The aroma of Natural Green disinfectant wafted past her as Margie opened the door of the little bungalow. Ruby was in her usual spot, a broken down recliner-slash-rocker, covered in crushed purple velveteen upholstery that was most likely soaked in the stuff. Margie dreaded what was to come. After changing the old woman's dressings for the past two weeks, she'd become adept at keeping the nausea away, choking back the dry heaves, as she tried making a whole-hearted attempt at keeping her wounds clean.
The first day as caretaker was the worst. The woman had shut herself into the tiny poolside bungalow, preferring to "rent" out her LaJolla home to students in the area - in exchange for making her meals and tending to her personal needs. Margie knew Ruby liked the fact that she was a mom, and that she was taking good care of her house as well. Apparently, Ruby's previous "caretakers" had stolen nearly everything out of her house, leaving her high and dry without food or proper medical care. Ruby made sure Margie knew that her previous caretakers also happened to be her very own children.
The odor inside the bungalow was putrid. A combination of trash and Natural Green that stuck in her nostrils - a saving grace for what lie before her. Changing Ruby's leg dressings. Ruby had severe pressure sores from never leaving the chair, she tried to keep them covered with a variety of dish towels she kept near her side - but nothing could have prepared Margie for what she saw as she peeled back the makeshift dressings that first night: maggots. Live, moving housefly larvae. Thriving in Ruby's open wounds as if she'd been lying in a dirt grave.
Aside from feeling the physical effects of caretaking, Margie had fallen numb. Callum had already started school when Margie made the trip out. She drove the three day trip nearly straight through, stopping only at stations - for gas, for food, to sleep - she had even taken up smoking, as a way to stay awake she told herself. Mostly, though, she had stopped caring. Stopped feeling. Evident in the way she told Tom that she was heading to California - asking to stay until she left, borrowing money, and, when questioned about her period, telling him "Oh, this month was a heavy flow, cramps for days." She didn't know, at the time, that he had called the clinic and requested that a receipt for the procedure be sent to him - which he promptly forwarded to her step-father back home.
LaJolla was certainly gorgeous, and expensive. The town sits overlooking the ocean, with quaint shops and curvy roads leading down to a sandy beach that looks as if boulders were placed upon it purely for the photo opportunities. The walkfront, always busy with families and couples, was rife with little old ladies holding their beach baskets and waffle cones. It was a good distraction from the squirmy worms she'd agreed to clean up twice a day. It was a bad distraction from Margie's real life, from her daughter back home - from actually thinking: "Hey, maybe Ruby needs some actual medical attention." A bad distraction from most things, perhaps.
When Margie first arrived in LaJolla, she stayed at a nearby hostel and made a few friends there. Jim, one of the front desk attendants, was also looking for a permanent place to stay, so she invited him to come live with her in exchange for a couple hundred dollars in rent. When he could afford to pay it, that is. He was delighted to move in, bringing a knap sack of clothes and his motorcycle gear. Margie noted that she now knew another Jewish motorcycle rider, and thought it was another inane coincidence that she'd been experiencing all her life. At least he didn't give her the same "queer experience" story that a few of the other guys she knew did.
"My roommate declared his love for me."
"We got drunk and almost had sex, but I couldn't go through with it."
"We're still good friends."
These explanations were usually preceded by lots of alcohol, and confessing their belief in the "natural law" or "natural order" or some such nonsense that they never chose to clearly explain when sober. And that Margie never chose to question further.
Jim was cute, with long, dark brown hair and huge brown eyes. Margie couldn't tell if he really liked her, or if he was simply wanting a place to live - but no matter, roommates it was. He had begun helping her with the exterior landscaping, while he kept working at the hostel a few short blocks away. Margie thought the two of them made a nice team - already imagining what the property might look like with a little more work.
After about a month of caretaking for Ruby, Margie had wandered out onto the beach one evening looking for some private time. The sunset was stunning, a fiery orange hitting the dappled cloud cover at just the right angle...with a mirrored painting bouncing from the waves below.
