The woman was sitting alone by the seashore on a bright morning in April. She sat motionless on a white plastic beach chair staring out toward the far horizon.
The man in the car sipping his hot coffee let his eyes linger on her for long minutes.
A look of deep contemplation had slowly settled on her face. The man had no way of knowing that her mind had surrendered to an earlier resisted mental journey she knew she must take. It had brought her here to look at it more closely without distraction.
His radio had been turned down low the words of a song being played caught the man’s attention for several seconds, “Perhaps love is like a resting place... A shelter from the storm... It exists to give you comfort... It is there to keep you warm... And in those days of trouble... When you are most alone... The memory of love... will always bring you home...”
Sighing inwardly he turned the radio off.
He looked around. He saw that this long stretch of beach was almost empty of human activity. A man jogged far to the south of them. A cat was asleep on a narrow strip of grass near the parking lot. A dog barked in the distance. The woman and he appeared to be the only human visitors to this spot of the shoreline.
The day had begun cool. The early morning breeze had taken up residence.
Removing his eyes from the woman he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced toward it.
A homeless woman in rumpled dirty clothes had emerged from under the shrubbery near the entrance. She walked with jerky pace past his car mumbling aloud to herself. Her eyes were glazed. He wondered what drug she was on but let the question end with its asking.
Gary Alexander touched by the tragedy that was the drug addict sighed and turned his eyes back to the woman in the chair. He had already accepted that he couldn’t save the wandering lost or those indifferent to self-destruction.
He was having trouble directing his present moment.
He felt something stir inside him as he brought his eyes back to the lone woman sitting quietly on the beach chair. She hadn’t moved. Gary sensed a distinct tension in the way she held her body. Her gaze remained fixed far out to sea as though she were a mechanical doll that had been turned off the moment her eyes had found their target .
He thought her attractive. The layered cut of her brown hair allowed the lowest strands to lightly touch her shoulders. She was a small woman. Her body, kept pleasingly proportioned wore the bluejeans, white sweatshirt and blue sneakers as appealingly as a college student on spring break.
Her diminutive foot with the narrow ankle dangling within his line of sight caught his focus for several seconds. He thought he could probably bring a finger to his thumb around it with ease.
Her face wore the years more tellingly as a woman willing to accept that the constancy of beauty and femininity may have to do with something more internally profound than mere time.
She wore no wedding ring on her left hand.
In spite of her motionless posture the man felt something compellingly alluring radiate out of her. Trying for an instant analysis for what it was that made him feel this way he now felt magnetically drawn to the spot where she sat. He lost his awareness of the world around him.
Everything seemed to disappear for him but the lone woman on the beach.
She had begun to intrigue Gary Alexander.
He wondered what she was thinking.
Charla Ashley Kelly was thinking about her past.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This morning she had experienced an unusual psychological moment. Her woman’s “self” seemed to have disappeared as though she hadn’t lived within it.
Wondering if her brain had malfunctioned in some way and this was the way it felt to experience an unusual depressive moment she had sought some past connecting moment to today within a stream of unifying memories and hadn’t found it.
Great empty gaps of time had emerged out of her rush to push the earlier experiences of living aside while looking for the substance of her woman’s life.
Much of the years that she had lived had seemed to her to have disappeared from memory as though she had been attending the woman’s school-of-life and had drawn a failing grade.
This morning, she had walked into the bathroom to take a shower her mind filling rapidly with questions. She knew that she had missed much out of being alive. Yet she hadn’t understood why the word “future” had seemed to lose its relevance to her.
Wasn’t life “on” until it was “off” she had asked herself. She hadn’t understood why she couldn’t bring back more memories within a sequence of time.
Looking into the bathroom mirror she had felt as though a stranger stood in her place. Compelled by a sudden impulse, she had wanted to throw something at that lying mirror. Where had time gone? Tears had threatened to erupt into the small room.
A profound loneliness had invaded the moment.
She had showered and dressed before the sun had come up. Grabbing a liquid breakfast out of the refrigerator she had flipped open the can with her finger. She had walked out onto her balcony. It was at that moment, she had decided to go to the beach and attempt to figure things out.
Her restless mind had concluded that perhaps the calmness that always rushed into her during her ocean visits would resurface and quiet her thoughts allowing her life to be examined within some deeper, more clarifying insight.
Gary Alexander opened the car door and threw out the cold remains of his coffee. He leaned back into the seat and stretched his long legs without taking his eyes off the woman on the beach chair.
He wondered how much older this woman was to himself. When she had walked onto the beach she had glanced toward the south entrance seeming to not have noticed him sitting in his car. He had focused on her aware that her life’s experience had imprinted lines on her face that were more apparent than his own.
He didn’t care that she had lived longer than he had. He was drawn to her. He liked the feeling. It seemed a long time ago to Gary Alexander, that any woman had reached that empty inner-space where he now lived and had been able to awaken a gripping interest within himself.
The longer he watched her the more he became curious about who she was and why she had decided to visit the beach alone so early in the morning.
Gary Alexander had learned in a painful way that life could be over in an instant. He had been forced to accept that life took place only in the present moment. Keeping his eyes on her, he began to do battle with the steady increase of desire to walk over to her and begin a conversation.
Still he hesitated. He reminded himself that he was a stranger to her. She wasn’t aware that he had been watching her, much less that he was interested in talking to her. She would probably rebuff him immediately.
Inhaling deeply he glanced away from her wondering if he should just forget the impulse and go his own way. Bringing his eyes back to her he noticed that she had shifted position in her chair. Her body now seemed to have relaxed in spite of the concentrated gaze remaining far out over the water not changing its focus.
Hearing a vehicle engine stop, he looked toward the parking lot and saw two men getting out of a battered pick-up truck. They strolled slowly down toward the water. Gary Alexander made the decision to stay and keep watch over this woman for a while longer.
Gary didn’t know that he was wrestling with some of the same questions, Charla Ashley Kelly was asking herself on the beach that day. He had been carrying an unexamined sadness within himself that wouldn’t go away. His past had seemed more real than his future. Today he was looking for a direction to the rest of his life.
He wasn’t finding it.
He wasn’t even sure he believed in such ideas that the “rest of your life” could be plotted out. He questioned that the lines drawn today would remain within some distinct form that could be recognized tomorrow.
Two years earlier, he had retired after twenty-five years as a firefighter. He had been forced to accept that he was emotionally through dealing with the always unknown consequences of attempting to save lives, homes or commercial interests along with sparing large areas of vegetation from fire damage.
This realization had come to him with the same impact an explosion within a fire-zone changes the response by those fighting the fire. What had worked before wouldn’t work now. It brought back a lesson he had learned, “New gymnastics for new tactics was the new required response,” he smiled at the irony of that early lesson for today.
Knowing he was through with firefighting happened like that for Gary Alexander. His best friend Johnny Hart had been killed during a raging inferno that had overrun his crew. During the exit from the area a large tree had fallen on this experienced firefighter who had been Gary’s long-time friend. He had died instantly. Johnny Hart had been forty-four years old. He left behind a wife. They had no children.
Gary Alexander had always known the risks of his job. He had never known a firefighter who entered the business ignorant of them. Johnny had known them.
What had surprised Gary after Johnny’s death was that knowing Johnny had willingly taken the same risks, he himself had taken on the job brought no relieving moment to Gary’s daily reality that his friend was gone forever, off the planet he had once laughed, worked and played upon.
Gary had stayed on the job trying to shake-off the devastation that his friend’s death had exploded into his own life. For a time, he had suppressed the truth that he had lost his desire to continue to fight fires as a profession.
Finally one day after hanging up his jacket he had accepted that he had been living with the impossible hope that Johnny would stride around the corner of a building or a fire-engine with his easy smile and a new practical joke ready to be sprung on some unsuspecting buddy. Death had never been more personal for Gary Alexander than the loss of Johnny Hart.
It isn’t that Gary hadn’t known loss. The rumbles of the later, explosion-of-loss that would be his defining moment that life happens only in the now had emerged before Johnny Hart’s death. He had known it more than once in his life. He had married twice, divorced twice. His son Kevin who was almost a legal adult and the apple-of-his-eye had been forced to choose between Gary and his ex-wife Carolyn.
During their divorce process she had brooked no torn allegiance from their son. He was either with her or against her. Gary had never blamed his son for his choice to remain with his mother. He had known up-front that living with a firefighter father was too often incompatible with a stable home-life and a young boy’s walk toward manhood.
It was the first time that Gary had felt loss as strong as death.
With Johnny Hart’s dying, Gary had lived within an increasingly personal isolation that had found no comforting value for staying on the job. It had brought the reality of death within a sobering constancy that couldn’t be diminished by life itself.
Within his manhood, he had come to terms with the truth that he was emotionally burnt-out by important relationships that had failed. His interactions with women had now become mere damping-down moments within his attempts to smother the threatening emergence of a rekindled loneliness.
None had filled the longings he carried in the deepest part of himself.
Enjoying the first few months of marking his days by his own choices after retiring he had eventually become bored with no relieving sense that he contributed a special value to the world around him by what he did day-after-day.
He missed the camaraderie that had been part of being a firefighter. The moments of tension that could destroy friendships had also been part of the firefighter life, that had proved of value to him. It had been a demanding give-and-take, high-wire act of living out life and he had earlier thrived on it. Yet in spite of these large changes in his daily life he hadn’t regretted leaving the job.
Within a few months of his new freedom, he had made the decision to return to an employment that might provide him a sense that his life had a meaningful purpose once again.
The desire had brought no opportunity that had met the hope. Instead, he had found for the most part only unfulfilling repetitive work.
His restless boredom had eventually told him that something was better than nothing. His first renewed job effort had been checking out the safety of gas meters for the gas company. If found to be defective he would direct a meter change.
This job had not been without adrenaline-soaring incidents. The first day after gaining access to a property he had been forced into flight over a fence in an effort to save himself from a growling big-headed monster misnamed by his owner, “Dog” - who had instantly convinced Gary - that “Dog” should have been placed in a zoo along with the lions Still the job had proved too routine for Gary to enjoy filling eight hours of his day with its usually mundane requirements.
After that, he had worked for a few weeks as a customer service rep in a large merchandise store. Without looking closely at the feeling he had carried an uncomfortable sense of self-diminishment in the acting-out of each work-day. He quit the job.
This morning, he had gotten up before dawn, cleaned-up, pulled a pair of worn jeans over his long legs, threw a white t-shirt over his head, grabbed a light jacket off its hanger and left his home.
Stopping to pick-up a hot coffee at a local shopping mall he had headed for the beach to watch the sunrise light up the shore-line and think about what he would do next.
Just after the sun rose rapidly flooding the ocean with its unfolding brightness the lone woman had walked onto the beach carrying the beach chair.~~~~~~~
The two men, now on the sand glanced toward each other then back toward the woman. Slowly they began moving toward her. Gary Alexander felt his heart pick-up its beat. He looked around for a police presence. The parking area was empty of security. The entrance to the beach area showed no incoming vehicles.
He opened the glove compartment and grabbed a small but tightly molded, rubber ball. Putting his hand under the seat he reached for and found in seconds a long-handled flash-light. Holding the ball tightly in his left hand he held the flash-light in his right hand.
Getting out of the car he began walking toward the two men who had reached the woman. One of them was making an attempt to talk to her.
He saw her head snap upward and her body stiffen when the taller and more muscular of the two men began to speak. Her face was a mask but Gary knew she didn’t know them.
He saw her jump up from her chair. Just as suddenly she looked frozen in place as though she now couldn’t move. The taller of the two men persisted in his aggressive approach. He attempted to touch her, speaking rapidly in broken English.
Gary shouted toward her, “Hi! SORRY I’M LATE!”
The two men jerked as though they had been shot. They turned and rushed away from the scene without looking back. Gary thought about going after them and quickly changed his mind. What could he prove; whatever they had in mind he had stopped at its beginning.
Charla Ashley Kelly had looked up to see a tall man, powerfully-built, striding toward her. She saw that he was dressed casually in jeans and white t-shirt. His longish blonde hair hanging free of any restraint fell in a sensual dancing caress against his jaw as he rapidly moved toward her. He held a flash-light in his right hand shouting out an apology for being late.
Quickly she understood the meaning of the shout and why he was carrying a flash-light. Relief flowed through her. Her throat felt dry.
He stopped in front of her. She fought to suppress an unrolling shaking that had begun deep inside her body. Hoping she could hide the internal fear attempting to manifest itself she managed to ask him, “Where is your white horse?”
Staring directly down into her green eyes, he wasn’t surprised at her easy humor. She had smile-lines along the sides of her face especially near the eyes. “I think,” he said to himself, “this woman likes to laugh.” A sense of pleasure washed over him.
Grinning widely he responded, playfully, “Sorry -- I left him at Del Mar this morning.....”
He read the relief in her body language.
She breathed out, “Thank you! They wanted money for breakfast. At least that is what the taller one claimed.”
Glancing around the beach, Gary responded gently, “This isn’t the best area for immediate security. It is usually safe but - it’s early in the day. Not a lot of people here yet.”
She nodded, struggling to hold back the shaking that continued to threaten to expose the fragility of her composure. She felt a flash of desire to walk into his strong arms and feel them close tightly around her. She wanted the comfort of her face pressed against his powerful chest. She wanted to hear his heart beating.
Glancing toward the pick-up truck leaving the beach area in a hurry, he swung his eyes back to her. He asked, “Have you had breakfast?”
Startled she said, “Sort of.... it was a protein drink.”
Smiling, he asked, “Are you open to eating breakfast at Denny’s? It’s south of us... half a mile. I’ll pay.”
Her eyes filled with what looked like a questioning skepticism to him, “Do you always feed those you rescue?”
He lifted his face skyward and laughed outright. She felt the pleasant male laugh run through her. She was close enough to smell the fresh scent of his bath. She took-in at that moment that the clothes he had on were clean and pressed. She glanced down to see the careful trim of his finger nails subliminally understanding that he had respect for himself and the way he looked to others even in his casual moments.
Bringing his eyes back to meet her searching look, he hesitated before answering her. When he spoke his voice had deepened with an inviting just short-of-intimate tone, “Only those I find interesting.”
She felt as though he had reached over and embraced her. A thrill zig-zagged through her body. Disconcerted, she lowered her eyes, turning her face briefly away from him. Her gaze traveled out over the water, “Doesn’t it bother you that I’m older than you?”
Gary Alexander felt a shock run through his body. It had nothing to do with her statement that she was older than he. What shot through him was the instant desire to bring her toward him and kiss her.
As quickly as the impulse made itself known to the mind of Gary Alexander the immediacy of the impulse asked for an explanation. No answer came into view. He swiftly put the question away to look at it later.
For silent seconds Gary stood near the woman while a question had flashed through his mind as a whole thought. How could he give her in one sentence, what he had learned when the two women he once had believed - one after the other - would be permanent fixtures in his life had disappeared from his life with amazing speed or that the last of his marriage failures had with harrowing instancy taken his only son out of his daily world.
Gary had concluded that “tomorrow” was an illusion that could never be proven to exist.
In milliseconds his mind gave up how to tell a stranger that life had exploded into a different universe for him after the permanent loss of Johnny Hart and her age didn’t matter to him. He liked what he saw.
