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Nick Holmberg

Nick Holmberg

Nick has lived, learned, taught, and traveled in major metropolitan areas on both sides of the Pacific. These experiences inform the unique perspectives from which he writes.

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If Toil & Sound hits 250 pre-orders by Tuesday 15 May 2018 4 P.M. UTC, then it will be queried to 48 independent publishers when the campaign ends. How it works

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Toil & Sound

-- the revisionist

It's mid-1990s Silicon Valley. 19-year-old Kat has lost her entire family. She confronts an identity crisis unique to that era. Social media algorithms cannot define her—but her family mythology might.

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Manuscript

Literary Fiction Coming-of-Age, Family Saga
84,000 words
100% complete
Houston, Texas
3 publishers interested

Synopsis

 

The novel begins in the mid-1990s with the aftermath of Kat (the 19-year-old narrator native to San Jose, California) losing track of her lifelong friend, Alma. Though Kat suspects Alma's boyfriend is the reason for the disappearance, Kat begins to wonder if her own actions over the course of their lives have driven Alma away. 

Kat then goes to New York City to find Oso, the only other person who can reunite her with her past. Over the course of a year—and many hesitations to actually meet with Oso—, she tells her life story to two different people, interlacing personalities and histories that are not necessarily her own.

Be assured, however, this is not another New York City novel—the last thing this world needs. Kat’s narrative is set in places like the shores of Oakland after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Depression-era farming communities of California’s Central Valley. Most of the Kat’s story of her own up-bringing takes place in and around the south Bay Area, nearby coastal areas, and San Francisco.

This is the first of a two-part series that explores the very nature of identity formation before the internet era changed it forever.

Outline

***CAUTION: Spoilers***

Throughout most of the novel, Kat is telling her stories to Lilly. Each subchapter reveals a new story pertaining to Kat's past.

The opening section is outside the chapter structure. It starts at the end [September 1997]*, indicating that Kat is about to leave Lilly after a year together. But how does it come to that?

*bracketed info indicates the year(s) being discussed in subchapters & main events of given chapter. They are for outline purposes only. Also, chapters and subchapters in the final product, should not be numbered or named. This is, after all, an oral history.

Chapter 1 [Kat’s first week in NYC; Alma’s Disappearance]

i. [early September 1996]: We learn of Kat’s first time having sex with a man (Berlin) in a hostel on 103rd and Amsterdam; Berlin leaves, and Kat reflects on her reason for being in NYC. We get an indication of Kat’s bookishness.

ii. [late August 1996]: Berlin (Desert Storm vet) introduces himself to Kat in New York City’s Bryant Park. In turn, we get an idea of Kat’s self-consciousness about her looks, the way she talks, and the fact that she has struggled to tell her own story.

iii. [early August 1996]: There is a party for Alma (Kat’s best friend) thrown by Alma’s boyfriend, Loskie. In the middle of the events at the party, we learn of Kat’s summer fling. Loskie threatens the two young women. Alma helps Kat escape. Alma disappears and cannot be contacted.

Chapter 2 [Jose’s History; Kat’s Early Life]

i. [early September 1996]: Kat’s accidental tourism with Berlin at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan, which reveals aspects of Kat’s relationship with her father (Jose) and his influence on Kat’s personal narrative.

ii. [1945-1976]: Jose’s story up to the point when Kat is born (indicating the influence of Jose’s penchant for myth-making). Young Jose migrates from Bakersfield north to the Central Valley of Northern California. He meets Clara. They have Oso. Jose and his family move to downtown San Jose. Kat is born.

iii. [1977-1979] Clara becomes Alma’s nanny. Description of growing up in downtown San Jose with an almost non-existent father (who wanders the streets when he’s not working), an unpredictable older brother (who terrorizes the little girls and his mother, Clara), and Clara (who tries to keep Kat and Alma safe).

iv. [1979] Oso starts kindergarten; questions arise about why Kat is telling her story and how she can include the type of detail she can about her first few years of life.

v. [1980-1983] We learn of bus trips which Clara would take Kat and Alma over to the beaches of Santa Cruz, north of Steamer Lane surfing spot. There emerges an early indication of Kat’s lack of confidence.

Chapter 3 [Moving toward Peace (A Year With Grandpa Jonah)]

i. [1984; 1906-1938] Granddad Jonah comes to live in their 2-bedroom apartment. We learn his life story, starting on the banks of Oakland in the days following the San Francisco earthquake. Eventually he marries Irene, and they move to the Central Valley, where Jonah buys land to start a small vineyard. They raise a large family.

ii. [December 1984] There is a fight between Clara and Jose during the Christmas holiday week. Jonah somehow brings Jose to his senses. A time of peace ensues between Jose and Clara.

iii. [December 1984] There is a horrifying set of events at Alma’s grandparents’ large house in the Santa Cruz mountains. To Lilly’s disbelief, Kat says that Clara blackmailed Alma’s parents into having Alma come live with her family. Now there are six people in a two-bedroom above 3rd and Santa Clara streets.

 iv. [March 1997] Kat recovers from a panic attack brought on by revelations about Alma.

v. [1985] There is a period of peace. Oso wanders the streets for hours, days at a time; Clara, Jose, and Jonah start a nightly ritual of drinking wine after the kids have gone to bed.

vi. [1985] Jonah dies. Consequently, the peace shatters.

Chapter 4 [An Expanded History (Clara’s Story & Jonah’s Cowardice)]

i. [1985; 1938-1967] Summoning the spirit of Jonah in order to continue trying to answer questions about her own identity, Kat tells of Clara growing up in the Central Valley and a close relationship with a sister named May. Clara stays on the vineyard well into adulthood. We learn of the threat of buyout by a large winemaker. The subchapter ends with an argument between Kat and Lilly regarding Jonah’s cowardly content of character.

ii. [1985; 1967-1973] More from Jonah’s life: of Irene’s downward spiral toward death, of selling the vineyard to the large winemaker, of staying on the same land to raise the winemaker’s crops, of May’s death in Costa Rica, of Clara’s possible disdain for Jonah’s cowardice.

Chapter 5 [A Return to Chaos: The Aftermath of Jonah’s Death (Clara’s Disappearance)]

i. [1985-1986] Details about the aftermath of Jonah’s death: Jose wandering the streets, Oso looking for him at all hours, Alma caring for the grief-stricken Clara. Oso drags Jose back to the apartment, and a fight ensues, Oso beating Jose into a pulp.

ii. [1987-1989] More of the aftermath of Jonah’s death: Oso starts to sleepwalk, Clara never returning to her role as the protector.

iii. [1990] Details of infrequent trips with Clara and Alma on the train to San Francisco and subsequent wandering of the neighborhoods.

iv. [1990] Jose beats Clara and Clara’s subsequent disappearance during a trip that took them to the cliffs above the Golden Gate Bridge on the grounds of the Presidio.

v. [1990] More details of the day Clara disappeared.

