Sheila Winston acted out when people ignored her. At three, she had stamped her foot. At five, she cut her own hair with pinking shears. At thirteen, she had talked back to her parents. No one ignored her in her slinky twenties, and life was good. In her thirties and forties, she repaid slights by spending much money. What was she going to do at fifty?
Take last night when she broke down in tears during a credit card commercial featuring an elephant assisting a flu-bedraggled trainer. Blowing her nose and dabbing at her eyes, she asked, "What is this?" Sheila answered herself in her empty living room, "LDD, life deficit disorder." Her two Welsh corgis perked up their ears at the sound of her voice and then resumed their leg-twitching naps.
Sheila had always prided herself on being the least emotional of women, one of the guys. Her disdain for cosmetics punctuated her desire to stand as a woman, not a girly girl. Everything about her was short: body, hairdo, temper.
She looked around for something to divert her attention. Too late to call her married son or single daughter on the East Coast, too late to concentrate on her stitchery. She chose to ignore the German chocolate cake calling to her from the kitchen. She went to bed.
Her husband Jansson had been working twelve to sixteen hour days, seven days a week, for six weeks. Usually a great escape followed these torture sessions. They'd take off for somewhere they could kick up their heels and spend some quality time.
No such luck on this month's calendar. Their duty to house his Alzheimer-ridden mother, Binky (short for Rebecca) alternated on six-week intervals with Jansson's brother's family. And the Binker would return in forty-eight hours.
Sheila lay under a quilt with her sound soother on. She contemplated her options--continued despair in silence, divorce, murder? How would she survive the next year? How would their marriage survive? When Jansson's father died last year, his whining, clingy mother needed care. Binky portrayed herself as feeble, unable to live alone. At 73 she was strong as a horse and stubborn as a mule. It was only the idea of living alone that made her come unglued, calling her son at all hours in tears.
Sheila had begged, pouted, argued, listed, all in vain. Jansson was not to be deterred. His mother would live with them. Didn't he care that Sheila could not abide that woman? That her vulgar manners and her phony forced laugh and her drinking and her farts and her stupidity would not work in their old tract house, Lilliputian in size by anyone's standards, much less an Angeleno's? After their second stint of duty with Binky, Sheila had told Jansson last spring, "We survived that--barely--and we need a marriage counselor." He had barked a laugh as if she were joking. She wasn't.
Finally falling asleep, she dreamed of her intense high school friend, David Takema, dead of liver cancer at 37. In the dream, David ran to her, crossing a street in his blue pea coat, a blue plaid muffler flapping in the breeze. He stopped in front of Sheila, taking Sheila's stubby hands into his elegant, manicured, pianist's hands. He said something to her, but the words sounded like a foreign language.
Sheila awoke early the next morning with a vague plan of action, a half-remembered dream. She drove her dogs to the open acreage down the road to let them run. Each followed her commands with the pup, Babalu, in thrall to the elder, Bouncer. The dog walk was deserted. The dogs scampered along the trail sniffing and barking and running free in the center strip of land, ignoring the crows in the budding oak trees. She watched the crows. Other people hated crows for their loud cries and fat bodies, their black bulging fatness. Startled by her dogs, they didn't fly to roost in the oak, but hopped a few feet to stare at them, each squinting beady eyes.
She turned back toward her car, signaling Bouncer to return to her. A young man in a blue t-shirt with an indistinct circular logo and shorts loped down the bridge with his unleashed German shepherd. When the man stopped to stretch, using the banister of the concrete stairs, the shepherd streaked towards Babalu. From thirty yards away, Sheila shrilled, "Bouncer! Baba! Come now!" Both dogs turned her way with ears on full alert, but stood their ground as the shepherd barreled towards them, long white teeth flashing. Sheila ran into the middle of the field, leashes flapping behind her, tripping her. She sprawled in the dust, jumped back up, and looked frantically for the shepherd's owner. Baba was yelping in panic while Bouncer nipped at the shepherd's heels. Crying, she reached for Bouncer as he circled like a coyote.
