Carl Melcher… Into the Great Alone
His best dreams were the ones about young women. They were interested in him and took his arm as they walked and talked. They wore colorful dresses of smooth fabric that slid over their skin; they were slim and lithe, not big and tattooed like so many 21st century American women. Sometimes they slowly morphed into older women over the course of the dream, their hair turning grey or cropped short like cancer victims, but they were always petite with warm skin and serious, attractive faces that looked at him with respect and love. There was no sex, but there was a hint of it to come. These women wanted to be with him, and when he woke to find them gone he was always disappointed and sad for a while.
He washed his eyes, his face, combed his hair, worrying about how thin it was becoming. He went into the kitchen and ran the water for the coffee machine. As he put the coffee into the filter basket, Ziggy the dog and Suzanne the cat were close at his feet and he was careful not to tread on them. The house was cold and he knelt before the pot-bellied stove and balled-up some newspaper for fire-starter. He made a mound of it and lay a couple of pine cones and two logs over top. He lit the paper, closed the door and stood. Ziggy looked at him expectantly. Like him, the dog was now old.
“Okay, Ziggy. You and Suzanne are next.” He went into the shed, the two animals close behind. He filled Suzanne’s bowl with kibble and she jumped up onto the drier and put her head in the bowl as she ate, arching her back up to be caressed. Siamese were interesting cats, he thought. He gave Ziggy his kibble and went back into the kitchen, getting out his coffee cup and saucer. He turned on his laptop, logged on, and clicked on the streaming site for the talk radio show. The traffic report from the San Francisco Bay Area where he used to live and work was on. He listened with interest and some schadenfreude to the managed chaos that getting to work in the Bay Area had become. He had done it for 35 years and sometimes when he listened to all the problems it sounded like he had gotten out in the nick of time. His congratulatory back-patting was suddenly and guiltily tempered by the knowledge that his son, a young man, now had to contend with it every day.
He added sugar and creamer to his coffee, sat down at the table and wondered what the hell he was going to do all day.
I lived in a California town called Chilton, high up in the Sierras. The population was 2,000, equally divided between young families, many of them on government assistance, and retired couples living on fixed incomes, with just a hand-full of loners like me.
Situated smack dab in the middle of a National Forest, it was a beautiful place, but I wasn’t happy here. Don’t get me wrong; Ansel Adams would have loved living here, so would a lot of others. And I did, in the beginning, but not anymore.
Main Street was typical middle-America -- a small supermarket, a bank, a burger joint, a gas station, bar, motel, that sort of thing. We had three restaurants: a Chinese (bad), a Mexican (bad also), and a diner (awful).
In the summer the place bustled with tourists -- happy families of campers in town for hamburgers and ice cream, fishermen buying beer and bait in the supermarket, middle aged, elderly walkers with green eyeshades and ski poles, photographers and bird watchers setting their tripods up on the sides of the road by the lake, young millennial hikers, scruffy and dirty-looking like homeless people, down off the trails to pick up their mail and use the laundromat. For the locals there were neighbor’s barbecues, yard sales, church picnics… But when winter settled in (there were no nearby ski resorts), most of the businesses closed and the people on the street dwindled to a few, and after dark… nobody, nothing.
Now that I was divorced and living alone again, I did my best to keep busy. I did a little writing. I’d had a few books published over the course of my lifetime, but none of them really went anywhere. I still had the desire to write, to be a part of the culture, so I continued with it. When I tired of that and wanted some diversion, there was cable TV or internet chat on Facebook, videos; I saw -- fire fights and bombings in the Middle East, young men doing death-defying BMX bike stunts, ISIS atrocities, young Antifa toughs, their identities hidden under bandanas, throwing metal barriers into plate glass doors, street fighting. If you wanted real, rather than virtual, you could wander the aisles of the Dollar General, or join one of the church groups or go to the AA or Overeaters Anonymous meetings. I’d never been much of a joiner and so I often went out alone to walk.
There were only about ten of us in town that went out during the winter months -- the two most down-and-out drunks in town, Henry and Manuel (roommates), two middle-aged couples who fast-walked together, two retarded adult men who lived with a kindly Christian family, me and my dog, Ziggy, and Danni, the beautiful, retarded girl who spent a lot of time sitting on her bicycle wearing her Disney Aladdin helmet, calling out to passers-by for attention. Twelve years old, with long scalloped blonde hair, already filling out with little breasts and hips, she always wanted to pet Ziggy or take him for a walk, or come to my house. I felt sorry for her, but as an older, divorced man, I kept a safe distance. I couldn’t imagine how much her parents must have worried about her.
