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From LOVE STORIES ARE TOO VIOLENT FOR ME


1

Heart Full of Rain

San Francisco, 1994

PEOPLE TELL ME I live in the past. We all live in the past, I tell them. We just don’t know it yet.

My name is Vic Valentine. Half Italian, half Irish. Vic is sometimes short for Victor, sometimes for Victim. It all depends on when you ask. I’m a P.I. specializing in surveillance of errant spouses and sweethearts. My office is in the Richmond District of San Francisco, right above a combination bar and video store called The Drive-Inn. I have a long line of credit there, and the proprietor, a forty-something black guy named Doc Schlock for business purposes, is an old pal of mine. We both share a penchant for old monster and detective movies, particularly the cheesy ones, and many of the customers who frequent the place are more drawn to the conversations over hooch than to the film selection. There’s a big screen TV behind the bar like in any other neighborhood pub, except this one never plays sports, only cheap thrills. A lot of loner types sit at the mahogany bar, surrounded by strange video images and memorabilia from seventy-odd years of cult cinema, and pour their hearts out to Doc, who listens and laughs and nods sympathetically. I often listen as well to their tales of heartbreak and loneliness and dejection, until it gets to be too much for me, and I turn a deaf ear on them and focus on the blood and guts and sex on the TV screen, trying to block out the mayhem and dismemberment of the human soul beside me.

I have a weak heart. I admit it. Tell anyone and I’ll kill you.

It’s foggy a lot out in the Richmond, as any native will tell you. I like it that way. I find the mist soothing, and at night I enjoy being snug in my apartment, which doubles as my office, engulfed in marine melancholia. The isolation gets to me, however, especially now, after everything that happened. I dream about it all the time. The memory won’t fade in the sun like mist.

I still don’t understand it. Maybe it will make sense to you. But I doubt it. It’s a story with no clear-cut beginning or end.

I told Doc all about it. It unfolded day by day for him, like a soap opera. Well, almost day by day. There were a few detours that took me out of town on some senseless sojourns, and I lost touch with him briefly. But I always returned to The Drive-Inn to fill him in, and he always appreciated it. He doesn’t get it, though, and he’s a wise man.

It’s nice to have someone to talk to, who listens, even if it isn’t the person you really want to talk to, who refuses to listen to you. Doc is my surrogate confidant. He fills that capacity for a lot of people around town. He has no Ph.D. in psychology, just a well-rounded understanding of human nature that probably comes from growing up poor and black in Oakland. Rejection comes in many forms, but has virtually the same effect on anyone it touches, whether it be racial discrimination or romantic tragedy. Any way it comes at you, it leaves you broken and feeling alone in a world that doesn’t want you.

Doc’s love life is still a mystery to me. He never talks about it. Maybe he lives vicariously through his patrons, or his videos, though he doesn’t stock traditional love stories. He hates that saccharin crap. I don’t blame him.

It was about six months ago at the beginning of the rainy season that I met the first catalyst in this story, a Major League baseball player named Tommy Dodge, believe it or not, but I’ve changed his name slightly to protect the guilty, in case you’ve heard of him. Though I found out later he was something of a local celebrity, being a left fielder for the Giants, I’d never heard of him myself. Not directly, anyway. He was a tall, dark, handsome guy, the kind I hate immediately since you know his only real romantic problems probably stem from over-exertion. When I met him he was somewhat on the skids, having been bounced from the Majors temporarily back to the minors, though still Triple A. I didn’t know at the time since my interest in sports is limited to bowling, but there’s Single A, Double A, and Triple A, depending on your talent. Tommy Dodge’s problem was that while he was AAA in the minors, he was AA off the field. He’d always had a drinking problem, but that only got worse after his wife, whose name he told me was Rose, disappeared one day with only a cryptic note in her wake. He wanted me to find her. That’s where this story begins, a story I wish had never happened, in some ways. In other ways, it was inevitable, a collision course with a fate both cruel and seductive, an investment that you made a long time ago and had written off as a complete loss but which comes back to haunt you, torment you, and cause you to regret the best days of your life.

If life is a learning experience, I want to drop out. I can’t afford the tuition anymore.

