June 7, 2019


This story first appeared in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Spring 2019

My name’s Ian Coyle. You may have heard of me. Until recently I wrote spy novels and was good at it. At least that’s what my agent and my publisher told me. A couple of my books made the tail-end of obscure best-seller lists and my latest, King’s Bluff, received a few almost-decent reviews. Understand, I’m not bragging about my success. I’m just trying to say my recent panic-inducing bout of writer’s block was unusual. 
April Fools’ Day began just like all of the days since the start of the new year. The early morning fog embraced the bay and the town of Monterey, one of California’s great and beautiful gifts. I’ve lived here alone for the past six years, ever since my ex-wife Kassie left me. I can’t say she broke my heart, but she left a hole which my one-eared tabby cat, Muscles, couldn’t quite fill. She returned to Chicago; I stayed, too crippled to do anything else. 
By now I’d settled into a satisfactory routine playing a little pickup basketball in the park with other mid-life heroes, drinking coffee at Coco’s Cafe on the wharf, or more often volunteering at the pet rescue shelter where I originally found Muscles, an abused kitten. Lately, a female veterinarian named Jill who worked there had attracted my attention and vice versa. We’d gone out several times and there was potential. Jill was nice - comfortable, unpretentious, and wholesome. She never used makeup and wore her sandy brown hair sensibly close-cropped. Her natural look appealed to me. Best of all, she accepted me just as I was, a trait much appreciated after Kassie’s unrelenting criticism.
I still made my home in the comfortable remodeled duplex that Kassie had picked out. My best pal Paul teased that it was way too neat for a bachelor’s pad. My second-story office looked out on a stately strand of eucalyptus trees. With the windows open, I could hear the waves pounding the beach five blocks away and smell the scent of salt and sea life. 
Most days my writing uniform consisted of a pair of shorts, moccasins, and my favorite gray T-shirt with the Wile E. Coyote cartoon character on the front holding up a sign that says Help. This morning was chilly enough that I slipped my Santa Clara sweatshirt on top, loaded my Nora Jones playlist and opened the browser on my computer. Muscles joined me, assuming his position atop my antique cherry bookcase. First thing I checked my sales numbers and fan emails – nothing of much interest in either. Then I scrubbed out my oversized coffee mug and refilled it. 
Since no more diversions came to mind, I opened the blank page of my word processor. That’s when the anxiety gnawed the hardest at my gut, the natural response to a brain barren of even a vague idea for a new story. Everything I was capable of writing bored me, and what didn’t bore me had already been written by better writers than me. The barren computer screen mocked and frightened me. 
I rested my fingers on the keys waiting for inspiration. Nothing came. I searched again through the twenty-three possible storylines I had explored over the past ten weeks, but every one of them seemed stale and basically worthless. 
After another cup of coffee, I gave up and decided to go for a jog long enough for the pain in my legs to exceed the pain in my brain. Today instead of heading up the hill on my usual course, I impulsively turned toward the ocean, then left toward Cannery Row. The tourists still weren’t out in force on a Monday in April, so after laboring by the aquarium I doubled back in the direction of the wharf. I didn’t stop until reaching the park behind Custom House Plaza panting, wheezing and aching, hands on my hips trying to catch my breath. My sweaty Wile E. Coyote T-shirt clung to me beneath my stinky sweatshirt. An old blue baseball hat covered my wet brown hair. I emptied my water bottle and then walked over to the water fountain to refill it.
A very old man sat on the nearby weathered redwood bench, the only one in the shade of a mature Monterey cypress tree. By now the day had warmed up, but he still wore a dated double-breasted tan trench coat and a gray fedora hat with a red feather sticking out of the black band. I might not have paid any further attention except that I needed to sit down and rest. 
The bench was long enough to maintain a comfortable distance between us, which was good because I must have smelled worse than a rotting seal carcass. He uncurled his crossed legs, a pleasant expression on his face. A polished mahogany cane with a decorative pewter ball on top leaned against his knee. Brown, yellow, and orange pajama bottoms stuck out from beneath his coat, brown leather slippers adorning his feet, but no socks to cover his veiny ankles. 
His gaze fixed on the squadron of squawking seagulls overhead. After a moment of silence, he spoke, his voice a strong baritone with only the slightest quiver. “I love the smell of morning,” he said.
I grunted, preferring the privacy of silence.
He reached into the inside pocket of his trench coat and pulled out a small silver flask. He unscrewed the top, eyes still fixed on the traversing seagulls, and took a quick swallow. He let go a sigh of satisfaction as the liquid went down.
He turned toward me and held out the flask, his sparkling eyes as crystal blue as the high sky. “Have some,” he said.
I mumbled a “no thanks,” never taking my attention from the seagulls.
He didn’t get the hint. “See the initials on there,” he said turning the flask so I could see the engraving. “Says ‘to RH from DM.’ Know who that is?” When I didn’t answer, he kept going. “The DM is Douglas MacArthur, and the RH is me, Richard Holby. Ever hear of General MacArthur?”
“Sure. Everyone’s heard of MacArthur.”
“Ever hear of the Inchon Landing?”
“Vaguely,” I answered, little interested.
“September 1950. Korean War. One of the greatest military moves ever. MacArthur conceived it and led it. Our amphibious assault caught the gooks by complete surprise. Risky but turned the whole conflict around. I was his liaison officer on Green Beach. Went in with the second wave of the Fifth Marines. The greatest man I’ve ever known. He should have been president. Then Truman turns around and fires him. That’s when I decided to get the hell out of the army.” He took another short slug from the flask and then stuck it back in the pocket of his trench coat. 
“That’s some story,” I said.
“I’ve got lots of ‘em,” he responded. “I’m ninety-one years old last week. Didn’t ever think I’d live this long. Life hasn’t been much since Lalita died. That was three years ago. Been living in that seniors’ retirement home over there on the other side of the park. It’s filled with old people. Hell, half of ‘em don’t know their own name. Senile. I sneak out every Monday morning when they have their staff meetings. They don’t even know I’m gone.” He laughed, proud of himself. “Better get back before they miss me.”
He pushed himself up with the help of his cane. He doffed his fedora, and then marched off along the cement path with a strong stride for an old man, erect like the military officer he once was. I walked back home, no more ready to face a blank page than when I left.
The rest of the week went no better, oft times my limited concentration broken by the chaos coming from my next-door neighbors. The Ucelli’s engaged in unrelenting mortal combat eventually culminating in loud, long, sensuous sex. On Thursday, an idea emerged for a satirical story about barnyard animals. About three pages in I realized George Orwell had already done this story back in 1945. I hit the delete key. It was gone, and with it, any hope for a breakthrough this week. 