Finally aware of the tumult, the young man, dashed in to control his shepherd. "Dion. Stop. Sit." On command, the dog sat by his master. Babalu and Bouncer yapped at the dog from behind Sheila's legs. She put them back into their leashes after checking for blood. There was none on the dogs, scraped knees for her.
Furious, Sheila said, "Jesus. What were you thinking?" I've walked my dogs here every day without any problems." She scrubbed at her face with the sleeve of her baggy sweatshirt. "And look what happened to my favorite pants." She pointed to the hole in the knees.
He looked at her with narrowed eyes, taking in her baggy sweatshirt and stretched out, torn leggings. "Sorry. I'm not used to having company out here at this hour. Those are your favorites?" He seemed uncertain, looking at her again closely. "Don't I know you? Don't you live up by Tim Frankel?"
Sheila examined the man. He wasn't as young he had appeared from a distance. She noted the white in his black mustache, the crinkles near his eyes, the tan, and recognition hit her. "Tim, the fireman, down the street? Do you guys work together?"
"I'm Jack Noble. I retired last spring, and Tim took the captaincy. I visit up there all the time. He's got that big screen for game days."
Sheila nodded and told him her name and her dogs' names. She laughed a little about how scared she had been for Bouncer and Baba. She playfully chided Jack for the scare. She added that Jansson probably knew him from the guys' get togethers, but also from the complaints Jansson regularly made to Tim over parking, in short supply in their neighborhood.
Jack laughed, a Rod-Steward hoarse, sexy laugh. "You'd think a bunch of off-duty firemen could walk up a hill, but no, they have to stack the cars up there at Tim's."
Sheila grinned too. "You know, this city needs a fenced, official dog park, like the one in the Valley. Maybe you guys at the department could light a fire under our councilmen, huh?" She faked a wince at her own bad pun and giggled in a high-pitched voice she didn't recognize. She reached up to fluff her blonde hair. "I guess I'd better go if I'm going to get my kayaking in today." Where had that come from, she wondered.
Jack smiled. "I paddle too. I haven't seen too many ladies at Castaic Lake except the group I lead."
Without knowing quite why, Sheila stalled for more time. "Castaic? I've always driven all the way out to Ventura Harbor. It's windy there though."
Jack nodded, peering directly into her eyes. "Bring Jansson on Saturday morning, and we'll tour the lake together. Next time I'm at Tim's, say this weekend, let's talk about a plan to get this city going on a dog park. I've got to finish my run." And he jogged off with Dion leashed.
After answering email, straightening the bedroom, and feeding Baba and Bouncer at home, Sheila restlessly left again, surprising herself by turning into the mall. She hadn't been spending money frivolously at all since retirement, trying to make up for the cut in income her so-called freedom was costing them. What freedom? The Binky hung around her neck like some gigantic, mindless albatross. The albatross wasn't called a dodo bird for nothing. She gritted her teeth and stopped by the juniors department to look over summer clothes.
An aqua two-piece top and shorts outfit edged in brown crochet caught her eye. Her favorite color combination! She picked up three sizes: 8 (yeah, sure); 10 (probable); and 12 (not again, please). She did what she hated to do, tried them on, carefully easing the shorts over her skinned knees. Only the 12 fit, but the size 8 top was okay. Maybe she could slip the 8 top on the 12 shorts hanger and still get the combination? She couldn't resist. Sweating and nervous, she took the unmatched pair on a double hanger to the cashier.
"These should be perfect for my trip," she said, hoping to divert the cashier's attention. Her words came out too fast, and her wallet fell open and tumbled over the counter. She laughed nervously and started to apologize for being such a pain. As the cashier reached to check the size tags, an old man with a paunch like an inflated inner tube elbowed in against Sheila's shoulder.
"Look, my wife needs help in ladies' swimsuits. Why doesn't this store ever have enough employees?" he rudely snarled.
