by Peter Felknor
copyright © 1995
Web posted June 6, 2003
Seattle is a strange place to emerge from a tunnel; Seattle is a tunnel.
I first became aware when the automatic sprinklers came on one frosty morning in a city park. I was in a sleeping bag, and before I could get up and move I was thoroughly drenched. Maybe it was the hour, the temperature, the damp, but for the first time in four years I stopped to take stock. I was nineteen years old, I had twelve dollars and change, I was in a city I had never visited, and I had absolutely no prospects.
Sat on a bench and waited to dry out and tried to reconstruct something of the past few months. Feedlots, cattle, pulling potatoes from the ground. A trail drive. Baling hay. A young kid named Ronnie who had run away from Mormon parents in Saskatchewan. Whiskey. You drank whiskey up there in the Rocky Mountain pastures and it made you puke in a hurry. Before there was a great shining interlude when the stars wheeled above your head and you were sure the millenium was at hand.
Now I remembered: I was going to "go to college." I had hit the interstate and headed west because the colleges were on the coast. I suppose that says as much as anything about the whiskey I'd drunk and the thin mountain air of the cattle camps.
When I was more or less dry I bundled my bedroll and took a city bus to the University of Washington. Surprise: they weren't giving out scholarships to potato‑pullers. I spent another night in the park after drinking so much Gallo white that not even a sprinkler system could have awoken me. There was a girl in there somewhere‑‑how had she noticed me?‑‑and a crazy bus ride with a lady driver who, I swear, was singing along with my girl and her guitar (Joni Mitchell) and later asked us if she could stop at a bar and "take a little pee" while she let the bus idle. We were the only passengers by then. "Let's steal the bus," I smirked, and my girl slapped my face. She called me Silly Boy. I have no idea how I got back to the park, which was far from the center of the city. I think my girl was lured away by pool hustlers in some bar we'd wound up in, but I'm not sure. Anyway she wasn't in the sleeping bag when I woke up in the park the next morning with a big German shepherd poking and sniffing at my face. The police. "Run along now," the officer said. "You really shouldn't be camping here, you know."
I walked up the street until I found a house under construction, then curled up to sleep some more. I decided I liked Seattle. I was the worst bum in the world, but somehow I felt welcome. For a few days I stole sardines from grocery stores (good source of iron and protein‑‑and also easy to conceal) and made friends with a man who drove a bakery truck near the Lake Union docks. I'd meet him on Yale Avenue in the early mornings and he'd supply me with pies and crusty French bread. When I told him I liked Seattle, he suggested that I read the newspaper and get a job. "Everybody's hiring," he said. "Boeing goes bust, the town ups and leaves." He loaned me fifty bucks and told me to do my laundry, at least.
That afternoon, in a fresh pair of corduroys dug from the bottom of my satchel, I interviewed for a job at a blood laboratory downtown. I was woozy from lack of sleep and don't remember anything of the interview, except that at the end the manager said, "You're awfully young to be living on the street, aren't you?"
I'd given my address as a ranch in Idaho, and he'd figured out the rest. I think I was shivering as I sat there. He peeled out five twenty dollar bills and told me, "It's an advance. You start tomorrow at five in the afternoon. It's only two now; go find yourself a place to live."
"How can I thank you?"
"Just show up tomorrow at five. Do that and we'll call it even."
I'd seen apartments advertised at a building on Yale Avenue near where I met the bread man in the mornings. On the way over there I stopped at a restaurant called The Turkey House and had the "Thanksgiving special," a turkey breast with all the familiar trimmings. My luck had really changed. It occurred to me, as I dug into my cranberry relish, that I hadn't slept with a roof over my head for nearly three weeks. Now I had a job and money in my pockets. And I was in a city. For two years I'd chased employment up and down the Rockies, usually in the north where fewer of the Mexicans wanted to travel, where the nights were always cold and the distances between towns unbelievable. I'd met lots of longhairs searching for a "Rocky Mountain High" but I wasn't, it was the silence of the place that got to me, the silence and the emptiness.
It's a funny thing. My parents hadn't believed in college. It was the ranchers I'd worked for, crazy old coots who had never left the hills, who'd listen to me talk about the stars at night and tell me I ought to go to college. And it wasn't meant as entirely benevolent advice; I was a pretty awful ranch hand, and I couldn't fix anything that had a motor in it. A kid from North Dakota who I'd worked with said it best: "If I didn't know you wasn't a hippie, I'd think you was a hippie."
But in Seattle, I fit right in. The landlady in the Yale Avenue apartment building opened her door, sniffed at me (did I smell? I'd caught a shower at the Y before my interview) and asked if I liked Elvis. I told her sure. She invited me into her apartment, which was probably the biggest Elvis shrine outside of Graceland. The chairs and the couch had Elvis slipcovers; framed portraits of the King covered every square inch of wall space. She asked me to name my favorite Elvis song. Grasping at straws, I said, "Love Me Tender?"
"Oh, that is absolutely my favorite one!" she crooned. "Of all time! You're a dear boy. Are you looking for an apartment?"
