Mom was a star jammer for several women's pro roller derby teams back when the sport was tougher and the women were rougher. There's no doubt she can take care of herself; she tells me exactly that all the time. She works graveyards at Ralph's Supermarket in Reseda because she likes it but also because the store manager knows she doesn't take anything from late-night-early-morning troublemakers who think they can intimidate the checkers. However, tonight after work as I'm watching the Dodgers-Phillies game on TV, I get a phone call from her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Ledesma. She tells me things are getting "way out of hand and possibly extreme" between Mom and her latest live-in boyfriend, Larry Williamson. Mrs. Ledesma's kitchen window has a clear view right into Mom's living room.
"Mrs. Ledesma," I say. "What exactly..."
"You know what I mean, Trevor. You asked me to call you if I thought you needed to know something. You need to know this. As a rule, I don't stick my nose into other people's business. You've been called. This is as far as I'll go."
"Okay. Thank you, Mrs. Ledesma." She clears her throat. "Please be careful, dear," she says softly, then hangs up.
Families move in and out of the houses on Mom's block of LaDenny Drive so often the neighborhood looks like a staging area for a fleet of U-Haul trucks. Mrs. Ledesma is the exception: she's the rock of the block. She's lived next door to our house for as long as I can remember. Seeing her smiling, weathered face in her kitchen window as she waved to me on my way to school was part of my life. It felt good knowing Mrs. Ledesma was always there, keeping an eye on things.
After I hear what she had to say, I call Mom's cell phone but it goes straight to message. I call three more times in two hours and leave three more messages. After the phone calls, I text her twice but nothing comes back. All this pumps me full of adrenaline and the makings of big plans.
I force myself to finish watching the game--the Dodgers won in extra innings--and watch Law and Order re-runs until midnight, when I'm positive Mom's at work. I leave my studio apartment in Mar Vista in my faded-turquoise Econoline van and head for Mom's house in Tarzana, which is about an hour away in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. I know what needs to be done, what I have to do, but I haven't really thought it all the way through yet.
Once a month Mom and I have dinner at The Fireside Steakhouse in Tarzana. Larry was there with her last time, a few weeks ago on a Friday. He has thick black hair, bushy eyebrows, a wide mustache and beard stubble that looks like ink-stained steel wool. His face is narrow and rugged—who knows, maybe that's part of what Mom sees in him.
When I walked up to their table that evening and shook Larry's extended hand, he smothered my right hand up to the wrist in a crushing grip, grinned and looked straight into my eyes. I tried to pull away and sit down, but he increased the pressure. We stood like that for a few seconds until Mom told Larry to knock it off. He released me but gave Mom a glare that raised the hair on the back of my neck. I'm twenty-three years old, six-two and in decent shape. Larry's a few inches taller than me and owns a taut, muscular body that reminds me of a deadly weapon. It's smart to stay away from men like Larry. Before I sat down he started talking.
"My name's Larry Williamson," he said. Without any prompting at all from me he also said he worked at Beale's Aluminum Castings in Van Nuys, had for almost fifteen years, and met Mom just ten days ago. He grinned again. "We really hit it off, your mom and me. I'm moving in tomorrow." He kept grinning. I looked at Mom, who fiddled with her silverware.
My mother is five-foot-five, slender, has thick, shoulder-length blond hair and looks that still attract all sorts of men. Overall we get along well but she has this thing about my future: she doesn't think I have one. Her green eyes were riveted on me as I sat down in the comfortable, maroon-leather booth across the round dinner table from her and Larry. The Fireside was busy and loud but I had no trouble hearing Mom as I rubbed the feeling back into my hand.
"So, I assume you're still working at that liquor store in Santa Monica?" she said. She took a drink of her ice water and rolled her eyes.
Larry laughed and took a big gulp of his tall draft beer. "Liquor store, huh? How about a few free samples?" he said as he wiped foam from his moustache.
