From my dry perch in the tallest building in Marysville, my twenty-forth toothpick swirling, I watched with fascination as the motor home lifted slightly, listed and then disappeared behind the levee with a huge gush of water.
I watched in shock as Yamelda, goddamn, Keating got knocked to her knees and washed out of sight. I wished I could do something, but on second thought, maybe not. She’d been a thorn in my butt for years. She’d relentlessly dogged me ever since the Tenican disaster. Because of her, I’d been on the news more than the weather and she hadn’t painted a pretty picture. Good riddance!
The gap in the levee widened allowing water to gush toward downtown.
I’d worked out all the details. I counted on the flood. When the rains hadn’t stopped, I celebrated. With each rising foot of water I toasted to future success. When the far side of the levee, the freaking wrong side, gave way, my buildings were not going to be flooded. Never mind that the entire WASS news team was washed over the side and probably drowned. I didn’t consider that most of upper class Marysville was going to be under water. It was the biggest disaster in fifty years yet all I could think about was what was going to happen to my extremely overextended investments.
I signed my pharmacy check, spelling each letter in my mind as I wrote, William H. Dickerman. Having the gypsy dance in my window was certainly a business expense. It wasn’t for me that she danced, but for my customers. Who could have known that the never-ending rain would keep everyone in the new mall on the north end of town?
I admit, I’m a little enamored with gypsies. I especially liked one of their famous dancing styles called the Flamenco. Okay, once in a while I fantasized about gypsies. More specifically, one might say, I loved watching the Gypsy, Cassandra Liltkey. When she danced the Flamenco, she was the epitome of a gypsy. I appreciated the clicking castanets and watched enraptured when she spun and twirled in my store display window. Something deep inside me responded to her stomping feet. Her dance was so firm and commanding. Her entire Gypsy personality, especially when she danced, brought forward her uninhibited feline. I wanted to join her, to sweep her off her feet and dance the Flamenco with her.
Alas I was old. I’d squandered my youth on the drug store. I felt silly to be seventy-three and hopelessly in love with a woman so deliciously young. It was a love fraught with perilous pitfalls, but I was ever hopeful. It was a one-sided love that had flared up a few days before and was burning hot like a brush fire in my loins. It was the first time I’d felt that way since my wife of forty-two years died six years ago. I’d loved Lucille for all those years. I had also loved my drugstore for almost as long. Other than that beautiful young woman, who danced and spun in my display window, I saw nothing else. I could hardly keep my mind focused on filling prescriptions, what few I had.
Since Lucille’s death, I’d longed to buy an Air Stream trailer and live with the gypsies. I read everything I could about gypsy life. I drove all the way to San Francisco one night to attend the Romanian Gypsy Ballet. I’ve seen every movie even hinting about gypsies. I read Stephen Kings novel Thinner at least seven times. There was a secret part of me who wanted to travel with a gypsy band. I wanted to wake up every morning in an excitingly new and different place.
Since Lucille died, I longed for the freedom of not having to wait on sick and cranky people. I was tired of dolling out mood altering medications to all of the pill popping, drugged out residents of my town. It seemed the richer they got and I had many wealthy customers, the more demanding and rude they became. I was tired of being the whipping boy of every strung out housewife, every stressed out professional or depressed person who came through my door. Unfortunately, eighty percent of my business was people who needed drugs simply to cope with every new day.
I wanted to live more simply. I wanted out. It would only stand to reason that me, Mr. White-bread, Mr. Middle-America, with not the remotest possibility of joining the gypsy’s, would fall in love with a flamenco dancer.
All of my longings were well in place way before Cassandra Liltkey came on the scene. With my unrequited dreams, the drug king at Dickerman’s drug store was destined to fall madly in love with the slender, dark-haired, Romanian woman, who, only four days ago had walked into my drugstore for lipstick. I fell head-over-heels after her purchase turned to conversation, which then shifted to Flamenco. I was a goner once Cassandra Liltkey announced that she loved dancing Flamenco. I ached with desire. If not sex, because I was old, I simply wanted be in her company.
Once the doors were closed and the lights were out, I was going to ask her to dine with me. I felt like a schoolboy.
An old but familiar knot of fear arose in my stomach. I watched her from behind my prescription counter. I tried to work, but a big part of me wanted to be out in the window dancing with her. My weak heart would certainly give out if I’d ever attempted such a thing, but I still wanted to.
I looked at my watch and it was two hours before seven-thirty closing. It would take that entire time before I could gather the courage to ask her to dinner. How would I know, I had less than ten minutes to do anything but run.
