Excerpt from Gutshot Straight

On the bus to L.A. he sat next to a tiny bird of a woman who seemed impossibly old, a hundred years at least. She was already asleep, snoring softly, when he took his seat.

Shake tried to figure out who he’d call when he got to L.A. He knew a couple of women who had nice places, and if they were still single he was pretty sure they’d put him up for a few nights. But if they were still single, that meant those few nights would be complicated. It was probably better, he decided, to find a cheap motel, maybe one near the beach, stay there while he lined up his next job.

His next job. After he got settled, he’d drop in on Frank. Frank was certain to have something for him, or know someone who did. Shake didn’t consider himself the best driver in the business – only assholes and beginners thought in those terms – but he knew a lot of people on the West Coast would be eager to hire him, now that he was in play again.

That thought should have made him feel good, had in the past, but right now it had the opposite effect. Here he was, forty-two years old, and what did he have to show for it?

Four hundred bucks, the clothes on his back, a key to a storage unit in Inglewood, and a path ahead, if he wasn’t careful, that looked a lot like the path behind.

He wondered where exactly in his life his shit had gone sideways, and why. It was hard to say. It hadn’t been a couple of momentous decisions that had determined the course of his life. No volcanic eruptions that altered and fixed his personal topography. Instead what happened were all the little decisions along the way, most of which he didn’t even at the time realize were decisions, the bits of coincidence and circumstance, good luck and bad, the steady slow accretion of rock and soil and sediment.

He needed a volcanic eruption. He needed to make a move. If he didn’t want to find himself back here on this bus again, ten years from now, ten years older, thinking these very same thoughts. Or dead. Or worse.

He had good ideas for the restaurant he wanted to open, and he knew he had the chops to make it work in the kitchen. But the business end, the money, permits, partners, the ridiculous odds against just staying above water – Shake tensed up just thinking about it.

You had to be young, he supposed, to enjoy a volcanic eruption. Young or dumb or convinced of your own miraculous ability to beat the odds. Shake was none of those, unfortunately.

The old lady in the seat next to him stirred and woke. She clutched her purse in her lap with small veiny hands and examined Shake with the clearest blue eyes he’d ever seen.

“I suppose you just got out of prison,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

She nodded, satisfied, then proceeded to chatter cheerfully on for the next two hundred miles. She told Shake she visited her sister in Riverside every month. She told Shake she’d once been courted by Walt Disney. Which, in case Shake couldn’t figure it out, meant she’d had a fling with him. She told Shake she’d married a Marine the day after VJ day. They’d had four children, none of whom had turned out to be worth a damn. Those four children, however, had given her a dozen grandchildren, all of whom, surprisingly,
had turned out to be worth a damn. One was a mayor of a small city in Arizona. Her husband had passed years and years ago, when LBJ was still president. She learned to be independent, something her own mother had never been.

“I suppose you expect me to give you some wise advice or such,” she said.

“I wish you would,” Shake said. “I could use it.”

“I don’t have any advice to give. You pick out the kind of person you want to be, then you try your best to be that person.”

“I think that’s pretty good advice.”

She scoffed, as if she thought he was humoring her. Which he wasn’t.

When they finally reached L.A., well after dark, he helped her down off the bus and carried her suitcase to a waiting cab.

She gave Shake’s forearm a surprisingly strong squeeze and looked at him with her clear blue eyes.

“You’re on parole?”

“No, ma’am, I’m free and clear.”

“Get a haircut. You’re a good-looking fellow. You’ve got good-natured eyes and a nice nose. But you look like you got your hair cut in prison.”

He smiled. “That I did.”

“You have a girl?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Had one?”

He thought he knew what she meant.

“I’m not sure.”

She scoffed. “You’d be sure.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Stay that way.”

“Free and clear?”

“Bingo.”

He watched the cab drive her off. When he turned away, he discovered that a long black limo had eased silently up to the curb next to him.

No one knew where he was, no one knew he was even out of prison. Why, then, was Shake not surprised when the tinted back passenger window melted slowly into the doorframe and he saw Alexandra Ilandryan smiling out at him.

“Hello, Shake,” she said.

“Hello, Lexy.”

“You are surprised to see me?”

Shake shook his head.

“You are happy to see me?”

That one was more complicated. He gave her a wink.

“Depends,” he said, as she popped the door open for him.