“The Cadence of Waves” by Trent Hudley
Each year, the Missouri Review honors one fiction writer from the previous volume year by awarding them the William Peden Prize in fiction, named in honor of the late William Harwood Peden, a past associate editor of TMR, professor of literature, and proponent and practitioner of the short-story form. The winning story is chosen by an outside judge. This year’s winner, chosen by novelist Alix Ohlin, is Trent Hudley for his story “The Cadence of Waves” (TMR 44:4). The story is a powerful evocation of the bonds and obligations of family and the impact of random violence on individual lives.
Of the genesis of the story, Hudley says, “This story was simply inspired by a particularly penetrating and affective experience I had on the beach in San Francisco one early morning. The location of the story is real, and the motel is based on the motel I stayed in the night before the beach experience, but everything else just blossomed from the story as I tried to write about the ocean Once I started writing, it went were it wanted to go.”
The Cadence Waves
Leon showed up the day of the blackout in December of 1998, toward the end of some extreme El Niño weather we’d been having all year. It was actually snowing that day, big white flakes, like stars falling from the sky, that stuck to people’s hair and clothes but melted as soon as they settled on the sand of the beach and the street. He had come to apply for a maintenance job my father had posted in the San Francisco Chronicle. My father owned the Ocean Beach Motel, in San Francisco’s inner Sunset section, just two blocks from Ocean Beach. Not the most original name by any means, but he ran it well.
I was nineteen years old. My mother had been dead eight years. The maintenance job was dirty and thankless, and we could never keep it filled. My father interviewed Leon in the dim light and shadows of flashlights and candles. He looked at Leon over the top of his glasses each time he described a required duty. Leon listened attentively and nodded. The job didn’t pay much, but it included a room and free rent. It demanded work on the weekends and, during the summer tourist season, sometimes seven days a week. Leon took the job and started that day. Not many tourists stayed there. It wasn’t what you would call a four-star vacation spot. It was a cheap motel for travelers on a budget and home to a group of oddball people who were in transition in their lives or had given up and accepted that where they were at was the best they could do. Some travelers loved the place, and others hated it. I think the people who liked it liked it because it had a sort of dive-like comfort that was down-to-earth and unpretentious. It might have appealed to some romantic, bohemian idea they had about traveling, a European hostel-like feel, maybe. The people who didn’t like it probably didn’t like it for those same reasons.
The motel had sixteen rooms. It had been apartment buildings at the turn of the twentieth century but had been renovated and remodeled a dozen or more times before my father bought it in 1993. We shared the building with a bar called the Pittsburgh Pub. It was owned by a friendly guy named Ed Fisk, who actually was from Pittsburgh. He’d been running it since 1972. It occupied a quarter of the lower southwest side of the building. Most of our live-in tenants spent their nights and weekends there. Leon’s room was on the bottom northwest side of the building. It wasn’t a grand room, but it was comfortable. It had a queen bed, a TV, a microwave, a small fridge, a few pictures of flowers and landscapes, a mirror, a chest of drawers, two nightstands, and, of course, a bathroom and shower. There was no kitchen, so when Leon didn’t eat out or come to our place, he cooked his meals on a single-burner electric hot plate. He didn’t seem to mind.
I was just starting my first year at USF when Leon started working for us. I was a civil engineering major. It was what my father had wanted. It was what he had been and was the same type of work his father had been involved in. It was practical, important, and would provide me with a good standard of living to support a family as well as leave me with a nice pension when I retired. That was what he told me, and it sounded good to me, so I registered it as my major because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
The only thing I really liked to do then was smoke pot and jog. I’d joined the cross-country running team in eleventh grade. Smoking and running just went together, I thought then. It gave me what I thought was perspective: a sort of objective lens to look through. I was very aware of my body when I ran, aware of my feet in contact with the earth. I could feel the long evolution of my foot progressing from heel to toe, each point in contact, then released from the ground in quick succession. I felt the energy from the force of the impact travel through my legs with each contraction and extension of my muscles, through blood vessels into my belly, to my chest and arms and neck, blood flowing, lungs breathing, heart pumping, pumping, pumping. I felt the cool air on my skin. I felt still and peaceful. No strife, no worries. And at that time, it was the only thing I enjoyed doing because it was the only thing that made me feel anything. In the morning, I’d walk to the beach, smoke a joint, then run along the edge of the ocean. In the evening, after I finished my homework and if I didn’t have practice, I’d do the same. Then I’d go home to eat, do homework, read a science fiction novel or some comic books or maybe watch TV for about an hour, then go to sleep. It was a comfortable, routine existence that suited me fine.