At daylight on Monday morning, the ringing telephone startled my cat Muscles and sent him scurrying off my bed and into the hallway. It was my agent, Stella Rothstein, reminding me I was already eight weeks behind schedule. “Just send me the first chapter,” she said. “That’ll help me keep the pirates at bay.” That’s what she called the publishers. When my writer’s block first struck, she had been patient. Not any longer. “You know in this business you’re only as good as your last book,” she warned. Before she hung up, she reminded me that she had to eat too.
As if on cue, twenty minutes later the phone rang again, sending Muscles down the stairs. This time my publisher, Andrew Harkin, was on the line, agitated, demanding to know where the first three chapters were for the new book. I wanted to tell him the truth, but instead told him I was on the verge of a great plot line and a new set of characters that would knock his socks off. “I’ll expect to see something by next week,” he warned. Nothing like a little pressure to freeze the brain cells. 
By this time the best hour of the morning for writing was gone. After stuffing a banana down, I set out on my morning jog. A bit of fear nipped at my toes. My writing had provided Kassie and me with a comfortable enough living while we were married, but she couldn’t accept the limits of my talent, constantly prodding me to write more serious literature. I never had as high an opinion of myself as she did, though I suppose every writer believes they can one day produce the next Grapes of Wrath. I wrote unoriginal tripe that sold reasonably well. That’s all. Now and then the ache to write something better, something with meaning, pricked me. When it did, I’d remind myself that, all in all, life wasn’t bad. No mid-life crisis for this forty-four-year-old guy. But now I worried even my meager talents had deserted me.
Without thinking much about it, today I took the same route I had the previous Monday down past Cannery Row, perhaps hoping Steinbeck would take pity on me and lend me one of his unused plots. I hadn’t thought about the old man, Richard Holby, since last week. But when I reached the park behind Custom House Plaza, there he was, sitting on the same weathered redwood bench clad in his fedora, trench coat, and pajamas. I sat down next to him. 
He didn’t take his glistening blue eyes off the squawking seagulls overhead. “I love the smell of morning,” he said, just as he did the week before.
I grunted, still catching my breath, and took a swallow from my water bottle. 
“So what do you do? Seems like a working man shouldn’t be out running around in the middle of the morning.”
I proceeded to give a short biography, concentrating mostly on my career as a novelist. 
“Written anything I’d of heard of?” he asked. “What’s your name?”
“Ian Coyle.”
“Ian Coyle,” he repeated as though committing it to memory. “Ian Coyle.”
For some strange reason, I then told him how sometimes writers got writer’s block, and that I was in the midst of one such episode right now. He hardly took notice and turned the conversation back to himself.
“So when I got out of the army is when I went to work for the Yankees,” he said, picking up right where he left off from last week.
“The New York Yankees?” I asked, momentarily intrigued by this unusual turn.
“That ’57 team had some real howlers. George Weiss, the general manager, hired me to look after them. Thought because I was a former army officer they’d respect me and I could keep ‘em out of trouble. No way you could keep Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin out of trouble. Yogi and Bauer either. Hell, they blamed everything on Billy, but it was all of them. They sure could raise hell. Mickey was the best damn ballplayer that ever played the game. No telling how good he could have been. I remember one Saturday night, it must have been in Cleveland, or maybe Chicago, we stayed out till four in the morning raising hell. Next day we play a doubleheader. Mickey wins the first one with a homer in the ninth, still drunk as a skunk. In the nightcap, he hits two more, hungover.”
 “Are you serious?” I said, my doubt evident. First General MacArthur, and now Mickey Mantle? 
He continued to fix his hazy gaze on the movie he was seeing play out before him. “Did you ever hear about the Copacabana incident?”
I shook my head no.
“It was in the middle of June ’57. The whole gang was at the Copa celebrating Billy’s twenty-ninth birthday. Mickey, Whitey, Yogi, Bauer, Johnny Kucks and their wives. Sammy Davis Junior was performing and a couple of jerks from a bowling team start heckling him and calling out some awful racial words. Made some wisecracks about some of the guys’ wives too. Next thing you know some punches were thrown. Cops were called and all hell broke loose. Needless to say, the press got a hold of the story and it was all over the newspapers the next morning. I don’t know who started it, but as usual, Billy Martin took the blame from management. A month later he was traded to the Kansas City A’s. Can you imagine Billy Martin in a place like Kansas City? It drove him mad.”
The old man tapped his cane repeatedly against the side of the bench. He paused and looked over at me to be sure I was buying all of this. By now I was so engrossed in the story I didn’t even care about its authenticity. 
He continued: “So George Weiss, the GM, fired me too. Said I was a bad influence, no better than Billy, which was true. Fortunately for me, one of the Yankees’ owners, Del Webb, took pity on me. He got me a job in Los Angeles with one of his companies. Best thing that ever happened to me. That’s how I met my third wife.”
“Third? How many wives did you have?” I asked.
“Seven,” he said without hesitation.
“Seven? Can you name them all?”
He paused. His lips moved, but no words came out. He took off his fedora and ran his fingers through his thinned white hair. “Let me see. There was Margo, the first one. Then the model. I think her name was Lorraine. There was the Brazilian dancer. Can’t remember her name. The Norwegian flight attendant.” He paused again, stuck. “Hell, what difference does it make. The last one, Lalita, she was the one I really loved. She was twenty-five years younger than me. A real dark-haired beauty. We were married for twenty-eight years, Lalita and me. None of the others lasted more than three. She gave me my only child, my beautiful daughter Inez. She’s the only one who comes to see me anymore, all the way from Colorado.” He sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his wrinkled arthritic hand. “I miss Lalita,” he said, his voice cracking. “It still hurts like hell.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, a feeble response to his pain. 
“Poor Billy died too young,” he went on, regaining his composure. “It was 1989 in an auto accident. I should have gone to the funeral, but I was otherwise occupied. Off in Iraq trying to butter up that butcher, Saddam Hussein, for one of the oil companies.”
He dropped that last bomb with such nonchalance it barely registered until I was halfway home. MacArthur, Mantle, Saddam Hussein. Who was this man named Richard Holby? As soon as I got to my computer, I googled him but found nothing of interest, and no one who even came close to meeting his description.
 That evening over a veggie pizza and beer, I related to Jill the chronicle Richard Holby gave me of his life. She listened patiently with an amused smirk on her face and an occasional roll of her brown eyes. Between bites, she issued a less-than-inspiring “uh huh, uh huh.” Mostly she concentrated on eating pizza. The waiter cleared the pie tin away about the time I ran out of things to say about the old man.
“You don’t really believe all of that, do you?” she asked.
The old man captivated me, and I wanted everything he told me to be true. It dawned on me before now that it might have been me that encouraged him to exaggerate, if not outright fabricate. But right now, I felt protective. “I like him,” I answered her. “He’s interesting and he’s lonely. He misses his wife.”
“Then you should keep seeing him,” she said. I intended to do just that.

