Marty Macken leans forward a little in his chair, crosses one leg over the other. We’ve been going over the details of our contract for the last two hours, and his excitement continually pulses toward me in small bursts. To my surprise, the benefits of partnering with Marty have so far had very little to do with future income.
Marty’s been rubbing his hand across the lower half of his face, then smoothing the curling hair at the nape of his neck and he repeats the motions, one eye cocked in my direction.
“You’re from the city of angels, you say?”
I chuckle, the grin on my face feeling as rubbery and broad as it does when I receive what I consider real praise from my pops.
“This is not a gift,” I say, “this benefits us both.”
Marty Macken shakes his head, suddenly springs to his feet like he’s lost the fight with himself to sit still. “But...I’m getting most of the profit in this deal.”
I stand too. “That’s true, for now. Once you hit a certain profit margin, I’ll get a bigger piece of the pie, but the cost to you is the control. I honestly had no idea how you might respond to becoming business partners since you’ve never had to answer to anyone about your bar before.”
A grin breaks across Marty’s narrow face at the same time a gruff chuckle rumbles out of his throat. “Young man, you’ve clearly never been married.”
I laugh too, gripping the leathery hand he offers. “No sir, I have not.”
“This was little Livy’s idea?” The look in his eyes is so full of pride; I feel the weight of my Adam’s apple bob in my throat. Nathan Weiss had left some strong grandfather-like figures in Olivia’s life. Marty Macken, Sam, even old Bud Pederson talked about her as though they could claim her as their own.
Marty shakes his head again. “She’s pretty special, that one.” He gives me a sidelong glance as if to gauge whether or not I’ve noticed this.
I grin, hand him the stack of papers I’ve already tucked into a folder. “If you have any more questions about the contracts please reach out to me. I’d be happy to have my attorneys reach out to yours as well.”
I follow Marty out of my office and then to the front door of the hotel. He turns toward me as he slips into his fall jacket. The temperatures have dropped since Halloween night, and midday in Tomahawk Hill now feels like a cool evening in LA. The knowledge that fall is here and snow is sure to come with the winter fill me with childlike anticipation.
“Say, have you given any thought to the diner in your plans?”
“I have,” I say thoughtfully. “I’ve been running into Therese pretty often at the diner around lunchtime. Thought if I didn’t see her today, I might give her a call.”
Marty Macken’s brows lift in an expression of surprise. “No one’s told you?”
I feel sharply alert. “Told me? Has something happened?”
“She’s at home resting now, but she took a tumble off a horse on Friday, went home with a broken leg, a bad bruise to her tailbone. Brenda’s been staying up there since Saturday helping out.”
I’d been holed up in my place since Friday, ordering pizza from a delivery place in Nebraska City a couple of times, eating leftovers the rest. I’d taken to running up the bluff, so I hadn’t even been to town until this morning for breakfast. I had thought it unusual not to see Brenda, but Dana hadn’t mentioned anything when I’d popped my head into the kitchen to say, ‘hello,’ and I’d had so many things to deal with this morning I’d thought nothing of Brenda’s absence.
It was still foreign to me, this sense that my world now revolved around the same main cast of characters.
“Is there anything I can do?” I say, but I’m already reaching for my phone. “Olivia and her parents know?”
“Therese’s son is making plans to come on down next weekend to stay and take care of her until she’s able to move around independently. I think between me, Sam and Brenda we’ve got her covered until her son gets here.”
“You can count me in, too,” I say, wondering how Therese is feeling.
My grandfather had dislocated his hip last year, and it had put him under a mild depression. Physically he had recovered just fine, but the injury had reminded him that he was officially past retirement age and I had begun to see a difference in him. From the outside, the changes might appear positive. Gradually, he’d stepped back from some of his duties at Hurst, incorporated tennis into his weekly visits to the Wilshire Country Club and cut back on his drinking. But it seemed to me his actions were propelled by fear, rather than a real desire to live better.
The bell tinkles above my head as I duck into the diner, the hum of the lunch crowd and the aroma of hamburgers and grilled onions at this hour as inviting to me as walking into my own kitchen. I make a bee-line for an available booth close to the back. Nearly every table is full, and I know Dana, and her short-order cook must be scrambling. I don’t recognize the waitress coming toward me with her pen in hand, a shy smile on her face. She looks college-age, frazzled.
