More than anything, I like reading. I’ll read anything, but when I’m looking for a comfortable place in my mind, I turn to murder mysteries. Reading takes me places I’ll never go and lets me hang out with people of superior intelligence, insight, courage, eccentricities, gumption, mastery, majesty, endurance, and fun that don’t exist in my mundane, but pleasing, life. When I read a mystery, I do so knowing that everything will land on the side of justice, and boy, are we ever in short supply of that in this modern world. Murder mysteries also take me for a walk on the wild side, where people kill each other, which is simply not the polite thing to do in the real world I inhabit.
Or is it?
When I stop and think about it, which I don’t like doing, I realize my life has been intimately touched by murder two times. My first encounter with murder was tragic and took me into a world I didn’t want to stay in for too long, so I got out and stuffed it far away in my mind so I could pretend such things didn’t happen, that I hadn’t seen what I’d seen, or entered a world too overwhelming to handle. My second encounter with murder has been harder to shake.
I’m going to dump that murder here and hope this is where it stays. I’m tired of having it come to mind out of the blue and bedeviling me, reminding me that murder is real and the average person can rub shoulders with it on a daily basis without even knowing. I’d like to stop thinking about Stan and the horrible history packed with nightmarish memories he carries with him.
I want to pretend it’s not true. I want to pretend it’s a story trapped on paper and close the book.
So here goes.
The desert suburb we lived in had it’s focal point, which was the large patio of the Starbucks attached to Barnes & Noble. On any given day, even during the big bust days of this recession, that patio was packed with people. Some were out for a treat, but most were coffee addicts, a.k.a. The Regulars. My husband and I were part of The Regulars and had a whopping good time hanging on that patio, brew in hand, and talking with the mixture of people that came and went for their fix, stopping for a chat as they did so. Addiction is a vampire, and all blood tastes as sweet to its cravings, regardless of gender, age, or income bracket. We coffee addicts were a mix of people spanning a wide spectrum of human variety.
Stan was one of the most interesting. He was tall with long, flowing blond hair down to his muscular butt, and bold facial features that made Fabio look like a girl. Whatever the time of year, he wore cut off shorts and tight-fitting tank tops, along with a glaze of sunshine that turned his skin a deep, dusky bronze. But you know how some people are butt ugly, but you forget how ugly they are because of their big, glowing, outrageous, and entertaining personalities? That was Stan, only in reverse. I may have registered his hunk-a-hunk-a California-beach-boy good looks when we first met, but all that was forgotten once his personality took over.
He called everybody “sweetheart,” or “buddy” or “pal” or “darling” with convincing enthusiasm that made us all believe we were God’s favored children, and he knew who God loved best. His voice was big, but nowhere near as big as his laugh. I worked at B&N for a time, and even when I was way back in the storage room, I knew when Stan was in Starbucks getting one of his five-per-day venti coffees with two shots of espresso. I could hear his laughter even when I was buried in books and behind two sets of doors, that’s how big it was. The only time he ever used profanity was when someone started in on feeling sorry for themselves, then he’d whip out a unique invention of cuss words like pistols and shoot down that self-pity, telling whoever was weeping that life was good, life was short, cut the crap and laugh, then he’d throw back his head and show them how real laughter was done. He was a master.
That’s why it was such a surprise when my husband and I came to the patio one day and found Stan looking a bit down in the dumps. We asked him what was going on, but he just brushed it off by saying it would be three more minutes before the coffee was done brewing, and he hated waiting. It was through some of the other Regulars that we learned Stan was having bizarre health problems. He was passing out without warning, just dropping flat out cold. Stan was a handyman, so passing out knocked him out of work, and he couldn’t drive a car. There were enough Regulars to drive him around for groceries and his time on the patio with his Regulars, but his episodes of instant swooning put a cramp in his free-wheeling lifestyle.