THE FOLLOWING WEEK was no more productive for me than the week before, or the weeks before that. I thought about the old man, wondering how I could turn any of his stories into one of my convoluted spy novels, but nothing worked. Nonetheless, when Monday rolled around I headed out on my new route that ended in the park by Custom House Plaza, eager to see him. This time I got there first. I watched him stride down the path from the direction of the Sunbrook Senior Residence as though he were still a young army officer on MacArthur’s staff, using his polished mahogany cane more like a swagger stick than a supportive device. His blue eyes lit up and a smile crossed his lips when he saw me waiting.
“Ah, the famous author Ian Coyle,” he said. “I’ve been reading your books. Got them from the library.”
 “And what did you think?” I asked when he sat down, pleased he made the effort and hungry for him to like them.
“They’re very good. You have a vivid imagination and a wonderful way with words. I was entertained.” He reached into the pocket of his trench coat and pulled out his silver flask. He held it out to me. When I shook my head no, he unscrewed the top and took a slug. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and let out a satisfied sigh. “So what’re you writing next?” he asked.
I again explained my writer’s block and the failed ideas. 
“Hemingway used to say the reason he lived such a full life was that he had to have something to write about. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, writing and living go together.”
“And I suppose you knew Hemingway?” I asked, bemused doubt in my voice.
“Cuba, sometime around 1958. We drank together, though Hemingway could no longer hold his liquor very well. Castro was causing real troubles at the time, and most Americans were getting ready to skedaddle.” 
“Did you meet Castro?” I asked, skeptical, anticipating the answer.
“What year is this?” he asked, turning from me, his flickering eyes, searching the sky.
“Then that was a long time ago.” 
I could no longer be sure whether or not he was pulling my leg with his stories, but he proceeded to tell me more. He killed a bear while climbing Mount Everest. Pirates kidnapped him in Somalia, but he escaped. He sailed the remote reaches of the Amazon and tended bar in Rio. That’s where he met his third wife. Or was that his fourth or fifth? He was thrown in jail in Shanghai, but his employer, an influential currency trader, bought his way out. He made his big money with one of the early tech startups in Silicon Valley.
In between, he asked me about my marriage to Kassie and why it failed. Then he asked about Jill. My description revealed more admiration and affection for her than I realized. Lately, our days together began with our volunteering at the animal rescue shelter, proceeded to dinner at one of Carmel’s cozy restaurants, and ended at my house. I liked waking up with her next to me – her warmth, her smell, her dark hair on the pillow, and Muscles curled up between us.
“You like this Jill person, don’t you,” the old man said.
“I guess I do.”
He cast his eyes toward the ocean, his face contorted. “Well, don’t let her get away then.” 
We sat there in silence for the moment listening to the barking of the colony of seals by the boat landing. “Did you have one who got away?” I finally asked, sensing a loss.
He clasped both hands on the pewter nob atop his cane. “Ava,” he said. “Problem was I didn’t have the guts to go for it.”
The old man was in a zone, and by now I’d learned that another good story was on its way. The best thing for me to do was keep quiet and listen.
“Ava Gardner. The actress. Most beautiful woman in the world. The day we met she was wearing this bright red dress that matched her lipstick, a little bit of cleavage showing. It was on the way down in an elevator in Beverly Hills. She had just been to see her gynecologist. By the time we got to the ground floor, we’d struck up a conversation. One thing led to another. We’d sneak away some weekends up the coast, away from Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and the rest of that Hollywood gossip crowd. She was a few years older than me, but that didn’t matter. She’d gone through three divorces by then, and me about the same. We needed each other. But Sinatra couldn’t get over her. They’d been divorced a year or two before we met. He hovered over her, keeping track of everything she did. One of his goons visited me. That’s not why I left. I just didn’t think I could measure up. She was too much woman. I was afraid to take a chance.”
He sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Ava warmed me like the sunshine,” he said quietly. He reached into his coat pocket. The silver flask trembled in his hand when he pulled it out. This time he didn’t offer me a slug. I put my hand on his shoulder. He looked over and smiled a sad smile. 
With that, he leaned one hand on his cane and the other on the bench, and pushed himself upright. Then he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a paperback copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. “Have you read it?” he asked.
“It’s my favorite.”
“Well, read it again,” he said. “He’s waiting for you, just down the road.”
He tottered off, leaving me to wonder how we jumped from him and Ava Gardner to me and John Steinbeck.