I didn't even have to pay a security deposit, to say nothing of a month's rent in advance. She just handed me the keys. I walked up three flights of stairs and opened the door to my new home. The towers of downtown Seattle glittered in the near distance as the sun set over Puget Sound.
I sank into a once‑upholstered easy chair that had been draped with a psychedelic chintz fabric. The view out the window was beautiful, and I felt like calling someone to tell them that I had arrived. But there was no one to call, and I didn't have a phone anyway. Instead I found a liquor store and bought a half‑gallon of that Gallo white ("Rhine Garten"), hastened back up the stairs to my new abode, and descended into blessed oblivion. I reminisced briefly about the girl I'd run around with the night before‑‑Dana? Debbie?‑‑and thought, if only she could see me now. I wished for music, and soon had that too; my next‑door neighbor put on a Johnny Guitar Watson side. As the bass throbbed through my temples I considered going out into the night, my pockets bulging with cash, to another bar where there would be other Danas or Debbies. But my feet didn't want to carry me. At some point I staggered through the bedroom door and passed out on my bed. It was the first‑‑and last‑‑bed that would be mine for a long, long time.
I remember what she was wearing better than I remember what I thought. And I wish I remember what I thought the first time I saw Gayle Leiden. I can tell you what she was wearing: A blue‑and-yellow‑and‑white cotton button‑down shirt and a pair of tight dark blue corduroys, odd clothes for a girl. I gave her her samples and she didn't say a word, hardly even looked at me. I went back to the accession room and asked one of the other techs: "What's her problem?" "She's Gayle," Jack told me. "That's her problem."
A month or so later she came in late, dripping wet, and in the fluorescent light of the entryway she might have been a ghoul. Short hair, eyes the color of a wolf's, and skin that picked up the blue tint of the overhead lights. "You might have given me a ride," she hissed, inexplicably.
"Didn't know you needed one."
"Well, I'd been calling you for half an hour."
"I don't have a phone, Gayle."
"Fuck you." And she stalked into her little office and slammed the door shut.
Later Sam, one of the older techs, took me into his confidence. "Her car broke down out in West Seattle on the way in. She was calling the lab for a lift. She said something about sending you out to get her, but I knew you didn't have a car and haven't been in town long enough to find the place she was at. So I went to get her. Story of my life, I guess. Don't let her get to you, hoss."
"Sam. She's gorgeous."
He looked at me. "Pure poison," he said. Sam stubbed out his cigarette and went back to work.
I tried to weigh this strange new set of circumstances. In a month's time I had decided that Gayle Leiden was, possibly, the most alluring female I had ever laid eyes on. It wasn't so much that she was pretty, although she certainly was; it was her edge. I had never met a woman with edge. Gayle Leiden's eyes said: "I'm a wounded animal. Corner me, and I'll eat you alive." She used those eyes to speak with; I rarely heard her utter a word to anyone. The other techs avoided her whenever they could.
I had gone to high school with spoiled daddy's girls who cried when they lost a volleyball game, and I'd dated silly rancher's daughters who lived for ice hockey tournaments. My fantasy woman would read me French poetry while stalking around a dusty attic in the nude. I knew little of dusty attics or nude women and even less of French poetry, but I sure as hell didn't care who won the hockey tournament. Gayle was the first woman I'd ever met who, just possibly, might be dangerous.
I had learned not to want, but I wanted her badly.
Why had she asked for me to give her a lift? Had I been sending signals‑‑and had she received them? I didn't know what to do next, but I would have to think of something.
It got to be Christmastime. I'd arrived in Seattle in late September and puzzled over the lack of the gloomy Seattle weather you heard so much about‑‑every day was cloudless, chilly, spectacular, the mountains rising on all sides seeming near enough to touch.
Then, in October, it started to rain. A week later they changed the clocks back to standard time and suddenly I was in the darkest place I'd ever seen. The mild temperatures had caused me to forget the northerly latitude. It didn't get light until eight in the morning and it got dark again at three in the afternoon. Not that it ever really got light; sometimes near noon the atmosphere would achieve a tint like potato soup, but only for a few minutes. Then the car lights came on, the street lights came on, and the rain started in again. It wasn't even rain so much as a drizzle just heavy enough to make you wish you'd brought an umbrella. It was the opposite of the diamond‑hard days of the high Rockies where most of the time you felt as it you were above the weather, but I grew to love the Seattle gloom. In the damp and the dark my thoughts festered. I became a new person. I started a new life.
A few blocks from my apartment, on Eastlake Avenue, there was a tavern called the Storeroom. It was a favorite haunt of workers from the Van de Kamp's fish factory on Lake Union as well as some of the local Indians. They played Bob Seger and Creedence Clearwater and Waylon Jennings on the juke, sold pitchers of draft beer for a buck and a quarter, and had the most trashed‑out working pool table I'd ever seen. When bar time came at two in the morning the owner (a former trucker everyone called Dirty Bastid) would lower some curtains on the windows and lock the door, and the hard core would keep on drinking and playing eight‑ball. When I became a regular‑‑it took about a week‑‑Dirty Bastid often forgot to charge me for my drinks. Gus, one of the Indian regulars, explained to me: "They call him Dirty Bastid because he don't care."
