Traveller's Tale 2. 'Miami Encounter'
I breezed past the taxi ranks without hesitation, because the fare would be $45 minimum. But I strolled past the buses with reluctance. $15. That wasn’t too extortionate, and they would drop me right down town.
‘Come on John. Stiffen up here! $15 will soon buy you a nights accommodation and a meal!’
My inner voice was right. It was time to shake off those comfortable ways and domestic mind-sets, and develop a back-packers’ parsimony. Money was finite, but with a few sacrifices my trip could last longer,
‘Maybe an extra two months. Think of that! Two extra months of freedom before you have to return to work on a London building site in the depths of winter.’
I sighed, weary from the long flight, and slightly embarrassed at the prospect of hitch-hiking again. Should I still be doing this in my mid 30’s? The drivers of the cars that passed me seemed to think not. Look at that low-life, their cold gazes seemed to say. Barely been in the country half an hour but already he’s slinking around the fringes of civilized society. Others suddenly found the view fascinating on the other side of the road, or almost crashed by rooting around in the glove box.
20 minutes went by and so did another shuttle bus. I’d give it an hour, I decided, and then give up and buy a ticket.
When the woman stopped I stared at her indecisively. Of advanced middle age, with grey hair, and driving a large and expensive car, she didn’t look the type of driver who’d ever stopped for me before. She was probably lost, or stopping to check her map.
After a silly spell of staring at each other warily the passenger window purred down, and I took that as an invitation to approach the car.
‘Are you heading down-town?’ I asked.
‘That direction, anyway’, she answered. ‘Why don’t you put that pack in the trunk?’
I did so, and got in. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Kind of you to stop.’
She seemed to assess me for a few seconds.
‘I’ve never stopped for a hitch-hiker before,’ she said, ‘but that English accent is sort of reassuring and unthreatening.’
I felt flattered in a way. Maybe I didn’t look so disreputable after all? ‘Thank you. Don’t worry, I’m harmless.’ Then I nearly spoilt it by joking, ‘Mind you have you noticed that Hollywood often casts English actors as the villains?’
She gave a faint smile. There was something a bit haphazard about her appearance. Her hair was fashionably cut, but carelessly combed. There was lint on her dark skirt that I’d have expected her to brush off. Her eyes were bloodshot, and a smudge of mascara hinted at recent tears. I sniffed discreetly for alcohol fumes, but detected none.
For a couple of minutes we were quiet as she negotiated the exit ramps, and found the correct lane on the freeway.
‘Have you just dropped someone off at the airport?’ I asked.
‘Yes, my three children.’
‘Were they off on holiday?’
‘We say ‘on vacation’ here,’ she replied slightly snappily, but then immediately apologised. ‘No they had come down to stay with me for a week, but now they have to get back to their lives. Two in California and one in Chicago.’
To my alarm a fat tear rolled down her cheek removing some make-up as it went, and hung on her chin. She wiped it away impatiently but we shimmied in the lane as her vision went wobbly.
I was wondering whether to pretend I hadn’t noticed, or to ask her what was wrong, but she made an obvious effort to ask me my plans. Probably just empty nest stuff, I guessed.
‘I’m on my way to South America,’ I explained. ‘It’s cheaper to fly to Miami, and then buy a ticket to Caracas, than it is to go direct from London.’
‘I went to Peru once,’ she said. ‘That’s a wonderful place and we had a great time. It’s got the lot – deserts, jungle, snowy mountains, and fabulous ruins.’
‘That’s certainly on my route. I can’t wait.’
‘My only regret was that we didn’t speak Spanish. Do you?’
‘Yes, it was part of my university course, so I’m reasonably fluent.’
We discussed such things as the skyscrapers of downtown grew closer.
‘Where are you staying?’ she asked.
‘I haven’t made a reservation. I’ve got the address of one or two places within a few blocks of each other, and will find something.’
‘That’s one of the differences between the young and not so young. As you get older you like the security of knowing where you’ll be sleeping.’
She suddenly pulled into a small shopping mall and pulled up outside a coffee shop.
‘Do you mind if we stop here for a few minutes?’ she asked. ‘We can look up those addresses of yours, and anyway I need a shot of coffee, I didn’t sleep well last night.’