The restaurant was full. Most of the tables in my section were packed. I’d been hustling to take and deliver orders, pouring coffee, smiling, cracking jokes. I was certain every person could see my freshly sprouted wrinkles. There was an automatic tendency, now that I knew they were there, to reach up and cover the grotesque lines. Never mind that my shoes were so wet I sloshed. I was busy and though the crow’s feet were still in the forefront of my thoughts, wet shoes had completely slipped my mind. Besides, I’ve worn wet shoes before. With the amount of walking I did in the overly warm restaurant they would be dry by the end of shift.
There was a delighted exuberance I felt when waiting on people. I could work my crowd however I liked. Whatever mood I was in, I brought out that same mood in my customers. I could see my name on some marquee. “Marie Bunny Ollinski, thespian extraordinaire”. I was an actress with unmatched talents. I had a role to play. The better I played my part of supplicant waitress, the jokester, playful temptress, dominatrix, whatever my customers demanded, the better the tips. It was easy.
I shifted to the demands of each table. My extra efforts often netted me two hundred a night in tips. In an extremely conservative town such as Marysville, a hundred dollars –which some of the girls boasted about– was great.
I never bragged about tips. My tables were always full. It didn’t matter where in the restaurant I was stationed my customers followed me.
That night was no different. I smiled at one table, told a raunchy joke at another and was quiet and demure at another. It kept me busy, which was my main objective.
I was pouring Burgundy for two couples on table fourteen and sensed they needed to laugh. They had not been having much fun lately. My job was to be the catalyst for their laughter and light-heartedness. The first time I approached the table to get drink orders, I got them to giggle. The second contact, I left them cracking up. It was a tight-assed sort of laughter, but it was the effect I was looking for. The bottle of wine was a big help for an evening of gaiety.
I’d just finished my little story about wine, good food and good friends to share it with. I was about to launch into a quick, well-versed joke, when Felicia did the big no-no in a crowded room. She let loose with a bone chilling scream and dropped a huge tray with four platters of food.
The scream automatically snapped my head around. When the tray hit the floor, I winced. The cringe caused my newly found crows feet to crinkle. My gaze quickly shifted to Felicia’s pointing finger. I couldn’t fully comprehend what was going on. How could water squirt from around the front door?
I knew the front door was leaky, but the inward cascade of water was ridiculous. I stared in wonderment. I had only a few seconds for everything to sink in.
A woman in table thirty-eight screamed. I turned toward her pointing finger. The fake leaded glass windows bulged. I stood slack jawed. The bay window exploded inward. A massive column of chocolate liquid washed table fifty-five and catapulted its occupants across the crowded room toward me.
To describe a gathering of lions, one would call them a pride. Subsequently, wouldn’t a group of wolves be called a pack? A skulk of foxes would be an apt description for those shy creatures. How about a bevy of quail? A gaggle of geese? A flock of turkeys? I love a murder of crows. What about a troop of monkeys? My favorite of all is a parliament of owls. I also liked an exhalation of larks. But, when it came to depicting a group of Volkswagen Beetles –of which I, Sam Kitridge had eleven– I could only describe them as a shit load of bugs.
For reasons beyond my ability to comprehend, I loved four things in life. The old Volkswagen Beetle was ever first on my list. I bought one and reconditioned it whenever I had the opportunity. When I finished, my cars were cherry. I rebuilt the engine, trans-axle, new glass, new seat covers and new paint. I even replaced the rubber gaskets around the doors. I loved Volkswagens so much that each new car –no matter what condition– became my obsession.
Out of the eleven classic bugs I owned, my favorite was my 1954 fire engine red, six-window coupe.
Lately, I’d been looking for a twelfth to round out the set.
I had no idea what I was going to do with twelve cars. I couldn’t drive them all, but I loved them just the same. My house, north of town, was a small affair with a short driveway. It had reconditioned Volkswagens parked everywhere. Since only three could fit in my driveway and only two in the garage, I parked my pride and joys lined up on the lawn in front of the house. I know my neighborhood would rather have had someone who collected packs of wolves, prides of lions or gaggles of geese, but they had a shit load of bugs. As it went in any snooty neighborhood, they hated me and my cars. I didn’t care. Volkswagens were my passion. I’d read somewhere to follow your bliss and I was following my Volkswagen bliss.
Maybe my German heritage had something to do with it. It could have been the simple fact that I liked the shape and simplicity of the car. Whatever it was, I knew everything about Beetles there was to know. I could rebuild an entire Volkswagen in my sleep.
The second and third things I loved more than life itself was Budweiser beer and good Mexican food. I pampered myself often with both, but not to excess. I wanted to keep my trim, boyish looks. Too much Mexican food, now that I was rounding the bend on that quick road to fifty, was not good.