Dirty Bastid seemed like the nicest guy in the world, always grinning and telling off‑color jokes. Once some customer I hadn't seen before started mouthing off; Dirty Bastid asked him nicely to leave. When the customer hurled a new string of epithets, Dirty Bastid grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head against the bar so hard that the man lost consciousness. Then, slowly and deliberately, Dirty Bastid poured a draft been over the customer's head. The regulars observed with keen interest. "Don't ever let it be said that I never serve a free drink," Dirty Bastid announced.
I would repair to my back booth after work‑‑pretty soon the regulars kept it open for me most times‑‑and drink my draft beer, and I would think about Gayle Leiden. Sometimes a woman would sit in my booth, or even sit on my lap, but I wasn't interested. They started calling me "Sad Sack". The funny thing was that I don't think I had ever been happier. The mere existence of a woman like Gayle was enough to make me happy. I didn't want to talk to anyone and I didn't long for human company‑‑I got enough of that at work, and listening to my landlady go on about her trips to Graceland. I just wanted to sit there and try to picture that wounded face and those eyes that threw the gray light right back at me.
Just before Christmas, Tammy the Tramp arrived. Tammy is my sister. I have often thought her nickname was undeserved; she never seemed especially sluttish to me, and she couldn't help the size of her breasts. But she sometimes referred to herself as Tammy the Tramp, and I think she was content to let her bodily attributes become her destiny. While I was in the Rockies, Tammy had become an "investment banker" in New York. It was hard for me to understand how Tammy could be a banker without having spent a day in college, but maybe you could do a lot of things if you winked at the right people. She showed up at my apartment in a suit and heels, and to me she looked like a million dollars.
"How's the boy scientist?" Tammy said, standing in my doorway.
"Never been better," I told her, ushering her into the apartment. I hadn't done much in the way of decoration, but I had a stereo and some records and the view of downtown Seattle spoke for itself. You couldn't say a lot about the neighborhood I lived in‑‑factories and warehouses, mostly‑‑but it was safe.
I fed Tammy a tequila drink, hired a cab, and took her over to Bellevue for the blood lab's Christmas party. I was content to let Tammy jabber away on the drive across Lake Washington, all about the wheeler‑dealers she knew in the Big Apple, her apartment near Gramercy Park, the big discos where she liked to hang out. Tammy wanted me to come to New York. I thought about going. I thought about taking Gayle Leiden to New York, where we'd tour dusty attics and French poetry readings.
Everybody I knew from work was at the party, but I didn't notice any of them until I had found Gayle. My heart sank. She was with some nerdy guy in horn rims and fire‑engine‑red polyester pants. Her husband, had to be. Nobody but a husband would pull a stunt like that.
It was probably an hour before I got to talk to Gayle. She was fishing around in the laundry room for her coat. "Didn't know you were married," she said. "Your wife is something else."
"Didn't know you were married, either," I said, biting my tongue before I could mention the fire‑engine‑red slacks.
"Well. I don't know whether to go buy something decent to drink, or just give up and blow this party." Gayle made a move to elbow past me in the doorway. I stopped her.
"She's my sister," I said.
Gayle looked up at me, and for the very first time I got to see her crooked smile and even white teeth. "He's not my husband, either," she told me. "Why do we even care?"
"I don't know," I said, though I was beginning to think I did.
"Don't leave me here, okay? I'll be right back." Gayle left. Then I went and bummed a cigarette from Tammy and stepped out into the damp night air.
"Didn't know you smoked," Jack from the lab said, stepping over from beneath a tree, puffing away. I hadn't seen him.
"I don't," I said.
"Gayle drove you to it, right? I remember the first time she looked at me that way. Hey, don't get me wrong, she's an okay chick. A little messed in the head is all. Just try not to fall in love with her."
I took a deep drag from the cigarette and stared at Jack, trying to look tough. He was an older guy and it wasn't easy. "You're the expert, Jack," I told him. "You've been there, right?"
Jack backed off with his hands held in front of him. "Alan, by all means, you do what you want," he said. He flicked his cigarette into a shrub and headed inside, almost colliding with Tammy and the bacteriologist from the lab on their way out. "Deck the halls," Tammy sang. "Hi, squirt." She'd spotted me in the yard. She and the bacteriologist disappeared into the darkness.
It was a long wait in the hall by the laundry room. I read part of a mystery novel I'd found in the kitchen, sitting beneath a reproduction of that famous painting of a little girl standing with a basket. The party roared around me but I didn't care. I'd decided that if Gayle returned with her ersatz husband I'd just grab Tammy‑‑if I could find her‑‑and go; otherwise Gayle would have to explain to me why she'd asked me to stick around.
When Gayle walked in she was alone, and she had a bottle of ice-cold Finlandia vodka. She motioned me into the laundry room, undid the cap, and said "Drink". The vodka went down like sweet syrup until it exploded in my gut, a rush of sparklers. I handed the bottle to Gayle and she drank too. "Now," she said, "let's go out and sit by the fire and get to know each other."
