Gidget’s Smile

Blame my frustration on That Uncertain Feeling. Burgess Meredith asks Merle Oberon who needs a shrink more: the person who has little happiness or the person who has too much? It’s black and white comedy – nothing unusual about that in 1941 – but it’s frustrating because black and white in my book means noir. And there’s nothing funny about noir. Yet …

“What’s bothering you Catherine? You’re like the sea without a breeze.”

Morgan Upton was wearing his commodore’s jacket and white deck shoes. After twelve years of marriage he didn’t expect his wife to put wind in his sails, but felt slighted that she no longer gave him so much as an “ahoy!” when he lounged in his boxers.

I have a noir life, I told my shrink, although Morgan doesn’t look like a noir guy – a Robert Mitchum or a Fred McMurray – so I’m uncertain about what attracted me to him. He’s more like a Rex Harrison or a Van Johnson. He doesn’t understand why I like to spend my Saturday afternoons in the film room when he’s out sailing the 15 foot Gidget’s Smile. My shrink says his boat’s name speaks volumes about our marital difficulties. My shrink may be right. I wanted to name the boat Ebony Eyes.

Morgan brought Catherine a blender bowl of Margaritas and a long stemmed glass into the film room and poured the green concoction into the glass. “For you, my Love. Only poor people cry into beer.”

Noir isn’t tear-jerking melodrama, it’s martini real. Bleak as vodka on the rocks. “Thanks, Dear,” I said because my shrink said happy is as happy does.

“What’s on the marquee today? Another showing of The Lady Vanishes?”

Morgan doesn’t know the difference between British mystery and post-war nihilism. He bought out a salt shaker from this jacket pocket and set it on the table. “For the rim.” He kissed my cheek. A kindergartener’s kiss. The door had closed behind him, and all that was left was a line of light, but I knew he was smiling a cheery California Vitamin D smile. “Anything that could entice me away from the sirens waiting for me just past the jetty?”

Maybe you should show him how pleasurable a femme fatale can be, my shrink said. I guided Morgan’s hand to my breast and searched his mouth for his tongue with mine, glad he’d persuaded me to buy a plushy recliner instead of a red velvet backed antique from the now-defunct Bijou. “Spellbound,” I whispered, and Bergman’s doors began to open one by one.

The sirens were jealous. They watched Morgan cast off from the pier, and hid a swell behind a ruse of sunshine dancing on a calm blue stage . They let him sail past them, then grabbed his spinnaker and pulled him back, crushing Gidget’s Smile on the jagged rocks.

“Did he drown?” I asked through short gasps.

“He was tossed like a corn-hole bean-bag onto the stones,” the Coast Guardsman said.

Morgan lay in a white hospital room disconnected from black artificial life machines. staring at the world with glassy ebony eyes. Catherine went home to her movie room, a long-neck Bud Lite in one hand and a bag of Cheetos in the other. There is such a thing as comedy noir. It’s called irony.

Leaning Towards Love

Walking briskly along the Italian cobblestoned street, Valentina knew she would see the top of the Tower if she just looked up. She knew how it would look from this very street corner by heart, sticking out over the tops of the other buildings at a slight tilt, the white marble standing stark against the bright blue sky. She also knew it would remind her of all the walks she had taken down this street with her father many years ago. For that reason, she kept her eyes on the ground.

She crossed the road and pushed through a dingy, half-broken swinging door into a badly air-conditioned convenience store. The heat outside made the air in the store thick and heavy. Flies buzzed around soft fruit and two large whirring fans made groaning noises in opposite corners. The man behind the counter, with his thick black mustache and small spectacles half down his nose, grinned when he looked up and saw her walking in.

“Valentina!” He shouted over the noise of the fans. He threw his hands in the air like all the Italians she knew as he rambled out compliments and greetings to her in his rapid speech. She leaned over the counter and kissed both his cheeks.

“Alberto,” she said and she could feel herself smiling as she said his name with easy familiarity. “How are you? You look great.”