I’d been happy in Chilton with my second wife, Divina, for most of our eighteen months, and then we’d split up. I had thought we had it all and would go the distance, till death do us part. After all, we were both older. I was sixty-five, she fifty-five, and we lived a quiet life in a nice clean house in a safe little town. Yeah… I know what you’re thinking.
I don’t blame Divina entirely. It takes two to make a marriage soar, and two to rip its delicate diaphanous wings off. We’d had love, commitment, but now it was gone. Sometimes when I look back, I think Divina expected me to rein her in, to get physical with her like she got with me a couple times. I definitely got the feeling when we got into it a couple of times that she expected a physical response from me, a push or a slap. But I could never get physical with a woman. I figured that when things sank to that level it was time to move on. And in California, if a man hit his woman, even if she’d hit him first, he’d quickly find himself in deep legal trouble.
This was all my doing. I was the one who found Divina, a Filipina, on-line in Spain, pursued her, married her. It was all based on my loneliness, and on that devil, attraction. She had a Mona Lisa smile and a tiny, girlish figure. When we finally met on skype, I felt like it was just perfect.
I had started out on regular dating sites, but somewhere along the way I got switched onto this other site -- Asian Cutie. I don’t remember how that happened, but all of a sudden, after weeks of struggling to get women to respond to my ‘winks,’ young, beautiful, and aggressive, women appeared on the screen, all of them pleading to chat with me. I’m no fool. There are only a few reasons why a sexy twenty-something year-old girl would be interested in a sixty-five year-old American man. I had fun teasing them at first, but I wasn’t going to succumb to the ‘drooling old geezer/hot young chick’ fantasy. I was ready to drop it all when Divina gave me a ‘flirt.’ She was middle-aged, 55, but looked more like 40. Her smile caught my eye right away -- warm, etched with a tired, stoic cast, as if she’d seen it all and knew every game people played and was ready for the real thing. So was I.
I sat on the couch reading, Ziggy snoring at my feet, Suzanne reclining Sphynx-like behind me on the high back of the couch. I was alone a lot now. That’s not a pity play, just a fact, my new norm. The fan on the propane stove came on, pushing hot air into the room; flames rippled orange light onto the carpet. Ziggy raised his head inquisitively, then lay it down again. It was almost eleven at night and I had an hour before I had to be at work, graveyard shift. Outside, the temperature was 15 degrees. Going out was like jumping into a pool of chilled water. I sat for a while longer, then made a thermos of coffee, put it in my brief case and went out, locking the door.
I pulled up to the guard shack at the sawmill for my shift as a security guard. Up here there weren’t a lot of jobs available in the winter. Machinists and welders at the mill, gas station clerk, security guard at the mill, substitute teacher at the high school if you were degreed. I was, and I’d subbed there the semester before, but the kids were brats and I hadn’t liked it. So now I sat in a guard shack instead, making a patrol every hour or so, climbing steel catwalks around and over huge pieces of machinery that could grind a man to hamburger in seconds -- abraders that ripped the bark off of giant sequoia trees, high-speed band saws that sliced them into 2 x 10’s. As I walked my rounds in the cold and dark, I looked for signs of fire or pipes ruptured by the freezing cold.
I didn’t want to work; I was retired, but the spousal support I was paying to Divina every month, and the money I was sending to help my son through tech college, was more than was coming in every month from my SSI. And there were the occasional co-payments for medical bills, dental cleanings, new glasses, etcetera.
Things had been very different just a year earlier. I’d had money in my savings account and owned my own house. I still owned the house, but my savings account was almost exhausted. My marriage, and getting out of it, had been costly, but I still think I did the right thing. My lawyer said that if I had waited much longer I might have ended up losing my house.