Chapter 6 [Chaos: the New Normal (Jose’s Death)]

i. [1990] More on the aftermath of Clara’s disappearance: the investigation into Jose’s possible involvement, the involvement of Child Services.

ii. [1990] Oso takes charge of the family after Clara’s disappearance, as Jose becomes even less reliable, a brief characterization of the girls’ time at school (mostly middle school).

iii. [1990] There is an incident at school involving class and race with a rich girl named Marlene, with whom there is eventually a physical confrontation.

iv. [1990] During her suspension, we see Kat and Jose’s relationship continue to thaw as she learns a more detailed story of Jose’s childhood in Bakersfield and eventual meeting of Clara.

v. [1991-1994] We get context for Oso’s involvement in various protests, most surrounding the treatment of the homeless, as big tech money starts to move into the Silicon Valley. Jose’s continued warming of his relationship with Kat; the four seem like a cohesive family unit

vi. [1994] There is a violent altercation between Jose and a homeless man.

vii. [1993-1994] Kat and Alma’s isolation continues in high school; Alma’s sketching & Kat’s continued despondency; Jose disappears again after Alma says something to him.

viii. [1994] Kat talks about her guilt for not going to look for Jose.

ix. [1994] Alma implicates herself in Clara’s disappearance; Alma looks for Jose, eventually, finding him at the church; he stays the night there. He dies overnight. Roles suddenly shift, as Alma becomes despondent with guilt, Oso starts sleepwalking, and Kat becomes the one to try and keep the family together.

Chapter 7 [Cling to Someone: Kat and Alma Move toward Adulthood]

i. [1994]  Enter Loskie, his dating of Alma, Kat’s tagging along with them at parties. Oso leaves SJ for a job in Yosemite; Kat’s guilt about not trying to dissuade him.

ii.  [1997] A brief interlude about faith and doubt.

iii. [1995-1996] During the summer and academic year after high school graduation, Kat gets a job, takes a couple classes at the university, and finds a new place to live in downtown SJ. Alma moves to Santa Cruz with Loskie; a few months later, Alma shows up at Kat’s apartment after a fight with Loskie. Kat cares for Alma in her despair. Loskie finds Alma; Loskie moves in; an Alma DUI accident; Kat moves out.

Chapter 8 [Connection & Reconnection: Kat Meets Oso’s Girlfriend & Reunites Briefly With Oso]

i. [July 1997] Kat finally goes to Oso’s apartment at 164th and Amsterdam. At the studio apartment, she is greeted by Camille, a recent sociology undergraduate; she tells Kat what Oso has been up to in the last year and a half, which essentially amounts to being an activist for homeless folks in the Lower East Side.

ii. [July 1997] Kat continues to tell about her visit with Camille. Camille tells about meeting Oso while researching a paper; they finally move in together in Washington Heights; there is a conflict of ideas, a break-up, a reunion, and Camille’s pregnancy.

iii. [1994] Kat tells of Oso’s rendering of Kat’s birth on a sidewalk.

iv. [August 1997] Kat tells of finally meeting up with Oso. 

Audience

ages 19-55

While there are elements of fiction in the novel that adult readers of all ages will appreciate, my target audiences are Gen X-ers, Millennials, and older Gen Z-ers. These demographic groups read far more than any other adult demographic (Pew Research Center). Having said that, there is a case to be made for gearing the marketing of my book toward women simply because they read more than men (Penguin-Random House). Most importantly, regardless of gender, these generations--given the time in social and cultural history in which they have lived--would be particularly interested in the theme of identity, a topic so frequently a part of modern public, as well as literary, discourse. 

It is worth noting that several successful contemporary books about identity (e.g. Ko’s The Leavers and Bulawayo’s We Need New Names) were simply designated as “Adult Fiction” even though they share many characteristics of "New Adult." The reason for this is likely that books marketed as "Adult Fiction" sell far more than other genres; also, "New Adult" often is linked to explicit sexual and romantic content, aspects that are not the focus of Ko's, Bulawayo's, or my work. Though there may be an advantage to simultaneously marketing a book in two different genres, my novel would be most appropriate if sold as “Adult Fiction."

Author

It could be said that Nick's entire life has been lived to write this book.

While growing up in the Central Valley of California, he spent a fair bit of time in what is now known as the Silicon Valley; it was the first major American city that he was steeped in. Santa Clara Valley—and its nearby mountains and ocean—captured his imagination long before the advent of the internet era. The people’s history of the bygone agrarian and canning industries in the area intrigued him so much that he ended up moving there in 1995 for undergrad at SJSU—just north of Steinbeck Country. Nick read various world literatures with guidance from a wide variety of scholars, but studying Steinbeck—a master of empathy—under Susan Shillinglaw was key to his development as a student and a writer of fiction.

Though it was in San Jose that Nick explored and observed his first adult influences in literature, art, music, and diversity, it was a gap semester at the age of 20 that informed his writing in a way university could not. He traveled solo for the first time, surviving on about $2,000 in busser/waiter cash and meeting people from all over the world; writing in earnest over those two months; staying in hostels; and traveling by bus and train. Ultimately, he produced what would later become material for the now-completed second volume: Toil & Sound—the re-placement.

Before he moved to New York City in 2003 to pursue an M.A. in literature and creative writing, Nick wrote his first successful short story. It was part of his application to CCNY and was a short story that tested the bounds of his empathy. Someone whom he was close with at the time was attempting to figure out issues related to sexuality. He processed this by writing from a perspective that, in some ways, resembled this person's perspective. What he wrote for his CCNY application morphed into what now exists as part three of chapter one in volume one: the forthcoming Toil & Sound—the re-visionist.

If Nick's social consciousness was still in a somewhat nascent stage when he moved to New York City, living for a year in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan opened his eyes. It gave him a real sense (however limited) of being an outsider: he may have been the only white person in a half mile radius. This and other cultural experiences in NYC entwined fortuitously with his courses. And these factors dramatically affected creative choices he made in Toil & Sound. He studied in depth the work of the South American and Caribbean magic realists; beyond the early slave narratives, he dove deep into the African-American canon.

Nick moved to South Korea in 2006. Among other things, he was fortunate to find new experiences and people. His lifestyle also allowed him the solitude needed to write. He expanded his book ideas over the course of four and a half years; he completed the first draft of his two novels. Since then, he has continued to read widely and write online about intercultural and social issues.

Promotion

Since I started putting my campaign together in October 2017, I have been engaging my social media friends (Facebook friends = 500+) in order to build awareness of the project. But, given the current uncertain future of Facebook, I have also diversified my strategy by using Twitter, Linked-In, YouTube, and good old-fashioned email. Goodreads has been another great way to see what books people are reading and to engage these people in conversations. 

For several months now, I have drawn attention to my archives from 12 years of online writing through my most recent writing. Currently, I am sharing more about myself as a writer, a reader, and a first-time book promoter. This platform specifically has helped me establish myself as a serious writer among the potential readers in my general internet orbit. I will continue to maintain this page with new content as I navigate the modern publishing world. Incidentally, I am currently in the early development phases with a colleague in order to update my author website.

Given that I have a background in literature and a fondness for the art of conversation about the social contexts in which books live, I have included virtual and in-person sit-downs in certain packages of my campaign. To that same promotional end, I plan to do readings and signings in several of the metropolitan areas I have lived and therefore have readers: San Jose, New York, Chicago, and Houston. The fans in each of these cities also will act as my regional promotional ambassadors.

Finally, I have maintained relationships with several published writers who could write promotional blurbs for the book.

Competition

We Need New Names (Regan Arthur Books, 2013) by NoViolet Bulawayo

Told from the perspective of an adolescent girl from Zimbabwe who eventually comes to America, We Need New Names is a coming-of-age story for this era of hyper-globalization. While I do not deal with the effects of moving across the world in Toil & Sound, I examine comparable neither-nor identity issues. Though in a much different practical approach, I use a similar narrative structure as Bulawayo that includes short sub-chapters with a voice that may or may not not be attributed to one individual.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2007) by Junot Díaz

This is the story of a bookish, lonely, over-weight Dominican teenager in urban New Jersey. Díaz looks at the revolutionary actions against the Dominican dictator Trujillo and the resulting curses on Oscar Wao’s family due to their involvement in that revolution. The scope of Toil & Sound contains several brief historical accounts, but it does not deal in depth with any particular one like Oscar Wao does. However, the use of history to extend themes like love and isolation are resonant in both books.