That wasn’t entirely true. He looked like he had shrunk considerably; his whole body hunched over. Her dad would have been 60 this year so she had to assume Alberto wasn’t far behind. They fell into easy conversation, exchanging stories and laughing at old memories. Valentina bought a sparkling water and a pack of gum just like her father always did and Alberto tried to make her take it for free, just as he always had.

Valentina felt comfortable here in this tiny store in the middle of Pisa. Alberto had owned it for longer than she had been alive and was friends with her father for even longer than that. Valentina grew up in a neighboring Tuscan village, around 30 minutes by train from Pisa. Once a month, without fail, her father would take the train into Pisa, stop by Alberto’s before heading to the steps in front of the Tower. He could sit there for hours. Sometimes he would bring a sketchbook, other times nothing at all. She started tagging along when she was only eight but hadn’t been back since his death 6 years ago. For her father the Tower represented something, though she had never been sure what exactly. He used to say it was a landmark that brought people together.

“Are you married, bella? In love?” She rolled her eyes at his question.

“No. No love for me Alberto.” She didn’t mention the fact that her boyfriend of nearly five years had broken up with her last week, prompting her to finally make this journey back to Pisa in the first place.

“Ah well, you see my nephew just divorced – he’s young …”

“Alberto,” She interrupted a story she hadn’t been listening to. “Listen, it’s so lovely to see you, but I should head on.” She indicated her head in the direction of the tower and he nodded knowingly.

“Of course, of course. You come back before you leave though!” She agreed to stop by again and headed out the door on her way.

Valentina wandered past the street vendors, pushing half-broken watches and other shabby items in her face. She followed the lines of tourists, posed with one hand in the air and finally, she looked up.

It was laughably leaning, she had always thought. Leaning so far to one side, that as a child, she was certain it was just going to fall over. She walked across to the steps and took a seat, holding a hand to the sun to shade her view. She never thought it to be a beautiful landmark like her father did, but she was intrigued by the Tower, by its story and all the stories she had because of it. She waited so long to visit, scared of how the Tower would look to her now without him and nervous how she would feel standing in front of it alone but now here it was, standing directly in front of her like nothing had actually changed at all.

A bump to her elbow shook her from her thoughts.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to come in so fast.” A man, probably around his late twenties with dark hair and a boyish face, sat abruptly next to her. “You seemed lost in your thoughts and I was just wondering what you could possibly be thinking about at The Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

He was definitely American. Valentina stared at him, at a loss for words.

“Hi, I’m Alex,” He finally said, sticking a hand out to shake.

“Tina,” She replied slowly, grabbing his hand and giving it a small shake. “I was just thinking about how funny this Tower is actually.”

He threw his head back with laughter. “You know what Tina? I thought that exact same thing. This Tower is funny. Have you had lunch yet?”

One More Shot

It’s early in the morning, the gym is cold and the lights are on. One, two, three dribbles and then silence. The ball flies through the air, into the basket and onto the floor, creating the empty gym’s only sound. The daily ritual continues. Coach retrieves the ball, walks back to the free throw line for another shot. He blows into his hands and rubs them together for warmth. He steps up to the line: one, two, three dribbles. Each bounce echoes through every vacant seat, to the high vaulted ceiling, around the brick walls and back to the unforgiving floor. He visualizes the ball going in, bends his aging knees and shoots. Forty six out of fifty: not bad, he thinks, but he can do better.

The leather ball smells like high school, like Saturday nights and teenage anticipation of what might happen at the after-game party. Who’s going to be there? The familiar smell extracts sweaty memories of past games: that game. That game, a razor sharp knife that sliced his life into equal halves: the time before and the time after. He steps up to the line. Coach dribbles the ball three times and eyes the front of the rim, and visualizes it going in. He shot 96% at the line his senior year. This was cake, automatic. There were two seconds left, his team down by two. The State High School Championship was at stake against Cedar Heights, the team that had beaten his school last year in the same game. It can’t happen again. Focusing on the rim, he imagines the ball going in the net. The talented athlete bent his youthful knees, careful to transfer energy up his body, through his arms, to his hands and out his fingers in one graceful motion. The ball felt his skillful strength and obediently flew up into the air and down into the net. They were down by one.

