Chuck Lang Kicks Ass
L. L. Babb
Chuck Lange and I are sitting on the beach when we both notice the car pull in next to his Honda on the bluff overlooking the cove. Chuck is up on one knee orating about the prospect of our future together, or what’s left of our future, since he is closing in on seventy and I’m no spring chicken myself. I’m sure a marriage proposal is forthcoming, though I wish he’d picked a nice restaurant at a reasonable hour instead of midnight on the beach. Chuck probably thinks this is romantic. In my opinion, we’re sitting a bit too close to the water, but I am determined to shut up and trust that Chuck knows what he is doing. Still, here it is, probably the one and only marriage proposal I’ll ever receive and I’m huddled in a blanket from the trunk of Chuck’s car, the stench of his spare tire competing with a pile of rancid seaweed inching closer to us with each incoming wave.
From where we sit, the car’s headlights up on the bluff are two more full moons in the black sky. Chuck continues holding my hand and intoning his love for me but his eyes keep flickering sideways to the bluff and soon he loses his train of thought altogether. His voice trails off. The only sound is the roar of the waves. The bluff is half a football field away. From up there, Chuck and I probably look like a couple of abandoned beach umbrellas. The park technically closes at midnight. The sign is posted right next to where Chuck’s car is parked. We’ll probably get cited, maybe even arrested, and I’ll have one of those quirky little stories to tell about the night Chuck and I got engaged. I’ve always wanted a quirky little story to tell about something.
The headlights blink off and the retina memories float in little circles in front of my eyes like ghosts. Chuck squeezes my hand with his icy fingers and goes back to the beginning of his speech, speaking with a new urgency about how sometimes you find real love late in life and how sweet a May–December romance can be, though he’s being generous. Ours is closer to an October–November romance.
I glance up at the bluff. The car doesn’t have any paraphernalia on the top like a police car would, and a park ranger would drive a pickup or an SUV. This car looks like black ice on wheels, wide and low, flattened out, waiting.
Then the doors of the car pop open and several shadows emerge, swarming around Chuck’s car.
“Son of a goddamn bitch,” Chuck says, lurching to his feet, which makes me terrified and excited at the same time. It’s not exactly an unpleasant sensation—it’s like that feeling you get when you’re waiting to board a roller coaster. I’ve heard so many stories about Chuck from Chuck—bar fights with cue sticks, shoving matches over parking spaces, ear-twistings of insolent teens, drinks thrown in restaurants. Chuck was in the Marines. He was a vice principal at a high school in the inner city. Chuck has always let me know that he doesn’t take shit from anyone, ever. There is something primal, cave-dwelling about Chuck that’s barely hidden under the surface and now it’s finally emerging and I’m here to see it.
Thirty or forty years ago, Chuck wouldn’t have given me the time of day. I’m guessing he’s gotten a lot less picky as he’s aged. I’ve always been a bit unkempt and overweight, what I like to call the “natural look.” But Chuck is the kind of take-charge man I’ve been attracted to my entire life. He makes me feel feminine and taken care of. At sixty-four, I’m ready to be taken care of. Love is overrated. Give me someone I can depend on. All my former lovers have been pacifists, poets, and ministers’ sons. Kind men. Wishy-washy men. Not one backbone among them. With Chuck, everything is black and white, right or wrong. He’s a Republican.
“Stay here, Louise,” Chuck says, but I’m certainly not going to wait on the beach. I can’t tell if the tide is coming in or going out. And how many more chances in my life will I have to see Chuck in action?
Chuck is compact and fit for his age. By the time I gather up the unopened bottle of champagne, the two plastic glasses and my packet of tissues, Chuck has disappeared. I hobble after him. One of my feet has fallen asleep. The blanket keeps bunching up between my knees so I leave it at the bottom of the steep trail that leads up to the parking lot and I take a moment to catch my breath. Twenty minutes earlier, on the way down to the beach, Chuck had reached back with one hand to guide me. “I’ve got you,” he had said. “Trust me.” It made me feel delicate and fragile, though in truth if I tripped and fell I would most likely crush him beneath me. Now, as I gingerly pick my way up the path in the dark, I hear shouting and a man who is clearly not Chuck laugh. I keep going until I can just peek over the edge of the bluff into the parking area.
