Terry Sanville, author of Just The Facts, has published short fiction in more than 450 print and online publications, including The Potomac Review, The Bryant Literary Review, The MacGuffin, and Shenandoah.
He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.
The detective slid a yellow lined pad across the table to Stuart. “Here, write all of that down and sign and date it at the end. I’ll be back when you’re done.”
Stuart fingered the black ballpoint and stared at the blank page. This whole thing had unraveled just like he’d seen in countless TV crime dramas: after hours of questioning in an airless room, the culprit confesses and the police ask them to put it in writing. In writing? Really? Half those bozos couldn’t write their name legibly much less construct a story with all its details. But then most were not writers like Stuart. Maybe this could be a new challenge, a new form of prose that could set an industry standard. After all, it’s just words on paper.
Stuart fingered the black ballpoint and stared at the blank page. This whole thing had unraveled just like he’d seen in countless TV crime dramas…
Stuart leaned back and took a sip of the coffee the detective had brought him. It gave him the hook that he needed and he began to write in clear cursive.
About six months ago I’d run out of coffee, had only a half pot left over from the night before, ugly stuff that I’d bought at the Dollar Store. So I schlepped on down Monterey Street to the Black Horse and treated myself to a double mocha for breakfast.
College students, their professors, and office workers packed the place. As I searched for a table I passed a woman sitting by herself.
She looked up and smiled. “I can share this table with you if you like.”
“Thanks. My name’s Stuart.”
“Glad to meet you.”
I still wore my pajama top tucked into my jeans, my ensemble bottomed off with ratty bedroom slippers. I must have looked like I’d rolled out of some back-alley sleeping bag and into the coffee house. Leslie looked primed for a shopping trip to Rodeo Drive, full makeup, expensive clothes, Gucci purse. But she had a sweet smile and warm hazel eyes.
We talked for half an hour, getting strange looks from the baristas. She worked in the District Attorney’s office, had been married to a local real estate mogul before he got caught shtupping his office assistant. What a cliché. I guess she decided to slum it that day with me on her five-figure monthly alimony. I could barely afford the double mocha.
She seemed interested in my work and in writing, mistakenly thinking I was part of the local literati. I liked her from the start, real eye candy with an agile mind to match. The real estate guy must have been an asshole. His loss.
I tried to arrange my face to provide a pleasant presentation, an ongoing challenge. At the end of her break she told me she came to the Black Horse weekday mornings. From then on we’d meet two or three times a week; she paid for my coffee. One weekend, I think in late October, we day-tripped it down the coast to Santa Barbara where she shopped at every high-class store on State Street. She let me drive her Mercedes AMG GTR Roadster. I just about killed us, but what a car.
It had been awhile since I’d been with a woman, in the biblical sense. My intentions were clear and simple. Leslie’s goals seemed more complex, read “obscure.”
Christmas season approached and we’d stayed mostly coffee buddies until one weekend. She invited me to her place, a six-bedroom mansion on the slopes of the Santa Lucias overlooking the town and us mortal peons below. I don’t think we came up for air until Monday morning. She’d been holding back something about herself, surely not sexually, but something that she’d been ruminating on for a long time. Before we got out of bed that morning she explained.
“I want you to meet my Mother.”
“What? For God’s sake, why?”
“She’s been bugging me that I never try to find a new mate . . . old school . . . wants grandkids, etc. etc.”
“And you want her to meet ME?” I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“I think you clean up okay. And the fact that you’re a published writer will impress her.”
“But I still gotta ask, why?”
“I want her off my case, permanently if possible.”
“Huh? So I’m the phony fiancé?”
“Yes, something like that, at least until she . . . she goes away.”
“Where would she go?”
Leslie pointed skyward then laughed. “Although knowing Mom, she’d prefer the sizzling hot place.”
I didn’t think much about it at the time. I mean, lying in a king-sized canopied bed with a buxom brunette on top of me left me a bit distracted but more than somewhat wary of someone who wants me to help with her mother.
Leslie hurried off to work and I watched CNN News and mentally rehearsed the next chapter of my novel. I made it back to my residential hotel room and slept the rest of the day, rising at sunset to power up my computer, check my email for MS rejections, and write for several hours. The next morning I met Leslie at the Black Horse.
“It’s all set,” she said, her cheeks flushed.
“What’s all set?”
“We’re meeting Mom on Saturday and taking her out to lunch.”
“Really? Not in your car we won’t.”
“Of course not. She’ll pick us up at my place in her Escalade.”
“Jeez, a little ole lady in an SUV monster?”
“She loves the thing. Figures if somebody cuts her off she’ll just run them over.”
We talked about lunching in Cambria then driving up the coast to Big Sur for the afternoon. Leslie had already made the reservations. I didn’t know what to expect – some hell-raising old lady whose urine could etch glass?
On Saturday, Leslie paced the marble floor of her foyer, her Spanish boots clacking on the slick surface. With the low rumble of a V-8, the Mother pulled up. She got out and waited by her car.
“Come on, we’re going,” Leslie murmured.
Outside she approached the well-built woman dressed in a conservative business suit and a single strand of cultured pearls. A mass of white hair cascaded down her back, a tribute to her youth maybe? The Mother had a Lauren Bacall face that wore its seams and wrinkles proudly. Leslie embraced her and did that stupid-looking French cheek-kissing without actually touching. But the mother had no time for Leslie.
