Out of Focus
A Work In Progress
CHAPTER 1 - 1990
The door closes. A figure stands, arms crossed, staring. The carpet is white: the walls are
white, the drapes are white, the ceiling is white, the shelving is white. The mirror is dark:
mementos piled up, surfaces overflow with books, trophies, photo albums. Family photographs
stare into the room. Nothing moves. Nothing sounds.
Moves. Eleven steps. Stops. Looks down. The desk: white shaded lamp, left; typewriter,
center: pen, pencil, paper, right. Top center, clock and calendar: October 9th, 1:43 PM. Outside,
Southern California. Inside, cold shadows.
The bookcase. Eyes scan the titles. Pulls a book from the third shelf, reads the title, puts
the book back. Turns again. White walls. Family photos, floor to ceiling. Hands stroke the photo
albums, scrapbooks, mementos. Sits on the arm of the sofa, pulls out an album at random, opens,
views the faces, places ― closes.
Back to the desk. Sits. The weight presses her into the chair. 1:46 PM. Fingers rest on the keyboard:
reaches to the right, picks up a black pen and a blank piece of lined paper.
Writes the date at the upper right; only the date, nothing more. Script neat, small and precise: each letter, each number, definable, uncannily familiar. The lack of style is the style.
Pushes the chair back, stands, and stumbles to the door. Fingers grip the handle, pressing downward. Opens the door, hesitates. Right hand reaches out. The photograph is seventy-five years old. Fingers trace two figures. Smiles, nods her head, turns away, closes the door.
And now she walks down the hall staring at her feet, her walk, familiar, strangely familiar, and moves through the living room, into the kitchen to the refrigerator and opens the door, reaches for the bottom shelf and grabs a can of beer and then opens the freezer and finds a cold glass, opens the can, pours and throws the can into the recycle bin and walks across the room to her armchair and sits with her feet up resting on the hassock. Then she takes out a cigarette, picks up the lighter, flicks the lighter, all the while watching her hands, lifts the glass and takes a long drink, and leans back. She closes and opens her eyes and watches the smoke drift out the window. Her glass is half empty.
She walked to the open front door, shrugged her shoulders, pushed open the screen door thatís never locked and stepped outside. She saw the roses. She walked across the gravel-covered yard, head down, each step creating a grinding sound. She turned around, tilted her head up and gazed at the house. Then she placed her right hand on the tree for support, lowered herself to the ground and sat with her back against the trunk of the Magnolia.
Beneath her were the sharp uneven rocks. She closed her eyes and gathered her legs under the robe, wrapping her arms around her knees. She was still, listening. "Alice, get my check book! Iíll write you a check right now and we will ---" "But thatís $10,000 dollars!"
It started to come back to her. The narrow road, the rocks, the barbwire fencing, the endless expanse of weeds, the wild vines, wild gum and pepper trees, yellow flowering mustard. She looked down, picked up one of the jagged rocks, traced a rectangle in the dirt, heard old Ray, the builder -- "Run the chalk line and letís get started on the measurements. 1,100 square feet, slab foundation, cedar exterior, 1 X 12í planks, two fireplaces, gray slate entry, white frame windows and the usual fixtures."
Her eyes flashed open and she saw the house: gray cedar planking, gray roof, two white chimneys, gray slate entryway, white framed windows: Twenty years. She looked up through the leaves into the blue. Placed her right hand on the ground for support, stretched out her legs and pushed to a kneeling position. A branch of the tree touched her head. She took a deep breath of the air. "What is it?" Who? Barbeque. No, onions and cloves with smoke flavor: Something, someone moves into her line of sight, near the barn entrance. "Where can I go?"
Unaware of the sunlight, she begins to walk, small careful steps to the orchard gate. Her hands automatically reaching forward to lift the cane latch. It strikes the adjoining fence with a sound so familiar that the goats donít notice as they rush toward her.
"One, two, three, four." She was counting her steps up the path. Counting each stride, "41, 42, 43 --- 101, 102 103," until she reached 247. The trees on either side of the path formed a sanctuary as she walked. She reached the chain-link fence and gate at the northern boundary of the property, stood and stared, focusing on the 1888 farmhouse. She doesnít hear the trees rustling, the voices are too clear now: "Wish the old man who bought the place would keep up the old homestead." " Iíll bring the tractor for the heavy field work." "You like potatoes? Weíll bring you some from the harvest." "Them pigs is boars, girls." "Why would you want to live in the country?"