The only thing I remember of the rest of the party is that Gayle held my hand once for about twenty or thirty seconds. She was talking about‑‑I swear‑‑Japanese samurai movies, but I didn't hear any of it. Other people drifted by and said hello, they even sat before us and talked their cheerful drunken holiday talk, but I wasn't there.
It got to be very late, and there was no sign of Tammy or the bacteriologist. I was wondering how I would get a cab at that hour to find me,in the backwaters of Bellevue and get me back across Lake Washington. But I needn't have worried; Gayle offered to run me home. I mentioned Tammy and the bacteriologist. "Joe'll drop her at your place in the morning," Gayle said. "Not to worry."
We were bundled in our coats and scarves, heading out the door into an unusual burst of snow showers. Jack managed to catch up with us. In an odd gesture, he caught Gayle by the arm as if to escort her along. "Tut, tut," he chuckled. Gayle told him: "Go pull your pud, Jack, that's all you're good for anyway."
As we buzzed away from the house in Gayle's VW bug, Gayle removed her hat and ran a hand through her short auburn hair. "What a twit. And to think, I actually slept with him once."
"My bed buddy for most of a long boring winter. He had his points. I can't remember what they were now." She laughed again, and I saw her eyes catch the light from the mercury vapor stanchions above the Mercer Island floating bridge. We were almost back to Seattle, and it was way too soon.
I don't know why, but I said: "I'm religious."
Gayle started and suddenly placed a hand on my knee. "Alan, I am too. You wouldn't believe it. God, we've got so much to talk about. Just promise me you're not going to go away."
Was I really hearing this? "Where would I go?" I said.
"Oh, I know, Bryan told me, you were sleeping on the streets when he hired you, you'd been living in the mountains with the cows. But I've known you were coming for a long time. I'm not supposed to let you get away."
We were on Interstate 5 now, heading into downtown Seattle. My exit was coming up. I felt giddy and crazy and a little drunk, my sister lost among the lights of the city, Gayle's profile regal against the window while her slender fingers alternated between the gearshift and my knee. What was it that Jack and Sam had been trying to tell me? Gayle had a tape deck in her car, and she was playing‑‑opera. Very quietly. Opera? I asked her about it.
"I love it. Don't you? Such passion."
"You take the Eastlake exit," I said.
Gayle careened across three lanes and stomped on the brake to negotiate the steep off‑ramp. Soon we were down among the warehouses, vagrants cutting across the boulevard with their heads against the snowy wind.
Gayle asked, "Do people actually live around here?"
"I do," I said.
"I've lived in this city all my life. Dad took me out on Lake Union once, on a boat owned by some friends of his. There were rows of flophouses from here on out to First Hill. Then they built the Space Needle for the World's Fair, thought they'd jazz this end of town up a little. I don't guess it worked, huh? I haven't been down here since.”
"There's the Turkey House," I explained. "And the Storeroom Tavern." I'd steered Gayle down the hill and onto Yale Avenue, where the only traffic was pieces of newspaper blowing across the street, reminding me of the heedless jackrabbits I'd seen in rural Wyoming. We were in front of my building. I heard myself say, "Come on up and see my humble abode."
Gayle put her index finger to my lips. "Shhhhhh," she whispered. "You should go to bed." And then she leaned over and kissed me. Not for long, only alarmingly. "Victor's babysitter won't thank me for this. I've got to be getting on."
"My son. He's five. Apple of his mommy's eye. Alan, we've got so much talking to do. I'm sorry. I drank too much. I'm late. I hate driving on the Interstate at night. Hey, it was a swell party."
"You made it a swell party," I told her. By now I was standing in the gravel parking lot, brushing the snow from my Army parka. I tried to picture the child, but couldn't; Gayle was not cut from a motherly cloth. "Come up to see me," I went on. "Bring the kid."
"You know I will," Gayle said. The car was already in gear, and without another word I watched her turn into Yale Avenue. I stood in the parking lot and wished for a cigarette. It had begun to snow harder. Suddenly, inexplicably, I heard Elvis boom from my landlady's window: "In the Ghetto." It was three in the morning. There was half a jug of wine in the refrigerator. I didn't think I had ever felt better in my life.
Tammy showed up at eleven the next morning. I heard Joe's car spinning gravel down on the lot; he hadn't bothered to escort her to my door. What do you expect, I thought, from a guy who makes his living with shit.
My sister looked much the worse for wear, like she'd dressed as an afterthought. Her eyes were bleary and she reeked of liquor. "Point me to the big bed, loverboy," she said. I helped Tammy with her coat and carried her into the bedroom and tucked her in wearing her blouse and slip. "Want a beer?" I asked, idly. Tammy said she did. She lit a cigarette and propped herself on one elbow. "I hate men," she said. "I really should have learned by now. But I never do."
Normally I would have said something. But I couldn't think of anything to say. There was too much that I needed to sort out, but the noise of life was drowning it all. I thought when Tammy went to sleep I'd go down to the Storeroom and have a beer and pretend to be interested in whatever game they were showing on TV. I reached over wordlessly for Tammy's cigarette and finished it for her, sharing a sort of communion. Tammy laid on her back and stared at the ceiling; she said only, "I liked that girl you were with last night."
