by J. B. Chicoine
Paperback: 324 pages
Publisher: Straw Hill Publishing
Author: J. B. Chicoine
Kindle / Trade Paperback
All Leila wants is to get through her senior year at her new high school without drawing undue attention. Not that she has any big secret to protect, but her unconventional upbringing has made her very private. At seventeen, she realizes just how odd it was that two men raised her—one black, one white—and no mother. Not to mention they were blues musicians, always on the move. When her father died, he left her with a fear of foster care and a plan that would help her fall between the cracks of the system. Three teachers make that impossible—the handsome track coach, her math teacher from hell, and a jealous gym instructor. Compromising situations, accusations of misconduct, and judicial hearings put Leila’s autonomy and even her dignity at risk, unless she learns to trust an unlikely ally.
Had the wind been blowing out to sea, Leila would have let the draft carry the ashes out over the ocean in one little puff and been done with it, but she had, on a previous occasion, the misfortune of not calculating wind direction and ended up with a face full of powdery remains. She had since learned to stand upwind before shaking the contents of the large, folded handkerchief. Giving her fist a hard look, she squatted in the ankle-deep surf, unfurling her fingers.
Just get it over with!
Keeping the cloth high enough to prevent the ebbing water from wetting its hem, she dumped the contents—about as much as might fill a tablespoon. It drifted away in a little clump. A good swish would fix that. Once it dispersed, she waited until the surf drew it out, tumbling it along with sand and flotsam that shimmered as it roiled. She shook the handkerchief and folded it back into a compact square, then tucked it in the hip pocket of her loose-fitting cut-offs. She wondered how many tablespoons remained. Might she cry if she stood there long enough?
Not waiting for the pang in her chest to erupt as tears, she faced the five-mile return stretch of Long Island’s Robert Moses State Park, walked a few yards and then picked up her pace, sprinting from a jog to a full-out run. Too quickly, her diaphragm ached, though it wasn’t the run that winded her. Slowing, she arched her back to catch her breath and stopped. An offshore wind pushed wisps of hair from her forehead as she faced the surf. All eternity stretched out above and before her in shades of blue and gray—ultra-marine, cerulean, Payne’s gray—and even a swipe of ochre. What a grand paintbrush, strokes of perfection. Oh, the vastness of it! She didn’t ponder anything as lofty as God, only the magnitude of promises—especially those made under duress and later second-guessed.
As an image of her father flashed behind closed eyelids, Leila’s chest tightened with each heartbeat. She drew in a constricted breath, pushing back the surge of panic—Just keep running—and continued down the beach.
Waves crashed to her right, firming the shoreline as she ran. The Atlantic’s roar drowned out the increasing hordes of city dwellers—their transistor radios and squealing children—even the odor of tropical ointments, cigarettes, and greasy fries, but it couldn’t deafen the pounding in her ears. She focused on her rhythmic breathing. If she ran fast enough, the jarring percussion of bare feet against compacting sand might numb the more acute pain in her heart. If she stayed focused on what lay in the distance, she wouldn’t stumble over immediate obstacles.
Leila ran west, to the edge of Fire Island, and then doubled back to where she started. Near sunset, cool ocean air rolled in. She slowed to a jog, untied the long shirtsleeves from around her hips, and headed toward the dunes, slipping her arms into sleeves. Asphalt seared her feet, as she sprinted across the causeway. Sprays of sand twirled upward and danced around the parking lot. Most cars had exited. Her body buzzed with fatigue; sweet exhaustion that she hoped would yield deep, dreamless sleep.
Gulls overhead called out, guiding her to the pavement’s far side. They dashed at discarded French fries beside her ’67 Volkswagen Beetle—and its flat tire. If not for her bare feet, she would have given it a firm kick. At that moment, the sound of blues blared from a nearby car. She smiled at the irony of it, at how her otherwise dependable little car had done her wrong.
Everything would be exactly where she had placed it, the tire iron, the jack, and the spare, all tucked neatly in their places.
“You need a hand?”
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t noticed the approaching blues-playing car as she popped the front hood, but she ignored it, hoping she exuded a more-than-competent vibe.
She tugged the tire and grumbled, “Nope,” without turning enough to get a look at the driver. “I got it.”