I was watching an ultra-violent Hong Kong gangster flick called Hard-Boiled on the big

screen TV when Tommy Dodge walked in and sat beside me. It was the off-season and he lived nearby. I didn’t know this right away. Like I said, I didn’t recognize him as anything but a big, good-looking athletic type who probably just had to stand still and women would be clinging to him like beautiful barnacles. I hated him at first sight and tried to ignore him, but his bulk and bad mood began to grate on me. We just sat next to one another while Chow Yun Fat wasted a warehouse full of Uzi-toting badasses. It was a while before I noticed the guy was sobbing. Personally, gunfights never break me up. Watching guys blow each others’ limbs and heads off doesn’t faze me. But tie me up and force me to watch Romeo and Juliet, the one with Olivia Hussey, and I’ll choke on my own vomit.

Doc took notice of the weeping giant, who kept ordering shots of tequila with beer chasers. It seemed after a while Doc could’ve recycled the guy’s tears as booze. He kept tossing back the stuff like it was fuel for his leaking eyeballs. He looked like hell, actually—unshaven, mussy hair, and bloodshot eyes, though on a guy like him this kind of appearance made him look appealingly vulnerable to most women. If it were me, I’d look like a pathetic slob. It’s all a matter of showcase and perspective. I find women only like vulnerability in a man they haven’t conquered yet. As it turned out, Tommy Dodge had been conquered by the only woman he wanted. He could have parlayed this into a smorgasbord of meaningless sex, but for some reason he didn’t want to take advantage of it. Otherwise, why would he be sitting here on a rainy day in December instead of lying entwined with a model beside a fireplace in Marin? The Drive-Inn was for losers, after all, and Tommy Dodge didn’t look like a loser. He just acted like one. Despite myself, I became interested and I went with it. Maybe I smelled a job. Of course, I got a lot more than that, as it turned out, so maybe I sensed my own destiny and couldn’t help getting sucked into the vortex. I was a victim of conspiring circumstances. In any case, I spoke up, and the rest just happened on its own.

“I don’t mean to sound insensitive,” I said rather snidely, “but you’re drowning out the dialogue.”

“It’s Chinese,” he shot back without looking at me, obviously resenting my intrusion.

“With subtitles,” Doc said, raising his eyebrows in bemusement.

“Except for the screaming,” I said. “That’s a universal lingo.”

The big guy didn’t seem interested in pursuing this conversation as it started, so I re-routed it, largely out of curiosity, and largely out of boredom. “The Doc is a great guy to talk to about personal problems,” I said.

The big guy looked at me. “What’re you, his fuckin’ press agent?”

“Sorta, yeah,” I said, trying to act nonplussed when in fact he was intimidating as hell even while overcome with grief. “Doc, talk him off the ledge?”

“Hey, I just walked in to get out of the rain,” the big guy said. “I’m looking for the guy upstairs, the detective guy, not a goddamn shrink. All right?” He finished his third beer and pulled out his wallet. “I don’t need this.”

“Whoa, whoa, easy does it, guy, just settle down,” Doc said. “Don’t go away mad. My friend here is the guy upstairs.”

“Only I’m downstairs,” I said. “I’m the dick you’re looking for.”

Tommy Dodge looked at me for a beat, as if sizing up a blind date that seriously disappointed him. Then he said, “Oh,” and sat back down, putting his wallet away. “I’m Tommy Dodge,” he said, extending his hand for a shake. “I’m, uh . . . I’ve been drinking since, well, for a few days and nights, actually. I like to drink. But it makes me rude. I apologize.”

I shrugged. “Don’t sweat it. I’m Vic Valentine.”

“Yeah, you said. That a fake name?”

“No. How about yours?”

“No, why?”

“Just thought I’d ask. Have another round on me, and relax.”

“Coffee time,” Doc said, pouring a steaming cup of java for both Tommy and me. “On the house. You guys talk shop all you want. My man Vic here is hardly ever in the office. It’s a wonder he gets any business at all.”

“Tell the truth, I was having second thoughts,” Tommy Dodge said. “About hiring a detective, I mean. I probably wouldn’t have come back. It’s weird you were sittin’ here, and I just came in and found you. If you hadn’t spoken up, I woulda walked right out and never saw you again probably. Rose believes in that kinda stuff. Karma. You heard of that?”

“It’s in my face all the time,” I said. “Who’s Rose?”

“My wife. Here.” He pulled his wallet back out and showed me a picture. Actually, it was an old photo that had been torn up and taped back together. I could make him out easily enough, but the woman with him, ostensibly Rose, was hard to discern. She was obviously quite a looker—sultry, slender, radiantly brunette. Something vaguely disturbed me about her visage, but I couldn’t decide what and let it go, at least for the time being. I remember a danger siren going off in my head, a flutter in my heart and a feeling in my stomach like someone had plugged me and I was slowly bleeding to death, but I get this sensation several times a day, so I was used to it. This time I should’ve paid more attention to it.

