Authors: Shawn Grady
I woke late the next morning on my day off, paid bills and straightened things up. My dad napped in his room after lunchtime, a rerun of
playing on the TV atop his dresser. I walked out to the garage, into the dank smell of seventy-year-old cedar and cobwebs mixed with oil, strapped my kayak onto the trailer attached to my mountain bike, and suited up for the Truckee River.
The ride downtown was pleasant, cottonwood fairies floating in the air, dodging through the spokes of my bike wheels. High-rise condos flanked the river island, Wingfield Park. The theatre and pubs and coffee shops and food stops moved with scattered foot traffic. A couple families relaxed on the grass while children hopped from rock to rock with pant legs rolled up. A man wearing about seven jackets lay on his side by the bushes with a backpack for a pillow. A few boats paddled in the water, spinning and riding on the standing waves. Nobody I knew.
The spring snowmelt had swelled the riverbanks. I pushed off upstream from the kayak park, and the sudden buoyancy lifted my spirits and I felt the river. Its ebbs and swirls and choppy ripples moved in motion with my mind.
I dropped into one of the standing waves and carved and buffeted off the rolling pillow. I relaxed and let the river channel me downstream, and then with a light paddle I rested in an eddy. For the better part of the hour I cycled through this pattern. Paddle, carve, rinse, repeat.
It felt so different from work. So restoring. It reminded me of a psalm about trees planted by streams of water. It made sense that life in this town flourished by the river.
I played until my arms felt like rubber and then stalled by the north bank, staring at the sunlight shining through tree limbs. The days were growing longer.
I glanced at my watch –
I had a distant dim-light inkling that I was missing something.
Somewhere I wanted to be. Someone . . .
Tea at three.
Naomi would already be at Deux Gros Nez.
I looked at the clear water dripping off my dry suit. A few hard paddles put me back in the current, thrusting forth through the next water feature with a rush of wave motion and rolling foam. I lifted my boat out on the south bank downstream and trotted past the Park Tower to my bike.
The slight incline pedaling Arlington toward California Avenue burned the cores of my quadriceps. I pedaled hard for speed. Halfway home I glanced at my watch –
Muffled sirens wailed in the distance.
I ducked my head and pumped onward, bouncing over uneven pavement to my garage.
I lifted the garage door to the groaning sound of rusted springs, left the boat and my bike as they were, and stripped out of my wet gear.
In my room I ran my fingers along the shirts hanging in the closet and picked out my favorite, a faded brown North Face short sleeve. I buttoned on a pair of blue jeans, threw on some socks, and skated down the hallway like a hockey player, grappling the frame of the bathroom doorway en route.
Comb your hair, brush your teeth.
I squirted a bullet of toothpaste in my mouth and shuffled a towel through my hair. Turning water full blast into the sink I rinsed my mouth, spat, and took one glance in the mirror.
A beanie would have to do.
Cinching one over my ears, I fetched my shoes, hopped out into the garage, slid into the Passat, and checked the clock on the dashboard –
3:46. She’ll so be gone.
I shot glances in the mirrors, backed into the street, and fifty feet later halted at a stop sign.
An elderly woman with a walker inched through the crosswalk.
Lift . . . Shuffle . . .
She’d only made it to my passenger-side headlight.
I set the e-brake and opened my door. “Hi, ma’am. May I help you? Here.” I reached for her walker and her arm.
I spun around. “No, no. Don’t do that. No, see – ”
She whacked my forearm with her handbag. I stepped back in disbelief. She hit me again, spoke something in Basque, and spat on my shoes.
I looked to the sky.
She faced forward and scooted on.
Back in my car the time glowed on the dash –
I set my forehead on the steering wheel and took a deep breath.
Five minutes after four I ascended the exterior purple staircase of the brick building housing Deux Gros Nez café. Through the glass door I could see all the tables and the French-paned windows in the back.
I exhaled and turned the doorknob. Dangling wind chimes clanked.
A girl with braided brown ponytails and a stained apron greeted me from behind the counter. “Howzit?”
“Good, thanks.” I eyed the tables near the back wall.
Two middle-aged women chatted at one. A guy in his twenties clacked at a laptop keyboard on another. A girl scribbled on paper between two behemoth textbooks. A young couple cooed by a window at the north wall.
“Anything I can get for you?” Ponytails wiped her hands on a towel.
I took a stool by the bar counter. “Yeah, how about a cappuccino?”
“I can make an evergreen or a flower in the foam, if you’d like?”
“Sure. Anything but a heart.”
She gave an intuitive nod and tamped an espresso brew handle clear. A minute later she frothed milk in a pitcher and spooned it into a small cup. She slid a saucer in front of me and leaned on her forearms. “One cappy.”
I took a taste. “That hits the spot.”
She grinned. “What’s her name?”