Mom gave Larry a pretty good glare of her own. "I'm doing the talking here," she said in a tone I recognized. Larry shrugged, took another hit off his beer and munched a bread stick.
"It's not a liquor store," I said, repeating what I'd told her for several months "It's a Premium Wine Shop. Creekside Wine, direct from the company vineyard up in Napa Valley. We have tastings. I'm learning a lot. It's a good job."
Mom was really in a mood. She didn't want to listen to what I had to say. It was a familiar rant from her. She thought I was going nowhere fast. You're on the road to being a permanent liquor store jockey, she said, like those guys in that movie Clerks. You could get killed in a hold-up, Trevor! All of it was worse this time, teeth-clenching worse, because Larry was an attentive member of her audience. I tried to change the subject to anything but myself. I tried to enjoy my glass of fruity cabernet, my rare rib-eye steak, baked potato with sour cream and salad with garlic croutons and chunky blue cheese dressing. But I left before they did, my plate half-full. When I got home that night I called Mrs. Ledesma and asked her to keep an eye or maybe two on Larry and Mom and to please call me if she thought there was anything at all I needed to know.
Traffic is light. I've rolled down all the windows, letting warm air and exhaust blow through my van as I drive to Tarzana. It's the middle of August and residual heat lingers from the one-hundred plus degrees this past afternoon, especially on the Ventura freeway. A dirty Sam's Club semi roars past on the right and then swerves in front of me to avoid an old yellow pick-up that's loaded down with wobbly stacks of worn-out tires. My van is rattling loudly and bouncing roughly along. It's almost twenty years old and needs lots of work. The steering wheel's shaking so much it's hard to control. I'm going seventy-five, way too fast and not safe. I change lanes, follow the pick-up and slow down my speed and my breathing.
When I was growing up, my friends couldn't believe Mom had been in roller derby. She enjoyed proving it. She'd slide the big brown cardboard box out of the hall closet and proudly show us her old but well-kept uniforms: shorts, sleeveless tops, knee pads, elbow pads and wristbands. One uniform was black and gold, the other one was green and white. Each uniform had a matching, shiny helmet with a red star on it that identified her as the jammer. Under Mom's watchful eyes, we boys passed those helmets between us like they were new-born babies. As the jammer, Mom was the one who skated through and around the rampaging pack of big blockers to score points.
Her skates were still in immaculate condition: supple, oiled black leather, each one equipped with what looked like miniature mag wheels and shiny silver hubcaps. After she put the uniforms away she'd produce a large manila envelope from her top dresser drawer that was full of beautiful, 8x10 glossy color photographs. There she was, younger but undeniably Mom, thin and pretty, with her hair stuffed up under her helmet and those green eyes blazing. In all the photos she's out ahead of the pack with her skates flying and a smile on her face. You could almost feel her speed. Jammers are the best skaters, fast and elusive.
"I made my money not getting hit, boys," she told us.
My friends would nudge each other and say Wow. I'd stick my chest out and put my arm around her.
She traveled quite a bit during her eight years in the league. I was conceived when she was on a road trip—she says it was either Chicago or Kansas City—and born in the off-season. As a kid I used to pal around with different guys when they moved in but never got too close to any of them because I knew they wouldn't be around long. I still don't know who my father is. Mom's never made excuses for any of it. Always the jammer, she's fast and elusive even when it comes to mother-son talks about family history.
After a mile or so my van stops shaking. The semi is long gone. The pick-up is gradually pulling away from me. Fifty-five is the best speed for my van— the rattles calm down and the engine quits whining. I'm resting my right hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. I've driven this freeway hundreds of times. I'm on auto-pilot, paying just enough attention to the road, concentrating just enough to stay in my lane and maintain my speed, but my mind is far away and working on something else. Natalie Burnett, the twenty-four year-old wonder of a woman I've been seeing for almost five months, isn't speaking to me now. We had a big fight, our first, four days ago on Saturday evening and I didn't handle it well. Mom doesn't know about Natalie—I thought it was best to keep that part of my life private, away from her experience and advice.
