Mic dove into the pool and lingered below the surface, contemplating his ability to drown. He watched blue bubbles swirl as he sunk further from the white morning sun. Knowing he hadn’t the nerve or will, he let his lungs pull him upward and he floated before breaking surface. Gasping, he filled his lungs and then swam without noise, his clean strokes a reminder of what his bovine body had once been.
Mic reached the edge of the pool and hung on the ledge. Beyond the neighboring orange grove he saw the long blue stretch of the Pacific. Squinting, he imagined he could see the black bobbing heads of surfers. Closing his eyes, he felt the tide’s push and pull, the stinging salt in his eyes, the call of gulls and the beckoning waves. He thought of the brotherhood, recalling their stringy brown bodies, salt crusted hair, and red eyes. Most, if not all, had long since died.
Mic pushed away from the wall and rolled onto his back and looked up at the dark windows of the neoclassic monstrosity he called home. He wondered if Ginny watched from an upper window and in a small fit of rebellion he pushed his distended belly a little higher as he did the back stroke. He knew he looked like Humty Dumpty with spaghetti arms and legs laced with purple veins. He hadn’t illusions about his Einstein hair and ZZ Top beard. But, what had happened to her? Who had replaced the girl in the tie-dyed skirt with daisies tucked in her braids? The girl who tasted of homemade blackberry wine? Where had she gone? Was she happier in the mansion than in the shack with long boards lining the walls, towels draped over the scavenged furniture, chinks of daylight shining through the haze?
Mic returned to the pool’s edged and heaved out of the pool. He shivered in the morning cold, shook the water out of hair and beard and retrieved his water bottle. Pulling off the stopper, he drank fast, letting the liquid slide down his throat. The water, at first innocuous, turned to stinging tin and burned his mouth, throat, and gut.
The bottle slipped from his fingers, splashed to the ground and then rolled at his feet. Mic staggered, reached for the back of a lawn chair, and tripped on the plastic bottle. His head hit the tile with a smack. Lead filled his limbs. A weight settled on his chest making his breath laborious, painful. He lay on the cement, his eyes fixed on the sun, his body inert, unable to move, flinch or cry out when a foot wedged beneath his torso and kicked him into the pool.
Is this it then? Mic thought, his thoughts as clear as the water filling his nose and lungs. After everything, crystal blue? Mic, letting go of will, sank beneath the surface and watched the sun fade.
Some moments beg to be retold, some are best forgotten, and then there are the unforgettable moments, the ones unheralded, unanticipated, unprecedented. Love doesn’t always happen at first sight. Scarlet and Rhett, Lancelot and Guinevere, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, all took some foreplay, some warming up, but when the Norse god walked into Mim’s backlit by the morning sun, Maisie knew her life had changed. The history eluding her, the story that didn’t want to be told, it would all go unnoted. Hex her editor, doom the deadline. Thor, god of thunder and fair weather, had arrived.
He stood on the large pink and purple paisley swirls that Les had painted on the cement floor, and none of the fussy femininity surrounding him detracted from his virility. He chose a table beside wrought iron shelves overflowing with an eclectic collection of china pieces, antique books, etchings, and prints. An eighteenth century flow blue tea pot shared a shelf with a flying saucer wooden burl box. A Viking sat among Rocco and Baroque decorative art.
Thor had a swarthy friend who ordered a ham and cheese croissant. Maisie wrote down their orders, and for a moment, felt fortunate that she was writing in the café rather than at her desk. All thoughts of the Thurstons, Laguna’s founding family, walked out the door. She didn’t have writer’s block. Why write a book about Laguna’s history when she could write breakfast food? Who needed a book contract in Laguna, a place of sunshine and Norse Gods? Maisie, who’d abandoned her nearly completed dissertation to write for a literary magazine, who’d left the magazine to write a book, who understood and respected the power of words, tapped her pencil against her notepad, and murmured, “That’ll be right up.” Brilliant.
Maisie dished the men’s orders and inhaled the heady scents of fresh baked bread, cheese and coffee. After adding a couple of extra strawberries to their plates she willed herself not to stare. She stepped away from Thor and the Italian, hoping distance could douse her attraction. Maisie focused on Mrs. Henderson, one of the Mercantile’s best costumers.
“I don’t know, Maisie.” Mrs. Henderson held up a swatch of blue and white tulle, cocked her head and tapped her size six shoe. “It’s just such an important decision…” her voice trailed away and her eyes flicked towards the pastry counter.