She lowers herself to the ground, supported by the hand over hand grasp she has on the fence wire. On her knees now, her head buried in her hands, elbows on the ground, she didnít feel the sweat rolling down her body. Crawled to the shelter of one of the trees, sat, her legs stretched out in front of her, her arms and hands out to the side.
Her eyes open, her gaze fixed, watching the path, framing the scene. "Is that someone standing in the orchard?" She sees a tall figure with thick wavy gray hair, dressed in white pants, white silk shirt, white shoes, Armaniís? She calls out, "Hello, there." The sound of her own voice frightens her; she moves to get up. The figure disappears.
She drops back down into the thick layers of leaves, breathes in the earthís aroma. A warm comforting feeling is by her side, a weight across her left shoulderó"Mac, is that you?"
Mac, you wonderful dog, you are a comfort. "Comfort." She speaks the word aloud. But, then, at this exact moment, in the filtered sunlight, she is determined not to think of words. She strokes Macís head and shoulders, closes her eyes, drifts back. Signs to the left, signs to the right. She sees people, places, objects; days and nights pass by. She feels hot, then cold, wet then dry. Sun, moon and stars blend into one glow. She listens: sounds are missing, voices are silenced, the noise is of the silence. She recognizes, one after the other, the streets and avenues. She hears herself pronouncing the words on the road signs.
She has been down each one and back again. Is it her feet that are traveling so fast and easy along the road? She senses no contact or resistance. Then she wonders: am I the one in motion or is the road moving by my stationary body?
Her eyes open and close again. Leaves, bark, cobwebs. Then, she is back living in Los Angeles, when it was a sleepy, sprawling town, more then sixty years past. 1937 Myra Street.
Chapter 2 - 1937
She stands there looking up at the craftsman house. A cloudless day, the first in months, in the spring of the year. She will begin public school in the fall.
Her thoughts of the dark winter times have faded. She is out of doors, in the shadow of the parkway tree, looking to her right and left, up at the branches of the tree, then down to see a pair of roller skates dangling in her right hand, her fingers wrapped around the leather straps. On the end of each strap is a buckle. The straps are attached to her skates. The shiny metal ball-bearing wheels are still, waiting. On her feet are loose-laced Buster Brown heavy-duty shoes: reinforced metal tips covering the toes, metal plates on the soles, both front and back. But, something is missing.
She reaches up and touches her chest. Her skate key! It should be on a string hanging around her neck. In a flash she knows who has it. Where was he? He was not anywhere around! Not in the house, or the back yard, or in the garage. No! He is skating! She is not!
She is furious, so furious that she begins shouting and continues to shout his name, "Shelley! Shelóley, where are you? Bring back my skate key! Shelly, I know you took it, bring it back! Now! SHELLEY!"
She looks at the unscreened window of the house; expecting to spy a face, see the front door open. She waits and she looks, when no one appears, she pictures each of the three faces that could appear.
Thinking: brown face with black hair would smile at me, disappear, open the front door, walk to my side with soft wise words. If itís a brown haired white face there would be a smile, a nod, the front door would open gently and this one would also move to me, to comfort and embrace me with reassuring arms. But, if a white face with blond hair appears there would be no smile. The pale face would disappear, the front door would be thrown open and I would hear the sound of my name shouted in accusing tones from the porch.
Her first choice, the one she hoped to see at the window, was the brown face of Jonnie Mae. Jonnie Mae would move to open the front door, step across the porch, down the grassy path, to the sidewalk, and say, "Child, what are you squalling Ďbout? If you needs somethiní, go and get it direct, your shoutiní wonít do a thing but exercise your mouth. Your mom wonít have none of this shoutiní neither. Donít wake her up, make her upset."
Then I would say, "Iíll quit shouting! But, Shelley has the skate key. My skate key! I know he does. He canít find his. He is so stupid but he knows that without a skate key I canít keep the skates on my shoes. Heís mean and selfish. Besides that he walks funny, big flat feet that point out like a duckís. I donít know why he has to live with us. You and Mommy and I should be on our own. Shelly and his mom donít need to live here." And Jonnie Mae would say, "Child, just get on with your business."