“She’s . . . very attractive, near as I can tell,” I said, mesmerized momentarily by the photo.

Tommy pulled it out of my hand and looked at it. “I got better pictures of her. At home. I live close by and I was just walkin’ around the neighborhood. I saw the sign in your window up there, and I thought, what the hell?” He put the photo back in his wallet. He wasn’t crying now but his face exhibited a calm sadness that almost made me feel sorry for him. It was the look of defeat. I’d seen it too often in life. Particularly in the mirror. “Rose sure loved old movies,” he said softly. “I didn’t know too much about that stuff. She was into artsy stuff. Sometimes I wonder what the fuck she ever saw in a guy like me.”

I let that pass. “I’m picking up on an accent. You from back east?”

He nodded. “Pittsburgh. I used to play for the Pirates, but I got traded.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Hmm . . . six years. You never heard of me?”

“I’m not a sports fan. Pirates are baseball, right?”

He laughed, then caught himself. “Sorry. Yeah. I play for the Giants now. Well, I did. I’m back on the farm until I get myself together.”

“You keep referring to Rose in the past tense,” I said. “Is she . . . gone?”

“Hey, you’re pretty good,” he said.

“No, I mean gone, as in, y’know . . . dead?”

He looked at me curiously. “Why would I hire you to find her if she was dead?”

“I don’t know, the way you’re all broken up, I thought maybe you got framed for her murder and wanted me to find the guy who set you up. Somethin’ like that.”

He shook his head, laughing softly. “Boy, this is just like one of those old movies Rose used to watch on cable. Those old black and white things. They always bored the shit out of me, but I pretended I was into ’em so we could cuddle up and watch ’em late at night.”

“Sounds nice,” I said, looking into my empty beer glass. Doc took the cue and refilled it for me. He had turned down the sound of the video. Doc also didn’t want to miss anything. This was getting good, although I still had that tingling sensation of dread coursing through my veins like poison. I took a swig of my beer and hoped I’d piss it all out later.

“So, you want me to find Rose, huh?” I said after a few silent moments.

“I dunno,” he said into his shot glass. He was practically licking the bottom with his massive tongue. And he wondered what she saw in him. It’s funny how a guy like him wouldn’t know women better than that. Maybe he did when he was sober. And maybe Rose would be waiting for him back in his digs since she missed that big ol’ tongue of his too much. Women only like their independence when all the men around them are bums. But then I was beginning to wonder about this Tommy Dodge—maybe the big guy was a bum, after all.

“You don’t know if you want me to find her or you don’t know if you ever want to see her again?”

“Oh, I’ll die if I never see her again,” he said patly. “I’ll fuckin’ die.”

“In that case maybe I should help you out, best as I can. This is what I do, after all.”

“I’m, uh, kinda broke,” he said quietly. “The minors are quite a comedown, salary-wise. I got a little saved from last season, I mean before I got sent down, but . . . I wanted to save it for a trip to Hawaii.”

“What’s in Hawaii? I mean besides Don Ho and Jack Lord?”

“That’s where I went with Rose on our honeymoon. I want to take her there again, try to get things back to how they were before . . .” He faded away.

“Before what?”

“Before she fuckin’ vanished on me. I mean like into thin fuckin’ air.”

“When’s the last time you heard from her?”

“I got a letter she left the day she skipped out, and a postcard about a month ago.”

“Where was the postcard from?”

“Here. Frisco. It drove me nuts to think she was so close. She loves it here. But then she grew up around here, so I doubt she’d leave the area, anyway.”

“Where’d she grow up, exactly?” I asked.

“Up north a bit,” he said. “Vallejo. Her old man was in the Army.”

“You mean the Navy.”

“Whatever.”

“She’s into the arts but she grew up in a military household?”

“Yeah. Go figure. But she was a lotta fun, y’know? Really down to earth, like the girls back home. You from back east?”

“New York,” I said. “Been a long time, though.”

“You sound like it,” he said. “Why’d you come out here?”

“It’s a long, sad story,” I said. Something about this was beginning to seriously disturb me, and I had trouble listening to him now.

“Aren’t they all,” he said.

“All what?”

“Long, sad stories.”

I sighed. “Seems that way. So Rose is from Vallejo, huh?”

