© by Elsa
this story is nominated in the category Outstanding Short Story
Somewhere early nineties.
She stood next to me in the queue for the cash register.
What came first? The light that played with her hair and that caught my eye?
Her smell, Chanel No 5, that I would recognise anywhere, anytime?
Her natural, graceful pose?
All of that in one? I dunno. But I recognised her.
Jeanie. Jeanie Walton.
She had aged, but time had been kind to her. She was still a ‘foxy lady’ as Huggy would say. Her blonde hair had greyed somewhat, but it was well taken care off and gave her a distinguished look, elegant and graceful.
She turned her face to me and our eyes met. I could tell from the way they widened that she recognised me, just as quickly as I had recognised her.
“David…” she said softly.
“Jeanie…” I mumbled likewise.
For a few seconds the world between us stood still and seemed to last a lifetime. Like in a movie, I saw Hutch, lying on the dirty ground in the alley, I felt his tremor as his body was craving for a fix, I heard the hard, accusing words he said that he never meant. The memory of that short but intense addiction hit me the way heat can overwhelm you when you leave an air-conditioned building in the summer time.
I’ve seen Hutch in various life threatening circumstances and it’s always been gut-wrenching. But the way he looked back then… I felt so helpless, so angry, it was so difficult to be hard on him. I know, I know – the time when he had The Plague was equally bad, but that was just… bad luck, I guess. That could’ve been anyone. He happened to be exposed to something that can be stronger than men. But he survived.
And yeah, I know I thought the same when he was shot. But still – that cold turkey… that was awful. And the heroin still lurks. Maybe not now, not anymore, not after fifteen years. It’s not like the illness or the shooting – that’s definitely in the past. But with heroin… His body can still play tricks on him, if he doesn’t watch it.
I liked Jeanie back then. I’m not sure I liked her still when I understood she was more or less the axle around which everything spun. There was a time I was very angry with her. I blamed her for the times that my partner dozed off and slept restless sleeps, haunted by bad dreams. Or when I would catch him, in deep thought, his blue eyes clouded with the feeling the heroin could still awaken in him.
As the years went by and that dark period got further and further in the past, I grew more forgiving. After all, it wasn’t Jeanie who put him on horse. It was Forest, not the girl. Hutch never blamed her for anything. Instead, I knew he blamed himself for having told Forest about Jeanie. We got Forest, Jeanie left. Don’t know if Hutch ever did any efforts to find out about her. Not when I was around, anyway. Thinking back about it, he must have been shattered. He was deeply in love with her, I realised that much, much later, when I helped him moving and I found a picture of the two of them. It showed how much in love they had been.
“How are you, David?” Jeanie’s voice brought me back to the present.
“I’m fine, thanks. You?”
“I was ,” she answered and nodded. “Didn’t work. Divorced after eight years. I’m running my own secretary recruitment agency. It’s going well. Business is thriving. I’m married to the job these days.” She put her shopping on the counter. “How about you? Married, wife, children?”
I shook my head. There was a time that Terri was on my mind every minute of the day, but I gave it a place in my life and managed to live on after her. I never committed to anyone the way I did to her, though. “No. Married to the job as well, I guess.”
The attractive woman smiled. “You look good. You haven’t changed much.”
“Gained a little weight and a little grey,” I answered poetically and ran a hand through my hair. A somewhat uneasy silence followed. I moved a place and the cashier fussed with my shopping. I looked at her hands as she went over the vegetables, the cans, the bottles and the jars, but didn’t register very much, as my mind was on Jeanie. I paid, took the paper bag from the counter and turned to meet her smile again.
“You want to go for a cup of coffee?” She asked, her arms embracing a similar bag as well.
“Sure. Let’s get this in the car first, okay?” Secretly I was glad she asked me. I wanted to talk to her, but didn’t want to be the first to ask, didn’t want to manoeuvre her into an awkward position.
We walked to our cars.
“You’ve still got the Striped Tomato,” she said, surprised and even a bit enthusiastic.
“It’s a classic by now,” I said and acknowledged her remark with a nod of my head. “Clinging to it for old time’s sake, I guess. I don’t know why I’m still keeping her. She uses a lot of gas – drinks like a fish, so to speak.”
Jeanie laughed at that. My stomach suddenly shrunk and knotted up. I can’t tell for the life of me why. Maybe it was because I heard her laugh. The first time I could actually picture her as the woman Hutch had been so protective about. I think Jeanie noticed because she stopped in her pace, turned to me and asked tensely, “How’s Hutch?”
Finally. She popped the question.
I took a deep breath, determined not to show my own inner turmoil.