Coming back to her question he smiled down at her an emerging twinkle in his brownish eyes. He reached forward to lightly touch her shoulder, “No... It doesn’t bother me. Does it bother you?”
She lifted her face to his. Her eyes came alive within a flashing playfulness, “I guess I can’t hold you responsible for the date of your birth.”
He held back laughter. He smiled down at her thinking, “She’s pretty and funny!”
In spite of her light teasing manner in response to his reaction to her question her mind struggled to examine her own emotions, his offer of breakfast and the implications of his response to her question.
She looked directly into his eyes, “My name is Charla.”
His smile deepened, “It fits you. Its meaning is ‘small woman’ isn’t it?”
This time she laughed aloud surprised he knew, “Yes! But, I’m not sooo small.”
He enjoyed the gentle but immediate self-defense of her size. He let out a deep-throated chuckle, “I am six, two. I’m guessing that you are no more than five feet tall. That makes you small in my eyes.”
Welcoming her intent stare, he completed his reply, “I could probably pick you up with one arm tied behind my back!”
More relaxed now, she had begun to feel the comforting security of his strong presence over her like a canopy. Suddenly, she wished he would try. She chuckled softly this time responding, “My full name is Charla Ashley Kelly.... But, people I know, call me ‘Ashley’”
Presenting his hand, he finished, “My name is Gary Alexander. Nice to meet you, Ashley.”
She enjoyed his immediate willingness to be among the people she knew.
Putting her small hand in his larger one, her smile slid deeper into her eyes. It exposed an impish light, “Alexander! It fits you. It means a man who aids or helps, doesn’t it?”
He chuckled softly, “Touché.”
She was sorry when their hands separated.~~~~~~~~
At the restaurant, Ashley driving her own car had followed him into the parking lot. He pulled up at an open parking space, pointed toward it and moved his car forward so she could access it.
He glanced around for another one open for himself. In seconds he found himself behind a car backing-out and waited until it had moved away and then pulled his vehicle into the now-opened parking space.
Turning off the engine, Ashley asked herself what she was doing. Not finding an immediate answer she glanced in the rear-view mirror and ran her fingers through her hair. She liked the feeling that had flowed through her when he had found her a parking space before he had spotted his own.
She took time to wonder if this behavior expressed mere technique of his male charm or was it more fundamentally a part of the man himself. She hoped it expressed his choice regarding what kind of man he had chosen to be.
Minutes later, sitting in the restaurant booth she lifted her eyes from the menu the waitress had placed before her. Looking briefly at the man across from her, she saw that he was running his eyes down the list of breakfast items. She thought him extraordinarily handsome. He had no wedding band on his left hand. He reminded her of Josh Holloway, the actor, without the dimples.
Glancing toward the window, her blurred image looked back at her. She wondered what he had seen in her that made her interesting to him. Surely, there were many attractive, younger women who were simply waiting for him to take notice of them.
Glancing around the room, she saw the waitress smile as she stared at Gary Alexander. Ashley thought, “I’m surprised she isn’t drooling.”
It wasn’t that Ashley hadn’t dated younger men; she had. She had determined early that she would maintain her health and looks as long as possible. She had kept that promise within the realistic circumstances of her life.
What bothered her today was that the earlier younger-man relationships had happened during a time that seemed significantly distant from this moment. The relationships had not lasted. She had later realized she had never taken any of them seriously.
Staring at this man before her, she felt an excruciating almost painful desire to sleep with him. She envisioned him naked and felt her legs lose strength. Lowering her head she silently felt sadness flow through her.
Charla Ashley Kelly had been born into an unhappy marriage. She had lived within an emotionally desolate and isolated childhood. She had married early hoping to find a place where she could find safety and a sense of belonging. The loneliness had not gone away. The marriage had failed within a short period of time.
Another marriage had filled her time with homemaking and four children. Within a few years she had added significant time in care-giving her parents now plagued with health problems. Time for her had become a long list of everyday time-consuming things she had allowed to be increasingly stuffed into her life that had seemed important at the time.
Each year had seemed to disappear as swiftly as a new one had began. When an exposed reality had forced her to look more closely at her deceitful husband she recognized that she had never known him. He had taught her a painful lesson; it is impossible to know a man who refuses to make himself visible.
She had left him taking their children with no challenge from him and moved as far away as possible from the self-serving man who had married her for other reasons than love and who had denied her right to experience sexual pleasure from him within a shared and faithful intimacy.
He had seen to it that her woman’s experience with him was of service to “family,” not a male and female shared, sensual intimacy that would outlast the adulthood of their children.
She had wondered at the time how many other human beings were living-out unseen desperately lonely sexually-muted lives as she had lived.
She carried with her to this moment, his final arrogant taunt, “I kept you busy so you wouldn’t notice what I was doing.”
At his boast the years of attempting to be his wife, of care-giving both parents and of meeting her children’s unfolding necessities of life; of working dutifully to be there for all the people that dominated each day; of home remodeling, house-cleaning, laundry, ironing, cooking; of listening; of driving back and forth; working those long intimacy-lonely, hours, thinking often, how to help her children grow-up caring, kind and successful, had rushed over her within an explosive sense of outrage.
Outrage, not at the children who had needed her but at the man who had visited his overweening ego on her so arrogantly and indifferently for so long. He had intended she remain only so long as she served his purpose for her. This had been a man who had robbed her of much more than time.
She had experienced a profound sense of irreplaceable loss.
After she had left her children’s father, whenever she tried to explore memories of love and intimacy for herself with him, she couldn’t find them. Her narrow find were memories of living within a haunting emptiness, sexual betrayal, sexual experience with him refused or acted out by an aloof, mechanical robot who had played being a man with genuine feelings only to other women.
She had never missed him.
When her marriage had gone into its count-down, he had told her that he had been deliberately aloof from her because marrying her had fitted his needs of the time. He admitted to her that he had made the early choice to never compliment her or to allow her sensuality to dominate their sexual experience.
A long-suppressed memory had floated to the surface of their exchange. She had felt her female “self” disappear at the memory’s reawakening. His overt cruelty had slaughtered the abiding pleasure of her own sexuality, unfulfilled but sustained by hope.
She had floated out of her own mind unrecognizable drifting off into that outer space of time gone by with no distinguishing sense of having fulfilled the promise of her womanhood. The depth and height of her sensuality now seemed hauntingly unattainable.
At that moment, Ashley had faced the truth that the women who had earlier thrown this man out of their lives before Ashley had entered it had understood far more than she, herself, had understood until life had made escape too difficult for her.
It had been Ashley, who hadn’t known that her husband had grown from early adulthood the mind of an emotional terrorist who sees all those he insidiously destroys as merely collateral damage to a self-justified cause.
Eventually her insight had become complete. She had been amazed at what goes on between the hidden lines of one’s own life year after year. He hadn’t loved any woman. His inner man exhibited itself through a competing mania of tortured male sexual superiority that wouldn’t allow any act of a woman’s sexuality overpower his own.
When Ashley had early overwhelmed him with her sensuality he had punished her, by punishing its power until it had suppressed itself into nothing more than a lingering hope it would one day blossom again.
She and their children had become the collateral damage of his ego’s thirst for domineering power.
Gary Alexander raised his head when the waitress approached to take their order. The waitress focused only on him. She had dismissed Ashley’s presence as insignificant and immaterial to this moment.
Inwardly Ashley sighed. She hadn’t missed that the waitress had opened the top buttons of her uniform exposing her bouncing and bountiful breasts to his immediate view. To make sure he would not miss them the waitress leaned far over in front of him and pointed to the breakfast special, pouring out the words like syrup, “Perhaps your mother would enjoy the special?”
Gary felt the personal affront of her female arrogance. It struck his mind that she must think him a mindless male puppet interested only in a woman who would and could activate his interest by flaunting her breasts.
Glancing toward Ashley, he saw that the waitress’ behavior had made her feel ill-at-ease. She had turned her gaze away from them.
Feeling the anger of the offense to Ashley, he felt his heart-rate increase. Taking a chance on the smile-lines on Ashley’s face he lifted himself up and pushed the waitress gently away from him, “Excuse me,”
He moved into Ashley’s side of the booth.
Turning her startled face toward him, he looked into her eyes and smiled. His right hand came up between them and he gently put his fingers under her chin. He lifted her lips toward his. Kissing her slowly, his instantly awaken body told him that she was kissing him back within a welcoming sensuality.
“Oh, I... huh... I ... Oh!.... I see! - Well!...” the stuttering words of the annoyed waitress shot toward them.
Ashley wanted to giggle. Gary hadn’t enjoyed such a moment of impulse in a long time. When the kiss ended, Gary and Ashley brought their foreheads together and smiled deeply into each other’s eyes.
Turning toward the now dumbstruck waitress, Gary ordered the morning special for both of them.
They laughed softly as she rushed away slipping the top buttons of her uniform back into place.
Gary Alexander didn’t want to go back to the other side of the booth. Turning to look into her eyes once more, he said, “Thanks for not slapping me.”
Her eyes held his. She said quietly, “We’re in a public place. I’m safe aren’t I?”
She glanced toward the agitated waitress, who now refused to look their way. Bringing her eyes back to his, she said, “It was a wonderful kiss. But, maybe we should practice this performance one more time?”
He could see that she enjoyed whimsy, also. She once again looked away from him toward the waitress now fully concentrating on her job then quickly brought her face back toward his, “Just in case she comes back for another try at you?”
His heart-beat rose in expectation of the renewed contact. He softly chuckled, leaned toward her and kissed her again lingeringly.
She was alone with him in a world that had gone away. Certainty entered the moment that she wanted to get to know this cleverly funny and unusual man.
A second waitress brought their breakfast choice to them. Gary and Ashley grinned at each other knowing that they wouldn’t see the first waitress again that morning.
They ate their meal within a companionable relaxed atmosphere. Pausing for a moment, to pick-up his cup of coffee he glanced toward her, “Do you live near-by or are you a tourist?”
Putting her fork down on the plate, she slowly wiped her hands off with a napkin. Turning toward him, she replied cautiously, “I... own a condo at Newport Beach.”
Nodding, he said, “My home is in Irvine. I live in the University Park area. Bought it when I retired a couple of years ago.”
“Retired from....?” she asked.
Taking a drink of the coffee, he put the cup down by his plate before he replied to her question, “I was a firefighter for twenty-five years.”
Her eyes traveled approvingly over his body and back to meet his gaze, “Is that why you look so fit?”
He enjoyed the way she flirted within a cautious but direct exploratory approach. He thought she was attracted to him but was carefully self-protective. To Gary, she seemed almost shy in spite of an intangible strength that seemed to indwell her. It had drawn his attention at the beach.
He felt grateful that he had not driven away from the area earlier and that she had agreed to have breakfast with him.
Gary laughed lightly glancing out the window, “I try to keep fit.” Bringing his eyes back to meet hers, he said, “I see that you take care of yourself, too. You’re an attractive woman.”
She put down the impulse to run her fingers caressingly across the side of his clean-shaven face and put her lips on his. Instead, she smiled and said, “Thank you...,” then moved away reluctantly from his small start toward intimacy, “Do you miss firefighting?”
At the same moment, he had asked, “What do you do for fun or profit?”
Letting her question to him slide, she chuckled, “I’m pretending I’m an author. I write fiction. So far the profit side isn’t great but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Pausing, she looked away from him thinking about the first part of his question. Bringing her eyes back to meet his questioning look, she said, “For fun? Not much... I dislike going places alone. My children have their own busy lives and the ‘singles’ effort is too much like a crap-shoot for me to enjoy.”
He smiled, "Yes, it is."
Thoughtful for a moment, he said,“I’d like to read something you have written.”
Looking into his eyes, she said, “The book is online.”
Laughing lightly she said, “It is a mystery romance. The title is a metaphor... a race against time to find the truth.”
He smiled, “I'll look it up."
Glancing at him, her eyes held a look of pleased caution, “Let me know what you think...?”
The waitress who had brought their meal to them stopped at their booth, “Would you like to order something else?”
Gary glanced at Ashley.
She said, “I’m fine.”
Turning back toward the waitress, he said, “We’re fine, thanks.”
Placing the bill for their meal in front of Gary, her lips smiled, her eyes distant, she said, “Thank you.”
Walking alongside Ashley toward her car Gary felt rushed to make a decision. He asked himself if he were willing for her to walk out of his life. He knew the answer immediately. He wanted to know more about her. Telling himself he needed more time with her his brain rapidly went through the possible options open to him that would allow it to happen.
She stopped at the rear of her car. Turning around to face him, she said, “Thank you for coming to my rescue... and for breakfast. I enjoyed it.”
He heard in her tone of voice and saw in her eyes, that she was talking about their lips meeting not the breakfast itself. He reined-in the desire to kiss her again, “My pleasure, Ashley.”
Their eyes locked for long moments. Ashley wondered if this would be the last time she would see him. A piercing hope had entered the moment that he wouldn’t allow her to walk away from him.
Gary Alexander made up his mind. “Listen! My day is open. Is yours? If it is, how about spending the rest of it with me?”
Ashley, feeling relief flow through her, nodded, “I’d like that.”
She turned slightly away from him. Her eyes surveyed the parking lot, “I think I should drive my car and follow you. Do you have a place in mind where you want to go?”
He thought that his initial feeling that she was carefully self-protective had been correct, “Let’s go back to the beach. I’ve a blanket with me, a large umbrella and a couple of beach sling-backs to lean against.”
“Why don’t we pick-up soft-drinks while we are here?”
He smiled, “What would you like?”
She grinned, “Anything but a cherry flavor. I’ll pay. You paid for breakfast.”
He started to say that it wasn’t necessary, then thought better of it, “Deal,” he replied.
After they picked-up the soft-drinks they headed back toward the beach. The sun had scattered the early morning clouds. The sand was being filled with tourists and their children. The regulars trotting their daily jogging routes along the shoreline were out in full force.
She carried the small container that held the soft-drinks in her right hand and the two light-weight sling-backs hung from her left hand. He held the beach umbrella in his right hand and the tightly rolled-up blanket in his left hand.
Finding a place away from most of the incoming beach-squatters, they set-up their own small tenancy. Gary unrolled the blanket, shook it out and lowered it onto the sand. He reached for the umbrella and pushed its handle as far into the sand as it would allow.
Watching his fluid masculine movements she wanted to stand there and absorb every move. Instead, she looked away, unfolded the sling-backs and placed them close together under the shade of the large umbrella.
Ashley lowered herself onto the blanket and leaned against the small chair-back.
Gary turned toward her glad he hadn’t let her leave the restaurant to go her own way. He sat down on the blanket, pulled the other sling-back closer to him, leaned against it and expelled a contented sigh, “If the umbrella doesn’t hold, I’ll go back to the car and get a stake to stabilize it.”
She nodded. Smiling to herself when she heard the sigh of contentment, she asked, “You said you are retired from firefighting. Early retirement?”
“Yes,” he responded.
She kept her eyes on his face while he examined the direction he wanted his response about his retirement choice to go. Shifting his position slightly, his long strong legs stretched out before him, he let his right hand remain relaxed on his right thigh. His left hand rested on the side of his left hip.
Taking a moment longer to consider what he was willing to tell her, he glanced away from her and then immediately swung his eyes back, this time to remain connected to her eyes, “Yes, I retired early. There were times since then I’ve missed aspects of the job but all-in-all, I know that I am finished with that part of my life.”
