Doris decides to walk to the Pebbly Beach freight yard. The tug won’t be leaving for San Pedro for a couple of hours, and she has nothing but time. A white van passes her on the winding shoreline road from Avalon. The driver beeps its horn. She waves automatically. After 50-plus years on Catalina Island, everybody knows her. She and Jack spent rainy nights in the back of Luau Larry’s, nursing something alcoholic and listening to their neighbors’ stories. Now it’s the town’s turn to pay attention.
The wind wet with sea spray blows cold. She pulls her shawl tight around her slender body and fights to keep gray hair out of her eyes. Puffy clouds drift overhead and push up over the channel and the mainland, glowing pink in the afternoon light. The road’s gravel shoulder crunches under her sturdy shoes. At the freight yard, Julio comes out of his shack and joins her. He smells of bourbon.
“Sorry to hear about Jack. The county brought him down an hour ago. He’s all secured.”
“Thanks, Julio. Welch and Sons will be on the docks to meet the boat. Who’s the skipper today?”
“The new guy, McGregor. But the channel should stay flat, a real milk run.”
“What about those?” Doris points to the clouds.
“Yeah, they could mean somethin’. But it’s May. I can’t remember the last time we had a hard blow in May.”
She nods and stares at the three loaded barges tethered to the dock behind a stubby tugboat. She checks her watch.
“So you gonna, ya know … see him off?” Julio asks.
“Nah, I just wanted to make sure he … he made it here.”
“I’m real sorry, Doris. Everybody loved Jack … he’ll be missed.”
“Our daughters are flyin’ in from Boston. I’m going over-town on the 9:50 tomorrow to meet ’em at LAX.”
“You got somebody to watch your house?”
“Oh yeah, the whole street has been banging on my door all week. Juanita will feed my cats.”
They gaze across the freight yard at the 4:40 ferry entering Avalon Harbor. It’s packed with tourists, ready to enjoy a lively weekend on The Island of Romance. Fifty-three years ago, Jack brought his new bride, Doris, over on the Great White Steamer from Wilmington. The town of Avalon used to have a brass band that welcomed the incoming tourists while speedboats crisscrossed the harbor, pulling water skiers — beautiful girls in tight bathing suits. But all of that’s gone, replaced by huge cruise ships anchored off Lovers Cove, disgorging their throngs of Asian and European visitors.
“How long you gonna be over-town?” Julio asks.
“Maybe four days. The funeral’s the day after tomorrow.”
“Too bad Jack couldn’t stay on island.”
Doris sighs. “Yeah, if it was up to me, I’d spread his ashes over the channel, out beyond Abalone Point. But his sister wants to plant him in the ground with the rest of their family.”
“Huh. Well, let me know if I can help. You … you are comin’ back, aren’t you?”
Doris laughs. “I get a headache every time I go over-town. That damn LA smog and traffic is murder. But our oldest daughter wants me to go back to Boston with her. I don’t know … can’t decide.” She stares at the tugboat until their silence becomes awkward. “I’ll see ya, Julio.”
She tucks her long hair down the back of her blouse, tightens her shawl and walks toward Avalon. At Abalone Point she stares across the harbor at the round seaside Casino, glowing white in the fading sun. By the time she gets to the ferry landing, the inbound crowd has cleared out, whisked away by taxis to their hotels. The lights flick on under the palm trees along Crescent Avenue, the restaurants and bars already deep into their happy hours. Happy hours … Jeez, I could use a few of those.
Eric’s On The Pier has shuttered its windows for the night. Flags hang limply in the evening quiet. She thinks about going up canyon to their empty cottage, one of many tiny wooden boxes built on the flats between the wars.
But her stomach growls. Haven’t eaten since breakfast … need food. Walking behind a clot of tourists, she stops in front of the entrance to Steve’s Steakhouse & Seafood. The long staircase provides the only access to the second-floor restaurant with arched windows that look onto Avalon Harbor and the California mainland beyond. Jack had complained about not being able to eat there, the stroke confining him to a wheelchair those last two years. Doris grabs the banister and pulls herself up the stairs.