"A live Monet," she mumbled, as she wandered down to the sand and sat near one of the retainer walls. There was a group of kids close by who'd looked like they just got back from surfing. They were busy chatting each other up, drinking beers and passing around a roach clip. One of them walked over to Margie and introduced himself, asking to borrow a smoke. Although, not quite the kid she had assumed he was, probably about her own age, in fact, Steven had a youthful look about him. His eyes were piercing blue; brows knitted when he spoke, invoking that "abused puppy" reaction in each person he laid them on. Margie fell for it, of course.
"On vacation?" Steven asked as he took a drag from the newly lit cigarette.
"Kind of," Margie replied. She smiled at him a bit nervously before closing her notebook.
"Kind of? How can you be kind of on vacation?" Steven laughed, and passed her the cigarette. Margie shook her head and smiled again, nodding.
"It's a long story."
"It always is, ain't it?" Margie laughed and wondered what his story was.
"You're a surfer? Professional?" Steven laughed out loud.
"Oh no. Do I look like a pro?" He posed quickly, like a body builder, half of his wet suit hanging over his hips. "Are you staying around here?"
"No, I'm staying in San Francisco."
"Ha. Okay, well, nice chatting with you." He motioned to leave when Margie stood up.
"No…wait. Yes, I'm …ah…staying at the hostel. I better go, but if you'd like to hang out again - leave a note for me there. I check for messages every day." Margie smiled at him and bound up toward the stairs.
"Wait, what's your name?!" Steven shouted.
Steven didn’t take long to set up a date with Margie – he picked her up in a conversion van, black – fully loaded except for the muffler needing some work – or maybe he liked it that we, she told herself. Margie glanced around the van, trying not to judge him by the clothes strewn everywhere, women’s and children’s clothes included, noticing a tiny shoe stuck underneath the back seat.
“Not another one,” Margie thought to herself, “So, using the wife’s car tonight to pick up your date?” She tried to sound playful and teasing, but still came off dead serious.
Steven looked at her and smiled – you don’t miss much, do you? To be honest, this isn’t my van – it’s my best friend’s girlfriends; I’m staying with them until I find a place.”
“Ah,” she said, trying to sound like she believed him.
“So what would you like to do?”
“Well, how about you decide, you can be tour guide.”
He took her down the coast to the highest point outside of San Diego, Point Loma. The view from the cliffs was incredible, they walked down the side of the hill into a massive open space, where some surfer kids were partying after a long day of surfing. They stayed up until dawn, cuddling by the fire, talking about their plans for the future. Steven entertained Margie with his plans to go to computer school, and grand tales about how he was a former marine that had been working undercover ops until recently – when a run-in with drugs landed him in jail.
“Three strikes and you’re out,” he proclaimed. Margie was familiar with the rule the California had passed. He went on to explain his dilemma being caught using by his Handler, and then went on a tangent about being targeted by some kind of secret government intent on killing him – or neutralizing him, as he put it. It was his legacy as a military sniper, a way for the military to get rid of an asset that was no longer useful. Margie could only listen intently, smile with a glint in her eye before asking him “Hey, are you a writer? You should be writing this stuff down, you have an incredible imagination.” Steven laughed and smiled at her weakly. Margie secretly congratulated herself for calling him on his bullshit, and wondered to herself how truthful he’d actually been. No doubt it seemed he felt his situation was real.
They saw each other every day in the following weeks. His stories became quite unbelievable, telling her of a grand plot to create a One World Order. Margie shrugged it off as silly politicking from the early 90s; she was here to have fun and be distracted, and forget about the pain she’d just gone through so she could begin her life again. She could already feel her days in LaJolla were numbered. Especially after her roommate, Jim, met them at the door one night, solemnly asking Margie to meet with him and Ruby in her bunkhouse.