Beginning his explanation by going back to the early years on the job, he wanted her to understand that he had chosen a career with a larger meaning for himself beyond drawing a pay-check.
She listened intently while he talked about his firefighting experience. It had included much more than doing battle with fires. He set before her, powerful images of immediate adrenaline-soaring response to fire and non-fire emergency calls his station had received.
She slowly became aware of the wide circle of service his work had provided for the community. Besides responding to fires, his crew had often been the first on the scene of accidents, suicides, homicides, and acts of violence. He and his fellow firefighters had dealt with assault and battery situations along with reacting to rapes, bombings, and school shootings.
The longer he talked the more she could see that firefighting had been a daily hyper-vigilant emotionally-draining and stressful way he had lived out his life’s work. It had taken moral commitment, physical strength and psychological health to maintain his focus to what he needed to do when the call to provide rescue efforts came in.
Ashley had experienced his immediate courage this morning. His story projected both values of protective concern and kindness. He had been willing to place himself in dangerous situations on the job. It didn’t take long for her to see that he was a man who needed to find meaning in what he did day-after-day.
The longer he talked the more she began wondering if this early chosen commitment might explain why he seemed to be resisting moving into the reason he had left firefighting early.
While Gary explained the firefighting life to Ashley he could feel a hovering sadness shadowing the telling of his story. He resisted facing its meaning.
Winding down his preview of his work history, Gary Alexander allowed his friend’s death to come into view. He allowed Ashley to see the personal suffering that had entered his work experience because of it.
A mental pause allowed him to see that he was resisting the emotions that talking about his friend’s death had always forced him to confront in the telling.
Without fully understanding why he detoured again, expanding his reply to her original question by exploring briefly the breakup of his marriages.
Explaining to her that he hadn’t blamed the failures of his marriages on his ex-wives but on himself, he told her that he had accepted the departure of each wife as a result of competing negative situations that had emerged into their lives together. He had continued to live with a sense of personal failure and sorrow that he had not been able to overcome the damaging influences that had ripped apart his marriages.
Remembering his happiness at his son’s birth he recounted the later painful loss of his son within his daily life.
Gary became increasingly aware of her intent focus on him. Her close attention to what he was saying reached inside him enclosing him in a welcoming interest more exquisite than he had ever experienced.
Briefly wondering why he was revealing so much about himself, he broke their eye connection moving his gaze toward a couple walking by. He felt a sense of awe enter the moment that he could expose to a complete stranger, emotions and fears that he had never shared with a wife, friend or close family member.
When he stopped talking Ashley remained silent hoping he would continue revealing his personal experiences to her. She wanted to know all about him. Relief flowed through her when his eyes returned to hers and he began speaking again.
When he explained that nothing had been the same after the mother of his son had exited herself from their intimacy, his son had been removed from his daily life and Johnny Hart’s loss had brought him to the defining moment that had finalized his departure from the job, Ashley turned her hand palm-up and slipped her fingers under his hand lying motionless on his thigh.
The moment he felt the gentle touch of Ashley’s fingers slide under his hand in tender sympathy he fought tears long held-back. He had subconsciously expected subtle questions that would imply censorship for his failure to remain faithful to his calling to the mandatory retirement age.
He hadn’t realized until this moment that he had been defining who he was by his career choice. Her understanding response had allowed disappointment in himself to escape into the meaningful past.
He slowly smiled relief loosening the subliminal harsh self-judgment he had coiled like a ligature around his heart without knowing it. He wrapped his fingers around her small hand holding it in a warm receptive embrace.
He couldn’t speak any longer. Her eyes had planted him on high ground. Her touch had been alive with an unspoken alliance with him. She had seemed to be challenging his own hidden self-censorship.
It was an extraordinary moment for Gary Alexander. He felt the comforting power of her touch surround him as if she had embraced him and had begun to stroke his back in consolation for having endured months of faulty and punishing self-analysis.
It seemed as though she had opened the doorway of his pain and brooding sense of personal failure and had made the decision to walk inside to share his suffering with him.
It was at this moment of emerging awareness about himself that he knew within an exacting certainty she was carrying her own deeply wounding personal experience.
When Gary had been trapped in his inability to continue talking the clarity that came into the moment had forced him to see that he had been avoiding looking at a question about himself he had been carrying around since his retirement.
He had not talked to anyone about his reasons for retiring before the mandatory age.
The relief that had enveloped him at her unquestioning alliance with him in his unexamined discomfort now forced him to look at himself under a new light of inspection.
He wondered what had been the unveiling clue in his voice or manner of relating to her his life’s experiences that had allowed her to see him within a greater clarity than he had been able to see himself up to this moment.
He could see that he had not placed the reasons for his retirement into a wholly satisfying perspective. He had retired telling himself only that he was finished with that part of his life. Until now the nagging sadness that had come along with leaving firefighting had not been examined closely.
This experience with Ashley had shaken him. The relieving emotions that had flowed through him by her supportive response to the telling of his story had forced him to see that he may have been resisting a more probing self-examination of his bravery.
For the first time he allowed himself to face the implications to why his underlying sadness had not gone away. He now asked himself if he may have retired early from firefighting because he had been running from the fear of his own death.
Turning his gaze toward the open sea he asked himself what now seemed an even more fundamental question; had he lost his courage when Johnny Hart had died.
He knew within a certainty that Ashley had challenged that possibility as impossible when she had slipped her hand under his.
Looking at her, he felt his body flow with renewed warmth. Shaking off further self-examination he turned toward her, “Would you like to walk along the shore for a while?”
She nodded and stood up. Lifting himself up he smiled at her and reached for her hand. She smiled as his hand enclosed her own once again. They strolled closer to the water’s edge and then walked hand-in-hand along the shore line.
The breeze ran airy fingers through their hair. The sound of the surf played a welcoming melody to their approach. Gary glanced down at her. Feeling his eyes on her, she smiled up at him experiencing a pleasing excitement run through her waking up her body.
He began to explore how he might learn more about her without making her feel uncomfortable. Aware that she had been cautiously self-protective from their initial meeting this morning he moved their conversation forward within a tentative inquiry.
Gary learned that like himself, she had been married twice, divorced twice. Her second marriage had produced four children. She had lost two of them. Misty had died in a boating accident and Stan Kelly had died in the Gulf War. Kitt Kelly, now Kitt Stanford and Derrick Kelly were her surviving children now with children of their own.
He thought he saw a watchfulness enter her eyes when she mentioned her grandchildren.
Gary Alexander experienced an instant desire to provide her a sense of protective reassurance. Her look of watchful observation for his response that she had teen-age grandchildren told him she was curious why he had sought her out.
He wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t judge him by common cultural assumptions.
The look that passed between them had allowed him to recognize that if he would provide any feedback of reassurance to her it would bring about a renewed examination of their age difference. He thought it might have to come but he told himself it didn’t have to take place today.
It was at this moment that Gary understood and accepted that it was up to him to make the case for a relationship if he wanted one to develop between them after today.
He told her he was sorry about the loss of her children. She smiled up at him in gentle appreciation of his kindness. Tightening her hold on his hand momentarily, she said, “Thank you. I miss them.”
Gary and Ashley spent the rest of the morning at the beach. Slowly a wider picture of Gary Alexander emerged into view for her. He noticed her reluctance to talk in more depth about herself.
When time had begun to close-in on noon he asked her if she would have lunch with him. They chose the Longboard Restaurant & Pub.
When Ashley had earlier walked along the shoreline with Gary within an unusual sense of pleasure it had lured her into a cautious hope. She had made an attempt to explore briefly why he had made the decision to ask her to have breakfast with him. She had suggested to herself that perhaps he had merely been lonely and bored.
She wasn’t being self-deprecating in her attempt to understand what had gone through his mind that had turned their meeting into a more extended male and female encounter. She had become aware of an immediate connection between them when he had rescued her on the beach.
At this moment she felt restrained by the fact that she could not be sure he had felt it and if he had not she then wanted to know the real reason he had suggested an entrance into her life.
Ashley had moved away from the naive woman of her early marriages. She now struggled to always deal with the real. She had accepted after her last divorce that living in a world of careful denial had been demeaning and life-denying. She didn’t want her life to ever contain fraud again.
Her woman’s experience with her children’s father had taught her that human motives can be amazingly complex. His had been a carefully camouflaged powerful ego impacted by a thirst for personal power mixed with arrogated pride.
During their marriage he had activated within his manhood a deceptive use of his male competitiveness and thirst for success into a self-justified overt and silently cruel domination of her using the guise of love.
Ashley instinctively had known that love is never lonely. Yet in her womanhood she had never been more alone than during their marriage.
Later, positive experiences had allowed a more pleasing self-perspective to emerge. These self-affirming situations had been able to push the painful personal experiences of her woman’s isolation into the background of the present moment. It had been this knowledge that had allowed her to cling to hope instead of devolving into despair.
Ashley wanted to believe Gary Alexander and she had connected within a promise of intimacy. She hoped that it was not an emotion residing only within herself.
Out of her painful childhood and failed marriages she had carried with her the unyielding desire that had surfaced early in her growing-up years that a unique intimacy would one day be hers. That it had not happened had always haunted the hope within a wounding sorrow.
After Gary and Ashley had gathered up the things they had placed on the sand they took them to his car. Moments later they entered the Longboard restaurant. It was a little after noon.
A television set above the bar was on. Customers were glancing up at it within a momentary interest then back toward their companions.
The atmosphere was light with laughter and talking. Busy waitresses hurried about the room taking orders and serving them. Ashley could see this was a favorite hang-out for the locals as well as for tourists.
Taking seconds to look around Gary took her hand. He moved in front of her with Ashley in protective tow through the gathering crowd toward the back patio.
Walking to a table in the far corner of the garden patio he pulled a chair out for her. She sat down. He pulled another chair out from under the table sitting down beside her.
Glancing up at the interior of the large outdoor umbrella over them and then back toward her, he said, “They have an annual lobster fest here. Have you been to any of them?”
Upon entering the restaurant Ashley had instantly liked the unpretentious atmosphere. She enjoyed the lively laughter and bustle of the moment. It allowed her to be among cheerful fellow human-beings with no demands upon herself. She felt herself relax.
At Gary’s question, she took it in wondering how to explain to him that she rarely went out alone. Ashley didn’t want to tell him that the early morning visit to the beach had been an unusual decision forced upon her by a moment of desperate unrolling despair that had threatened to overcome her.
When this morning’s new engulfing moment had threatened to overwhelm her, she had rushed toward the place that had often given her contentment. It had been most often the steady peaceful sounds of an ocean surf.
Looking at him she felt the powerful sense of safety that being with this tall strong man had brought her from the moment he had come striding in gallant bravery toward her to face two men with nothing more than a flashlight.
She had fought an almost paralyzing fear when confronted by the men. Ashley had not been troubled by their words but their manner of approach. She felt the refreshed memory roll over her as she once again confronted the moment.
The earlier sense of being powerless to save herself washed over her. The inner trembling that had begun at the stranger’s attempt to touch her had ignited a gripping sense of helplessness that had threatened to expel a scream from her lips.
Relief that what she was remembering was now only a memory because of this man’s interference flowed through her.
Looking directly into his light brown eyes, she replied, “No, I’ve never been to a lobster fest.”
She wanted to add, “Actually I’ve lived much of life within a narrow personal experience.” Staring into his probing eyes she silenced its voice. She hated pity in exchange for understanding. What she longed for was respect and love.
Gary gazed into her green eyes within a thoughtful perplexity. It went through his mind that she wanted to say more but had refused it utterance.
The waitress approached to take their order. They decided on lobster salad and iced tea. The food was pleasingly arranged on their plates. Ashley felt refreshed after finishing her salad and the iced tea, “Thank you. I enjoyed the meal.”
Gary grinned back at her, “You’re welcome. I liked it too. I especially like the company I’m with.”
Ashley was caught off guard. He had not moved into any suggestion of the personal between them after the initial compliment he had paid her at breakfast. Their breakfast kiss hadn’t been strong enough evidence to her as being anything more personal than a shared whimsy. At his words, she wanted to touch him. She didn’t. Instead, she smiled into his eyes.
After lunch they once again set-up their small beach spot the way it had been before. Gary liked being with her. The longer she interacted with him the more Ashley wanted the afternoon to not end.
The rest of the afternoon flew by within a companionable exchange of light conversation. He had been correct about her love of laughter. When she giggled softly at his jokes he felt the seductive quality of its sound slide down with pleasing exactness into his body. They had watched the beach community ebb and flow with visitors. Without setting out to do it they had made today an island that only they existed upon.
The sun was slowly sliding down into the darkening sky when she heard the sound of his cell-phone. Smiling, he said, “Once I was lost now I am found.”
At his words, a poignant memory ran through her. Shifting her position to stand up and walk away he saw her intention. He reached out and touched her shoulder lightly, “You don’t have to go.”
Listening quietly for several seconds Gary’s face took on a sobering aspect, “What caused you to think that?”
“Okay... Yes. That’ll be a good time. Thanks!”
Turning toward Ashley, he said, “That was a firefighter friend of mine. Roy Hudson. He is the Assistant Fire Chief at the station. He has come across something about Johnny’s death that bothers him and he wants to talk to me about it.”
Ashley felt a sense of foreboding, “That sounds ominous doesn’t it?”
Leaning slightly toward her his eyes filled with restive thought, “Yes, it does. I thought Johnny’s death had nothing unusual about it except a sadly fatal error in exiting strategy.”
“Do you need to go now?”
“No, we’ll meet tomorrow.”
Ashley glanced around at the emptying beach area. Making a sudden decision she stood up feeling a new loneliness spread into her. She said, “I think it’s time I go home. Thank you for a wonderfully peaceful day.”
He felt a piercing sense of finality in her words. He didn’t want to simply check this day off to an unusual experience and let it go at that, “I’ve enjoyed being with you. Will you see me again?”
His words caused her heart to pick-up its beat. Feeling constrained by the failure of those earlier relationships she glanced away from his penetrating stare toward a family near-by gathering-up their belongings.
Her eyes saw the family; her mind caused them to disappear from view as the day flashed before her within its wholeness. She had been acutely aware of the many glances women had sent Gary Alexander’s way. No man had impacted her so immediately as this man had.
Mr. Gary Alexander had brought a unique experience to her.
Ashley’s mind leaped into an imagined future of a relationship with this handsome younger man. She found herself torn between what she desired at this moment and what she thought might be true about most men today.
And while she had disliked stereotyping anyone she had an even greater desire not to define this man by a generalization. Yet she told herself that she didn’t want to be continually apologizing for her age either.
In spite of the powerful attraction she was feeling for Gary Alexander, she wasn’t sure she was willing to bear the brunt of the shallow assumptions so many people held about the younger man, older woman relationship.
She wondered if she had the strength to risk spending time with him. Would it be worth the possible hurtful ending of a relationship with him?
Gary felt his heart begin to pound. He saw the hesitation on her face. His mind whirled searching for something to say that would allow her to accept his interest as genuine with no ulterior motive but his male interest in a possible relationship with her.
He lifted himself up to stand beside her, “Will you give me your phone number?”
Ashley felt her legs go weak. She wondered if she had the emotional strength to begin a relationship with this powerfully alluring man. She couldn’t let go of the idea that any relationship with this extraordinarily attractive man would be a high-risk one.