JILL SPENT THE next four nights at my place. Whether because of her more frequent presence in my life, or the old man, my stress dissipated like smoke in a windstorm. Developing a plot for yet another spy novel no longer seemed so urgent. My agent called. I ignored her. When my publisher couldn’t reach me, he texted with a threat to withhold the advance on my next book. I didn’t care. I contemplated taking up my friend Adam’s offer to give me a job teaching English at the state college. Adam was head of the department. If Jill and I had a future together, this might not be a bad life. 
When Jill left for work Tuesday morning, I pulled out my own tattered paperback copy of East of Eden and began reading it for perhaps the fifth time. Every time I did so, the whole of it struck fresh and new. In this novel, Steinbeck did what he often did, going to the old testament for his story’s theme. But the bible hardly seemed like the place to find inspiration for the plot of a spy novel.
That afternoon the sun shone and the weather warmed comfortably into the low sixties. I went to visit Steinbeck. Tourists had begun their seasonal invasion, but Cannery Row beckoned. Then I followed the coastal trail for less than a mile into Pacific Grove where Steinbeck lived for a while with his first wife, Carroll. The ocean shone particularly deep blue against the vivid cloudless sky, waves lapping against the cliff. The aroma of sea life blended with the fresh scent of the Monterey pines. 
If I expected somehow to commune with the great departed author, his ghost failed to materialize. But a message of his did: We humans have choices. Whatever I did next, it was my choice. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much good at anything except writing spy novels. Still, I recognized when a story begins to form in the far latitudes of my mind. One was forming now, but it made no sense. 
High drama next door greeted my return home. My noisy neighbors were in the midst of an epic eruption. She stormed out the door with a suitcase in hand. Through the curtains, I watched her throw it in the trunk of her crippled gray Honda and roar away. In the days that followed, things were strangely quiet. I imagined the tattooed guy sitting by himself, lonely. Occasionally I heard the television set or country music playing softly

RICHARD HOLBY WAS an old man from the moment I met him, yet one still with a military bearing and no self-pity. This day was different. His shoulders sagged; the deep wrinkles, bulging purple veins in his hands, and puffy bags under his eyes seemed magnified. Perspiration pooled on his brow, but he still wore that fedora and heavy trench coat on this warm morning.
“Here’s the question,” the old man began as soon as I sat down. “If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?” 
“I never thought about it,” I answered.
“Well, think about it. This is your life we’re talking about, and you only get to live it once.”
I didn’t know where this was leading, but by now I expected such statements to lead someplace interesting.
His chest labored with each deep breath. “I read two more of your books. I suspect you have great talent, but your stories are all the same, your characters aren’t real. They’re invented to amuse the reader.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked a little more defensive than I intended. 
He summoned the momentary strength to answer in kind. “Write for yourself, for godssake. Let your characters live life. And for that to happen, you have to live life!”
“You sound like my ex-wife.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything. It’s just that spy novels are what I’m good at.”
“And that’s your ultimate ambition? To write more spy novels just like the ones you’ve already written?”
He didn’t say anything more. I stewed, glaring vacantly at the circling seagulls. When I, at last, looked over, his hand was shaking so hard the head of his cane wobbled fitfully.
I laced my fingers together and composed myself. “Nobody starts out to write hackneyed spy novels. I wanted to be John Steinbeck, or Hemingway, or any of the great ones all aspiring writers think about. But one of my professors at Writer’s Workshop, the famous Dr. William Lonsdale, told me I couldn’t write worth a damn, and to find another line of work. Maybe I should have listened to him. Instead, I lucked into this gig. It’s not so bad, you know.” I’d carried that encounter with Dr. Lonsdale around with me for years, hurt but grateful he had warned me of my limitations. 
“Let’s look at it as preparation,” he said, ignoring my defensive edge. “This is the time for change. Big change. Write, don’t write, teach, or go fishing. Whatever you do, do it so you won’t look back with big regret because you didn’t have the courage to change the one thing you should have changed. You have the choice. So choose.”
I nodded as though I had taken his words to heart. But it was a lot easier for him to say it than for me to do it. Nonetheless, he was trying to tell me something important, learned from his own wounds. “And you?” I asked. “Is there one thing you’d change if you could?”
He didn’t answer right away, examining his shaky hands resting on his cane. Then he said wistfully, “Yes, of course. We all have that one regret. Mine involved a woman, as so many of these stories do.” He paused again to take a deep breath, staring toward the ocean as if searching for some distant land at the horizon. “Her name was Lalita,” he said.
“Wait. I thought Lalita was your last wife.”
“No,” he answered. “That was Ava. A good woman. But I never loved anyone like I loved Lalita.”
I was confused. Was he mixing up Ava Gardner with his last wife, Lalita?
“We met when we were in college. There weren’t many Hispanics going to college back then, particularly Hispanic women. We were madly in love and planned to get married as soon as we graduated. I had a good job with an accounting firm waiting for me in Salinas. I could have supported her. She was gorgeous and good. Don’t know what she saw in a fool like me. When we told our parents of our intentions, all hell broke loose. Remember, this was 1949. In those days, a Mexican Catholic girl didn’t marry a white Protestant boy from Pacific Heights.”
“So what happened?”
“Both of our parents broke it up. She married some grape grower from the valley. I wanted to die heroically, so I joined the army. Went to OCS. Got a commission as a second lieutenant. You know the rest. MacArthur. Inchon.”
“That’s a sad story,” I said, unable to think of anything more appropriate to the moment.
“If there’s one thing I could go back and change, that would be it. I’ve regretted it all my life. Should have stood up to my parents, and hers. I think she would have run off with me if I’d asked. I didn’t.” His eyes misted. His whole body shook. I moved closer and put my arm around him.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
We sat like that for a while. When he spoke, his voice was soft, gentle, and firm. “You’re a good man, Ian Coyle. If I had a son, I would be proud if he were like you.”
He leaned his head against my shoulder. I could feel every bone in his body. He might have fallen asleep for a moment, then he startled. “I better get back before the wardens realize I’m missing,” he said. “Monday morning staff meeting’s just about over.”
“Would you like me to walk you home?” I asked.
“I can make it,” he answered. With my support and a grunt, he stood up. “I hope someone shot that professor of yours. You can be a great writer, the writer you want to be. Take it on my authority.” He put his arms around me and gave me a hug. I hugged him back. 
He tottered off down the path toward the Sunbrook Retirement Home. When he disappeared behind one of the houses by the park, I walked home, my heart aching for him and my mind swirling from his lofty assessment of me. His message resonated like a warning: Leave no regrets!