A young man is sliding something long and metallic down along the driver’s-side window of Chuck’s Honda. His underwear glows in the moonlight over the top of his jeans. A girl with limp blonde hair is leaning against the Honda, smoking a cigarette. A second man, the size of a professional football player, is straddling Chuck’s chest, pinning Chuck’s arms to the ground with his hands. Chuck’s legs flail around as if he’s lost the pedals to an invisible bicycle.
I crouch down, considering my options. My heart is beating like mad in my throat. My cell phone is in my purse, in the car, but there’s no reception out here on the coast anyway. Chuck doesn’t seem to have the situation under control, but he could be faking it, biding his time before he makes his move. I seem to remember him mentioning something about a black belt in karate. Or was it kung fu? It was something that depended on the element of surprise.
“Come on, Eddie,” a male voice says. “Hurry up.”
I poke my head up again.
“Give me a minute.” The guy at Chuck’s car jerks up on the piece of metal, then swears.
The girl takes a long drag on her cigarette and blows a webby stream of smoke into the night. “Let him keep trying,” the girl says. “How’s he gonna learn?” She turns to Eddie. “You’ve got to feel it catch before you pull up.”
Eddie pulls at the metal piece, then swears again.
“Get the fuck away from my car,” Chuck growls.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man straddling him says, “is this your car?” His tone is surprisingly polite. For all his size, he has a boyish, innocent face. For a moment I wonder if I’ve misread the entire situation. Maybe these people are former students of Chuck’s. Maybe this is how they roughhouse and greet each other.
“Time’s up, Eddie,” the football player says. “Carla, a little help here?”
The girl drops her cigarette and crushes it with the toe of her shoe before lifting herself wearily from Chuck’s car.
“See if his keys are in his pocket, will ya?” the man asks.
“Yuck,” Carla says, but she bends down next to Chuck, who groans and bucks his hips without much effect. She makes a face as she sticks her fingers into Chuck’s pocket. But her expression changes when she pulls out a tiny blue box. She sucks in her breath.
My engagement ring.
“I’m warning you,” Chuck says, as menacing as a man can sound while lying on his back.
Carla stands and turns so that the moon is behind her, opens the box, and squints down into it. And then, as if she’s connecting the dots on a diagram, she looks straight over in my direction and locates my head floating in the shadows at the top of the trail.
I can’t think of anything to do but to smile idiotically and give a little wave.
“I told you he wasn’t alone,” Carla says, without taking her eyes off me.
Everyone turns to look at me, including Chuck. Chuck’s skin is grey, there’s a trickle of blood on his chin, and his slick white pompadour is splayed out on the asphalt like an angry cockatoo.
“Run, Louise,” Chuck says through clenched teeth, which makes the three young people laugh. I laugh too, nervously. I hope Chuck isn’t counting on me outrunning anyone.
“Come here,” Carla says to me. I come. Up close, I can see dark hollows under her eyes and sores on her lips and cheeks. She looks like the type of girl who might have been pretty in high school and now won’t live to see forty. She looks at me with a steady, expressionless stare, taking the bottle of champagne and the glasses out of my hands. She puts everything in a pile on top of the trunk of the Honda along with the box holding my engagement ring.
“Would someone just get the keys?” Eddie says. He stuffs the piece of metal into the dangling back pocket of his baggy pants.
I guess it’s obvious to everyone that I don’t need to be thrown to the ground and sat on, so Carla steps over Chuck’s legs and tugs a keychain from his pants pocket. “Here,” she says, tossing it to Eddie.
Eddie and Carla slide into the Honda.
“For your information, ma’am,” the young man sitting on Chuck says, “this little guy here threw the first punch.” He grins at me, sharp white teeth glowing in the dim light.
“Do not talk to her,” Chuck says, in a terse, level voice, “or I will kill you.”