"I'll be right with you, sir," the clerk said. She smiled ironically at Sheila, hurriedly bagged the unmatched shorts set, and Sheila signed the charge slip. She walked urgently to the nearest exit, expecting the door alarm to go off. A security guard gave her the once over as she passed by. She would have smiled if she hadn't felt so guilty. Maybe they would double check the dressing room. They have cameras in there, don't they? She should go back in. Halfway to her car, she turned around to confess an error. But then, she squared her shoulders and told herself to quit being so paranoid. She tossed the bag with the new clothes on the floorboards.
Sheila's heart was hammering, but her mood felt lighter, talking to Jack, sparking some masculine interest, wishing she been wearing something other than that bunny sweatshirt and baggy leggings. This new outfit might wow him on the weekend.
She thought about going to the gym across the street. She would do 20 minutes on the glider and then 30 laps in the pool. But some restlessness pushed her. She felt the need for speed, for open spaces. She drove home and hauled her red kayak out of the garage and grappled it to the top of her SUV. Strapped into place, the kayak looked secure for the hour's trip to Ventura Harbor. Maybe she would find a solution to Jansson's oblivion and his mother's intrusive presence during a solitary paddle. She headed out Highway 26 for the forty-five minute drive to the beach.
She chose a cool jazz cd, drove, and daydreamed as she whizzed by citrus orchards and flower fields. Jack interested her. "What if," she began as she caught a glimpse of an elevated gold pick-up truck in her rear view mirror. She pulled into the slow lane to allow the truck to pass, but it clung right there on her bumper. Worse, the sun-glassed, bald driver began blasting his horn while his pony-tailed, mustached passenger gesticulated wildly in what looked like gang signs.
"Stupid idiot," she said, lowering her window and signaling with her hand that he should just past. He stayed on her bumper, still honking. The passenger bent down, disappearing from view.
Sheila began to sweat. She clenched her teeth, hunched forward over the steering wheel and looked for a safe place to pull over. The fruit stands on the highway were all still closed and deserted. The honking horn increased in frequency. She was within five miles of Santa Paula where there would be more traffic, more people, a safe haven. Changing tactics, she swerved into the fast lane to step on it, but the wind resistance on the kayak reminded her that she could not outrun the truck. She pulled back into the slow lane, and the truck pulled alongside her, matching her speed.
A sudden thwack above the car caused her to yaw onto the shoulder of the road. She strained to control the SUV as it shimmied in the gravel, but she feared to stop. The sound of the truck's blaring horn bashed her with painful insistence. The truck roared past with a final indignant klaxon and a one-fingered salute from the driver and passenger, both laughing madly. She pulled back onto the highway.
A lowered speed limit sign came into view as the city limits approached. She swung into the first parking lot she saw with a gas station and a restaurant. Sheila got out unsteadily to look over her car.
An arrow protruded from the side of her kayak.
"What next?" she thought. She opened the car door and stood on the floorboards to examine the damage. The arrow had pierced the kayak. Had it been shot from a crossbow? What kind of crazy person shoots arrows on the freeway? Had he been aiming at the kayak or had he missed, aiming for her? She should call the police.
Shaking, she settled onto a stool at the counter of the coffee shop, ordered a chocolate malt. Maybe Jansson would believe this adventure if she left the arrow in the kayak. He never seemed to believe her when she told him anything new to their routine. She diverted her immediate fear from the highway with poisonous thoughts about Binky.
Jansson had said they would be able to retire sooner. Well, a year had passed, and nothing had changed, except that Sheila was madder than ever. She was barely civil to the old coot, moving out of the room if she came in, averting her eyes if they met in the hallway.
She could not continue to share a house with that woman --something's would have to give and soon. Next time it was their turn to mama-sit, she would definitely head out of town for a couple weeks, well, alright, one week, because when she was gone too long, she missed the dogs.
