Ontario to Santa Barbara in the middle of the night sounded doable, especially when Carl Rover considered reconnecting with his ex-girlfriend, one sexy Telma Gomez, a barmaid at a local tavern there. She descended from migrant workers in the Central Valley. At 19, she and a few of her friends wandered into Napa’s wineries for an afternoon of tasting a few years back. It was a chance for them to get drunk for free, a break from the apple orchards, almonds, grapes, anything and everything stocking the fresh-food shelves of stores and bars across the Bay Area.
Carl was on assignment writing a fluff travel piece on Napa’s B&Bs. He noticed her instantly. She walked with a grace and playfulness, thin, leggy, long silky hair in a thick black ponytail. He couldn’t help but stare. Being pretty was a double-edged sword for her—guys opened doors, bought trinkets and bobbles hoping for validation. Then there was the dark side. Guys stalked her, but in a way that Telma liked, edgy. She confronted men in ways they didn’t expect.
Carl’s trip began about 11:11 p.m. after he had gotten off the phone with her. It was his night off from the newspaper, where he worked as a copy editor. Though she was 21, it still seemed like he was robbing the cradle. He was 33, what he considered his prime, and most girls, especially the poor ones, weren’t going to turn down “a guy with J-O-B” if asked out on a date.
Plus, Carl stayed in shape at the local 24-hour gym. His physique stood up despite hours hunched over a computer screen. He rankled at the ball-and-chain gig, but he was still young enough, trying to get ahead in the freelance writing business. Without a lot of money, he was a little disillusioned about life’s prospects. He lived in a dinky studio apartment and made inflated payments on a Mustang. The meeting with Telma made him vibrate, though he confessed later that it might’ve been the wine talking. His tart mouth met its match that day.
“I see mom and dad let the kids out to play,” he said.
“Yeah, mister I can play,” she answered, gulping from a bottle. She grabbed it from her friend’s hand, the heavy-set one with the cute face. “I’d ask you to hang, mister, but I think your bus for the old folks’ home is leaving. Or, maybe it already left.” She giggled like a child. “Don’t you need a nap?”
He was enraptured by her bold voice and soapy smell. His mouth salivated. Her charms were enough to keep any suitor on the hook, that was certain. The main rival for her affections was personified in one Art Gomez, driver of a late-model Impala and chief member of a car club out of Fresno. Her geeky sidekicks reminded her that she had him on a leash; that one guy was enough. She didn’t need another boyfriend.
They managed to pull her from Carl’s white-guy, he’s-too-old-for-you, presence. Telma’s second friend, a skinny Minnie with big teeth, giggled with her friends at the mere idea, a possible mis-match made in hell. Then she saw her grasp fail. Telma pulled herself closer to the wine trough, where the sommelier poured the fermented liquid into monogramed plastic cups. She made the motion for a writing utensil to the plaid-shirted man serving the drinks, letting her eyes roll up to his hungry eyes. He produced a pen, and a writing pad in a mere instant. Telma grabbed the supplies, brushing against his hairy mongrel hand. A stupid grin on his face.
Carl stood awkwardly in his effort to muster the coolness only his idol Hugh Jackman imbued. Right hand in pocket with Tweed sport jacket draped along the forearm somehow didn’t cut it. Levi jeans and boat shoes didn’t help. She scribbled her name and number on a ripped paper and handed it to him. Finally, her friends did what they couldn’t do the first time, they dragged her out the winery’s front door, leaving it open enough for Carl to see her go. She scampered toward a faded blue Nova, jangled keys and hopped in behind the wheel. Her twittering friends wouldn’t shut up. They followed her because she was wild, even when her troubles got them grounded. To them, it was worth every moment.
The few years passed. She had called to let him know she was alone for the weekend. Art had driven south to L.A. for a car show that was more important than taking her to Yosemite, which was right up the road from Fresno, or maybe a movie. The man with grease under his finger nails spent more attention applying decals to his friends junkpile cars, tweezing his thick eyebrows and nose hairs, than thinking about the nice things he could do for her.
“Like a queen, hell,” she said to Carl over the phone, pausing to take a drag off a joint. “I deserve to have fun, not wait on that bum. Just get here babe.”
With too many beers in his belly, Carl kept a water bottle close. He had to stop and think what he had to do before he got on the road. First, get dressed in something better than a T-shirt. Second, get some gas in the tank, and some coffee. It was a little more than two hours to Santa Barbara. He opted for the 10 Freeway straight through L.A., then a right turn at Santa Monica.
When he got to the Pacific Coast Highway, he thought, that put him on the home-stretch. He pictured Telma in a state of undress, battling fog both in his mind and on the ground. The next thing he knew, he was waking up to the sound of roaring water all around his car. The ocean water chilled his feet, then legs. He had driven off Malibu’s cliffs at about 4 a.m. No witnesses, and no call from Telma.