For the first time in a long time she wondered if the years spent alone after her last divorce had allowed a recovery process to take place in her.
Her eyes felt imprisoned by his. Slowly she felt an earlier sense of risk-taking peek around this corner of her life.
Shutting off further challenge she took her eyes from his and reached for her purse. Opening it, she took out a pen and a small piece of paper. She wrote her telephone number on it and gave it to him.
Relieved, he asked to use her pen. She handed the pen to him. He wrote his cell-phone number on a portion of the paper she had given him. Tearing the paper in half he handed it to her.
They once again looked deeply into each other’s eyes.
She felt as though she had just crossed the Rubicon.
Gary walked her to the parking lot. They said good-by. Turning to reach for the handle of her car door she suddenly turned back around to face him. She brought her fingers up to his face and stroked his cheek, “Thank you so much for coming to my rescue.” Her eyes kissed him. He felt her caress flow down deep into his body.
He wanted to put his arms around her waist to lift her bodily up against him and put his lips on her mouth. Instead he smiled down at her nodding his head in acceptance of her thanks.
Then as though he were moving in slow motion, he reached forward and drew her toward him within a gentle embrace to whisper, “You’re welcome.”
Driving home Ashley went over the day with Gary Alexander.
She felt his presence so strongly that he seemed to be riding with her in the car. Ashley couldn’t shake off the feeling that something extraordinary had taken place between them. She felt thankfulness flow through her for having made the rare decision to go to the beach in those early morning hours.
Gratefulness that he had been there at the time of the approach of the two men made its way into the moment. She rapidly moved away from looking closely at the possible outcome of the morning if he had not been there and had not been the type of man he had chosen to be.
Ashley had been forced to learn that her smallness had often worked against her safety. Being a woman in a small body in a world of increasing license to target the vulnerable, had taught her caution.
All men she had ever encountered were taller and stronger. Most women were taller and stronger than herself. It had been a late-to-come caution that had encouraged her to live within a vigilant watchfulness.
The self-taught awareness she lived with today had provided a level of protection from situations that could have presented harmful or even devastating consequences to her. She was not a masochist. Pain was not appealing to her. Not emotional or physical pain.
For the first time in a long time she felt safe with Gary Alexander. It had been a wonderful feeling. She had wanted to soak in it and not let it go. It had seemed to her that he had opened her prison and offered her an almost forgotten sense of freedom.
She turned the car into her driveway and shut the engine off. Sitting quietly thinking about her life at this moment she had trouble believing she had ever lived daringly often capriciously taking chances with her life.
She wondered, once again, about the hidden forces deep within her that had driven her behavior in the distant past. Her early teen years had erupted in the risky entertainment of racing cars on country roads summer and winter with anyone who would accept her challenge. Many did. In winter thick ice had covered those long straight highways with sudden turns that forced resisting tires to take any curve on two wheels.
One evening, on her sixteenth birthday in a snow storm she had dared God to kill her as she pushed the car she was driving to its limit of one-hundred and twenty miles an hour, soaring without let-up for eight straight miles on snow covered narrow pavement toward home.
Slowing her speed upon entering the city limits, she had sat motionless behind the wheel at the first stop-light, her heart pounding and wondered why He hadn’t taken her dare.
She remembered ice-skating on thin ice away from all rescue, laughing and daring her friends watching in fear to come onto the cracking shimmering not-deeply frozen lake. She had acted out halloween pranks that could have put her in jail.
On the farms of friends she balanced herself on narrow wood two-by-four’s above angry rampaging bulls. She had challenged the boys below her to follow her across to the other side. They never had.
Teetering on iron bridge rails across busy highways, she had challenged other teens to follow her. They hadn’t.
Dating early, she had experimented with sensuality in the back seat of high-school dates caution only in refusing to go all the way. On and on she surveyed these early excesses seeing them - sometimes with amusement - mostly, with astonishment that she had not been date-raped or brought injury to others and that she had survived.
Flippant to bullies, gentle to lambs, she had carried a mixture of inner sorrow and haughty defiance to the world around her.
At the time, she had never wondered where this dangerous recklessness came from or why she had not made a closer examination of what it was that she had been trying to outdistance. Her friends had tried to warn her of the danger by their refusal to aid and abet her compulsive drive toward adrenaline-releasing hazardous adventure.
She hadn’t understood until much later that she had been living as though she had been daring herself to die.
A decade later it had been a friend who had suggested that she had lived within an early death wish but had clung to a slender thread of hope in spite of it.
Proof of her contention, her friend had claimed, was in the reality that the youthful Ashley had usually been alone in the daring and potentially self-destructive situations and had never used alcohol or drugs to prime the pump of her drive toward self-annihilation. Those choices had tipped survival in her favor.
Later Ashley had not been sure if this analysis had a legitimacy but she had been willing to listen to it and wonder if it were true who had been the most responsible for such despair living within her younger self.
In time, her children had brought a sense of unusual worth to her own existence. She had always known that she wanted children. Her babies born beautiful and healthy with sweet natures had given her a happiness she hadn’t known could exist within her.
Yet she couldn’t shake reality that once they were grown their lives would withdraw within a natural growth away from her own. The thought hadn’t displeased her. She had cherished freedom and had wanted them to be free.
Ashley had carried a long understanding that the repetitive generational flow of life toward new generations was a thing compellingly natural.
What had chased her relentlessly through her woman’s life was an inner emptiness within her womanhood. It had been a penetrating aloneness she had not been able to find a way to dispel. This inner sense of personal failure had chased her down those busy years of child-rearing and care-giving others.
She had tried filling up the hollow that was herself; first with the youthful first marriage. Secondly through the marriage to her children’s father. When the proof came that he had never loved her and had defrauded her from the beginning of their relationship she recognized that an inner paralyzing emotional numbness had taken up residence inside herself.
She had never believed women who claimed a career can take the place of a special man in their lives. She couldn’t believe that later in their lives the memory of professional success could replace the love of a man. She had once examined this possibility in her own life and had found it inexplicable.
She had always known that her woman’s self was incomplete.
She had come to understand that death was not always physical. This truth had caught up with her when that numbing reality made battle with her long-held hope that one day she would feel the fullness of love and joy within a unique intimacy and finally be made whole by the celebrating love of an unusual man.
Gary Alexander walked to his car slowly. He had watched Ashley drive from the parking lot without looking back to where he stood. He couldn’t tell from his line of sight if she had even glanced in her rearview mirror at him during her final exit out of the beach area.
He felt a new loneliness enter the moment.
Driving toward his home he felt tiredness overtake him but was content within a new perspective. He carried with him a pleasing sense of having spent a relaxing afternoon with an attractive sensitive woman, experiencing no pressure to be anything other than who he was. He liked the freedom in the feeling. He had liked the sensuality of their encounter.
He knew that he wanted to see her again.
The memory of the phone call from Roy Hudson reached out to draw him back inside their short conversation. Roy had stated that the cause of Johnny Hart’s death had recently been questioned by someone.
Gary went over the call in his mind. Roy Hudson had told him that an anonymous phone call had come into the station a couple of days ago regarding Johnny Hart. A disguised voice had suggested that the circumstances of his dying should be reinvestigated.
He wondered why anyone would wait so long to suggest a reinvestigation into Johnny Hart’s death.
Gary hadn’t been surprised that Roy would bring him into this situation. All those remaining at the station were aware that he and Johnny had become fast friends after Johnny Hart had been hired.
Pulling his car into the garage he turned off the engine. Inhaling deeply, he got out of the car, opened the trunk, removed the beach paraphernalia and placed it on a shelf. He punched the garage door button lowering the door back into a closed position.
Entering his home he noticed a light flashing on the home telephone message machine. Strolling over to it he clicked it on. His ex-wife’s voice entered the room, “Cassy called me. She said that a rumor is making the rounds that Johnny’s death is being questioned as more than an error in judgment. Have you heard anything?”
There was a pause and then she finished, “Kevin’s tennis match is Friday.”
He nodded his head muttering softly into the quiet room, “Thank you.”
Turning on the kitchen light he walked to the refrigerator and took out a small bottle of water. Opening it, he swallowed half of it, capped it and placed it back into the refrigerator.
Sitting down on a kitchen chair, his mind captured the image of Ashley, once again. She seemed to have entered the house with him. He wanted to call her to see if she were home. Abruptly he chuckled softly to himself. He knew that the real reason he wanted to call her was to hear her voice again.
Putting down the impulse, his mind went back to the call from Carolyn, his ex-wife. Cassy, short for Cassandra was Johnny Hart’s widow. Cassy and Carolyn had early in Johnny’s and his friendship became friends. He recognized again how fast rumors moved through the close community of firefighters.
He thought of calling his ex-wife and telling her about the call from Roy. He decided against it. He didn’t want to hear her voice or answer the inevitable questions that would be coming from her about something he as yet knew so little about.
Wondering if Ashley would enjoy seeing his son compete in the tennis championship Friday, he thought about asking her to go with him to the match. Deciding that it was too early to suggest this type of date to Ashley he let the idea go.
The next morning, Ashley showered, turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. Remembering Gary’s tall good-looks she gazed pensively at her nakedness reflected in the mirror.
Bringing her hands up to cup her breasts, she smiled back at her reflection running her eyes over her body, “Hmmm... I wonder if he would find this to his liking?”
She suddenly wished she were the most beautiful woman in the world. She just as suddenly hated time. Sighing, she dressed, moved out into the hallway, shut the bathroom door behind her and walked toward the kitchen.
Pouring herself a glass of orange juice she drank it slowly thinking about how to go about her morning. Rinsing out her glass in the sink, she placed it rim down on the top dishwasher rack.
Stretching, she went into the living room to go through her morning exercises. She would walk two miles as she did every day but not now that would be an afternoon break for her.
After making her breakfast, she cleaned up the remaining dishes. Sitting down at the computer she checked her email. She replied to a note from her son, Derrick, who had asked her how things were going.
She thought of telling him about meeting Mr. Incredible but something told her to hold-back any mention of their meeting. She wrote him she was hanging-in-there and asked how his life had been treating him.
Ashley felt a familiar thankfulness for her son’s sweet nature within an abiding integrity when she sent off the email reply.
Opening up the file that held the novel she was working on she tried to focus on the plot that had earlier unfolded in her mind. Gary Alexander’s image kept popping-up and interfering with her concentration. Her body had held on to the sensual experience that being with him had aroused within her.
Ashley held her sexuality within a distinct framework of centralized importance. Her interest in her own sensuality had begun early. In spite of her early interest in sex her first sexual encounter hadn’t taken place until meeting the boy she would marry too young.
More recently, she had turned down offers by attractive men to experience them sexually with no strings attached. She had denied herself the opportunities because she had never been able to see sex as just another sport.
Ashley had placed sexual activity with a man she loved and who loved her, within an experience that promised to be the most riveting personal dynamic she would ever encounter in life.
In spite of the long and punishing denial by her children’s father, of her right to be as powerfully sexual as she had longed to be. His unrelenting muting of her sensuality hadn’t caused her to lose her belief that there was no other intimate experience as multi-dimensional as bonding or as full of escalating pleasure that exploded into a uniting ecstasy as the loving male and female connection acted out through shared sexuality.
In Ashley’s view, having sex with a man she didn’t love was an act of masturbation using a man’s body. It allowed orgasm but left her empty.
Her husband had taught her that sex with a man who didn’t love her was a sacrifice of the sensual self to an emotional narcissist who maintained his sense of sexual superiority within a mechanical and spiritually-empty sexual experience. Orgasm happened only within a machine dynamic.
The longer she had examined the human sexual experience, the more she looked at it within an objective framework, finding it interesting but a profound failure how the human ego can be willing to settle for less than the potential that unique human experience promises.
After her divorce to her children’s father there had been men who had approached bluntly wondering aloud if an evening out with her would allow sexual activity at some point in their encounter.
Others, married liars, had approached within a more disingenuous slight-of-mind that implied an interest in a “long-term” relationship in spite of their legal ties to another woman.
There had been men who she had accepted into her life for short periods of time within a cautious approach. Some of them were truthful and genuinely lonely. She had dated several. None of them had mesmerized her. One of them, injured by her resistance to his sexual advances had implied she was past her prime so what’s the problem.
She had laughed, telling him he shouldn’t talk about himself like that. It had been the last time she had been willing to see him. She had been thankful that he had not been a stalker only a man with an injured ego.
When Gary Alexander had kissed her in that playful impulsive moment, she had struggled to suppress a soaring desire to experience all of him. It had torn through her as powerfully as an unexpected earthquake brings down a hillside carrying all in its path that had resisted earlier movement.
Now she felt gripped by an intruding question; which type of the men she had known would he turn out to be most like.
With the thought a small flickering light of hope that he would be a unique man in her life had flared at the asking of the question.
The next morning Gary Alexander remembering Ashley, began his day with her on his mind. He fried scrambled eggs, drank an orange juice and finished his breakfast off with a cup of coffee. Leaving his home to hike his daily four miles he carried the image and sense of her with him.
He had felt the desire to call her within seconds of his waking from sleep. He would have enjoyed hearing what her voice sounded like early in the morning. He put the idea away as instantly as it had entered it. He didn’t know her waking time. He didn’t know if she woke up smiling or scowling or simply in a steady-state of emotional neutrality toward the beginning of a new day.
Returning to his home from his four mile hike, Gary met Roy Hudson turning his white Chevy pick-up into Gary’s driveway. He waved at him, walked to the front door and put the key in the lock. Roy got out of his truck and reached Gary just as the front door opened.
Shutting the door behind them, Gary motioned him toward the kitchen, “If you would like a cup of coffee there is a fresh pot on the counter.”
Roy nodded and walked toward the kitchen, “I would.”
Bounding up the stairs, Gary raised his voice slightly to say, “Give me a minute to shower and I’ll be right down.”
Roy smiled, “No problem.” He walked to the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee and pulled out a kitchen chair. He sat down and waited for Gary to return.
A few minutes later, Gary walked into the kitchen. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he brought it over to the table, sat down and asked, “Ok, what’s going on?”
Roy inhaled, “Like I told you. We got a call that suggested we reinvestigate Johnny’s death.”
Gary glanced up, “No clue as to who it was that called or why that should be done?”
Gary said, “I’m assuming you are wondering if I know something about Johnny’s state of mind before he died that might put you onto someone or something that would give you a direction to go?”
Gary’s mind flew back to that last week of Johnny’s life, “I’ve been trying to remember if something had been bothering Johnny around that time and I’ve come up with nothing that stands out. If there was something going on with Johnny like that, he didn’t share it with me. I’m sorry.”
Roy nodded slowly, “He was your best friend. Thought it best to begin with you. We haven’t got anything up-front that supports the implications of this phone call. I suggested we don’t go to Cassandra until we explore the implications of the call more.”
Roy looked startled, “She knows about the call?”
Gary nodded, “Yes, Carolyn left a message asking if I knew anything about the rumor that his death may have more to it than an error in timing exiting the burn.”
Roy shook his head, “Hmmm... There were four of us that heard it. Hank, myself, Stu and Sherry.”
Gary said, “Sherry and Cassy are friends.”
Roy stroked his chin, “Yes... But I had understood that we agreed to go slow on this. I thought all of us there understood that Johnny’s widow would not be told of the call unless a decision to begin an official investigation into his death had been decided on.”