Gloria, the hostess, sees her coming and hurries to meet her, clasps an elbow in her warm brown hands, and helps Doris the rest of the way. “Next time just yell from the bottom and I’ll come getcha.”
“I want to do it by myself as long as I can.”
“I understand … and I’m so sorry about Jack.”
“Thanks, Gloria. Now, please find me a window seat and a Cadillac margarita.”
The crowded restaurant rumbles with the sound of boisterous tourists waiting at the bar to be seated. But Gloria takes her to a table for two that offers the finest view of the harbor. A huge margarita appears before her along with a menu. She grins and gulps the tart cocktail, the best in town, then stares at the food selection. An age-spotted hand touches her arm, and she looks up. It’s Steve, the owner.
“Doris, how are you doing?” He kneels beside her. His thick silver hair flows back from a forehead that’s a study in deep crevasses and wrinkles. But his gray eyes remain clear. He grins, showing off full dentures.
“I’m doing good, Steve. Everybody’s been so … so kind.”
“Well, you and Jack were always nice to all of us, the best Post Office people we’ve ever had.”
“Yeah, we liked working all those years, even during Vietnam when we’d watch for draft notices from the Selective Service.”
“The new people at the Post Office are good. But Jack had a way of … of, ya know, connecting.”
“Yes, he missed coming here … but those last years he couldn’t get up the stairs.”
“You should have told me … we could have fixed a plate to go.”
“It wasn’t just the food he missed. It was this place and … and you.”
“Yeah, I miss him too.” Steve sucks in a deep breath and forces a smile. “So what are you gonna do now?”
“I don’t know. My daughters want me to move back East. I’m going over-town tomorrow to meet them at the airport.”
“You’re not actually thinking of moving, are you?”
Doris stares out the window at the blue, pink, and gold mainland. “I … I don’t know. I’ve been here so long. But I’m … I’m old, and old goats move near their kids.”
“Do you need help?”
“Sometimes. But I guess I’ve learned from Jack to make do.”
“Yeah, I get that. You’re tough, Doris.”
“Not that tough.”
Steve bows his head and stands. Someone calls his name and he hurries away, a broad grin pasted on his face.
Doris orders her favorite dinner, the seafood platter, and another margarita. Anita hasn’t cleared away the extra place setting across from her. She stares at the empty wine glass, the neatly arranged silverware and smiles, pictures Jack gulping a glass of cabernet and ravaging the bread basket while telling an oft-told tale about his early days as a South Coast fisherman.
Outside, the purple night closes in on the little town. A gust of wind slams the picture window next to Doris, and she jumps. Palm trees bend in the squall and drop dry fronds onto the beach. Tourists along Crescent Avenue scurry for cover as the rain drenches Avalon. Whitecaps cover the once-calm San Pedro Channel. The little tugboat chugs through the tortured sea, towing its precious cargo; its running lights twinkle in the gloom.
Doris sips her margarita, eats a humongous piece of mud pie, and asks Anita for the check. But the waitress shakes her head. “Complements of Steve … and … and me. I’m sorry for your loss. You were always kind to me as a kid, my first babysitter.”
“Yikes, the years sure flow by so fast. You were such a … a …”
“Go ahead and say it, a brat. I realize how bad I was, now that I have rug rats of my own. You should visit us sometimes. We’d love to have you join us for dinner.”
“Thanks, Anita. That would be great.”
Doris descends the stairs slowly with Gloria at her elbow for support. The wind howls, sending litter flying along the street. She wraps her shawl tight and pushes westward, past closed shops and crowded bars and restaurants, their patrons seemingly ignorant of the gale outside, much less the one inside Doris.