Stan spent more time than usual on the patio during the days when the doctors were trying to diagnose his problems, and that’s when we got to know more of his story. His passing out had something to do with his heart, but that didn’t scare him. It turned out he’d been having heart problems since he was in his early 20s. He told us he was accustomed to his heart cutting out on him, but not this often. He was pissed. He also knew that one day his heart would cut out and stay out, but that didn’t seem to bother him. The man knew his days were numbered, yet there was no false bravado when he said the only difference between him and other people was his awareness of his own mortality. He also told us he’d never had a headache in his entire life. Not one, and he couldn’t even imagine what they felt like.
As the weeks of dead-end medical testing wore on and Stan’s episodes of passing out tapered off, his kick-ass personality returned. And so did his laugh. It turned out that most of his moodiness was due to his doctors telling him he had to lay off coffee for a time, and, as he put it, stick with mother-fuckin’ water until excessive caffeine consumption was ruled out as a cause of his heart problems. Once he was back guzzling coffee, he was a happy camper, despite living in the valley of the shadow of death. He was feeling good and started talking about his kids, which was a huge surprise. We didn’t even know he was a single father raising two teenagers, let alone the high standards he expected of them. From the way he talked, and what the Regulars told us about him and his kids, he was the kind of dad everybody wished they’d had. Seriously? Free-wheeling, raggedy-rugged Mr. Good Times was a hard-nosed father with a mortgage and a loving iron fist for two kids?
Stan’s enigma grew as we got to know him better. What an odd and beautiful creature he was, and I’m not talking about his looks. Those had already disappeared, remember?
It took about 6 weeks for Stan’s beautiful body to completely stump the doctors and give him back his car keys and job. No reason could be found for him dropping like a rock, and by the time all the test results were in, he was standing strong and conscious.
Stan, the man, was back.
Life on the patio was back to normal, and life was good for the rest of that summer, all through the fall, and straight on through the holidays.
It was February when we first sensed something was off balance. Something felt weird, and the only thing my husband and I could see that was different was Stan’s pants—he was wearing full length jeans. Stan was oblivious to weather, except for the heat, which he loved and couldn’t get enough of. He’d been in shorts every time we saw him, even when he was passing out without warning and decorated with gaze and tape where he’d torn off skin during a fall. What was up with the jeans? Everything else was the same, including that laugh, but those jeans…Nope, not right. The easy good time on the patio continued, so neither my husband nor I let our focus drift to the oddity of those jeans.
At least not until one particularly crowded night on the patio when Stan came over to our table and asked if we could go somewhere and talk.
Sure. Anything for Stan.
We followed him to a corner of the patio, where we all sat down. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped and dangling between his legs, and his head bent and silent for longer than I’d ever heard the sound of silence that was in Stan. He finally lifted his head and looked me straight in the eye. It was the first time I noticed what a cold, brittle shade of blue his eyes were.
“I need a favor,” he said, then turned those blue eyes on my husband.
“Sure,” we both said in the syncopated rhythm of our 25 years together. “What do you need?”
He told us he needed us to write letters, lots of letters, and the reasons for those needed letters was one of the most gruesome murders ever committed in our desert town, or anywhere. A murder with fingers laced deep inside Stan, and soon to reach out and put us in their hold, pulling us in so close we couldn’t escape the smell of flesh rotting in the desert sun for eight of the longest days of the year.
And here’s the part where I duck and run, leaving this story hanging on the edge of imagination’s cliff. I’d accuse myself of playing dirty tricks with this blog, but the truth is I can’t take much more of what went down past this point. It got ugly, and I think I may have betrayed Stan as things unfolded. Right now I don’t want to think or write about it. I just want to stay with the best of my memories of Stan, the patio, The Regulars, and all that good coffee with good people in a world where murder was still a flat cartoon character sketched on newspaper headlines and read from the pretty bobble-heads on the nightly news reports.
My apologies, but some elephants have to be eaten one bite at a time.