THAT NIGHT I tossed and turned, alone in my bed. I missed Jill next to me. At dawn, I sensed a story forming, a warmth creeping up my leg and into my subconscious. It had something to do with the Bible. Maybe David and Goliath. I know. That’s already been done, but so has every other story.
What if a young man – David – fights and defeats not one, but many present-day evil giants – a corrupt politician in a small town, a narcissistic corporate baron without a heart, a drug lord who profits from human misery. Along the way, David meets a dark-haired beauty named Delilah, who looks and acts a lot like Ava Gardner. In the end, good triumphs over evil. I wrote a synopsis down as fast as my fingers moved. I could see David. I could smell Delilah. I heard the giants’ final wails and felt satisfaction each time David cut off another Goliath’s head.
I texted Jill to tell her lightning had struck and that I would be in my hole for several days. My phone binged almost immediately with her response: Fantastic! I’ll be waiting whenever you come up. Go get em!” 
By the end of the first page, there was no doubt something good was happening. My mind found that rare spot where I inhabited the place and the characters I created, the writing effortlessly recording what they said, what they felt, and what they did.
I put on some jazz and, like a cloudburst, for the next five days the words materialized as if by themselves. I couldn’t be bothered with showering or changing clothes. My Wile E. Coyote T-shirt could have walked away by itself if I ever took it off. My teeth grew moss from lack of brushing, and my hair needed a grease job. Burnt toast and black coffee sustained me, along with an occasional apple or hunk of provolone cheese. The distinction between night and day went unnoticed. My cat Muscles hovered nearby, unsure what was going on, but aware something changed. The writer’s block dissolved.
By the time the initial rush of mania ran its course, I’d finished the first four chapters. I took a hasty shower, and then called Jill. We had dinner in, at her place. Mine looked like a torpedo hit it. I could talk about nothing but the story. She tried extra hard to plug into my rapture, without the benefit of elixir, and I loved her for it. 
When I got home, the message light on my answering machine was blinking. “Ian, it’s me, Stella,” my agent began, controlled excitement in her voice. “Ben Forrester, the movie producer, just called. He’s interested in taking an option on King’s Bluff. He wants to make it into a movie.” Of course, I might have said to her that that’s what movie producers do. She rattled on: “He’s even got the actors picked out to play Vic King and the Mermaid.  Best part, he wants you to write the screenplay. Call me back as soon as you get this. Ian, this is the break we’ve been waiting for.” And a big paycheck for her.
A year ago, or even a week ago, this would have been the dream of my life. Every author would die to see his work on the big screen. I was no different. But what I was working on now wasn’t just another novel. I was finally writing something serious I could be proud of that called for all of the talent I had. Maybe it was the change the old man pushed me to make, the big one I would always regret if I didn’t go for it. Besides that, a screenplay meant moving to Hollywood and leaving Jill behind. After no more than an instant’s hesitation, I hit the delete key on the answering machine. 
I got back to writing, quickly finding that secret part of my brain where only I could go. New ideas for plot twists or character revelations popped off like unexpected starbursts on the Fourth of July. The world I created became more real than the life I led. All that mattered was what happened next to the characters I was coming to love, and the villains I despised. This was fun! 
There were some chilling moments when the Devil whispered in my ear that my life would be just as dull if I wrote biblically-inspired novels as it was writing spy stories. I heard the old man warning me that I had to live a huge life if I was to write great literature. But the moment of doubt passed when I put on my earphones, turned on my playlist, and dove back into the vivid imaginary world I created with my words.
When Monday morning fog rolled through, I awoke early, showered, and dressed in a pair of clean chinos and a blue twill shirt. I printed out a copy of everything I’d written, put it in a three-ringed blue binder, and headed for the park by Custom House Plaza. I was so eager to show the old man what I’d done that I arrived ten minutes before our usual meeting time. A classroom of little girls in their school uniforms stepped off a yellow school bus and paraded toward the historic museum, their teachers and parent escorts on patrol. 
Every five minutes, I looked over in the direction of the Sunbrook Senior Residence, expecting to see the old man marching toward me, mahogany cane in hand. I opened the manuscript and read the first few pages for the twentieth time. A few words here and there needed fixing, a sentence cut or added, but overall it read well. Very well. The old man would like it. More than that, he would appreciate that I’d made a choice, one he had prompted. I’d opted to take a chance on writing a serious piece of literature. And while I was sitting there, I began to think something should change with Jill, one way or the other. 
Time passed and the old man didn’t show. Something had been bothering him last week. Maybe whatever it was had found him. There was no denying he was old and vulnerable, disaster always skulking right around the corner. The thought rose to concern and then to alarm. I nearly broke into a trot as I hastened down the path toward his nursing home. A couple walking the opposite direction stepped aside to let me pass.
This was my first venture into a warehouse for old people. I held my breath, opened the door, and stepped into the Sunbrook Senior Residence. The living room resembled a 1950’s Sears catalog – serviceable, sterile, overstuffed floral patterned couch and side chairs in rose and blue, light purple-gray institutional carpet, heavy gray drapes with gold fringe, and mismatched dark wooden coffee table and end tables. It smelled of old age. A roll of laughter came from a room off the side; two old men and six old women congregated around tables playing cards. Three of the women were in wheelchairs. 
A young woman sat behind a reception desk straight ahead. She looked up. “I’m looking for Richard Holby,” I said.
“Welcome to Sunbrook,” she said with a huge smile, a little too cheerful. “Are you friend or family?” she asked.
“Friend,” I answered. “He was supposed to meet me this morning but didn’t show up. I wanted to make sure he was okay.”
She gave me a quizzical look. “Oh, Richard is fine. I just saw him.”
“Could I look in on him?”
“Certainly. And your name is…?”
“Ian Coyle.”
She wrote it on a nametag and handed it to me. “Down the hall and take the first left. You’ll see a sign to the memory wing. There’s another reception desk there, and then a pair of secured doors.” I peeled off the tape on the back of the nametag and placed it on my chest.
The reception nurse outside the dementia wing unlocked the door with an automated card and opened it. I followed her in. “This is recreation hour,” she said. “Many of our guests like to sit here by the window in the sun.” Ten or so inmates occupied a big room with a giant overhead skylight. Some sat alone by the large windows. Others were at tables with what must have been family or friends. Two attendants circulated. Some residents emitted low moans. Their caregivers answered in soft voices. A scent of wintergreen tried unsuccessfully to cover the smell of disinfectant and urine.
“Richard is over there,” she said, pointing to the left. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you. His daughter should be dropping in any minute now. She comes every day.”
“That can’t be Richard Holby,” I said, my repulsion with the scene in front of me surely showing in my voice.