Before Chilton, before my marriage to Divina, I lived in Concord in the San Francisco Bay Area and worked fifty five miles away at Western Aerospace. My son Anthony was living with me. I already had my little house up here in Chilton, which I was using as an occasional weekend getaway. I’d been with Western Aerospace for thirty years and was scheduled to retire in two more. I’d been separated from my long-time lady friend Lily for a couple years and divorced from my first wife for eleven. Things were quiet, settled, and boring. I felt like my health, and especially my sex, was slowly slipping away. What was the saying? Use it or lose it? Well, at sixty-five, how many years of a sex life does a man have left? Could be five years, could be twenty-five, could be one. Nobody knows. I had been sleeping alone too much and was in the most common kind of rut. You know, get up, eat, commute to work, work all day, commute home, make something to eat, clean up, watch a little TV because you’re too tired to do anything else, and go to bed. Repeat five days a week and recuperate on the sixth and seventh. Anthony, was twenty-five and in junior college. Like I had been at his age, he was still trying to find himself, vacillating between various jobs and being a student.
The only thing that made that phase of my life bearable was the knowledge that I was in the home stretch of my career at Western Aerospace, just a couple years from retirement. I knew I could put up with a few more years of anything, and I did. My day went like this: get up at four, drive to Frank’s, my carpool buddy’s place, by four thirty. We’d zip into the Starbucks at the strip mall. He’d run in to get his coffee. I’d wait. He’d come out and get in. Wordlessly I’d put the car in gear and take off. Going down 680, I’d do 75 like everybody else (actually, a lot of guys did 80 or more). We’d do the 65 miles in 36 or 37 minutes. It was easy. I’d put the car in cruise control and Frank would lie down in the back after he’d had his coffee, and go to sleep. One time his huge bulk rose up behind me and he said groggily, “where the fuck are we?” “Huh?” I said. I had gone two stops past our exit after evidently falling asleep at the wheel. But, as bad as my driving was, Frank’s was worse. When it was his turn I’d just lay down in the back and go unconscious, knowing that if he ran the car off the road at 85 mph, it was better that way. Fortunately that never happened. About 5:15 or 5:30, Frank would wake me as we rolled into the company parking lot. Since Frank was a manager, he worked ten hour days and so I had to as well. If we could have left earlier we could have avoided the worst of the evening commute, but often Frank wasn’t finished until 5:30 or 6:00. Then we’d get on the freeway and crawl home for two, two and a half hours. It was awful. Awful! That was my life for the two years after I’d broken up with my long-term (about six years) lady-friend, Lily. Then Western had a big meeting in an off-site conference hall and formerly announced the company’s poor performance, loss of contracts, and down-sizing. They had to jettison twenty percent of the workforce, enticing volunteers with generous severance packages. They asked for volunteers and mine was the first hand up.
Back then I went out on the occasional Friday or Saturday night to look for women. I found a couple, but we ended up dating for only a month or two. I wasn’t the kind of man that women instantly felt an attraction to; after a lifetime of experiences, I knew I had to work hard at it. So my choices seemed to be somewhat limited. I wasn’t tall, and women liked their men taller than themselves. And I was modest, not prone to bragging, and women liked men that were full of themselves, or at least that’s what I told myself in my jealous or down moments. Strangely, I did better with women from alien cultures. My first wife was Chinese, from Hong Kong. I met her in San Francisco on a blind date set up by one of my friends -- I had two of them, a Chinese man from Vietnam, and another guy from Thailand. After my marriage crashed and burned, I didn’t go out; instead I spent my time working and raising my son alone (the court had given my daughter back to her mother to raise). It was tough, but I had a little help from kindly neighbors who had two boys my son’s age, and I also belonged to a wonderful social support group of unmarried parents. We met on a regular basis to share our experiences as single parents, and the children got to interact with other children dealing with divorce or the death of a parent. It was a good concept and it helped me and my son a lot.
After about five years of singleness, I started making tentative attempts to meet women. I met Lily, also Chinese, at a singles’ dance in San Francisco. I truly didn’t have anything against American women, at least I didn’t think I did, but they just didn’t seem all that interested in me. Whereas, there were lots of Asian women in the San Francisco Bay Area and many of them seemed to fancy American men. When in Rome…
Like half the men at the club, the slow starters, I stood around between the dance numbers, drink in hand, trying not to look desperate as I sized up the women. Then Lilly made her entrance. She was, perhaps, a little over-dressed, in a gown of some kind, like she was part of a wedding party. I think others noticed that too. But she was beautiful. Her eyes were rounder than most Han Chinese, her skin lighter. She was not petite like many Chinese women, but my height and rather voluptuous. There had to have been an interloper high up in her family tree, perhaps a Silk Road foreigner hiding in the barn; what else could account for her exotic beauty? She moved about the club, her eyes downcast. Women this beautiful were usually not self-conscious and tentative; I couldn’t understand it. I watched her speak to a couple of men (she stayed well away from the women), but her conversations with them were brief. The men seemed uncomfortable with her, despite her beauty, as if she had some deformity which I couldn’t detect from the distance. Finally she came within range and I approached her. She was beautiful, but her gown -- pink and fluffy -- looked antique, like she’d found it on the set of Gone With the Wind or in a thrift store (later I would find out that she worked in a thrift store).