Carla emerges from the car with my purse and empties it out on top of the trunk. The moonlight changes the contents to black and white and softens the edges, but I can still clearly see as she pulls the three twenties from my wallet, fans my cards out and takes the American Express. She unzips my makeup bag and removes one item at a time—opening each bottle and tube and sniffing. She makes a pile on the trunk of the car—the bottle of champagne holding down the bills and the credit card, the box containing my engagement ring, my grandmother’s silver Art Nouveau compact, my cell phone, a pot of cherry-flavored lip gloss, my leather change purse, the tiny rabbit good-luck charm my brother sent me from Japan, an antique compass my dad gave me before he died. What she doesn’t want she drops onto the ground. The picture of a twenty-year-old Chuck in his Marine uniform, his face stern and menacing, flutters down and lands face-up on the asphalt.
I want to ask if I could just take a peek at my engagement ring but my teeth have begun chattering loudly, whether from the cold or from terror I can’t tell.
Then Eddie backs out of the car. “Holy shit. Look what I found under the back seat,” he says. At first it appears that he’s somehow pulled a large black bird from inside the Honda, its wings folded down, its beak pointed at the night sky. “It’s a fucking 45,” Eddie says. “I think it’s loaded.”
The night stands still for a moment. The gun looks inappropriate and grotesque clutched in Eddie’s bony fingers. His arm trembles under the weight of it. We all turn to look at Chuck, who purses his lips and closes his eyes as if every one of us is a disappointment to him.
“Well, awesome,” says the man sitting on Chuck. “Party’s over.”
“We aren’t going to shoot them, are we, Frank?” Eddie says, his voice thin and wobbly. An icy hand reaches up from inside me and squeezes my lungs so hard I gasp. Eddie, Carla, now Frank. We know their names. Everyone knows that once you know the names, you’re dead. We’re dead. There’s a panicked, mewling sound in the air and it takes me a few seconds to realize it’s coming from me. I stare at Chuck, willing him to look at me, to give me a signal to do something, anything, make a distraction, scream for help, offer to take them to an ATM and get them more money.
Chuck glowers up at the moon.
“Give that to me,” Frank says. He takes the gun from Eddie and points it at Chuck’s head as he backs off of Chuck and gets to his feet. This is the moment, I think, that Chuck has been waiting for. He will lunge for the gun or kick it out of Frank’s hand. I brace myself, but Chuck doesn’t move. He just continues glaring into the sky.
“Frank?” Eddie says, his voice rising up an octave. He looks as terrified as I feel. Here he is, moving up the ladder from grand theft to accessory on the big one. “Frank? What are we doing?”
Frank bobs the gun at Chuck. “Up on your feet, lover boy. You guys get going.”
At first I think he’s talking to Chuck and me, but Carla sweeps the pile on the trunk of the Honda back into the maw of my open purse and grabs the neck of the champagne bottle. “Let’s go,” she says to Eddie. She and my purse and the champagne and my engagement ring slide into the driver’s seat of Chuck’s car. “Keys,” she calls.
Eddie looks at Frank, then at me, his eyes wide. “Geez, Frank,” he says, backing away before trotting around to the passenger side of the Honda. After a second, Carla starts the engine and swings the car door shut.
Chuck is lying very still on the ground. His gaze drifts slowly from the sky to his car. I’m frightened he’s had a stroke or something, but as the Honda’s taillights start to recede out toward the highway, Chuck rolls onto his side and gets slowly to his feet. He puffs out his chest, then runs a hand through his hair, repositioning it somewhat. He unhurriedly brushes the sand off his shoulders, off the seat of his pants, still apparently not in the least bit shaken.
“Chuck,” I say quietly, trying to get his attention, but he doesn’t even glance in my direction.
“Let’s go for a stroll,” Frank says, “on the beach.” He points to the trailhead with the gun. “After you two.”
I go first, grabbing onto whatever vegetation I can reach to keep from stumbling forward or falling backwards and sliding down on my backside. Chuck is behind me, Frank following.
