From TODD WALTON
Under The Table Books
When I was in my early thirties, I lived on a monthly disability check from the state: two hundred and sixty-eight dollars. My rent for a small room in a boarding house in a scary neighborhood in downtown Sacramento was one hundred and forty dollars. That left me one hundred and twenty-eight dollars for food and not much else. And I was sure the woman I loved—Maria Escobido—wanted a man with a good job, and I didn’t have anyjob so I rarely spoke to her except to say hello and thanks.
I would go into Maria’s little grocery store and buy a carton of milk or a beer or anything just to be close to her. I wanted to ask her to have coffee with me, but I never asked because I was afraid she might say Yes and I would have to tell her I had nothing.
My recurring fantasy was that I saved a wealthy man’s life and he hired me to be his chauffer and live above his fancy cars in an elegant apartment with a view of majestic trees and a curving drive. With my ample pay, I bought fine clothes and went into the little grocery store and said, “Maria. I have a good job now and live in an elegant apartment over my employer’s Rolls Royce. Would you like to go out to dinner with me?” And she would say Yes and we would become lovers and live happily ever after.
That was how I started my days, lying alone in my bed dreaming about Maria inviting me with her beautiful eyes to kiss her. Then I’d get up, grab my towel and razor and go down the hall to the bathroom. We had a system on our floor. I was in first since I got up the earliest. When I was done I’d rap on Larry’s door and when he was done he’d knock on Shirley’s door and then Shirley would knock on Sheldon’s. One day I woke up so sick I couldn’t move and Larry didn’t get up until eleven because he was waiting for me to knock and Shirley and Sheldon both slept in, too.
Sheldon was a cartoonist, Shirley worked at the Lesbian Crisis Center, and Larry collected books about astrology, tarot and the I Ching. They were as poor as I was, but they were happy, whereas I was miserable because I was a failed writer and didn’t believe Maria Escobido would ever want to be with me unless I could get a decent a job or save somebody’s life and then get a decent job. And, of course, I would have to stop smoking pot because Maria was definitely not a pot smoker. However, whenever I stopped smoking dope I wanted to die.
I told myself I had to buy something before I could speak to Maria so she wouldn’t think I was a dead beat. She was always nice to me, sometimes effusively so, and one day we talked for a long time about our favorite movies and she gave me a smile that seemed to say I like you. I like the way you think.
I came out of her store after our movie conversation feeling elated and hopeful and sure she would say Yes if I asked her to have coffee with me. But when I got back to my little room and looked in the mirror I thought No. She only spoke to me because I bought something. Why would such a marvelous full-of-life woman want to have anything to do with a loser like me?
I’ll never forget the time—a broiling hot day in August—I decided to splurge on a beer and went into her little store and she was on her tiptoes reaching up to get a case of Heineken and she was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and the case started to fall and the next thing I knew I was beside her bringing down the case and her breasts brushed my arm and she blushed and saidThank you in the sweetest way and I lived for weeks in a frenzy of love for her.
So…every day I would shower and shave, put on a clean shirt and jeans and running shoes, eat a couple bananas and hustle over to Plaza Park to see if anybody wanted me to make a dope delivery. I was a presentable person, and because I would deliver lids in exchange for joints, dealers liked using me.
One spring day Marcus asked me to deliver three lids to someone in the capitol building. I said, “Marcus, I love you, man, and I greatly admire the quality of your product, but three lids is a large felony. What say I deliver a bag at a time? Then it’s only a misdemeanor if I get caught, which I will gladly chance for my usual fee.”
“Talkin’ hazard pay,” said Marcus, a colossus with a deep rumbling voice. “Hundred bucks and you just come and get it for a month. Sound good?”
“A hundred bucks and I just come and get it for a month?” I echoed, loving the thought of Marcus keeping me in fat joints for an entire month—no need to run dope to get dope.
So I combed my hair, made sure my fly was up, and took possession of those three baggies of glistening bud hidden in a hollowed out law book. Then I merged with a crowd of drones swarming into the capitol building, and nobody thought I was anything but a casually dressed servant of the state as I hurried past the Governor’s office and caught an elevator to the third floor where legions of ambitious men and women hurried to and fro with piles of folders and steaming cups of coffee—the perfect moment to deliver dope.
I located the appointed suite, told the receptionist I had something for her boss, and a moment later he emerged from his office—a boyishly handsome man in a snazzy gray suit—one of the most powerful politicos in California.
He came close and said, “Hey. How are you?”