The Vegetarian (Portobello Books, 2015) by Han Kang

Kang takes the reader on an exploration of the physical, emotional, and familial consequences of what amounts to the main character Young-hye’s act of revolution against the mores of Korean society. Young-hye makes a decision to completely alter her lifestyle based on a violent dream she has. Similarly, my main character, Kat, may or may not be influenced by often disturbing visions. Unlike Kang, I more closely examine how a person's upbringing may influence the actions she takes while growing up and how that influences her coming-of-age at 19 years old.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Harper & Row, 1970) by Gabriel García Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a sweeping family saga that follows seven generations of the Buendía family in Columbia. The novel blends history and myth in a way that indicates a unique reality of many Latin-American cultures in which magical realism genre originated. Though not nearly as broad in scope or disorienting in presentation, Toil & Sound contains some structural and thematic magical realist elements present in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that forever changed Latin-American literature and holds sway in the multicultural literature of America today.

East of Eden (The Viking Press, 1952) by John Steinbeck

In John Steinbeck’s opus, we are told a family saga of the intertwining stories of two families (the Hamiltons and the Trasks) in the Salinas Valley; I also use the Northern California agrarian scene of the 1930s-1950s Central Valley as a backdrop to tell how two characters’ families meet. Steinbeck uses Biblical lore and actual family history to explore the theme of free will. Conversely, organized religion plays a minor role as a foil against which I examine the consequences of action and inaction.

Sample

Chapter 1, part iii.

I stood at the intersection waiting to cross. In a way it never had before, it struck me how quickly the scenery changes. On the west side of the university campus, the new business towers in downtown proper were interspersed with the cranes that were raising even newer high-rises—or razing old ones. Then I crossed 10th and San Carlos; there stood an assortment of turn-of-the-century Victorians and square thirty year-old apartment complexes, all in various states of disrepair.  As the evening rush hour traffic bottle-necked along the old suburb road at 12th and San Salvador, I remember noticing the breeze on my stubbly scalp.

From the little white house across the street, a long guitar solo danced and mingled with the sound of grinding gears and idling engines.  The odor of charcoal and lighter fluid mingled with the vapors from the traffic that passed in front of me.

Alma sat on the front steps in her navy blue tank top, loose blue jeans, black Doc Martens.  Her shoulder-length, platinum hair caught the light of the late-summer afternoon sun.  She was talking with a young woman in a pale sundress.  After I crossed the street, I heard a bike bell and jumped out of the way of a young little dirty-blonde hellion.  She’d come careening around the corner, riding through some well-worn tracks on the corner of the lawn of Alma’s rented corner house. With her own sundress flapping behind her, she laughed a wicked laugh as she tore off down the sidewalk. 

“Alexis!” yelled the woman.  She started running after the little girl on the trike.  She stopped briefly and yelled to me, “Sorry.”  I waved and smiled.  The woman turned around again, grumbled, and ran off to catch Alexis.

“That her mom?”  I asked Alma.

“Yeah,” Alma responded, still watching the pursuit.  “Name’s Autumn.  Nice lady.  She’s moving in a couple days to be with her sick grandfather.  I wish I could adopt that kid.”

“It’d never happen.”

“Jesus, Kat.  I know.”

“New hair,” I said.

Alma smiled a little.  Only after I kissed her on the cheek did she say, “Yeah.  Bored.  And anxious for school to start.  Besides, that other shade was so drab and dirty-looking.  Thought I’d brighten things up a bit.”

“It worked,” I said as I sat down next to her.  I asked, “Whaddya doing out here?”

“Place is crawling with people.  And Loskie.”  Her face twisted.  She lit a cigarette.  “The way he’s been lately has really made me wonder if he’s always treated me like this.”

I opened my mouth, took a quick breath, and pressed my lips together.

Alma continued, “He keeps sending me to the corner store for something he forgot.  I must’ve gone five or six times today—beer, wine, wine-opener, ice, garlic.  Every time I come back with one thing, he sends me back for something else.  Just fifteen minutes ago he told me to go get him another bottle of Jack.  So, I’ve been sitting out here ever since.”  She paused.  Then she said, “Enough of my fucking drama.  Where’ve you been all summer?  Why didn’t you drive?”

“In this traffic? I don’t think I would’ve driven even if I still had the car.” 

“You sold the ’66?” she gasped.  “What the hell?  You loved that thing.”

“Yeah,” I paused. “I just couldn’t afford it anymore.” 

As I grabbed Alma’s cigarette and took a long drag, I could feel her eyes follow me.  She turned her head quickly when I handed it back and asked, “So where’d you go?”

I hesitated and said, “Traveled a little up and down the coast, spent time in San Francisco.  I wanted to go to New York City, but I just couldn’t afford the time.  It’d be tough to find a job, but I still want to live there.”

“I don’t understand your fascination with that city,” Alma said.  “You must have some kind of self-loathing that makes you want live alone among the filth of all those people.”

“I’m not really sure how much different people’s filth is here in downtown San Ho. Anyway, I guess Oso’s living in NYC now.”

“Oso? Really?” Alma said.  “I didn’t know he turned up again.”

“Yeah.  His girlfriend’s card found me.”

“Oh, that must have been the card I forwarded to you after it came here.”

“Yeah. Thanks. His girlfriend invited me to visit. I guess Oso’s decided to stay put. At least for now.”

Alma looked at me sideways, “Does that mean you have to live there?”

I took another drag off her cigarette, “You’ve never even been to New York.”

“Neither have you. Why the hell would I want to go there anyway?  I can hardly stand San Jose’s filth,” Alma said.  She took a long drag and breathed smoke loudly. “Would you believe I haven’t left town once?  Pathetic use of summertime, really.  All I wanted was to get out of this city, away from people.  I didn’t even make it over the hill for a quick swim.  Instead, I got busted.”

“Jesus, Alma,” I groaned as I looked at her wide-eyed.  “Again?”

“Yeah,” Alma said, hanging her head. “Just after you moved.”

“What happened?”

Just then, we heard a man’s voice above the din of the music, “Yaaaa, muthafucka!”

“Long story short,” Alma responded with a sigh.  “All I had was two shots and a beer down at the bar.  It’s not like I was drunk.”

“They’re never gonna let you drive again.”

Alma continued, “I just got out of jail. Ten days.  That’s why Loskie’s throwing this party.  But let me tell you, to spend that same night in the tank should have counted for four days in jail.  The drunk-tank was worse than jail.  The ladies in jail were nice, nice because at least they had clean clothes and warm food.  In the tank, they were stinky and dirty and mean from their oncoming hangovers.  It seemed more like ten months or ten years or something like that.” 

Again, the man’s voice from the backyard pierced the music, “Haaaaa!  Yer goddamn right!” 

I rolled my eyes and said, “Well.  I guess since we’re here at this shindig for you, we should go in.” 

“Sure,” Alma said as she pressed the tip of her cigarette into the brick steps. “They’re all his friends, though.  Nobody really knows me.”

We watched the traffic inch along in front of us.  As we finished another cigarette, we heard the screams of a little girl.  Around the corner came Autumn carrying the trike and the kicking, screaming Alexis.  She threw the trike on the lawn.  As mother and daughter went up the steps to the house, Autumn shrugged her shoulders and smiled at us.  Alma and I laughed.  Then Alexis bit Autumn on her tit.  Autumn yelped.  They disappeared into the house.

