Gary writes “Grit Fiction,” because life isn’t always smooth. His stories are characterized by wit, wordplay, and plot twists that will leave the reader guessing.

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California Anger

What a planet!

California is massive, and abundantly unique. It was 50% exactly what I anticipated, 50% unexpected, and the other 80% like nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s a land of plenty. Plenty to see. Beautiful ocean views, beautiful homes, and beautiful people. Every Californian was just one big break away from Hollywood heartbreak. They had the tools; perfectly bronzed skin, hair with just the right amount of wave, and the best physique that a gym membership and a plastic surgeon can provide. Planet California’s natives were bound to expose me as an alien in no time at all. There’s not nearly enough wave in my hair. I wasn’t there, however, to make it big, I was there to present an important proposal.

I’d mistakenly imagined that all Californians would be super mellow, all “No worries,” and “Chillax, man.” I didn’t hear either of those phrases a single time. Nobody called me “brah,” either, but I’m not mad…brah. My impression was that the indigenous species was intensely self-absorbed, nearly to the point of aloofness. There were so very many people, unaware of how very many other people there are.   What happened in San Bruno wasn’t my fault. There’s a musclebound man with 9 stitches in his forehead that might beg to differ. I think, however, that my clearer, cooler, unstitched head recollects the events of the third Sunday of April more accurately. It was just before noon, which is arguably the absolute worst time to try to get a meal at any restaurant near the San Francisco Airport. Still, Katie and I tried. We both were famished, early eaters by habit, but love had come first this day. I’m not complaining. Nor will I explain. I needed to eat, and eat soon. The vending machine in the hotel lobby offered no resolution. I vended myself a bag of plantain chips, which apparently a herd of elephant seals had taken turns flopping on. The contents had been reduced to a chewy stale confetti. They weren’t fit for consumption, even by seagulls, so I threw them out. Then began our quest for brunch. Katie drove the rented Ford Focus to Denny’s, which was inexplicably and conspicuously overcrowded. Not even a single parking spot to be found. I hopped out to see what our chances were of securing a booth, and then, afterward, some astronomically high-calorie breakfast combos. There was no chance of either. It appeared to be a ten-minute wait just to speak to the harried hostess, who would then announce a wait of at least sixty minutes. I pried my foot off the sticky spot in the lobby, and returned to the parking lot, where Katie and the Ford were making regular orbits. She paused long enough to collect me. “Kates,” I said, “I struck out on the Grand Slams.” She laughed dutifully at my lame joke. I didn’t mind, she’s got a beautiful laugh. “Let’s try the IHOP,” we said simultaneously. Apparently, however, the other half of San Bruno’s population had the same thought. The IHOP parking lot showed even less promise. A congregation had formed outside; faithful worshippers coming to nourish their souls with crepes and noisy conversation. Not one to completely lose faith, I exited the vehicle and shuffled hopefully toward the entrance. The IHOP workers had wisely abandoned the host station. It was completely surrounded by hungry tourists. I abandoned all hope, and left quickly. “It’s only IHOP!” I was tempted to remind the overeager crowd. Outside waiting in the getaway vehicle was my Kates, looking stylish in her brand new Warby Parker sunglasses. She paused long enough to collect me, and we made our escape. We wound up in the McDonald’s parking lot. We only intended to cut through to the freeway; we hadn’t given up on nutritional value entirely. Our attempt at a shortcut was foiled by a roadblock in the form of an unmarked white van.

I’m thinking that the Ford Motor Company is really to blame for what then took place. Ford has brilliant engineers, right? Cutting-edge technology. The car was a hybrid, for God’s sake. It took a genius to figure out how to save our precious fossil fuels by using electricity intermittently. It took myself, not a genius, ten minutes to figure out why I didn’t hear the engine fire up when I pressed the ignition. That’s part of the reason I’d given up driving the rental car. My experience with Hertz nearly qualified as traumatic. So, if Ford’s engineers are so innovative, explain to me why the horn on their car has only one setting? One that can only be described as “Angry Blast.” In the past, a driver could toot in a friendly manner at friends and neighbors, or perhaps give a friendly reminder to a fellow driver. Today’s horn offers only the option to let loose a blaring cross between a runaway train and the predatory 18-wheeler from Maximum Overdrive. Maximum effect, you might say. Angry blast is how the driver of the illegally parked white van chose to interpret the attempt at a gentle horn blow from Katie. It was only intended as a polite request to let us pass. He was in the way, after all. There was no movement from the van for a few seconds. And then, there w to as. The driver’s door flew open, out popped a big surly man. He was flushed, frowning, and walking way too fast for his overheated brain to catch up. His posture made it obvious that he wasn’t on his way to explain the situation, offer an apology, or to suggest possible solutions. Not a chance. He had knuckle sandwiches on his mind.