“Hi, I’m Alejandra. What can I get for you?”
“Hey, Alejandra. I’d like the burger, fries, chocolate malt.” I smile at her. “You must be new.”
She shakes her head, causing her black ponytail to swish. “I go to the community college a few towns over and pick-up part-time work around here when I can.” She gives me a tentative look. “So, I guess that means you’re new’.”
I stretch my hand toward her, and she tucks her notebook and pen into her apron pocket so she can take it.
“Jake Hurst. Mucho gusto.”
Her winged brows lift in happy surprise. “El gusto es mio. You really aren’t from around here.”
“Los Angeles,” I say.
She sighs wistfully. “Someday.” She straightens as someone calls, “oh, miss?” and slips her notebook back into her hand. She gives me a confident smile this time. “I’ll be back soon, with your lunch.”
I look toward the door as a lanky guy comes through it, his head colliding with the same bell I’d avoided earlier, making it jangle spastically. I smile, raise my hand to get his attention. The way he pushes his glasses up on the ridge of his nose before he lopes toward me makes me think of a driver, paying a toll before hitting the gas.
Eli, Therese’s assistant, has serious blue eyes framed by thick plastic rims and a crop of unruly hair that gives him perpetual bedhead. What the boy needs is a good haircut.
“What’s going on, Eli?” I say. “Want to join me for lunch? I just ordered.”
He slides into the booth across from me, smiling in a way that is both anxious and hopeful. “I guess it depends?”
I give Eli a cursory look. Today, he’s more dressed-up than I’ve yet to see him. Taking inventory of the stock in the diner kitchen, running files up to Therese on the bluff for signatures, he wears t-shirts and flannel and jeans. Sitting in front of me now in his black sports jacket, blue button-down, and khaki pants, I think I know what he’s after.
Before I can respond, Alejandra reappears at the table. She addresses Eli but barely looks up from her pad of paper, preoccupied with making notes. “Can I get you something?”
I have to clear my throat to keep from laughing. It is as though Eli’s face has absorbed all of the color from the ketchup container sitting between us.
His typically loose frame has taken on the rigidness of our tabletop. “Uh...” he gulps. He reaches for the menu (clearly stalling for time), and after what feels like two minutes, finally gives up and gives me a beseeching look.
“Eli here will have what I’m having.” Looking only at me, Alejandra smiles. “No problem.” With that, she swishes away.
When I turn back to Eli, I can’t hold my amusement in any longer. The boy is a puddle. “Man, you have got it bad! Here, take this napkin.”
The look Eli gives me is so miserable; I want to hug him. “I will be your intern without pay for life, if you’ll teach me how to be as smooth as you are with women.”
I smirk. “It seems unfair that teaching you to say, ‘hi, I’ll have a burger and fries,’ should indebt you to me for life.”
Eli shakes his head, his body once again a loose composition of joints and muscle. “I didn’t even know she spoke English until today.”
“What in the...”
“Oh no!” Eli says, looking appalled. “Not because she’s Hispanic. It’s just, I have said ‘hello’ to her before, and she always gives me this blank look, like she doesn’t understand what I’m saying.”
I start chuckling again, reach across and give him a light punch on the shoulder. “I’m guessing you’d like to work for me in some capacity.”
All of the doubt that’s crept into Eli’s face during his interaction with Alejandra evaporates as I bring up the subject of a job.
“I’m no good with women... obviously, but Therese can tell you, I am an excellent assistant. I’ve only been working for her since Mr Weiss passed, but he’s the one who hired me to be his intern. I’m ready to work full time now, and what little Therese has for me isn’t enough to help me move out of my mom’s garage. I’ve been managing Therese’s responsibilities with Nate’s Bar and Grill as well as the diner fairly autonomously.” His eyes grow hopeful again. “Anything you’d like to teach me about starting a business, building a hotel, getting girls...I want to learn it. And I want to learn from the best.”
I reach my hand across the table, and he takes it, gives it a firm squeeze. “Paid trial for one week, and then we can discuss terms. Sound good to you?”
“I can start right now!” And with that, Eli reaches into his backpack and pulls out his laptop like it’s attached to his fingertips. “What do you want me to do first, boss?”