“Fine,” I said, wondering how he could be so calm with his career in the hands of some stranger off the street who might be a narc. “Here’s that volume you requested. Hope this does the trick.”
“Saved,” he said, taking the book from me and hugging it like a long lost friend. “Just in the nick of time.”
Riding down in the elevator I thought What a joke. The ultimate loser bringing weed to the guy who rules the world—both of us wanting to get high, him in his mansion and me in my hole.
For delivering that weed to a head of state, Marcus gave me sixty bucks and a bag of rag and I did not complain. Life went on. I bought my food at Maria’s little grocery store and went to movie matinees a couple times a month and saw three or four movies for the price of one, sneaking around when the ushers were looking the other way. I bought a six-pack of Heineken every month when my benefit check arrived and shared my beer with Larry and Sheldon and Shirley. I lived that way for five years and saw no way out but suicide.
For my thirty-fifth birthday Sheldon and Larry and Shirley bought me a tarot reading from Larry’s friend Diedre, and when I looked at the gift certificate I decided that after the reading I would put an end to things.
Larry had assured me that Diedre was a gifted seer, but he hadn’t mentioned she was as beautiful as Maria Escobido. Diedre’s skin was white alabaster, her eyes emerald green, her long brown hair in a pony tail tied with a green scarf, her blue silk blouse embroidered with shimmering silver fish, turquoise rings on her fingers, her voice songful and free of doubt.
We sat facing each other across a small round table, the room lit with candles. She asked me to shuffle the deck and hold the cards and think about my life. So I shuffled the cards and closed my eyes and there was Maria Escobido smiling at me. And I realized it wasn’t true I had to buy something if I wanted to talk to her. Maria liked me whether I bought anything or not. I had invented that lie to defeat myself.
I handed the cards to Diedre and said, “Thank you. The revelations are coming fast and furious.”
She nodded graciously, turned over the top card and said, “This is you.”
“I always wondered who I was,” I said, reading the words on the card—The Magician. “Nice robe. Is he a chemist?”
“Alchemist,” said Diedre, searching my face with her brilliant green eyes. “You possess great power, but your power is unavailable to you because you don’t realize who you are.”
She turned over the next card—The Lovers—started to say something, shook her head and turned over the next card—The Tower. She frowned at the image of a burning castle, touched The Magician, touched The Lovers, touched The Tower and said, “You need to take immediate action or you will lose everything. This is definite. You can’t wait another day. You must act.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, wondering if she knew I was planning to kill myself. “Take action. How?”
“Live your dreams,” she said, tapping The Magician. “Take a chance.”
I got back to my scary part of town at dusk—fog cloaking the streets. Benefit checks were late that month, people angry and desperate. I passed a shiny new Cadillac parked in front of a vacant lot, nothing unusual about such a car being parked in my neighborhood, a drug dealer’s car, no doubt.
And though I knew never to look into parked cars because men with guns did bad things in parked cars in my neighborhood, something made me look and I saw a man sticking a needle into the arm of a girl with her mouth taped shut, her arms tied behind her back—and my rage erupted in a scream and I yanked the door open and the man fumbled for his gun and I kicked him in the face before he could shoot and kicked him again as the driver’s door swung open and somebody huge got out to kill me and I ran away screaming bloody murder and people came rushing out of their houses and swarmed over the car and caught the two men and got the girl out and she was Maria Escobido’s sister.
That was thirty years ago. I live far away from Sacramento now in a blue house on the outskirts of a coastal town. I own the village bookstore and my wife Sierra is a chef in the finest restaurant for many miles around.
I would love to tell you that Maria Escobido and I became lovers after I saved her sister, but that didn’t happen. I ran back to my room, stuffed a few precious things into my knapsack, and left a note for Sheldon and Larry and Shirley thanking them for being my friends and explaining if I stayed I would surely be killed. Then I caught a bus to the edge of the city and from there hitchhiked eight hundred miles to the north and got a job as a dishwasher in a café. The owners liked me and eventually gave me a job as a waiter.
One day I charmed a customer who owned a gourmet restaurant and he asked me to come work for him, which I did. A year later he promoted me to maître d’ and I kept that job for many years until I saved enough money to open my bookstore and buy our house.
Sometimes when I’m standing at the bookstore counter reading or writing and the bell over the door jingles, I look up expecting to see Maria Escobido.
In my fantasy, she does a double take, smiles her radiant smile and says, “Oh my God, it’s you.”
And I say to her what she always said to me when I would enter her store after a long absence. “Where have you been hiding, mi amigo? I missed you.” Only I will use the word amiga.