In the small living room, we made our way around three folding chairs huddled around a makeshift coffee table—a plywood plank laid across two empty blue milk crates—and a small TV set with a built-in VCR on yet another milk crate.  The doors had holes in them.  House was full of only the music and yelling from the backyard.   

“Walls are bare,” I said, looking around at the white walls that were adorned only with scuffed black smudges.  Some of boot soles, but mostly of handprints.

“Yeah,” Alma said after a sigh.  “The sketches came down when you left.  But I won’t let Loskie put his stuff up.  Boobs and airplanes covered the walls.  He’s still that big kid, really.  He really wanted to fly.” 

“Jesus. Can you imagine him at Top Gun?  ‘That’s right, Ice…man.  I am dangerous.’” 

We laughed and walked into the kitchen where the back door was open and noise became louder.  Barbecue smoke rolled inside in slow, regular waves as we sat down at the table.  The music ceased abruptly.  The yelling outside wound down to a murmur as the room continued to fill with smoke.  I bumped the kitchen table and knocked over an empty beer can as I opened a window.  When I sat back down, Alma and I exchanged a brief glance.  She suddenly stood up and got a couple of Keystones from the fridge.  She popped the tops and gave one to me.  We both took long swigs from the silver aluminum.  

“So, where exactly did you go this summer?” Alma asked.

“Did some traveling before I sold my car,” I said, breathing in a cloud of smoke.  As claustrophobia began to set in, I didn’t feel like I could tell Alma about Thalia yet. But I’ll give you the gist right now. 

When I saw Thalia walking through campus a few months before, the students were swarming around me as I was trying to make it to a poetry class.  Spring dangled summer break with six weeks still to go in the semester.  California spring.  Warm tree and flower blossom scents mingle with the pollens: a sweet muskiness.  Futile efforts to learn in stifling classrooms.  Young men and women scantily clad to get sun on their pale limbs, to attract a good lay.  Spring is sex.  The weather mocks the squirming students in their tight halter-tops and rigid jean shorts.  A spring semester student’s conundrum: surrender to lust’s pull and tug or quench knowledge’s thirst.

School, though, has always been different for me.  Outside of work, I spend my time reading whatever I can get my hands on and taking a class here and there.  And I draw ears.  Yes, ears.  Since I was really young.  Not detailed studies of the hands or the ass or the eyes.  Ears fill in every corner of my sketchpads.  Alma’s ears are much better.  Mine are mutilated.  So I won’t show you.  Alma’s way better than me.  Now, I’m trying to draw buildings.  Buildings with no people. 

Anyway, on that Spring day—shortly after I moved out of the small house where Alma and Loskie remained and into my own little studio—I first saw Thalia.  When her ears sparkled in the sunlight—loaded down with studs and hoops—I walked right on past my classroom, pursuing Thalia off campus and up San Carlos Street, across the light rail tracks, past Plaza de César Chávez, the new business towers and old and new hotels and the almost-finished tech museum stood and watched me.  I followed Thalia over the railroad tracks and into The Relics—a rundown, two-block district of pawnshops and secondhand stores and a pizza joint called Pizza Jacques.  When Thalia went into one of the shops, I followed her. 

 “Wow,” I said after a few minutes of browsing.  “This is quite a shop you have here.  It’s not like the others.”

“Well,” Thalia said as she looked up from behind the cash register.  “I don’t understand how those guys stay in business selling useless crap.  So I try to appeal to those who have a little more taste.”

“I think you have a good idea here,” I said.  “It just amazes me that The Relics are still here, that they haven’t been torn down to make room for condos.”

Thalia laughed, “People will always have a fetish for crap they can’t or won’t use.  People like clutter.  And they’ll always appreciate a break from the madness of crowds.  I think there’s something special about haggling with the shopkeepers over the price of a lamp.  The tech revolution is a coup that will fail.  Consumers like to touch and taste and smell before they buy.  Who, after all, would buy a pinot online rather than taking a day trip up to Napa or Sonoma for an actual tasting in the cool confines of a mountainside tasting room?  I mean, if you’re making a salad, do you want other people choosing your lettuce for you?  Do you want someone else to give you their idea of what constitutes a good tomato?”

I stifled a giggle and said, “Well, I guess you’ve got it all figured.”

She blushed, “Sorry ‘bout that. I spent a lot of time thinking about these things before opening this place.  Is there something I can help you with?”

“Not really,” I responded and then paused.  And then, “I saw you walking through campus and wondered if you’d model for some sketching.”

Again, she flushed, “Me?  What’s so art-worthy about me?”

That night, we met in the shitty little dive bar—the Cavalcade, the Cav; the only bar I could go and not get carded--down by the Greyhound bus station and talked, little of it having to do with my sketches.  Would it bother you if I told you I went home with Thalia?  Okay, good.  Well, when we woke late that morning, we saw her car on the lawn across the street.  It had a few scrapes and a busted headlight from the small tree she had apparently nudged just enough to take it up by its roots.  In a flurry of laughter, we got away quickly and drove to my apartment for my car.  We went up the coast to San Francisco so we could watch a parade in The Castro. 

Yes, one of those kinds of parades.

Throughout the summer, we drove back and forth on the scenic Highway 1 to San Francisco in my green ’66 Pontiac Bonneville with the ragtop down.  We stopped frequently so Thalia could go for a swim in the Pacific or we would get in the backseat and get naked together.  When Thalia and I broke up, I had to get rid of all superfluity: eating at restaurants, gas and upkeep for the old ’66; shopping in Santa Cruz, coffee in Davenport, or driving into Pescadero to Duarte’s and thawing Thalia out with artichoke soup after her swims.  Too much time in San Francisco.  No more art books from City Lights, or dinner and bars in The Castro.  Besides, the job I had in downtown San Jose really made a car unnecessary. I could’ve done without eateries, shops, new books.  Really could’ve done without San Francisco all together.  But I should never have gotten rid of the car.  Only after I sold it to help cover the rent on my little studio apartment did I realize what I’d given up. 

Even though the car was mine, I’d felt that the only way to escape the memories of Thalia was to get rid of all the reminders.  Reminders of the places in between.  In between the cities.  All those lazy drives to the city.  Once, as I drove, Thalia caressed my neck with kisses.  Underneath my long skirt, Thalia’s hand traced circles up my inner thigh until her sweet touch met my nothing.  I pulled to the side of the highway after I nearly wrecked the car. 

Wow.  Sorry. Sometimes I really do get carried away describing things. Feeling California...springtime, you know?  Did it make you uncomfortable? 

Okay.  I’ll stop asking.

I don’t think I loved Thalia, but I missed her after we broke up.  So, I tried sleeping in the back seat of the Pontiac for a while.  It was like some sort of self-torture. And, after a week or so of sleepless nights haunted by memories of Thalia, I sold the car.  Had Thalia and I not made love in that car so many times, I probably could have found a way, to keep it.

Silently, I relived the summer I spent with Thalia as I sat in the kitchen with Alma.  The smoke continued to flow into the kitchen.  A silence persisted and I shifted in my seat.  The walls were moving closer and closer and I looked around for a way out of the room.  Then I looked into Alma’s big, dark eyes. 

I smiled and said, “Sorry about that.”

“About what?”

“I was just spacing out for a second,” I said with a chuckle.  Then I lied, “I…I went up to Oregon and down to L.A.” 

