they discovered my impairment, inevitably they would exaggerate their pronunciation and speak in slow, measured rhythm as if I were mentally retarded rather than hard of hearing. In normal conversation or with someone I know, no change of volume is necessary. If someone speaks softly or stands some distance away, comprehension is problematic. When unsure, I cant my good ear their direction, nod my head affirmatively and respond with ‘Is that so?’ Usually more information follows and I can deduce what was said. Occasionally I guess wrong, especially in dim light, if the speaker is on my right side, or if the voice is in a low register. Women’s voices are easier to hear than men’s voices. The higher pitch makes the difference.
I cocked my head, bent closer and watched her lips from the corner of my eye.
“Is that so?!
She studied my face, confusion filling her eyes, took my hand again and held my fingers. I heard a car enter the parking lot and lost it as the noise transitioned from one side of my head to the other. She leaned forward out of the shadow and said something into my right ear. Then she held her face close to mine, hesitated, and kissed my cheek. I hadn’t been kissed, or even touched by a woman for that matter, since Susan. The patchouli hung between us and a blurry image of a girl in a cheerleader's uniform almost resolved.
A shiny, white Cadillac with dealer plates skidded to a stop near the entrance. The driver’s door opened and a tall, skinny man with a long neck stepped out. The interior bell chimed repeatedly as he stretched his arms across the roof and looked up at the night sky.
The woman tilted her head, squinted at me, and the look on her face made it clear that I had guessed wrong. The passenger door of the Cadillac opened and a portly man, not much more than five feet tall and almost equal in circumference, hoisted himself to his feet. He stomped past us toward the clubhouse trailing a cloud of musky cologne.
“Fine,! the tall man called. “I’ll just park the car, Bitch.!
The tall man got back in the car. It lurched forward, tires squealing, and skidded into a handicap parking spot. He stopped the car with a violent yank on the shifter and sat inside with the engine ticking as it cooled.
“Got a cigarette?!
I shook my head.
The tall man slammed closed the door of the Cadillac, walked past us staring straight ahead, and entered the clubhouse without turning around.
“You don’t remember me, do you?!
I took a deep breath. Odors are powerful stimulants, closely tied to memory, and my sense of smell, even before the damage to my hearing, is highly acute. The patchouli played the shoreline of the past like a lapping wave, reaching and then receding as I struggled to establish a mnemonic beachhead. That is one of the things about alcoholism. It drops pieces of your life into deep water where they are almost irretrievable. Events, experiences, people become fragmented sections of the past rendered inaccessible, sunken somewhere beneath the alcohol’s murky surface. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s called alcoholic dementia. Tom told me most memories eventually emerge, even for a blackout drunk: Take it one day at a time; keep moving forward. He claimed that he was still remembering things after twenty years of sobriety.
“Say something else.!
The woman settled into the bright red pumps and reached underneath her top to tug at her bra. She smoothed her skirt, patted her stomach, and then raised her eyes to stare into my face. One eyebrow racked upward. I shut my eyes and stopped breathing in order to concentrate.
“Go ahead,! I said and turned my good ear her direction. "Say something.!
There was a pause. A fetid bouquet of steer manure drifted past on the fall air and a silent wave empty of image rolled toward my vacant beachhead. I opened my eyes to the manicured landscapes of hybrid roses and rich green dichondra lawns of the Westland Hills Estates. When I looked down, she was staring at me with optimistic anticipation.
“I’ve lost a lot,! I said. “Also, I can’t hear too well in my right ear.!
We entered the clubhouse along a carpeted corridor lined with framed photographs of country club members playing tennis and golf. Just past an adjoining hallway was a staircase. Balloons tethered to the handrail disappeared down the stairs. A freestanding signboard stated “Welcome Graduate.! Apparently our collective presence already doubled expectations. The woman shook her head with a derisive snort and then looked me in the eye.
“I’ll-see-you-lat-er, O-K? We-can-catch-up,! she said. “If-you-can-re-mem-ber.!
“Sure,! I called as she turned down the hallway. “I’ll remember.!
I’m a little claustrophobic and stay out of cellars, basements, and even elevators if I can help it. Being underground or beneath multiple stories puts me on edge. I’ve no rational reason for it, outside of the ever-present probability of earthquakes in a geologically unstable region with more than 100 active faults, but since I was young I’d always felt anxious beneath grade. As an adult, I’d learned to manage my anxiety with the perfect anodyne: It was called liquor.
Downstairs, a woman manning a card table checked my name off a list and held out a clip-on badge with a blurry, senior year photograph.
She pointed to the array of unclaimed badges spread across the top of the table.
“Looks like some people changed their minds.!
Among the rows of badges were one or two names I recognized, but the name I was looking for wasn’t one of them. The woman shrugged her shoulders.
“It’s still early.!