“Just keep walking,” Frank says when we reach the beach. We walk over driftwood and piles of damp kelp, into the soft grey sand, past the line of pebbles the tide has pushed to the edge of the ocean. I slow down when my feet start sinking into the wet slurry of a receding wave and I turn to look at Chuck. He says something out of the corner of his mouth but it’s lost in the sound of the surf. His eyes are steely, his jaw clenched. Is he trying to tell me the plan?
“Keep going,” Frank hollers from behind us. I inch forward toward the water. Baby steps. The wet sand squelches and squirts away under my feet. These are my best shoes, my best dress. I hold my arms out to the sides so I won’t lose my balance.
The water is breathtakingly cold. We move slowly forward—ankles, calves, knees. I can feel the undertow’s pull. In the moonlight, I can see the place where the incoming waves meet the outgoing ones. It’s like an open mouth, teeth chewing the water and sand, pulverizing and swallowing. A swell splashes halfway up my thighs. When I lift my foot to take another step, I lose my shoe. Chuck grabs my elbow, and I think he’s trying to steady me but he’s only trying to stop himself from falling down as the water recedes again. His expression doesn’t change as he struggles to stay upright, as if he believes that besting the waves is only a matter of a forbidding, straightforward stare out to the horizon. I doubt Chuck is seeing what I’m seeing—our lifeless bodies facedown in the moonlight, the surf pushing and pulling at our clothes. Someone’s dog will find us on the beach in the morning, or maybe one of us will wash up weeks from now on the rocks near Bodega Bay, a featureless lump of skin and bones, a soft-boiled egg of human flesh.
I shake Chuck’s grip off my arm. I can’t, I won’t drown. Maybe I can reason with Frank. Maybe I can appeal to the part deep down inside of him that has a mother or a grandmother. I will beg for mercy. A chant rises up in me and pushes past my lips, “Please, please, please, please…”
But when I turn around Frank isn’t there. I scan the beach for him, expecting at any second to see the flash of the gun. “Please!” I shout over the sound of the surf. I know how the bullet will come. It will rip through one organ or another and I’ll pitch facedown into the water, blood and salt water filling my mouth, my lungs. I’ll drown and bleed out. I’ve got to get back to dry land before he shoots. I start running through the surf as best I can, my legs numb from the cold.
A huge wave overtakes me from behind. It hits me like a shove between the shoulder blades. My feet lift off the ground, my other shoe disappears, and I’m running without touching the bottom, tripping forward, toes pointed like a ballerina. Frantically, I try to keep my body vertical and my head above the water. Foam surges up my neck. I can hear the hiss and pop of a million tiny bubbles close to my ears.
The roiling water, the salt and the sea stench reach my chin, my mouth, and I am thrown forward. Wet sand rushes up to meet me, the wave pulls back, and I am on the beach on my hands and knees.
Chuck rolls up several feet away like a log.
Two headlamps switch on up on the bluff. They blaze out over the ocean, then the lights slip backwards out of sight. There’s a glow of red, like a rising sun just over the crest of the bluff, and then there is nothing above us but the black sky and the moon.
Then Chuck is beside me, his fingers jabbing into my armpit, pulling me up. Another small wave flutters in, submerging our feet.
Chuck combs his wet hair with his fingers but it flops over to one side of his head in surrender. He turns his face to the bluff and growls menacingly, “I will hunt them down.”
Something small and hard moves up my throat and into the back of my mouth. I try to form a word, any word, but my tongue feels unfamiliar, like I haven’t used it in so long that I’ve forgotten how it works. I turn and ram both my hands into Chuck’s chest. He seems as light as a feather, like there’s nothing to him at all. He flies backward, arms wheeling, and lands on his backside in the retreating wave.
“What?” he sputters, astonished. “What?”
I turn and stalk up out of the surf, up the beach. When I’m sure the waves can’t reach me, I look back. Chuck is on his feet, smoothing his hair. Bathed in the luminous moonlight, he has the slick look of a mouse just plucked from a bucket.