Second choice was the white face with the brown hair. Not only would she smile from the window --- it would be a worried smile, but still a smile--- she would come out of the house, down the steps to the sidewalk, consoling, "Sh, sh, sh, donít shout, youíll wake your mother. Tell Aunt Willa whatís wrong." I would tell her and then she would say, "Take my hand, baby, weíll walk together. Letís go and find Shelley and your skate key. Here, let me carry your skates. Youíre so little to be skating let alone searching around the block by yourself."
Her non-choice was the face she did not want to see: the white face with the blond hair; and no telling what would happen if she came out of the house. Look out me and look out Shelley!
Someone is home. Someone is always home. But no face comes to the window, no one opens the door and nobody comes out onto the front porch or down the path. "Skate key" has become more important then any other word; it is the only meaningful word that relates to an object of the highest value in her right-now life. Without it she is stranded. With it she could travel--- going every place in general, but no place in particular. Her mouth is set, she knows what she must do, what she expects of herself, the plan is simple: Find Shelley; Get the "skate key!"
First she puts her skates on the cement sidewalk. With both hands free she pulls up her socks, reties and double-bows her shoe laces, smoothes down her dress, sweeps her long dark curls away from her face, grabs her skates by their straps and sets out marching along the sidewalk, down the street, moving toward the corner, chanting, "Step on the cracks, Step on the cracks!" Pauses. Or is it "Donít step on the cracks?" She is kicking at stones with her steel tipped shoes, swinging her skates by their long buckle-ended straps, trying to remember the rest of the verse. Even before she can reach the corner she hears the sound of a truck. It must be Wednesday! And there it comes, moving along, stopping at each homeís curbside.
The two black garbage collector men are about their business: one is driving, the other standing on a shelf attached to the right side of the tailgate. Gracefully he reaches out with his right arm, his hand grabs the bail of the bucket in a nimble effortless movement that swings it in an arc over the back of the truck, the contents spilling out on the already high pile of garbage, disturbing only the flies that follow and ride along for the entire trip, and then the pail back on the curb only inches from its original position. She is always amazed watching their skill and efficiency. The men are her friends, each week she helps to put the garbage pail at the curb and waves to the men and each week they call out and smile back at her.
She must remember her focus, her mission ― finding Shelley and the skate key. Now, where would he be? Not at the corner house, the German family lives there. I like the lady, she makes pickled pigís feet. Weíre not supposed to go into that house, not to reach into the giant brine filled jar with our hands. Not to eat the pigís feet, I donít know why. I do talk to the lady, I reach into the jar to get one of the pigís feet, whenever no one is around to tell on meĺ and that no one is Shelley. And where is that big tattletale crybaby?
She walks on and on, up the street, peering into each yard. There are trees in the front yards and shade, lots of shade, cool dark shade. Time to rest and think away from the glare of the cement sidewalk. She puts her skates down by the Elm tree trunk, plops down, sitting with her legs crossed Indian fashion, all but disappearing into the shadows.
She reasons. I need to be ready. When I find Shelley, how will I get my skate key? What would Jonnie Mae say? I know, "Take care of your business. Do what you have to do." Aunt Willa would tell me that kindness is the best way. Be polite. Just walk up to him and say please, that you need the skate key and that we can share.
But, what if that doesnít work? I will be like mother. I will step out in front of him, plant my feet, my hands on my hips, give him the hard eye, put out my hand and wiggle my finger. Just stand, stare, wiggle that finger and wait. Which way is best?
And, then, she hears the sound of metal skate wheels grinding on the sidewalk. There he is! She does not move. She is watching him come closer. He rolls down the sidewalk. The key is dangling from its cord in his hand. She waits. Silently, she moves. Now she is standing.
She has picked up her skates. They are hanging from her hands at the end on their straps. He is just about to whiz past. Out she jumps, yelling ĺ "Shelley, you stop right here, give me back my skate key!" He is so startled that he doesnít see the crack in the sidewalk that catches one of the skate wheels and, zippo, he turns into a sack of spilled beans, all over the place, on his back like a turtle.
One skate is flopping around his ankle. The other is still attached to his shoe. She is standing over him. Her tiny figure is hovering over his large body. He twists and turns and manages to rise to a standing, lopsided position. "Give it to me!" She points to the object of her desire. The next moment she is on the ground.