"I like her too," I said. Tammy was already asleep. She had only had a sip of the beer, and I finished it for her. The day had grown bright and hard in the wake of the snow and I thought of how strange it was that my sister could not sleep in the Seattle coccoon, in a daylight that was never really daylight, but instead here I was pulling down the stained vanilla shades against the sun. The bedroom seemed more like a tenement. Tammy was sickened, drained. In her purple eyelids I looked for a hint of the exuberant lifestyle that Wall Street trendies were said to lead but I saw nothing but exhaustion. I remembered going to Rolla to watch Tammy compete with her horses when we were growing up, remembered our 4H projects, how she'd looked like a boy until she was sixteen and suddenly no one had looked more like a girl . The wind rattled my southward‑facing windows and I thought, here comes the warm again, tomorrow the rain returns. I stood there for a long time, I don't know for how long, and was still standing there when the door buzzer sounded.
Somehow I wasn't surprised that it was Gayle. Wearing tight blue jeans and a leather bomber jacket and a frayed button-down sweater, looking slutty and fabulous, she tossed me an empty canvas gym bag. "Pack up," she said. "I want to show you my roots."
"Come on in," I said. I looked around helplessly, too quickly aware of my bachelor mess, the empty wine bottle from last night, the girlie magazines on the rumpsprung couch. "It ain't much," I apologized.
Gayle strolled toward the window, looking right past the clutter. "This is absolutely the best view of downtown I've ever seen. Like a calendar shot. It must be lovely at night."
"It is. Say, I thought your roots were right here."
"Not the ones that count. Oh, Alan, there's so much I've got to show you. A little park up in Everett. The campus in Bellingham. My church! You can't possibly understand me until you've seen it all."
I put myself for a minute back in Montana and tried to picture a girl carrying on like this. I had no idea what Gayle was talking about. The "me" she referred to was a hallowed presence, someone at one remove from ordinary reality. But I didn't care, and I'd had it with ordinary reality. I nudged Tammy's shoulder, told her I'd be gone for awhile. She smiled through her sleep. Then I threw Gayle back her gym bag, because I had nothing to put there. "We'll buy wine and cheese or something," Gayle said. "Hey, let's go."
We were soon headed north on the freeway. I'd never been north of Seattle, and wondered what was up there along the piney coast. Hippies I'd met in the Rockies swore it was the greatest. Mystical islands called the San Juans, Mt. Baker‑‑a sleeping volcano‑‑standing head and shoulders above the world like a great white god. Leaving Seattle, all I saw was condominiums and apartment blocks and Shoreline Community College, reminding me that I had to do something about my education.
"Why was your sister in your bed?" Gayle asked. It was a great way to start a pleasant round of small talk.
"I slept on the couch. Don't worry."
"If I were you," Gayle said, "I would have slept with my sister." I saw Gayle's funny crooked smile again, and thought it suited her.
"Because she's hot. Alan, are you blind or something?"
"I'm beginning to think you're a lesbian," I told Gayle. The Seattle traffic was thinning, the evergreens moving closer to the road.
"Oh, maybe in some ways. I wouldn't mind trying it, just once. Maybe more than once, if I liked it."
"With my sister?"
"Hey. Relax." Gayle put her hand on my knee. "I'm just trying to gtt your goat, you seem like such a sad sack." Where had I heard that before?
I asked Gayle about Victor, her son.
"He's Lonnie's. My second husband. Second ex‑husband, I should say. I don't think I was ready to have babies back then, but I did the best I could. The first couple years after the divorce were really rough. But I guess living in Bellingham made it as good as it could have been. You're going to get to see all those places today, you know."
"The sacred places of my life. I'm going to tell you all about it. Alan, I really want you to feel like you know me."
She took the first exit for Everett and trundled along a little two‑lane highway. All of a sudden I was in the Northwest I used to dream about; the houses were clean white and yellow bungalows with flower beds and tricycles, the people were pale, smiling, the streets were clean and the whole place seemed alive with a kind of pioneer's promise. Here at the edge of the thundering land, the great pressing bulk of America, was a different kind of atmosphere where things were simpler and less corrupt. And the great brooding shadows of the trees everywhere, the Douglas fir and red cedar and Sitka spruce, the torn‑looking clouds moving in from Puget Sound‑‑I thought I might stay here forever.
We had driven through downtown Everett‑‑small, tidy‑‑and continued north on a street called Hoyt. Gayle stopped in front of a nondescript two‑story house painted a faded green.
"This is it," she said. "This is where I lived with Lonnie when Victor was born. Those were some great times."
"What about the divorce? And you said you were too young to have babies. Sheesh, how old are you now?"
"Twenty‑five," she said, fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, her eyes staring raptly at the house. "The divorce was my fault. We were living the hippie life back then, eating brown rice and smoking pot. I figured Lonnie wouldn't mind if I saw a couple of other men, what with 'free love' and all. I figured wrong."
