BILL PIEPER - LOST BEARINGS
Bill Pieper, who lives and writes in Northern California, is a voyeur and exhibitionist, key attributes for making fiction. He is also a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and has studied both creative writing and philosophy at Sacramento State University.
Stories by Bill have appeared in the Blue Lake Review, Red Fez, Farallon Review, Primal Urge and elsewhere. Links to his 2014 collection Forgive Me, Father and other published work can be found at:http://www.authorsden.com/billpieper
BY BILL PIEPER
CAMPUS PLAZA ARMS, the sign said. RESTORED AND REMODELED. He was in Berkeley, on the way to his car from an afternoon tennis match, where his nephew had played for the visiting team. Stepping into the subdued, Maybeck-style lobby, he let his eyes adjust and noticed a young woman at the desk. “Got a restroom I could use?”
“Only if you’re touring our model condos.” Her smile and tone implied a wink. She had arresting eyes, an indescribable blue-green, with clear, pale skin and a flowing head of dark blonde hair.
“Great, I love tours,” he said, deadpan, holding up crossed fingers.
She laughed and pointed down the hall. “No one’ll be here when you come out. I have another job to get to.”
Minutes later, cutting through a parking lot behind the building, he heard the clatter of women’s heels over his shoulder. It was her. “Long time, no see,” he joked.
She now had an oversize Prada bag and a filmy lavender scarf draped at her neck. In a waft of citrus perfume, she nodded and eased by, stopping at a baby-blue Jaguar convertible that gleamed in the April sunlight.
“On a receptionist’s salary,” he said, figuring her father must own the place, “that’s quite the car.”
“Just bought it…used, and I have two other jobs.” She fished around in the purse and got out her keys and sunglasses.
“Oh, the big bucks.” He was trying for light irony.
“Yeah, in a way.” She smiled again, more with her face than her mouth, pinning her eyes on him. “Sometimes men pay me to go out. Men I like, that is.”
He didn’t avoid her glance and didn’t sense he was blushing, but his voice momentarily failed and an odd tingling crept up his torso. When he did speak, the tinny sound seemed supplied by a ventriloquist. “You suppose I could be one of them?”
“Possible,” she said, as if reading his mind. “Let’s have coffee sometime and find out.”
In thirty-five years with Mary, Tom had never engaged in such a thing, yet he knew other men did, although in his set they only dropped hints. And what he felt right now wasn’t about Mary. It was about him. He loved Mary, was proud of her, in fact, as a wife, a mom and as a person. But at his age, would a chance like this come again? Not one last fling. One fling, with a lovely creature, and pay-to-play meant no entanglements. “OK,” he said, “where?”
“Four to eight, I’m at Essencia, the fragrance boutique on Union Square. Just drop in. I get breaks.” She took a quick glance at the Cartier watch on her wrist. “Yikes! Got to run!” Grabbing the car door, she climbed in, her hair swirling at the base of her neck.
Initially, her frankness had shocked him, but as Tom thought about it, he must represent her ideal demographic: the vigorous older man, hair gone silver, but body still showing the benefit of workouts at his club, and obviously not impoverished.
Part of a package, he realized, that put him among the lucky few. How else to explain the callow English major with a few undergrad writing prizes who’d had just enough tech savvy to catch on early at Didactic, in the North Bay, now the US leader in tax prep software. The writing he did there, documentation for the most part, wasn’t the glam sort, but he’d amassed a wall of industry awards, stock options, a tasty salary and a nice house outside San Raphael.
But she was younger than his daughter, for God’s sake, and the whole thing was risky and absurd. Still, within days, testosterone beat back his doubts and he headed to Essencia, where she flicked her eyes at him, smiled and found an excuse to have her boss take the other waiting customer. She looked smashing, too, with the scarf now wound into her hair. Making a fuss over some samples on glossy display cards, she glanced at his ring and said, “Take this one, your wife will love it,” on the back of which she’d written, “Starbucks, Maiden Lane.”
