He nudged the sleeping figure with one brown loafer. The loafers were as old as his Honda Civic, but who gave a shit? Quality items lasted years, and one grew fond of them, like one would grow of, well, a pair of shoes. Or of certain cooks. He was quality too, if a bit exasperating at times. He nudged again, a little harder.
“Hey Mike, ya turd. Wake the fuck up.” Mike grunted, rolled over, half opened his eyes.
“There ya go. Let the sun burn that hangover away, ya fuck. Why do I get a call down here to get your ass out of the grass?”
“I’m not hungover. I’m just sleeping,” he said furrily.
“Whaddya, practicing being homeless? Cops woulda got on you if Oscar hadn’t informed me of your whereabouts. The fuck’s got into you?” Mike slowly sat up, rubbing his eyes, feeling last night’s marathon settling into his legs. He blinked up at Maurice.
“What’s up, Maurice?”
“You, now, finally. The fuck’s in your hand?” Maurice gestured with his chin at Mike’s right hand. Mike looked down, then shoved his hand in his pocket. He was still clutching the hair tie. Maurice frowned at him. “We need to talk? You on somethin’?” Mike shook his head negatively, trying to digest Maurice’s loving abuse first thing upon waking.
“Come on, ya little turd, let’s get some coffee in ya before you’re drinking joe at the stationhouse…pigs just love pickin’ up vagrants in Brevard County crashing on the beach.” Mike slowly rose to his feet, and Maurice stepped close, gripping him above the elbow. Mike looked at him.
“Maurice, I’m not on a bender.” Maurice looked put off, but as a restaurant owner, he was all too familiar with the substance abuse that permeated the business. Mike, though, had always been reliable- twenty years now for him, even when he drank heavy (usually due to some crazy broad sucking him dry) –but Maurice was relieved, all the same, to not smell booze on him. Still, a couple of his employees had mentioned his odd behavior, and he figured he’d check in with his head cook. Now, he was curious. He turned and began picking his delicate way through the sea grape back to his Civic, a large man in loafers, Docker shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt, and Michael found the scene amusing. As Maurice descended the dune, he turned and yelled back at Michael.
“Come on, pigfucker, get in Pegasus and let’s go get some breakfast. I’m hungry, chasing your gay ass all over town.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Maurice smiled broadly up at Michael. “Atta boy.”
They sat in a back booth of the diner, a spread of eggs, sausage, bacon, grits, potatoes, and pancakes in between them. Maurice held court for a while in his New Jersey Italian way which always reminded Michael of Joey Soprano, though Maurice fancied himself more of a Don Corleone. People came and went; Maurice was well known in Cocoa Beach. Michael took advantage of his dining partner’s garrulousness to stuff himself, as he hadn’t eaten since Sam left yesterday, on Thursday. Maurice covertly watched him eat, and was relieved; he’d seen his share of junkies and drunks and they wouldn’t eat even if they were force-fed. Mike, in fact, looked quite healthy, if a bit tired for his choice of sleeping quarters last night; he was tanned and alert. Well, Mike was always alert, even when he was off in his own world; the guy’s brain just always seemed to be moving a million miles an hour somewhere, tossing out a witty comment or piece of trivia. Fast with the facts and quick with jokes was Mike. That was one of the reasons he got on with him as well as he did: Maurice liked a smart, funny guy, plus he was dead honest. You didn’t often get that in the restaurant trade. So why the fuck was he sleeping on the beach? He couldn’t be facing eviction, Mike lived in the apartment above the hardware store, and Maurice would’ve heard if Mike was getting squirrelly on the rent. He didn’t have a girl, so there was no one kicking him around right now, though there’d been a wackadoo or two in the past. Maurice thought he seemed a bit off in his world dreamworld right now; it was time to dig. He paused his parade.
“So what gives, Mike?”
I just yanked him back from wherever the fuck he was… “Why the fuck ya sleepin’ on the beach?” Maurice was speaking quietly now.
“Maurice, don’t go all Casa Nostra on me. You wanna play Jersey Shore, go back to Jersey. Or go to Miami.”
“Don’t try to distract me, Mikey. I know you a long time.”
“Why the fuck ya sleepin’ on the beach?” he repeated, spreading his large hands across the table. “You’re not drunk, or doin’ junk, as far as I can tell…you gettin’ thrown outdoors or somethin’? You need some fast cash? I trust you.”
“Why the fuck’s everyone getting on my ass? Everything’s fine!” Michael locked eyes with him, and Maurice was glad to see it. He was still full of piss and vinegar.