At Metropole Avenue she turns up canyon. The lights from Vons Grocery spill across the sidewalk. Even in the storm, the place hums with customers — business owners and employees doing their after-work shopping before going home. She pushes her way down the narrow wall aisle and pulls a bottle of cheap tequila from the shelf, grabs some batteries for her flashlight, a jar of Folgers, a box of powered-sugar donuts, and waits in line at Pedro’s check stand. He works fast, his head down, scanning each item with a practiced grace.
“So where’s Chico tonight?” he asks Estella, the woman in front of Doris.
“No lo sé. Probably messin’ ’round with his friends.”
“Yeah, I hardly see my own son, even on school nights.”
“We’re lucky we live on an island. We’d never see those fools if we lived over-town. Oh, hello Doris. How are you doin’?”
Doris raises her tired face and smiles. “Okay … one foot in front of the other, ya know.”
Estella places a hand on her shoulder. “I’m walkin’ your way after I’m done here. Do you want some company?”
“Sure. But I’m about talked out.”
“That’s okay. You know me, I can talk for both of us.”
Pedro charges Doris only $5 for the groceries. She’s too tired to protest and thanks him for the discount. The sky over Avalon has cleared. She wanders up canyon, with Estella at her side chattering about sons and daughters, ex-husbands, and the snooty German tourists that leave 5 percent tips at the Pancake Cottage.
They stop in front of Doris’ house. “You want me to come in for a while?” Estella asks.
“No, I’m fine. I need to pack. I’m over-town tomorrow.”
“Well, you’d better not be gone for long. Who else am I gonna complain to about my idiot kids? I should pay you instead of that shrink I’m seeing in Long Beach.”
Doris gives Estella a hug, the woman not wanting to let go, then ducks inside her cottage. She nearly trips over Estupido, her chocolate-brown cat who often forgets where his litter box is kept and makes unfortunate deposits throughout the house. She clicks on the kitchen light and her other cat, Rosalia, glares at her from the top of the refrigerator.
She fills their bowls with kibble, mixes a strong drink, and sits in front of the TV, thinking. Boston … could I handle snow after all these years away from it? And Sarah can be such a control freak. She’s been hiding gray hairs for years with those ugly dye jobs. Nobody has that shade of red hair. Still, it’d be nice to be close to her and the grandkids, to have somebody in the house with me or at least close by. And I won’t be able to walk to the grocery too much longer. I’ll have to get one of those electric carts to roll over people’s toes on the sidewalk.
In her mind, Doris tallies the pros and cons, the physical and emotional pluses and minuses of moving in with her oldest daughter’s family. But the arithmetic still doesn’t satisfy, and the effort exhausts her. At midnight, she folds back the covers and slips into bed, dizzy from the booze and the constant mental battles. Estupido climbs onto her chest, tickles her cheek with his whiskers and purrs. In a minute, Rosalia lies across her legs, the two cats effectively pinning her to the mattress.
She dozes. The bedside phone rings. Doris jerks upward, sending the cats into sub-orbital flight with the maximum of squabbling. She fumbles in the dark for the receiver. The person on the other end speaks gibberish.
“Whoever you are, slow down. I can’t understand … and English, please.”
“Sorry, Doris. This is … is Julio.”
The poor man sounds like he’s not sure. “What’s going on, Julio? Didn’t the funeral guys show up in San Pedro to claim the body?”
“Oh, they were there all right … but they didn’t need to be.”
Doris sits up, wide awake. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, it’s like this, that freak squall turned the last barge broadside to the swell and snapped its towline.”
“The tugs carry spare lines, don’t they?”
“Yes … yes. But the barge listed hard to port. The containers broke free and …”
“And what, Julio?”
“They sank. I’m … I’m sorry but Jack’s at the bottom of the channel, over 2,000 feet down.”
In the darkness, Doris feels her face split with a grin and she chokes back the laughter that wants to explode. “It doesn’t sound like Jack wanted to leave the island either.”
“What … what are you talking about?”
“Don’t worry, Julio. I’ll speak with you in the morning. I have some grave-side services to cancel and some phone calls to make to my daughters. I won’t be going over-town after all. They can come to me.”