Her arrival there, after ten minutes, led to his giving the borrowed name he’d already decided to use, Jack Mars, plus a further borrowing of Jack’s occupation, novelist, an alter-ego Tom had fantasized about. The name she gave was Lily, which he assumed equally false. She also swooned at wanting one of his books, whispered in his ear the “gift” she expected, and wrote her cell number on a napkin, with the underlined words “Text Only.” During the rest of their banter over lattes, she said she’d been a “wild child” growing up.
Back at the office he checked his calendar to find room for an invented evening meeting and texted her to set their first date the following week. As for the real Jack Mars, Tom knew the guy had three crime novels out, was so averse to being photographed that Google couldn’t find one, and lived in an undisclosed corner of the Bay Area, with some kind of day job under a different name. His bio, in fact, was why Tom wanted to impersonate him, as though Jack’s hybrid success called Tom’s own into question. And to round things out, Tom had a copy of Backwater, Jack’s earliest title, cradled in his arm when Lily and the Jag, right on time, rolled up to the Cliff House, the place he’d suggested for dinner.
She was a Pinot Grigio girl he soon learned, and to make her feel knowledgeable, he ordered the same, and with the surf churning and sloshing beneath their window, did again when she chose scallops from the menu. The book, meanwhile, was a hit, pioneering a series of little items—chocolate truffles or artsy costume jewelry tucked into tiny decorative boxes from Chinatown—that he brought whenever they were together.
“So Jack’s your real name?” she had teased, thumbing the pages.
“No, Jack’s real name isn’t public. Lots of writers do it.”
“Yeah, Nora Roberts has a bunch of them. Will I like this?”
“Tell me next time.”
“Not unless I get an autograph.” That caused him a gulp, but there was a thrill in signing the flyleaf, “To Lily – Jack.”
The sex, in a water-view room at a hotel some blocks away, had been near euphoric. Not as inventive or spontaneous as he remembered from college or from when he and Mary were dating, but nothing like mechanical.
So from his standpoint, God bless Viagra! And when he moaned an exhausted offer of praise, her smile came with a blithe, “I’m good at what I do.” Nonetheless, condoms were mandatory— “no bareback,” as she put it—and her purse always held a supply of the most deluxe kind. He also noticed on future dates that everything became more natural for both of them, including kissing. “It’s the G.F.E.,” she told him. “Girlfriend experience.”
But sex wasn’t his only memory from that night. Before they’d left the restaurant, while the waves outside continued to slosh and churn, Jack’s book received a further appreciative glance as it disappeared into her purse. “I guess that’s Prada too,” Tom had said.
“No, no,” she laughed, extending her wrist. “My bags and shoes are all knock-offs. So’s this watch.”
“They’re damn realistic,” he added, embarrassed.
“Raj brings them from Hong Kong.”
“My steady guy.”
Like a clumsy poker player, Tom must have shown a tell, because she prodded his arm and again laughed, a giggle, actually. “I’m not allowed to have one?”
“Sure, but it surprised me, and…”
“Because of my night job,” she interrupted. “Like he doesn’t know?”
“Sorry, none of my business.” He lifted both palms in supplication.
“Well, he travels a lot, really a lot, so it’s not a problem.”
And in the Jag, during a top-down ride she’d given him from the Cliff House to the hotel along Ocean Beach, he handed her $500 in a plain envelope. She didn’t bother to open or count it, just a polite nod as the envelope also went in her purse, setting another pattern. From then on, no direct mention of money arose between them, as if both wanted the same illusion.
Tom eventually learned, through a business journalist he knew, that Raj’s father owned Campus Plaza Arms and a worldwide portfolio of other properties. The father and son were known to have sharp elbows and to move in Mumbai mafia circles, but had no proven ties. For his part, Raj managed several of the properties, which explained how Lily’s part-time job included a rent-free unit. She even joked with Tom, over one of their dinners, that since both she and Raj were entrepreneurs, she should have a career goal, and had decided on “trophy wife.” Her own father was from Serbia, she said, with strong Old World attitudes, and he worked as a stationary engineer somewhere out past Richmond.
