Frank’s on the morning train. Julie wouldn’t let him drive a car anymore. She was right, as usual. His mind wandered, reactions weren’t what they used to be. He might kill somebody. Julie and her husband, Don, had ambushed him after Sunday dinner, an intervention, ‘Dad we’ve got some things we want to talk about ….’ Funny that she wasn’t comfortable bracing him on her own. Probably figured he’d have outflanked her. Probably right. Julie was clever, tactical. Then, after he’d agreed too easily to stop driving, she’d raised visiting the ex. Timing and tactic, that was his kid, Dr. Julie.
‘You’ve never been back to Fremont Beach to see Mom.’
‘I didn’t visit her when she had a full deck. Why should I now? I don’t have anything to say her. That’s all shot forty years ago. What do you think’s going to happen between us? Besides, I hate hospitals.’
She waited, letting him empty his quiver.
Julie, his big deal therapist daughter, could certainly quack like one. ‘Dad, it’s for you. Do you know how much you still talk about your divorce? Do you listen to yourself? You need closure, reconciliation, if not with Mom, then with your own past. You’re getting older now. It’s time to find peace.’
‘Psychobabble. I pay her damned bills. Isn’t that penance enough?’
Julie became still. Her eyes focused directly on him. Frank visualized a rattlesnake poised, in the nanosecond before it struck. Christ, what had he spawned? ‘Okay, okay, don’t make a human rights case out of it. I’ll even take the Amtrak down there. Now I’m going out to have a smoke. Is that okay?’ In retreat, he grumbled ‘It’ll be my cigars and whiskey next.’ Poor Don, he thought, I’ll bet she tells him which socks to wear.
So, here he sat on the Sunliner, watching Southern California scroll by, hating Southern California. He’d take a taxi when he got to Fremont Beach.
The train sliced through shabby mid-60s malls and housing developments with Spanish sounding names, a wasteland of graffiti-tagged concrete, auto wrecking yards, and stucco shanties – Santa Ana, Mission Viejo, and Capistrano now all grown up. And out, sprawling like buttocks over bar stools. Heat shimmered from asphalt parking lots, the odd gull thermalling on station for edible rubbish. Not even dogs braved the heat at ground zero. Free range dogs were banned years ago, like cigars on the train and bottled beer at Dodger Stadium. They’ve all gone the way of the dinosaur, dodo, and saloon car.
Frank looked at his reflection in the window, a ghost face flying outside the train, caught in the post-modern detritus of what used to be living desert and chaparral. Maybe he’d spend eternity here. For his sins.
Later, all this became orange and avocado groves. Irrigation, the Feather River Project, did that. Knott’s Berry Farm, an amusement park, was once really a farm. There were sandy beach villages, strawberry patches, and quirky diners; surfers with beer bellies and Japanese shrapnel in their arses. People smoked Camel Cigarettes with a pyramid and three camels on the package. Advertising slogan – ‘I’d walk a mile for a Camel,’ (and two for a woman). Eastside Beer came in amber long-neck bottles and never brewed a ‘light’ anything. Beer was beer, for Christ’s sake, not a diet drink. That was a long time ago too.
Frank closed his eyes, dozed, and juked back in time.
He’d stopped being ‘Frankie’ because of Johnna Cooper, his ‘Johnni.’ As soon as they were an item everybody started calling them ‘Frankie & Johnni.’ He didn’t like the song’s lyrics, began calling himself Frank. It was time to grow up a notch anyway, shed his little boy’s moniker.
He first saw Johnni at his own house, an Eagle Rock bungalow shared with a rogues’ gallery of other bums. They were future professionals in the last riot of childhood; days of beer and Benzedrine. He’d come home after midnight, his swing shift at Disneyland keeping him late. He pulled in dirty on his ratty old BSA motorbike. All the lights were on. Inside, people were dancing, making a racket. It was Buddy Holly, but it could have been The Stones or Ritchie Valens. Nobody saw him arrive, nobody except Johnni. She was smoking outside the front door in the shadows beside the porch. He raked her with his headlight as he pulled in, gunned the engine twice, and snuffed it.