“Yup.”

“You try getting in touch with her folks there?”

“Naw. They moved away a long time ago after her old man retired. I don’t know where. Florida, I think. I don’t think they liked me very much.”

“Why not? You’re the all-American hero. Ballplayer and all.”

He looked at me closely to see if I was being sarcastic. Fortunately he was either too drunk or too dumb to pick up on it. “Yeah. Well, they used to like me, until I married their daughter. I don’t think they ever trusted me. I think they wanted Rose to be a nurse and marry a doctor or somethin’. Fuckin’ suburbia. You know how it is.”

“Not really. I grew up in the city.” Brooklyn. Close enough.

“I grew up in a town outside Pittsburgh, really. I know the score. Small towns are the same all over. Full of scared, stupid people.”

“Doesn’t sound like Rose was either.”

He nodded. “No. Rose was different. She was down to earth, like I said, only really, really smart. She had a brain, y’know?”

“Maybe she still does,” I said. There’s that past tense again.

“It’s not her brain I miss, though,” he said seriously.

“Oh? So what do you miss about her?”

“Her heart. She had—has—a really good heart. It just got cold sometimes. Like it’s covered with ice. All of a sudden she’d go from being the sweetest, funniest, funnest girl I ever met to an ice-cold bitch from hell. I couldn’t keep up with her.”

“Just moody. Or that time of month.”

He shot me a deadly look that collapsed quickly. “Naw. These weren’t like moods, like regular people get. I mean it was like she had two personalities. She kinda spooked me sometimes.”

“You think she might be . . .” I was trying to be delicate about this. “You know, schizo?”

His eyes flashed angrily, and I grew tense. “You mean like loony?”

“Well, not exactly loony.” I swallowed hard. “Just confused. Unbalanced a little. Emotionally. Not mentally, necessarily. Just mixed up a bit, beyond her control.”

He let out a long, boozy sigh. “I dunno. Maybe. I mean I saw bits and pieces of this before we were married, but it was after we got married that she really started acting strange. But I figured, she’s an artist, she isn’t like regular people.”

“So that’s the distinction, then.”

“Huh?”

“I was just wondering why you had disassociated her from the rest of us mortals.”

“Are you bein’ wise with me? I mean, I really can’t tell.”

“Tell you the truth, neither can I sometimes.”

“Well, don’t be. I’m not in the mood for a wiseass.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said warily. “So Rose was, is, an artist. What kind?”

“Whaddya mean, what kind?”

“I mean what type of art did she do?”

“Oh. All kinds. Painting, mostly. But she wrote poetry, too. Had a few published in some magazines I never heard of. I never really understood ’em but I could tell they were really good, y’know?”

“Uh-huh.” I couldn’t shake this feeling of foreboding. The beer just gave it something to swim in. Upstream, to my brain, which was pounding out SOS signals I chose to ignore. Or maybe my heart was sending them. I couldn’t tell anymore. I always get those two organs confused, and I never listen to the right one. The signals they send me get jammed by too many conflicting wavelengths. Maybe that’s why I love the fog and the mist. It makes me feel like a ship lost at sea, trying to follow the lighthouse beacon that seems to go out just when I’m almost safe at shore. Then the rocks break me up and I’m drowning. I have dreams like this almost every night. There seemed to be no escaping them. I was lost in these thoughts as Tommy Dodge talked Doc into refilling his shot glass one more time. I hadn’t even touched the coffee he had given me and passed on another beer. I was beginning to realize it wasn’t the Tommy Dodges of the world I resented. It was myself.

The rain beat down outside in a biblical deluge. Tears from heaven, like there weren’t enough down here to go around. All this wetness reminded me I had to take a leak. Doc lets me use his bathroom in the back. I don’t like public restrooms. For some reason I can’t piss if anyone else is around. Too self-conscious, I guess. So I went to relieve my neurotic bladder, and when I came back, Tommy Dodge was gone.

“He said he’ll come in and see you tomorrow, when he’s cleaned up,” Doc told me. “But he definitely is interested in hiring you. So you got a job, man.”

Big deal, I thought. I needed the money, but Tommy Dodge had told me he was broke, so I wasn’t ready to put a down payment on that yacht just yet. My tab with Doc was pretty high, though, so I nodded at him victoriously and then went to the window to watch the rain fall, thinking of a girl I knew a long time ago, a girl who sounded a lot like Rose, with one exception.

That girl was dead.


Copyright © 2013 by Will Viharo
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