Additional dates, at six-to-eight week intervals, took them to a number of shore-side venues, plus an afternoon escape at the Claremont Hotel and another in Tilden Park, when they’d cruised Grizzly Peak Boulevard in the Jag to an isolated grove for champagne and outdoor sex. This couldn’t possibly be happening to a sixty-three-year-old, yet it was, paid for with a credit card linked to the mutual fund his black-sheep uncle had left him years ago. The old dog would probably approve, for that matter, and Tom only felt guilty about how little guilt he did feel, as if Mary, their married son, Mark, and Tina, their grown daughter, were in some separate compartment, where his happy, normal life simply went on as before.
But on his fourth outing with Lily, she introduced a new topic. “I have a story for you… one Jack should write.”
He already knew she liked Jack’s hardboiled characters and plots, and had given her a second autographed book, but his internal alarm went off. “What kind of story?”
“My story,” she said, “about my family and my wild years and how my mother got shot.”
“Sounds pretty heavy.”
“Yeah, it is, but I know you get me, and I think you can handle it.”
“Was she killed?”
“Yes, that’s the biggest thing. A drive-by, at home in Vallejo when I was fifteen.”
“My God, Lily, that’s terrible.”
And it was, in every way. Her younger brother had been out front working on his new bike when two thugs showed up and tried to steal it. He said no and yelled for his mom. Lily, then an honor student, was in the back bedroom studying and her dad was at work. She heard nothing until shots went off, by which time her mother had gone out just as a car roared by, filled with muzzle flashes. Her brother was wounded and her mother, dead.
The brother recovered, but Lily and her father were devastated. Grief, survivor’s guilt and depression, the whole load. The brother rallied to take care of their dad, emotionally at least, and later moved to Benicia with him. But by then, Lily had run away, lived in homeless camps, inevitably got into drugs, mainly pills, plus downscale prostitution and a smattering of arrests, punctuated by respites with her disapproving family, a sequence lasted until she was twenty. The killers themselves were never caught, since no one would risk pointing a finger. Finally, her father offered to pay for rehab at a place in Napa, and she accepted.
Yet somehow, the vivacious, charming Lily that Tom knew had emerged from those horrors, and to an amazing extent, seemed free of shame. “I took a long time,” she told him, “to realize it was easier for my brother because he got shot too. For my dad and me, there was only guilt.” Since getting clean, she’d visited her family now and then, but more recently, had been cut off by her father because to him, Raj was black, and just as bad, not Christian.
“But I’m still not a throw-away person,” she said.
"No, of course not,” Tom replied, “and it’s a hell of a story. I don’t have a clue on approaching it.”
“Oh, Jack will find a way,” she said, with a certainty that made him feel he’d just shrunk by half a foot. “And promise you’ll let me read it first. You can publish, I won’t ask for any changes, but I read it first.”
“OK, deal,” he assured her. What else could he do?
So, out of the blue, his fantasy job became an assignment, a messy, intricate one, and his first tactic was to stall. She kept bringing it up when they met or when he texted her for a date, but he explained that Jack had a contract for a new book and was overdue on getting it to his agent. Or should he have said publisher? Either way, the notion that he had an agent made her more eager than ever.
And he ultimately did start writing, with his wife’s encouragement, no less. Thinking ahead to Tom’s retirement, Mary liked the idea that he would pursue something he’d openly dreamed about, which then led her to plan a girls-only visit with their daughter in Portland, giving him a whole weekend to have at it. All Mary knew was that he suddenly had a concept and there was a murder involved, which was apparently all she wanted to know.
With the house to himself, a seemingly endless hour of facing his keyboard and a nearly blank screen left Tom texting Lily an invitation to Tahoe, but she’d been unavailable because Raj was in town. Meaning that Tom, trapped at his desk and steering by the seat of his pants, fortified with Lagunitas pilsner and a bottle of good Pinot Noir, had no choice but to spin out words. A big f-ing struggle too, one part exhilaration and two parts, a pervasive fear that he’d get nowhere. Worse yet, reading the thing could freak Lily out and wreck their arrangement.
