This story appeared in Unknowns? Vol. XVI, Number 3, Fall, 1989


by Tad Smith

"Knock, knock."

"Uh, hello?"

"Knock, knock."

"Who's there?" I gave the correct response despite the fact I was not yet awake. Or because of it.

I'm used to be awakened at four in the morning. Sometimes, it's an ambulance flying down the street with its siren warning nobody to clear an empty street. More likely, it's barking dogs. On occasions such as the one at hand, when my wife is out of town, it's the telephone. For most people, a telephone ringing in the wee hours is cause for some consternation, portentous of bad news. However, having lived with Sally for a few years, my fears are no longer aroused by such intrusions into my sleep. When Sally is on a trip, there is no telling when she will call _ although you can bet it won't be at a normal hour. She's even been known to call at eight in the morning, an hour she seldom experiences awake when at home. At least when the telephone rings in the middle of the night you know it's not somebody from the bank card company calling to instruct you to send in your card with payment of two hundred dollars for being over your credit limit.

So when I glanced at the clock, I was not alarmed to see the glowing hour hand pointing dead at the four; given the three-hour time difference, it was actually a fairly early call.


"Is that you, Sally?" I asked.

"No, you're supposed to say 'Tijuana Who?'"

"Oh, okay," I said, finally more or less awake. "Tijuana who?"

"Tijuana dance?

"Is that you, Sally?" It didn't sound like Sally.

"It's Blake." Blake is Sally's best friend and her travelling companion on this particular venture to the West Coast. "Rocky," Blake said, "you'd better come out here."

"What's wrong? Where's Sally?"

"She's gotten into some trouble."

"Is she okay?"

"She's in jail."

"What happened? Is she okay?"

"I'll tell you when you get here. She's not hurt or anything."

"Where are you?"

"I'm in L.A. You can catch a flight out of there at 7:15. I'll meet you at the airport." She hung up before I could think of any questions to ask.

Sally and Blake had been on adventures before, but Blake had always managed to keep Sally out of trouble. The last time they took off together they went to the beach, where Sally had gotten drunk and driven into somebody's rear end at a stop sign. The driver of the other car had reportedly jumped out of his car, examined his smashed taillights, and hostilely approached Sally. Blake, as drunk at the time as my wife, got out and confronted him. I can imagine how one look at Blake could stop someone in his tracks, as it evidently did. Sally, fortunately, had gone into shock and was thus not her usual abusive self, and Blake beguiled their way out of having the cops called. The man wound up getting Sally's address, promising to send a bill, and then let them go back to their motel. It turned out to be a pretty steep bill for two pieces of plastic, one I of course had to pay. I knew Blake and Sally were an explosive combination, like hydrogen and oxygen, but I had had faith that nothing more harmful than water would come of it. So much for faith.

I couldn't go back to sleep, so I got up and got ready to go. I threw a few things into my backpack, then I called the airline to book the flight. When they asked me how I wanted to pay for the ticket, I couldn't remember for the life of me which one of my bank cards wasn't over its limit, so I ran off the account numbers of all five of them and let the ticket representative check them all until she found one that would take. (Isn't America wonderful? You can sell yourself into slavery over the telephone.)

I did everything I could to kill time. I washed dishes, made a cup of instant coffee, swept the kitchen floor, even shaved (two days ahead of schedule). Still, it would be almost two hours until the airport opened, only a half-hour drive away. I added a half hour for a fifteen-minute drive by the bank's 24-hour money machine, which still left me with an extra hour. After pacing around the house a few times, I left. I arrived at the airport long before it opened, and I wound up sitting in my car and falling asleep, nearly missing my flight.

* * *

I'd always wanted to take a trip out West, but I'd never felt like I could afford it. The circumstances of this trip did not give me the feeling of fulfilling a life-long dream. Oh well, at least the hop from Dallas to Los Angeles would afford me my first view of the Grand Canyon, albeit from 30,000 feet. Imagine the things I could miss on this trip: the Dodgers, the desert, Disneyland, genuine Mexican cuisine, towering mountain peaks, freeway traffic.

Flying in an airplane on a cloudy morning gives one plenty of time to think. I didn't at first think about my troubles directly, instead letting my brain fly along on its own path of free-association. I found myself singing songs to myself, mostly songs about trouble. I once extracted enough songs about trouble from various record albums to fill both sides of a 90-minute audio cassette.

When finally I had taken off from the Atlanta airport, only an hour behind schedule, my brain quit singing songs and addressed my biggest headache: Blake. Blake is an extremely attractive middle-aged woman. She is slight of build, dark-haired, intelligent, inquisitive, and frequently asked for identification (proof of age) when ordering drinks. You would never think she was the mother of teenagers. She is a couple of years older than me, yet she makes me feel sometimes like a little kid, sometimes like an old man. She has had two children, the second by choice, but never a husband. She has supported herself by various means, from typing to construction work to the sale of t-shirts at Grateful Dead concerts. To put it succinctly, I asked for any trouble I might reap: I fell in love with my wife's best friend.