‘You’re late, mate,’ she said. ‘The party’s almost over. Everybody’s drunk already. … Who are you anyway?’ Looking up, straight into his eyes – provocative – she offered him a beer from the open cooler on the porch, his cooler, its ice nearly gone.
Frankie grinned. He liked her accent, very English, very cool. The girl had sand too, got right in your face and said it. He pulled off his gloves. His face was grimy and he knew he looked like a raccoon from wearing goggles. The Santa Ana Freeway was a river of car exhaust and diesel soot. Dropping helmet, gloves, and goggles on the gravel, he smiled and took the beer.
The summer night was furnace hot. Feeling the bottle’s chill, Frankie put it to his forehead and rolled it across his face before taking a long, cold pull. He wiped his face with an engine rag from his hip pocket and came out from behind it putting on a big simpleton’s grin – ‘Name’s Ringo Starr, I play drums with some lads you may have heard about.’ He bowed dramatically, took and kissed Johnni’s right hand.
‘And I’m Marianne Faithfull,’ said Johnni, not missing a beat, taking a deep curtsy. ‘Fancy a coffin nail, Ringo?’ She gave him her cigarette, his first; a communion. And the eyes again, China Blue he thought, cut right through him.
That was it, really. His bungalow was on a hill and its uphill side close to the ground. He tossed a Mexican serape on the gently sloping roof, clambered up, and offered Johnni his hand. They sat together in the night, surrounded by the neon glow of L.A.’s skyline. The tail lights of cars on Figueroa Boulevard looked like an unbroken strand of rubies; oncoming headlights like diamonds. They’d talked, laughed and kissed as beer drunk party-goers separated and drifted off into the night.
Later, they watched the sunrise from that blanket and, by then, were lovers. Just like that. What a night!
In the morning cool Frank helped Johnni off the roof. She smiled as he shook out the serape and draped it over her shoulders. Then they walked across the boulevard to ‘Queen Jane’s’ where they ate a fry-up and were still flirting as they smoked Camels over coffee. She called him ‘Ringo’ for the next ten years. They called themselves, their partnership, Marianne & Ringo, The Rooftop Gang. When Julie was born, they added ‘& Co.’ to their gang.
Frank opened his eyes. Outside the window, a row of flatcars carrying Humvees waited at a siding. The Sunliner had reached the coast, was traversing Camp Pendleton, USMC. He watched as a shoebox shaped airplane flying at ground level pulled up almost perpendicular, opened a barn door, and dropped out a half-dozen Marines so low that their parachutes snapped open just before ground impact. Young men in khaki hit the beach with rifles in their hands before the dust-up settled. He looked away. It felt obscene. They should be surfing; making love on that beach.
Lucky me, a childhood between Korea and Vietnam, the only years without demand for boys with guns. Thank you President Eisenhower! Here’s to surfing, beer, and campfires; the pill, marijuana, and women’s lib. Even if free love and open marriage are prizewinning oxymorons, they were good enough slogans in their day. They were snake oil, of course, old venom in new bottles. Everybody got high, got laid, and lied about it; about everything. The 1920s must have been like that, a generation surfing off a rocky strand; the Great Depression beyond the horizon, a distant tsunami.
The Sunliner glided past the derelict nuclear power station at San Onofre, its twin dead reactor chambers looking like enormous, augmented breasts, perfect in their barren concrete symmetry. And lethally radioactive for the next 150,000 years. A daredevil graffitist had penetrated the razor wire fence to spray-paint ‘All People Are Fucked’ along the cinderblock wall of the control building. Frank smiled. It was a fitting epitaph for the reactor and its contaminated beach.
That beach used to be called The Boneyard; a notorious board buster because of its jagged volcanic rocks at low tide, but it had waves as even and clean as a Hollywood smile. He’d ditched school and first surfed there on a borrowed board. At the end of the day, he’d coasted into those rocks, shredding the board and his back. Teenaged wisdom: The best surf puts skin on the table. More surfer cant rippled through Frank’s mind:
Surfers rule the beach and sand,
Beaners rule the taco stands,
Boogies do the best they can, but
Boozers rule the land.
Surf Nazis, where are they now? Probably retired salesmen gasping their way around the links at Torrey Pines, dying to get to the clubhouse. Boozers one and all, communing daily at the First Church of St. Jack Daniels. What went wrong?