“You vanish like a fart in the wind for three days, your head’s up your ass all day yesterday at work, you don’t talk to nobody, the girls say you were basically an asshole, but you’re always basically an asshole, so maybe that don’t mean much.” They stared each other down for a long moment.Stubborn little fucker, ornery as a mule…“What’s in your pocket?”
“Whaddya, deaf now? Ya put somethin’ in your pocket at the beach. What is it?” Gotcha, ya slippery little weasel.
“Nothing, my phone, my wallet, listen, you wanna play Perry Mason with me-”
“Take it out.”
“Fuck off, Maurice.”
“I gotta make you drop?” Maurice didn’t often pull the ‘I’m your employer’ routine on his people, especially longtime loyal employees, but Michael was pissing him off. Michael stared back for one last moment, and realized he had no choice. He pulled it out of his pocket and threw it at Maurice. Maurice picked it up, examined it, then looked at Michael in comically exaggerated perplexity.
“The fuck is this? A chick’s hair thingabob?” He held it up. “I know you can’t tie a vein off with this, so what the fuck, Michael? You wearing women’s clothes now–” Maurice watched as Michael turned red and slouched back into the corner of the booth, and it dawned on him.
“Aaaaaahhhh…you little fucker, you’re gettin’ some, arentcha? You sly little prick…” he began to smile, and tossed the hair band into Michael’s chest, who snatched it back and stuffed it in his pocket. “No, you’re not just gettin’ a little tail are ya–”
“Shut the fuck up, Maurice.”
“–you’re in fuckin’ love, arentcha!” Maurice was positively beaming to have discovered Michael’s secret. “You were bangin’ her on the beach last night–”
“You don’t talk like that about her!”The table scraped on the floor and coffee sloshed out of their cups as Michael jumped up, half standing at the booth and leaning over the table. Heads turned in their direction. Maurice held his hands up in apology.
“Okay, okay, I respect that, I won’t disrespect your woman. Who is she?”
“No one you know. She’s not from here.” He sat back down cautiously.
“Where’d ya meet her?”
“Look, can we just go? I gotta work later, and I wanna get some sleep–” But Maurice was already calling out to the waitress.
“Hey, Jackie, bring us two shots! A Jack and a Sambuca. My friend’s in love.”
“You’re a fucking asshole Maurice.”
“That’s why we get along. You’re an asshole too. I hope she knows this about you, you ornery, stubborn little pigfucker.” He lapsed into victorious silence, humming snatches of “That’s Amore” under his breath. Their shots arrived, and Maurice slid the Jack to Michael.
“I don’t want it.”
“Fuck you, ya pussy. I’m your boss. Drink up. What’s her name?” Maurice inspected the three beans floating in the Sambuca, and swirled it around, and looked expectantly at him. “I’m waiting for you, ya turd.”
Michael grabbed the glass and grudgingly tipped it in Maurice’s direction, who accepted his reluctant salute.
“To amoré…” He tossed back the Sambuca neatly while Michael sipped his Jack and glowered at him. “What’s her name?” he repeated.
“Sam,” he finally replied after a bit.
“Sam? What, is she a guy?”
“Short for Samantha, genius.”
“Glad you approve.”
Maurice let him take the couple of cheap shots at him with good humor. He stopped for a moment, frowning slightly.
“Wait…does she…is she related to a Tita?” He suddenly grew serious.
“How do you know that?”
“That’s her grandmother.”
Maurice whistled, then began to laugh. “Oh, baby…” His laughter grew louder.
“What?” Maurice just kept laughing and looked at Michael.
“Dammit, what the fuck is so fucking funny?”
“You, my friend, are in for a helluva ride.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” He suddenly felt his stomach drop, and Maurice saw it on his face.
“No, no, no, not the granddaughter…she grew up to be a real peach, I get it. Good on you. I’m talkin’ about Tita. If you can navigate that old battle axe, you’re one hell of a guy. Ask Oscar. But don’t fuck up. I don’t want to find my best cook floating in the Banana River.”
* * * * * *
“I’ll probably never see him again,” Sam said to Tita, and felt a sharp pang. Unexpected tears welled up out of nowhere. The road doubled, trebled, and she willed them back. Idiot, you had a fling. He won’t remember you a week from now. It was great sex, one of those experiences you check off your bucket list in life: have a crazy, passionate fling with a stranger you hardly know on a beach. The end. Move on. Too much shit to do right now in your life than complicate it with some guy. At least you know your lady parts are in fine working order still, after all this time.
“Not a chance.” Tita was looking at her.