Although I never met him, like Billy Marlin, I also worked out in Marysville Fitness Center every afternoon. I was happy with the body I’d built. It wasn’t huge and muscular, nor was I a skinny wimp. Anyone looking at my wrinkless face, with a thick crop of tow-head blond hair might mistake me for a man in my early thirties and I liked it that way.
There was only one blemish, one little handicap keeping me from being the epitome of my German heritage. The one imperfection was not apparent to anyone but me and with whomever I shared sex. That part of my life was an issue that plagued me daily. Because of my problem, sexual partners were extremely rare. Whenever I did have sex with a woman, as consistent as the ticking of the grandfather clock in my hall, she might make lots of promises, but she would not return.
I don’t tell just anyone, but my package is minuscule. My maleness is so small many house cats outsize me. If ever a small dick contest was held, I would win hands down. But, in a million years and with a prize of a bizillion dollars, I would never consider being a part of such a degrading contest. I’ve been degraded enough.
The forth thing I loved, though I wasn’t sure if it was love or simple infatuation, was Marie Bunny Ollinski. I was able to enjoy three of my passions at once when I attended the Torez Family Mexican restaurant. It went without saying that I was one of the long lines of customers who waited, sometimes for an hour, to sit in Bunny’s section.
I tried not to flash her my boyish, moon eyes. I tried not to let on that I even noticed her, but I couldn’t help myself. My interest in her leaked out like oil in an old Volkswagen engine. Once it got started, it seemed to come from everywhere.
Oh, I had it all right, but not once in the six months I’d been coming to the restaurant, did she give me the time of day. Yes, she waited on me. She joked with me. She even reached out and patted my shoulder a number of times. It was exactly what I needed, but I always felt a professional distance.
This was the night I’d ask her out. It couldn’t be that hard, or that devastating to have her turn me down. I knew she was going to laugh, but I had to try.
I’d been turned down many times by women. I was a man for God sakes. I was well versed in the art of getting shot down, but Bunny Ollinski was exceptional. I couldn’t bear to be rejected by her even once.
Because of her special status, my I’ll-do-it-tonight resolve, had come and gone more times than a Volkswagen blows engines.
Three times that night, I’d made the beginnings of an attempt. The first time was when she greeted me. I wanted to stand, take her in my arms and sweep her off her feet. I wanted her to swoon.
It happened again when she brought my beer. By then I only wanted to say something intelligent. The last time, when she delivered my triple Enchilada special, I failed to say even one word. It was no good. I didn’t have the balls.
I was in the middle of eating my meal, kicking myself for being a wimp, berating myself for not being the man I knew I could be, when Bunny walked by my table for the tenth time. I wanted to tell her I loved her and would do anything for her. I was in the middle of that particular fantasy, when a scream erupted from the far side of the restaurant. A platter shattered on the floor. I didn’t want to take my eyes off Bunny, but the commotion was too much to ignore. I shifted my gaze toward the direction of the pointing waitress. At that moment, the front window bulged and shattered. A column of muddy water the size of a Volkswagen deluged the first row of tables pushing everything toward me. It was an impossible sight.
With all of my shortcomings, the least was my ability to think quickly. People were being tossed like rag dolls. I grabbed Bunny’s hand. I pulled her toward the back door. She resisted for a second. I held on tight. The column of water nipped at our heals. I was the first to reach the back door. I rammed it like a linebacker. The door exploded. I stumbled through onto the hood of a maroon Thunderbird. My knee slammed the grille. I let go of Bunny’s hand. Water gushed out of the splintered door. I was back on my feet. A dozen people sloshed out behind me. Bunny sprinted across the lot. She wasn’t going to make it.
A flood was coming and I had one chance to save her. I sprinted through three inches of water for my Volkswagen, which was parked in the same direction Bunny was running. By the time I got to my car the water was halfway up my calves. Water splashed in as I opened the door, but when the door was closed any liquid would be forever sealed out.
Lucky for me, I was driving my Baja. If anything was going to hold in a flood, the Baja would. I’d chopped both front and back fenders and added the high water breathing kit to the carburetor and exhaust. I’d sealed every possible opening in the engine and transaxle.
This car went on three Baja 1000 runs. In my second race, I’d taken home twenty-seventh place. It wasn’t bad considering that ninety percent of cars never saw the finish. Without so much as a hesitant cough, my Baja went through three rivers and skated along hundreds of miles of sandy Sea of Cortez beaches. I didn’t know how much water was coming down the streets of Marysville, but I knew my car could make it in four-feet of river. I slid the key into the ignition and heard the purr of my little four-banger engine. When I slammed the shift into first, the car jumped ahead, pushing two feet of water. I turned right onto the street and drove to Bunny. She was frantically grinding her engine.
