Part 5. Stormy Beach
= 11. =
With a full tank of gas, and a full stomach, Martin Brown steered his white Elantra onto I-5 and blended into traffic. It looked like a smooth drive.
The sun set as Martin left San Diego behind.
To his left, over the glittering sea, a massive wall of dark-bluish-black cloud moved in. All that was left of the day was a thin ribbon of light stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. In the midst of that, the sun sank like a giant yellow egg yolk swimming in reddish cocktail sauce. All that was needed now were a bowl of giant shrimps or crab cocktail. Martin grinned at this cleverness. He had eaten and, if anything, he might grab another cup of coffee along the way, but he felt upbeat and good and happy. Wow. What a beautiful, wonderful girl this Chloë was. And why did she have the two little dots over her e if they weren’t an umlaut as in German?
He daydreamed as he drifted along in a current of ruby red taillights.
A little bit north of Carlsbad but still south of San Onofre, he heard a clanking, clattering noise somewhere deep in the bowels of the car.
Oh my lord now what?
The oily gods of the machine were going to rain on his parade.
The clattering sound got worse.
He drove past a sign that read, You are leaving San Diego County.
Moments later, a second sign passed by, which read, Welcome to Orange County.
Reluctantly, he fought his way over to the right lane and pulled over onto the shoulder.
The first stinging pits of drizzle began to pepper his face as he got out and started a walk-around inspection. A cold, damp wind set in. The sun was just about gone now.
He could not see anything immediately, obviously wrong. He knew virtually nothing about cars. The tires were inflated and looked good. He crouched low and stared under the car in the failing light. Nothing was dripping. He sniffed, and could not detect any oily or burning or other weird smells that shouldn’t be.
He heard himself emit a single sob of utter frustration. He could be in LA intwo hours with the dream of his life, and here he was on a grimy freeway, smelling the exhaust of a million cars, and weeping with the melancholy secrets of myriad red warning lights heading who knows where.
"This cannot be!" he shouted, raising his face and arms to the sky.
When he got in and started the car, it coughed and choked. It rattled reluctantly into life, like an animal in pain. He thought of Chloë with her leg up. Maybe the Elantra needed to have its leg up. Then the car died with a few last racking, wheezing shakes and moans. He could not get it going again. The starter barely coughed, but would not turn over.
Perplexed, he got out and scouted the landscape as twilight fell and a light drizzle grew.
How quickly one became soggy in the sleet, or was it tears streaming down one’s cheeks?
A wind picked up as well. A large cardboard box flattened and mangled in traffic came twirling by in a slipstream of black exhaust fumes.
He spotted the next exit a short distance ahead. To the left, on the other side of the freeway toward the beaches and towns, he saw a cluster of bright lights. They advertised food, gas, lodging, and presumably comfort or at least car repairs. Who on earth would work on a car unexpectedly at this hour of evening? He had no choicehe must try.
He got the car started once again and crawled along the shoulder until he could roll down the exit. A few drivers honked at him in annoyance, but most people were understanding. He drove slowly, keeping his hazard flashers on to signal that he was having car trouble. At the bottom of the exit ramp, he rolled carefully through a stop sign and took a left. Rumbling and bucking, the car took him under an overpass, west down a hill into a coastal town he’d never heard of.
It looked sort of pretty, except for the ominous darkness of the storm. Lights spread out before him, and beyond that the dark line of the beach, and ultimately the gloomy smoke that was now a dark and stormy night full of rain and wind all the way out to sea. The horizon had become invisible. There wasn’t a star to be seen. Droplets began to fall on the window, rolling down the glass. Rain went pong, pong on the metal roof.
Luckily, the road toward the beach went downhill. Droplets rattling on the roof were the only sound. The engine was dead. He was simply rolling.
Three roaring cars in a pack swerved around him with blaring horns as their drivers raced toward the beach.
He needed to get as far from the traffic as possible.
He also realized with a further sinking feeling that he couldn’t even see the lights from that food-gas-lodging area. He was marooned in a small beach town on a stormy evening. Maybe he would bite the bullet and hire an Uber to drive him to the nearest bus or train station, and from there he could make his way to Los Angeles. It was a plan. Once in LA, he could Uber the last few miles to Chloë’s apartment. It would give him a good excuse to spend the night, even if he had to sleep on the floor. Seeing her was the only thing he cared about, by hook or by crook.
He did have his cell phone. So he checked his location and, sure enough, he was pulled over at the curb overlooking a cul-de-sac that terminated at a row of concrete posts with heavy chains concatenated between each pair. He spotted a sandy space near the end of the street, and managed to get the car slowly rolling toward it. Even with the engine off, it made this clanking, grinding sound as if crocodiles were eating piles of empty tin cans.
He remembered that Joe Logan would be working at a bar this evening, not too far from here. But Joe would be tied up until the wee hours, so he kept that in reserve. Uber was now his best bet. He pressed the preset on his cell phone and waited. Nothing happened. He must be in a dead spot. If he went back to the top of the street, he might get the connection back on which he’d checked his GPS.
He did have a poncho in the trunk for occasions like this. He found a greasy old baseball cap in the back seat. That and the poncho would be his only protection against the elements. He checked to make sure he had his wallet in his back pocket. What else?
There was nothing else. There was only getting to LA now by any means possible.
So much for a quick two-hour ride. And some change.
Some change had turned into potential hours.
Nothing was going to keep him from finishing this trip. There would be milk and cookies at the end, and perhaps snuggling with his wounded friend. He daydreamed about how they would hold each other and never let go. They would whisper endearments and kiss each other’s hands, one little finger at a time. The intoxication of infatuation warmed him inwardly like brandy after frigid hours of skiing, as he sometimes did in winter months at Mammoth or at Snow Mountain.
He got out of the car, slammed the door shut without locking it, and started to hike back up the sidewalk. He saw about five houses on this side of the street, and an equal number on the other side. Each seemed to have one dimly glowing window, snuggled secretively and privately among huge old cypress bushes and brush cherry hedges. The anatomy of the neighborhood was not hard to figure. Beach houses tended to be small. Property was very valuable. Many such places were rentals, occupied by young working people, owned by wealthy absentee landlords. This would be a typical street, with parking prohibited, and signs forbidding skateboards and other nuisances of summer tourism. Here, even San Diego residents were considered tourists and outsidersif anyone even knew about a place like this. Locals would stroll down here on sunny days to walk on the beach, kick a foot into the surf, walk the dog, toss a stick, or stand gazing at distant ships.
Martin had not passed the first house, the first glowing window shrouded in cypresses, when a sudden downpour bashed down all around him. He was soaked, and ran for cover under a small overhang. As he did so, his feet clattered on the loose planks of a rickety wooden porch.
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