“It was a fling.” Sam pretended to fiddle with a contact and wiped away a tear, which did not go unnoticed by Tita.
“No. It wasn’t.”
“How do you– of course it was! I live in Arizona, he lives in Florida, for chrissakes! Don’t get my ‘wild imagination’, as you like to call it, all riled up! I’ve become a lot more realistic and pragmatic over the years, Tita!” She didn’t realize she was nearly shouting and tears were streaming freely down her face.
“Pull over here at this rest area,” Tita commanded, pointing at the blue sign. Sam flicked the blinker on, and guided the RV down the exit and into the big parking lot, between two semis. She threw the rig into park, and put her face in her hands and let a sob out.
“Why didn’t you let him know this as you were leaving?” Tita spread her hands out towards Sam. “Why did you not reply to his messages yesterday?” Sam viciously brushed the tears off her cheeks, took a deep breath, and coughed.
“What, like I’m some sort of a weak chick who needs a man and cries like a– like a…” She fished for the word, “–like some sort of pussy?! Besides, I was driving all day yesterday!” She snatched a worn Taco Bell napkin from above the sun visor and blew her nose.
“He texted you nearly every hour yesterday. You didn’t respond until this morning. Who is actually the pussy here? You stopped and got gas yesterday. Someone who wasn’t a pussy would have returned his message.” Tita waited for a moment, until Sam could look at her again, and continued on, more gently. “I saw the same look on your grandfather’s face, when you got in your RV yesterday, on his face. It was no fling for him either. No man takes off work for three days and has tears in his eyes for a shallow fling.”
“Stop it. Not true.”
“Why do you continue to sell yourself short?”
“I’m not. It’s reality. People hook up, someone gets hurt, in this case it was me.”
“You are hurting yourself. Call him.”
“Are you kidding me?! So I can look like a needy, nutty chick?”
“Because neither of you wanted to let go. The only nutty chick is the one here who refuses to see the obvious, and is afraid to take a chance.”
Sam started crying a little again.
“This is exactly why I haven’t done this for almost four years. I hate crying and feeling like I want to throw up.”
“Call him, if a single emotion you felt for that man was true. I am going inside to get a Bayou Times crossword puzzle, and a chocolate shake. If you feel like it, come in, and Tita will get you a strawberry shake.” With that, Tita opened the passenger door and hopped out. She shut it, and the silence descended on Sam. Tita’s words hung in the air. She sniffled, looked at her phone, and picked it up. She opened up her text messages, and reread from the previous day.
12:30 pm Sam, I miss you already.
12:40 pm Please drive safely.
1:15 pm Don’t murder any baked potatoes without me. That’s a capital offense. You’ll need a partner.
1:20 pm Or fling cauliflower.
3:00 pm I’m sorry, I’ll be your potatohead.
3:55 pm Tell Tita hello.
4:04 pm Sorry to bug you while you drive xoxo
Her heart ached to read them. After leaving him in Cocoa Beach, she had driven over 500 miles yesterday, trying to put distance between her heart and mind, and Tita had made her stop in Pensacola. She knew Sam was running hard out of Florida. After tossing and turning all night on the RV couch, she had finally responded to his text around five in the morning: Michael, I miss you too, potatohead! Do they send the FBI if I cross state lines? xoxo but her goofy humor felt hollow to her. Goddammit, Tita made it difficult to be afraid. She touched a message on the screen, and hit Call. It was almost three, he was probably at work already. She heard the other end begin to ring, aware that her heart was pounding crazily. Gawd, like I need to inflict this kind of damage on myself? Lemme have a fucking smoke too while I’m at it. She opened the window, fumbled the pack with shaky hands, dropped a cigarette on the floor, where it rolled under the brake pedal. She reached down to grab it, and banged her head on the steering wheel.
“Oh my god! Hello, Michael? I’m so sorry, I just banged my head on the steering wheel, I dropped a cigarette…”
“You’re not driving, are you?” He sounded concerned, and she started to laugh in spite of herself. She heard him chuckle as well, and suddenly she knew she had done the right thing.
“I was beginning to wonder if you had been arrested by the spud police for murder. First degree, with a fork and sour cream.” At the sound of his voice, there was a loosening in her chest that she hadn’t even realized was tight, and the memory of her first nervous encounter with him at the bar made her giggle harder. But hot tears rose, unbidden, choking her, and she couldn’t speak for a minute.
“Sam? Are you alright?” he asked cautiously.
She took a breath, controlling it. Tita’s words came to her mind: Call him, if a single emotion you felt for that man was true. She stumbled around for words, feeling tears fighting their way through.