Darkness overwhelms her: stars flash, oceans roar, bells ring, then silence. The sidewalk is so close. Her head is throbbing, her mouth hurts. She puts her free hand to the back of her head ― an egg-size lump. She rolls over to her left side and manages to get herself to a sitting position. She is alone. She had been reaching for her skate key. Shelley had pushed her. Where was he? She crawls over to the grass and into the shade. Her head is throbbing.
She thinks. If I were Shelley where would I be right now? What would I be doing? Hum, if I were Shelley. IĎd be hiding. Not too far away, but close by. Close enough to see me but not be seen by me. So. She looked around and she saw a perfect place for observation and concealment. It had to be the porch of this house. Thatís where she wouldíve hidden. But, she knew what he did not; that this front porch had only one entrance and one exit to the street. It would be a trap. If he were hiding there she would have to surprise him. He mustnít get away. He still had the skate key and now she had another score to settle.
She lifted herself up without a glance at the porch, walked up the street, then, hidden by big bushes, she dashed up the neighboring driveway, crouched in the protection of the dense shrubs. "Stop thumping heart, not so loud breath, heíll hear us." Nothing hurt! She surveyed the lay of the land between herself and the porch. Figured that crawling next to the house, screened behind the bushes, would conceal her until the final dash.
She begins a careful, sightless, soundless move back through the skate key battlefield and closer to the Shelleycave. She is stealth itself. Reaches the edge of the porch, pauses, peeks over from behind the red Camellia and letís her eyes adjust to the darker interior ─ she can see Shelley!
She makes out his crouched figure at the far end of the porch, his attention directed toward the street. Just keep it that way, fool, she is thinking as she picks up a dirt clod and then, barely moving her body, tossed it out to the street side of the house. Shelley leans forward, peering in the direction of the sound.
She made her move!
Stooped over ― feet moving ― head low ― she scurried from her porch corner to the entrance ― up the steps, to his corner, now she was the one hovering, her hand was out: ďGive me my skate key!Ē He tried to get to his feet. Not this time! Swish! Womp! Smack! The skates she still gripped by their ankle straps had come to life. His head is bowed and bloody, his feet are moving, the skate key is on the floor; crying, running, heís bleeding, screaming, ďIím gonna tell, Iím telling. ―Ē Down the porch steps, across the yard and up the street; she had never seen him move so fast. She hadnít thought that it was possible, not with big flat duck-like feet.
With great calm, dignity and pleasure she retrieves the dropped skate key from the dirt and leaves on the wooden floor. Sitting on the top step of the porch steps she places her skates on the ground, slips her heavy-duty shoes onto the metal platforms. She positions the closed wrench end of the skate key onto the toe-tightening bolts, first the right then the left. The toe holders glide into position between the shoe tops where they meet the sole. She turns each of the mechanisms until she is sure that the skates are on for the duration. She looks down at her feet. She smiles and thinks aloud, Iím on my way!
She slides her bottom down one step and stands; looks up, suspends the skate key necklace over her head and, like magic, the string becomes a rainbow colored ribbon, the skate key a silver star glistening in the sunlight. She lowers her medal of valor, lets the ribbon settle on her shoulders, runs her fingers along the material, the emblem comes to rest on her chest. With great ceremony she strokes her medal and then, as she has been taught, transfers the key from front to back. She takes her first steps and then glides onto the surface of the smooth pavement, feeling like the winged horse in her storybook.
But, she didnít get far before the picture of Shelley his face covered with blood floats up before her. She had, no, the skates had, cut his forehead open above his right eye. The magic skates were suddenly heavy, her feet and legs wooden, uncooperative. She tumbled off of her raceway onto the grass: I didnít want to hurt him so much. The skates did it! I did it too. We did it.
She can feel her legs and feet come back to life. She zips up the street, around the corner and there she is, in front of her house and there he is, crying, bleeding, pointing. Mother, Aunt Jean, Aunt Willa and Jonnie Mae appear.
There was enough ice for the both of them. They sat on the sofa nursing their wounds, he on one end and she on the other ― an ice pack on the front of his head, an ice pack on the back of hers. Sat there alone for a long time. Boredom. Then, she glanced over at his defeated figure and said softly:
"Shelley, hey, Shelley, want to go skating?"