“He’s doing very well. Still working at the Met – we both are. He’s a lieutenant. Nominated for captain.”
“Wow. Things are going his way then.” Hesitantly but curiously at the same time, she asked, “Is he married?”
“Yes.” I thought of Luce, how I had been best man at their wedding and how happy Hutch had been. Lucky bastard. She was a fantastic woman. I’d seen him in love often before but Luce brought out the best in him – they loved each other very much. Luce once told me she was convinced I was her husband’s safety net. She’d wrapped her arms around me in a loving embrace and whispered a full-hearted thank you, Dave in my ear.
“Yep. Three. All girls.” Luce didn’t seem to get her old physique back after the birth of Mariel, the youngest girl. The diagnosis came too late. She died of cancer exactly ten years and two months after they got married. Michaela, Roseanne and Mariel had been Hutch’s life savers. I sometimes envied Hutch for having those three. I had nothing to remind me of Terri but my own memories and as much as I hated admitting it, it was sometimes very difficult to picture her. It was as if time itself worked with an eraser to slowly remove the pictures and notes from my memory.
I was crazy about the girls and I saw the best of their mother and father combined in them. Hutch was left shattered, but they pulled him through.
The memory of Luce –no, not Lucy, Luce, as in light- brought a warmth to my face that burned behind my eyes. I fiddled with my keys to get the trunk to open. I swallowed to get the lump in my throat out of the way and hoped Jeanie wouldn’t see my discomfort.
“David…” A warm hand touched my arm. “It’s been fifteen years. D’you think you can forgive me?”
Forgive her? Surprised and confused I put the groceries in the trunk and closed it.
“I can see it in you. It’s written all over your face. You blame me for what happened to Hutch, don’t you?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’ve got it all wrong, Jeanie.”
“I am? Then why the look? Why are you avoiding me?” She ran a hand over her light hair and began to talk about her life, stumbling over her own words. “I’ve … I’ve missed Hutch a lot, David. I’ve had a hard time after I left Bay City. My husband… my marriage didn’t work out. I came here for… for… for some peace of mind… for old times… to restore some of the—“
I took a deep breath and cut in. “Hutch’s a widower. Lost his wife of cancer.”
A shadow played over Jeanie’s face. I met the blue in her eyes, now surrounded by little creases of age. “I’m… I’m sorry to hear that. That’s… that’s just awful.”
“Yeah. She was a great woman.”
Jeanie’s eyes went from the asphalt to my car and my face. “I’d like to see him.”
I can’t really say why I said what I said. I was Hutch’s safety net, Luce had told me so.
“No. That’s not a good idea. She’s been gone for six years now – he’s finally got his life on track again. He’s got the girls, he’s got a job he likes, he’s got a few good friends he can rely on. If you suddenly pop up, it’ll smash what delicate balance he’s built up.”
“David… I’m not asking him for anything. I just want to see how he’s doing.”
“No, Jeanie. He loved you, you had your chance. He moved on and although he found some pretty big obstacles on his way, he’s managed to keep on track. For his sake, let him be. Don’t stir up the past.”
“Do you know what happened in Las Vegas?” There was an urge in her voice.
“Don’t, Jeanie. I don’t want to hear what happened in Las Vegas. You don’t need to justify yourself, I don’t need explanations.” I think I understood her need to talk about the past, but for now, I couldn’t care less. I couldn’t help but thinking that Jeanie equalled trouble. For the life of me I wasn’t going to expose Hutch to another round of misery. She opened her mouth but I spoke before she could.
“Jeanie, when you come back he’ll be back fifteen years in one second. You’re going to make him relive that horrible week over and over again. And if you find Hutch’s not the man you want to be with after all, you’ll leave and he’ll be alone with just the broken pieces. You can’t keep mending things, Jeanie. One day they just fall apart.”
The appealing thought of a cup of coffee had vanished like snow before the sun.
“Go back, Jeanie. Let go of the past, let go of Hutch. Show me you still care enough and leave. For his sake.”
I turned around, got in my car and put the keys in the ignition. Fingers with red enamelled nails curled around the window of my car.
“Hutch was right,” Jeanie said with a sad smile. “You’re definitely a rare specimen, David Starsky.” Unexpectedly she leant forwards and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “He’s lucky to have a friend like you.”
I started the car.
“Don’t tell him you saw me,” Jeanie called after me as I slowly drove away.
Don't you worry, Jeanie. I won't. I had a sudden urge for a beer.
Fifteen years is a long time. But then again, it’s as rapid as the blink of an eye., isn’t it?
Elsa, September 2004