Turning his head to look out the kitchen window, he finished thoughtfully, “If I can’t uncover something that suggests the caller knows something that we need to know or should have known, we’re not going further with this.”
Gary nodded in agreement, “There are disturbed people out there. It may have been a one-time impulse to jerk a station-house of firefighters around. You may not get another one. Have you had any combative situations lately answering a call?”
Roy brought his eyes back toward Gary, “None, but the usual stress reactions that come along with every run. No one has reported anything unusual, anyway.”
Gary nodded in agreement, “I thought Johnny’s body was intact. Couldn’t an autopsy have been done on Johnny?”
“It could have been but it didn’t happen. The tree crushed his head, and shoved his body down a ravine into a stream. The trunk of the tree ended up spanning the ravine.”
“Cassy didn’t ask for an autopsy?”
“No. It isn’t required for a death certificate. Under the circumstances of his death at the fireground, it wasn’t seen as necessary by anyone else, either.”
Roy Hudson paused to inhale deeply taking his eyes off Gary. He finished his second cup of coffee within a focused concentration for several silent minutes.
Looking at Gary again, Roy steered away from the topic of the troubling phone call and turned the conversation toward their firefighting history together. They went back over their shared experiences for another twenty minutes.
Getting up from his chair he thanked Gary for the coffee and conversation.
Pushing back his chair, Gary stood up and walked with him to the front door. Opening the door, Roy turned back and offered his hand to Gary, “Thanks again!”
Shaking Roy’s hand, Gary said good-bye, “Nice to see you again. Sorry, I couldn’t be of more help. If you think of any way I could be helpful let me know.”
Ashley had finally gotten back to her novel’s plot. She finished the chapter just before noon. Glancing toward the clock she saw it was time to take a break. She stopped working to eat a light lunch.
She was wiping off the kitchen-table when she heard the telephone ring. Hoping it was Gary calling, her heart began beating faster as she hurried to answer it.
Her legs weakened when she heard him speak her name, “Yes,” she replied.
“This is Gary Alexander.” His chest felt tight.
“I know...” she said softly.
The two words told him she had hoped he would not forget her. The low intimate tone of her voice reached out to embrace him. Gary felt as though she had already slept with him and woke up remembering. A rush of adrenaline soared through him and he chuckled to himself thinking, “I must've been good!”
Tightening his hold on his whimsy he didn’t share his thought. Instead he asked, “Are you busy? We could get lunch if you haven’t already eaten and then spend some time together... if you’re interested.”
“I’ve had a light lunch but I’d love to see you again.” Before he could suggest that he come to her home and pick her up, she said, “I’ll meet you at our beach in twenty minutes, Okay?”
He felt the words, “our beach” flow through him with happy acceptance.
Gary couldn’t miss that she was remaining cautious with him in spite of yesterdays encounter and day spent together.
Clicking out of the phone call he accepted that he would need to find a way to give her more information about himself that she could check out.
Ashley spent longer than usual getting ready. Winding down to the finish she put on a pair of legs-embracing bluejeans, a white blouse, short dangling silver earrings and light blue tennis shoes.
She finalized her cosmetics with a light creme, applied a soft pink gloss to her lips and brushed her hair. Stepping on the scales she saw the usual one-hundred and seven pounds pop-up. Not dissatisfied with that number she gazed at herself in the full-length mirror and hoped he would like what he saw.
~~Twenty Minutes Later~~
When she had driven into the parking lot she noticed that he was waiting for her near the beach walkway. By the time she had gotten out of her car he had turned around and realized that it was Ashley walking toward him.
He liked what he saw.
Her smile drew him into herself. He felt the welcome in her eyes reach out to touch him. He started toward her. Something stopped him. He knew in milliseconds that he wanted to watch her walk toward him.
She moved toward him within a natural slow sensual sway subtle in its suggestion. Her femininity flowed out of her like a pleasing aroma spreading out into the atmosphere. He felt his body respond to the intense awareness in her eyes that she was celebrating her womanhood and praising his manhood.
He felt desire reach out and hold him. Cautioning himself, he turned his gaze away from her in an effort to steady himself. He noticed two sailors who had stopped what they were doing. Their eyes were glued on Ashley. Picking up his quick glance toward them, they looked at him and smiled.
Following Gary’s eyes she saw the two sailors staring at her. This type of reaction had become familiar in Ashley’s life from the first time she had recognized male awareness of herself as an attractive woman.
The more time had left its traces on her face she learned to accept that her smallness and self-care still attracted male interest especially from a particular type of man in and of, itself. More recently she had either ignored or dismissed most of these reactions by men toward her.
Until Gary Alexander.
Reaching Gary, she smiled up at him, “Hi.”
“Hi,” he said returning her smile.
He wanted to lean over and kiss her. Smiling into his eyes she wanted her lips on his mouth, his arms to surround her and the opportunity to press her face against his chest.
With careful watch over their thoughts they kept the words unspoken.
Gary said, “I would like to show you where I live. Would you be willing to go there first?”
She smiled, “To University Park?”
He grinned pleased that she had remembered, “Yes.”
Why don’t you follow me over. You can park your car at my place.
She nodded, “Okay.”
They looked into each other’s eyes each assessing the other. Ashley broke the eye contact by glancing down at his hand. She slipped her hand into his. They began walking back toward the parking lot together.
Ashley followed him to his home. Gary entered a gated community and turned down the third street from the gate’s entrance and to his right. She could see that neatly landscaped townhouses lined the streets. Traveling down the street he had entered he drove past several houses before pulling up and stopping. He motioned her to park in his driveway.
She steered her car into the driveway, turned off the engine and got out of her car. Waiting for his approach she kept her eyes on him while he got out of his car and began walking toward her.
Ashley drew into herself the sensual image he created. His tallness and his strength thrilled her. Watching his easy male stroll bring him closer to her, she felt her body respond to the experience.
His hair free from restraint flowed to his shoulders. The wind blew strands of his hair against the sides of his face as he walked toward her. Her eyes moved to the muscles in his arms, igniting a desire to be within them to her body and mind. She felt imprisoned in the grip of this mesmerizing picture of his powerful masculinity.
She wondered if her eyes would reveal to him what she was feeling. Smiling up at him when he reached her, he smiled down at her in return. His eyes held an awareness of his effect on her. She fought back an impulse to reach up and run her fingers through his hair. She wondered if he would have allowed it.
Walking toward the front entrance of his home he took a moment to explain to her that University Park had attracted his interest for several reasons. One of the most important reasons had been that the designers had provided many greenbelts for the use of those living in the area.
While they continued their move toward the front of his home, Ashley glanced around trying to return her mind and body to the wider environment around her. She saw well-kept landscaping, a brick courtyard and double-entry oak doors topped with large fan-shaped windows.
Stopping at the oak doors Gary took out his house key and fit it easily into the lock while continuing to speak about the greenbelts.
“The footpaths meander throughout the area. There are quiet spots where you can read a book or simply rest in the shade. Another thing I like about this area is that it was developed on the West side of the San Diego freeway. This put it closer to the marine layer than other parts of Irvine. It stays cooler, rarely dropping below fifty degrees in the winter or rising above eighty-five degrees in the summer.”
Ashley was impressed with the care he had taken in finding a personal environment that provided daily pleasure to him.
Opening the front door, he backed off slightly and allowed her to enter a large living room space. Looking around she saw bookshelves, a large, comfortable brown sofa, a like armchair, small tables holding lamps, magazines and small pictures she assumed were family photos. A beautifully created painting of the desert in bloom hung over the open fireplace.
Walking by the bookshelves she noted several books on politics and the Civil War. One of them by Lloyd Lewis on Sherman she had read. Other shelves held firefighting training manuals, books on emergency rescue, medical information and forensics. Moving nearer the bookcase, her eyes took in several magazines on health and fitness, crime investigation, gardening, sailing, fishing and travel and a large family Bible on the bottom shelf.
A guitar was standing upright between the wall and the bookshelves.
Wondering if it were his or his son’s, she asked, “Is this yours?”
“Are you good at it?”
Grinning he said, “I fool around with it.”
Ashley thought it likely he was better at it than he implied.
Glancing into the bonus room just off the living room he explained that it was now primarily a personal office space.
Turning to her, he asked, “Would you like a juice, soda or water?”
“Water... Thank you.”
Following him into the kitchen she took in its clean interior, its granite topped counters and fresh yellow daises sitting on the counter near the telephone hanging at the end of the row of wall-hung shelves.
Handing her a glass of water with ice, he said, “Would you like to look around?”
Nodding, she said, “Yes.”
He took her on a house tour pointing out the greenbelt view behind the house just off the brick patio. A large wooden lattice-work, painted white, covered most of the patio’s width and length. Winding, blue morning-glory vines, covered one-side of the lattice-work.
On the patio an out-door oven had been built into a long row of countertop shelves, topped at one-end by a gas range. Tapping it, he said, “I rarely use this anymore.”
For some reason his remark sent her to quickly examine his financial situation. She thought it unlikely that he had retired on full pay accepting that his divorce and early retirement had caused him to reexamine his financial priorities.
Entering the house once again she followed him upstairs. He pointed out the two spare bedrooms empty for the most part of signs of occupancy. One of them looked to be a teen-age boy’s room. A tennis racket hung crisscrossed on the wall over another one. Two posters of Ana Ivanovic the tennis star were pinned-up beside them.
She entered the room. Walking over to a boy’s picture inside a silver frame standing upright on a large dresser, “Is this your son?”
Moving closer to her, he nodded, “Yes, he was fifteen when that was taken.”
She smiled looking from the photo to Gary, “He is handsome; like his father.”
He smiled, “Thank you.” She saw sadness enter and then linger at the back of his eyes.
When they entered the master bedroom her glance took in the large windows overlooking the greenbelt and a king-size bed with a plump gray comforter on top of it. Not far away from the bed stood a music set with speakers.
Glancing around she saw firefighting magazines on a small side table, several shelves with more books, DVD’s and CD’s within a tall bookcase and a master bath that held a large inviting whirlpool bathtub.
Ashley glanced toward Gary. Her legs lost strength visualizing him naked inside it. The feeling was strong and powerfully exciting. It brought the urge to quickly remove herself from the master bedroom.
Turning she walked toward the door, “You have a lovely house and lot. Thank you for showing it to me.”
Gary smiled and turned around to follow her out of the room. He wondered if she had the same desire rush through her as he had when her eyes had taken-in the whirlpool bathtub. He would have enjoyed seeing her slip out of her clothes and slowly allow her body to lower itself into the whirling bubbling water of a warm bath.
He wondered if he would have joined her.
They heard the knock at his front door at the same time. Ashley glanced at Gary. Raising a questioning eyebrow, he smiled at her, “I’m not expecting anyone.”
Opening the door, Gary saw his father, “Hi... Come in.”
Ashley took in tall heavy-set man. His long white pony-tail fell to his shoulder-blades. It was held together with a rubber-band. His feet in work shoes, he wore bluejeans and navy-blue sweat-shirt. His eyes were focused intently on Gary, his body in tight attention. He topped Gary’s height. She thought he must be six foot three or four inches tall.
Gary stepped back and motioned toward Ashley, “Ashley, meet my Dad, Buck Alexander.”
Buck Alexander jumped in his skin. When he had entered the house he hadn’t seen her. He now turned to plant on her a piercing look of appraisal. He took all of her in from the top of her head to her toes. She felt as small as a fly on a wall that he intended to smack out of existence and as naked as when she was born.
Slowly everything about him began to relax, “Nice to meet ya,” he said in a low, husky voice.
Turning to Ashley, Gary said, “Please excuse us for a few minutes?”
She nodded and walked over to the large cushioned armchair and sat down.
His father followed Gary into his home-office. Gary didn’t shut the door but spoke in low tones to his father, “Is something wrong?”
Glancing toward where Ashley sat in the living room his father said, “Sorry... Carolyn called and wanted access to Kevin’s college account now and I wasn’t sure if you knew she was going to ask for it before he’s eighteen.”
Gary waved the apology aside, “Dad, that’s your money for Kevin. Carolyn doesn’t include me in her doings anymore. You need my signature to close the account?”
His father nodded his head, “Yes. I’m not going to argue with her. Kevin knows about it but he’s not challenging her right to use it. So maybe she’ll make it up to him at some point?”
Gary, signing the account document heard the question in his voice, “I don’t know. Like, I said, she doesn’t include me in her finances unless she is asking for more money than I’m required to give her for Kevin.”
His father looked thoughtful, “Thanks for signing. I don’t like this, but too busy to deal with Carolyn right now.... and Lena won’t.”
The image of his step-mother flashed before him. Gary wasn’t surprised Lena didn’t want to deal with Carolyn. Ignoring his father’s comment about Lena and Carolyn, he asked, “You’ve got a new project going?”
“Right. We’ve started building homes in the new Langston Homes parcel in Riverside County.”
His father reached for the signed paper, looked once again toward Ashley, muttering sharply, “She’s good-lookin’ But I’ve got a wife, remember?”
Gary sighed internally. Long familiarity with his father’s cutting sense of humor, he understood his father’s intention. He decided to give back as good as he got, “You’re too old for her, Dad.”
Unexpectedly Buck Alexander lifted his head and laughed outright, “I hear ya, Boy!”
Gary smiled without letting it show, thinking a familiar thought, “When is he going to get that I’ve not been a boy in years.”
Ashley looked up when she heard his father’s outburst of laughter. Buck Alexander shot out of Gary’s office nodding his head as he strode rapidly past her, “Good-day!”
“Good-bye,” she returned.
Gary came over to her chair and looked down at her, “Some paperwork he wanted me to sign. He’s quite a character. Never saw anyone work as hard as he does.”
Lifting herself up out of the armchair, she asked, “He’s not retired?”
“No, he’ll probably die on the job. He runs a construction company out of Riverside. Alexander and Sons.”
He answered the question in her eyes, “He had high hopes that one of his sons would become his business partner. It didn’t happen.”
Ashley thought she had an idea why it hadn’t happened. He had entered and left Gary’s home within a concentrated intensity. His bearing had signaled, “No small talk allowed.”
She thought he had the manner of a General Patton on duty during wartime. She didn’t doubt that he commanded top performances from his employees both in respect to time worked and in their quality of workmanship.
She wondered what quality of himself he had given to his sons during their childhood or to their mother. She suspected that his sons hadn’t gone into business with him because they may have been unwilling to become just another employee under their father’s all-encompassing thumb in spite of the father’s business intentions they would be partners.
Ashley cautioned herself in the attempted analysis of what she had witnessed about his father in such a narrow time-frame. She had watched Gary and his father’s interaction and verbal exchange with interest. The son hadn’t seemed much like the father.
Not willing to dislike Gary’s father at first sight she placed this experience into a wait-and-see mental file. She reminded herself she may never have the opportunity to meet him again.
Gary reached into his back pocket and removed his billfold. He handed her his driver’s license, “I’d like you to examine this. The address of this house is on the license. The picture is an earlier one but I think it's clear that’s me.”
He paused then finished, “I’m who I claim to be.”
Ashley felt uncomfortable but relieved. She smiled and examined it. The address was what he had stated it would be. The photo was clearly Gary.
