Slow Squeeze(11)

By: Dianne Emley

“Damn, I’m good!” One of the Triumph’s spark plugs misfired as an exclamation point.

At Topanga Canyon Boulevard, she turned east and headed into the canyon. It was about nine o’clock and there wasn’t much traffic. The air temperature rose as she drove higher and deeper into the hills and farther away from the ocean. Her tires clattered over a wooden bridge that crossed a normally dry, small stream that now ran high due to the recent spate of winter storms. The canyon’s pine trees scented the air. The Pacific faded to the east; the asphalt sprawl of the San Fernando Valley was a threat to the west. The center of the canyon was a world apart.

She drove past a ramshackle fish restaurant where the shifting earth had tilted the building, slanting the wooden walls like a fun house. Patrons stepped over a large hound that slept across the doorway and were served fresh fish dinners on paper plates. Down the road, in front of a rock and roll emporium, chromed and polished motorcycles stood like dominoes. The bass downbeat of the house band rumbled through the Triumph’s chassis. Bikers were sprawled across redwood picnic tables scattered in front of the place, drinking beer, holding the bottlenecks between their crooked fingers, and carving yet more marks on the table tops with vicious knives. Some bikers looked for real and some looked like white-shirted bean counters by day trying to be born losers by night.

Iris turned onto Withered Canyon Road, John Somers’s street. There were no street lights, and she navigated the narrow, winding road by memory, by the TR’s bright beams, and by the light of the crescent moon shining blue-white in the smog-free January sky. She passed rustic houses nestled into the hillside or clinging to cliffs on the canyon side. The beat-up broken asphalt gave way to gravel that crunched under the TR’s tires until the gravel gave way to dirt and pine needles marked with tire tracks.

She parked in the residents’ visitor parking lot overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains, rolling hills black against the night sky. Beyond the mountains was a patch of twinkling lights that marked Pacific Coast Highway. Beyond that was the dense blackness of the Pacific. At night, there was more to feel and hear than there was to see.

She put the top up on the TR, took out a duffel bag, and locked her briefcase in the trunk. Two brown squirrels ran a few feet away from the car, then turned to watch her, their cheeks unevenly packed full of squirrely treasures.

She climbed the gravel road that lead to John Somers’s driveway. The gravel was damp, its normally dry, crackling retort muted by recent rains. The house was built in several levels against the side of the hill and could be seen from the top of his steep driveway but not from the road. It was a redwood-paneled rustic affair. John had replaced the shake roof with fire-resistant tile and each summer dutifully cleared the brush from a thirty-foot semicircle around the perimeter of the house to provide some protection against the canyon dwellers’ perennial fear: brush fires.

Iris walked around to the side of the house and used her key to enter a door that led to the kitchen. The kitchen was brightly lit but empty. When the bull terrier, Buster, didn’t rush in to bark and growl at her, never having warmed to her even after a year, Iris thought that maybe John had gone out and taken the dog with him. There was a pot on the stove and a ladle encrusted with red sauce lying in a spoon rest on the yellow and magenta tiled counter. There were more spoons and dirty white porcelain bowls in the sink. She lifted the pot lid and an aroma of cayenne pepper and onions arose. John had made chili. Iris was still hungry. She’d talked so much during dinner, she’d left most of her meal untouched.

She sat her bag down on the kitchen’s wood and brick floor and was ladling chili into a bowl when she heard laughter from the living room. She paused, holding the ladle in midair. She separated John’s voice from a second, female voice. It was Penny, John’s ex-wife.

“Oh, joy,” Iris muttered. She set the bowl on a matching white porcelain plate. Simple and utilitarian. Clean and practical. Like John.

She walked down the polished hardwood hallway, stepping more firmly than usual so that her footsteps announced her in advance. While she was walking past John’s scrubbed pine table in the dining room, Buster met her, barking all the more ferociously because of the indignity of having been caught off guard. The dog’s short white hair stood up on the back of his thick neck. He sniffed her feet and ankles, peered at her with one blue and one brown eye, then turned his head to give her the blue-eyed stare. His throat rumbled.