Read an Excerpt
By Ray Garton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Ray Garton
All rights reserved.
Then and Now
Bars of dim illumination cut through the treetops and through the smoky haze. They fell on the ground in vague puddles of halfhearted light as the water of Butter Creek burbled quietly by.
"I ate too much," Chloe said.
"Me, too," Eli said. They were stretched out on their backs together and his hand touched hers between them. They touched only very lightly, and Eli found the sensation very erotic.
"That's what we get for not having breakfast," she said with a sigh. "We eat too much for a late lunch."
"Does sex count as breakfast?"
"Only if food is involved. Like in Nine ½ Weeks."
They stared up at the trees and the smoky light that beamed weakly between the branches. An open picnic basket and the remains of their meal took up the rest of the space on the blanket.
It was punishingly hot, made worse by the smoke in the air, but the sound of Butter Creek took Eli's mind off the heat. He used to come to this spot when he was a boy—to be alone, to think, to let his imagination run wild. It was within walking distance of the house in which he'd grown up. He'd always thought of it as his spot and until now, he'd never shared it with anyone else. But Chloe wasn't just anyone. He'd bought a ring for her last week and planned to propose that evening. He'd had an impulse to bring her to Butter Creek and share with her something he'd shared with no one else.
"You're the first person I've ever brought here," Eli said, almost whispering. "Until now, I've always come here alone."
"No old girlfriends?" Chloe asked.
"Not even Roger?"
"Not even Roger."
She rolled toward him, put a hand on his stomach, and touched her lips to his cheek in a long, tender kiss. "I'm honored. How long has it been since you came here last?"
"A long time. Years. Too many years. The last time I came here, the house was still standing and Mom and Dad were alive and well in it. My brother was alive. Everybody was alive, it seems. It's like a lifetime ago. Or another lifetime altogether."
They said nothing for a long time after that, just listened to the creek, the birds. Finally, Chloe said, "We should get back so we can shower and change before the movie."
They packed up the basket, folded the blanket, and walked back to the car, which was parked near the empty lot where Eli's childhood home had stood. Eli drove them back to the house they shared across town. They undressed, showered together, and that led to more sex. Afterward, they dressed and drove to the Northstar Cineplex.
It was like a first date, and even stirred a few butterflies in Eli's stomach in spite of the fact that he and Chloe were celebrating the eight-month anniversary of the day they'd moved in together. He was a little nervous about the proposal. An old-fashioned ice cream parlor didn't exactly meet the conventional definition of romantic, and he was limited by his current financial situation, neither of which would have gone over well with his first wife. But Chloe was different.
The years before he'd met Chloe had been dark and oppressive. Everything that had come since that darkness—happiness, health, contentment—was indelibly connected to her, as if all the goodness that had come into his life radiated from her. Eli wanted that to continue for as long as possible. He reached into his pocket of his sport coat and fingered the small velvet-covered box. It made him feel a little giddy.
They sat through a terrible big-budget science fiction epic. They laughed as they walked hand in hand out of the theater and into the lobby with the rest of the crowd.
"My dentist has seen better film on teeth," Eli said.
"Oh, come on," Chloe said. "When was the last time you had that much fun in a crowded movie theater?"
"Usually all the talking is annoying, but you're right, it was fun this time." Eli said as he pushed through the glass door and they stepped outside. "It was like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000."
Through the glass doors, the night had looked deceptively cool and foggy, but stepping into the sweltering August heat was like walking into a giant oven. The fog was actually smoke from the wildfires that raged all around them. It had been an awful summer for fires throughout California, but especially in the northern part of the state. The blazes had started earlier than usual, at the beginning of June, and there had been no pause since then. For most of the summer, the northern California city of Santa Vermelha had been darkened by brownish waves of harsh smoke. Some days were like dusk from morning until night. Health advisories were common, warning people to stay inside and avoid strenuous activity outdoors.
Eli coughed as they headed for his Honda Accord in the lot beside the theater. "I quit smoking for this?"
"Wildfire smoke is still probably better for you than cigarettes."
They made a striking couple—Eli stood just slightly over six feet with an average build but seemed much bigger when he stood beside Chloe, who was four feet and eleven inches tall and weighed ninety-eight pounds. She complained that, due to her diminutive size, people often did not take her seriously. Eli knew from experience that those people did not feel that way for long. There was a great deal of crackling energy and intelligence wrapped up in that small package, and others were quick to see it.
Instead of going around to the driver's side of the car, Eli opened Chloe's door for her. She cocked a brow as she looked him over and smirked. "Well, look at you. Mr. Chivalry. I guess the honeymoon isn't over yet."