The recording track changed.
“You sure?” he asked as the familiar blues riff grabbed her attention. “’Cause you’re getting the front of your white shirt all black.”
Intent on the song, she gave her shirt a dismissive glance as the tire teetered half-in and half-out of the trunk. She raised a brow in his direction and the words just slipped out—“That sounds sort of like ‘Cross Road Blues,’ but different.”
“Yeah, it’s called ‘Crossroads’.”
She turned just enough to note the make and color of his car. Two-door Saab. Dark green. Dented front fender. Cracked windshield. “Well, that sure isn’t Robert Johnson.”
He chuckled. “No, it’s Clapton—Cream’s version.”
“Oh, right,” she said, a little embarrassed that she hadn’t deduced it on her own. “I guess I’m more familiar with the older stuff.”
His brow rose and his mouth stayed agape. She had caught him off guard. That didn’t keep him from pulling into the parking spot at her passenger side.
Crap! She let the tire hit the pavement. That’s what you get for talking to strangers.
Music continued playing when he shut off the engine. She backed away from her trunk and again inspected the front of her shirt. One button hung by a thread. She yanked it and tucked it in her pocket.
Get a good look at him, in case you have to give the police a description.
He repositioned his cap visor toward the back. Hazel eyes flashed as he tucked a lock of dark, chin-length hair behind his ear. His straight nose looked as red as her thighs, and his square jaw, rough as sand. He appeared as sun-weary and disheveled as she did.
“It looks like you have everything under control,” he said, “but why ruin your shirt? Let me just give you a hand.”
Just remember, all men are pigs, her father had told her—like the warning that ‘stoves are hot’—there was truth to it, but she had yet to test the extent to which it applied. Just the same, she did not intend to do any testing in an all-but-abandoned parking lot. And, she had little hope of employing her other dad’s warning, often accompanied by a wink—Whatever you do, don’t flash those dimples, as if she had any control over the way they graced her cheeks even when she spoke.
She sized him up. A little taller than her, maybe five-ten, but if she caught him off guard, she could implement a few practiced maneuvers and disarm him—at least bring him to his knees. After that, with a build like his, taking to flight would be her best bet. She felt more than confident of her ability to outrun him.
Rather than sidle past, she provided him ample room and positioned herself strategically behind his car—noted his license number—and watched. She had been around far more men than women in her seventeen years, and so she rarely paid particular attention to one man as being more handsome than another, though most had at least one appealing characteristic, if only a sweet singing voice. But the man changing her tire seemed a compilation of all the best features she had ever seen.
He lifted her tire without effort as she scanned his car’s interior. On the back seat, a small Styrofoam ice chest lay atop worn upholstery. Beside it, a camera and long lens pushed back the flap of a professional-looking carrying case. No trash, but a carpenter’s tape measure and several cassettes cluttered the dashboard and a few shavings amidst sawdust were visible through the hatchback. A pair of miniature sneakers hung from the rearview mirror. Harmless stuff. Nothing alarming.
“Are you visiting or just moved?” He snagged her attention.
His jaw tipped toward her rear window. “Your dump permit—it hasn’t expired.”
Leila cringed. Ridiculous oversight.
He spun the tire iron. “We don’t have dump decals around here. You must be from upstate or out of state.”
“What—nobody likes dump picking on Long Island?”
“Well, I’m sure there’s some pretty good pickin’s out in the Hamptons, nicer beaches too. But then I would have to wonder what you’re doing here.” His playful grin twisted to a wince as his arm bulged with exertion over a stubborn nut. He looked back at her, waiting for a response.
She folded her arms. Her usual stance. “I moved to the Island a few weeks ago.”
“Oh yeah? Where from?”
It seemed a harmless enough question. “New Hampshire.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from N’Hampsha’.” He winked, mimicking the distinct intonation of the state’s natives.
A wash of optimism eroded a layer of caution. “You know New Hampshire?”
“Some. I went to school in Hanover for a little while.”
“Yeah. But just for a semester.”
“What did you study?”
The flat tire hit the ground. “Nothing I wanted to commit to.”