My father introduced me to Leon after he hired him, but we hardly talked the first three or four months. Of course, we were cordial to one another: good-mornings, -afternoons, and -nights, nods of heads, waves of hands, but that was about it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him; I was just intimidated by him, and I didn’t think he liked me. He was a tall, silent man with a bald head and hazel eyes and a Roman nose that made him look like a Maasai warrior. He wasn’t muscular, but he was fit, in his early to midforties. For the most part, he kept to himself, but he was hardworking and dependable. I can’t count the times my father woke him up in the middle of the night to relight a furnace or hot-water heater, fiddle with a fuse box, unplug somebody’s toilet, or deal with some other problem. But Leon never complained. He did what he had to do with a silent determination.
Once in a while I would see him through the door as I walked by, in Pittsburgh’s after work, sitting in the back of the bar sipping a beer and reading a book or the newspaper. He wore glasses when he read, those cheap readers. Other times I might see him getting off the bus with his groceries that he carried in a small, worn canvas bag that he slung on his shoulder. At night you could smell strong, earthy, herbal scents coming from whatever he was cooking, or you might hear the muffled sounds of gunshots coming from the TV from some old Western he was watching. Other than that, for those first few months he mostly stayed in his room. I liked that I couldn’t place him, that he didn’t fit into any category. He was a bit threatening, though the threat didn’t come from the fear of bodily harm but from my own feeling of my lack of character. He had a confidence that intrigued me. He walked through life like he knew exactly what he wanted and like he knew things—things other people didn’t know and would never know; that knowledge made him seem like something more, something better than most everyone else. He was detached and above it all. I wanted to be like that.
When Leon first started working for us, there were seven people who rented rooms on a weekly basis. Eight when Mrs. Devire came back home to her husband for a week or two at a time. Soon they’d get in a fight, and he’d beat her up, and then she’d disappear. Then Mr. Devire, with black, baggy, circles under his eyes and the grime from whatever day-labor job he had gotten still caked in the furrows of his brow, sat in the bar all night, whining about how much he missed her. These were the types of people who stayed at our motel. Most didn’t stay long—two to eight months maybe.
Sometimes it got a bit crazy, though. The drunks fought, and we’d have to call the cops. The Devires fought, and we’d have to call the cops. Some tenant begged money from or annoyed a guest, and they’d want us to call the cops. My father had to argue with customers about refunds. It was always something. And because Leon kept to himself, rumors started about him. Of course, there was the trite tale of him being on the lam. This was Devire’s eternal narrative about new people who took up residence at the motel. Anyone who didn’t fit immediately into his sphere of misery was always suspected of criminal intent. Someone said he was a method actor, slumming it to get into character. I heard once that he was a CIA agent sent to spy on us. Why the CIA would need or want to spy on a rundown motel full of drunks was never entertained in that discussion, but it was one of the more inventive stories. No one knew how or why he’d ended up at the Ocean Beach Motel, not even my father or I, but we never asked, and Leon never said.
The first time I really spoke with Leon was on the beach. It was a chilly early morning, gray skies and rough surf. A perfect morning. Weed, the lull of the waves, and the adrenaline from the run combined for one of those sublime moments of peaceful appreciation. I was walking along the beach back home when I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye, hidden a bit below two dunes. He was wearing a gray, loose-fitting sweat suit and sat facing the ocean like he was meditating. It struck me as strange because Leon didn’t seem the type to meditate. I had thought him a bit rough and rugged, like a character Denzel Washington might play in a movie. I stopped and stared at him, trying to fit meditation into my idea of him. Then he jumped up from his sitting position in one quick motion, like something had stung him. He grounded his feet in the sand and started to do what looked like tai chi, but the motions were quick and jerky—more aggressive, snappy armand-leg thrusts, but graceful too. A kung-fu ballet.
I watched him the full thirty minutes he did it. It was beautiful, but mostly I was still trying to get my head around the fact that it was Leon. He was a big man, about six-four, two hundred pounds, with a paunch. He looked like an ex-boxer or football player. I’d only seen him changing pipes or lightbulbs or carrying a broom and mop or doing some other menial task. This identity was incongruent with the image of him on the beach. But there he was, this large man, moving with grace and elegance. Yet it also made sense. It added to his privacy. When he stopped and saw me standing in the distance looking at him, he stared back. I was startled and embarrassed. I was sure he knew I had been watching him. I didn’t want him to think I was more of a weirdo than he probably already thought I was, so I waved to him, and he waved back. I called out good morning and walked toward him. We shook hands when I got to him. It was the first time.
“Was that tai chi?” I asked him.
“No, it’s a different art. It’s called baguazhang,” he said, drying the sweat off his neck and forehead with a small towel he took from the pocket of his sweats.
“OK. I’ve heard of it. Does it have to do with that yin/yang stuff?”
He smiled and nodded. “It’s a bit more involved than that, but basically, yes,” he said, picking up a jacket from the ground and shaking off the sand.
I asked him if he competed in martial arts tournaments. He said he didn’t. “I do it for the same reason you run and smoke that stuff,” he said.