Red and purple saturated the wood of a large cutting board.  I looked at a foil tent that sat atop a board.  Juice dripped into congealed fat and blood on the off-white Formica.

“Rare!” a man yelled, coming closer to the back door. “The only way to have it.  Sear the motherfucker super hot, trap those good flavors.”  A distant voice responded.  The man had stopped just outside the door. 

Alma grabbed up her copy of the Metro magazine and walked to the stove on the other side of the kitchen.  The distant voice continued to speak; I stared at Alma.

“Yeah,” the man squawked back, “I got two types and I won’t cook ‘em any other way.  What?  This is my house.  You don’t like the way I cook, don’t eat.  Hell.  More for me.  What?”

The distant voice asked another question.  Alma leafed quickly through the magazine, turned it over and started again, pretending to read about restaurants and upcoming shows in downtown.  I opened my mouth but didn’t say anything.

“Like I said,” the man shouted.  “There are two types of meat at my parties: blue and red.”  The man stumbled through the door, tripping over the threshold and spilling meat-juice and Jack Daniel’s on the light blue linoleum.  He was barefoot in jeans and a sweaty, barbeque-stained Hawaiian shirt.  With his blue eyes, he looked in silence at me as Alma stared at a page on the stovetop.  After a brief pause, Loskie said, “Speaking of rare. Holy shit,” he smiled crookedly at me.  “Where the hell’ve you been?”

“Away.”

Keeping hold of his tumbler, Loskie set the platter of steak down on the counter next to the foil tent and lurched toward me.  I stood up to get out of the room as he wrapped his arms around me.

“Well,” Loskie said, still holding me close. “We missed you.”

I stood still in the grip of the muscular man.  Finally, he released me.  He took a long drink and looked at his knife rack. 

“Goddammit,” he exploded.  Alma jumped, and I retreated to a corner.  He slammed his cup down on the countertop and went about opening and slamming every drawer in the kitchen. 

“What’s the matter, honey?” Alma asked in a whisper.

“I told you,” he said as he pulled out a chef’s knife from a narrow drawer. “I told you to put the fucking knives back where they belong or they’ll get dull.  You’re such a…” he trailed off and took a deep breath and faced Alma.  He went toward her.  But he embraced her and said, “I yuve you” and kissed her with a loud smack.  Alma stroked his cheek and looked up at him with a half smile.  I sat down again, keeping my eyes on the knife that was still in Loskie’s hand.

After taking another long swallow from his cup, Loskie took a sharpening steel out of the knife rack.  He paced the kitchen, running the long blade of the knife across the steel rod with surprising speed and precision.  Then he stopped pacing near the table where I sat and said, “Where’ve you been?”

I winced as he continued to scrape the steel together.  I said nothing.  The smoke had become even thicker in the room.  Loskie looked at me. Scrape. Scrape.

“What?” he said.  “Can’t talk?  Won’t talk, more like.  Always did think you were better than everyone else.”  He started hacking into the rarest meat.  I watched the steaming red juice flow over the side of the cutting board.  He shook his head, “Whatever.”  Then he turned to Alma.  “Why’s it that you still hang out with her?  She never says anything.”  He turned back to me, “Why’s it you never say anything?” 

I glanced back and forth between Loskie and Alma.

“Why’s it you never say anything?” Loskie repeated in a louder voice.

After I took the last swallow from my beer, I said, “I don’t need this shit.”  And I got up and started walking to the front door.

“Wait.  Don’t go.” Alma said as she hurried to my side.  “I have to talk to you.”  And, while she guided me toward the backyard, she said under her breath, “Don’t mind this bastard.”  We walked arm in arm toward the back door.

“What’dja say?”  Loskie said and stopped cutting.  We walked by him, I looked at him from the corner of my eye.  He turned his entire body as we went by, a long fork in one hand, the chef’s knife in the other.

“Nothing,” Alma said quietly.  “C’mon, Kat. ”

“That’s what I thought,” Loskie said loudly.  As we walked out to the backyard, Loskie shouted, “Hey!  I’m almost outta Jack.  Where’s my bottle?”

Alma didn’t answer.

Three brown men stood just outside the door, each wearing black shades, dark blue jeans, and perfectly ironed short sleeve navy-colored shirts. They stood next to the door and the keg of beer as if they were guarding both, staring and barely moving as we made our way past them. And more eyes stared at us.  Where’d Loskie get all these friends?  Well, down at The Cav, of course.  And all kinds. Mexicans. A few blacks. One Asian. A healthy dose of crackers. All townies like Loskie. And around the large yard of brown crabgrass and dirt were these groups of men—some fat, some muscular, all of them tattooed; I even recognized a few of them, but not enough to talk to them.  They were just drinkers from the Cav, a place I used to go to a lot.  It doesn’t matter.  They just stood around in their greasy white t-shirts with mechanic’s coveralls; some had unbuttoned their coveralls and folded them down to the waist.  A man standing next to a weight bench near the back edge of the yard stared at us as he took off his bright orange shirt.  On his broad chest was a large tattoo of an ancient map.  He produced a cigarette, lit it and lay down and lifted the barbell. Off in a corner, three small women with various facial piercings stared at us and sneered from the picnic table where they sat.

Then, music on the stereo started again and the groups went back to talking. Alma and I kicked up the dust of the dead grass as we sidestepped through the chattering and laughing mass of flesh.  We sat down in a corner of the yard opposite the scoffing women and lit our cigarettes.  The twilight was coming into the drab yard.  Yet, through the tall chain-link fence that bordered the yard, I could see plastic slides, jungle gyms, tricycles, bikes and the green grass in other people’s yards as they grabbed up the remaining sunlight.  From behind a tree in the yard of the house next door popped the neighbor hellion, Alexis. Clothed in nothing but her floral-print underpants and a coat of accumulated dirt from face to feet, she saw us and waved frantically with a full set of perfect baby teeth.  We waved back and, just as quickly as she had appeared, she disappeared into the house with a flurry of screams.

“That kid’s trouble,” chuckled Alma. 

After smoking half my cigarette I said, “So, three DUIs, huh?”

“Yeah.  Three times.  I don’t think they’ll ever let me drive again.  Those classes you drove me to—remember? every Tuesday for a year?—those should’ve been punishment enough.  But I don’t think they’ll even bother to think there’s hope for me now.  I’ll never even see my car again.  I had to sell it to pay the impound fees.  And now probation.  Can you believe I’m on probation just because I had a few drinks?”

“I don’t think it’s as simple as all that,” I said.  Then, “I can hardly get used to not having a car.  I definitely can’t imagine being in jail.  I would rather die than sit in jail, thinking about what I’ve done wrong.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.  I wouldn’t rather be dead,” Alma responded. “But I agree with you.  To spend life regretting a lapse of morality would be torture: playing over and over again the desperate situation that led to killing or stealing or raping or beating the crap out of someone, thinking of how that brief desperate time led to an eternal desperation.”

I frowned, “A ‘brief lapse?’  What a cop out.  That’s like saying the weather is the cause of being happy, melancholy, introverted, or homicidal.  Hopelessly Romantic of you, Alma.”

Alma shifted her weight to the other butt cheek, turned her head to me, and said, “But don’t you think there are things beyond our control that can affect our decisions, our moods?  I think our environment has a greater effect on our actions than you’re admitting, Kat.  I mean, think about it: if I wake up from a wonderful dream and decide it is going to be a great day, that doesn’t necessarily make it a reality because, if I walk out the door and the rain drenches me fifteen minutes’ walk from home, I sure as hell am going to be in a bad mood.”

