The air is scented with honeysuckle and eucalyptus, purple nightshade and Indian paintbrush; the loamy smells of spring thrusting up after a rainswept winter. The wind touches your face as mild as a girl’s hand. It’s May, when Southern California weather is sunny, in the upper-70s, and you just turned eighteen so time goes slow; each day a fresh universe to explore. An age where whole years can be wasted and thrown away, but when you wake up dazed afterward, you can shake it off and still be young.
Billy Turner sits on a low sandstone wall at the corner of Valerio and Anacapa Street. It’s near four p.m., but, despite the shadows, it could be noon or late morning. No sense of impending anything, even the eventual darkness that will impinge upon the lazy day stretched out before him. Free from high school for the afternoon and soon forever, Billy is keenly aware that this is his moment, and he will never feel things with the same intensity again.
Someone trims a privet hedge nearby. A capped head materializes for an instant and waves. The cars softly whoosh as they glide by or turn on the corner, but they won’t screech and honk for another hour. Billy salutes the friendly gardener then dozes off, blanketed by the sun’s late afternoon warmth, his back against a madrone’s trunk rising just behind the landscaped wall.
“Out of school, Billy?” the mailman shouts and hops into his little post office truck.
Billy nods, already halfway sunken into a dream.
When his eyes open, he realizes it’s time to walk another block south, or is it southwest? Santa Barbara is confusing in that way. Toward the ocean, in any event.
“You’ll daydream half your life away,” his mother’s voice echoes.
Billy gets distracted by rustling sounds from high atop the line of towering palm trees. As a child, he imagined cute squirrels rooting around, but his father punctured that fantasy. “Rats,” he said. “Mangy, filthy rats.”
Beyond the sprouting manzanita bush, the ceanothus crowned in white flowers, and a house hidden by angular Italian cypress trees, stands a man of perhaps forty, his face sagging with loss.
“Are you a local?”
Billy smiles. “Yeah.”
“My dog Edgar is missing. A black lab.” He shades his eyes with a hand. “If you see him down by the park, will you—”
“Sure. Definitely.” Billy’s destination is only a half-block away, but he adds watching for dogs to his mental list. Continuing along, Billy hesitates beneath the momentary shade of a California bay laurel to study a jacaranda in full bloom. His mother once told him to focus on the powder blue-purple leaves in late May and hold them in memory because they would soon vanish until the following year. Billy hopes to remember the jacaranda even until tomorrow. His science teacher explained that the brain is made up of synapses, electrical sparks. Billy’s mind sparks from one thing to another but never retains much from the past. At least that’s what the Principal told his parents.
Billy plunks down near the corner of Arrellaga Street. He is waiting for a girl. Was her name Anna? She was seventeen, maybe sixteen, though it doesn’t really matter. Two months ago, she filled his brown paper bag with Pop Tarts, Lean Cuisine for his mom, Reese’s Pieces, and Tab at the Safeway on Victoria Street. Billy said something funny in passing, which he couldn’t recall, but she laughed then gave him a piercing look. Even though he’d never felt that intensity before, he knew, instinctively, that she was interested. This bag girl saw a quality in him that was worthy, and for a suspended second she remained frozen in waiting, curious, open to suggestion. He wore her admiration like a just-crowned prince. However, Billy broke the spell by grabbing his bag and loping out of the store. He’d been so unaware then.
Spring term of senior year had only begun. The one time in his short life when Billy felt special, even earning grudging respect from teachers. After the supermarket incident, Billy expected that girls in his class—as well as those in tenth or eleventh grade—would treat him with similar interest and that such an occurrence would be commonplace. He was wrong. Females didn’t stare with longing across the classroom. All except Monica Walsh, who wore Coke-bottle glasses and had a mouth still imprisoned behind silvery braces.
So now, Billy returns to the same spot each day. The teenagers who work part-time at Safeway get off their shifts after four and walk, take the bus, or bike down Anacapa Street toward their houses. The route passes manicured parks and landscaped residences, rather than the bland storefronts of State Street. Billy will remind the bag girl who he is, say something amusing to jostle her memory, then walk her home.
Various girls stroll by and glance at Billy since he is a high school senior, and he smiles lazily, but they stare at the sidewalk because they are not Anna or Lana. Or was it Diana?
He shuts his eyes to summon her. Dishwater blonde hair and she ties it back in a ponytail during work. On occasion, she wears Heidi braids. Billy imagines the passage of years, her glowing at his side.
Footsteps alert him. Another teenage girl appears, hair color familiar, but she shows a longer nose and is sweaty from running. Billy notices slim headphones attached to a cassette player.
“Do you know Anna? Or Diana?”
She smirk-smiles and shakes her head.
“Hey, what is that?” He points at her listening device as she pauses, sucking in air.
“Seriously? It’s a Walkman.” She exhales.
“I fell asleep for a moment…” Billy’s not sure what he’s trying to say. He strokes his cheeks noting the sandpaper of an incipient beard.
“Bill? Bill Turner?” she asks.