I met Natalie at the wine shop. She came in on a windy, warm Thursday afternoon looking for a cold bottle of Chardonnay. She's almost five-nine. She has wavy, auburn-colored hair that's cut perfectly straight just above her shoulders. Her face is full of delicate and refined features. The only make-up I've seen her wear is cherry-red lipstick. Her eyes are blue. When you're near her, traces of her light, barely-sweet perfume wrap around your head; you want to get closer. That first day, we started talking and it was like an old-time black and white movie when the two stars, strangers until then, accidentally bump into each other at a diner or bus station and right away they know.
She started coming in after work—she's a freelance IT technician—and we'd talk about all kinds of things, including baseball. While I took care of customers, she'd stand over by the shiny mahogany tasting bar, under the genuine grape arbor decorated with real-looking vines, leaves, and grapes, pretending to examine the magnums of champagne wrapped in crinkly purple foil. Our first date was a Dodger game. Our second date was the original Dracula at Seasons, the all-night discount theater on Lincoln Boulevard near my apartment.
It was the kick-off movie for their annual Spring and Summer Horror and Sci-Fi Festival. She wore a new, bat-shaped gold pin on her black blouse that night as a surprise, just for me. The first time we slept together I was excited and so eager to please, but clumsy. I wasn't sure what she wanted. Whatever I did was either too much or too little. She slowed me down and made things easy and natural and close to perfect. Everything was going great until four days ago.
I'm still on auto-pilot, staring ahead but immersed in thoughts of Natalie. If trouble was to blow up in front of me in any lane, even with this little traffic, I probably couldn't react quickly or correctly enough to avoid it. I can't be the only one who drives this way.
I wonder how many accidents are caused by this kind of behavior. They're probably all lumped together in the murky statistical category of "Inattentive Driving," but it's more than that. It's worse than talking on a cell phone or texting or juggling a fat double-cheeseburger, a bag of hot French Fries and a large, slippery Coke while you're driving. I shake my head back and forth and blink my eyes hard to come back from where I've been. I focus on the road. Then in no time, it seems, Winnetka Avenue, my off-ramp, is approaching.
Normally it takes me at least fifteen minutes to get to Mom's house from the freeway, but since it's so late there's hardly any traffic and all the lights are green; I'm going to make it in five. Not much time to solidify my plan of action. A police car follows me through a few intersections, but then turns west as I keep going north. I finally hit a red light four blocks from Mom's house. My grip on the wheel is now white-knuckle tight. I take a few deep breaths and look at myself in the rear view mirror. Beads of sweat I didn't know were there cover my forehead. I wipe them off with the back of my hand. The light changes.
I park in front of the house, behind an empty, flat-bed U-Haul truck. Mom and I painted the house brown with cream-colored trim a few years ago and it still looks pretty good. Larry's white Ford F-10 truck is in the driveway and the living room lights are on. I bet he's still "unwinding" after work with a few beers. I stare at the truck. For some reason he's got "vintage" California license plates: yellow letters and numbers on a black background.
Next door, Mrs. Ledesma's light-blue house is dark and quiet. It's always been the best-kept home on the block. She has it painted every three years and the landscaping is perfect. Five thick and leafy, almost-as-tall-as-me night-blooming jasmine bushes border her driveway. Their sweet perfume is strong and carried easily by night breezes. I never liked the smell. It came in though my bedroom window when I was sleeping and I'd wake up sick to my stomach. It's coming into the van now and giving me a headache. I'm ready to open the door to escape the scent when a police car, its colored lights spinning, slowly comes up alongside my van and stops. A spotlight shines in my face.
"How are you this evening?" the cop asks from inside his car. "I'm Officer Drummond."
I squint, trying to look past the light into his face.
"Just fine, sir," I say. "Doing okay."
He smiles. "I saw you over on Winnetka. Are you lost?"
I smile nervously and open the van door. "No, this is my old..."