I stumbled and shoved my hands in the pockets of my hoodie, and he kept on walking. He looked over at me and grinned. I lowered my head and looked at the ground while we walked. I didn’t know how to respond. I was scared, so I just walked along quietly, fidgeting with the knot in the string of my hood.
“You think my dad knows?” I blurted out.
“Probably. You can smell that stuff on you like cheap cologne. I figure he don’t care too much as long as you keep your act together.”
“He tell you that?” I asked.
“Not in so many words.”
“What do you mean?”
“He talks about you all the time, Jesse. He’s proud of you. You’re lucky to have an old man like that. He’s a good person. A human being, you know what I mean? I know what I’m talking about. I’m a good judge of character, and good is hard to come by,” he said.
We walked for a bit, not saying anything. The sound of the surf filled our silence. A thin, silvery fog was forming close to shore. On the horizon, dark clouds gathered, and the water looked black. A light mist fell; it felt refreshing on my face.
“You said I do . . . what I do for the same reason you do what you do. What’s that reason?” I asked.
He looked at me and smiled. “To feel like you belong in the world.”
My mother was shot in a convenience-store robbery on September 21, 1990. I was eleven years old. I was eating dinner at my cousin’s house: Kraft macaroni and cheese and pork chops, sitting in the dark in front the TV, watching Family Matters. I remember hearing my Aunt Louise, my mother’s sister, scream, “Oh, God, no! Please, no!” and the sound of the phone hitting the floor. Her voice sent a chill through me that I can still feel. My cousin Pierre dropped his plate and ran into the kitchen where my aunt was. I was numb, immobile, and I knew somehow this had something to do with me. I just sat there in the glow of the TV, trembling, too terrified to move, staring into the light coming from the kitchen.
Then Aunt Louise called me to her. Her expression was contorted, and tears fell from her face. Pierre had his arms wrapped around her waist and his face buried in her side. He kept repeating over and over, “What’s wrong, Momma? What’s wrong?” She knelt down, wrapped her arms around us, and pulled us close and tight into her. “Oh, Lord, baby, I’m so sorry,” she cried and placed her head against mine. “Your momma is gone, baby. She gone. My sister gone, Lord Jesus.” Then she fell limp and erupted into a deep, heavy, sorrowful sob. My cousin cried too, but I did not. I stood there with her arms around me and felt the world slide away.
My father moved us to San Francisco three years later. He had been reading a real estate magazine and saw that the motel was for sale and decided he wanted to buy it. He obviously wanted to get away from Denver and everything that reminded him of my mother’s death, but I never figured out why San Francisco, why a motel. It was probably a decision that carried with it all sorts of half-thought-out ideas and plans—irrational, perhaps, but driven more by a sense of unrealized hope than by certainty.
There was a desperation in its abruptness, and our family on both sides tried to talk him out of it. He had never been a spontaneous man. He was deliberate and practical most of the time. He had been in the air force, and he had that resolve and drive that some ex-military people have. He was steadfast, and they knew that once he had decided something, he was going to do it no matter what. Pierre asked me how I felt about moving, and I told him I really didn’t care. I couldn’t articulate it then, but what I meant was, it was just another unexpected thing that interrupted the course of life. I had resolved that this was what happened, that this was what life was: a succession of suffering with brief moments of respite. It was those brief moments I was wary of. To think otherwise was naive and dangerous.
After that day, I knew that anything could happen at any time. Anything. Your mother could be shot in the chest at a 7-Eleven; a coworker could walk into an office building and gun down your sister or brother and eight other people; someone could snatch your child; the plane you were on could crash in the middle of the ocean; you could lose your arm in a factory accident, go blind, get cancer, plummet through a windshield in a car crash, any and everything. There wasn’t a goddamn thing you could do about it. It was like the sun. It was going to be there burning and hot for the rest of your life. It was what I had come to expect. Nothing more, nothing less. I’d learned not to hope.
My father was not necessarily affected by the strife of the world. It was an abstract idea to him, something that could sometimes be avoided yet had to be weathered when it happened, and then you moved on. It was easy for him, an equation to be figured out. His bulwark was his family, my mother and me. It was what kept him going. My parents had had that rare relationship in which they were truly friends and genuinely liked each other. There were arguments, of course, but to my dad they were just problems to solve, and they did. Neither of them harbored resentment. He adored my mother and me. I still remember the way he would stare at her for long moments and tell her how fine she was. It wasn’t just every once in a while; it was on a regular basis. Or he’d walk by, thinking I didn’t see, and she’d squeeze or pinch his butt. They’d sit together on the couch and fall asleep watching TV; they’d cook together, sit in bed and read together. They bought each other elaborate gifts, and they spoiled me.