“Maybe an éclair would make the decision easier,” Maisie said, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Oh, I really couldn’t. Ralph, my trainer, he’s a calorie cop.” Mrs. Henderson began to twist the tulle in her ring laden fingers, giggling. “But, the cream in an éclair is low carb.”
While Mrs. Henderson tangled with decisions, Maisie watched Thor lounging between a display of antique hat pins and a Victorian gilded mirror. She could see him and his reflection and he seemed to fill the room. In reality, he held a fork, but in her mind he held the magic hammer, Mjolnir, capable of throwing lightning bolts to her heart. His companion, the Italian, held a napkin. Maisie shifted from one foot to the next, wearing a pleasant face that hopefully didn’t reveal Norse deity worshipping thoughts.
While she waited for Mrs. Henderson’s choice, she wondered if the woman had felt the same rush of pleasure for her husband. Maisie had never met Mr. Henderson, but she’d heard from Mim that he’d recently died, suddenly, tragically, and yet days later Mrs. Henderson was debating the merits of pottery bits.
Maisie raised her eyebrows, smiled and tried not to look at Mrs. Henderson’s neck, one of the few physical evidences of the widow’s age. Mrs. Henderson had a forty year old face, high, pointy teenage breasts and a geriatric neck. Maisie allowed herself another sneak peak at Thor’s biceps, swallowed and said, “Actually, I just made the éclairs this morning. They’re mostly eggs, protein rich.”
Mrs. Henderson’s glance flitted between an early Staffordshire, a Majolica teapot and the alluring éclair. Maisie looked out the window at the marine layer billowing off Laguna’s shore. Even though the traditional school year had started a few weeks ago, as the sun rose the sidewalks and beach would fill with tourists in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. Maisie’s gazed returned to Thor’s thick, tanned forearms and Rolex watch. No ring. The Italian looked as if his shoulders and chest were about to burst his polo shirt.
Maisie turned her attention to Mrs. Henderson and noticed the woman’s tired eyes, the soft sagging skin beneath her chin. Maisie wanted to offer sympathy for Mrs. Henderson’s loss, but she didn’t know how, so instead she said, “Maybe just a nice tea or a glass of juice.”
Mrs. Henderson sniffed. “When does Mim get back? She’s always very good with these decisions.”
Considering her aunt’s swollen face and swatches of bandages, Maisie gave the rehearsed response. “About a month, I think.” A month of pain sacrificed to vanity.
Mrs. Henderson threw up her hands. “Oh what the hay! You’ve convinced me! I’ll get the Staffordshire and an éclair!”
Maisie took a step backwards. “Hmm, great. I’ll wrap up the teapot, it’s a lovely piece.”
Mrs. Henderson, content with her purchase, said, “I remember when Mim brought it home from the Lake District.”
Maisie stopped listening; she remembered Mim finding the piece on E-bay. She carefully removed the pot from its place among the Bardollos and McCoys and slipped into the back room. “It’ll take me just a sec to wrap this up,” she called over her shoulder.
She passed Whistler, a stringy Jack Russell terrier sitting on his bed near the doorway. He let out a small grunt and rutted around for his ball. Maisie had let him in to the shop because she’d felt guilty and sorry for him. Uncle Les had tired of him and had put him in his kennel in the alley. Maisie had tired of his cries. He didn’t seem any less crotchety, let alone happy, in his new place. He licked his wounded paw and worried the bandage around his foreleg. He reminded Maisie of the rattlesnake adage, the smaller the snake the meaner the bite.
The backroom could have been on a different planet. While the front of the shop had been decorated by Les, an artist with fussy flair, the back of the shop was all Mim. Antiques, what-nots and whatevers had been piled into towers that loomed to block the meager light streaming from high, dusty windows. The kitchen grill, sink and cutting board were frequently hiding behind Mim’s latest acquisitions: only the stove-oven combo remained safe from clutter. Chairs, tables and a grandfather clock hung from the pipes that criss-crossed the ceiling. Maisie tried not to think of earthquakes.
She twirled the pot in bubble wrap, sealed it with a Mim’s Mercantile sticker and placed it in one of the signature pink paisley bags. She emerged from the dark, dusty back into the bright, sunny store in time to see Whistler leap in the air. While the Thor and the Italian fumbled in their pockets and counted change, Whistler snagged what remained of the croissant and bolted out the door.
“What the--” Italian began.
Thor burst into a laugh.
Thor took note of her distress. “I’ll get him.”
The Italian stopped laughing. “No, I’ll get him.”
“Please, don’t bother-” Maisie began, watching Whistler streak down the sidewalk, his bandage waving in the air like a flag of victory.