The reunion was held in the multi-use room, equipped with a bar at one end and sliding partitions for room expansion along one wall. I’d attended dozens of corporate mixers in rooms just like this, tossed down weak Scotches and thin Manhattans, suffered the bad jokes and worse company of superiors and colleagues convinced that in some way my presence was advancing my career. Each event was different but they all held the same stale odor of desperation in the highly patterned carpeting and neutral-colored walls. Round, linen-draped tables were arranged adjacent a temporary dance floor, and a row of trestle tables in the center held chafing trays, salad bar, stacks of plates and flatware.
Around me stood classmates I didn’t recognize. Men lingered near the bar, mostly wearing dark suits, a few in sport shirts, one bearded guy dressed in leather pants, a black tee-shirt, and a skull and crossbones bandana that covered his head and tied at the base of a sunburned neck. The portly man and his tall partner were seated at a table in a corner. Two women walked past me without comment to join a group of others. Then a petite woman in a button down, shiny blue blouse and conservative black skirt stepped out of the group, wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek. She smelled of lavender soap and three decades disappeared in a single whiff. Marce was the ADD girl, sassy and energetic, a member of the track team, someone in constant motion who always smelled of lavender soap and Chapstick. I felt myself blush and pulled back to see her face. For some reason, crystal clear memories of her lapped along the beachhead in my mind. I always liked Marce and she knew it.
“Hello, Marce. How are you?!
I looked past her to the group of disinterested women who watched as Marce rose on her toes and whispered in my ear.
She looked confused so I reversed position and pointed to my good ear. The group of women all smiled at once, as if by virtue of Marce’s attention, I’d been granted social clearance. Marce was a very popular girl in high school. Our junior year she had a boyfriend named Edward, a tall, slump-shouldered, moody guy with a mass of tangled, black hair and few friends. I remember he was so smart that he rarely attended class and probably didn’t need to. He was one of those guys who should have gone right to college after middle school. Marce said he was a genius. He struck me as being pretty dark at times, but what I remembered most were his eyes; they were amber, and he’d look past you without speaking as if his focus were on something in the middle distance. After they broke up, she disappeared at the end of spring semester, and when she returned in the fall for senior year you could tell that something about her was different. I saw Edward around school a few times. He fell in with a crowd that congregated at lunch under a huge Magnolia tree and generally seemed pissed-off and contemptuous of the entire school body. They dressed in black, talked about the 5th dimension and a parallel universe, and made weekend trips to the Mojave Desert. I don’t remember if Edward attended our graduation ceremony, but about the time I left home for college I heard he was living nearby with a girlfriend.
Edward had a twin sister, Carolyn, who was his opposite in almost every way: average height, perfect posture, outgoing and gregarious with a constant smile on her oval face, involved in almost every school activity, and universally well liked. I had a schoolboy crush on her then and she wanted nothing to do with me. As a result, I’d behaved badly toward her, authoring a mean spirited declaration that thankfully was lost among the hundreds of self-serving prevarications in the final edition of the school paper. I doubt that she ever read it, but still she deserved an apology. That was one of the twelve steps. It was not the only thing for which I needed to make amends. Marce took my arm and pulled me toward the bar.
“I knew you’d come,! she said. “Even though you never came before.!
The bartender poured a white wine and I asked for water. Marce ran an index finger along the rim of her glass and pushed the sleeve of her shiny blue blouse up her forearm.
She nodded her head and looked up at me from beneath thick, natural eyebrows. I looked around the room at the sparse turnout. Women sat at the round tables in the back as if they’d staked out their turf. Men huddled near the bar, holding mixed drinks in one hand while they exchanged business cards with the other.
“She’s not here.!
“I can see that.!
Marce dug her business card, pen and tiny address book from her purse. She handed me her wine glass and scribbled on the back of the card.
“She sent me a postcard, once,! she said. “Edward is still around, living on the streets or something, but she lives in New York. Here.!
“That’s not the only reason I came.!
“Yes it is. Because you still love her.!
“I owe her, Marce. I owe her an apology.!
“Of course you do.!
By the end of the evening, I’d made two trips outside for fresh air when I felt the room begin to close in, spoken with classmates I couldn’t remember, and managed to winnow my personal history down to three terse statements: living half-a-year sober in a carriage house apartment that I shared with a brindle-coat Boxer with a mangled, right ear; between careers and unsure of which direction to go; no kids, never married but once engaged. That was enough. No reason to fill in the empty places. People mostly wanted to talk about themselves. Mixed recollections of high school experiences, a predictable succession of events during the intervening decades leading to middle age: the people we were then were the people we are now. No one had really changed. Those well-adjusted teens expected to follow traditional paths had done just that and built successful careers in business, education, medicine or law. Others, not so well-adjusted, had traveled rougher roads, endured harder times, survived by sheer perseverance and grit. Most fell somewhere in the middle, settling for a life far from youthful ambitions but affording relative comfort and security. The truly unfortunate are under-represented at class reunions. A high school reunion attracts only those people with experiences worth recounting. Those whose histories are laced with guilt and pain have long since found ways to nullify their past.