So when that was taken from him, my father didn’t fall apart or become a drunk; he didn’t fall inside himself and disappear from me or the world; he became task oriented. He worked overtime, had me join clubs and camps and groups, helped me work on school projects and homework; he painted and remodeled the house; he did odd jobs for family members, took classes in ethnic cooking at the free university; he didn’t stop, and no one tried to stop him because we knew if he stopped, he’d detonate. And although it was sad and unexpected when he told everyone we were moving to San Francisco, it was not surprising. It was just another project.
But he wasn’t stone. Sometimes at night I would hear him weeping. And on my first day of school in San Francisco, he sat on my bed, his eyes red and wet, held my face in his hands, and looked into my eyes, smiling and tearing up. “You do good, OK? You always do good and be yourself, OK. It’s OK to be happy, Jesse. Don’t let nobody mess with you. You’re a Turner. You’re my boy, my son, and I love you.” He leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead, then pulled me into him so tight and long that I thought he was trying to absorb me. I started to cry and told him I wanted to stay with him, and he held me tighter and said he knew how I felt but that the world was waiting for me, to get to know who I really was, and it would be wrong for him not to give the world that gift.
Once a year on the anniversary of my mother’s death, my father would make the two of us dinner. Ribs, greens, potato salad, deviled eggs, and roasted corn on the cob. It was his favorite meal; it was what she’d made him on his birthday. Every year he would cook, get a bottle of scotch and drink it with milk, because that had been her favorite drink. We ate, and he would get drunk and tell me stories about my mother. Every year he ended up passing out, and I’d cover him with a blanket wherever it was he fell asleep, usually in his armchair in front of the TV but sometimes in his bed or at the kitchen table. The next morning, he’d get up, and everything would be back to normal. The night before was never mentioned. He never talked about my mother during the rest of the year. We did this every year until he died.
The first time he let me get drunk with him was the first time he invited Leon over to eat with us. He’d come over to fix a leaky pipe in the bathroom, and Dad was grilling the ribs. His ribs weren’t quite up to par with Mom’s, and his greens were always undercooked, but he did his best. Leon smelled the ribs cooking and told Dad they smelled good, so my father insisted that Leon come and celebrate the tenth anniversary of his wife’s death.
Leon brought strawberry cheesecake from Shubert’s Bakery. When he walked through the door, Dad put a drink in his hand. “If you don’t drink, you do tonight,” he said. “That’s the deal if you stay. You gotta drink with us tonight.” Then he mixed a drink and handed it to me. “Tonight only, you understand?” I looked at him, a bit astonished. “Go ahead, boy, take it. But like I said, this is a license only for tonight. Don’t let me find out you doing it otherwise, hear me?”
I took the drink. It felt awkward in my hand. Dad held up his drink, and Leon held his glass up against Dad’s. They looked at me, and I stood there holding my glass with both hands against my chest. “Come on, boy, raise your glass. This is a toast to your mother. Raise that glass.”
I held my glass up. Leon and Dad closed their eyes, so I did too.
“To my best friend, wife, and mother of my son. I miss you, Nora.”
The three of us ate and talked about sports and news and told jokes and got drunk. Dad cut me off after two drinks. Leon stopped after three, but Dad kept going. We all helped clean up and put the dishes away. Leon brought out the cheesecake, made some coffee for me and himself, and made my father another drink.
“I always liked cheesecake,” my father said. “Nora was a sweet potato pie person. I love me some tapioca pudding if it’s done right. Your grandma, my momma, made some good pudding. Your grandma on your momma’s side couldn’t boil an egg. Your momma got her cooking skills from her daddy,” he said and took a bite of the cheesecake and washed it down with his scotch and milk.
He took out a picture of my mother he carried in his wallet. It was bent and crumpled along the edges, but the image was still clear. He handed it to Leon. It was a picture from some event Mom and Dad had gone to one night about two years before she was killed. She was in a black floor-length evening gown with a pearl necklace and her hair straightened down to her shoulders like she was posing on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. She was that beautiful and elegant.
“Yes, sir,” Leon said. “She is a very beautiful woman. Thank you for sharing this day with me.” He handed the picture back to my dad. Dad stared at the picture.
“Never saw a woman more beautiful before or since I laid eyes on her. She was stunning. And I mean that. Sometimes I’d come downstairs, and she’d be doing some chore, or I’d come in after work and she might be watching TV or reading the paper, and I’d stop and just have to look at her and convince myself that this woman was really sitting there in front of me, that she was real, because I couldn’t believe that someone so incredible could be part of my life.
“She was gorgeous for sure, and she was so damn kind. Nothing about people really bothered her. I mean, she’d get annoyed like everybody else, but she always had an ear for people who needed to talk. And she was smart; that’s where this boy gets his mind from,” he said, pointing at me. Leon just nodded and continued listening. “So much smarter and nicer than me, that’s for sure. She was genuinely good, man, do you know what I’m saying? I have never met another human being that was honest-to-God good and happy and kind, just naturally, and she made me want to be good and kind, and . . .” He trailed off and finished his drink. He handed the glass to me, and I got up to make him another one.