Margie agreed, and followed him around back toward the pool. The air was still, and stale – and as she looked toward the sunset as she walked with Jim, the hairs on her arms stood. An ovation to the ominous, she told herself.
Once inside the bunkhouse, Ruby asked Margie, point blank –
“I hear you’ve taken up with some kind of beach bum.”
“Ahm, well – I’m not sure that’s any of your bus-“
“I want you out, both of you.”
“But Ruby, he’s been a huge help – with the pool, with cleaning out the gutters—“
“Jim told me all about it, all about what you’re up to at night – I told you, specifically, no visitors. Now, I let you have your son stay over, but I can’t believe that after everything I told you about my piece of trash daughter and her nigger boyfriend stealing from me, you would bring a stranger in here and—“
She couldn’t finish, she was obviously having trouble breathing and her face was getting flushed-- Margie ran to the kitchenette and grabbed a towel for her; glaring at Jim. The smugness on his face was proof enough of his involvement in Ruby’s change of heart. Pity, Margie thought – she’d always thought Steven and Jim got along well, with their similar backgrounds, stories of struggle, and of course, their politics – Margie made a note right then to never get too involved in.. trouble always seemed close at hand for it.
After getting some help to move out from Steven’s friends, Margie and Steven stayed briefly at one of his “friends” houses, a somewhat standoffish gay man, Trent, who was still grieving for his lawyer boyfriend. Steven had told her that he’d been run down on the street not four months earlier, by some psychopath – didn’t even stop for him.
“That’s terrible,” Margie exclaimed.
“I know. Trent’s only consolation is that Greg left him with a ton of money.”
“Well, you wouldn’t know it by looking at him…or this house.”
Indeed, the house was fairly run down, especially the bedrooms which seemed to be in the middle of some kind of renovation – pushing Trent out into the back storage area, in favor of sleeping there rather than a half tore up bedroom.
Trent, our host, could not have been less gracious. Clearly not wanting them to be there, antagonistic about most everything, and ignoring us for the most part – which suited them quite well.
Margie had plenty of time to wander about the place, not yet having found a job. Trent seemed very meticulous about his housekeeping, yet at the same time slovenly –caring about how the towels were folded, yet not wanting to empty the trash until it had flowed over the sides and onto the floor – or until someone else did it. She thought it curious that he never kept fresh foods in the fridge, yet their pantry was filled to the brim – Margie couldn’t help but notice the gay-themed art and objects throughout the house – which normally would have made her feel like she was in an accepted, inclusive environment. But, she decided early on, Trent absolutely, positively did not like women – or maybe he just didn’t like her. The environment was also uncomfortable for her son, who wanted to visit with her while she was there. It prompted the two of them to seek alternative accommodations.
Some people are just unhappy, they have to go around and make other people unhappy, she told herself, So when he pulled her aside one night to tell her that his partner picked up Steven on the beach one night for sex – she refused to believe him.
Even though that's how they met, on a beach.
Even though Steven didn't have a home.
Even though he was busted for hard drugs.
Even though he didn't have a job.
Margie chose to believe his hard luck story about being a persecuted Marine. Thrown away. Deemed no longer relevant to the government's (or whomever was running the government) overall purpose: a one world order. It was too much to think about. All she knew was that her savings had run out and she hadn't eaten all day. Not to mention, she hadn't seen her son all week because of lack of cash. No means, no end - and so something must be done.
The two of them ended up staying with one of his military buddies and his wife and child in a tiny military townhouse off the 805. They began to plan - to save enough money to head back to Michigan and look for better jobs. "He'd have a chance there," Margie thought to herself.
They worked hard together over the next few weeks to save the cash from Margie's temp jobs, choosing to head back through Texas so Margie could meet Steven's parents in Fort Worth. Those three weeks seemed to really bring them closer together. He told her about being adopted by his father. And the abuse. At the hands of his father, his brother, and especially his adoptive mother - who had died recently of cancer.