What Gayle said disturbed me, but every time she glanced my way I forgot about being disturbed. Every truly beautiful woman has a great deal of power over young men who know nothing of power or beauty. I know now where the crooked smile came from, but even if I had known then I doubt if it would have made any difference.
Gayle painted a wonderful picture of her former life on Hoyt Street. She had been a student at Everett Community College, just starting her studies of biology. She had waist‑length hair and wore long flowing skirts. On Friday afternoons she would return from her last class of the week and find the upstairs apartment full of her and Lonnie's friends. They'd cook rice with tomatoes, or potatoes and, onions, and fill the first of many bong bowls with high‑grade marijuana. Everyone drank cheap red wine because it primed your throat for the weed. And by dark they'd be loopy with love and dope; they'd crank up the stereo (The Moody Blues: On the Threshhold of a Dream) and discuss the universe. Gayle had tears in her eyes when she told me about these things.
"It kind of got away from you," I said.
She put the car in gear without saying another word and drove a few blocks west. The street dead‑ended at a park; below, at the base of a cliff, was Puget Sound, clouds blowing in fast from the southwest now, the Olympic Range brooding across the water. "I used to think," Gayle said, "that this was the center of the world."
"I can see why," I said.
"There's Whidbey Island out there. That's where Lonnie proposed to me. Alan, you should have been here back then. There was something really special going on. And you're right: I don't know where it went."
I looked out over the water and still felt the magic of this place. And I was saddened by a sense of disjoint‑‑perhaps Gayle saw the best of life as something that was behind her, but to me it was just beginning. And this, I thought, is exactly where it is going to happen.
There is something end‑of‑the‑earth about Bellingham. Coming into the city from the south, the mystical presence of Mt. Baker‑‑a brooding, statuesque white monolith‑‑seems to shroud the surrounding hillsides in ice. Down and down you go from the Skagit Valley toward the wild nether regions of Puget Sound, around crazy hairpin turns, trees the color of nightfall crowding the roads. Little taverns sit nestled in snug clearings, pickup trucks scattered hither and yon in the parking lots. If you stop and listen there is faint music in the air. It's like Nepal, remote and windswept, lost.
And then we passed through something of a neighborhood as the street lights blinked on, roughhewn wood apartment buildings busy with student bicycles. The forest pressed down. I dreamed of being here with Gayle in one of these cozy apartments, a fire blazing, Christmas ornaments. I even dreamed of little Victor, his friends running in and out in their snowsuits. Gayle turned into the driveway of one of the buildings and stopped the car; the minute she did, I kissed her. I kissed her long and slow and felt the world dissolve. In my throat I tasted the words "I love you" but would not allow myself to say them because I was afraid to, I had said the same to other women but had never meant it. This time I would have meant it but couldn't bring myself to say it.
"I'm going to cry," Gayle said.
I gazed through the window beyond her suffering face, saw the trees dripping in the mist, heard the shouts of children. I wanted to freeze the moment. I said nothing.
"You don't know what I've been through," she said. "I've fucking died in this life. Over and over. Do you know what it means to find one good man?"
"No," I said. I wanted to tell her that I was the good man she had been seeking, but I wasn't sure I was. A few months back. Standing by the side of the road in Billings with my thumb outstretched and not a penny to my name. Maybe I'd wind up in Portland, steal a gun, and kill somebody.
But I didn't. I sat beside Gayle in the dimming light of south Bellingham and wondered how I could help her recapture her dream, how long it would be before we could escape the laboratory and move up here and live in one of these fantastic cedar apartments. She'd be a biologist at the university and I'd take classes in astronomy. By night we'd sit around a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle at a funky Italian restaurant, or shoot pool in one of those cozy roadside taverns we'd driven by.
Gayle had quit sniffling. "I want you to meet Barry," she said. "He's my father confessor. He knows me better than any man alive. Others have fallen by the wayside, but not Barry. Used to be my teaching assistant at the university‑‑cell biology. Sometimes I think I should have married him."
"Why didn't you?"
She shot me a hurt look. "I think I'm bad luck in marriage." Gayle climbed out of the car, pulled a little mirror from her purse, and checked her hair. I already wanted Barry to go away, and I hadn't even met him. All Gayle had to do to end her bad luck in marriage, after all, was to marry me.
I didn't feel any better when Barry answered the door. I'd expected a nerdy type with pimply skin and a pocket protector, but Barry was tall‑‑taller than my own six feet‑‑with long, leonine hair, a carefully trimmed moustache, and an expensive cashmere sweater. He exuded the air of a lady‑killer. He almost looked past me until he asked Gayle, "Who's the kid?"
"This is Alan," Gayle said, and I thought I detected a note of apology. "My very special friend from work."