He moved in close, curled an arm around her waist, bent down and gave her a quick kiss. "It's only been eight months. And we haven't had a honeymoon. Yet."
She laughed. "Yet? You say that with such confidence."
He playfully slapped her bluejean ass. "In the car. We're off to get ice cream."
As he drove to Farley's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor, Eli turned on the radio and found a station playing "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer, a song from his teen years. Feeling young and excited about his plans, he turned the volume up loud until the car throbbed with the song's beat.
"What's gotten into you?" she said, laughing. "You trying to damage my hearing?"
Eli moved with enthusiasm to the beat and loudly sang along, thumping the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. Smiling, Chloe looked at him as if he were crazy and shook her head.
"Stick in the mud!" he said playfully, raising his voice to be heard above the music. "Old before your time. It's sad."
She laughed some more. "You must have had a really good day."
He reached over and squeezed her thigh. "They're all good these days."
Eli felt young and light and without a care, a feeling that had not yet become familiar, and one that usually made him think, So this is happiness, huh? It wasn't that he'd never been happy, but he'd been so miserable for what seemed like such a long time that happiness had become a memory vague with distance. The truth was, his dark period hadn't been all that long, but it had felt like a small eternity.
Farley's was even more old-fashioned than its name suggested. It had been in business in the same location for over fifty years and was a favorite spot in Santa Vermelha. While national chains either gobbled up or closed down most of the city's independent businesses, Farley's remained a constant with a popular menu that included a few sandwiches and salads but was dominated by delicious ice cream and yogurt treats. Eli had been a patron of Farley's since he was a teenager. The place had been a favorite haunt of his family's. Now he and Chloe went to Farley's a couple of times a month for a treat.
The small lot behind Farley's was packed, so Eli parked at a closed bank across the street. As usual, it was crowded inside—families with children, couples, small groups—and Eli and Chloe had to wait in the foyer for a seat. Through all the chatter and laughter inside, the player piano in the back plinked out a song. He winced a little and made a mental note to ask Annabelle to turn it off. He didn't want the memory of this evening to have as its soundtrack the slightly out-of-tune player piano, which he had always found annoying.
"What are you thinking?" Chloe said.
Eli's eyebrows rose high as he turned to her. "Thinking? Me?"
"You look like you've got a secret, or something."
He smiled mysteriously but said nothing, just put his arm around her shoulders.
"Hi, you two," the waitress said as she approached them and beckoned for them to follow her. Her name was Kelly, a perky, blonde twenty-something who had served them many times before.
They followed her through the brightly lighted ice cream parlor with its colorful 1950s decor, around the occupied marble-top tables, past a couple of authentic old pinball machines and the hulking vintage Wurlitzer jukebox that was operational when the player piano wasn't in use. Kelly seated them at a corner booth in the rear, handed them each a menu, then left them alone.
"I saw Andy yesterday," Eli said as they browsed their menus.
"Did you talk to him?" Chloe said.
"Yeah. He didn't say much. He was ... chilly."
Eli shrugged. "He probably always will be. That relationship is a thing of the past, I'm afraid."
Chloe lowered her menu. "Hey, don't look so sad. You did everything you could."
"Oh, sure. I drank myself into oblivion, damaged the business I had with Andy and threw a great career out the window."
"No, I mean afterward. Sure, you blew it. We're all human, we all make mistakes, and Andy's no exception. But you've done everything you can to set things right. You've cleaned up your life. You've made amends, just like the program says. If Andy still has a problem, it's his problem, not yours. I mean, what more can you do?"
He sighed. "I just wish I hadn't blown it in the first place."
She reached across the table and stroked his hand. "You can't change the past. And, hey ... if you hadn't blown it, we wouldn't have met."
He got that light, happy feeling again. The touch of Chloe's hand created a warmth inside him that was reminiscent of the internal burn he used to feel with his first stiff drink of the day. "There's that," he said with a smile. "There's definitely that."
She looked at her menu again. "I'm going to have the Chocolate Iniquity. That means we'll need to have extra sex tonight so I can burn off some of the calories."
"In that case, have two." He closed his menu and set it down. "I'm having the strawberry-banana sundae. Can you order for me when Kelly comes back? I'm going to the restroom."
He left the booth, wound his way around tables and went down a corridor that led to the restrooms on the right. Past them, he went through the door at the end marked EMPLOYEES ONLY and passed through a section of the noisy kitchen to Annabelle's office. Eli knocked on the partially-open door with a single knuckle, then pushed it the rest of the way open.