“Bring a fuckin’ umbrella,” I said with a smile. “I think we have to be aware of how we’ll react in situations: either control an impulse or avoid the situation all together.”

Alma shifted yet again, now she sat up straight, now turning her knees toward me, “What are we supposed to do?  Live in a box where nothing can get in or out?  Wouldn’t you have to have some super-insight into yourself?  An almost religious impulse control?  You’d have to have foresight, some way to predict the weather.  Don’t you think you’re being a bit idealistic?”

“Hopelessly,” I paused. “Idealistic.”

We laughed as we watched the crowd shuffle on the dead grass toward the meat that Loskie was setting out.

After a few minutes, I asked, “Why’re you still living with him?” 

“I don’t know.  The cheap rent?”

I looked at Alma.

“Okay,” Alma said as she glanced at me.  “I know you’re thinking I’m full of shit right about now.”

“Yep.”

“Well, that’s why I asked you here.  I just don’t feel like I can do this on my own.  I feel totally trapped.  I’ve known I should get the hell out of here a long time ago; right around the time you moved out, actually.  But it really hit me when I was in jail last week.  The night I got busted again, I was out with Loskie, down at the bar.  When he was off playing pool, I started talking to this girl—I can’t remember her name for the life of me—and we got on the subject of traveling.  And she’d been all over the place.  She’d hiked the rainforests of Costa Rica and the deserts of the Australian Outback; she’d rafted down the Colorado and the Amazon; she’d even stayed with families in the Italian and Irish country sides.  I listened and wondered how she did it, how she got by and fed herself.  I mean, this girl’d grown up her whole life in San Francisco, but when she turned eighteen, she just took off.  Almost no money and only a few sets of clothes packed in her little backpack.  She said she just figured she could rely on the kindness of strangers, that they would help her out.  And over the course of her travels, she also learned to rely on the land.”

She paused, glanced at me, lit two more cigarettes, handed one to me, and continued.

“So anyway, I told her I thought she was full of shit.  She told me that I would be surprised at how willing people are to help a wanderer.  She said, ‘Experience is valuable currency,’ that people wanted to live vicariously through her by hearing about the places she’d been before and where she was going.  So, it all started to sound possible to me.  I was completely caught up in her story.  But as she told it, I hadn’t noticed that Loskie was standing nearby.  I told her I needed to get out of San Jose.  Then Loskie stepped between me and this girl and said ‘What the fuck?’ and grabbed my arm and dragged me outside.  The next thing I knew, he was in my face, all the time never letting go of my arm.  He just kept yelling at me, telling me that I couldn’t leave him, didn’t I love him after all the shit we’ve been through.  Well, long story short, a bouncer separated us, but not before I called Loskie a fucking bastard and backhanded him across the cheek.  Next thing I knew I was in my car and getting pulled over by the cops.  I’d run a stoplight.”

I frowned again and said, “I can’t believe he did that.  (Okay, maybe I can.)  So what the hell are you still doing here?  Why don’t you just leave?”

“Well, I think I was gonna ask that girl…oh, shit,” Alma rubbed her forehead.  “What was her name?  Well, anyhow.  I was gonna ask her if I could tag along with her for awhile, you know, like take that bus she was gonna catch the next day to go up to Crater Lake and camp and try and figure things out.”

I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. 

“I know, I know,” she said.  “Seems pretty stupid, right?  But this girl seemed like she would’ve gone for it.”

“Still, though.  I mean, you could’ve stayed with me.  That wouldn’t’ve been a problem.”

Alma shook her head slowly, “You don’t know how many times I picked up the phone.  But, then I’d get to thinking how I let Loskie come between you and me.”   

Geez.  You believe that, Lilly?  She was so afraid of what would happen.  I’ve known her for my whole life, done things…well, I’ll just leave it at that.  Anyway, Alma continued.

“And the day after, Loskie bailed me out of the drunk-tank, said he was sorry and I went home with him.  Things were okay.  But when I got convicted a month later, I went to county lockup and had a lot of time to think.  I thought about how I’ve been…” She stopped talking and swallowed hard.  Her eyes glistened as she looked at me.  Then, “And I thought a lot about you.  I figured, you had the car and you really don’t like your job.  But you got rid of the ’66.”  She paused again, faced forward, then continued, “I don’t know.  I just need to get out of here.  I really don’t care what it takes.”

There was a silence between us.  Again, Alexis appeared in the next yard beyond the chain link fence, now with nothing on but a smile.  But, her perfectly mischievous grin soon left her face; she shrieked and ran away, her little white butt offset by the rest of her dirty skin.

Finally, I said, “I guess that sometimes mending a broken spirit is more important than repairing a broken relationship.”

I could feel Alma looking at me as she again turned and said, “I don’t know how you come up with those perfect phrases. You’re amazing. The way you understand me is...is…I guess that’s why I know you’ll help me.”

I returned Alma’s gaze.

Suddenly, a loud voice asked, “What the hell’s goin’ on here?  You two really are dyking out, aren’t you?”  Loskie stood before us, smiling. “Just kidding. Hey, Kat.  Saw-ry you had tuh see that in the kitchen. Really. I don’ like it when we get like that.” He kissed Alma on the cheek with a loud smack.

I stayed quiet. 

He swayed from side to side, his half empty tumbler of whiskey in one hand, a platter of par-cooked flesh in the other.  He continued to stare at me with one eye shut.  Then he slurred, “So, quiet girl.  How d’you like yer meat?  Red ‘er blue?”

“I’m a vegetarian,” I responded looking at the other yard through the chain-link fence.

“Since when?” Alma asked.

I didn’t respond as I glared at Loskie out of the corner of my eye.  Then I looked past him.

“Well, there’s lots’a salad an’ corn.”

I glanced quickly at Loskie and then away again, saying, “Not really that hungry.”

For a few long moments, Loskie stared at me with his one open eye.  Finally, he said, “Why’re you even here then?”

In the brief silence that followed, my stomach gurgled. Then I turned to face Loskie directly.  As I stared, I opened my mouth. 

Before I could speak, Alma said, “To see me.”

Loskie stood there a little bit longer.  Swaying, his face contorted as he looked at Alma.  Then he turned around abruptly, spilling meat-juice on the dead crab grass.  While he staggered away, he mumbled into his tumbler, “Fuck it, then.  Fuckin’ hippie muff-diver.  In my fuckin’ house.”

Alma fumbled with the pack of cigarettes before she plucked two and gave one to me. Her hands trembled as she lit them.  Loskie sat with the three small women at the picnic table across the yard.  He had his hand over one eye, glaring in our direction.  I stared right back at that drunk bastard. The damn fool kept that hand over his eye while talking to the three women.  Shortly, the three women around him each got up in quick succession until finally he sat alone.  He glowered at Alma and me, slowly blinking his one eye.

I continued to look at Loskie. “What is his problem?” I asked.

“Tuh hell with him,” Alma whispered. “Who fucking cares? Let’s go inside.”

I sighed, “Why don’t we just get out of here?”

“Not yet.”

I pursed my lips and shook my head.  I followed Alma toward the back door through the remaining people at the party. 

“Hey!”  Loskie cried.  “Hey!  You fuckin’ dykes!  I’m talkin’ to you!”

We walked in the house.

“Hey!”  Loskie called again.  “Where the hell’s my booze?”

The door rattled when Alma pushed it shut.

When we got to her bedroom, Alma slid the bolt into place and stood there by the door.  The streetlamp lit the room. 