The man she pointed to looked something like the old man I knew, but it couldn’t be him. This person slouched in his wheelchair, strapped in, body rigid, staring off into space. His mouth hung partially open, a slight bit of drool seeping out of the corner. I moved toward him. The crystal blues eyes I expected were covered with gray. His shaggy hair looked like it had been combed with a rake, his sideburns badly in need of a trim. A disobedient tuft of white stood up in front. I might have turned around, certain this was the wrong person had I not spotted his brown, yellow, and orange pajama bottoms sticking out from beneath his tan terrycloth bathrobe. The same leather slippers he wore since the first time I met him covered his feet beneath his veiny ankles.
I wanted to leave, to run, but couldn’t. The short walk from the door to his side, the manuscript tucked under my arm, was like slogging through molasses. I pulled up one of the chrome and blue plastic chairs next to him. “Hi, Richard. It’s me, Ian,” I said softly, cautiously. Nothing. He continued to stare off into space. I touched his gnarled arthritic hand. Still, he didn’t respond. I held out the manuscript for him to see. “Look what I wrote. It’s the start of my new story. I did what you said. From the Bible. I think it’s going to be good.”
I was startled when he let out a long low gurgle.
“He liked that, whatever you said,” a nearby male attendant remarked. “First time he’s responded in weeks. Keep it up.”
So I did, telling him what the story was about, flipping through the pages and reading him paragraphs here and there. He didn’t move, and he didn’t make another sound. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I got up to go. I kissed him on the forehead and said: “thank you.” He gurgled again. I touched him on the shoulder and left.
When I exited the secure doors, I stopped to exhale, confused by what had happened, my heart aching for the old man I’d just seen. Someone was certainly playing a horrid joke. That decrepit old man couldn’t be Richard Holby no matter the pajamas he was wearing.
“Mr. Coyle?” An attractive, shapely mid-aged woman stopped me. “I’m Inez Holby-Perez,” she said. “I understand you know my father.” Her black hair, magnetic dark eyes, and almond skin were clearly Hispanic, but her high cheekbones and square chin could only have come from Richard Holby.
We sat down to talk on a couple of comfortable chairs in a secluded alcove, a coffee table between us. I leaned across and handed her my business card, as though identification as a writer of novels would somehow attest to my sanity and veracity. 
“How do you know my father?” she started, her voice gentle as a feather.
I proceeded to tell her about my meetings with her father and about the interesting life he led. She let me talk, but her stern face and crossed arms told me she didn’t appreciate what she was hearing. “I have to tell you,” I concluded, “I’m confused. The man I just saw was him, but it wasn’t him.”
“Mr. Coyle. Ian. You seem like a very sincere person. But you’re mistaken. You’ve seen the condition my father is in. It must have been someone else, not him.”
“Your mother’s name is Lalita, right?”
“That’s right.”
“And every Monday morning there’s a staff meeting here, am I right?”
Her eyes flickered when I said that. “How did you know about the Monday morning staff meetings?”
“He snuck out every Monday morning during staff meetings,” I said. “We met in the park across from Custom House Plaza.”
Now she was the confused one. She tapped her fingers on the coffee table in front of us, deciding where to go next. She pursed her lips before continuing. “Let me tell you about my father,” she began. She told me her father and mother ran off and got married right after they graduated from San Jose State in 1949. None of their parents ever came to terms with their marriage. His parents would accept no one who wasn’t a Protestant from Pacific Heights, and her parents wouldn’t accept anyone but a Catholic from Guadalupe. Richard took a job with an accounting firm in Salinas, became a partner, and stayed there until he retired in 1995. 
“Everyone in town knew my father,” she said. “They liked him and trusted him. He was involved in everything, always ready to help someone out. Growing up, he was a softy. My mother provided the firm hand we needed. There were the five of us kids, my four older brothers and me. I was the baby, a surprise. Mother was in her early forties when I came along. 
“They lived a peaceful life in Salinas. I think Dad would have loved to have traveled, but Mother was content. The furthest we ever got was Disneyland. They lived in the same house, a rambling rancher not far from town, ever since 1959. They moved here to Sunbrook when Mother contracted her cancer. She knew Dad was going to need a lot of care when she was gone.”
 Her breast heaved, her voice quieted to barely a whisper. “Anyone who knew them even a little saw the devotion and deep love between them. They had been married sixty-five years when she died.” She took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair, drained. 
She assured me that either she or one of her brothers came to see the old man every day. His thirteen grandchildren dropped by often. Everyone lived nearby, between Mountain View and Salinas.
We parted, mutually confused. She promised she would call me if his condition changed. I promised to stop in again to see him, a promise I wouldn’t keep.
By now you must be thinking what I was thinking. What happened? How did it happen? Was I a little bit crazy? Did I imagine the whole thing? But I couldn’t have. My head was spinning around and around. 
After I walked, or more likely wobbled, out of Sunbrook Retirement Residence, my disobedient legs carried me back to the park and the weathered redwood bench under the old cypress tree, my manuscript clutched under my arm. The seagulls patrolling the plaza screamed from above. Seals barked in the distance, and tourists chattered nearby. Three little girls in matching blue plaid skirts raced across the red brick courtyard. The fresh smell of Monterey pines and salty sea spray did little to clear my nostrils of the reek of human decay.
That moment the afternoon western sun broke through the morning clouds. Light glittered off a small silver flask laying on the bench. Next to it sat a gray fedora with a small red feather stuck in the black band. I picked up the flask. It was engraved with the inscription ‘To RH from DM.’ I looked around to see who could have placed it there. No suspects revealed themselves. Then I unscrewed the top expecting to be greeted with a whiff of brandy or bourbon. Instead, I smelled Lipton’s Tea. I put the hat on my head and let the vertigo spin through my mind.
Reason did not prevail. No explanation made sense. I gave up trying to understand it in rational terms. Then came the big question: which was the real Richard Holby, the one who met me Mondays on the bench, the adventurer? Or the one in the memory ward who lived a long stable life with a loving wife by his side. Whatever the truth, there could be no doubt the man I saw an hour earlier was my friend. Or was he? Whoever he was, pity and loss tore at my heart. 
I sat there for hours until the approaching sun began its daily descent, fog inching in across the ocean’s horizon. A light chilly wind raised goosebumps on my exposed arms. I rose from the bench, the fedora on my head, and the flask in my hip pocket. I headed home to where Jill would be waiting, a grocery bag full of dinner fixings in hand. I would tell her about the strange events of today. And I would tell her that I had to live my life with no regrets. 
She wasn’t going to like it when I told her Muscles and I were moving to Los Angeles  ̶  alone. I would write the screenplay for my last spy novel, King’s Bluff, and see it made into a movie. And maybe I would find my own Ava Gardner. 
Only after I’d lived life in full could I write the best novel that was in me.