Thor and the Italian looked at each other momentarily and then as if telepathing a silent GO, they bolted. For a moment they wrestled in the doorway, and then the Italian gave Thor a good natured shove back into the store and tore up the sidewalk. Thor overtook him by the intersection.
Maisie thought about joining them, hustling Mrs. Henderson out the door, closing the shop, chasing Thor, Italian and Whistler, but a man dressed in a dark blazer, sturdy brown shoes and sunglasses stood in front of the gaping front door, watching the men and dog weave up the sidewalk. After some hesitation, he entered the shop, making two customers Maisie would need to hustle. He fiddled with the rim of his glasses, but left them on to shield his eyes.
Mrs. Henderson nodded her head at a dog’s toy in the corner. Maisie gave the man another look and then tried to nonchalantly kick a squeaky mouse behind the counter. Sighing, she knew that chasing Whistler would only encourage him. Left alone, the dog would come home when he was hungry, and he was always hungry, but if someone gave chase, he could be gone all the day. He wouldn’t completely disappear, he’d toy his followers, rag them with near captures and taunt them with close encounters.
Mrs. Henderson cleared her throat. She stood, drumming her long French manicured nails on the glass of the pastry counter. She dipped her head again at the customer standing in front of the hatpin collection, an unfathomable expression on his face. He didn’t seem the hatpin sort; in fact, Maisie wouldn’t have marked him as a collector. He seemed too large and masculine for Mim’s shop, like a Scottish highlander crashing a lady’s tea. Maisie followed Mrs. Henderson’s pointed gaze towards the man’s waistband and saw a leather holster, a flash of metal. Her heart quickened and she relabeled the Scottish highlander into a highwayman.
Mrs. Henderson cleared her throat again and raised her eyebrows at Whistler’s abandoned rawhide bone lying beneath the bistro table.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Henderson,” Maisie said, hurrying to get the éclair while using her foot to scoot the dog chew behind a potted fichus. She opened the pastry case and pulled out a brownie. Fumbling with a Mim’s Mercantile bag, she licked her fingers and tried to open the bag. She could feel the man watching while she gave Mrs. Henderson an apologetic smile and shook the bag open.
“I wanted an éclair,” Mrs. Henderson said. She cast the man another glance, but he kept his sunglasses trained on Maisie. Mrs. Henderson turned her back to him. “FBI,” she mouthed.
Whistler hardly seemed worth an undercover agent, but Maisie’s cheeks flushed. It’d been irresponsible and thoughtless to allow the dog in the shop. Flustered, she set the brownie aside and fought the urge to lick the brownie’s frosting off her fingers. She’d forgotten the plastic gloves, a testament to her nervousness; finger licking and food serving shouldn’t be standard café practice. Under the shelter of the counter she slipped the plastic gloves over messy fingers and pulled an éclair out of the case. She took a deep breath and then another, trying to relax. Was this really easier than her job at LA Literary? She’d left the magazine to devote her time to writing, not sell pastries and chase dogs. Maisie glanced up the man had turned toward a pair of Les’ photographs of Avalon bay.
“You shouldn’t have invited Monster to the store,” Mrs. Henderson whispered.
Maisie nodded. She considered defending herself, but knew Mrs. Henderson was right. Even though the Jack Russell whined and cried when left alone, he should have stayed with Mim where he could chew and destroy, but not endanger a livelihood.
Maisie looked out the window and watched the dog and men dance down the sidewalk, dodging tourists, bumping into a man on rollerblades, interrupting a skateboarder. Whistler’s tail darted across the street, causing a BMW to brake quickly and skitter towards a parked VW van. A Hyundai bleeped as Thor and Italian lunged for the dog. Safely out of traffic, Whistler’s white rump disappeared into a hedge. Thor leaped over the plant while the Italian crouched on the sidewalk.
And then Thor took off his shirt.
Mrs. Henderson cleared her throat again. “I said,” Mrs. Henderson raised her voice an octave, “that I’d like another éclair.”
Maisie reluctantly took her gaze off Thor’s muscular back. “Really?”
Mrs. Henderson twisted her lips into a sheepish, unnatural grin and gave the armed man a lowered eyelid appraising. “If you’re going to go to hell, you might as well go in a limo.”
Or in a back of a dog catcher van, Maisie thought. “Thank you, Mrs. Henderson, I hope we’ll see you again soon,” she said, wondering how to rescue Whistler while a man with a concealed weapon considered a 1910 edition of Huckleberry Finn.