On impulse, I immediately critiqued Big Surly’s appearance. A week in California will do that to you. Unkempt hair, beer gut, bad complexion, was my assessment. Beer Gut had both fists clenched at his sides. He was puffed up like a threatened toad, only he was doing the threatening. Perforating the sky overhead was a Boeing 777, its roar drowned out by the unearthly howl of the enraged man. Who knew toads were so noisy? Relax, Toad, take a breath, I thought. But he clearly wasn’t doing either. His red face got even redder. Calling it beet red wouldn’t be fair; no beets are that red. The man in the McDonald’s parking lot was apoplectic, and as red as Ronald’s wig.

When Apoplectic Face saw my beautiful companion behind the wheel, he didn’t have a change of heart so much as a change of course. He wasn’t about to punch a lady. No, he was about to punch me. That made about as much sense as me exiting the vehicle to attempt an explanation. Still, that’s how it went. “It’ll be fine, Kates,” I reassured my fiancé, “I’ll clear this up.” As I said the word “up,” the angry man went down. His right foot found a hole in the ground between us, and he pitched forward. Unfortunately for him, that put his head exactly at the handle of my opening car door. I winced at the impact. Clumsy’s forehead blossomed into a beautiful red explosion. He managed to stay up, more or less. It was kind of impressive. He staggered, hand grasping at my shirt, fist seeking desperately to make contact. I denied his fist, and stared at the hand he was manhandling me with. He needs a manicure, I unconsciously criticized his appearance, and he ought to pumice those callouses. California had rubbed off on me. The dazed, rough-handed man tried to punch me again, and I helped him gently to the ground. He assisted by losing consciousness.

Leaving the knocked-out dope on the grass outside McDonald’s was not an option, I knew that. Even though he’d been threatening us, or me mostly, Katie would have a soft spot in her huge heart for him. She rescues spiders from her apartment, won’t even kill flies. Breakfast would have to wait, I was going to have to get this clown to the hospital. First, I wanted to stop his bleeding. I unbuttoned my dress shirt, and removed my undershirt. It’s just a good thing I hadn’t been wearing my checked shirt, I thought. I had been two days ago, though. And it didn’t start out checked.

Two days ago was when I proposed to Katie. At the Howard Johnson’s that was close to the airport, even closer to the noisy freeway, and closest of all to the off-duty construction workers splitting a twelve-pack in the outside corridor two doors down. Romantic, right? It wasn’t supposed to go like that. My flight had arrived much earlier than hers. My plan was to check in at the hotel, then return to the airport, and ask her to marry me right there at the baggage claim. In front of a crowd of witnesses, who would no doubt cheer and record the happy event with their cellular phones. But, as they say, Man plans, and God laughs. We both had to laugh this time around.

By the time I finally got the rental car rented on Friday (over an hour at Hertz), and made it from airport to hotel in late afternoon San Francisco traffic, (at least four near collisions} I knew I’d had enough. If there’d been any doubt at all, the blinding migraine I got took care of that. The first room I got at Howard Johnson’s had no working air conditioning. Not an option. The second room didn’t open with the key the apologizing man at the front desk gave me. When he finally climbed up the stairs to open it for me, we both discovered that it had no air conditioning unit at all. It made the third room seem like a luxury suite. I took it and collapsed on the creaky bed. Before I knew it, my phone buzzed. Katie had arrived, in fact, her taxi was right down below. I hurriedly buttoned my shirt back up. I was still trying to salvage some of my plan. Perhaps we’d go out to dinner in a nice restaurant, and I’d propose there. Here’s the problem, though. I don’t do anything the normal way. What I mean is this: I was wearing a T-shirt underneath my button-down, one that had two check boxes. A Yes, and a No. And I had a Sharpie. I planned to let her put her answer right on my shirt. At a nice place, did I mention that?