“Then she was gone. Just gone from the world for no understandable reason, her life just gone. And for what? Seventy-three goddamn dollars.” He slammed his fist on the table. He put his hands behind his glasses and covered his eyes and started to sob. I reached for him, but Leon waved me away and silently mouthed, “Let him be.” I started to cry too. But I was crying for myself, for what I missed, what had been taken from me. So was Dad, but the way he was crying made me feel as if his tears were for something more, something absent not just in his life but in the life of the world too.
After about a minute or so he sat up, dried his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt, and straightened his glasses. He looked at both of us and gave us a thin smile, then stood up.
“Well, young men, it’s time for me to go to bed. I’m tired and got things to do tomorrow.”
He shook Leon’s hand and thanked him for the cheesecake and went into his room and closed the door.
After that first night, Leon came over for dinner twice, maybe three times a month. We’d switch off cooking. He usually cooked a vegetarian meal, my dad cooked chops or steaks, and I did tacos. I began going out with Leon in the mornings. He’d do his baguazhang, and I’d do my running, and we’d walk back to the motel together.
One Saturday morning he had finished his practice, and he was sitting in an indentation against a dune looking out over the ocean. When I got closer I saw that his eyes were closed. I thought he might be meditating, so I didn’t say anything and just sat down next to him. After about five minutes he opened his eyes and looked at me.
“You ready to go?” I asked.
“You go on,” he said. “I’m gonna sit back here for a bit. I mean, you don’t have to go. I don’t want to hold you back waiting for me if you have things to do, though.”
I shrugged and shook my head to signify I had nothing better to do. We sat and watched the waves. It was a cool, overcast day. A mercurysilver sky defined the horizon from the dark gray of the sea. The water was rough, and small swells rolled in, white and foamy against the sand. The wind and the surf combined into that soft, sleepy sound that lulls one into those rare moments of real contentment.
“So, did you really never compete in martial arts?” I asked him.
He shook his head and continued looking at the ocean. “It’s not about that,” he said.
“So you’re more into the mystical, spiritual aspects?”
He looked out at the water for a moment, then turned to me and shook his head again. “No. There’s nothing about what I do that’s mystical or Zen or any of that other crap you see on TV or in the movies. It’s just simply listening. Tuning out the noise of people. Look out there, Jesse. We are at land’s end. I like what that sounds like. The end of the solidity and definition in a way. That puts things into perspective for me. The land is crowded. All the noise and distraction is no type of life to have to live. Bombardment of radios, TVs, cell phones, this Internet thing, videos, movies, billboards, cars, buildings, yelling, crying, screaming. That shit hijacks our heads and turns our minds to jelly. We aren’t supposed to be like this. Why do you think we’re so angry, violent, sad, and afraid? There’s always been suffering, but this is different. We’ve sacrificed something really important to all that shit. Something vital and irretrievable.
“Here on the beach, the end of a continent, the edge of an ocean, water to the horizon, all that is evaporated. It’s like the fog here sucks it out of you, carries it out to sea. When I sit here, I can hear the water, the different sounds it makes when it mixes up. Each wave has a different sound when it breaks on the shore, when it breaks against a cliff or an outcropping of rocks. I can hear on the beach. And what I hear is stillness. Perfect stillness. And that means everything. When I’m here, I don’t have to hope. When I’m here, I know. Then I can go back to it all, the world, the people, and I can at least try wholeheartedly, try to live in that place. That’s all anybody can do is try. Sometimes it’s enough; sometimes it’s not.”
One Friday night, after the bar closed, the Devires were standing outside Leon’s door arguing. Mr. Devire was cursing at Mrs. Devire. He was loud and calling her vulgar names. She was just as loud and vulgar. A few of the other tenants opened their doors and yelled at them to stop. I got out of bed and looked out my window. I could see them standing in front of one another waving their hands and pointing at each other viciously. Then I saw Leon step out of his room. I opened my window.
“Hey, you two need to calm down. It’s two o’clock in the morning. No one wants to hear your noise, OK,” Leon said. He was shirtless, and under the glow of the night-light he looked as if he was sweating heavily.
Mr. Devire swung around and stumbled back. “Mind your business, janitor. You ain’t shit, and nobody wants to hear your shit. So fuck you.”
I could see Leon’s whole body tense, and he formed a fist and stepped forward.
“Kick his ass for me, handsome. Kick his ass,” Mrs. Devire said to Leon.
“I’ll kick your ass, you silly bitch,” Devire said and lunged at her and tripped.
“Devire!” I saw my dad stepping up in his robe with the cordless phone in his hand. “One more word out of you and I’m calling the cops, you hear me? Now get up and get in your room and be quiet. I won’t tell you again.”