February 15, 2019


This story first appeared in the Avalon Literary Review, Winter 2019 edition

Can you remember the last time you had a really good day at the DMV? Me neither, and I work there. At first light, the hungry hoards press against the double glass doors clamoring to get in, mercilessly seeking photo ID’s, drivers’ tests, auto title changes, and learners’ permits. Mondays are the worst, particularly in June when every sixteen-year-old in California is hell-bent to get behind the wheel.

On and on they come all day long. And there I am, the bitch sheepdog charged with herding these lambs and goats into their proper lines, with paperwork filled out completely and correctly. In truth, my real task is keeping the wolves from eating the livestock.

There are some dedicated public servants here at my DMV office. Well, actually only one, Maria Cortez who helps driver’s license applicants take their written test on our fancy new electronic system. She’s a saint. On the other hand, Bob, Mercy, and Melanie are as enthused as a deflated tire, waiting out their years until retirement. Melanie’s response to customer complaints is always, “This ain’t Nordstrom’s, honey.” Most of the rest of us do our jobs as best we can, but little more.

My first inquiry on this one particular day came from a middle-aged woman who obviously felt it important to wear her favorite flowered yellow dress to come to the DMV, complete with pearls, spiked black heels and a heavy coat of hairspray. “Por favor,” she said, in a sugary half-assed attempt at Spanish. “Cama hay yamo.”

“Good morning,” I said nicely. “May I help you?” She must have thought that because I look Hispanic I mustn’t be able to speak English well, even though I was clearly an employee of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Otherwise, why would she expect me to know the answer to her question about whether it was legal to haul green bananas in the trunk of her car? Well, that might not be exactly what she asked, but something just as wacky.

Now that I think about it, maybe I do look a little Latin with my dark skin, dark hair, and long Salena Gomez bangs. But I’m actually Greek. Or at least my grandparents are. My name is Yolanda Giannapolous.

Our reputation at the DMV precedes us. So the crowd behaved, civilized, though most of them figured out they were going to be here a long while, including those with appointments for a specified time. A muffled buzz arose as those in line got acquainted with each other, sharing their still-tolerable frustration. A confused gray-haired Asian woman who spoke limited English engaged in conversation with a young Indian woman in an artichoke-green sari and a vermilion dot on her forehead. Their command of English was mutually mangled. The only thing they could seem to connect on was that the DMV sucked.

A hot young blond in clingy gray running shorts and a violet tank top tried to help them out. In between, she took slurps of coffee from her Starbucks Grande cappuccino. I was close enough to catch a whiff of her dank odor. By the time she reached the front of the line, those around her might wish she had stopped to take a shower after her morning jog. But then she would have missed her assigned appointment time, an offense the DMV does not take lightly.

An interesting looking grease monkey from one of the nearby auto repair shops joined the back of the line. I handed him a clipboard with a form to fill out stating his name and the purpose of his visit to the DMV. His lips gave me a charming smile while his eyes gave me the once-over. That always builds up a girl’s ego, particularly at nine o’clock in the morning. The DMV is a good place to work for a young woman who’s looking for some action. The younger men are always on the prowl, with pickup lines nearly as suave as George Clooney. Not! For laughs, my best friend, Nura, and I share the top ones every day over lunch. But I have a boyfriend, Josh, who keeps me well-satisfied. We’re getting married as soon as he finishes college next spring. Nura is a different story. She’s mostly saving herself for a Muslim man her parents will approve of, but once in a while, she scores and then shares every breathless detail with me.