The next part is mostly Katie’s fault. She’s so irresistibly adorable. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and she looked amazing. I had barely said “Wow!” and she was in my arms. She’s an excellent hugger. And kisser. I hustled her and her luggage into the tiny room and out of the public eye. I held her at arm’s length for a moment so I could look at her. I felt light-headed. She was a long, deep breath of fresh air. And I, damn it, I was a fish. I lost my balance, fell back on the lumpy bed with the worn comforter. She quickly followed. Maybe pounced is a better word. At some point the top button of my shirt popped off. So did the second. I realized these were not accidents. I went with the flow; I’m a pretty agreeable guy. Then I panicked. She was going to see my check-boxed shirt! Plan B was quickly going down the tubes, and I really couldn’t think clearly at that point. So, I pushed Katie off of me. While she looked at me in shocked silence, I asked her an important question about her lifetime plans, knelt, and handed her a Sharpie. I planned to block the “NO” box with my forearm, but, turns out that wasn’t necessary. She put a bold black check next to “YES,” and drew a heart above it. It tickled, but I didn’t mind. I took the pen from her and gave her a diamond ring. That went over even better than the Sharpie. We laughed, and hugged some more, and kissed some more, and my shirt wound up on the floor. That’s my lucky shirt for sure, I thought.

Sunday’s undershirt was not so lucky. I tore it into strips to wrap around the unconscious man’s head. I was tempted to wrap a tight tourniquet around his throat, but I refrained. Katie got out of the car, and helped me ease eased the man into the back seat. “Don’t worry about blood in the rental,” I said. After all, Hertz had extorted several hundred dollars from me for insurance. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t inflict some damage. I believe in getting what I pay for. Katie gently vetoed my idea to drop the wounded animal off at the San Mateo Veterinary Hospital. She suggested the clinic at the airport instead, and we headed there. Like I said, I’m pretty agreeable. The drive was short, and the man stayed unconscious, serenading us with buzz saw snoring. “Sounds like you,” Katie said. She was joking, I think.

The orderlies at the clinic were most helpful. They hurried to the car, hefted Sleeping Beauty onto a gurney, and disappeared inside. “Time for breakfast, finally,” I said, somewhat hopefully. Katie gave me look, and I knew we were going inside to wait. “He was trying to punch me, Kates,” I reminded her. “Let’s just make sure he’s alright.” She took a seat in an orange molded plastic chair, while I wandered toward the vending machine up the hallway. For the second time today, I purchased a bag of plantain chips. There were a lot of them in the bag. Tiny ones; more crushed stale confetti. Perfect. The ER doctor had approached Katie as I returned, shaking crumbs out of my shirt. “You the two brought in the bleeding guy?” We looked at each other. “Come on,” she said, “he’s asking for you.” I almost didn’t recognize Bleeding Guy; he looked different. I realized that it was because he was smiling. He was watching the Golden State Warriors game on the television above our heads. His head was bandaged professionally, and I couldn’t help but gape at that out-of-place grin on his face. “Griff,” he introduced himself. “They’re coming back!” he said, nodding excitedly at the game. Sure enough, the home team’s point guard buried a go-ahead bucket as the half ended. Before I knew it, I’d extended my right hand toward my new “friend.” Finally, his fist made contact…with mine. This could only happen in California, I thought.

“Wow, what time is it getting to be, anyway?” I asked, before it could get too awkward. “Lunchtime,” said Katie, sidling up beside me and latching onto my arm. I love when she does that. “Before you go?” Griff asked, “What happened to me? I don’t really remember.” The doctor was looking at me, a similarly expectant look on her face. I gave them the abridged version; we’d seen him stumble and hit his head. “Nine stitches,” he said proudly, pointing at his bandaged head. Then he ran his hand over his face, stopping just below his lovely pair of black eyes. He felt his nose, which was taped up. That bleeding had stopped also, I was glad to see. “How did this happen?” he said.

Now everyone was looking at me. Kates, my dear Kates, smiled at me, eyes laughing. I rubbed my bruised knuckles subconsciously. “Well,” I told him, moving toward the exit, “You deserved a break today.”

THE END