Devire glared at my father and stood up and stumbled backward. He looked at Leon and frowned. Mrs. Devire walked up to Leon and tried to hug him. “Thank you, baby,” she said. Leon turned away and walked over to my father. “You can stay with the janitor tonight, bitch, because you sure as hell ain’t staying in my room,” Mr. Devire yelled. Mrs. Devire looked over at Leon and my father. They turned away and went into our house.
I was standing in the kitchen drinking a soda when they walked in. My dad offered Leon some green tea with honey and lemon. Leon was sweating, and his eyes were watery and red.
“What’s up, Rocky?” I said, joking. “Why you wanna go around beating up harmless old drunks, man?”
He shot me a look and said, “Harmless, my ass. People like the Devires are rotten and as common as dirt. They think the world owes them something. They shit on anything and everyone.” His shoulders were taut, and spittle flew from his mouth. His left hand rested on the counter clenched in a fist, and he held his right hand behind him, kneading the muscles in his neck.
“Those people feed on misery; they’re black holes that suck up anything good in the world. Erosive. Parasites. But what’s more disgusting and pathetic is that they don’t even know what they want. They’re smallminded, weak-hearted, wretched creatures. They are not harmless, Jesse. They are dangerous, and you should hate people like that.”
“No reason to hate other people’s pain when we all got enough of our own,” my father said. He handed Leon a cup of tea with a spoon in it. Leon looked down and stirred the tea.
“Everyone suffers. It’s how you deal with it that matters,” said my father.
“That’s just it, Mr. Turner. They don’t deal with it. They want to make everyone else suffer because they do. I got no time for people like that.”
I stood there for a minute in the silence, watching Leon stir his tea. His eyes were wide and wild-looking, and he shook a bit. I had never seen him act like that, and it made me nervous. There was a feeling in the room that made me shiver. I told Leon I was sorry and that I had just been joking.
He looked at me with a pained look on his face. “I’m sorry, Jess. I’m just tired, and I’ve got some stuff on my mind. I know you were joking. Don’t pay me no mind tonight, OK? I’m just . . . tired. Get some sleep, man,” he said and patted me on the back. “I’m sorry, Mr. Turner. I didn’t mean nothing by all that,” I heard him say to my father before I shut my door.
On another night, about eleven o’clock, I was coming home from a movie. I walked up to Leon’s room and stood outside the door. I heard the TV. I was about to knock, but I heard him talking. I was being nosy and wanted to hear if it was the woman I had seen him with. She was a waitress at a restaurant he often went to in Chinatown. I had only seen him with her a couple times. I hadn’t approached him either time. I knew he was a private person, so I didn’t want to overstep my bounds. But that night, I wanted to know if she was there, because that would have meant the relationship was a bit more involved than just walking and talking in Chinatown. I felt guilty and started to walk away, but then I heard him start to cry. It was a deep, sorrowful sobbing, a chilling sound. I felt I should knock and see if he was all right, but I was afraid. What could make Leon cry like that? I didn’t want to know. The sound echoed in my head. It fell on me like a physical weight. What in the world could make Leon crumble too?
I went to my room and put on my headphones, but the music couldn’t drown out the sound in my head. There was sorrow so deep in that sound that I thought I might disappear into it. It echoed in the quietness of the night, as if it came from everywhere and everything. Personal and impersonal at the same time. At the center of it was a screaming white noise, violent and crushing. I remembered it all.
The next morning, I left to run before Leon woke up. I didn’t want to see him. The sun had not completely risen yet, and fog drifted along the beach. The ocean was fairly calm. Small waves uncovered tiny creatures, and plovers scurried around snatching them up. I stopped and sat among the dunes to watch the birds. There was a cool breeze blowing off the water. The calm, lapping rhythm of the waves lulled me into a place that felt like that state between being half awake and half asleep. I watched a freighter in the distance, its metal bulk small upon the dark water of the Pacific. It was leaving port and heading into that silvery void to some other land. I watched it until it disappeared into the thick white offshore fog.
About three weeks later I was awakened at three thirty in the morning by a loud scream. It was pitch black in my room, and I jumped out of bed in a panic. Mrs. Devire was yelling for help again. Then I heard Mr. Devire’s voice and the breaking of glass. I met my dad on the way out the back door. Devire was standing over his wife with a broomstick, hitting her in the back as she cowered on the ground. My dad told me to stay put and rushed over to the Devires, but before he got there, Leon shot out of his room and grabbed Devire’s arm. With one motion, he picked him up, flipped him over his shoulder, and threw him onto the ground. We all stopped, amazed at what we had just seen. Mrs. Devire was still screaming, but we weren’t paying any attention to her. We were watching Leon. He picked Devire up by the collar and flung him against the fence. Leon punched him in the face three times, hard and fast. Devire slumped against the fence, and Leon grabbed him by the throat and was about to punch him again, but my father ran over and threw his arms around Leon. He broke out of my father’s grip and turned around with fist raised and a rage on his face that caused my father to back away. Then he recognized my dad, and his expression changed to horror. He backed away and fell against the fence next to Devire. Devire wasn’t moving. His head was flopped over to one side, and blood streamed from his nose and mouth.