‘Nor me. Very early start this morning.’
‘Of course. Sorry I’m being selfish; you must be tired after your flight, and keen to get to your hotel. We won’t stop here long.’
‘That’s fine. No rush.’ I gave a weary internal sigh.
After we were seated and placed our order, she sat there with a far-away stare, and I mentally shuffled a selection of conversational topics, only to reject them all. This was getting uncomfortable.
‘How long were your children staying with you?’ I ventured finally. The best I could do.
She dragged her gaze from the 1000 yards to focus on my face.
‘Oh, long enough to help me bury their father.’
I got my jaw off the table with an effort. ‘You mean you’ve just lost your husband?’ I stuttered.
‘Yup.’ Her lips trembled, but she tried to keep up the hard-boiled delivery. ‘One minute we were booking a cruise and making plans for the next few months, and then there was this crash upstairs where he’d gone to get his passport, and I found him sprawled on the floor, dead as dead can be.’ Giving a mirthless laugh, she continued ‘ And his last words to me were ‘Oh stop nagging me Laura, I’ll go and get the fucking thing now.’
She paused and played with a packet of sugar. ‘And he ran up those stairs and bust his heart. But he was right about the nagging. My last words to him were some nonsense about how he always put off everything he could, and how it would be me who would end up having to do it and being the bloody martyr…. I literally nagged him to death!’
Luckily the waitress rode to the rescue with our coffees. I could have kissed her, but after a few seconds she had to go and leave me all alone. Well, not alone obviously, but with a widow who was crying quite loudly now and making people glance our way.
That boy’s upsetting his poor ma.
‘He was a fitness fanatic, you know! 59 years old but with the body of someone 15 years younger. Gym three times a week, plus some sort of military calisthenics every morning and riding at least 100 miles a week on his bike. How Jack loved that bike – feather light, all the best gear and stuff, it cost a thousand bucks and he went out kitted like a pro.’ She opened a pack of Sweet and Lo and stirred it in her latte. ‘And yet jogging up 16 steps felled him!’ She gave a loud and mirthless cackle. ‘Can you believe that?’
‘I’m really sorry. What a terrible shock and loss for you.’ Banal, trite and empty words, but I was doing my best.
That airport shuttle bus was looking a real bargain now.
She said nothing and her coffee chilled. I sipped on mine, placed it down, but shortly my fidgety hands found it again and all too soon it was empty. I wanted to take a spoon to the milky cappuccino froth that still lined the sides, but thought it would look insensitive.
I glanced her way and found her watching me.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘I’m Laura,’ she said, but I already knew. ‘Bet you regret me giving you a ride now!’
I stuttered some untruthful protest, but she made a small dismissive gesture. ‘I sympathise. Having some grieving widow making a scene in a public place. God! Just saying the word widow makes me want a cigarette, a drink or both!’ She glanced around the room, but found only cookies, cheesecake and coffee. ‘I gave up smoking 20 years ago and Jack would turn in his grave if I started again! He hated smoking with that passion that only comes from the reformed addict. Smoked 30 a day when I first met him. Maybe he’d come back to haunt me? I wouldn’t mind that if it meant I could see him again.’
She angrily grabbed some paper napkins from the dispenser and dabbed her eyes.
‘You know what has hit home just now? That this is this is how it’s going to be from now on. The last 10 days have been full of arrangements, choosing caskets, death notices, contacting friends and relations, arranging the funeral, providing food and drink for the mourners…all with the help of my children… and now, what? He’s buried. My kids have gone home. All the fuss has died down and the world has moved on. But I’ve got to go back to a big empty house and try and keep on living. How the hell am I supposed to do that? I’m supposed to go to bed in the same room where he died on the floor! I will always remember exactly where, as if there was a crime scene chalk outline of his corpse. Face down with his head pushed to one side by the divan, and his arms by his side. I don’t think he even tried to break his fall, so I guess that means he might have died before he toppled over. What do you think?’
‘Maybe.’ I agreed. ‘I’m sure he was in no pain.’
She stared at me for a long time. Not in a hostile way, but probably a little disappointed that I couldn’t come up with anything original or consoling.