He pounded his skull over that, and after three false starts finally hit on making her the hero, who he named Kari, with the action a series of flashbacks to the killing and to her time as a runaway, told from inside Kari’s head while she’s in rehab. Basically, Kari cures herself and never cooperates with the counselors or staff. Her sole focus is cleaning up and getting out of there on her own terms, and at the end, she does. All of which amounted to the first honest-to-God fiction he’d written since college, and with Lily as muse.
Tom did several more evenings of work on it after Mary returned, and within two weeks had a 5,500-word draft. He’d warned Lily that Jack was a slow writer, but had already used all his slack and owed her a copy. No luck on coming up with a title either, so he finally sent a message about meeting at a hotel in the Berkeley marina. “Yes, C U then,” she texted back, which, like its predecessors, he used an app to delete, erasing any discoverable trail.
On the agreed night, Tom hid a stapled manuscript under his napkin at the dockside restaurant. Sunset and an adjoining forest of sailboat masts provided the main décor as he nursed a glass of Pinot Gri, and he’d just re-checked the time before Lily swept in, smiling and confident. A pair of designer sunglasses tipped into her hair accented a burgundy-toned summer skirt that turned more heads than just his.
“Sorry I’m late.” She settled next to him and stowed an apparently new oversized bag on a vacant chair. “The Jag’s down and out. I had to get a cab.”
He half-stood as a welcome and projected his voice. “Well, look at my winsome niece, all grown up.” It was their agreed cover, and given the stir she had just caused, he figured a reminder couldn’t hurt.
She twinkled her eyes. “But my uncle needs to drive me back.”
“No problem,” he said.
Once she got her wine and they’d ordered, he asked about the Jag. “Engine quit,” she answered. “Smoke and a big grinding noise.”
“The Ashby off-ramp.” She sipped from her glass. “Lost bearings, they said. “Bad.” She tried to recover her smile, but failed.
“How long till it’s ready?”
“I had the bank take it. No way could I afford the fix.”
“God, I’ll miss the thing,” Tom said, remembering the joy of their Tilden Park picnic.
“Me too. A super thrill, but BART’s outside my door and I save big on living costs.”
“That’s something,” he said, and lifted his napkin. “This might cheer you up too.” He held out the manuscript.
Suddenly beaming, she sat forward. “Wow! And by Jack Mars!”
“Untitled draft, like the cover says.”
“Can I peek?”
“Of course, it’s for you.”
She paged ahead, skimming, but clearly not reading. Behind her the sky had dimmed, with lights starting to flare on the beacon marking the jetty. Tom waited nervously, keeping silent as long as he could. “Hope it doesn’t crush you with bad memories,” he said.
“No, I’ll be OK,” though her eyes seemed larger now, and sad. “In rehab, they made me relive the details over and over. I won’t really plow into this till later, but I’m so happy you wrote it.” Drawing a breath, she brightened again. “My best surprise ever, and upstairs, I have one for you.”
Out on their little balcony, he wrapped her in his arms, pressing against her back and kissing her neck, the darkened bay forming a stage-set beyond them. She then led him to the bed and produced a wrinkled little joint. “I’ll take a hit if you do,” she said, and this version of her smile held a dare. He hesitated, then said, “OK,” and she gave a cooing laugh. “First time in years,” he shrugged. “It’s not real strong,” she added, handing him a lighter.
As they tumbled together under the sheets, skin-to-skin, she was notably hungry and responsive. Only later did he realize that he hadn’t taken his Viagra, but it didn’t matter. He was instantly hard and stayed hard, and once she’d teased him to his limit, allowing only brief thrusts, she wildly wrapped around him he came like a hydrant. He felt transported. Sure, it was partly the dope, yet he was still on-task enough when they were done to drive his Audi sport coupe up University Avenue, even if the proportions of the crosswalk lines and traffic light stanchions took on a shifting, Escher-like quality.