He quickly gets out of his cruiser and puts his left hand up to stop me. "Whoa there, partner!" he says, his voice now commanding. "Stay in the car!"
I shut the door and he trots over to me. He's not much older than I am, clean-shaven like I am, but shorter and stockier. It flashes in my mind to tell him what's been going on at Mom's house. He's at my window asking for my license and registration. I hand them over.
"Just sit tight," he says. "I'll be right back."
He goes to his cruiser and types into the car's computer. Mom's front door opens and Larry comes out onto the porch, leans against the white, wrought-iron railing and watches. He knows my van and can't help but see me, illuminated. A light goes on in Mrs. Ledesma's kitchen. Officer Drummond returns.
"You're a little ways from home, Mr. Swann. Do you have business here?"
He hands me my cards. I fumble with them, and then point. "That's my mom's house. I came to see her."
He looks at the house. Larry waves. He looks back at me and opens the van door. "Why don't we go have a look?"
As we both walk up the driveway, Mom's automatic outdoor lights turn on, more spotlights seemingly trained directly on me. Larry hops down the porch steps. He's wearing steel-toed work boots, black jeans and a white tee-shirt cut off at the shoulders. Specks of aluminum scattered in his hair shine in the fringes of the bright lights. He looks even bigger than he did at The Fireside.
"Evening, officer!" he says. "Can I help you?"
Drummond says "And you are...?"
"Larry Williamson. I live here with my girlfriend."
"That's my mother," I say. "Christine Swann."
"That's right!" Larry says. "His mother. She's at work right now. Is there a problem, officer?"
"I forgot," I say to Drummond. "She's working graveyards this month. She's a checker at Ralph's."
Drummond studies Larry. I think again of telling him what Mrs. Ledesma said. "No, there's no problem," the officer says to a smiling Larry.
Larry nods. "Good. Beautiful night, isn't it?"
Drummond sighs, shakes his head slightly then turns to me. "It's probably not a good idea to sit in your van parked here this time of night, Mr. Swann. Tends to make people nervous. You take care now."
"Right. Okay," I say.
Larry and I watch the police cruiser, its spinning lights off now, take a right at the end of the block and disappear.
"Is that what you were doing?" Larry says. "Sitting out here in your van, making people nervous?" He laughs as he walks toward me, stopping about ten feet away. He tilts his head and whispers loudly "What's up, Trev? Here to change your future?"
A chill shoots up my back, through my neck and finishes in my ears. I try to swallow but my mouth is dry. Talking is not possible. When I planned on coming over I saw myself bursting through the front door and catching him by surprise. Things are much different out here in the open on the concrete driveway.
"You know, I don't think you like me, Trev. I bet you want me to move out and leave your mom alone. Well, I'm right here for you. Convince me."
He clenches and re-clenches his huge hands into fists. He stares at me and smiles. I'm afraid to move; I don't want to set him off. I stare back at him but his smile just gets wider. I've never been in a real fight and what I learn from Larry at that instant is that you can't count on the other guy losing his nerve. You can't bluff your way out. You have to be ready to inflict pain and receive pain. Larry's more than ready: he can't wait.
I back up without turning around, stumbling and almost falling on the curb as I reach my van. My throat is burning and my eyes are watering. I take a deep breath and what I get is an overwhelming dose of jasmine perfume that turns my stomach upside-down.
"Leaving so soon?" Larry yells. "Hey, maybe we can have a wine tasting. Got any bottles handy?" He laughs. I get in my van and start it up. Somehow I get it in gear. I almost hit the U-Haul as I pull out into the middle of LaDenny Drive. The light in Mrs. Ledesma's kitchen goes off as I speed by.
