For months after the funeral, Koorstad preferred to work late, sometimes all night at the office, sighing over this and that, checking what his assistants had prepared for him, reading cases. On this morning with ash and smoke in the air, he took a call and listened to his security chief:
“I’m sorry, Mr. Koorstad,” the man said. “They couldn’t save it. Unfortunately none of it at all.”
Koorstad thanked him in the practiced stoic tone he used for bad news, and sympathy. That meant his honeymoon photos and all the photos of his wife were gone, her scrapbooks and paintings, the bed where they slept, all her clothes, the scents she wore, his letters to her from when he was in the navy, and more than he was able to remember after forty eight years.
He slumped into the couch by the window with a beer from his refrigerator, and he could see right about where their house had been. His thoughts came slow and when he cried without tears or sound, he perceived the reaction as one that carried him outside into the warm gusty air to swoop down to the street, not at the rate of physics, but more as if he were under water entangled in seaweed. There he stayed, suspended. Although for only a second, the image seemed to last weeks, probably, or months, and when he tensed him his muscles to stop it, everything had changed.
While he pulled his coat off the hanger, he wondered if he'd ever see this office again, and transferred a nickel-plated Glock from a desk drawer into his pocket. The papers and legal briefs he’d spread across his desk looked foreign and he had no idea now what they pertained to. He could have taken his prized fountain pen but decided to leave it there, opened, ready.
The building security guard said hello softly in the parking garage and Koorstad handed him a hundred-dollar bill and as an afterthought, his own wristwatch, for which the man nodded solemnly. He probably knew. He looked as if he wanted to say something but didn’t.
Koorstad swung out the Pico exit and pulled a fresh beer bottle from his coat. He drove east toward Westwood Boulevard, to Motor, down to Venice, and east finally to Western and turned south. He’d twirled his radio dial until he found classical music, not that he loved it, but she had. In the moonless night, he passed in and out of darkness on the long blocks where the light of his headlights blurred in smoky fog.
If he’d been through these streets since his parents moved the family to Fullerton, he didn’t remember, but he’d seen enough maps to know where to go. From his house he’d looked out this way and imagined lives with no relation to his own. He was curious now, in place of feelings. When he stopped at traffic lights, he turned his head to look frankly at other drivers and passengers. They were all men between about sixteen and twenty five, and they stared back. He didn’t care what they thought or guessed about him. Once he saw their dark faces and their white corneas and dark pupils, he was satisfied until the next stop.
At one corner, two young prostitutes stepped toward his passenger door to get his attention. He stared at them, too, and happened to think they could be receptionists in his building. They smiled at him with indifferent eyes and asked him what he wanted. As the light changed, he handed another $100 out the side window where they could catch it. He didn’t look back.
Nothing was open except a bar every few blocks that operated after hours. On some corners, there was a teenaged lookout for a dealer or rock house nearby. They stood in total darkness and leaned into the light when a car came, just for an instant.
He drove on, past storefront churches, car repair yards, rib joints, bail bond offices, beauty salons, barber shops and vacant lots with tall grass, worn out chairs and old car tires. On the sidewalks there were a single pedestrian once in a while, or two. He only saw one bus the whole time. He was running out of beer and needed a cold six pack or a case.
He wanted to feel human but he could wait.
There was something his wife used to say: “There are two kinds of fools in this world: those who give advice and those who take it.” She could make it sound meaningful.
He passed a wide driveway to an apartment house were two dozen or so young men in sweatpants but no shirts milled around laughing, drinking beer and smoking grass. They saw him, too, and when he slowed down to stare, they yelled mocking humorous insults but he didn’t turn away.
“That Donnie Osmond here, man! Hey Donnie, bring that Marie down! That your fuckin’ car? Ain’t appropriate! Sissy like you need a Hyundai! Y’all undercover? Y’ll probably got a little Metro up your ass! Y’ll come down for some chocolate snatch? Y’ll must be Miami Vice, OK? We start y’ll up! Y’ll do it with Taylor Swift? Umm-hmmm! We trade you Oprah, all right? We down wit’ white peoples! We got probation officers! Ha ha ha!”
Suddenly one of them charged him and threw a bottle that crashed on his car roof. He accelerated and wished he could think of something to yell. Maybe they’d chase him. He gave the possibility no thought. He would have given them money, too, and he had no need for it.
But then he braked, opened his door, and laid a thousand dollars on the road. He honked his horn to say come and get it.
At Imperial Highway he turned left, toward Fullerton, technically, forty five miles east. There was a joke about a guy in La Habra telling another guy how to reach the Forum for a Lakers game. “Take Imperial all the way, and you can’t miss it.” His wife always laughed at that one.
He wanted to get on the San Diego Freeway: the 405. After about a mile, once he decided he wanted to get loaded, he turned right into a drive-in dairy and market with a Pakistani owner and his sons inside, open for business. He knew they wouldn’t sell him beer in the car, so he parked under their lights. He drove a Lamborghini and of course, several local kids walked over to look at it. He handed one kid a twenty, and another for his friend to watch it while he went in, and they agreed.
Inside he bought a six pack of 16 ounce Coors 16, paid, came outside and found more local people staring at his car, bigger guys, including one who tried the door handle. Koorstad drew his Glock and brushed past the local to get inside. The crowd stepped away but not far. At the driveway, he saw a kid and asked him, “Got any sticks? Weed?”