Her space in the home --HER HOME, GOD DAMN IT--diminished. She could escape into her bedroom or the office. All the rest had been taken over by the lump. Why couldn't they just place her in a nice assisted living facility? There was one less than three blocks away. Jannson could visit to his heart's content, and Sheila could have her house back. For herself.
Sheila sat at the counter, lolling in the texture of the chocolate shake, but even that didn't calm her. One emaciated old man sat at the other end, slowly spooning apple pie into his mouth, crumbs falling across the napkin he had placed under his chin. She pulled her phone out of her purse, put it back, pulled it out again. Call Jannson? Call the police? But she had that Macy's bag with the mismatched outfit in there. There was probably already an alert out for her. Call her friend, Frannie, to laugh about the arrow? She tried Jannson and Frannie. No luck--voice mail for both. She left messages, "Just calling to say hi" and turned the phone off.
She tossed five bucks on the counter. Might as well make somebody's day. She headed back towards home. Looking at the arrow, she sighed. She'd take care of the kayak this weekend. God, Binky would be back with her nose hair counts and chin sprout announcements. "That's 23 this morning! I'd look like a goat without that mirror." Perfect description. You are a goat, an old one. Don't they shoot old goats and make them into glue or something?
Sheila was so lost in her monologue against Binky that she missed her exit. She took the northerly exit to turn around at the next opportunity. Along the freeway, she saw the sign for Castaic Lake. What the heck, she could take a walk around the lake, look over the boat launch.
She paid the ranger and asked for directions to the kayak zone. He handed her a pamphlet with a map,a rattlesnake warning printed in bold letters. Was there anything she hated more than rattlesnakes? Yes, Binky. Maybe she should just turn around. She'd have a heart attack if she ever saw a snake, much less a rattlesnake.
No, Sheila decided, she wasn't going to let one more of anything ruin a perfectly good day. She drove on, a quarter of a mile around the lake to the parking lot adjacent to a launching ramp. The beach, composed of more dirt than sand, inclined towards the water. Three cars sat in the parking lot. She could just make out kayaks in a trio along the far shore. The blue lake twinkled with light ripples from the wind. Surrounded by Southern California's scrubby brown chaparral, the water looked even more appealing. Too bad her kayak had an arrow piercing its side.
The sun buoyed her spirits, a natural antidepressant. She grabbed her beach chair from the back of the SUV and put on her sunglasses to sit in the sun, making sure she set up at a distance from bushes and undergrowth. On the flat expanse of sand, she would surely see a snake in time to move out of its path, unless she fell asleep, and too much adrenaline was pumping for her to fall asleep. The idea of snakes turned her mind towards poison. What kinds of poison did she know? The work of toxicologists was too advanced for her novice, murderous thoughts. None of the poisons she knew of would work without leaving trace evidence. She cringed at herself, remembering films and books where the poisoner had fallen victim to poison.
"That's pretty sick," she said aloud as she blinked in the sun, alert to the beauty around her.
"Here I am, no work, no kids at home, and moaning about the quality of my life. Get a grip."
A splashing from the lake caught her attention as kayakers paddled towards the launch zone.
Two women and a man composed the group. The women looked to be in her age group, not young, but not over the hill either. The first one wore biking shorts, which clutched her heavy thighs, leaving a rim of fat bulging above the knees. Her t-shirt hung low, sagging out in front, as if she were pregnant. She looked like an overstuffed tamale.
Sheila thought, "What's that word again? Carapace. Physicians call a belly overhang like that a carapace." She felt along the elastic waistline of her shorts, noting that it was tighter than she liked. Frannie always told her not to wear clothing without a sewed-on waistline. Elastic allowed inches to creep up with no notice. At least she didn't have a carapace.
A second yellow kayak zoomed into the sand with the thrust of a strong, sure paddler. Out popped a lithe, dark-headed woman. She wore a red exercise bra and tiny shorts. Her abs rippled. Her face was lined by the sun. Her glossy hair was pulled back into a pony tail, and she was laughing loudly in a deep, rich contralto.