The office was small but neat. There were three Edward Gorey posters on the walls with a calendar of Vargas pin-up girls from the fifties, and a desk with its clutter neatly arranged. Annabelle stood at a wooden file cabinet searching through an open drawer. In her early sixties with short-cropped rust-colored hair streaked with grey, she stood five and a half feet tall and weighed about three hundred pounds. She turned to Eli, head tipped down, and looked at him over the top edges of her glasses.
"Hey there, honey!" she said in her Texas drawl. Annabelle Walden had bought the place from the son of the original owner after moving to Santa Vermelha from Texas.
"Hi, Annabelle," Eli said.
She replaced the file and closed the drawer. "Is tonight the night?"
"Tonight's the night."
She approached him with her head back, one half of her mouth curled up into a smile. "You sure about this, now?"
"You love her."
"I'm crazy about her."
"Well, crazy passes after awhile. If there's no real love behind it, the crazy passes and you settle into a kind of numb valley that goes on and on. And that brings on a whole different kind of crazy. You don't want that."
"I love her, Annabelle. I really do."
The other half of her mouth completed the smile as she threw her big arms around him and squeezed so hard he grunted. "Oh, honey, I'm so happy for you." She stepped back and faced him, clutching her upper arms. "Look at you. You look so good."
"I feel good."
"I'm glad. You deserve it." A sad look came over her broad face and her smile melted like dew. Her voice dropped nearly to a whisper. "Jesus, you were so troubled for so long, Eli. It's like you went away and left some other guy in charge of your life, some guy I didn't know. Nobody knew him. Nobody knew what to do. But look at you now. You're back." The smile returned. "So handsome and healthy looking, you even catch the eye of an old carpet-muncher like me." She clapped her hands once, then rubbed them together with anticipation. "So, you have the ring?"
He took the small black box from his pocket and removed the ring.
"It's lovely," Annabelle said.
"I did the best with what I could afford," Eli said. "Roger offered to pitch in, but I already owe him—"
"Oh, please, honey, Roger's rolling in it. Don't worry about him. He's set for life. Long as he don't spend it all on pussy before his old age."
"I know, but—" He shrugged. "I wanted to do this myself. I hope she likes it."
"She's gonna love it. Trust me. She's not Pamela," Annabelle said, referring to Eli's ex-wife. "Not all women need a big fat rock, you know. There are still some who are more concerned with the man than the price of the ring."
"I know. I wouldn't be with her if I didn't know that's how she feels. I don't plan to drive a FedEx truck the rest of my life. I'm thinking maybe it's time to take a shot at getting back into advertising. Later, I can buy her something nicer."
"I'll bet she never takes this one off."
"She's going to order the Chocolate Iniquity," Eli said, putting the box back in his pocket.
"Who's station you in?"
Annabelle nodded. "I'll make sure she gets this."
"One more thing. Do you think you could—"
"Don't worry, honey, I was gonna turn the piano off, anyway. I gotta get rid of that damned thing. Nobody likes it but me."
"Thanks, Annabelle, I really appreciate this."
Eli went back down the corridor and stopped at the end, looked over at the booth in back where he had left Chloe. She was talking with Kevin Stamp, an old friend of hers and a coworker at KNWS. Stamp was a reporter, and a good one, the pride of the station. He was short and stocky, built like a fireplug, balding on top with thick sandy hair on the sides and in back, a goatee that sported some grey, and metal-framed glasses over his alert blue eyes.
Eli watched Chloe as she smiled up at Kevin, watched her hands move as she talked. She nodded, reached up and swept back a strand of her long dark hair, then laughed and reached out to joshingly slap Kevin's arm.
She had been the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Eli liked to think that, had Chloe never come along, he would have gotten out of that tunnel, anyway. But there wouldn't have been so much light at the other end....
Five years ago, Eli and his friend Andy Riker were the owners of a small but very successful advertising company called Market Art. They'd met a few years earlier at another advertising company where they'd both worked, Andy in the business end and Eli as a graphic artist. They'd discovered they shared a slightly bent sense of humor and had become fast friends. It was that humor that had inspired them to break out on their own with a small company that specialized in advertising campaigns with an odd, comedic flair. At Market Art, Andy handled the numbers, Eli the art and design, and they collaborated on the ideas. In a surprisingly short period of time, their clientele included some of the biggest businesses north of San Francisco.
Excerpted from Meds by Ray Garton. Copyright © 2011 Ray Garton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.