“I am so sick of this shit,” Alma murmured and then sniffled.  “All I’ve wanted to do since you got here is touch you.  All day.  Every day.  Everything I think, everything I say, everything I do is…is…”

When I took Alma in my arms, she began to weep.  More people arrived at Loskie’s party. The music and voices outside got louder and echoed throughout the house.  I held Alma in the yellow of the streetlamp.  As Alma convulsed with sobbing, I led her over to the bed where we lay down.  I stroked her cheek.  Her nose.  Her eyelids.  Her forehead.  Her ear. Her other ear.  Alma’s weeping finally subsided.  Aside from the din of music and chatter that filtered in from outside, there was silence in the bedroom.

Then I asked, “You awake? You okay?”

“Yeah,” Alma replied.  “Just thinking about what to do.”

“And?”

Alma sighed, “I don’t know.  I can’t even go back to Santa Cruz for school, either. I really want to finish school, too; but I don’t think I can get my grant money anymore. I’ve been thinking all day about the traveling you did this summer, but you sold your car.  So, in answer to your question, I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do.  I could go anywhere.  Anywhere but here.  Maybe north on Highway 1 until I find a place that I feel safe.  Wherever that might be.”

I said, “Why don’t you just leave right now?”

Alma sat up and lit two cigarettes, handed one to me and said, “I want to know if you want to go with me.”  Suddenly, the music outside stopped and only a few voices could be heard. Loskie shouted at a few people, asking them why they were leaving. 

I said, “All roads lead to…I just don’t know if I can do it.”

Alma put out her cigarette in an ashtray.  There were no more sounds from outside.  We sat on the bed in the silence, the darkness, the yellow streetlight.

Finally, I said. “But I always want to know that you’re okay.  So, I don’t know how that’s going to work.”

There was a thump somewhere in the house.  The back of Alma’s hand touched my cheek.  Then, she took both of my ears in her fingers and drew my face to her own and put her mouth to mine.  After a few moments, she pulled away, her fingers still grasping my ears.  We kissed again in full embrace.  After a few moments, she again pulled away, taking my hands in her own.

“Katherine,” she said.  “Let’s get out of here right now.”

“Where to?” I asked.

“Well, we can’t go driving.” Alma said with a little laugh.  “I don’t know.  Let’s just leave now.  We could take the bus to the coast and go camp on the beach; or we could go to San Francisco. And by the time Loskie comes back from wherever he is or comes out of whatever stupor he’s in, we’ll be long gone.  We’ll be all alone…together.”

The yellow streetlamp outside flickered. Alma’s eyes were wide.  Something rattled in the front of the house.

“What’re you saying?”

“I’m saying,” Alma replied. “That we should get out of this fucking town.  Together.  I don’t really want to go to San Francisco—to me it’s just another dirty city—but there’s a school up there that I could transfer to.  And you could find a job you like better.  We can stay there until I finish school and then get out of there, go see the world.  In the meantime, we’d feel safe in The Castro.  No more of this bullshit of living in this back-assward town, no more living in fear because we like each other, because we want to touch, we want to kiss, we want to…”

For a short while, we sat there in silence and the partial yellow light.

“I can’t do that,” I said flatly.  “I didn’t tell you this, but I still’ve never gone to Oregon or L.A.  I met a girl—Thalia—and spent a lot of the last few months in The Castro with her.  And I really don’t like it all that much. The fags and the dykes aren’t really accepting of people like me. They think people like me are cowards, indecisive at best. I don’t want to deal with that again.”

A siren wailed in the distance, came closer, then receded.  Silence ensued.  Someone coughed in the living room.

Finally, Alma said, “I thought we understood each other.  Don’t you like me?”

I squeezed Alma’s hands in my own and said, “Alma.  I love you.  I’ve known you my whole life and I am in love with you.  Have been for longer than I can remember.  But I don’t want the fact that I love a specific ‘type’ of person--you--to be the only definition of who I am.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s why I left Thalia: to her, all roads led to San Francisco, to The Castro, to all that it was supposed to represent.  We went on these mini-adventures up Highway 1 and it was all good fun until we ended up in The Castro.  Every time.  When I was there, I didn’t feel like an individual. Or part of a group, either.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  When I first started going there it was nice to be around so many people with what seemed to be a similar lifestyle.  But after a couple of weeks, I started to feel trapped, caught in a contradiction. In the Castro, you either like cock or pussy. It’s pretty much an either/or world--a hell of a lot more than you might think.

“Thalia was really no better. She thought she could convert me; according to Thalia, I should always be representing the ‘gay nation’ whether I was in or out of the Castro. That route—the way of the staunch, militant dyke—was what Thalia took. And it was so important to her that we attended every gay pride march or event that we spent more time in the city being activists than we spent being two people who liked each other.” 

At the time, I thought I knew what I was talking about, that I was standing up for something important, that I had to push Alma away in order to push her toward something real.  It was a sacrifice.  But now I think I sacrificed the wrong thing.  Anyway…

Alma replied, “I don’t really understand.  Isn’t this the very thing that we should stand up for?  Besides, this is us.  We should be together.  Like you said, we’ve known each other forever.  But, fine.  We don’t have to go there.  I just want to get out of here.”

“You have to do what you think is right.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does.  But I still don’t think I can do it.”

Except for Alma’s uneven breathing, it was silent.  Then she said, “You remember how we used to go to the beach with Clara?  That nude beach in Santa Cruz?  I never understood why you didn’t go out in the water with us.  But I was out beyond the breakers with Clara.  Even now, just sitting here, I can feel the raw power of the Pacific, the mist, the gray sky.  I remember looking at the shore from a hundred yards out and seeing you waiting at the edge of the water for us to come back.  But, when I was out there with Clara, I watched the waves go away instead of toward me, a new perspective.  I haven’t been there for a long time.  But right now, I want to be in the middle of all that with you, with you in the act of physical, spiritual strength.”

“But what about sharks?” I whispered.

Alma responded, “You have to keep your mind off all the unknown things that can occur out there.  Sure, with his bad eyesight, a shark might come to take a bite out of your ribs or legs, mistaking you for food.  And what about the cold, right?  You might cramp up so you won’t be able to swim ashore, dying a horrible, watery, salty death.”

“Are you still trying to persuade me?” I asked, chuckling.

“I’m just trying to point out that these unknowns can be controlled in two ways.  You can stay on the beach and watch, imagining what might—but probably won’t—happen.  Or, you can offer your mere physical existence for the opportunity to be a part of something much more enormous than yourself.”

“What’s that mean?  What’ve you been reading at school?”

“That has nothing to do with it.  What matters is that when I’m in the water, it is the only place I’m confident that I know enough about the factors that challenge my life; the only thing that can stop me is fear.  Fear can, at times, help with your logic, can even help you learn about yourself—asking why you are afraid of one thing or another.  But I think fear can lead to complacency.  I mean look at me.  Still in this.  Still in this, for lack of a better term, ‘relationship.’” 

I was silent.  Where did Alma get all that insight?  Hadn’t we lived our lives side by side?  I mean, I’ve read my fair share of books and I’ve never read anything with that kind of thinking in them.  How had she come to these conclusions? 

Listening?  Maybe.  Listening.

There was one more thump from somewhere in the house.

“Alma!”  Loskie’s screamed from the hallway.  “Where are you, Goddammit!  Where the fuck are you?”

Alma rushed to the window and opened it.  She pushed the screen out.

“C’mon,” Alma said to me in a whisper. “Get out the window.”

The door handle jiggled and Loskie shouted, “Open up, you fucking dyke!  I know you’re in there licking that bitch’s box.”  He banged on the door.