I almost coughed cappuccino foam out of my nose. I set the cup down and ran the back of my hand along my mouth. “Just a friend.”
She straightened. “Ah, I see. Just a friend?”
“Yes, actually. Always, in fact. I can’t think of one I’ve known longer. Maybe you know her?”
“Oh yeah, I’m sure. Comes in here all the time. ‘Justa Friend.’ ”
“Nothing gets by you.”
“I’m that good.” She wiped her hand on her apron and stretched it out. “I’m Sandra, by the way.”
We shook. “Pleased to meet you, Sandra. I’m Jonathan.”
“So, Jonathan, seeker of Justa Friend, what do you do for a living? Are you a student or – ”
A wailing ambulance drove down California Avenue.
I pointed a thumb toward the door. “That.” The sound faded. “I do that.”
“Oh, you’re a paramedic.” She batted her eyes.
I laughed to myself and looked at the creamy liquid in my cup. I glanced toward the back windows.
She sat at the middle table, right across from laptop guy.
I took another sip, then motioned with my head. “There she is.”
Sandra feigned a gasp. “No. Where?”
“Right over there, by the window. She’s sitting by that guy with the Dell.”
“Her? With the dirty blond hair?”
“That’s Justa Friend?”
“You know her?”
“Of course I do. She comes in here almost every day, same time. Why didn’t you just tell me you were looking for Naomi? I could have told you I saw her go downstairs to the loo.”
I scratched my chin. “Who’s the guy?”
“Him, I’m not sure.” She folded her arms. “This could get complicated. You better go over there and kick his – ”
Door chimes clanked. New customers filed in. Sandra turned. “Howzit?”
I nursed my coffee for another minute and formulated a plan. I would stroll over and act as if seeing her there was a pleasant surprise. “And who might this be?” I would say, and she would go, “Oh, this is handsome and brainy laptop guy – he’s a good friend of mine. Would you like to sit down and join us?” And I would say, “Oh no, thank you. I was just leaving but wanted to stop over and say a quick hello before I never talk to you again.”
Or something like that.
I took a sip.
Let’s do this.
I slid off the stool. Synapses double-fired, and my awareness of the room and the people in it heightened. Maybe it was fatigue from the river; maybe it was caffeine coursing through my bloodstream, or the band Pavement playing from the corner-mounted speakers. Whatever the cause, the moment was tangible, and time belonged to me as I took those first steps toward Naomi.
She turned and saw me. Her ocean-hewn eyes liquefied any animosity in my heart. Sunlight through the window met the gentle curves of her smile.
She was mine for another three steps.
Laptop guy looked up.
“Tanner,” she said, “this is Jonathan – the guy I was telling you about.”
He extended a hand. “Hey. I don’t know how you guys do what you do. Quite the wreck you worked out there, I hear. ”
“Thank you.” I shook his hand and glanced at Naomi.
“Tanner is my brother-in-law,” she hastened.
Didn’t see that one coming
. Air filled my lungs like a trade wind.
“Well,” Tanner said. “Soon to be in-law at least.”
“Only one month left.” She nudged him.
“Which reminds me” – he folded his laptop – “I need to meet up with Natalie before church tonight.” He stood. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Jonathan.”
I shook his hand with vigor. “You as well.”
He picked up his things. “Bye, Naomi.”
“See ya, Tanner. Tell Natalie I’ll burn that CD for her, okay?”
He walked out.
I stood there and studied her. I had no idea what to do next. I hadn’t thought past the I-was-just-leaving part.
She looked around. “So . . . would you like to sit down?”
“Yeah, sure.” I sat and ran my hand across the smooth table.
Naomi put her fingers by her mouth. “Did you think that he and I – ”
“Was I that obvious?”
She sat back and bit the corner of her lip. “Just a little. But maybe only to me.”
I rubbed an eyebrow.
“Well, if it’s any comfort,” she said, “I could never like a guy named Tanner.”
“Is that right?”
“Oh yeah. I don’t know what it is. My sister thinks it’s the greatest name ever given to a man. Me . . . It just makes me think of cowhide.”
I grinned. She ran a finger along the rim of her mug.
“What kind of tea do you have there?”
She looked in her mug and then took a long whiff. “Jasmine.”
“Your favorite now?”
“Maybe. Have you ever had jasmine tea?”
“I don’t think I have.”
“Here.” She held out her mug. “Smell this.”
I leaned forward and let its fragrance waft into me, feeling its humid warmth, smelling earth and blossoms and honey.
Naomi sat back. “Good stuff, huh?”
“Wait until you taste it.” She raised and lowered her eyebrows.
“Didn’t you used to like chamomile?”
She waved a hand. “I finally admitted to myself that it just makes your tongue go numb.” She nodded at my cup. “What’re you drinking?”
“A cappuccino. Ever had one?”