Unexpectedly, half a block from Campus Plaza, she had him pull to the curb. “Let’s say goodbye here and not start rumors.” Leaning over, she kissed him as sweetly as he could remember being kissed and pushed into his hand the envelope he’d given her in the elevator to their room. “I really had fun tonight, so it’s my treat.”
He was stunned. “No, keep that. It’s yours.”
“I don’t need it right now. Besides, I have this.” She tilted her purse so he could see the white of the paper. “Proof that I’m not just a toy…that you take me seriously.” Close to his ear she whispered, “Another thing, my real name is Sofia Volkovic and my mother was Ilana. There’s lots of details in the online Chronicle that might help Jack’s next draft.” She lightly pecked his cheek, opened the door and slid out.
Back in Marin, Mary was asleep when he tiptoed into their bedroom. Tom had already showered and could put on his PJs and crawl in, but he was too conflicted. His head still held the vision of a much younger woman, golden-pink in the mirror, happily humming as she reached in her bag for clean panties and re-primped from the steamy rinse she always took before it was his turn. He reversed into the hall, the sound of Mary’s steady breathing a string of accusations that followed him to his darkened office, a room that for years had sheltered their daughter’s innocence. Not reaching for the switch, he sat in silent moonlight broken by grotesque tree shadows from the yard.
At some point, though, he booted his computer, went to SFGate, and the Ilana Volkovic of a previous decade came right up—an obituary photo plus dozens of other mentions. Sofia, still wearing braces, was shown among the surviving family, along with a bandaged Petro, her brother, and their father, Ivo, in shell-shocked grief. As he scrolled around, everything tracked with what Lily/Sofia—he no longer knew how to think of her—had told him.
And later, as he struggled toward a guilty sleep in the aura of Mary’s warmth, could it be that Lily—he forced himself to block out poor, damaged Sophia—was at that same moment huddled under a lamp reading the faux Jack Mars take on the whole tragic business?
Anxious, he waited through the next day and finally left messages asking for feedback, but from her reaction at the restaurant, his main worry wasn’t that she’d be traumatized. What was at stake was their balance of pretense, that both their aliases always seem real. Except she, at least temporarily, had vacated hers, and by now his writing might have tipped her that his Jack persona was a fraud too.
“My God, Tom,” Mary said at dinner later that week, “what’s eating you?” She’d always kept in shape, and recently had her hair re-died its natural brown and cut into a longish bob, surprising him with how much younger she looked.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “Big project at work and lots of killer deadlines.”
“Don’t you have people to help with that?”
“Not the right people,” he said. And he did love her. It’s just that he wanted this life and that other life too—a beautiful companion, the Jag, sex, a sense of youth.
“Hope it doesn’t mess up our trip to Hawaii with the kids.”
“I won’t let it,” he promised. Except that was a month away, and not nearly as much on his mind as it ought to be.
Lily had simply not responded, not to his texts or to the subsequent voicemails he left, virtually in desperation. If Jack had been unmasked, wouldn’t she at least challenge him on it? Or did his deception amount to some final insult, something to push her over the brink? But really, why would she doubt Jack? Tom had faithfully copied the guy’s style.
More likely Raj was in town again, and she’d gone somewhere with him, or perhaps with another, well, client. She’d told him that all the girls she knew in high-end retail had sugar daddies. Otherwise, it was impossible to live decently on what those stores paid. Suddenly, though, both those ideas troubled him, when they never did before.
The following Friday he left work early and drove to Essencia, on the assumption she’d be there. But she wasn’t, nor was the store itself. Only empty windows papered with banners saying FOR LEASE. He went to the Starbucks where they’d talked, and the goateed barrista told him Essencia had closed suddenly the prior week and he didn’t know any of the former employees. That meant Lily had been cut loose just after their last date.
He tried calling again in the hope that she’d pick up, and was shocked to hear a beeping announcement: “We’re sorry, this number is no longer in service.” To be certain, he held on, letting the mechanical voice repeat and repeat in his ear.