The Rooftop Gang managed to stay together for twelve years before their tide went out. Toward the end, they went to Mexico in a VW van. They smoked grass, camping and surfing for six months. Frank thought it would help. It didn’t. They’d cut each other too deeply, too often. Their wounds wouldn’t heal. Johnni couldn’t control her temper, Frank his mouth.
Frank still called the court hearing their gang rape. He had fired his lawyer midway through it. Johnni was comatose, probably topped-out on the Valium her doctor dispensed for everything from menstrual cramps to bereavement. He left feeling stripped naked, flogged, and betrayed, all the worse for what he’d done to Johnni.
This for bupkis because, in the end, the ‘one size fits all,’ cookie-cutter divorce resolved nothing. Their misery was transmuted to loathing by its hippy-dippy alternate week custody of Julie and punishing alimony burden for Frank. The order divorced them, but poisoned their future, like the radioactive leak at San Onofre.
Frank’s guts clenched. The Sunliner was slowing. He wanted one last set of Hollywood waves, but it was way too late. He wanted whiskey. Why the fuck was he visiting Johnni? He should have held his ground with Julie. He’d already left too much blood in the water.
The Amtrak glided to a halt at Fremont Beach, the end of the line. Frank stuffed an unopened paperback into his Trader Joe’s shopping bag, stood, and straightened his Hawaiian shirt. He was just another old vato with a cloth bag and water bottle. Stepping into the late morning sun, he looked for a bar, but stopped himself. Julie would find out. She became a killer angel when he crossed her, like her mother. Grumbling, he found the taxi stand and gave directions to Pollingate Manor, which even he called ‘Pearly Gate Manor,’ Johnni’s high end care facility.
The taxi dropped Frank at the palm-lined entry to Cortez Park just opposite Pearly Gate. He bought a hotdog and bottled beer from a pushcart vendor, then sat down on a shaded bench to compose himself. He’d laced the hotdog with sauerkraut and spicy mustard. It crackled as he bit into it. A skinny Latino kid with a Christmassy-decorated rickshaw called out, ‘Hey Sean Connery, you want a park tour in my electric burro cart?’
‘Not today, General Villa, but someday soon. It looks like fun.’
‘Okay, but don’t miss out. Not every day is as nice as this one, just most of them.’ The kid laughed and went back to a game on his phone.
A rickshaw ride would beat facing the wreck of Johnni. Still, he wondered what the old wahine looked like now, after all these years.
Catty-corner, Pearly Gate dominated a city block. The former Hilton Hotel had been gutted and rebuilt into a discrete prison described as a ‘secure residence’ in the corporate booklet. The windows could not be opened without keying them and then not widely enough to permit escape. Facility access was controlled by electronic locks ‘just like those used in the Metropolitan Detention Center’ the brochure boasted.
The corner of Pearly Gate opposite Frank contained a grassy park with shading palmettos and a Mediterranean tiled fountain. This garden was enclosed with a high, wrought-iron fence and secured by a keypad gate. Frank watched as an old woman in housedress and slippers was released from the main entrance into this park. Using a frame walker, she hobbled her way to a bench not visible from the glassy entryway. Once she’d achieved this refuge, the woman produced a package of cigarettes from her sleeve, lit one, and inhaled greedily. As she took her second drag, the front door opened, disgorging an orderly who shook a finger at the woman and confiscated her smokes. He didn’t smile. Crestfallen, the old one shuffled back to the door. A security camera tracked her progress.
Near Frank an old bum dozed against the park fence, his short dog stowed away in a brown bag. Frank dropped a dollar in the bum’s paper coffee cup, whispering ‘Merry Christmas, old vato. Keep your distance from yonder jail.’ Then Frank walked across the street to Pearly Gate.
After he was buzzed into the garden, Frank heard the gate behind him slam, then lock with a firm electronic ‘clunk.’ These sounds overwhelmed the water patter of the fountain and shattered the remainder of Frank’s park-side buenas ondas, good vibes. The security camera whirred as it tracked his progress. Frank wished he had a Churchill cigar to cut and light theatrically, assuming a Fidel Castro pose. It would waste the cigar, but be worth it to thumb his nose at these contract jailers.