“Hello,” I said. “What’s your name?” Yeah, I know, I’m not exactly Mister smooth-talk.
“Are you a professional single?”
She brought her hand up to her mouth, giggling, “I sorry. I… I don’t speak good.”
“No, no, relax, I understand you just fine.” (This would, of course, eventually turn out to not be true.)
She had a primitive command of English, but I didn’t care. She hovered close to me for about an hour. We danced a few and I was astounded by my luck. The male swells in the room weren’t willing to invest a little more attentiveness and effort to converse with her, but I was -- their loss. Before I said goodbye, we exchanged phone numbers. For the next three days, she called every day when I was at work. My son took the calls. “Dad,” he said, “I think she’s really interested in you.”
For our first two or three months together, I couldn’t take my eyes off her, couldn’t believe my luck. Lily liked her sack time. Her husband hadn’t been too interested -- turns out he’d had something on the side -- and Lily seemed to be trying to make up for lost time. Once, at her insistence, we made love in a copse of bushes in Golden Gate Park. Lily had never made love outdoors and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. After driving around, I found a spot that looked safe. Golden Gate Park had a homeless population in the thousands and I’d seen some of them close-up. They were not kindly, aged hippies, but feral, mean drunks, druggies, and criminals. I was nervous and on my guard for the approach of anyone, and so it wasn’t good for me, but we managed to pull it off. Lily seemed to have been simply satisfied to cross it off her list. Fortunately, most of our lovemaking was in my bed and she was playing catch-up. For the first couple months I was happy to comply, but eventually I slowed down a little, wanting and needing to get enough sleep after the toll of working and commuting. Lily, however, was relentless and usually got her way.
One day Divina asked me to take her to the bank so she could open up her own checking account. I had opened up a joint checking account for us when she’d arrived, giving her responsibility for managing the household expenses. The money for this was direct-deposited every month from my SSI check. Now she wanted her own account to tuck away the money she was earning. We argued about it and she brought up the fact that I had my own savings account at a bank down in San Francisco. That was true, but this was for the money my employer had given me to sweeten my early retirement, before I met Divina. My pension, accumulated over a lifetime of work before I met Divina, also went into this account for our rainy day fund. I’d already taken from this account for occasional trips, luxuries, but I reserved the right to manage it myself.
We went into the Alpine Bank. The building was big, built forty-five years earlier when logging companies employed thousands up here -- a long counter with ten stations. Only three of them were open, the others roped off. The other side of the bank was dimly lit and devoid of customers, with a floor-to-ceiling diorama of a doe leaning down to nibble the grass, as above, a fanged mountain lion on a rocky ledge prepared to pounce.
I directed Divina towards Charlene, a talkative, friendly woman, Canadian by birth (we’d talked a few times before Divina arrived. I’m pretty sure she was interested in me, but I was already courting Divina on Skype at the time and I’m loyal to a fault, or a fool; take your pick.)
Charlene smiled. “What can I do for you two love birds today,” she said.
Divina’s face was taut. After a pause she said timidly, “I want to open an account.”
“Not a problem.” Charlene tapped at her keyboard. Adjusting her reader glasses, she studied the screen. The tellers on either side of us smiled as they busied themselves.
In the beginning, Divina did not work and that had been fine with me. After the required three-month wait, we submitted a Form I-765 work permit application as stipulated in the terms of her Fiancé Visa. There really was no need for her to work. I owned my home and we had no rent to worry about and could live comfortably on my social security. That made our marriage wonderful in the beginning… waking up every day not having to fight the hordes of commuters to get to a job you didn’t like, a cranky boss, catty co-workers, tedious Quality Control meetings, long commutes home. And when you arrived home you spoke a few pleasantries to your wife or husband, made dinner, washed and put away the dishes, then sat together on the couch, both of you too tired to do much but yawn and watch TV in a daze. Then it was time for bed, but only for sleep, because you were too tired to do anything else.
“You already have a checking account,” said Charlene, “is this a new one?”