Mrs. Devire shut up when she saw him. Then she screamed again, ran over to him, and cradled him in her arms. She slapped his face a few times, but he didn’t move. Leon scooted away from them and stared at Devire. We all stared at the motionless body on the ground. There was a long, still silence. Then Devire groaned and turned his head up and looked at his wife. We all breathed again. Leon stood up and, with his head lowered, walked into his room and closed the door. My father came over and put his arm around me. I looked around and saw the old couple who had checked in earlier that day standing on the balcony, looking down at us as if stricken. I started toward Leon’s room, but my father stopped me and told me to leave him be.
Ten minutes later, the parking lot was bathed in the blue and red flashing lights of police cars. Devire had called the cops and told them he had been assaulted. When I went outside, Leon was cuffed, and two cops, on either side of him, were leading him to a car. He didn’t have on a shirt or shoes. Two cops stood by the car and helped shove him inside. One questioned the Devires, and a sixth cop stood with her arms folded, watching the people who had gathered around gawking at the scene. I ran out toward the car Leon was in.
“He didn’t do anything,” I said. “He was protecting her. Devire was beating her up, and Leon stopped him.”
Two cops stepped forward. I stopped.
“Boy, get your ass back over here now,” my father yelled. I walked back to my father. He grabbed the back of my neck hard and pressed his fingers into my muscles so that I had to turn and look at him. “Don’t you ever, in your entire life, run up on a cop like that again. Do you understand?” he said and squeezed my neck harder and shook me a bit. “OK, OK,” I said and pulled away from him, rubbing my neck.
One of the cops came over and started questioning us. We told her that Leon had stopped Devire from beating his wife. That was all.
Around eight o’clock the next night, my dad got a call from Leon asking if he could borrow some money for bail. We were about to leave when my father asked me to go get Leon a shirt, shoes, and a coat. He also told me to see if I could find Leon’s wallet and get his ID. He said the cops might need it for something, and if not, Leon would probably want his wallet anyway.
I let myself into his room with the master key. I saw his wallet sticking out from a pair of pants draped over the back of a chair. I grabbed it and looked inside, but there was only forty-two dollars and some old receipts in it. I figured the ID might be in a drawer, but I didn’t know which one. I rifled through the chest of drawers but didn’t find it there. On his nightstand was a folded, fading Polaroid picture of Leon and a gorgeous little girl. I had been in his room several times to watch cowboy movies with him, but I had never seen a single photograph. The girl was about seven or eight with a head full of wild, curly, light reddish-brown hair, what my grandma used to call brique. She was sitting on his lap, looking up at him with a smile as wide as a happy Buddha. Leon was younger; he was smiling; he looked bright and happy. I had never seen Leon with a smile that big. There was joy on his face. He had hair, a short fro mostly hidden beneath a black beret. He wore a black T-shirt under a black leather jacket. He was leaning down with his forehead pressed against the girl’s forehead. Her little hand rested on his cheek. I was thinking she might be a niece or a friend’s child, but the longer I looked, the more it became unmistakable that she looked just like him. In the three years I had known him, he’d never mentioned a child or any other family.
I set the picture back on top of the book and opened the top drawer of the nightstand. Inside was a gun, a .38. I just stared at it a moment. Then picked it up. I hadn’t touched a gun since my grandpa, my father’s dad, had taken me to hunter safety class when I was nine. It felt heavy and cool. I opened the cylinder. There was a single bullet in it. I suddenly felt cold, and a shiver shot up my back. I pulled my shirtsleeves over my hands and polished away my prints, put the gun back in the drawer, and closed it. I was sweating. I opened the bottom drawer, and his ID wasn’t there. I turned to leave and stepped on a page from a newspaper next to the bed. I heard a cracking sound and reached down and picked up the paper. Underneath it was a cracked mirror with some white powder, half a plastic straw, and Leon’s ID next to it. I put the paper back on top of the mirror, grabbed a shirt and shoes, and left. I told my dad I couldn’t find the ID.
On the ride back from the jail, we were all silent. Leon sat up in the front with my dad, staring out the window. I sat in the back doing the same. My dad pulled into a donut shop.
“Come on, fellas, let’s get something sweet and fattening, my treat.”
Leon didn’t move but just continued looking out the window as if he didn’t hear. Dad and I got out of the car and stood there waiting for him to get out. I tapped on the glass, and Leon opened the door then, without looking up. He got out of the car and stood next to it, staring into the store.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Turner. I hope you don’t take offense. I just want to be alone for a bit if that’s OK with you.”
“Of course, brother. You do what you need to do to take care of yourself. We’ll see you later. You want me to get you something for later?”
