October in Santa Barbara. A strange season in Southern California, sometimes an over-heated Indian summer, when hot winds whistle down mountain slopes in "sundowner" blasts, or howl out of the southeast and blow northwest, roughly from the direction of Santa Ana, hence the rather poetic name "Santa Ana winds," spelled variously.
These winds are infrequent and by no means as menacing and psychologically affecting as some over-wrought California writers claim, but the air, the ambient atmosphere, is odd nevertheless, and is perhaps responsible for some strange goings-on -- such as the puzzling decline of a certain love relationship.
I'm thinking of my affair with Margie Hollander, not quite as aging as I and hanging on to her youth as tenaciously as October holds onto summer in California. We were winding down the summer with one more afternoon at the beach, probably the last of the season. Margie hated my job. She was sure I'd be killed, sooner or later.
I had to admit, there's something about bullets. I downplayed the importance of physical danger, but Margie wouldn't let it go.
Our favorite beach was an unofficial stretch of shoreline below sandy bluffs that rise to the city. There's no official name for the beach, but nearby Westside locals sometimes call it Cargada del Perro, or Dog Shit beach, in honor of the many dog owners who view the Pacific edge as an exercise yard and sandbox for Rufus and Gracie.
Other than the civilization reminders, the occasional small mounds of dog shit and bits of human detritus, I reflected that I could be sunbathing in, say, the 4th Century, wearing perhaps a strip of seal skin, or nothing at all, and having a beach to myself. Myself and the lovely older woman lying beside me on an over-sized seal skin with wide vertical stripes. She had the milky, freckled skin of a redhead and wouldn't expose herself for long, wisely protecting her soft and still-smooth skin. She wore a wide straw hat of the kind commonly sold in Mexico, and had soft white cotton trousers and a Kelly green, long-sleeved shirt at the ready.
We had talked earnestly about my work while we gazed at the smallish waves that broke more or less regularly. "Wherever the truth may be, the water comes to the shore, and the people look at the sea. . ."
The surf rumbled politely. "Sophocles heard it on the Aegean," another poet wrote, although he probably heard more pebbles than sand, "shingles" hissing against each other.
Margie, whom I had met at a friend's house one night early in the summer, had retired to Santa Barbara. Left her job as a well-paid escrow officer in Seattle and took her investments to California. Retirement, the good life in my town, where they say "old people go to live with their parents." Quiet, pretty Santa Barbara was a town "for the newlywed and nearly dead."
We had undertaken a most promising, slow-paced, tasteful affair through the lazy, hazy days of summer, but lately we argued about my job, since it was turning out to be a rather significant one.
Margie had "a safety issue," as she put it, with my being a private investigator, and she didn't know the half of it. No doubt we both had lurking ideas of riding into the sunset of life together. But if I got killed in the line of duty while pursuing my hobby, she would also have a terrible "abandonment issue," as had happened some years ago when her beloved hubbie had died in an auto crash.
An impasse loomed, because she doesn't realize something: I had "gotten into it," getting small thrills of pleasure from the somewhat dangerous -- and, all right, I had to admit it -- sometimes salacious elements of this, my retirement calling. Perhaps my last job in more ways than one, I grimly thought. But this too gave me a small frisson -- if I was remembering my French correctly. I was alarmed at how often my 64-year-old memory was failing me, how many "senior moments" I was plagued by.
"Dick," she said suddenly, while we sat cross-legged and stared at the water, "I just worry so much about you. It's awfully hard on me." She had a point, of course. She dabbed some suntan oil on my freckly face and I didn't like the sad look she gave me, close up, deep into my eyes. You'd think I was dying or something. Then she went back to staring soulfully out to sea, frowning slightly.
Damn, I thought, I'm losing her. Smart, lovely woman, already a friend, lover, confidante, playtime pal, someone to bounce ideas off of, as well other things. Potentially a perfect life partner, for what was left of it at my age. The big 6-5, official seniorhood, was coming next spring. Margie was ridiculously coy about her age, but various clues put her at 58-60. She made 60-ish look good. And I was willing to lose this? Damn. A condom wrapped in a mystery, or something like that. I forget. . .
Life was lovely at the beach when you felt good and your company was beautiful. She looked beautiful to my tired old eyes, anyway. I felt sad that she was sad.
I leaned over from my blanket and pushed my forehead against her shoulder and nuzzled her skin with my nose. It occurred to me that dogs did that, and it worked for them, sometimes. Got them affection, got them petted. Maybe she'd throw a tennis ball into the water for me to fetch.
I looked up at her and she looked down at me, expressionlessly. I tried to imitate the soulful eyes of Marcello Mastroianni in "Seven Beauties." I also liked the look of a slightly sad cocker spaniel that needed affection, but I wasn't sure how to hold my eyebrows. I became lost in thought, wondering what breed of dog I looked like, when Margie abruptly sat up and said partly in a sigh, "Well. . ."
The word carried that tone which said she'd been thinking about Our Problem, and the conversation was over, and maybe everything else with it. Coming from her the word "well" could be fraught with meaning, the way President Reagan had used it when he was out of thoughts, which was often.
I, Marcello, also sighed, lowered my head and stared directly down into the blurry gray sand. I loved the smell of the sea that emanated from it, and inhaled deeply.
Then I too sighed. "Well. . ."
Since she didn't like the sound of my last case, she was really gonna hate my new one. I had to talk to Mason Stone about his wayward wife and the incident I'd seen at dawn in the harbor. It was possible that I did have a real problem here, since the boating players appeared to be large ones. In the drug world, the problem is called "violence," sometimes referred to as "death."
When I got home the message light was blinking. I punched it and heard what seemed to be someone growling in a Latino accent: "I'm going to call you tonight, asshole. Be there." Click.
What th. . .
Whoever the Growler was, he sounded menacing enough to cause me a little unease. Quite a bit of it, actually.