She told him of her stories, too. About her step-father…and uncle…and an assortment of people that for some reason targeted her for their sick fantasies.
"Are you sure?" Steven asked.
"What do you mean 'are you sure' - I was there, I can attest to the sickness of it" and she laughed a brief, stilted laugh.
"No, I mean - how do you know that it was about perversion…and not, I dunno - retaliation. Or revenge….or control."
"I don't understand."
"Nevermind," he said and left it at that.
He held her upon a pedestal, still, after hearing her stories. Well, until he learned that she'd dated a black man once. He could neither veil his disgust nor rise above it. They fought for days about that, until it finally rested there between them, some kind of new unmentionable that Margie'd never experienced before.
It was odd, watching someone of Native American descent fill himself with such hate for another native race. She wondered how he'd got that way. No doubt it was another example of the racism that's bound so systemically to American history. But the absurdity of one betrayed native hating another betrayed native wasn't logical - the enemy of mine enemy and all. Perhaps it was created.
The drive back to Michigan was brutal. Holiday traffic was heavy, especially around the major traffic arteries. Not to mention it was the first time Margie was able to sit and think. There were many silences between Steven and her. No doubt they were both thinking the same thing. Wondering if this thing between them felt right, or if they were both just desperate for companionship. Steven hadn’t been very forthcoming about his history while in La Jolla, but Margie was able to glean some basic information while they visited his family in Fort Worth. Christmas was awkward, but Margie chalked that up to being a common experience among most people. Going through the motions of meeting and greeting and trying to maintain friendly conversation was, well, distracting. Margie wasn’t able to really think during their visit, not to mention discern the feelings in her gut. For example, why was Steven’s family so familiar – especially his older brother, Will? Maybe it was the story – of an adopted, Native American child, picked on by his father and older brother; it explained his almost desperate request for Margie to return home and meet his family. Even after only weeks of being together.
They were a fairly typical upper-class, Southern family. Their house was amazing. A suburban mcmansion of sorts; well appointed and comfortable. Still, Steven’s step-mother made a point of fake-complaining that they just had to downsize. Margie wondered to herself why Steven claimed to be adopted, the resemblance between the boys was quite striking. And then it hit her, Steven was the child born outside the marriage. It would explain a lot. And yet, there was Will – or William, as he’d introduced himself. Tall and handsome, with that air of unmistakable power that shook every single one of Margie’s internal red flags. He had a gleam in his eye, and struck a note a familiarity with Margie that she shrugged off as genteel privilege. Still, that feeling of familiarity would tug at her subconscious the whole drive home.
Steven must have deemed the visit a success, because it was the first time she’d seen him sleep so soundly. Normally, he’d wake whenever she moved, when something else moved, or even when the wind shifted. No doubt a side-effect of his military training.
Margie thought about the conversations they’d been having over the past several weeks. Steven claimed many things, and was equally dubious about the same. From having ditched the military, to his conspiracy theories. His stories were vast, and the telling of them changed him immediately – from fragile and alone to wholly convinced and hardened. They were the rollercoaster emotions of a trained soldier, a man broken and rebuilt so many times the cracks were beginning to show. Margie wondered, only briefly, if she was going to be able to live with this broken toy soldier, if he’d be able to stand meeting the rest of her family.
Once they were back in Michigan, they stayed with Margie’s step-father, Brian, and his new wife, Diane. Margie told herself that her step-father’s affair with Diane for the last 10 years of his marriage to her mother didn’t bother her. Their relationship was an inevitability, and to be honest, the way her mother behaved, always angry and unforgiving – she was starting to see why he and Diane were together. The liquor flowed as long and as deep as the stories that were told those few weeks they all stayed together. Margie observed intently as Steven put on a show for her parents. Indeed, she hadn’t spent much time with him while in the company of others.
So, it didn’t take long before Margie started being bothered by the little things…