Leon shook his head, and my father nodded. He walked off up the street, and we watched him until he disappeared.
The next day, Leon and I didn’t meet to go to the beach. Actually, we quit meeting at all. Every day he just went about the business of doing his job. He didn’t seem sad; he didn’t seem happy. He wasn’t mean or detached, but neither was he overly friendly or warm. He did his job and stayed in his room. He did this for about a month. I’d go over and try to get him to go out or sit and watch a Western, but he always said he was tired and was just going to relax. He didn’t come over to eat with us anymore.
One morning I woke up to go jog and found an envelope on the floor that had been pushed underneath the back door. I picked it up and opened it. There was money in it, a thousand dollars: ten new onehundred-dollar bills. Folded around the money was a note.
Mr. Turner. Here is the money I borrowed for bail. Thank you. You are a kind man. I am sorry I caused you the trouble I did. It was never my intention to bring any type of misery to you and Jesse. I am sorry to leave this way as well, but things are the way they are, and that’s the way they will be. I have a guy coming by to interview for the job. I didn’t want to leave you hanging like that. I think he will be a good fit. He’s a hard worker. Doesn’t drink or anything. I’m a good judge of character, and I know you’ll like him. Thank you for everything you have done for me. It was truly appreciated. Give my best to Jesse. Leon
I took the envelope to my father. He sat up in bed and read the note. He nodded his head as he read. “He’s a good man. We’ll miss him,” Dad said. He handed me the envelope and asked me to put the money in the safe. Then he lay back down and told me to turn the light out and close the door. “Enjoy your run, son,” he said before I closed the door. We never heard from Leon again.
My father died my senior year in college. He was only fifty-three years old. I went to wake him up one morning, and he was dead. The coroner said he’d died in his sleep of heart failure, more than likely painlessly. There were no indications that he was sick; he had seemingly been healthy all his life. He had just had a heart attack in his sleep and died. It was as simple and strange as that. My grandmother said he left to go see my mother because he knew I was going to be all right. I like to entertain that idea once in a while.
He was buried in Denver next to my mother. It was great to see all my family again. We had kept in touch after we moved, of course, but it had been about nine years since all of us had been together. It made burying him easier. For all intents and purposes, I was alone in the world. Both my parents were gone. I had no siblings. My grandma on my mom’s side and Aunt Louise tried to convince me to move back to Denver. They said it wasn’t healthy for a person to live on their own without any family around. I probably would have if I hadn’t needed to finish school and take care of the motel, but it had become my responsibility, and I had to do the right thing. Plus, San Francisco had become my home.
I finished college, and my cousin Pierre came out and helped me get everything together after I sold the motel. I transferred to Berkeley for grad school. I got a PhD in environmental engineering and met my wife, Sylvia. She was working on a PhD in mathematics. After we graduated, we lived in Albany for a while. Then I got a job for the government; she teaches at USF. We moved to Napa and had two kids, two boys, Aaron and Alex. They are nine and seven, and as I watch them growing up, I am thrilled and terrified. They are great kids, smart and friendly, like their mother in that way. I hope I am a good father. I try to be. I often wish my parents were alive to give me advice, but I don’t know how much that would matter. My children are themselves, and I am me, and we are all different, and our lives will be what they will be. I will be there for them when they need me.
I still jog, but I don’t smoke anymore. I like to run along the bank of the Napa River. It’s not the ocean, but in places the rushing of the water over stones or against the bank is still calm and peaceful. Often when I run, I think about Leon. I wonder what happened to him. I like to imagine he is doing well, that he has found some place in the world. But more often, I wonder if he is still alive. If he is, I wonder if he thinks about us, my father and me, and does he miss us like I miss him at times. I think about the night I heard him weeping, the picture of the little girl and the ID beneath the newspaper. I try not to, but those types of things always stay inside you and live on their own.
The other morning, I got an early start. Thick white clouds began to gather and sat heavy above the world. After about a mile, thunder sounded in the distance. I slowed my pace and watched the sky turn dark. It began to rain. It felt cool on my skin, and I thought about my family. My mother and father gone. My wife and children here. Leon. I picked up my pace to try to match the flow of the water. The rain fell harder and formed small streams on the path that snaked their way into the silvery water of the river as it flowed south on its course to the bay. I was aware of my feet in contact with the earth; I could feel the long evolution of my foot progressing from heel to toe, each point in contact, then released from the ground in quick succession. I felt the energy from the impact travel through my legs, through blood vessels into my belly, to my chest and arms and neck, blood flowing, lungs breathing, heart pumping, pumping, pumping.
Trent Hudley is the author of the short-story collection One of These Days, published by Veliz Books. He currently teaches creative writing courses at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver, Colorado. He has recently been published in The New Feathers Anthology, the Pandemic Press, and Welkin: A Magazine of the Fantastic.