At the end of the night I walked Marce out of the building. Faux gas lamps lit most of the parking lot. Marce leaned one hip against her car, a gigantic SUV that dwarfed her petite frame, and searched her purse. She reached up, put her arms around my neck, and hugged me so tightly that her feet lifted off the ground. Even in platform heels, she was barely more than five feet tall, but she managed to fold herself into my body as if she were snuggling into a comfortable sofa. Then she sighed, released her grip and hoisted herself into the driver’s seat.
“It’s good to see you,! she said as I closed her door. She lowered the window and looked down at me.
“Do you need a ride?!
“No, I drove,! I said and pointed.
She looked across the parking lot. The MG and the faded Fiat were parked beneath the only nonworking lamp.
“Still have that old car, I see. Some things never change.!
“It’s a family member, now.!
She smiled and started her engine.
“We used to be friends, right? So call me.!
“You look good, Martin. You’ve grown up,! she said.
“Thanks. You look good, too.!
The gigantic vehicle backed and turned. It was like watching a vacation cruise liner leaving port. All that mass held immobile as energy gathered and then a slow, building momentum ensued as the vehicle began to move. Marce exited the parking lot with a squeal of tire rubber as I walked toward my car. The driver’s door of the Fiat was standing open. The woman in the short, red skirt sat motionless with one bright red pump in the parking lot and the other in her car. She watched as I approached, appraising me with each step, staring through flat green eyes as cigarette smoke drifted from her nose. Then she turned back to the windshield, gone away in thought, as if I weren’t there.
“You found a cigarette.!
She cast a slow assessment head to foot, eyes drawn down to slits, and then dropped her hand between her legs and fingered the hem of her short, red skirt. Smoke hung across her face. On the passenger seat was a package of cigarettes, small purse and her reunion name badge. She took a long, slow draw on the cigarette. Her eyes bore into me as if she could see through my charade, as if my every peccadillo, minor infraction and unpunished felony were scrolled like a headline across my face.
“We were going to catch up.!
“Catching up is good,! I said and then as boldly as I could, dropped all pretense. “But I want to remember you.!
She held out the cigarette, examining the ember, and then tilted her head. She looked at me with a carnal lift of one eyebrow that prompted nerve endings firing down my spine.
“Yes, you do,! she said and tipped the ash from her cigarette. “You want to remember.!
I waited for her to say something else but she only stared through the windshield again with the cigarette held close to her face.
“Well, OK,! I said and walked to my car. She sat, eyes locked forward, with that one bright red pump in the parking lot like she was unsure if she were coming or going. I climbed into my car and twisted the ignition key. Nothing happened. I twisted it again. Still nothing. I lowered the driver’s window and got out. With some effort I pushed the car out of the parking space. I turned and saw the woman approach. She nodded her head at me, spread fingers on the rear fender and smiled.
“Let’s go,! she mouthed.
I looked at her, in bare feet, and the image of a girl in a cheerleader’s uniform came back. She was bent at the waist, loose hair drifting across her face and she was familiar. I did remember but still couldn’t place her in my past.
“Ready? I’ve done this before.!
“I think I remember you,! I said but only saw blurry waves lapping along the beachhead. “Almost.!
We pushed until the car gained some speed and I jumped in. The woman continued pushing as I released the clutch. The engine coughed and caught, stumbled and then settled into a fast idle. I backed to where the woman was standing beneath a bright, faux lamp.
“Thanks, I owe you.!
She shrugged her square shoulders and peered at me through the flat, green eyes.
“I’ll take it out in trade,! I think she said.
She held up her hand beckoning me to wait and retrieved her purse from her car. Two fingers reached into the passenger window and dropped a business card into my lap.
“Salon Bellezza. Hair and Nails by Tamara Greene.! The address was local. She leaned into the window before she spoke.
“I’m not far away,! she said. “Follow me.!
She crossed the parking lot and climbed into her car. I don’t think that I’d really looked at her until then, at least not in full light, and I hadn’t seen her anywhere since we entered the clubhouse together; not at one of the round tables, the serving line, or mingling among people clutching weak drinks as they stared over the heads of alumni. Another image indistinct and half-formed washed along the beachhead of memory and stopped short. I did know her. That much I could remember.
The Fiat started and blew a black cloud out the exhaust pipe. Probably worn valve seals. Like everything else, time does the damage. She pulled along side, mouthed something, and nodded her head as if I should understand. Maybe all that either of us needed was some company, more than anything else, just the close comfort of human contact with someone who shared your experience even if only one of you could remember it. I followed her car as she exited the parking lot and together we headed across town. One day at a time.