There was soft jazz playing in the background--"your popsicle toes are always froze," a smooth male voice intoned against a Fender piano‑‑and I noticed that Barry had a drink in his hand. It smelled like Scotch. We stepped into the entryway and caught a view out the dramatic polygonal picture window that looked down the hill toward the water, where lights were beginning to twinkle and the sweep of Bellingham around the bay was like a jeweled spider's web. People didn't really live lives like this, I thought; it was too perfect, something out of Playboy magazine. Above us was the loft, where a Navajo comforter was draped carelesly across Barry’s wood-frame bed. Dozens of bottles glittered on the bar between the kitchen and the sunken living room. And, of course, there was a fireplace with a real fire in it. Barry hadn't even been expecting us. This is a guy, I thought, who is going to get laid tonight. In my rush to self‑pity it did not occur to me for a minute that I could be in the same shoes.
Barry fixed Gayle a drink with some kind of white liqueur; without even asking, he fetched me a beer. I thought it might have something to do with my ratty Army parka. What annoyed me immediately about Barry is that he almost totally tuned me out from the conversation‑‑but then, I got to watch Gayle weave her spell on another man. Within minutes Barry seemed enraptured. He draped his long artistic fingers around Gayle's arm at every opportunity while they talked about their "love lives". Barry assured Gayle that she was still "the greatest". And I understood that Barry had been more than a father confessor to Gayle, and I didn't know how she had allowed this snake‑oil vendor to invade her sweet spaces. Finally he turned to me and said, "So, cowboy. How's life on the open range?"
I tried to imagine the late‑night telephone call from Seattle in which Gayle had tried to explain me to Barry. "I don't know," I said. "I haven't been there in a long time."
"You know," Barry went on, "maybe you're not up to this. This is a lady who needs a lot of special care. There's a million and one waitresses out there dying to hear about your adventurous life."
I stared at Barry, his long manicured fingers and golfer's sweater, his shellacked hair and prissy moustache, and felt my blood boil. "Think you're some kind of hard guy?" I said. I picked up the cocktail napkin he'd set my beer on and tore it neatly in half. Gayle, I could swear, was smiling. "I don't think so," I said. "Maybe you could have gotten Gayle a job in that college you teach at. Then she wouldn't have to meet guys like me in shitty blood laboratories on the wrong side of Seattle."
"Angry young man," Barry muttered to Gayle.
Gayle swallowed her drink. "We're going," she said. "Thanks for the hospitality, Bar." The doorbell rang just then, and Gayle opened the door to admit a curvy ash blonde with her arms full of books and notepads. "I'm looking for Dr. Steadman," the blonde announced.
"The doctor is in," I told her. When I looked back toward the apartment I thought I saw Barry standing there in a burgundy-colored robe, although I might have imagined it. And I thought: There are better things in life to be than a slick assistant professor knocking off students like wooden decoys. Cross off one more of the sacred things in Gayle's life.
Later we had dinner in Bellingham at a second‑rate Chinese joint where students were hilarious on rice wine and Tsingtao beer. We drove around the harbor in the dark. I thought Gayle would be mad at the way I'd acted around Barry, but she didn't mention it if she was. She drove us up a hill to a park where she said we could see Mt. Baker, but we could only feel its presence in the gloom, a gray shape in buried moonlight. "Mt. Baker is a volcano," Gayle said. "One day it's going to blow up and turn this town into another Herculaneum."
"I love you," I said.
There were sounds in the night, the horns of boats out on the bay. Now that would be a job, plying a lumber barge around Bellingham in the fog. Popsicle toes are always froze.
"Mmmm," Gayle murmured, turning toward me. Suddenly the buttons of her sweater were in my fingers; I undid them, discovered no shirt and no brassiere, and played with her smallish breasts. I kissed her nipples, back, forth, ran my mouth up and down her chest.
"Do you know what you're doing?" she breathed.
I remembered a line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "Theoretically," I said.
"Alan. Let's go back to Seattle. You drive."
Gayle got out of the car and began to button her sweater; I went around the other side and stopped her. "No," I said. "Take it off."
Gayle laughed. "You're crazy," she said. But she took off the sweater and threw it in the back seat. I grabbed her hand and led her to the wooden guardrail where we could look out over the lights of the city. I walked backwards then for a few steps to admire Gayle's silhouette in the dim moonlight. Her long Dutch nose and strong chin, her nipples hard in the chill. It occurred to me then that I didn't care what anyone thought; this was my woman and our dream, and we were going to live it together. No one could take it away from us. And for an instant, I sensed my own power over Gayle Leiden.
On the way out of Bellingham, just past the campus of Western Washington State College, Gayle made me detour for a block off Chuckanut Drive. And there, as promised, was a church. It was long and low and modern and put me in mind of some of the more recent Lutheran structures, except that it was Catholic.
Gayle had unwrapped her skirt and reclined toward me wearing nothing but her black lace underwear. "Feel like going to church?" she said.
"Father Pescarelli would be really pissed if he saw me now," Gayle murmured. She took my right hand and slipped it underneath her panties. Her mons was damp; I put a finger inside her and my lips found hers. I stopped long enough to ask, "What are we doing?"
"I don't know," Gayle said. "Shut up."
But I stopped. "This is nuts," I said. "Let's get on the road before we get arrested."
I put the car in gear, and saw in Gayle's eyes a lesson I was just beginning to understand: A man's fire goes out much faster than a woman’s‑‑it only takes a minute for a man to get over a tease. And I saw something else, too. I had gone past the point of no return with Gayle. She was going to cost me my virginity.