She noticed his date of birth. Feeling she was betraying herself, she had fought and lost the battle to not look at his date of birth. When she did something rose up to tell her that there was something familiar about that date but she couldn’t retrieve it and let go of the search for it.
Smiling, she handed his license back to him, “Thank you.”
A sense of the impossible shadowed the moment.
Ashley experienced an awareness of self-diminishment by her intention to hold back her own driver’s license with its exposure of her birth-date unless he stayed within her life.
She attempted to displace the flash of renewed anger that was flowing through her at the enormous power of the self-anointed powerbrokers within this youth-obsessed, entertainment culture to deny any woman her sensuality past a certain chronological age.
She felt disappointment in herself that feelings of dehumanization could still be activated within herself by the simple gesture of looking at a date of birth.
For long seconds Gary and Ashley stood beside each other silently their eyes remaining connected.
Ashley felt a question with its accompanying answer peek into view. The longer she stared into his eyes the answer increased into a certainty that he already had guessed her date of birth and he didn’t care.
The warmth of his welcoming gaze within his awareness that he knew and didn’t care about anything except who she was at this moment in time reached out to her, lifted her up and placed her on a mountain top.
It was here at this spot in Gary Alexander’s home that Ashley began to wonder within an exquisite and sweetfully painful desire to know what it was that this uncommon man wanted most out of the rest of his life.
She felt a terrible and unyielding longing to be able to have the ability and opportunity to give it to him.
They spent the rest of the day together.
Before leaving Gary’s home they talked over what they might enjoy doing together ending-up with a decision to visit San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park.
On the drive down to the San Diego area Gary was hoping she would talk more about herself. After they had entered the South 5 freeway, he glanced toward her, “Tell me about yourself?”
She began with her youthful marriage that had failed quickly and then moved cautiously into the marriage that had produced four children. Reluctant to expose the wounding injury to herself that the second marriage had brought her, she briefly explained the circumstances of the married life that had produced the children who had given her a new perspective on her own value.
Gary glanced toward her again, his mind going back to her first marriage, “You said you married young?”
Ashley leaned her head back against the head-rest turning her face toward his, “I was more sixteen than seventeen. Today, I understand why I married so early. At the time, I was lonely and had little confidence in myself. I was trying to get out of an environment where I had lived in loneliness and fear.”
She saw him nod his head. She wondered what it meant.
Ashley glanced out of her side window and paused. Would she be able to allow him to really ‘see’ her? Making a rare decision she decided that she would risk letting him see some of her painful history, “I had a lonely childhood. Our home was often full of anger. My mother regretted marrying my father and would have eruptions of implacable rage that would last all night. It was terrifying.”
He took his hand off the steering wheel and covered her hand lying still on her left leg, “I’m sorry.”
She sighed, wishing she could lean her head on his shoulder, “I’m sorry too. I suppose the expected thing to do at this point in my life is to accept it was a long time ago so its not pertinent to now. But that isn’t true. The damaged past can spread destruction into the future even when you want it to just go away and never have to look at it again.”
He said, “I’m not sure we ever escape the past. Memories are in our brain within an immediate access to them. When they come to the surface it can feel as though they just took place.”
His words comforted her. She smiled thoughtfully, “Perhaps that explains why we often make the same mistakes. Isn’t it early behavior patterns we seem to endlessly repeat?”
Gary smiled. He wanted to ask her to talk more about her second marriage. Recognizing that he had refrained from explaining his own marriage failures to her within a closer examination he decided to let further inquiry into her second marriage go for now.
Thinking about what she had told him he understood her cautious, self-protective manner toward him within a deeper perspective. He was convinced that they had connected and she was strongly attracted to him. Gary felt immersed in the moment recognizing that her pull on him was becoming more powerful.
Several more minutes passed within their silence. He looked at what was taking place between them more closely concluding that he was not uncomfortable with what he was feeling. He wanted her within an increasing interest to remain in his life.
Glancing toward her he wondered if she had the courage to stay in it.
When they entered an Old Town parking lot they found an empty space quickly. Surveying the area, they decided to take a few minutes to stroll around the center of the park, exploring the shops. Coming upon the Plaza del Pasado restaurant they stopped to eat a late lunch on its patio.
After the waiter had taken their order, he stopped to explain to them that the Old Town district was the first European settlement in California. Telling them it had begun as a Spanish Mission in seventeen sixty-nine and later moved further inland. The waiter completed his tourist spiel, “Settlers coming later moved closer to the water in the eighteen twenties leaving ‘Old Town’ behind.”
During their meal Gary and Ashley talked casually about the historic park, going through the tourist pamphlet their waiter had given them making a decision on what to visit next.
They stopped to see California’s first schoolhouse, the blacksmith’s shop and had just left the state’s first newspaper office and stable when Gary’s cell-phone rang.
Ashley listened quietly to Gary’s reaction to the caller’s message.
“Really... Was there an explanation for why it was sent?”
Gary had stopped walking. He motioned toward a park bench for them to stop for a while. When she lowered herself into it he sat down beside her.
Listening quietly for several seconds, he said, “If you’d like... Sure, that’s fine. I’ll be there.”
Clicking out of the call he turned toward her, “That was Roy Hudson... The station received a letter today. It must have been sent the same day the call came in to the station. It again was referring to Johnny Hart’s death. Roy says no other fingerprints on it but his and no return address.”
“Did he tell you what was in the letter?”
Gary paused, “Yes, it was a copy of a prescription for Zopiclone, a sedative. It was in Cassy’s name filled a month before Johnny died.”
He paused once again not sure if he had told Ashley that Cassy was his friend’s widow. He finished, “Cassy was married to Johnny Hart at the time.”
“What would a prescription for his wife have to do with your friend’s death?”
Gary inhaled deeply, glanced away from her then back, “Roy seemed to think that it implied things were not as they had appeared between them at the time Johnny died. The second option in Roy’s mind is that the letter-writer intended to suggest that Johnny may have been the target for the sedative and not Cassy.”
“That’s a pretty big leap, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. My first reaction to this second reference to Johnny dying was why would this caller and letter-writer -- if the person is one and the same who made both contacts with the station -- want Cassy to be implicated in her husband’s death in the first place.”
“Has she remarried?”
“Yes, she married another firefighter. Todd Hamilton.”
“That scenario can open-up some possible problem situations. Perhaps Todd Hamilton has an ex-wife or a woman he had a relationship with that resented his marriage to Cassy?”
Gary caught her eyes in a steady gaze, “It’s a hell of a way to get even. Involving an entire community of firefighters to activate an official investigation, forcing large expenditures of taxpayer money. It also might expand into a wider area of taking up the time and resources of federal investigators.”
Ashley nodded in agreement, “You’ve said that no one knows who is making the contacts with the station or why. Apparently whoever it is doesn’t care about the wider consequences. He or she might want them to be played out.”
Gary frowned, “Whoever is doing this has been careful. So far, no statement has been made that makes a charge that a crime has even taken place. The first contact was suggesting a reinvestigation into Johnny’s death and now there is a letter with a copy of a prescription for Cassy dated a month before Johnny died.”
Ashley said, “I thought medical records were confidential.”
“Right... The person has or had access to her medical records at some point. This person could have found it in her home or the trash or he or she might work in the doctor’s office or at the pharmacy where it was filled.”
“Was the prescription a copy or the original. It must have been a copy, right? The pharmacy usually keeps the original.”
Gary nodded his head, “Yes, it was a copy.”
Abruptly he stopped talking and stood up, “I’m sorry! We shouldn’t be doing this. This afternoon is for us. Let’s put this discussion on hold and enjoy the rest of the day, Okay?”
Taking out his cell-phone, he turned it off.
They spent the rest of the day looking around Old Town. Discussing whether or not to try an evening tour that promised a ghost story but which would take them out of the area they decided to leave that experience for another time.
Ashley felt a rush of pleasure when Gary had suggested that it would be something they could do at a later date.
Just outside the Old Town area they found the Whaley House certified to be haunted. They took this tour, enjoyed it and survived with no terrifying incidents to talk about.
Finishing the day at Old Town with a tour through Heritage Park they explored seven Victorian-style homes built between 1887 and 1910. They left the tour laughing and joking about the ‘trials’ of their present-day lifestyles, pretending playfully that the Victorians didn’t have it so bad.
They both knew that they were thankful that they lived within present-day conveniences.
Driving back toward University Park Gary felt contentment enter the moment. Glancing toward Ashley he could see that she was tired but had a smile on her face when she turned toward him to meet his glance toward her.
He smiled, “Thank you.”
Watching him drive toward his home she felt the strength of his sensuality enter the quiet moment within the reflection of their day together.
Their busy afternoon had placed her feelings into a subliminal reservoir that being with him was a sexual experience in itself. She had found herself throughout the afternoon battling the desire to reach out and touch him.
She had lost count of the times within an informal and light moment that her emotions had ignited an impulse to reach out toward his hand, his arm, his shoulder, his chest, his back, his leg or to run her fingers through his hair falling against the sides of his handsome face and in that desiring instant she had halted the movement toward him before it had begun.
When he had first taken her hand in his, she had felt the contact run through her like an instant blaze of fire. It had inflamed a desire that his touch not stop with her hand.
“I’ve only known him for two days,” she cautioned herself. A sense that she surely must have known him for a much longer time shot through her. She felt a happy laugh rise up inside her. She held it back.
Gary was thinking of her response to his whirlpool bathtub. He wondered what her reaction would be to a suggestion she take time to relax in it before having dinner with him. Wandering around this idea for several seconds he decided against it.
Driving back toward his home they reminisced about the day.
Entering into his gated community he drove slowly up the street and parked in front of his house, “Will you stay for dinner? I’m not a great cook but I have a fruit salad already made in the refrigerator. I have roast beef. We can slice it for sandwiches and there is wine, coffee, juice, milk or water to drink.”
Ashley glanced toward the clock and realized that if she stayed for dinner, it would be dark by the time she would be leaving his home. She didn’t want to tell him she felt uncomfortable driving alone after dark.
The longer she thought about it the more she knew that he would be worth a few minutes of later insecurity. Nodding her acceptance, she said, “Sounds good.”
Gary had noticed her glance toward the dashboard clock. It hit him that she might not want to drive home when night fell. When she had accepted his invitation to stay, he smiled at her, “Great!”
Hesitating he added, “If you now trust me enough I’d be glad to follow you home.”
She once again felt the protective canopy of his presence that she had experienced at the beach rescue scene. The expression on his face revealed no sense of disapproval or belittling sentiment inside himself that she might have reservations driving alone after dark.
Ashley wanted to lean toward him and put her lips on his. She felt the power of his kindness wrap her in a seductive protective warmth. Accepting that if he followed her home he would find out her home address she chose risk again, “Thank you. Yes, I would like that.”
Entering his home he shut the door behind him, “Let’s go round-up that dinner.”
Following him into the kitchen she put her purse on the floor under the telephone. Noticing the flashing light on the telephone message machine she began walking out of the room to allow him privacy in hearing it, “You have a message.”
He said softly, “You don’t have to go.”
Clicking it on he heard his ex-wife’s voice tense and angry, “You could have told me about Roy Hudson’s visit!” The tone of her voice sounded hard with an assumed familiarity with Gary. Ashley winced internally.
Gary listened quietly.
Carolyn’s rant wasn’t finished, “Cassy knows something is going on about Johnny’s death and she wants to know what it is. Doesn’t she have that right? No one ‘officially’ is talking to her about whatever it is that’s going on. It is too fuckin’ bad, you feel more loyal to the station than to Cassy!” They heard the bang of the receiver as she slammed it down on its cradle.
Ashley could see Gary inhale as he erased the message. Turning toward her, he said, “Sorry... Sometimes she assumes that once being married to me gave her a life-pass to talk to me like that.”
Ashley moved toward him. She didn’t know what to say. The tone and manner of his ex-wife had offended her for Gary. She leaned her head on his shoulder and brought her fingers up to touch his hand. She brought her fingers slowly up his arm, caressing it from his wrist to his shoulder.
He felt the sweetness in her touch. Her fingers sent pleasant messages throughout his body. Putting his arms around her he held her within a silent warmth. He found it difficult to believe he had only known her two days. Standing with her in this quiet moment he wondered again what or who had wounded her so deeply that the experience had allowed her to react within such an immediate empathy to him.
She was a new and moving experience for him.
After dinner Ashley helped him clean off the table and fill the dishwasher, “That was good. I was more hungry than I thought.”
With a soft laugh, he said, “Thank you!”
Realizing she was going to leave him in a few minutes he grappled with the awareness of his loneliness that she had made disappear, “Would you like to stay and watch television for a while?”
She remembered where she had seen his high-definition television set. He had placed it in his bedroom.
Ashley felt an overpowering desire to lie in his bed with him, “Okay.”
Climbing the stairs to the master bedroom Ashley followed him carrying a 7-Up for herself and bottled water for Gary. He carried two large pillows from the sofa.
Entering the room he walked to the bed, tossed the two smaller pillows away from the top of the bed, put the two large sofa cushions in place and then replaced the bed pillows against them.
Smiling she tossed off her shoes, put the drinks on the stand beside the bed and climbed onto the comforter. Taking off his shoes he jumped onto the comforter beside her.
Leaning against the sofa cushions he let out a relaxed sigh and reached for the television remote. He asked her what she would like to watch.
His cell-phone rang. Taking it out of his pocket he looked at the number, “Enough already.” He turned it off. <>
Ashley assumed it was another call from Carolyn and that there might be another message for Gary being placed right now on his cell or on the kitchen telephone message machine downstairs.
Trying to forget Carolyn may have once slept with Gary on this bed she snuggled down next to him. She felt a frightening peace flow through her. Turning her face to his, she said, “You fill this room with magic.”
Startled at her words he saw the day with her in its totality. He felt desire flow through him. They had not engaged in any discussion about their attraction to each other. He had moved through the day with her accepting that it existed. Being with her had strengthen his conviction that he wanted to see her again. He thought feelings for him had increased within her but he hadn’t been able to place that sense within a certainty into his mind.
He remembered her understanding touch, her interest in what they had shared, her willingness to discuss Roy Hudson’s call. He remembered that he had enjoyed laughing and joking with her. He had fought a constant battle to touch her. Yet he had not kissed her today. She had not kissed him today.
He looked into her eyes, leaned over and put his lips on hers, whispering, “Then you are the magician.”
Holding her breath, she felt the pleasure of his mouth’s gentle message flow through her body. Telling herself that if she fainted and he might not know it for a while she might miss some of the good stuff. She told herself to not faint and kissed him back.
Snuggling closer to him, she moved her welcoming lips under his. She kissed the side of his mouth, drawing his responding lower lip just inside her mouth within a gentle sucking tug. He moved his lips over her own inviting her exploratory seeking of his mouth’s response by an invitation of his own.
Moving her hips snug against his body she felt his hardness match the desire flowing between them. She slid her right leg up and over his left leg moving her pelvis against his erect penis.
Holding her the image of his ex-wife entered the moment shattering his rising passion and his contentment. He felt sadness flow through him. He didn’t want to make love with Ashley on a mattress Carolyn's body had known.
He became still. She heard his gentle, whisper, “Slow, Sweet Ashley...”
Every part of Ashley’s body didn’t want to stop what they were doing. Looking into his watchful eyes she felt forced to surrender to his words. She moved slightly away from him, “Is something wrong?”