The crowd cheered wildly. One more free throw would send the game to overtime. His girlfriend Lisa sat on the front row behind the player’s bench as always. He caught a glimpse of her bright blue eyes shining proudly. She gave him a wink and a thumb’s up, yet smiled nervously. He heard his mom cheering from somewhere in the stands. The crowd was chanting his name. He loved to hear it. The referee handed him the ball. He stepped up to the line, dribbled the ball three times and focused on the rim.  Every eye was watching, every breath held. The air seemed sucked from the gym, the tension palpable. The crowd with wide eyes and hopeful faces was silent as the ball flew through the air, in what seemed like slow motion. It hit the left side of the rim, hit the right side, and bounced off. Cedar Height’s rebounded. The game was over.

The sun rises slowly, casting its comfortless beams on the bannered wall showcasing county and regional titles, but no state championship.  Shadows creep across the friendless gym floor. Coach steps up to the line, bounces the ball three times and focuses on the rim. “Visualize it going in,” he whispers to himself. “See it going in.” If he hadn’t looked to the stands, maybe he’d be a champion. He can still see Lisa sitting there, in this very gym. Was it her nervous smile? It shouldn’t have mattered. He bends his old, sore knees, releases the ball from his tired fingers. It soars through the air toward its destination. He slowly retrieves the ball and steps up to the line for one more shot.

It Was Really Nothing

On the way home from the library, I passed an alley where it sounded like two guys were pounding a third guy.

They must have seen me looking, because they shouted in my direction. First reaction: run. But I couldn’t. It’s the wheelchair.

I wheeled across the street towards a figure who was making haste down the empty sidewalk. I called and then yelled to her but she didn’t answer, didn’t even look my way. Probably the same bitch who deliberately closed the elevator door in my face when I was leaving the stacks.

On the other side of the street, I felt a little safer since no one was in sight. However, when you’re in a wheelchair, things in the distance are a lot closer than they look.

I started to phone Sally, my girlfriend. Girlfriend in the sense that she’s a female friend. She’s normal. She’s been very patient with her paranoid, handicapped friend. On more than one occasion, she offered to give me a lift when I was working late on my research. Except for a couple of times when it was raining like hell, I routinely declined, partly to manage my mental IOUs and partly to assert my pathetic independence.

Tonight was a matter of pride though, so I stuck the phone back in my jacket pocket and rolled on—my anti-Samaritan lady out of sight save for that bobbing head of hers.

It occurred to me that I should call the cops and report the incident. I hesitated. Those guys could recognize me. For God’s sake, I was in a wheelchair on a well-lit sidewalk,and they were in the shadows.

Besides, what kind of idiot gets caught up with a couple of thugs like that? Probably just a family dispute among criminals anyway. And if the cops did … well, these guys might be off the street for a night but they’d be on the lookout the next.

And what about Ms. Door-in-your-Face? Why didn’t she call? She could at least run.

And why don’t the police at least patrol this area once in a while?

I don’t ask a lot, and I don’t expect charity, pity or any of those other self-indulgent sentiments from others, so why shouldn’t I expect not to be expected to show them to anybody else?

For Sally, yes I would. Definitely!

For a stranger, why? It was a stranger who put me in this damn chair. What do I care—why should I care—about a stranger if it means risking my own—

It was Sally’s ring tone. As soon as I answered, she noticed a difference in my voice and immediately asked what was the matter.

By this point, I was fully committed to the belief, reached by a more or less systematic reductio ad nihil, so I answered, “Oh, nothing. It was really nothing.”

“What? What was really—”

“Nothing. I’m just real tired that’s all. Think I could cash that rain check?”