If he were trying to impress her, he ought not mention that he had dropped out of such a prestigious institution. In fact, the way he went about changing her tire, without any puffed-up posturing, even the way he wore a loose-fitting T-shirt when something skintight would better show off his physique, argued against arrogance, self-absorption, or any intent to impress her. His whole demeanor bespoke modesty and a defiance of her father’s warning. All the more reason to keep her guard up.
He rolled and lifted the spare into place and seemed content for a minute. She doubted that would end his conversational efforts.
Once he had the nuts back in place and tightened, he cast her a curious glance. Was he hoping she might take a little initiative? Leila tucked a wayward strand of chestnut hair back into her long braid and held her reticent ground. She could have come up with something clever to say but didn’t want to encourage him. He smiled and nodded as if granting whatever made her comfortable. She doubted he would leave it at that. He did not disappoint.
“So, why did you move from beautiful New Hampshire to this rat race?”
She shrugged. “That is a big question. Why does anyone move from paradise to, well, whatever you want to call Long Island?”
He paused, as if giving her response weighty consideration.
“Family. Job …. Or lack of options,” he said, flashing a glance that penetrated, even in its brevity.
“So, which was it?”
He stood, leaning the tire iron against the flat. “Lack of options. What about you?”
“Then I guess we both come by the blues honestly.”
“Well, honestly, the blues are all I’ve ever known.”
“You’re too young for that.”
“I wish that were true.” She unfolded her arms and reached for the tire iron.
He didn’t push the issue. He simply deposited the flat and jack in the trunk.
“Got a rag?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry,” she said, joining him. “Here.”
He wiped his hands and replaced the rag. “There’s some really great jazz and blues clubs in the area. Have you been to any of them?”
She smiled at the memories he evoked. “Not recently.”
“Well, there’s a place down on Merrick Road, east of here, the Blues Basement.” He repositioned his cap’s visor. “They play a bunch of the old stuff with some new twists. It’s pretty good. There’s a lot of local talent that are regulars. You ought to check it out sometime.”
“Didn’t that used to be the Owl’s Nest?”
He smiled at her mention of it. “Yeah, I think it was, right up till the last few years. A lot of the old guys have died out, but some of the new ones do a pretty good job.”
“So, you like the newer renditions?”
A slow but full smile lit his face as he slipped his hands into his front pockets. His eyes flickered. “I like the old and the new.”
They faced each other, each leaning against their own car. The sun dipped below the horizon, and seagulls called out as the music tape ran silent. Neither moved.
He didn’t seem like a pig, though she didn’t dare ignore the warning. Perhaps he just had a better handle on keeping his piggyness at bay when changing tires for stranded young ladies. Or perhaps he might be genuinely kind.
“It wouldn’t have been much fun changing my tire with sunburn,” she said. “Thanks for doing it for me.”
A gull swooped, distracting them for a moment. When their eyes again met, neither moved. The only thing that stirred was her stray lock of hair. She drew in a long breath.
He spoke up. “Maybe, we could meet up at a club sometime?”
Her eyes shifted.
He rebounded. “Or whatever you might be comfortable with.”
“That sounds like a lot of fun.” She bit her lip. “But … this just isn’t a very good time for me.”
“Okay,” he said, as if it were all the same to him.
Rather than turning and climbing into her car, as she should, she looked at him as if she were formulating a further response. She said nothing.
He removed his hat, swept his hair back, and extended his hand. “I’m Ian.”
She leaned into the formal introduction.
“Leila,” she said, withdrawing quicker than she would have liked. “I’ve never met anyone named Ian.”
“I’ve never met anyone named Leila.”
“Well … thanks again for the help.”
“It was my pleasure,” he said, but she didn’t give him a chance to say anything more. She rounded her car and slipped into the front seat with keys in hand, feeling his stare. As she started the engine, he tapped her passenger window and then retreated to the front seat of his Saab as she cranked the handle. He returned with the cassette tape that had been playing.
“It’s just a bunch of stuff I compiled. You might enjoy it,” he said, handing it to her along with a business card. “Just in case a better time comes along.”
She read the card. Ian Brigham—Photographer-at-Large—Portraits & On Location Photography. She grinned, thinking of her father. He used to call her ‘Leila-at-Large.’ She liked the coincidence.