I rolled my window down. “I’ll get you out of here.”
She ignored me and continued to grind the starter.
I patiently waited one minute for the inevitable. When I heard a scream, I looked over and watched Bunny’s window open. In a fast second she’d climbed onto her roof.
I yelled over the pounding rain. “Come on, I’ll get you home.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Jump from your car to mine. I’ll let you in through the window on the other side.”
“Leave me alone!”
I’m a patient man, so I waited. Once in while I throttled the purring engine to make sure it was still running.
It took another minute before the water got high enough to leave her no choice. She leapt over and landed flat on my rounded roof. The metal caved but I didn’t mind. It was fitting that the woman of my dreams was on the roof of my car. That was all that counted. Getting her in would be another problem.
I rolled the shotgun window down and climbed across the seat. I stuck my head out and twisted around to see her.
“Come in feet first,” I yelled.
She lay flat and bellied her way over to the window.
In the time it took to position her to slide in the window, the water had risen another six inches. It might only be a moment before it poured through the opening.
As she pointed her feet toward the window, I grabbed her ankles and supported her slow progress into the car. She’d have to drop at least a foot to the edge. It was going to hurt. It might even crack her tailbone.
With a nervous reluctance, as she let go, I grabbed her upper thighs. Through the thunder of the rain, I heard a nails-on-chalkboard shriek as she kicked and struggled to climb out of the car.
It was my only chance. If she got back on the roof she would never get in and we would both be sunk. Determined to be a hero, I gritted my teeth, took three or four kicks to the chest, got a better grip on those luscious thighs and plucked her off the roof, all along trying to cushion her fall. She dropped hard onto the window edge crushing my fingers against the metal.
She slid into the car swinging, yelling obscenities and pulling her hiked up skirt back down toward her knees.
“You son-of-a-bitchin’ pervert,” she screamed fumbling for the door handle with one hand, pummeling me with the other. “Don’t ever touch me again or I’ll call the police.”
I held my arms up to protect myself.
A moment later, before she could find the handle, the first gush of water splashed over the open window. She stopped all movement, turned to look at the rising water, transferred her hand from the door handle to the window crank and rolled up the window.
Always the opportunist, I smiled and slid the shifter into first gear.
“Sorry to grab you like that. Didn’t know any other way to get you in.”
Once the car pulled out of the flooded parking lot and onto Laurel Boulevard, she went silent.
Along the boulevard, my Volkswagen found three low spots in the road and left the pavement each time. It bobbed and rotated, turning into what any observer might mistake for a large toilet bowl float. Each time the car looked like it may careen out of control and smash into telephone pole or parked car, it found pavement and the back wheels gave it direction again.
I turned on the dome light. “Where can I take you?”
She sulked, sitting scrunched against the door like a drenched and trapped animal.
I turned the heater on high.
After repeating the question three times, giving a long pause between each, Bunny finally said three sharp, short words, “Third and Donaldson.”
It wasn’t much, but it was an in. “Is that where you live?”
“My kids are with my mom.”
Okay, she was warming up. Could I keep the talk going?
“You got kids?”
Wow, all that and kids too! I was feeling lucky.
“If we can get to the tracks, we can slip over the trestle and find our way through the back streets.”
I was in my element now. I was a born hero and I was about to save my first damsel.
The car swam along Fifth Street toward the tracks. When we found solid ground again, I climbed a side street and across a vacant lot, then we bobbed once more. The car bucked and heaved as it floated through the turbulent lake toward the railroad tracks. Once we reached the thirty-foot high embankment, I gunned the engine and pulled the car out of the boiling lake onto dry land. I climbed the berm, turned left, straddled the tracks, stopped, reached under the dash and flipped the bilge pump switch.
In a few moments, three inches of water disappeared, leaving only soggy, original equipment rubber mats.
“We can get to your mom’s if we drive along the tracks for a mile and drop down on the far side.”
Her eyes were big, but she said nothing.
Riding over unevenly spaced railroad ties was not the best driving I’d experienced in a Volkswagen, but ride the rails we did. After a bone-jarring mile, I turned off the tracks and pointed the car down the long slopping grade. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we reentered the dark water. With the bilge pump running, my car could float indefinitely. As I eased into the water, the front wheels left the ground. Myself, the woman of my dreams, and my little canary Baja Volkswagen floated like a turtle along the very street I lived.
We reached my house in time to follow –like little ducks swimming in a row– four of my fully restored Volkswagens, also floating along the middle of the street.