By mid-morning Saturday he was winging it even more with Mary, again by leaning on the big project he’d made up as an excuse. He pushed the Audi hard across the San Raphael Bridge, staying alert for the CHP, with Berkeley in his sights. On her normal schedule Lily would be at the lobby desk from 10 till 2, and he absolutely had to know what happened. Was she all right? Did she hate him? Was it the manuscript? Did that make him responsible?
With parking, at least, he had luck, and found a vacant meter almost in front of Campus Plaza. It was another bright California day, and the lobby’s Tiffany lamps were dim as ever, so his eyes needed to adjust. But as they did, she was there, blonde and glamorous, a lavender scarf draped at her neck.
“Hi,” he called. “It’s great to see you.”
“Sorry,” she answered, and in the wrong voice. “Do we know each other?”
It wasn’t Lily, and when he drew closer, the chin, the eyes and the forehead were wrong too. “Oh, you’re not…not…Sophia,” he said.
“She doesn’t live or work here anymore.” Her tone was cool and smooth.
Tom felt his ribcage compress. “What about Raj? Can I talk to him?”
“He’s not in.” She now had a pitying smile.
“Then I’ll leave a message.” Tom reached for the notepad on the desk.
“No need to bother. You’re one of her gentlemen, right? Raj won’t talk to you.”
“What do you mean, he won’t talk to me?” Tom looked down at her, and sitting in a partially open desk drawer to her left was a shiny, new Prada bag to go with the delicate watch on her wrist.
“Trust me,” she said. “He won’t.”
Heading back to the freeway on University Avenue, Tom was determined to find her, even if the obvious leads had produced nothing. But all he could come up with was tracking down her father, and that could backfire. He didn’t know the man, he had no connection to Sophia that Ivo Volkovic could possibly accept, which would make things worse if she did contact her family. Shit! Because of the manuscript, maybe he was responsible.
No. How could he be? The timing was terrible, but Essencia and Raj were pursuing their own ends and she got caught in the gears. He reached the freeway’s entry lane, about to head home, when a fresh thought hit. Veering left, he stayed on University through the overpass and into the marina, remembering the big parking area near the pier. A bit to the north stood the hotel where he’d last seen her—where they’d last made love. He stopped opposite one of the bayside walking paths to wake up his phone.
A quick search told him that Essencia’s other local presence had a Palo Alto address. He knew it was common in retail to absorb trained staff from closed locations, and after several rings, someone picked up. “Can I speak to the manager, please?
“That would be me,” a female voice said.
“I have a question. Did any of the displaced Union Square people end up at your store?”
“Yes, we hired two.”
“Is one of them Sophia Volkovic by chance.”
“I remember the name. She had no way to get here for the shifts available and her background was a bit checkered.”
“Do you know how to reach her?”
“No, I didn’t keep any of that. But I couldn’t tell you even if I had.”
“Yes, of course,” Tom said. Silly question.”
As the call ended, he stared at his phone and kept staring. The plain fact was, he’d been lucky. The manuscript was his to submit for publication regardless, and with that thought, he even had a title: Lost Bearings, like she’d said about the Jag. And what the hell would he be letting himself in for if he did find her?
She wasn’t his sexy Lily. She was Sophia, with no car, no job, no place to live and no family to fall back on. Thank God he was doubly hidden behind Jack. All he’d get from her would be desperation, unending pleas for money, and probably blackmail. Think of the dodgy characters she was used to hanging out with.
Unless she’d secretly read his name from a credit card slip, a remote but still dangerous possibility, this phone was their only remaining link. Palming it, he walked rapidly out on the pier. Amid a whipping breeze and rows of whitecaps, the Golden Gate Bridge stood graceful against a distant fog bank. He’d tell Mary, and everyone else, that the phone had been stolen from his car through a window left carelessly rolled down. Changing his number would be a pain, but not a big deal. When he reached deep water, some fifty yards short of the fishermen clustered at the pier’s end, he dropped the phone on the decking, crushed it with his heel and threw it out sidearm as far as he could, as though he was skipping a stone.
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