“First off,” I say, gesturing to his laptop like he’s about to put dirty shoes on the table. “Get that out of here. We’re having lunch, and that means no work. Second, don’t call me ‘boss.’ It makes me feel old, and I can’t be more than ten years older than you.”
He grins, the excitement of youth and the taste of victory making him bold. “Whatever you say, boss.”
I wave to Eli as he lopes across the street to his candy red Ford sedan. It’s got to be his mom’s, I think to myself, grinning. He awkwardly folds his long limbs into the driver’s seat. If it all worked out with Eli, I’d look into getting him a proper company vehicle.
I turn back to my office, a rectangular box of light in the otherwise dark hotel lobby. It hadn’t been difficult to locate the source of the electrical problem on the lower level of the hotel, but it was taking several days to get it fixed. While my prefab office was fully functional on its own, I’d thought it would look nice and a bit less gloomy, to have the lower level of the hotel lit as well. Not to mention, much safer, I think, as I stumble across a loose floorboard located less than a foot from the door to my office.
My cell vibrates to tell me I have new messages. I slip it out of the pile of files I’d been showing Eli. From the look of the jumbled papers and blueprints on my desk, I wonder how I could’ve thought I’d survive another week without help.
Tomorrow, Eli would set appointments with a few of the local business owners who operated off of Main Street: the local market, the historic theater, and the Tropical Palm.
Eli had been especially interested in my ideas for the motel. “Alejandra’s mom works there,” he’d said. He’d given me an intent look, his eyes unblinking behind his glasses. “You’re not trying to monopolize this town and turn it into your private piggy bank, are you?”
“Is that what people think of me?”
Eli had shrugged. “After that town hall meeting last month, the business owners got pretty nervous. I’ve heard people talking around town. They seem to think they’ll all be out of work in no time with the new businesses you’ll be bringing down here.”
“It’s up to them if they want to stay in business or not,” I’d told him.
I wasn’t planning to get involved with the rest of the business owners as I had with Marty Macken or as I hoped, with Therese, but I did want to talk to them all about their survival.
“Ultimately, I’ve got to do what’s best for my hotel, Eli. New restaurants will want to come here; boutiques will be attracted to this town. The locals can join up with the larger vision and ensure their future, or they can resist, and know they’ll be out of business in two years, replaced by someone offering the same thing as they are now, but better, and branded to support my resort.”
Eli had looked a little sick.
“Think you’ve got the stomach for it?” I’d said, placing a hand on his shoulder.
I could see that his thoughts were in tumult, but he’d nodded, Eli’s smile, a question; as though he knew he was about to sound too dramatic. “It’s like you’re saying the world is going to end, and you’re giving them the chance to be on the surviving side before it’s too late.”
I’d nodded grimly. “The truth is, the world as they know it is going to end. I need you to help me convince them just how true that is.”
My watch says it’s nearly nine — time to get home, relax. Back in Pacific time, I’d be putting on a fresh shirt with plans to go out to dinner with friends, walking to my favorite bar just off the pier with Cesar, possibly going out with a girl— if I happened to be seeing someone. Mid-week I might stay in, but living in a city like LA, in the middle of Santa Monica as I had? Going out was as compulsive as the tide coming in every night.
As I go through the motions of turning off the lights, closing the curtains, locking the front door, and step into the quiet evening, I brace myself for a wave of nostalgia. It’s been nearly two months now since I moved, and I anticipate missing LA and my life there almost every day. But as I walk to my truck, listen to the staccato of my boot heels on the pavement, the air bursting with cricket song and the distant sound of semis hauling, the peace that I feel says I won’t.
I’d parked at the diner this morning, and I see that the cleaning lady is in the process of turning off the lights. By the time I reach my truck, only the glow of the “closed” sign and the light seeping from the appliances in the kitchen are visible through the diner windows.
I’m surprised by someone walking around the corner of the diner, and that’s when I notice that Dana’s light blue Toyota is parked next to my truck out front.
Seeing her golden head, the attractive sight of her in tight blue jeans and a buttery yellow sweatshirt, her face fresh and smiling; her presence as warm and sure as my cottage on the bluff-- I realize there is something I miss very, very much and it’s taken the pleasure of seeing her to remind me of exactly what that is.
“I could use a drink after a day like today,” she says in her characteristically open manner. She looks down the block toward Marty Macken’s bar, Blue Moon. “I’m meeting a couple of friends there now. Care to join us?”