“Call me Billy.”
“Still?” She squinches her nose. “Are you back in town?”
“Uh, never left. Going to college in the fall.”
“Law school, medical?”
“No, basic studies. Not really sure what I want to do.”
She utters something between a cough and a snort. The girl has transformed into a bird, communicating in non-verbal sounds. Squawks and caws that carry judgments and opinions.
He studies her. “You look my age but I don’t recognize you.”
“Jenny Lewis. I was five years behind you.”
Jenny’s expression sours. “Do you need help?” When he doesn’t reply, she jogs off toward Alameda Park, sneakers slapping the pavement.
The weather remains comfortable. The warmth of the day pooling into this moment until Billy succumbs to the drowsy spell of afternoon. It’s cooler in the dark of his mind, within hollows and caves he rarely explores. He startles awake again. The sun sits lower, diffused through the leafy spread of high branches.
A young Asian woman approaches.
“Do you work at Safeway?”
“Safeway?” Her mouth twists.
“Yeah, over on Victoria Street.”
“Safeway is closed. That’s a Vons now.” She sighs. “Are you alright, mister?”
“I’m not a mister. I’m Billy.” Maybe she considers him an adult. He mulls over her words.
She squints. “You’re Bill Turner. Sorry to hear about your parents…”
“Oh, they argue and fight a lot. Nothing new about that. I’ll see them later at dinner.”
“Both of them, together?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Do you need me to call anyone?” The woman turns nervous, neck jerking like a skittish horse.“Well, uh, good luck.” She hurries away.
Billy waits and waits as car traffic boils up at the cross streets and long shadows cast by trees and houses advance toward him. More girls rush by, some Caucasian, others Hispanic, and then dressed-up, working women tap by on heels, delivery guys pedal bikes, joggers pant, and middle-aged men walk dogs and whistle. Still, no sign of her.
Billy prepared funny lines that he can’t recall now. The watch he wore earlier is missing. No one will scold Billy if he doesn’t get home by dinner. His father may frown while continuing to read the papers. His mother might say, “I’m really disappointed in you,” and that’s much worse. Billy’s face droops into the cup of his hands to exist somewhere between imagination and a reverie.
He pulls out of his trance, bare forearms shivering. The world around him has gone dark. Streaks of salmon pink show far to the west, up high and lonely, while a powder blue color dies in the sky overhead. People still walk dogs, but they use flashlights. Others race by holding objects to their ears while yelling into the air. Billy stands, his spine aching. He trudges a few steps and his feet hurt, as if they went on a long mountain hike without him. Billy sinks back down on a limestone property wall.
Bright lights flash in strobing colors as a car hugs the curb. Two officers converge upon him. “Sir, you’ve been here all day, and now it’s night,” one says. “Local neighbors called us. You can’t sleep outside in public.”
“It’s Turner,” the other cop tells his younger partner. “William Turner. He’s harmless.”
“No, my name is Billy. I’m about to head home.” He gestures toward Mission Street. “Need to get back or my mom will be pissed.”
The two cops look at one another. “Uh, William. I mean, Billy,” the second officer says. “Where is your home?”
“134 West Mission,” Billy answers. “It’s a big house. My dad bought it years ago. Look, I’m not a runaway. I’m eighteen, man. An adult.”
“134 West Mission is an apartment complex,” the first officer says. “Mostly studios and one-bedrooms.”
The second cop shushes him. “Billy, can we drive you home?”
“It’s just six blocks, an easy distance once I’m rested.”
“Serenity House is three miles away, at the far end of Milpas Street.”
“Why would I want to go there? I’m late. My folks will be worried.”
The cops confer and the first ducks into their car. “We can’t force you to come with us,” the other says. “But you can’t stay here. How about my partner calls Serenity to send a van?”
“No way, I’m walking home.” Billy thrusts himself upward and lurches to the north beset by aches, a dull pain throbbing in his back teeth.
“I wish you’d go the other direction.” The officer points toward the ocean.
Billy struggles up the gradual slope toward Mission, breath heavy, the evening wind raking his face and he feels its chill on his scalp. Touching his head, his hair is sparse and wiry. The night birds that had flitted about tree branches are replaced by bats swooping through the air.
Billy smells his father’s musky aroma and feels reassured, until he realizes the odor is his own. Once familiar houses now look unfamiliar. His tired feet tromp across jacaranda flower petals, then crunch on palm fronds. Is that the same distraught man still searching for his dog? No, this fellow is ancient, wrinkled into a button-down shirt and boxer shorts, and he calls out, “Dudley?”
The air comes scented with honeysuckle and the tang of eucalyptus. How many days, months, years has Billy waited for her? Anna, Lana, Diana? It seems like forever; perhaps, it was just another long drowsy spring afternoon in Santa Barbara.
Max DeVoe Talley is the author of the novel Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow. His short fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review, Del Sol Review, The Opiate, and Thoughtful Dog, among others, and is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast. Talley was born in New York City and lives in Southern California.