From the novel "From a Distant Place," by Don Carpenter, to be published in November by North Point Press, Berkeley.
THE TROUBLE WITH living too long is that the past starts throwing ghosts at you. Kitty Brown was always running into people from the past, and it was not always pleasant. Watching old boyfriends wither into old men wasn't so much fun. Of course some withered less than others, but she didn't see much of those. The ones who made good money, good marriages, the ones who could afford to keep trim and tan, the ones with manicured hands and deep, smooth voices, they disappeared, maybe into a world where everybody was like that, Kitty didn't know. She only knew they didn't come into where she worked.
Except this one, and when it was all over, she could have wished he had never walked into the Buttermilk Corner. She did not recognize him at first. His hair had been grizzled when she had known him in L.A. 20 years ago. He had been selling cars then, up on Sunset Boulevard, and she had been waitressing cocktails on Santa Monica at Teddy's, half a block from the Troubadour. Those had been great days, and Kitty remembered them and Dakin LeFevre very fondly. Dakin had been her boyfriend for nearly a year. He had been a big soft man with milky skin and a sweetness of disposition he tried to hide from everybody but her. Teddy's was a little bar next to the Trixie Motel, and the crowd was a mixture of salesmen from the motel and overflow from the Troubadour. It was a bad mix, because the salesmen and their girlfriends were more conservative, hard drinkers who dressed up to go out, even to a place like Teddy's, and the Troubadour leftovers were more hippie-like, dressed in bright-colored rags, with wild hair. Neither group took any trouble to hide their feelings about the other group. Kitty had to bust up a lot of fights, or almost-fights. She got pretty good at spotting trouble before it really got going, and putting her body between combatants. "Come on, fellas," she might say.
Dakin liked to sit where he could look out the window. He would have a couple of drinks before dinner, play a little liar's dice with friends, and then leave early. He would not be part of the hostilities. But when he started being interested in Kitty, he moved to the number one booth and began staying later. He had the usual old lines she heard so often, and it was amazing that men couldn't come up with anything new. With Dakin it was, "You remind me of somebody. Really. Give me time, I'll remember."
The first time he took her out they went to Pink's for chili dogs and beer, and then went walking up on Sunset. It had been a Saturday night, and so Sunset was jammed with kids from all over the Los Angeles Basin who dressed up as hippies and flocked to Hollywood. What struck her about Dakin was that he was so tolerant. He was dressed in a glen-plaid suit, she remembered, with a little skinny necktie, and kids would point at them and call them squares. He would laugh and point back, yelling, "Hey, got any spare change?" They spent the night together at the motel, because he had a wife somewhere, although he didn't admit this, and he had been very loving and affectionate without pretending to be in love with her.
Later in their affair he took her to better and better places, Dino's, the Imperial Gardens and all up and down La Cienega, and they would hold hands and gaze into each other's eyes, and he would tell her his big plans for the future. He was not always going to be a car salesman. He was well over 40, but his ambitions hadn't been squashed yet. He was going to start his own corporation some day and make a fortune. He was going to be smart, bide his time and not rush into anything. The field he was going to go into was the recreation field. That was where the future was, once they got over this war.
She hadn't thought anything of it at the time. Most of the men she knew had ambitions, foolish ambitions, but something to talk about, to plan on. Daydreams, mostly. Then he disappeared one day, and she didn't see him again until 20 years later and 400 miles north. He walked into the Buttermilk Corner at 1 in the morning, after the theater crowd had thinned out, but before the bar-closing crowd started coming in. The place was almost empty, and Kitty watched this distinguished-looking man come in and sit at the counter. She didn't recognize him. She only saw a tall, silver-haired, well-kept gentleman wearing a dark-brown cashmere sweater over a button-down shirt, open at the throat. He put on heavy horn-rimmed glasses to look at the menu, and when he put it down and she came over to him for his order, he looked up at her, his face calm and relaxed until their eyes met, and then he like to jumped a foot.
"Kitty? Kitty Brown?"
"Do I know you?" Kitty said.
He grinned beautifully, and she could not help noticing some gold in his otherwise perfect teeth. "It's me!" he said. "Don't you recognize me?"
"Not Dakin," she said.