“You mean Thai?” the boy said.
“Grass. No. Chronic, OK?”
“Got four?” the man asked, and held out another fifty.
The boy handed him four from a tight plastic bag.
“Righteous,” the man said, as if to be sarcastic.
To impress the kids, he burnt rubber to start south and lighted himself up before he reached the Western on-ramp to the 405. He was grateful for the way his smoke calmed him, and he twirled the radio dial again. When he found a Mexican music station with thumping organ baselines in the songs, he decided to listen on the empty freeway except for huge trucks blazing past at seventy and seventy five MPH. He told himself if a cop stopped him for any reason, there would be a shootout. That was funny.
The third song in a left him depressed and he switched the dial off. He didn’t know what to do or where to go. His high school reunion had just been held two months ago, and he was the only known graduate of his school with a home in Bel Air. People asked him about that and they were interested. One of his old buddies had slapped his back, and one of the prettiest women winked at him, as if they’d dated once or something.
He wanted to be by the ocean. The few vehicles on this freeway made it freakish and he wanted to turn off for Coast Highway, but he didn’t trust himself until he reached the 55 Freeway in Irvine. They all used to come down here all the time. She used to laugh about people who lived all their lives in one place, within howitzer shell range. He liked it when she made fun of him.
Nothing looked the same on MacArthur or even in Corona Del Mar until he got past the Five Crowns. Even then there were too many lights, too much housing. They’re ruined it all, wrecked it. Maybe it would burn down, too.
He gulped the last of his Coors, and at least the air was cool down here, and fresh. Any number of people from his high school lived here. He would have looked down on a little just a week ago.
When he traveled down past Crystal Cove and the majestic sea hill to his right, he sensed his destination come into focus, and for the first time since before his security manager called, he felt anxious again.
He’d always come down to Laguna, his whole family, and before he was born, from town and USC, too. Even now the scenery was so familiar it was locked into his memory, or else really hadn’t changed so much. That is, the north end of town, where they liked to go. The final few quiet residential blocks before the turn off for Victor Hugo’s, with a different name now. He would like another reefer as soon as he got out, and he seldom even thought of the names of the coves
There were new houses, huge ones, built almost flush to each other, on the headland and down the lane. He ended up parking across someone’s driveway and didn’t care. Maybe they’d think he was Harrison Ford or Jeff Bridges and not have him towed, as if he cared.
The soft asphalt road beneath his feet felt the same as ever, atavistic, as it seemed. His lips smiled when he saw the entrance to the stairwell, each step covered in damp sand, and a thick dripping canopy of eucalypts above.
This was the part he loved most: the growing roar of the breakers as he descended, and luckily, high tide was coming in. In pitch darkness, he navigated by sound, step by step, careful not to stumble. The transformation was complete, into thick mist and blindness until his eyes adjusted.
He waited at the bottom until he had his firm sense of proprioception: sense of position in space. At peak high tide, the swirling rushing water reached the bottom step with a pounding insistence, and seemed to roll back down to the shoreline with a grudge. Now he could make out the outline of the sand, and then the rocky cliffs to his near right and distant left. He’d returned to a place he knew all his life, a place that received him if not with warmth, then with a tacit understanding.
There were breezes now, not gusts, and the gray clouds massed low over the water, no less dangerous to an old visitor, and mysterious. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes,and tried not to remember why he’d come here this early morning. He’d brought her here hundred of times, from the first day after they met. While the surroundings offered no mercy or consolation, they seemed to understand.
He waited quite a while, until he shivered. What’s done was done, and gone forever. He could almost imagine he was visiting from high school again. It was easy to do.
He had few regrets, and almost no shame. He’d been an okay guy, sometimes a good guy, not all that bad. He’d helped people. He’d cared about them. He’d never really hurt anyone deliberately, not since he tripped his brother before they moved to Fullerton. He had no misunderstandings about himself. He’d done his best.
With his concentration invested in walking as straight as he could, he started toward the water. The mist was thicker now, and he depended on the sound of the breakers to gauge how close he’d come. He wanted to cry while he said the right prayers but could not, and got them mixed up.
“ .. I pray the Lord my soul to take .. “
When the rushing tide reached his ankles, he braced his back to keep his balance. He must have grunted, without knowing it, because he heard something behind him and to one side: it was the sound of a couple making love in the sand, and experience he know well, and a girl had cried, “Wait!”
He stepped a further into the water, the sound of running footsteps reached his ears, and an instant later a young man’s hands held his shoulders.
“Please, man!” the boy said. “Please don’t that!”
“Really!” his girl called from a few yards back.
“We can talk! All right? Come on! We’ve got wine!” the boy continued.
Koorstad let the boy turn his body around and let himself be led to a big flannel sheet on the sand. He hadn’t looked at the two yet, but he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his last two little joints.
“Yeah, that’s good. Just sit right where you are, friend,” the boy said, and when the man looked at him, the boy could have been half a dozen guys Koorstad knew him high school, and that made him easy to trust.
The girl took Koorstad’s hand and held it between her ten warm fingers on her lap.
“I interrupted you people,” Koorstad said with a mild smile.
“Oh, that’s OK,” the boy said with a careless laugh, and he looked relieved.
Now she would have laughed at that, Koorstad thought, and it was kind of funny.
There were places where it helped to go, and he’d have to start all over.
It might be possible.