 The people who walk through our glass double-doors every day come in a scad of colors, sexes, shapes, and flavors. Most of them are nice. But every once in a while, there’s an asshole. The assholes also come in all shades, sexes, shapes, and flavors. I’ve been here long enough to sniff a skunk before I even see him. Just such a mammal strutted in the door now, a boringly-brown-haired middle-aged man in a classy business suit. He wasn’t wearing just any off-the-rack suit. No, this one was definitely a custom-fit navy blue gabardine from someplace like Nieman Marcus. He glamorized his get-up with a power purple tie and a blue pin-striped shirt.

This guy took one look at the long unmoving line and made a beeline for me, the clipboard on my arm a sure sign of authority. “I have a nine-thirty appointment, miss,” he fumed.

“End of the line, please,” I said, pointing with my finger, never looking up from my clipboard. This was not going to be fun.

“You don’t understand. I have an appointment.” He enunciated slowly, clear and loud, suspecting my English wasn’t too good. Or my hearing.

Si seƱor,” I answered. “End of the line.”

“I have a board meeting in an hour. I’m only here to remove the lien from my car title.”

He touched my arm, threatening or pleading. I couldn’t tell which. He dropped his hand when my hot glare moved from his flushed face to his unwelcomed fingers. “All these people ahead of you have appointments,” I said.

“But I have a nine-thirty appointment, and it’s nine-thirty now.” He looked down at his large, expensive watch, tapping its blue face.

I turned away from him and walked over to a confused Hispanic woman. I used every word of Spanish I knew to explain how to fill out the form she would need to get her driving permit. When I meandered back, Mr. Blue Suit came at me again. He took out his wallet from his back pocket and held up a twenty-dollar bill. “Will this help?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, sir. We’re not allowed to accept tips.”

“Let me speak to your supervisor,” he demanded, stuffing the money back into his pocket.

“I am the supervisor,” I lied. His cheeks turned so red I thought he was going to have a coronary. Something like that had never happened in my line before.

“Do you know who I am? I’m Larry Winkle, president of Smiley Ice.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Winkle,” I responded, trying my hardest to look fearless, chomping harder on my spearmint chewing gum.

“We’re the largest distributor of ice cream in the Bay Area.” The strength of his voice asserted the importance of his position. I nodded, unimpressed. Then I turned back to help a confused teenager.

My friend Nura manned the in-take desk these people in the long line were queued up to see. She checked their paperwork and assigned them to one of the twelve customer service desks. Some people around the office called her Judge Judy because she passed judgment on every customer as though they were defendants at trial. Others called her the Grim Reaper because of the punishment she inflicted on those she found wanting, usually in the form of eternal entanglement in the bureaucratic swamp. I hated to think what she would do to my new friend Larry Winkle if he didn’t change his attitude in a hurry.

The line was moving only a little faster, but there were still seven people in front of him. I caught a last whiff of the blond female jogger with the ponytail before Nura finished with her and she moved on to her assigned service desk.

“Hey Nura,” I said before the next customer got to her. “Don’t look up, but see that guy in the classy dark suit?”

“Ah, another asshole?” she asked. I nodded. She gave me the fetchingly twisted smile I so adored. Nura ate self-important assholes alive.

The line had grown and now circled out the door onto the sidewalk. Halfway back, a beautiful coal-dark woman in blue jeans held a whimpering infant in her arms, trying to comfort it. I’m a sucker for cute little babies. I want one of my own, but that’ll have to wait. Going to school nights at San Mateo JC keeps me busy trying to get my associate degree. I want to be a radiology technician and earn enough money to give my parents the new Prius they’ve always wanted but can never afford. After that, Josh and I will start saving for a house.

“Anything I can do to help?” I asked the woman with the whimpering baby.

“She’s teething, I’m sorry she’s making such a fuss.”

“No problem,” I said. “What are you here for?”

“A photo ID.”

“Follow me,” I led her to the front of the line. Her abundant gratitude alone would have made my day. But even better, the frustrated Mr. Winkle glowered at me, showing his snarling teeth, helpless. I went around the other way so I wouldn’t have to contend with him. He was no happier when he saw me lead a frail old man to the head of the line. He shoved a small Hispanic man aside and advanced toward me again.

“Do you realize thousands of children depend on me and my company to deliver happiness to them every day?” Spittle sprayed from his rabid tongue. He sounded as though he was quoting from the company’s advertising brochure. “Do you people have any idea how sad they will be if they don’t have their ice cream because I’ve been held hostage by the DMV?”

I hated to think I would be personally responsible for making every kid in the Bay Area unhappy, but rules are rules. What could I do but pray that Nura would bring justice?

The column inched forward minute by excruciating minute. Larry Winkle stood apart, isolated, wanting no part of the humanity swarming around him. He jiggled his iPhone in one hand and jiggled his car keys in his pants pocket with the other. He bounced back and forth on his toes as though he had to visit the men’s room. Finally, Nura motioned to the person in line right before Winkle, a teenaged boy on crutches with a grungy cast on his right leg. He made his way painfully, slowly toward Nura.

Winkle was next. I wanted to cover my eyes, but like a car wreck, it’s hard to turn away. The moment Nura finished up with the teenager, Winkle dashed toward her. “Wait!” she barked, holding up the palm of her hand. He stopped dead. Then she took her time arranging some papers on her desk and checking some imaginary forms. She pushed a few loose brown hairs back under her hijab. “Next,” she finally called, beckoning impatiently at Winkle with her extended hand.

Wouldn’t you know it. Just at the moment of reckoning, an urgent call came over the loudspeaker for me to report to the other end of the hall to pick up a bunch of unimportant new customer forms. I was only gone for five minutes, but by the time I sprinted back, Nura had another client at her desk. I raced to the double glass doors in time to see Winkle charge by, cursing out loud, arms waving, sweating abundantly, threatening to call the governor.

Hasta luego,” I called after him. “Have a nice day.”

He kept walking until he reached the curb out front. That’s when he saw his big shiny black Cadillac being towed from the No Parking zone. Nura had passed her sentence. The pitiful wail emanating from Mr. Blue Suit sounded like a lamb trapped in the jaws of a ravenous wolf.

When will they learn? You don’t mess with the DMV no matter who you are.

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