As he crossed the sliding glass entry door, again controlled electronically, an Amazon in white stepped between him and the reception desk. Her posture betrayed previous military service. She looked like a Marine spat back into civilian life. Although easily over six feet tall, the nurse wore thick soled ward shoes and had her hair piled beneath a high starched cap. Frank had to look up to make eye contact and to avoid the massive chest which he found menacingly thrust in his direction.
‘May I help you?’ Big Nurse said, looking singularly unwilling to do so.
‘Yes, I’m here to see one of your inmates, Johnna Duncan,’ Frank replied.
‘Are you on her visitors list? What is your business with our guest?’ Big Nurse inched closer, forcing Frank to retreat to maintain eye contact. ‘We don’t have any visitor request for Johnna Duncan on today’s calendar. Our guests aren’t permitted drop-ins.’ Big Nurse seemed to inflate. Frank wondered if she were trained in karate; was preparing to lash her knee into his groin.
However, once persuaded by Frank’s verbal kowtow that he was intimidated, she turned and escorted him to the reception desk. There, he was given a ‘Visitor Questionnaire’ and ‘Rules Booklet.’ From these, he discovered that The Manor’s Alzheimer Unit had a numerical control system for its inmates, referred to as ‘guests’ in Pearly Gate’s corporate-speak. Inmates had numbers and bar code scan bracelets. Johnna Duncan, Johnni, was Number 168.
A half-hour ticked away. Frank was then admitted to Johnni’s room, but only after signing a form reciting that he’d read and understood the rules – a loyalty oath, more prison kowtow.
Pearly Gate made sure its inmates were clean and presentable for visitors. When he entered, Johnni was sitting up in bed making vague designs with her index finger on a thin pink coverlet. She didn’t turn to look at him. The room smelled of lavender air freshener and, underneath it, urine and cooked cabbage. Nearby, he could hear an old woman sobbing. Numb to this, the station nurse complained on her mobile phone about her boyfriend’s infidelity. ‘He’d screw a woodpile if you told him there was a snake in it.’
Sunlight from the barred window silhouetted Johnni’s skull through her ragged, wispy hair. Wasn’t a weekly beautician part of the package? He’d ask Big Nurse before he left; put her on the defensive.
‘Hi Johnni. It’s Frank. How are you keeping, old love?’
Johnni said nothing, but began to hum a little atonal melody, occasionally mumbling a word of the lyrics. She tugged idly on the scan bracelet fixed to her left wrist. As she hummed, her face took some animation, smiles and frowns, mixed in with eye movement. Frank thought he deciphered ‘brown sugar,’ but wasn’t sure. His hearing wasn’t the best.
Standing there, he fidgeted, felt vulnerable, stupid, and old. A flicker of panic – would Big Nurse let him leave? Was he being ambushed into custody?
Finally, he pulled up a chair and sat at Johnni’s bedside. She looked tiny, childlike beneath the coverlet. He touched her busy right hand and she stopped its wandering, slipping it into his open palm. She turned her head, searched his face, smiled shyly, and looked straight into his eyes. … Her eyes!
Some things never change. They were together again in that Eagle Rock night. Just like that, like magic. The Buddy Holly lyric from their first touch snapped to Frank, ‘love that’s real not fade away.’ They slid down together in an instant. Time is Snakes and Ladders.
Johnni’s face looked troubled when Frank spoke, so he sat quietly, just holding her hand. Occasionally, he caressed her head. He thought he’d bring a Bluetooth speaker next time and play some oldies. Maybe he’d break Johnni out for New Year’s Day. They’d go for a rickshaw ride in the park; share a fag. Fuck Pearly Gate’s rules! He wrote their check; even owned stock in the company.
Time passed and Johnni drifted off to sleep. Still holding her hand, Frank sat listening to her breathe. Finally, needing to make the last train north, he gently disentangled. Rising from the chair, he bent awkwardly, supporting himself with the headboard, and kissed her on the forehead. As he did, she stirred, smiled, and whispered ‘Goodbye Ringo.’
‘Sweet dreams, Marianne,’ said Frank.
He smiled as he closed the door.
Not fade away.
# # #
Jack Kelleher is an old guy who writes short stories and rides a bicycle.
Photo credit: Andrew Kehoe / Retrograde Collective