She pursed her lips and made a sound like an air hose.
I raised my espresso in a toast. “To tea at three.”
She clinked her mug against my cup. “Or four.”
U2 played in the background.
The Joshua Tree
. Naomi cocked her head, listening. “You ever feel like that?”
I recognized the song. “Like I’m ‘Running to Stand Still’?”
I thought of my dad, of living in a rental house for four years, of striving for the best I could be at my job only to have it threatened because I didn’t call on scene in five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. “All the time. How about you?”
“I used to.”
“But not anymore?”
She breathed in, glanced out the window, then shook her head and smiled. “No. Not anymore.”
Something sparked in her eye. She sipped her tea. “I followed up on our patient Jeff last night.”
“Contused liver. Doing well in ICU.”
“Ah. That’s good to know.”
She nodded. “I heard about your scholarship. Congratulations.”
“You should be proud. You’ve attained everything you wanted.”
Something like a vacuum opened inside me, a sucking black hole in the center of my gut. “Right. Yeah.” I swirled the espresso dregs in my cup. “How about you? Anything big on the horizon?”
She shook her head. “No. Which is just great. I love flying. Since some of the older nurses retired, I have a better pick of shifts. One weekend day off now. I read and garden. And take care of my mom.”
“You mentioned she had some health issues.”
“I’m so sorry. How long have you known?”
“We found out this past year. She’s getting good treatment but she’s weak. We won’t know if it will be effective for a while yet.” She sat back. “I trade off with Natalie cooking for them a couple times a week. How’s your dad?”
I laughed. “Honestly, I’m not sure what he’d do on his own. But his sickness is far from acute. It’s more of the addictive, kill-yourself-slowly variety.”
She nodded and cupped her hands around her mug.
It reminded me of my mother sitting at the breakfast table, a peace permeating her person.
“So,” I said, “would I be wrong in thinking that you might know something about my patient, Simon Letell?”
She folded her arms. The relaxed Naomi I’d been watching shifted into Flight Nurse Foster. She looked toward the door. “I did hear his name mentioned at Aprisa a while back.”
“How long ago?”
“About six months, I think.” She stared at the floor, searching her memory. “I was in the billing office clearing up a misunderstanding on a chart. I think I’d filled out the wrong Medicare code or something. Spitzer and Shintao were in the next office having a heated discussion with the newest PR girl. Something about a guy and his multiple complaints. Shintao must have had a stack of them because it sounded like he was reading them off one by one, saying, ‘Letell. Letell. Jones. Letell.’ At first I didn’t realize that he was actually saying a name. I thought, with his accent, that he was saying ‘Let tell’ – like ‘Let’s find out the story.’ That’s why the name rang a bell after you mentioned it.”
“What were the complaints about?”
“That I couldn’t tell. I only overheard a few snippets of conversation before I didn’t have a reason to be there anymore. It wasn’t my business, and that kind of conversation was pretty much par for the course with those two. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not even the same guy as yours.”
“Not too many Letells out there.”
I would have to investigate more into it. But I didn’t want to give the impression that I’d come just to pump her for information. “So, your sister is getting married soon?”
She bit her bottom lip and looked at the table. “Yes. I am really, really excited for her.” She leaned her head to the side and brought her eyes up. “Can I ask you a question?”
“How do you feel about . . .”
“Ah, never mind. It was just a random thought. Whew, where did that come from? Look, see, there it goes. It’s out the window.” Her cheeks flushed.
Now I had to know. “Well, if it flies back in here, it’s always welcome.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Thanks.” Her fingers caressed the mug, eyes searching me. “You believe in a leading – right, Jonathan?”
“Like when you have a leading to do something?”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“Is there anyone you trust so implicitly that you would follow them, even if you didn’t know exactly where they were leading you?”
The last ounce of coffee in my cup had equalized with room temperature. “I don’t think I know anyone like that. Maybe my mother, when I was little. Well, my mother and God. When I think of her, I think of Him.”
She studied me, looking into me.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I added. “Not that I equate my mom with God. Just little things – like her old Bible and the scent of its thin gilded pages. The feel of the silky bookmark ribbon. It makes me think of her and Sunday school and fists pounding on each other singing ‘The wise man built his house upon the rock.’ ” I breathed in. “I don’t know. When you mentioned trust, that’s what came to mind.”
She held my gaze, tranquility in her face. A cell phone chimed from her purse. “Sorry.” She pulled it out. “Oh, wow. I forgot it’s my night to make dinner for my parents.”
“Oh, of course. I won’t keep you.” I turned in my chair.
“Come with me.”
I stopped. “I’m sorry?”
“Come have dinner with us.”
“You want me to see your parents?”
She grinned. “Yeah.”
“But it’s . . .” It’d been really long. “They probably won’t want to see me.”