She hesitated a moment after jumping from her kayak. Reaching toward the inclined beach with her paddle, the woman scooped a five-foot rattlesnake, which dangled in a length of glistening, twisting shades of brown. It hissed and rattled. Sheila gasped, rooted to her chair with panic; the fat woman, well out of harm's way, waddled like a rolling wave for the upper beach.
With the paddle held at arm's length, the dark-haired woman calmly strode ten yards to the bushes to her right and shook the paddle. The snake wriggled off in a flash of brown.
Why hadn't she bashed it? Why had she picked it up? Sheila was too speechless to cry out or call to her.
The third kayak, blue, pulled in at a measured pace. A tall man jumped out. Sheila hesitantly approached the group, glancing with metronomic regularity at the bushes.
"Elaine, are you harassing the wildlife again?" the man called out. Sheila recognized that husky voice: Jack!
"Nah, just protecting him," Elaine deadpanned.
Catching sight of Sheila, Jack said, "Hey! Twice in one day is twice the good fortune."
Her heart pounding--the snake or the man or both?-- Sheila nodded and gave him a tight smile.
Jack introduced Sheila to the fat woman, Terry Edginton, and to her fit companion, Elaine Bianca. Sheila took the initiative to reach out to shake hands with both although she really didn't want to touch Elaine whose paddle had touched a snake. Terry's hand felt slippery with sweat. Elaine's firm grip crushed Sheila's pudgy fingers.
Sometimes, she remembered, the damsel in distress routine had worked for women she knew. "Jack, you won't believe what happened to me. Look at my kayak." She opened her eyes widely, and pointed in the direction of her car.
The three gathered around her car, exclaiming over the arrow protruding from the kayak's side, as Sheila glossed over the wild ride to Santa Paula, describing the bald, driver and the pony-tailed attacker. In the second telling, she tried to inject some humor.
"I would have shot the bastard," said Elaine as if she carried a shotgun in her truck. "What did the police say?"
"I didn't call them. I didn't even get the truck's license number. Dumb, I know."
"Yeah, dumb," said Elaine. Terry just listened.
"Only in LA," said Jack. "Listen, down the road near the boat rental, there's a boat repair. Let me go with you, and we'll see what they say about the damage. You drive."
"Bye, ladies! See you next week." He waved to Terry and Elaine as Elaine popped the kayak over her head to load it onto her Beamer. Sheila waved too as she hopped into her car. Jack settled into the passenger's seat, adjusting it to accommodate his long legs.
"I'll toss this in the back, okay?" Jack asked, the Macy's bag in his hands. Sheila felt a double wave of guilt.
They bumped along the uneven pavement to the boat shop. Suddenly, neither could think of a thing to say, and Sheila blushed.
The proprietor, who looked more like a librarian than a boat mechanic, met them at the door, chortling over the state of Sheila's kayak. He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and polished them.
"By golly, that's the first time I've seen something like that," he said, rubbing his eyes under his glasses as if he didn't believe what he saw. He was short for a man and skinny like a rat's tail. "Were you doing one of those war reenactments or something?"
"No, sir. I was just driving along the freeway and some freaks decided to give me a hard time. I guess you could say they had the last word."
"Well," he scratched his chin and took off his glasses again. "It'll cost to repair the side of that, but it will be good as new once I finish. Say $200 and ready by two weeks from Saturday?"
Sheila agreed to the terms and watched the men unstrap her kayak to move it indoors.
She turned to Jack, widening her eyes and fluffing at her hair. "Can you believe it, Jack? Just when I discover local kayaking, mine is wrecked."
He reached out and held her shoulder in his wide hand. "No sweat, Sheila. I've got an extra boat or two at the house. You can come by any time and pick them up or bring Jansson. Or else when I go to Tim's this weekend, I'll haul one over for you."
She looked up at him, and liked what she saw. Jansson didn't have a jealous bone in his body, that she knew of. Maybe she could find one.