“So this is the guy?” She looked at me, giving me a full body scan, a smirk on her magenta lips.
“Yes, this is Stuart. He’s a—”
“Yes, yes, a writer. I still have a memory, you know. Have I read anything you’ve written, Stuart?”
“How would I know? Do you like Fantasy and Steampunk?”
“Crap, all of it.”
“It pays the bills.”
“Obviously, not all of them. Why else would you be fornicating with my daughter?”
Yikes. A prescient old lady that after just a few words I’d begun to like and figured on including as a character in one of my stories. The mother handed me the key to the Escalade.
“You drive. You think you can handle her?”
“Not a problem. I’ve owned a pickup truck.”
The Mother broke out in raucous laughter. “And a pink carnation too, I’ll bet.”
We drove north along Route 1, the Pacific stormy, the wind blowing hard. But the heavy Escalade handled it like a champ. The Mother peppered me with more questions about family, work, education, and follow-ups on why I wrote crap. Leslie stayed out of it, relaxing in the back seat. At the restaurant in Cambria we watched phalanxes of white breakers crash against the shoreline while we sipped cocktails and the Mother continued her interrogation. But by then it shifted to Leslie.
“So what do you see in this guy?”
“Mother, you’re the one always on my case to find a new . . . a new . . .”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. And Stuart seems to have sufficient spunk to put up with your antics.”
“Thanks, but your daughter doesn’t have antics,” I said, “just . . . just the occasional emotional eruption.”
“Yes, that sounds much better,” the Mother said. Both women broke into laughter.
“But seriously, dear. Do you really think this guy is right for you?”
It felt like someone had opened one of the restaurant’s windows and let in the frigid breeze.
“Shut up, Mother. You never have liked anyone I’ve dated. Not even my ex.”
The Mother shrugged. “I suppose you’re right. But that’s my job, to protect you from fools and opportunists.”
“Hey, I’m neither of those,” I complained.
The Mother glared at me and I shut up.
“I would have thought you would be happy that I felt serious about Stuart,” Leslie said.
“Keep looking, darling. You can do better. No offense intended, Stuart.”
“Extreme offense taken,” I said and grinned.
“Good.” The old lady smiled and sipped her martini, the conversation over.
“I need some air,” Leslie said. “Let’s drive up the coast to Ragged Point. It’s beautiful there. Maybe the scenery will help erase this afternoon from my mind.”
The Mother grunted something and we left the restaurant and drove north along the narrow coast road in silence. We passed an open field on the Hearst Ranch where a herd of zebra grazed and tourists pulled off the highway to snap photos. I turned on the radio to a smooth jazz station.
The Mother reached across and turned it off. I think she enjoyed the awkward silence. In the rear view I saw Leslie staring out the window at the passing scenery, her perfect makeup marred by tear streaks.
“Pull over here,” Leslie said.
“Why the hell should we stop?” the Mother asked.
“It’s . . . it’s beautiful, and I know you seldom get out of the house.”
The Mother reached across and turned it off. I think she enjoyed the awkward silence.
“Ah, finally, a considerate daughter.”
I pulled the big vehicle onto a tiny pullout on the sea side of the highway. The wind had backed off but the air remained cold. We clambered out of the Escalade and picked our way along a path that crossed the headland, the women stumbling in their heels. The trail ended abruptly at the cliff edge, high above the roiling Pacific. We stood at one of the most beautiful spots I’d ever visited along the Big Sur coast, hidden from the road by head-high chaparral and cypress trees. Sea lions played in the white water below. A row of Pelicans sailed past, just inches above the water. To the south the horn sounded at the Piedras Blancas light station as the first wisps of fog drifted onshore.
“You’re right, Leslie,” the Mother said. “This place is stunning. But I’m freezing my ass off.”
“I hoped you would like it.” Leslie laid an arm across her mother’s shoulders and pulled her to her side.
“But I like it a lot better than that bozo boyfriend of yours.”
Leslie yanked her arm away. The Mother stumbled forward. I reached for her but missed. With a shriek she took one more step into thin air and fell silently, face planting on the rocks far below.
Leslie called 9-1-1. The County Sheriff and recovery team arrived. Such a tragic accident in such a beautiful place.
Stuart Graham 2/12/2019
The detective returned to the interrogation room and retrieved Stuart’s statement. He read it quickly, snickering at parts.
“Well, your story is different than your girlfriend’s. But not by much. If it were any closer we’d suspect that you two rehearsed it. Since we have no evidence of foul play, you are both free to go. We may need to talk with you later.”
“Thank you, detective.”
Leslie and Stuart left the police station and drove the Escalade back to her house. He walked back to his tiny hotel room, feeling good about the day’s writing. The local news reported the incident as an accident. Stuart never received another call from the Police. Nor did he resume seeing Leslie at the coffee house or any other place. He missed her, but it just wasn’t worth the risk.
The months passed, a publisher acquired one of his novels. Royalties from other works got dumped into his PayPal account, enough to cover rent and food. He had income to report.
About a year and a half after the incident at Ragged Point, Stuart started receiving letters every few weeks from Leslie. The personal checks were made out for a few thousand dollars with the memo portion reading “For Story Counseling.” Stuart smiled to himself, remembering the hours he and Leslie spent concocting the story about the mother accidently falling to her death. Pure fiction, but it felt real . . . every fiction writer’s goal.
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