“That’s right,” I chimed in -- the loyal, supportive husband -- “we have a joint account. But this one is for Divina.”
I noticed the other tellers react slightly, an eye blink, a tightening of facial muscles. When Divina had told me she wanted her own checking account, I’d felt a rift opening between us. But what could I do? This was 21st Century America, California… She was an adult and had a job now, two actually. I could see that the tellers found the whole business curious and I wondered how long it would be before half of Chilton would be discussing it over dinner.
Charlene knew that Divina was in the country on a 90-day fiancé visa because when we opened our joint account, Divina still had only her Philippine passport for identification. She’d arrived in autumn as the weather was beginning to cool. Here, 5,000 feet up in the Sierras, we had four seasons. Three were wonderful, but winter, the longest, was harsh and not for the faint of heart. I’m talking ten degrees at night, sometimes ten below, highs in the low-thirties during the day, and snow, lots of it, measured in feet, not inches. Hard to believe for California, right?
In order to satisfy one of the requirements of the visa we had to get married within ninety days. But we got along so well that two weeks after she arrived we decided to drive over to Reno Nevada and marry in one of the little boutique wedding chapels. Snow was threatening and I had no chains for the pickup, but we took a chance and went for it. And although the skies were grey and portentous, we made it there okay. It was great. We went shopping at the mall, had lunch, got married, saw a movie, and honeymooned overnight in one of the casinos, arriving back in Chilton the next morning.
At that time, due to the terms of the visa, Divina couldn’t work, and so most days we were forced to hang out at home next to a toasty-warm wood stove, watch TV, read, or growing bored with that, catch a little afternoon delight in the bedroom, actually a lot of it. It was wonderful, let me tell you.
We had four wonderful months like that -- long, leisurely breakfasts, comforting walks around the town, watching the river skin over with ice, the trees along the banks turn crystalline white with frost. Then we’d head home where I’d pull her into the bedroom. Forget the old adage about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach. There was a better route and Divina knew it well. Afterward, we’d have a nice nap, then leisurely preparations for dinner. Divina was a great cook. I loved her Pork Adobo.
Then Divina informed me that the money she had brought with her, (I hadn’t known about it) that she had been sending home to her parents every month, had run out. She told me that her parents depended on it to live, and that I could either take over the monthly allotments or she would have to go to work.
I crunched the numbers; it wasn’t good. If I took over the payments, we’d have a negative cash-flow. If a disaster befell us, like the truck’s engine blowing out, or the roof beginning to leak, we’d have no money to cover it. That would mean a loan, maybe a lien on the house, which after saving for it over a lifetime, I absolutely did not want. I told her that if she wanted to work it was fine with me. It would take away some of our leisurely honeymoon time, but the alternative bothered me more.
We looked through the want-ads in the local paper. The only thing Divina qualified for was in-home elder care. The salary wasn’t bad for up here (most folks made minimum wage, and I’m not talking about high school kids, but rather adults with high school kids); it payed eleven bucks an hour and included a health care plan paid for by the agency if the employee worked a minimum of thirty hours a week. The only problem was that Divina did not drive and the clients were too far for her to walk to. So I retired from my retirement to go to work as Divina’s driver. I’d do my thing at home until the phone rang, and then off I’d go to Uber her to the next client’s place. I didn’t mind, of course; that’s what husbands do.
Don’t get me wrong. After Divina went to work it was still good between us, at least for a while. She was ten years younger than me, so I had already considered that she might want to go back to work. While she was gone I spent my time reading, going on Facebook. And the sex was still good, although there wasn’t as much of it. Despite that, I had more sex with Divina in these eighteen months than I’d had with my first wife over fourteen years of marriage.
To her credit, Divina was a hard worker. Her clients liked her, and within a month she had a full dance card as word of her work-ethic spread. She had no problem making thirty hours a week. Then she heard of an opportunity at the supermarket, one of the few businesses in town open all year long. She got hired. Now she was working sixty hours a week. Of course things began to slowly change.
Divina had been sending her parents $750 a month. Now she was earning $2300 a month and it was all going back to the Philippines. Her finances had tripled and I was the one who had made it all possible. I should’ve been a UN poster boy for supporting Women’s Empowerment; I should’ve been happy. But instead I felt used. On the other hand (why does there always have to be an ‘other hand?’), it was her money. It would have been nice though if she would have put some of it in the community pot. Despite all of this we still got along okay and we still had great sex.