‘When you hear that people have died peacefully in their sleep, I always think that’s probably not true at all. I sometimes jerk awake at night and find I can’t draw breath. It’s like my throat has closed and my gasping mouth screams silently, and I flail and my pulse goes through the roof, and for several seconds I gasp at nothing however hard I try. Do you ever get that?’
I nodded, but I don’t.
‘Well I’m sure I’m dying when that happens, and some people might die like that. Then when they’re discovered the next morning, the doctor says that they died peacefully in their sleep. Like hell. Thirty seconds of terror and suffocation, more like!’
‘It reminds me of that old joke,’ I started with a smile, before realizing that this wasn’t the time, but had to continue now I’d started. ‘I hope I die peacefully in my sleep like my father did.’ Pause. ‘Mind you his passengers died screaming in terror!’
To my relief she laughed loudly.
‘Thank you John. How wonderful just to laugh for a second or two.’
She seemed in no hurry to move, so I ordered two more coffees and some cake. My hotel room could wait a while, and although I was weary from the flight, I knew she deserved a bit of company and the chance to say what she liked to a stranger.
‘Tell me a bit about Jack,’ I prompted.
‘Nah, you don’t really want to get me started.’
‘Yes I do.’
She took a sip of her coffee. ‘He was a lawyer. Made his reputation sort of defending the underdog. Took on those cases that no-one else wanted to touch, usually because there wasn’t money in it, but we lived well enough. He hated injustice and cruelty, and even as he grew older he didn’t lose that, and that’s rare, because it’s easy to grow weary, cynical, complacent and comfortable, but he didn’t. Any cruelty to people or animals would make him mad. But defending the little guy can make you unpopular sometimes if bigger bullies have been picking on that little guy. There were people at the golf club who would get up and leave or pointedly turn their backs on him. He didn’t really care though.’
She sighed. ‘He was just a nice guy. Good husband, good dad, good lawyer, good friend. Decent. Loyal. Friendly.
Mind you he wasn’t a total saint. He had a wicked sense of humour and lampooned the pompous and powerful, and when he lost his temper, boy you better watch out!’
She fiddled with the cup.
‘He never could stand the church and religion in general, you know. That was one thing that really pissed him off. He thought religion was hypocritical and divisive, and it had been twisted to make a belief system that was intolerant and caused problems everywhere in the world, with whatever faith you chose to name. He was an atheist, didn’t hold with life after death or anything like that. But we live in a neighbourhood where church on Sunday is sort of expected, and I’m afraid it embarrassed me when people noticed his absence, because I always went, and when he refused to let our children be baptised or attend Sunday school, saying they could make up their own mind when they were older.
‘And now I think I’ve done a terrible thing. He never discussed his death or his wishes, and why would you in your 50’s when you could cycle up a hill like it wasn’t there? And so I chickened out last week and buried him in a churchyard, after a service with his casket placed in front of the altar, with a priest intoning those words at the graveside ‘dust to dust ashes to ashes in the hope of life eternal.’ He never believed in that, but out of cowardice I betrayed him’.
She shed a few tears.
‘Don’t blame yourself for that,’ I said. ‘It’s probably very hard to arrange a service and burial that doesn’t involve the church in some way. It is in England.’
‘I could have had him cremated, but the children wanted a grave to visit in years to come, and so do I. But he might have wanted his ashes scattered on some Tour de France mountain climb for all I know!’
She sighed and shrugged.
‘Well that’s enough. Let’s get you to a hotel. Got that list?’
I handed it over.
‘These are all around Central Plaza. Sure you want to stay downtown? It’s better over at Miami Beach.’
‘No it’s fine. I’ll need to go to travel agents and airline offices tomorrow to find the best ticket to Caracas, and they are downtown.’
She finished her coffee and seized her bag and car keys, but didn’t stand up when I did.
‘You know you could always stay at my place.’
I sat down while she continued.
‘It’d save you some money, and I would really appreciate your company, and I’ll drive you round to get your ticket, and show you the city too.’ She flashed an over-bright smile.
