All the guys fell for these helpless, crazy Slavic women, and there was always a story. One night I’m drinking with this American guy from Indiana, or maybe Illinois, and his girlfriend walks in. She’s ice-blond, Czech to the core. Says all of nothing for two hours, staring me down the whole time. Outta nowhere she leans in all low and cool and says “You want to fuck my boyfriend?” Just like that.
Happy man, family restaurant, no big money, best food. Happy man, thanking you, here best price, no medina price. Your wife? Happy man lucky. Happy man from Holland? My brother make good food good price. No worry, no snakes, no monkeys. This place, magic. Thousand years people walk here.
No talk happy man?
Last thing I wanted was to marry some chino wearing guy and move to Virginia. You know, plastic lawn chairs, vodka Fanta, bad lighting, shitty sex.
So now I’m here.
“This fuckin’ guy.”
Philly Mike is jawin’ his usual shit, something about kicking some guy in the pit. He’s all whiskey and chin.
Philly Mike is actually from Boston. When asked about the nickname discrepancy, his response is always the same: “Same shit-hole, different coordinates. Fuck all.”
Everything is Fuck all with Philly Mike.
His face is like a cheese grater and it’s always from the night before.
All these people, with the same tattoo, wandering around the pier.
A cowboy on a horse, the tattoo. Not all in the same place, mind you; forearm, back of the neck, down around the ankle.
This was on the coast, in Ostend. But not now. Maybe the 40s. The way the beach must have looked, in the 40s, out on the coast.
Simple as that, cowboy on a horse.
So she leaves Florida for D.C., gets a job at the CIA, shredding documents. No joke. Marries a Xerox guy, scotch-at-night guy, which leads to the copying of some very classified materials. Very classified.
Parking garages, Karl Malden, All The President’s Men.
This is clandestine shit. And the materials; lone desert highway, Area 54, codename ZUMA. This kinda thing.
But she doesn’t know this, right? All pretty innocent. But is it? I mean, it’s 60’s D.C., scotch-all-night guy, know what I mean?
No joke, this life.
Maybe if she had lost her daughter, she thought. Not because she didn’t love her child but because she had gotten to a point in her life where she couldn’t feel anything. Just living in her body, unable to process normal emotions, like sipping coffee and how that brought her back to Portland. The feeling of her tongue getting scorched. Gloria thought if her daughter, her only child from her only marriage, somehow disappeared, maybe by accident, she could feel what it was like to be here in the world again. Maybe some extreme, unknowable pain would shock her back into existence.
And the man on the radio said If you accept that you have no control over your destiny, that only God knows the true path of your life, you will be saved and you will be prepared for the final judgement.
On a skyless Tuesday morning, Gloria was driving the long hours it would take to cross the state. She’d heard about an image of the Virgin Mary on the side of an office building in Clearwater. A miraculous vision, something that happens on divine occasion, something worth driving long distances across open landscapes of sweltering purity.
For that time in your life when you want to enjoy moments of quiet reflection, Sunset Valley affords you the luxury of living life at your own pace.
Gloria wondered if she could walk up to the building and touch the wall.
The wind off the highway felt good. She rolled the windows down as much as she could. The stale air inside dusted up, blowing dead ashes through the car’s cramped interior. A scentless air freshener blew in the breeze, bringing back moments when she’d drive Becky to summer camp down in the Everglades and the highway smelled of freshly cut grass and the possibilities were wide open and everything felt new for Gloria and her young family.
The building was an abandoned office complex in a strip mall next to a Chinese restaurant offering a special buffet for all “Pilgrims of Lady Guadalupe.” It was one of those developments that sprang up like kudzu all across Central and South Florida in the decades after the war. Opportunity was everywhere, all at once, and state land was being swallowed up and paved over by shiny new condo communities, middle class subdivisions, gas-station car-wash combo drive-throughs, airport sized shopping centers and plots for landfills to dispose of all the byproducts of the great commercial experiment that was spilling into Florida unfiltered.
The parking lot was empty and still. Gloria pulled in under a willow tree and stayed in the car. An old woman sat in a white lawn chair outside the building’s entrance, gazing out at nothing much at all.
Gloria could see an image on the wall from where she was parked, large and exposed, gleaming in the late morning sun. The shapes were abstract but recognizable, with what looked like a veiled head slightly bent to the left and two hands held toward the sky. She sat quiet, staring intently at the wall. Gloria thought this looked like the pictures of the Virgin Mary she’d seen in churches and in books. She felt this may just be an important place, that maybe this was the start of something good and positive and she was glad she’d made the drive across the state.
This hour has been brought to you by the law offices of Schoenberg and Straight.
The woman from the lawn chair walked towards the car. She was small, slightly hobbled, with a sun blazed complexion that spoke of untold years exposed to direct sunlight. She wore red sunglasses and carried an unseen weight. The woman knocked on the windshield.
Ma’am? You OK in there…ma’am?
Gloria, jarred awake to half consciousness, tried focusing on the figure outside the car.
Ma’am, you asleep?
Oh, I’m sorry.
People die like that, fallin’ sleep in cars.
Gloria rolled down the window. Excuse me, can I ask you something?
The woman turned. Her flat gaze was intimidating and Gloria was still somewhere between sleep and consciousness, but she felt the need to understand something about this place.
Are you here because of the Virgin Mary?
Are you a sister or something?
Yes, from the church?
No, I ain’t a sister.
Can I…can I touch the wall?
Touch the wall?
I was wondering, I don’t know.
You were wonderin’ if you could touch the wall, that right?
Gloria was shutting down. That feeling she got when everything changed in an instant, from a familiar human connection with warmth and understanding to a standoff, a place of uncertainty between two people who were conversing for the very first time and were feeling each other out, giving only as much as they could bare. She was worried that she may have pushed too hard, asked the wrong question the wrong way.
How about inside?
Inside? You wanna go inside the building? That’s ain’t allowed. That ain’t ever been allowed.
Gloria stayed fixed on the woman’s sunglasses, reflections careening off each other, battling for prominence across a world of bright light.
I’ve been inside myself, but only once. Many years ago. I was young.
What’s it like inside?
Inside? Can’t say.
The woman froze momentarily, looking through Gloria, although you couldn’t tell exactly where her eyes were falling.
I’m only the gatekeeper, the woman said.
Gloria Simmons sat in the car and didn’t move, contemplating the Virgin Mary on the side of an abandoned office building in a parking lot in Clearwater, Florida on a bright Tuesday as she listened to AM 88.9, Central Florida’s Home of Christian Radio Since 1975.