“Michael…I miss you. More than..well, more than I thought. I mean–” she trailed off with stifled breaths. “I wasn’t sure of what…well, whether it meant anything…”
“Sam. I miss you too…I want more than anything for you to be here right now. With me.” His voice was low and intense, his words coming in a rush. She could see him, his head lowered, looking at her. “I need to see you again. I don’t know if said that before you left, but I mean it. Even more.” She heard his breathing on the other end of the line.
“I didn’t want to leave you.” She was trying to control her voice, play it cool, and suddenly it didn’t seem right with him. She let a sob escape. “I should have stayed longer.”
“Sam…I’ll fly out to Phoenix tomorrow if you say the word.”
“You’d be there before me, silly.” She laughed through her tears. “Fly to Oklahoma City.”
“Where are you?”
“Ummm…I think I just passed Lafayette? Lake Charles?”
“You’re making fast time…be careful.”
“I wish I was driving back to you.”
“I wish you were too, baby, I wish you were.”
“When can you come out?” She hadn’t meant to blurt out the question; he had a job, she didn’t want to seem clingy.
“I’ll fly out tomorrow, like I said. What city?”
Her head swam. “No, seriously. You have a schedule. I’m flexible.”
“Oh, I know you’re flexible…” His voice dropped, and she caught her breath. “I’m flexible too. Next week. Monday.”
“I won’t be home until Sunday night. My place will be a wreck from offloading.”
“Pick me up in….Houston, tomorrow.” He laughed. “Okay, Wednesday. Phoenix.”
“Is this for real?”
“Do you want it to be?”
“Yes.” She felt something shift within her. “Do you mind hanging out with an artist?”
“I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.”
“Will you pose nude for me?”
“Only if you are too.”
“I have fig leaves if you want.”
“Madam, I do not see the need for a fig leaf between us.”
“I don’t have a fig leaf big enough for you anyway. We won’t leave the bedroom.”
“You’re really making this difficult, I see.”
“Yes, not getting on a plane right now. I have to work tonight thinking…of, oh, I don’t know…RV rooftops, dunes, moonlight… ”
“Are you going to just be able to take off from the restaurant? This isn’t much notice.”
“Oh, I can call in some favors. Maurice owes me.”
“I hate to admit, but there are far more serious crimes Maurice has forgiven me for. I have vacation time I’ve never taken. It pains me to say it, but they’ll survive here without me.”
“In fact, I’m going to tell Maurice himself to book me a flight right now, and drive me to Orlando airport on Wednesday.”
“Will he? Call me when you book it. I’ll be driving, if you don’t mind talking to Tita–”
“I will. And he will. I will as soon as I tell that pigf…pig headed bastard.” She heard him take a drag off a cigarette. “I have to go to work here in a few minutes. Can I call you later when I’m off? It’ll probably be around 11:30. Where do you think you’ll be?”
She thought for a moment. She was still in Eastern time zone, and would be in Texas in a few hours, in Central time.
“I hope to stop for the night somewhere between Houston and San Antonio, barring any horrendous Houston traffic. Call me, it’ll just be me and Tita playing penny poker at a truck stop somewhere on I-10.”
“At a truck stop? Are you going to be safe?” She had to chuckle at the concern in his voice. The idea of being unsafe anywhere with Tita around was ludicrous, and besides, Sam was familiar with the I-10 corridor, and cross country driving in general.
“Of course, sweetheart, truckers are the white knights of the road. I’d choose a truck stop over a rest area any night. I just snug my RV in between two semis, and their diesel engines put me right to sleep. I’ve never worried about anyone bothering me, even when I’m alone. Plus Pilot house blend coffee blows away Starbucks, in my humble opinion.”
“I’m still going to worry.”
“That’s sweet of you. I haven’t had anyone worry about me in, well, a long time. My landlady does, I suppose, but she has nine cats and five horses also.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting her, I think. She sounds unusual.”
“That would be an understatement. Make her some chile rellenos and she’ll kick me out and have you move in.”
“Is that all it takes to get an apartment in Phoenix?”
“A casita…and I’m in Cave Creek, actually, not Phoenix proper. The foothills of the mountains.”
“I’ll be there Wednesday, baby, and I’ll call you when I get a flight confirmation. The guys are giving me the hairy eyeball right now because I’m officially late.”
“Go. I’ll talk to you later. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Sam. Wednesday.”
She hung up the phone, and stared out the windshield for a bit, an absent smile on her face. Finally, she noticed the big drops of rain plopping on the glass, and decided to join Tita for a malted inside.