She saw him drive the contemplative thought in his eyes deeper into his mind. In a forced lightness he tried to rescue the moment, “I don’t want to get you pregnant.”
Ashley understood what was happening. He was attempting lightness because something that had taken place within him had bothered him. He was playing with irony and metaphor. Wondering why he didn’t want to tell her what was really going on inside him, she laughed lightly hoping he would see she understood, “I’m glad you are a careful man.”
He smiled, thankful that he had not offended her. Pushing a pillow between their hips he drew her once again toward him. He kissed her slowly. She kissed him back slowly.
They touched each other cautiously, exploringly. Winding her fingers in his hair, she nibbled at his neck and ear, her free hand began moving under his shirt and across the firmness of his chest. She played gently with his aroused nipples. He felt anticipating pleasure flow through him as though he were on a raft beginning its trip through rapids. He fought to control the escalating desire racing through him.
Ashley couldn’t escape his incomplete commitment to their first real intimate touching. She wanted to make love to Gary without restraints. She wanted to pull the pillow out from between them. She felt a deep longing to experience his nakedness. Ashley fought against the restraint that his behavior had put on their sensuality.
Gazing into his eyes, her sexual longings suddenly melted into empathy, “Maybe we should stop this.” she whispered.
Gary moved away from her sadness flowing through him. Removing his arms from around her, he said hesitatingly, “I’m sorry... the pillow... I ...”
She smiled gently, “You don’t have to explain. If you would have been comfortable in telling me why you put the pillow between our hips, you would have already done it.”
Gary felt relieved and anxious at the same time, “Ashley, it’s not about you.”
She reached toward him and ran her finger down his cheek, “I think that’s true.”
He drew her once again tightly against him and kissed her.
This time she believed him.
They made the decision to watch an episode of “Lost.” When it had finished Gary had gotten into his car and followed her home.
On the drive to her condo Ashley went over their viewing “Lost” together. When tall good-looking Josh Holloway had entered a scene, Ashley had whispered, “Isn’t he something else? He looks a lot like you.”
He had smiled, “You think so?”
In a slow seductive voice she had murmured, “Hmmm.... Yes, I do....”
In his car behind hers Gary was also going over their sharing of the “Lost” episode. He had held back a laugh when Ashley had said Josh Holloway looked like him. He had enjoyed the exchange. He thought she sounded like she had just finished a very satisfying dessert.
When she turned her car into the condo community entrance, he parked his car and waited until she drove her car into the garage. When she shut the door of the garage he was there waiting for her. He walked her to her front door.
At the door she turned toward him, “Thank you for following me home.”
“You’re welcome... My pleasure!”
Meeting her eyes, he said, “Maybe we should practice that kiss again?”
She smiled lifting her face to his, “Practice.”
He was sure he had something funny to say in response to her one-word reply. An instant later he had lost interest in what it might have been.
Gary didn’t turn away from her front-door until he heard the dead-bolt click. Walking back toward his car he repeated the address to himself.
Once inside his vehicle he opened the glove-compartment took out a small pad and pen and wrote the address down. He tossed the small pad of paper onto the passenger seat.
The next morning, Gary finished breakfast quickly. He rinsed off the dishes he had used and put them into the dishwasher. Turning, he picked up his cup of coffee and walked to his computer. Sitting down in the chair he clicked the keys that would put him on the net.
While the computer went through its normal process of bringing up his server connection he felt the night before sweep over him within an instantaneous experience.
Wondering what Ashley was doing right now, he relived the excitement she had aroused in him when she had welcomed his lips on hers, ran her hands across his chest, playing lightly with his attentive nipples. The remembered scene was so vivid his body reacted to its image. He once again experienced her pelvis tightly pressing against his erection moving gently.
His cell-phone interrupted the memory.
“Shane! Haven’t heard from you in a while. What’s up?”
His brother laughed, “Maybe you can tell me?”
Gary shook his head. He thought he knew what was coming. Chuckling aloud, he asked, “Okay! What did Dad say that hooked you into calling me this early in the morning?”
“He said that you had a good-lookin’ woman in your house yesterday. He claims she is older than you. He told me that you slammed him when he asked about her.”
Gary sighed silently, “Did he tell you his remark that justified the come-back? I was hoping he’d get the point I was making.”
When his brother didn’t answer, Gary finished his response to the question, “He's a character. So! Because I wouldn’t ‘explain’ her to him he sicked you on me? It’s none of his business who I have in my house. Since when do you do his bidding?”
Shane laughed, “Yeah, he asked me to find out what is goin’ on. You haven’t had a real relationship since you and Carolyn divorced. We’re family... ‘curious’ just runs in our blood don’t ya think?”
Knowing the answer but wondering what his brother would say, he asked, “I saw that he was impressed with her looks. What bothered him the most about her?”
Shane didn’t reply right away then tiptoed in, “I suppose he wondered why you got interested in an older woman, good-lookin’ or not.”
Gary felt irritation rush through him. He said, “For a man who likes his women thirty years younger than himself he’s got some nerve.”
Shane let out a low throated chuckle, “Dad doesn’t think emotions through, he reacts from the gut. You know that!”
Gary could feel his brother’s brain working. He decided not to say anything for a few seconds and let Shane finish what he was now thinking. Shane came back with, “You always were a rebel. Why doesn’t this surprise me about you?”
“You haven’t met her... Since when has ‘rebel’ been a four-letter word in our family?”
Shane picked-up Gary’s frustration with their father. He said, thoughtfully, “You’re right! I haven’t seen her or met her. Look, I don’t care what you do. Actually he just kicked-in my curiosity. He seemed to think she looked at you like you were a god or something. He was probably jealous; you know he thinks he is the only god around.”
Gary suppressed a laugh. He heard his brother’s familiar low chuckle, “We haven’t talked for a while... so I decided to call you.”
“Good to hear from you. Tell him I said it’s none of his business. So how’s things going with you?”
Shane laughed, “That’s all I’m gonna get? Okay let’s leave it at that. We’re doin’ fine. Busy at work. Will be glad when the ol’ vacation time rolls around. Will we get to see you then? We’re planning a family get-together.”
Gary smiled, “Call me when you get it together. I’ll try to be available. Tell Lisa I said hi.”
“Will do. Take care of yourself Gary.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that; you too.”
Clicking out of the call Gary thought about his brother. He loved him. They had always gotten along. He thought he knew him. It had been Shane, who had taught him to challenge their father’s, sometimes arrogant definition of what it means to be a man. It had been Shane who had attempted to protect their mother from the blunt instrument they called “Dad."
It was later in their growing up they had finally realized she didn’t need any help.
His mind wandered from his brother to his mother. During his teen-age years he had been puzzled why his mother had married his father. He couldn’t remember his parents ever being able to understand each other. They all seemed to be living in a home full of mostly empty rooms each with a revolving door. His father would enter a room and she would exit it. His mother would enter a room and his father would exit it.
It had been Shane who told him they hadn’t slept together for years.
Later Gary would ask why had they stayed together for so long. Shane’s view had been that his father worked such long hours that his mother hadn’t been forced to interact with him much. They had laughed until they had rolled off the sofa.
Gary had eventually become convinced that if Lena hadn’t come into the picture his mother would still be married to Buck Alexander. He had often wondered what in his father’s life had produced the man he had chosen to become.
As the years had moved away from Gary’s teens he had wondered often why nothing in his father’s personal choices had ever seemed to have changed him. His new wife Lena had brought no welcome change that Gary could see.
Gary had concluded his father liked his persona and intended to keep it. He was convinced that his father would remain until he died, a man rarely home often dominating, too ready to intrude into the private business of others, too easily activated to erupt into an arrogant superiority, at these times, indifferent to reason or sensitive to the feelings of others.
What Gary admired, was his father’s loyalty to his brother, himself and his employees. If his sons had needed him he had always been there. On the job, he was tough but fair to those who worked for him. He paid them a fair wage. His father’s personal courage had never been doubted by either son. It had been living with him daily that had been hard to take. Both Shane and he had decided against prolonging the daily contact early in their lives.
Ashley had begun her day thinking about Gary Alexander. Wandering around the memories they had already created she went back to their love-making. She wondered if he hadn’t wanted to make love to her on the same bed he had made love to his ex-wife.
The more she thought about it, the more likely it had seemed to her that this memory was probably what had intruded into his mind and disrupted their sexual moment. Later, she had thought it a reasonable idea that the home purchase may not have included new furniture.
Picking up her cup of coffee she sipped it slowly wondering if he would make love to her freely in her bed. Putting her hand between her legs she told herself to think about something else.
Opening up the file that held the new novel she made the effort to focus on which direction to take the plot when her cell-phone rang.
“Kitt! Nice to hear your voice.”
“I called you several times last night and you didn’t answer. Tried your cell and you didn’t answer that either. Are you okay?”
Examining her feelings before answering her daughter’s questions, she remembered that she hadn’t checked the home telephone message machine or her cell-phone last night or this morning. She said, “I’m sorry, I was out yesterday. I haven’t checked messages this morning, either. I’m fine.”
“Well... Is it a secret where you were?”
Ashley laughed lightly, “No, of course not. I met someone and we spent most of yesterday together. I got home late and went right to bed. This morning got focused on getting back into the novel and just didn’t get to the messages.”
Pausing, she then asked, “Sorry! Is something wrong?”
She heard the surprise in her daughter’s voice. Kitt replied, “Oh! No, we’re fine too. It’s just that once I couldn’t contact you we became concerned here. If you hadn’t answered this call one of us was going to stop over.”
“You’re always welcome! I’m sorry. I should have checked the messages this morning at least.”
Her daughter laughed, “Are you going to tell me if it were a man or woman you spent the day and evening with?”
Ashley smiled to herself, “It was a man.”
Ashley heard her daughter’s quick intake of air. Kitt breathed out the questions within a rush of words, “A man? Where did you meet him? How long have you known him? Do you like him? Are you going to see him again? You spent the entire day and evening with him? You don’t do things like that? How did you know it was a safe thing to do.”
Holding back laughter, she said, “No, I don’t usually do this type of thing but he came to my rescue. I talked to him for a while. I wanted to get to know him. Yes, I like him.”
“He came to your rescue?”
Ashley went over the beach scene for her daughter finishing the story with, “And I hope he wants to see me again.”
“How old is he?”
Inside herself Ashley sighed, “He is younger than me. It doesn’t seem to bother him.”
She could hear her daughter’s mind racing. Kitt became silent for long seconds, “Well... huh... okay. Are you willing to tell me his name?”
Kitt knew her mother had stopped talking about this Gary Alexander, “Mom, be careful. Maybe he thinks you have money.”
Ashley felt her own diminishment in the words. She refused its exposure to her daughter, “I do have money.”
Her daughter recognized the impact of the offense, “I meant a lot of money.”
A short silence became uncomfortable between them. Kitt tried to apologize, “I’m sorry, Mom, but.....”
Sighing lightly Ashley responded, “Kitt, don’t worry about me. I understand, but I don’t think he is that kind of man. I’ll be fine.”
Kitt stumbled in her words, “Mom... I didn’t mean... huh... I know you’re an attractive woman. I just meant... ”
Lightly laughing Ashley said, “Kitt, even if I did have a lot of money and that was his interest he might be worth it.”
Her daughter relaxed. She felt relief sweep through the moment between them, “Really?! I’d like to get a look at him!”
Telling her daughter that she might not be willing to take that chance, they giggled together. Mother and daughter then began a playful exchange about types of men in the world that all women should avoid. Several minutes later they had clicked out of the call each going back to her daily routine.
Returning to the work of putting together the plot of the novel she was working on, Ashley tried to focus her attention on it. Realizing she hadn’t let her daughter’s comments go, she began to wonder what her son Derrick would think about Gary.
In seconds certainty rose in her mind that her son would accept whatever she would accept for herself. It was a comforting thought.
The memory of Gary kissing her at the door the night before began messing with her body. Shaking free from the pleasing distraction of their meeting and being with each other for those long hours she returned to the work at hand.
Opening the computer file she went to work on the next chapter of her novel.
At University Park, Gary looked through jobs online. After twenty minutes looking for local employment he gave up. Nothing had caught his attention enough to activate his forwarding a resume or making a telephone call.
After cleaning the bathroom and sweeping the living room rug, he glanced toward the clock. Noticing it was almost noon he decided to return his ex-wife’s call.
“May I speak to Carolyn”
“Hi Gary... She’s here.”
Gary told the receptionist hello, “Ga Day to ya, darlin’”
Mindy smiled as she connected them. She had always liked Gary. Seconds later Carolyn’s voice came on the line, “Hi Gary.”
“Are you busy?”
"Not especially... It would have been nice if I’d have heard from you earlier.”
He heard the familiar cold self-entitlement in her voice. Gary squashed the urge to let her know that his life wasn’t measured by how quickly he responded to her requests.
Taking a deep breath he reminded himself that he had let go of a past that couldn’t be recovered, “Just calling to let you know that I got your call. I’ll contact Cassy when I think it might be helpful. Right now I can’t see how it would be helpful.”
“So! It’s true. They are investigating Johnny’s death?”  This time warmth had crept into the tone of her voice.
“Carolyn, this call was not to talk about rumors. Okay?”
Carolyn knew Gary well enough to know he would not say anything more about what he knew or what he didn’t know about the rumors. She sighed, “Okay! Thanks for getting back to me. I don’t know what to tell Cassy. She has been grieving all over again. This rumor has just brought back Johnny’s dying as though it were yesterday.”
Gary felt a rush of sympathy for the wife Johnny Hart has left behind. His mind rushed back to the conversation. He thought about asking Carolyn why she had expected him to tell her what he knew about Johnny’s death. It had puzzled him that she could feel that she owed Cassy inside information. Cassy’s new husband was also a firefighter.
Quickly thinking through the idea he accepted that Todd Hamilton had probably brought none of the rumors home to his wife. Wondering briefly if he should ask Carolyn upfront why Todd hadn’t told Cassy what he had heard at the station, he instantly changed his mind.
He saw that the question would continue their conversation. It would allow an old intimacy to raise its head between them. During their marriage they had often talked about what went on among the firefighters. He decided it was best to simply end their conversation here.
Gary could see that at some point, he might need to have a longer talk with Carolyn about letting go of the past completely. He hadn’t been able to understand why her new marriage hadn’t allowed her to let go of him within a clear finality.
Carolyn’s voice cooled, “My husband is fine! Thank you!”
It surprised him that he could still feel sorry for her in spite of the fact that she had left him and not he, her. When he heard the dial-tone come back on the line he clicked out of the call his mind imaging Ashley.
Looking around his kitchen he walked over to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached inside and took out a half-gallon of milk and the left-over roast beef. Making himself a large sandwich he topped it with a slice of cheddar cheese. Pouring milk into a large glass he took his lunch over to the kitchen table and sat down.
With his mind on Ashley he finished his meal, cleaned up his dishes, wiped off the counter and left the kitchen wondering if he should have called her for a lunch date. Feeling that perhaps he was moving too fast into her life he felt an internal caution wake the question and then saw it disappear. He decided to call her later in the day.
Ashley had worked through lunch. By two o'clock her stomach was demanding her attention. Glancing toward the clock on her desk she saw that she had missed the noon meal. She got out of the file she was working in and turned off the computer.