I could see it really cost her to make the offer, and beg a stranger to hold back the black veil of loneliness, but I nearly refused. She was a nice lady, but her loneliness and loss could prove tough to handle.
‘That would be great, if you’re sure?’
‘Yes, I’d love it. And don’t worry I won’t be weeping the whole time!’
We’ll see, I thought.
We drove out of the parking lot and headed away from downtown. I’d obviously taken her out of her way, and after 15 minutes we reached the middle class suburb of Coral Gables, and pulled into the drive of a large single-storey dwelling.
In the end I stayed a week. Not imprisoned, or held against my will, or trapped by guilt. She just filled the days pleasurably with excursions to the Everglades, to the Keys, getting my ticket, which she tried to pay for, but of course I wouldn’t let her. She offered me the car keys and I could have driven off alone, but that didn’t seem right. I did some practical chores and mowed the grass.
We talked about Jack and what she was going to do with her life, and whether she should sell the house and move closer to her children.
Ruth, I learnt, lived in Chicago, where she taught in a primary school. 24 years old and a bit of a worry, it appeared, with a poor taste in boyfriends. The whole family had lived in Chicago until Laura and Jack had moved down to Florida when he took early retirement.
Jack Junior and Edward lived in California, where Jack was a social worker, married and with a baby on the way. Edward was the eldest, and seemed to have no profession that Laura could put a finger on. ‘Oh I don’t know. One minute he’s on a fishing boat in Alaska, the next he’s doing bar work, or construction. Jack sort of pressured him to do Law at college, and he got good results, but he’s never shown much interest in working in that field.’
She was a lovely lady, kind and funny and with a feisty humour. She obviously cried a river, but she deserved a cry.
I put off fixing a date for my flight, until I was spurred to doing so by a phone call.
Every evening one of her children called, and I happened to give a loud sneeze while she was talking, and her son must have asked who was there.
‘Oh that’s John, from England,’ she said breezily.
Some unintelligible squawks wafted from the handset.
‘He’s been here since you left. I gave him a ride outside the airport, and invited him back here.’
‘Don’t be silly Edward. He’s a nice man and he’s been a great comfort to me. No, that’s not true, and if you met him you wouldn’t think that. Don’t raise your voice at me! What? Why?’
She looked at me apologetically. ‘He wants to speak to you.’
I nervously took the receiver.
‘Listen fella, I’ll speak frankly. I don’t like the idea of a total stranger hanging out at my mother’s place.’
‘There’s nothing sinister about it. She offered, and I think it’s helped her cope with the loneliness.’
Laura nodded, but Edward wasn’t convinced. I could see why it might look a bit strange.
‘I’ve no idea how you wangled your way in, but I expect you’re taking advantage of my Ma’s vulnerability. I want you out of there.’
‘I guess that’s not your decision.’
‘Listen you fuckwit, if you’re not packed and gone by tomorrow, I’ll come down and fucking throw you out. And if you’ve robbed her or done anything to hurt her I’ll hunt you down and fucking kill you. You understand?’ I imagined his forearms, burly from pulling in those nets and crab pots: his giant hands covered in sea salt and fish scales.
‘You’ve got me wrong. I wouldn’t do anything like that.’
‘Just get out of there. My mother picking up hitch-hikers! Jesus! What’s got into her! Pass her the phone.’
When the conversation had ended and Laura put the phone down, we looked at each other.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘He’s got his father’s temper, but without any of the charm.’
‘I think I can get a seat on that flight tomorrow night, if I call first thing in the morning.’
‘Don’t listen to Edward.’
‘He was quite persuasive, actually, and anyway it’s time I got moving.’
Laura dropped me off at the airport the next evening, and I thanked her, and she thanked me, and we hugged and promised to stay in touch, which we did until her death 16 years later.
‘Take this money,’ she offered.
‘Stop offering me money Laura,’ I protested.
‘But you’ll need it where you’re going.’
‘I’ll miss you. But your company has helped a lot over the last week.’
‘I’ll miss you too.’
She sat behind the wheel as I got my pack out of the trunk, and I waved as she started the engine and put the car into gear.
‘Maybe I’ll find another hitch-hiker heading into town!’ she said with a chuckle, and t