I have said that I am religious. For all of that, by the time I met Gayle my only religion was the religion of fear, instilled in me by the righteous Southern Baptists who had raised me. There wasn't a girl in all the world who could make me forget the lessons I'd learned in musty Sunday‑school classrooms on the backside of the Bible belt. That lustrous female cleft was the gates of Hell, a vortex from which there was no escape. I was afraid of it. I could sit face to face with a naked woman for hours while we explored each other like two puppies‑‑yet I couldn't go in there, lest I be lost for all eternity.
But now I was in a hurry to get back to Seattle. For the very first time I realized that I was no longer afraid. As we sped southward through the valley, past Sedro Wooley and Arlington, my only thought that wasn't about Gayle was about what I was going to do with my sister when I got home. For some reason I didn't want her around, not even on the couch, on the night I lost my virginity.
Gayle strapped herself to the seat while I explored her with my right hand. I'd slow down or speed up, whatever it took not to encounter another southbound vehicle on Interstate 5 while I finger‑fucked the girl of my dreams‑‑until my wrist nearly locked up as we approached Everett. I wish I'd had a tape recorder. It was the most intensely erotic experience of my life. I had never heard, and will probably never hear again, a woman tell me in such graphic terms what I was doing to her and what she was going to do to me. I was so hard that I hurt. Great gobs of pain shot between my eyes as I tried to concentrate on the road. Gayle was by now completely nude in the seat beside me with her ass pointed at the windshield, on fire with herself, making love to the passenger seat while my sore hand sought her out. I was dumbfounded. We were coming up on Seattle now and even at that late hour the traffic was becoming difficult to avoid. I realized that Gayle was completely out of her mind, and that made me want her even more.
When we reached Yale Avenue I found my Army parka in the back seat and gave it to Gayle, telling her not to bother with her clothes, that we'd find them in the morning. I'd just have to tell Tammy to sleep on the couch, even if it meant waking her up.
We ran up the stone stairs outside, my parka just long enough to cover Gayle decently, and encountered my landlady. "Alan! I've bought this Elvis outtakes collection that you absolutely must hear!" She made slitted eyes at Gayle, suspecting something funny going on with the bare legs, the freezing weather, the Army parka. "You can come in too, Miss," my landlady said.
"Thanks, but we've got to check up on my sister," I pleaded. "I think we missed our rendezvous, we were up north..." I was sputtering, gasping, just wanting to be out of there and up the stairs with my prize before I woke up from the dream. "This is Gayle." It occurred to me that I had been treating Gayle like a hooker, not even introducing her. I still didn't know my landlady's name.
"Pleased," said my landlady, not bothering to extend a hand. "Well, Alan, your sister is long gone. Left with a gentlemen caller hours ago, hasn't come back. You kids. I can't even imagine what the rest of your family must be like."
"My legs are really cold," Gayle said. "Alan, can we get upstairs and turn on the heat?"
My landlady gave Gayle a sardonic grin. "Honey, I'll bet good money that you ain't wearing a stitch under that coat."
Gayle opened her mouth to protest, but got cut off. "You kids just run along. Alan, we'll listen to that Elvis some other time."
I started up the stairs with Gayle. My landlady stayed where she was, wanting to get a look up my Army parka and confirm her suspicions. We hadn't reached the first landing before she muttered "You kids" again, and wearily closed the door to her apartment.
At last we were free. I reached under the parka and felt Gayle's pearly ass as we climbed. It was all too good to be true.
I used to imagine my first time in impressionist images from a hippie Camelot, a lord and his lady smoking pot and listening to hypnotic rock and roll in the candlelight (a scene probably very similar to Gayle's when she lived in Everett; I should have met her then). Moon shining through the window as we disrobed each other; it would be like falling into an ocean. Very romantic. Not this crass kind of physical organ flaying that you saw in the porno books.
And here's the funny thing: I was all set for the skinflick saga, I was ready for porn princess Gayle to swallow my dick the minute we got inside the door‑‑and it wasn't like that at all. I took the parka off and she sank into my arms and said, "Love me." The same sad vista of downtown Seattle in the distance, the town that I could already see was going to break my heart forever.
I took Gayle into the bedroom‑‑oddly, it was separated from the living room by three stained‑glass panels in the wall‑‑lit a candle, took my clothes off, and confessed that I was a virgin. "That's not possible," Gayle said.
"You're so fucked up in the head," she told me. I lay on the bed and she climbed on top of me and put me in her and sank down. "Guess what," Gayle said. "You're getting laid. Now you're not a virgin anymore."
I was very tired. Gayle brought her face close to mine and I could see that she was tired too, there was nothing really left there after her fourteen orgasms in the Skagit Valley. This was just a nice way to wind up the night. Neither of us were trying to prove anything, and that made everything perfect. After a while I just quit thinking and let myself move, and gracefully we let ourselves end. The shades were halfway up and I could see that the fog had moved in. I fell asleep holding Gayle in wonder of the wonderful way she smelled.
to be continued