Far out in the water there’s a dark, unmoving shape, a freighter or fishing boat. Or maybe a pirate galleon or a Russian submarine or a UFO. I read something once about how the American Indians wouldn’t have been able to see Christopher Columbus’s ships anchored offshore, that the ships were so outside the natives’ mental frame of reference they simply couldn’t perceive what was directly in front of them. I remember thinking at the time that the whole idea was nonsense. But now, I open my eyes as wide as I can and peer out into the night, hoping something astounding and true will make itself clear to me.
Many talented individuals are featured in the West Marin Review. Please click below for this volume’s contributors.
- FRONT COVER
- Lia Cook Binary Traces Young Girl
- BACK COVER
- Carol Whitman High Tide at White House Pool
- Muriel Murch Farming the Flats
- James Misner Three Short Stories
- Rick Lyttle Harry Truman and Me
- L. L. Babb Chuck Lange Kicks Ass
- Linda Gebroe A Play in Four Pitches
- Barbara Heenan Grabbed by the Pussy
- Lina Jane Prairie Kelp Work
- Morgan McDonald Mobile
- Elizabeth Wing The Plankton Expedition
- G. David Miller Mad Dogs and Americans
- Reeva Harrison In Pursuit of Thingness
- J. C. Stock Mountain Bliss
- Nancy Cavers Dougherty Inversion
- Amy Elizabeth Robinson Reading Michael Meade’s Why the World Doesn’t End…
- Jorge Bravo The Universe
- María Baranda From Dylan and the Whales Translated by Forrest Gander
- Mary Winegarden Long Marriage
- Derveaux Baker Second Chances
- Jon Langdon When It Counts
- Regina O’Melveny The Bird
- Claire Millikin Christian Girl
- Rebecca Foust all this beauty
- Jim Nawrocki On Reading The Encyclopedia of Creation Myths
- Wayne Hill The book about walking
- Luis Lenz-Fontan Life
- Barbara Swift Brauer Fog / Trees Returning
- Sarah Anna Paden Hoshigaki
- Stephen Ajay Windless and By Our Own Hands
- Kathleen Evans Crossing the Line
- Brian C. Felder Cold Calculus
- David Swain Border Crossing
- Elizabeth Wing Pierce Point
- ART + ARTIFACT
- Lia Cook Binary Traces Young Girl
- Emely Garcia-DeLeon Point Reyes Seashore
- Wendy Goldberg Inside Out and Early Spring Clearing
- Charles Robinson Granddaughter Isabel Robinson
- Thomas Wood Tomales Bay at Chicken Ranch Beach
- Torrey Baron Shadows
- Julia Lucey The Bear and the Bees
- Jennifer Thompson Can’t Face It
- Abbey Wenk My Happy Place
- Pam Fabry Blue
- Patricia Thomas Negative Dark Matter
- Bear Lombard Our School Fox
- Stella Bailey White Horse
- Dana Hooper Jigsaw
- Anne Hudes Dolphin Light
- Mimi Robinson Kyrgyzstan Yurts
- Barbara Lawrence Point Reyes Lunch
- Danae Mattes Horizon and Harbor
- Betsy Kellas Invocation and Barriers and Boundaries 3
- Vi Strain Moments of Natural Beauty
- Amanda J. Sanow Red Hill
- Jo Margolis Grid with Calligraphic Frame
- Kate Kozubik Red Tree with Bird
- Glenn Carter Knot
- Marianne Reger Bouquet
- Marsha Balian A Day at the Races
- Gene Crowe Purse, SF MOMA
- Jane Zich Running Deer
- Alex Farnum Kelp Work
- Anne Faught Pages from a Life
- Jon Ching Indestructible
- Eleykaa Tully Hope
- Laurence Brauer Fog, Trees, Mt. Wittenberg Trail
- Jean Warren Coming Together
- Caitlin McCaffrey The Claw Family
- Amanda Tomlin Bees
- Harriet Kossman Mabel, Cleo, and Peter: Morning Meeting on Pamela’s Deck
- Sherrie Lovler Inspiration
- Barbara Treichler Gregor California Pipevine Swallowtail
- Mark Ropers A New Day
- Carol Whitman High Tide at White House Pool