I'm on Winnetka telling myself I really don't have proof of anything, just what a neighbor thinks is going on. I can come back later and talk to Mom. She'll just tell me she can take care of herself and don't worry about her but at least she'll know that I know. Larry will know that I know. It's better this way. That's right. Fighting never solved anything. Getting the crap knocked out of you never solved anything. I pay attention to my driving; I don't want to deal with Officer Drummond again. The burning in my stomach and the hot shame on my face is getting worse. I'm sure Larry's on the phone to Mom right now giving her all the details and she's wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I'm just about to the freeway when my phone rings. That's probably her now. I park next to the curb in front of a Taco Bell. It's not her number, but sometimes she calls from a work phone. "Hello?"
"Hello," says the automated female voice. "This is Rebecca from Penthouse Home Security Systems and we..."
At 1:30 in the morning? I hang up. At least it wasn't Mom. She doesn't call during the remainder of my sensible, rattle-free freeway drive. That gives me plenty of time to scrape up more outstanding excuses for how I "handled" the Larry situation.
Back on Lincoln Boulevard, I pass Seasons Discount Cinema. Creature from the Black Lagoon isn't playing anymore. Instead, it's Godzilla, King of the Monsters. I turn around and pull into the parking lot.
"It's half-over," the guy selling tickets says. He's wearing a dark-blue Yankees cap and cut-off reading glasses. He's old enough to be my dad.
"That's all-right," I say. "I've seen it six times. It played here last year."
He rolls his eyes, just like Mom.
About a dozen teenagers sitting in the two front rows are doing some minor hooting and hollering, showing very little respect for the King of the Monsters. The seats are the flip-down kind, covered in red, frayed cloth, a little lumpy but I'm used to them. I eat my jumbo, extra-butter popcorn as I watch terrified villagers run for their lives. It's no use: they can't escape from Godzilla, that long striding, determined, giant dragon from the sea. I sip my root beer.
When I applied for the job at the wine shop they said they needed a "people-person," which to me means you let people talk and you listen. I've tried to do that my whole life. My tastings have set records for sales. Customers ask for me by name. They trust my opinions and recommendations. You have a great, natural nose for wine, Trevor, my bosses tell me. You communicate easily and effectively with customers and, most importantly, they say, you know how to close a sale. They want me to move to Napa Valley and learn it all from the ground up--work the grapes from the field to the table. Training would take about a year and then I'd be on the road a lot, selling to supermarket chains and making important decisions. I've been putting them off because I thought I should stay near Mom, just in case she ever needed me.
Good old Godzilla and his death rays. He would've been just fine if he'd eaten a few small coastal towns and then descended back to his familiar ocean depths for fifty years or so. Then he could have made another dramatic appearance, eaten a few new towns, hustled back into the ocean, and so on and so on. He had a good thing going. But Mister Godzilla, he had bigger, grander plans. Like many other monsters he got greedy and insisted on causing more mayhem and destruction. He didn't learn his lesson, and that led to his eventual, unavoidable demise.
Bigger plans are what Natalie and I argued about just outside her homey, two-bedroom duplex in Westwood, near UCLA. "How can you risk missing such a great opportunity?" she asked me. "You're just using your mother as an excuse. You have to move on with your life! Move on, Trevor," she said. "Move on with your life."
My brain must've frozen solid right then. "What do you know about my life?" I snapped back at her. "Just what the hell do you know about my life? And why do you care, anyway? What's it to you?" One second later, her white reinforced front door slammed in my face, pushing me and the dumbest words I've ever spoken back out into Westwood.
I watch my friend Godzilla's film debut one-and-a-half more times and then go home to my apartment. I take a shower until the hot water runs out and then spend an hour or so reading a few more chapters of my California Wines Deluxe Handbook. In the middle pages I find a pull-out, detailed map of Napa Valley, including all the wineries and various growing areas. I unfold it and tack it to my living room wall. I circle the Creekside Winery with my favorite red pen. It's seven in the morning. I sit down on the edge of my bed, call work and leave a message that I can't make it in today. I feel terrible, I say. I'll be in tomorrow. It's a twenty-four-hour bug, I assure the voice mail.
I text Mom to meet me at The Fireside at five for an early dinner. Got lots to talk about. My treat. Please!
Her reply comes in a few minutes. Okay. Lots to talk about. That's for sure.