”Get out the window,” Alma repeated.

I climbed down. When I turned around, Alma was closing the window.

“What about you?” I said to Alma.  “C’mon.”

“No.  I’ll be okay.”  The banging on the door continued.  “I’ll call you later.”  I looked at her eyes.  To this day, the most willful I have ever seen.  And the window closed.

I turned and ran home.

How could I do that? 

The next day, around ten o’clock, I woke.  What’d I done?  I’ve been asking myself that question for weeks now.  I went to the phone and called, but there was no answer.  I left her there with a maniac pounding on the door, libel to kill her.  And I let her stay behind and face that alone?  I called again.  No answer.  Why didn’t I call the cops?  Had I helped bring about her death?  All this swirled in my head throughout the day as I wandered the apartment, going to the door about a hundred times to go looking for her.  But, I waited.  I called a couple more times and waited, trying to assure myself that I had done the right thing, that someone else would take the next step. 

That night, I called again.  Loskie answered, “Alma?” I hung up.  For the rest of the weekend, I forced myself to stay in, telling myself that I had to be around if Alma came by.  I confined myself from doing much of anything except smoking cigarettes while I waited for fitful sleep.  Or a knock at the door.  I called a few more times on Sunday.

Finally, long before I had to be at work that Monday, I decided to go by Alma’s house.  Maybe she was angry at me for abandoning her so easily; after all, she had not come by my place.  I had to make her understand that I really hadn’t left her, that I was just waiting for her to get herself out of the situation.  At the very least, I had to make sure she was okay.  I walked across the university campus.  Though still at a distance by California standards, fall was coming.  I could smell it in the cool pre-dawn air.

As I crossed the street and walked up to the house, I saw Loskie sprawled on his back at the top of the front steps.  Barefoot. Shirtless. His unbuttoned pants exposed his dark pubic hair.  An empty bottle of Jack lay on its side near his head.  He snored.  I stood there and realized his car was gone.  But that could mean anything.  Still, I wondered if Alma was on the lam with his car.  After a brief thought of kicking him in the ribs, I stepped over Loskie’s heaving, snoring frame.  I searched the house and the basement until I was satisfied that Alma—or her lifeless body—was not still there. 

When I again stepped over Loskie’s body, I noticed a cab was waiting outside the house next door.  The young mother, Autumn, was leaving her upstairs apartment with two large suitcases.  Somehow, she managed to wheel them both to the cab with her sleeping hellion, Alexis, on her shoulder.  While the cab driver helped put her bags into the trunk, Autumn turned to get in the car and spotted me. 

“Where’d Alma go?  I saw her leave earlier.”

I shook my head.

She shrugged and, with her weary free arm, she waved.  I didn’t even get a chance to wave before she got into the cab and pulled away.

I walked home. I still don’t know where Alma is. But I have learned, even after all the people who have gone away or disappeared from my life over the years, to believe that they are doing the right thing. I really hope she’s okay.  That she’s doing something good. But I know enough to realize that optimism and idealism aren’t the same thing.

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  • Erin Sherrill on April 15, 2018, 11:58 a.m.

    So excited for you, Nick!!!

  • Kyle Murdock on April 15, 2018, 3:55 p.m.

    You're the man! Looking forward to reading and sharing with friends.

  • jonathan Yap on April 15, 2018, 8:41 p.m.

    Youngdo-luminati!

  • Lynsey Miron on April 16, 2018, 4:08 p.m.

    so exciting to see this coming together - congrats friend!

  • Anne Kemp on April 16, 2018, 4:34 p.m.

    Go Nick! Making room in my bookshelf just for you!

  • Jeanne Anderson on April 16, 2018, 4:45 p.m.

    Big supporter - and I went with the option that aligned with my previously promised amount. Just make sure the $ goes to the best use you can, so if you want to hold onto 8 of the 10 books to gift elsewhere or whatever, I have no problems with that - just make sure I get 2!

  • Marta Holmberg on April 17, 2018, 4:04 a.m.

    Love you! Excited that you're following your dreams. <3

  • Coral Kline on April 17, 2018, 2:03 p.m.

    Can't wait! ❤

  • Jonathan Holmberg on April 17, 2018, 5:40 p.m.

    Looking forward to reading this!

  • Christine Northup on April 17, 2018, 6:48 p.m.

    You are an inspiration! Keep on writing... xo

  • Melissa London on April 18, 2018, 12:59 a.m.

    GET IT. Also "Be assured, however, this is not another New York City novel—the last thing this world needs. " Love you anyway.

  • Tara Serrato on April 18, 2018, 3:13 a.m.

    Brita’s family is my family and thank you for including me in the opportunity to participate in your journey as a writer. I wish you the very best and can’t wait to read.... and read many more to come.

  • Emily Padgett on April 18, 2018, 2:09 p.m.

    Stoked for this read and for your accomplishment! Cheers!

  • Erin Pitman on April 18, 2018, 2:27 p.m.

    Excited to read this, Nick. What an accomplishment!

  • Kimberly Halsey on April 18, 2018, 4:17 p.m.

    I'm so excited for you, Nick and can't wait to read this. I've ordered a couple of extra copies; one to donate to the library I currently work for and another for the Sycamore Public Library back in IL. Wishing you all the best. Hugs to you, Nic and Frank.

  • Beth Peters on April 18, 2018, 10:52 p.m.

    Can’t wait to start reading!!!

  • J. Dan Lee on April 19, 2018, 2:18 p.m.

    Awesome work Nick! Always great to see more of your writing. Looking forward to more.

  • Meg and Adam Hoog on April 19, 2018, 7:39 p.m.

    I remember you talking about publishing a book as we sat, eating shabu-shabu in Anyang. I’m excited that your dream is becoming a reality, and I’m excited to read the novel. Best of luck!

    -Meg

  • Kelly Siefering on April 19, 2018, 7:58 p.m.

    What an achievement, Nick! I'm looking forward to reading "Toil and Sound". I went to grad school for history at SJSU. I have some great memories of my younger self in San Jose.

  • Neil Buettner on April 19, 2018, 8:16 p.m.

    Can't wait to plan a hike or trip to the beach to read your upcoming book when it gets released!! When we follow our passion and true calling, the world gets a little better... I'm stoked for you, bro!! 🤙

  • Jason Ramirez on April 21, 2018, 8:38 p.m.

    What an accomplishment, Nick... Congratulations to you and the very best of wishes!

  • gail ramirez on April 22, 2018, 12:56 a.m.

    Congrats, and good luck, Nick!

  • Dayle Johnson on April 22, 2018, 2:38 a.m.

    Wishing you well on your dream to publish your book. So proud of you. Your Aunt Dayle

  • Amber Sims on April 22, 2018, 3:29 a.m.

    What an exciting season for you! In much anticipation for your success!!! - Team Sims

  • Pam & Lars Holmberg on April 22, 2018, 6:34 p.m.

    We're so proud of you Nick! We can't wait to read the book! Love you! Pam & Lars

  • Dawn Miller on April 23, 2018, 12:43 a.m.

    Best of luck!!!! I will enjoy the read. Aunt Dawn

  • Julie Ann O'Connell on April 24, 2018, 1:35 p.m.

    So thrilled for you, and excited to read about Kat and Alma. Perhaps a Feed 'Em Soup -inspired book might be next. Think of the interesting characters you'd have to write about!! I saw Nellie walking downtown the other day :-)

  • Eunjoo LEE on April 26, 2018, 8:42 a.m.

    So proud of you! from your Korean sister;)

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