Walking into the kitchen she wondered if Gary had thought about her today. Wishing that he would call her, she thought of calling him. As suddenly as the idea emerged inside her, she felt it recede.
Ashley wasn’t sure how strongly he felt about her. The thought that pursued her brought the suggestion that perhaps their meeting had been merely a temporary flirtation for him. It seemed possible to Ashley that he would move away from what his impulsive bravery had brought into his life and question the future value of any further development of their new relationship.
Washing her hands at the kitchen sink, she wiped them off with a paper-towel. Walking to the refrigerator she pulled out a protein drink. Taking it out on her balcony, she sat down in a patio chair and drank it slowly. Lowering her arm, she let the empty bottle slide to the floor beside her.
Leaning her head on the back of her chair she sighed deeply as she felt the longing for Gary to be the real thing for her take hold of this quiet moment.
By late afternoon Gary was becoming restless to hear Ashley’s voice. Just as he was reaching for his cell-phone to punch in her phone number a call came in.
Roy Hudson’s voice said, “Hi Gary. Do ya have a minute?”
“Several of us are going to have dinner at Maria Callander’s tonight. Around seven. We’ve rented the private dining-room. Todd Hamilton will be there. Cassy won’t. We might discuss the two messages. He’s got something to say about the rumors. Nothing official in this and none of us know what’s on his mind. Do ya want to join us? We’d like to include you.”
“Do you mind if I bring a friend?”
Roy was slow in responding then said, “It’s informal. Nothing official governs the meeting. Sure bring her along.”
Gary smiled, “What makes you think my guest is female.”
Roy laughed, “Give me a break will ya?”
Gary chuckled, “Okay... hopefully she’ll agree and we’ll see you tonight.”
When Gary heard her voice he took-in a quick breath, “Ashley?”
Ashley felt her heart pick-up its beat when she heard Gary’s voice, “Hi!”
Explaining the reason for the invitation to dinner from Roy Hudson, he asked, “Would you like to come with me?”
She felt a sudden dread. It would be the first time she would be with him among people he had worked with before his retirement, “They won’t mind because I’m an outsider?”
He smiled, “You’ll be with me. That puts you on the inside.”
Her legs felt unsteady. She felt as though he had embraced her. A warm sense of belonging filled the moment. Wondering if the others at the dinner would feel the same way about her being there she chose risk again, “Okay. What time?”
“I’ll pick you up around six-thirty... if that works for you.”
“I’ll be ready.”
Talking about their day they spent time explaining their daily routine. Gary let her know that he had put off looking for a job for a while. She felt a cautious hope rise within her that he wanted to spend some of that free time with her. She let him know that she could work on the novel at any time during the day or night. He smiled hoping she was telling him that she was open to developing their relationship.
Fifteen minutes after six that evening Gary finished his bath. Looking into the mirror he lightly patted after-shave on his face. With a deep-throated chuckle he said, “You good-lookin’ Devil, you! You’re so hot she’ll melt!”
At the same time Gary was complimenting himself, Ashley had just finished dressing. Wondering if she had overdressed for the dinner meeting she stood before the full-length mirror in her bathroom to assess herself.
She had chosen a soft pale-green slightly flared skirt with a short light-green textured blouse. After putting on a pair of silver earrings she slipped her feet into a pair of light-green-colored high-heels with straps that wrapped around the ankle. Wishing she were younger she tossed her hair away from her face and hoped he would be pleased with her appearance anyway.
He was pleased with her appearance.
She knew it the moment she had opened the door and saw his expression as he gazed at her. He had leaned over her. His eyes had met hers. He had said softly, “I thought your eyes couldn’t get any greener. I was wrong. You look incredible!!”
His virility had entered the room like a rushing sunrise. She wanted to press herself against him and feel his arms bring her tightly within their welcoming circle. She resisted the desire.
Her mind shot through their hours together. The first two days of knowing him she had seen him only in bluejeans, T-shirt and sneakers. Here, he stood before her in brown dress slacks, white dress shirt opened at the collar, shirt sleeves rolled up over his forearms, his feet within brown leather shoes. This time, his blonde shoulder-length hair had been drawn back into a pony-tail. Looking at him sent shivers down into her body. She thought he looked stunningly handsome.
Her throat felt dry. She swallowed, “You are incredibly handsome!”
Relieved, he thought happily, “A slam-dunk!”
Aloud he said, “Thanks!”
On the drive to the restaurant Ashley asked if the firefighters who were coming to the restaurant were all off duty.
Nodding his head Gary explained that the firefighters lived at the station on twenty-four hour shifts, “The schedule involves a rotation of three shifts so that two of every three days are free. You’re right... these firefighters are off duty.”
Ashley smiled, “You mean that you would stay through all three shifts of a twenty-four hour period then the next two days you would be off ?”
“Yes. Sounds like the perfect job right? The catch is the intensity and risk in the on-duty activity. That twenty-four hour period at the station usually involves steady active duty. The firefighter uses and needs the next two days to recover. He or she must be prepared for the next twenty-four hour active-duty period at the station.”
Ashley reached out and pressed her hand lightly on his thigh, “Is it true, that the on-duty shifts averages fifty-six hours per week? What I've been reading is that being a firefighter is tremendously stressful during those impact hours. I suspect that most people have no idea how difficult it is to live hyper-vigilant for twenty-four hour periods.”
Nodding, he felt her touch run through him. Glancing toward her, he felt pleasure wash over him at her willingness to explore what it had meant for him to have been a firefighter.
In minutes they had reached the restaurant. Turning into its parking lot Gary quickly found an open space. Steering the car into it, he braked gently and turned the engine off.
She reached for her door handle. Gary said, “I’ll get it.”
He got out and walked around the car to open her door. As they walked toward the entrance he glanced down at her. She smiled up at him. He reached out and ran his hand slowly down her arm until her hand was in his.
Ashley felt a warm glow enter the moment. She liked the way he made her feel when he touched her. She hadn’t been sure how much of his interest in her he would be willing to show to those she would meet today. She was thankful that his social courage embraced the choices he made about his personal life.
Entering the restaurant, Ashley noticed the immediate attention they were receiving from a couple of men standing near the doorway to the reserved dining room.
Walking toward them Gary nodded his head in their direction. Both of the men smiled in return to his greeting. In a lowered voice Gary said, “That is Roy Hudson on the left. Todd Hamilton is on the right. Todd is Cassy’s new husband.
Ashley took in Roy Hudson. His face held a pleasant welcoming expression. His hair carried a reddish hue along with a few streaks of grey that had begun to emerge in its bushy growth. She couldn’t guess his height. He seemed shorter than Todd Hamilton but Roy wasn’t standing fully upright at the moment. His build was compact and he appeared to be physically strong. Ashley thought him slightly overweight for his height.
Glancing toward Todd Hamilton she could see his appeal to women. She thought him as tall as Gary. His dark brown hair just beginning its graying was receding slowly from the forehead area. It didn’t diminish his striking good-looks. The brown hair with the piercing blue eyes was an attractive and unusual combination. His body appeared carefully kept in shape. He had a focused and vigilant appearance. This image of the man suggested to Ashley that he could either be a powerful friend or formidable foe.
Reaching them, Gary introduced her to each man. Roy Hudson shook her hand vigorously, “Welcome, Ashley! Nice to meet any friend of Gary’s.”
Todd Hamilton took her hand in his, “Hello Ashley.” Ashley thought she picked-up a silent question on his face and in the low tone of his voice. He held her hand too long for Gary. He pulled her gently away from the handshake and they continued into the dining room area.
Ashley recognized Gary’s feelings for what they were but thought he had it wrong. She hadn’t picked-up an interest in her personally but perhaps an interest in why she was here with Gary Alexander. She wondered which one of them had it right.
Inside the dining area, the large table had been set-up for seven people. Three men were near the bay window talking quietly. Roy Hudson cleared his throat and motioned for everyone to choose a chair and sit down.
Gary and Ashley chose two chairs near the door. Roy Hudson sat at the head of the table and motioned Todd Hamilton to take the chair at the opposite end of the table. Instead, Todd chose a chair on the right side and in the middle of the table.
Ashley could see that the female firefighter Gary had earlier mentioned as hearing the mysterious phone call along with Roy Hudson had not been invited to this informal meeting.
When the three men turned away from the window and looked toward them, Gary said, “Ashley! Meet Hank Shultz, Juan Gomez and Stu Shores.”
Looking into the face of Hank Shultz, she nodded, “Hi.” He smiled in return, “Hello yourself.”
Juan Gomez smiled slowly toward her but didn’t come any closer to where she and Gary was standing. Stu Shores walked up to her, “Nice to meet you.”
Examining their faces, she could see that Juan Gomez was probably the youngest firefighter among them. She placed his age under thirty. Hank Shultz and Stu Shores, she thought to be in their mid or late thirties. She finalized her survey of the men by assuming that Gary, Todd Hamilton and Roy Hudson, all in their late forties were the oldest among the six men. She swiftly accepted their greater firefighting experience as a given.
A waitress walked into the room and began taking their orders. She went from one person to the other with swift focused concentration. When she left the dining room, the earlier small talk among the men moved rapidly into their exchanging firefighting stories.
Ashley listened with quiet interest to their experiences. She noticed that Todd Hamilton would periodically swing his piercing blue eyes toward her. She thought they still held a speculative question in them. He seemed to be on a personal quest within himself to understand her presence there. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t comfortable that Gary had brought her with him.
Several minutes later the meals were quickly distributed and were being consumed with ready acceptance. Light conversation now dominated the verbal exchanges taking place between the people invited there. Gary felt tension increase into the atmosphere as the conversation among them slowed.
Ashley glanced around the table as the meals were being finished. There was a fresh sense of anticipatory waiting for Roy Hudson or Todd Hamilton to get to the reason for the invitation to this meeting.
Having finished his meal, Roy Hudson looked around to see if everyone had completed their meal. Accepting that everyone had finished eating he pushed back his chair, “I’ll get the waitress to clear the table.”
In minutes, Roy and the waitress entered the room together. She cleared the table and asked if anyone would like dessert. Roy Hudson asked for a coffee refill. The others were quiet. When the waitress had left the room after bringing the coffee refill Roy nodded at Todd Hamilton to speak.
Todd Hamilton pushed himself back into his chair, his right hand gripped the right hip with the left hand lying motionless on the top of his left thigh. He sent his intense blue eyes to Ashley’s face first the quizzical look still inside them. His gaze moved away from her toward Gary’s face and then slowly and pointedly he met the eyes of each man sitting around the table before he began speaking.
“Thank you for coming. I asked Roy to hold this meeting because I wanted to say something to all of you at the same time.”
Todd shifted his eyes toward Ashley again. She thought she saw a fresh nagging annoyance that Gary had brought her with him.
Holding her eyes briefly he turned away and continued, “You heard the mysterious call. You’ve read the letter that came in suggesting Johnny’s death should be investigated.” He paused.
Drawing in a breath he continued, “For those who want to know. No, Cassy and I have not discussed these rumors yet. I knew that someone had told her almost immediately. She withdrew into a brooding silence. I felt badly but I didn’t want to add rumors to rumor. She refused to talk about it when I asked her what was wrong.”
Hank put his hand on Todd’s shoulder, “Sorry, Todd.”
Todd smiled, “I am too. What I’d like you guys to know is that I think Johnny’s death should be investigated. I know it won’t be up to me to recommend it. I also know that we aren’t talking about evidence of wrong-doing here by anyone. At least not yet. We all know the cost of every firefighter death that is officially investigated takes large amounts of taypayer monies and may involve more than one team of investigators. So I’m not speaking carelessly here.”
He looked toward Ashley. He glanced away then finished, “But I don’t want my marriage destroyed by rumor. I was attracted to Cassy before Johnny’s death. You all know that. I’d have to be blind to not see that both she and I could be suspected of some terrible involvement if his death isn’t cleared as a result of an exiting mistake or some medical problem.”
He shifted his position in his chair, “I don’t want these rumors hanging over us. I don’t want Cassy looking at me differently.”
At Todd’s last words Gary glanced toward Ashley. She smiled at him wondering if he were thinking the same thing she was thinking. From their first meeting she had been able to see that he enjoyed the way she looked at him.
Ashley’s mind went back to what Todd Hamilton had told them. She wondered if he were telling the truth. There was a lingering doubt in her mind that he had been forthright with this group of people. If he were not telling the truth, she told herself, then surely it would mean that he wasn’t afraid of taking some very large risks.
Hank Shultz said to Todd, “I’m sorry that Cassy heard about the call and letter so fast. There isn’t anything concrete to go on. We are waiting for something more defining to come in. Insinuations are just that. Suggestions of wrong-doing don’t provide evidence of anything -- except maybe -- about the mind who made them.”
Glancing from one person to the next around the table, Hank finished, “If something more solid comes in I think most of us here anyway, agree that an official request should be sent in for a full investigation into Johnny’s death.”
Stu Shores and Juan Gomez looked at each when Hank had finished his response to Todd.
Leaning slightly forward, Stu asked Todd Hamilton, “Is there a lady you know who wants to give you trouble?”
Todd looked startled. Looking toward the window then bringing his eyes back to Stu, he said, “There is no woman in my past that would go to this length to get back at a perceived slight.”
Gary didn’t believe Todd. Ashley thought his response was an unusual way of answering the question with a ‘No.’”
An uncomfortable silence took up residence in the room.
Hank Shultz took the conversation back to Johnny Hart. For several more minutes the men talked about the way he died and the possible implications of the messages. Gary didn’t think they were going anywhere. A few minutes later he pushed back his chair, “I think we’ve covered what is known.”
Juan Gomez and Stu Shores, feeling the same way, pushed back their chairs and stood up, nodding in agreement.
Suddenly a piercing screech soared through the atmosphere toward the building. Everyone but Gary and Ashley rushed toward the large outward facing bay window to see what was happening in the street.
Startled, her body tense, Ashley looked toward Gary. He was standing, stunned. His hands gripped the back of his chair. His left leg was shaking. Quickly, Ashley could see his entire body begin to tremble. His face flushed when he saw Ashley watching him.
Without thinking further Ashley turned toward him thankful she had chosen high-heels. She placed her body against him hard, her left hand slid tightly around his back, her right hand reached up and pulled his face down toward her own. She began kissing him. His arms went around her like a drowning man grabbing for a life-jacket in heavy seas.
Looking up, she realized she had acted just in time.
The men were turning back around from staring out of the large bay window. She heard Hank say, “That was a near miss. He must have skidded fifty feet on a hard brake before he stopped. That would have been some crash if he’d hit the pick-up!”
Seeing Gary and Ashley, Stu Shores, laughed, “No wonder you didn’t rush over here with the rest of us!”
Ashley saw Gary’s normal color coming back into his face. The trembling had subsided. She suspected it was now felt only internally. Moving slightly away from him, she smiled toward Stu, “I’m afraid it’s my fault... I couldn’t resist the opportunity.”
Relief flowed through Gary. He reached out for her and pulled her back to him. Holding her eyes with his, he sent his words to the men standing there, “I’m glad her resistance is low.”
Turning to look into the faces of the men, she saw most of them wore “knowing” smiles along with letting out a few low-throated chuckles.
Todd Hamilton was the only one who had an expression on his face that seemed to show doubt about the truthfulness of her words. Ashley wasn’t sure Todd believed her, any more than she had believed, that he had been telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.