I lay in bed, thinking again of what Mrs. Ledesma said. I hear Natalie's words over and over. I stare at the ceiling but all I see is Larry standing on Mom's porch, leaning on the railing and acting like he owned the place. I set my alarm clock for three and force my eyes to close, but I toss and turn more than I sleep.
It's a little after four when I get to Mom's house. Her tan Honda Civic is gone, hopefully on the way to The Fireside. Larry's truck is gone. It should be at Beale's Castings. I park in the driveway. I gather up all of Larry's things I can find: a few armfuls of clothes in Mom's bedroom, cheap toiletries in the bathroom and a box of greasy tools in the garage. As I load everything into my van, I see Mrs. Ledesma watching from her kitchen window. She waves to me and gives me both thumbs up. I manage a smile and wave back to her, like I did when I was a kid.
It's five o'clock straight up when I make it to Van Nuys and Beale's Castings, just west of the San Diego Freeway. It's in a grimy industrial park, not too far from where Mom works in Reseda—that's probably how they met. A lunch truck is parked a few hundred feet from three steel buildings. Two men about Larry's age wearing scuffed-up yellow hard hats and dark-blue coveralls are standing there drinking out of Styrofoam cups and eating burritos. I park the van and get out.
"You guys know Larry Williamson?"
They stare at me and keep chewing.
"Could you find him and tell him Trevor has some things for him out here?"
They keep eating and drinking while they look at me, the van, then back at me.
I shrug. "He'll want to come out here. I have some of his personal property. It'll be on you."
They toss their cups into a trash can and walk into the center building. I slide open the van door and dump Larry's crud onto the asphalt. It's still about eighty degrees after another scorching day but I get that up-my-back-to-ears chill again as I look at the pile I've created. Loud, banging thumps of machine noise come from the buildings. Semis rumble by on the freeway. My phone announces another text from Mom.
Where are you, Trevor? Everything okay?
Almost there, Mom.
A slight breeze cools my face. I walk around the van twice. The lunch truck drives away. I'm on my third trip around the van when Larry comes out of the center building followed by his two buddies. He's dressed like them only he's dirtier. They point to me and they all laugh. Larry keeps walking and stops next to the pile. He pokes around in it. "Well, well, what have we here, Trev? What have we here?" He yanks his hard hat off of his head, winds up and hurls it down onto the asphalt. It explodes into tiny pieces all around him. He runs his hands through his oily-looking hair. "You've been busy, Trev," he says in a different, deeper voice.
My heart pounds out of control but I knew it would. I say the words exactly how I've rehearsed them. "You're right, Larry. I don't like you. You're moved out. For good."
He stares at me and I return it. Then he smiles and holds it, which I'm sure is his way of letting me know he's going to enjoy this. "Well, well," he says in that deeper voice.
He walks fast to me with no smile. Remembering the lesson Larry taught me last night, I put my fists up in front of my face, my left a little higher than my right, and crouch like a real fighter. I stand my ground and think of Mom the jammer in one of her photographs, smiling, speeding, with her skates kicking high and her arms pumping. I throw a weak left jab that Larry blocks easily. He slams his right fist into my left eye. His left fist hammers into my rib cage. That wicked punch staggers me but I stay on my feet.
One of Larry's buddies yells "Finish him off, champ!"
He punches me hard in my stomach, forcing all the air out of me in one big whoosh. I stand up straight and gasp, trying to refill my lungs. My fists are down. He comes at me again. I try to move away but everything is muddled and swirly and my legs won't work. His right fist slams into my left eye. I taste metal-like blood in my mouth and almost gag. I stumble backward and fall down on the hot asphalt next to my van. I feel like I have to throw up. As I sit up, I take fast, short breaths but each one stabs pain into my ribs. Larry rubs his right fist with his left hand.
"Damn," he says. "I think I bruised my knuckles."
He walks away, hyena laughing, with his friends giving him high-fives and laughing along with him. I scoot back and lean against the passenger door of my van. My head aches but it's clearing. I lightly tap my injured eye and raw cheek. They're both bleeding and swelling. I finally regain my lost air with shallow breaths that don't tear at my ribs. My ears are ringing but I still hear semi after semi roaring by on the freeway and the rhythmic, grinding thumps of machine noise.
After a few painful minutes, Larry drives up in his truck. My left eye is now swollen shut and I haven't moved. He gets out of the cab, his boots crunching on bits of his destroyed hard hat. "You know, Trev, "he says, back to his regular voice, "I was getting really, really tired of your mom but after the fun we've had today I think I'll hang around the house for, oh, I don't know, as long as I want to, I guess." He loads his pile of clothes into the truck bed. "Yep, that's what I'll do."
I slowly stand up, fighting the nausea. Now I get to teach Larry. "Then we'll be seeing lots more of each other. I've decided to move back home. I really miss my old room. You know how it is."
Larry lifts his box of tools off the asphalt and hesitates for a few seconds. I push away from the van, wobble a little but then find my balance and stand as straight as I can. He shakes his head back and forth, then slams the box into the truck bed and leans back against the cab.
"Aw, shit, you know something, Trev? The two of you aren't worth the trouble. You're just not worth the goddamn trouble." He brushes his hands four or five times on the front of his coveralls like he's getting rid of accumulated dirt. "But you be damn sure to tell your mom I got everything I wanted. And a little bit more, if you know what I mean."
As he gets into his truck he says, good and loud, "Old, worn-out broad anyway. Not worth the goddamn trouble. Stupid punk kid. Pain in the ass mama's boy. They deserve each other!" He fires up the truck and burns rubber, speeding toward the steel buildings.
It's weird having only one working eye. I have no depth perception. I bang my hand twice reaching through the half-open passenger window for my phone. Now my knuckles are bruised. I call Mom. "Where are you?" she says.
"Something's come up," I say through my battered mouth. "I don't think I can make it." My voice sounds funny. Maybe my throat's swollen, too.
"I found out I have to go in early to work anyway. I was just going to call you."
I swallow blood. "So you're okay?"
A big sigh. "Why do you always ask me that? Of course I'm okay. I've told you a hundred times I can take care of myself."
"I know, Mom."
After a few seconds she says "What's wrong, Trevor? Are you all right?"
I turn away from the phone and spit out more blood. It steams on the hot asphalt. I feel around the inside of my raw mouth with my tongue. All my teeth are where they should be. I close my mouth and breathe through my "nose for wine." It's also where it should be and working just fine. "I'm better."
"What do you mean? Better than what?"
I forget and take a deep breath that hurts, but I'm getting used to it already. "Better than before, Mom."
A few more seconds pass. "Well, okay. I have to go. But we are going to talk, son."
I get in the van and sit down gingerly. I shut the driver's door and roll down the window. A short speech I've been working on runs through my throbbing head. I'll probably mess up the words, but as soon as Natalie hears what I'm determined to say I'm positive she'll know what I mean. I start the van and examine my face in the rear view mirror. I hope my bosses don't take the Napa Valley offer off the table when I show up at work tomorrow looking like this. And when my customers see me I hope they don't recoil in horror and run for their lives, like those poor, doomed villagers did when they saw the King of the Monsters coming their way.
Back on the familiar freeway, I hold open my swollen eye with my left thumb and index finger so I can have both eyes working. I drive one-handed but concentrate as never before, fifty-five all the way to Winnetka Avenue. At the end of the off-ramp, a man and a woman, both about my age and wearing white shorts and Hawaiian shirts, are selling big bags of oranges and generous bunches of assorted, brightly-colored flowers. They look at me like I'm an extra from Night of the Living Dead, but they take my money.
As I walk up Mrs. Ledesma's driveway I hold my breath to stave off the jasmine perfume. I set the oranges and flowers down on her porch to free up a hand to knock on her door.
Title image "On the Attack" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.