It has always been my style to be flirtatious, so I shouldn't have been surprised when I discovered my lusts were not deterred by marriage. A few months' of Sally sealed my fate: She had a penchant for spending money, with no corresponding penchant for earning it. She bullied me; she stayed out all night. She came home from a New Year's Eve party at sunrise with a strange man in her car. Being a dreamer, it wasn't long before I was dreaming of a better life, a life with Blake. Blake, the independent, self-supporting type; Blake, who lived on the fringe of poverty, seldom spending but never wanting. Blake, a beautiful woman who could make me laugh.

I made a few suggestive remarks to Blake over the months, innocent comments made in an off-hand manner so that they couldn't be taken seriously (could they?), such as: "Will you run off with me to Arizona?" or, "I'd make a great father for your children." She deflected the offers, saying I couldn't afford a three-bedroom house, or that she couldn't run off and leave the kids, who needed to finish school where they were. Once, after Sally and I had not made love for nearly a month, I asked Blake how she felt about sex. After that, she took my advances more seriously _ and she grew colder in response. She quit calling me at work "just to say hello." She didn't seem to have anything funny to say to me anymore.

The relationship between Blake and Sally deteriorated. Blake quit coming over to our house to visit. She no longer asked us to watch after her kids when she wanted to go out. When we dropped by her house, she maintained a cordial atmosphere, but she didn't ask us to stay for dinner.

Sally, who had often suggested I would fall for Blake, sensed something was up. "You're doing it," she had said one evening as we lay in bed watching television, munching on popcorn.

"Doing what?"

"You know."

I suspected I knew, but I hoped she meant I was crunching popcorn kernels too loudly, or whistling as I breathed through my nose. No such luck.

"You're falling in love with Blake."

"I am not," I said, making one of those instant replied guaranteed to raise, rather than allay, suspicion. "I think Blake's a wonderful person, I'm glad I've gotten to know her. I think she could be a great friend."

"You're in love with her."

"I only have eyes for you," I said.

After that, I decided to keep as much distance as possible between myself and Blake. I knew I could carry a torch for only so long, that sooner or later my desire would fade, after which I trusted my words would be true: Blake and I could be good friends, and my wife and I could be good lovers.

I took to the golf course, the great escape for the American husband. Did Sally complain about being a "golf widow"? No way. Sally spent her free time with Blake. And whereas their friendship returned to its normal state, things between Sally and me remained strained. A year after I realized I wanted Blake, I still wanted her. The fires of passion were loathe to die.

Sally and Blake planned the junket to California as part of a reaffirmation of their own friendship, and I took it as an opportunity to get a little time to myself, to sort things out.

* * *

I once knew a woman who said her gynecologist had a picture of the Grand Canyon on the ceiling of his examining room, so that the patient, upon assuming the proper stirruped position, might be induced to laugh by means of some kind of association likening her view to that of the doctor. I should have gotten such a view. But as my luck would have it, the Grand Canyon was hidden by a rare cover of clouds as my plane approached Los Angeles.

With nothing to look at out the window, I was forced again to turn inward. My imagination found a new twist. Perhaps Sally wans't really in jail. Perhaps this was just a trick to lure me, at last, to California. After all, Blake curiously had made no mention of a need for cash to post bail. She had, had she not, avoided any description of the actual trouble into which Sally had allegedly gotten herself.

So I was feeling somewhat more light-hearted when I disembarked, and I was not surprised when nobody met me at the gate.

But when I got to the baggage claim area, and still was not greeted, I was struck by another idea: Perhaps, indeed, this was a trick. But perhaps it was a trick designed to do me in. I could see myself waiting for days in the airport, as Sally and Blake sunned themselves on the Pacific beaches, picking up blonde surfers and paying me my just deserts. I cursed myself for not at least getting the name of their hotel.

"Will Mr. Morris Gibraltar please contact the nearest customer service representative?" boomed the airport public address.

I found the nearest customer service rep, who gave me a phone number and told me to call Blake.

Blake was ready when her phone rang, answering it during the first ring. "Hiya, Rocky," she said. "Did you have a nice flight out here?"

"Pretty long," I said. "It was cloudy over the Grand Canyon."

"Too bad," she said. "Maybe we can drive over to see it."

"How's Sally?"

"I'll tell you about it when I get there," she said. "I'm on my way."

I tried to say, "Should I get a cab," but she had hung up.

Something was definitely up. Blake sounded much too nonchalant. And I still didn't know where she and Sally were.

I went outside and sat down on the curb. After about a half hour I really started to feel like I was searching for a wild goose, even though, as I'd heard, there was no way to get to the airport in a half hour from anywhere in Los Angeles. I stood up and sat down and stood up, and then, just for kicks, I bummed a cigarette from a fellow traveller. It was a Pall Mall, which seemed curious to me, as I can seldom bumb Pall Malls, which I consider to be a good cigarette, as cigarettes go. I remembered one New Year's Eve, when I was resolving to give up smoking. I was in the grocery store, waiting in one of the longest grocery store lines I'd ever seen. When I got up to the cigarette rack, I decided to buy a pack of Pall Malls, figuring smoking a pack of unfiltered cigarettes in one night should help kill my desire for tobacco. As I scanned the rack, where every other imaginable American brand was displayed, but no Pall Malls, the man in the next line looked over at me and said, "Hey, are there any Pall Malls over there?" It was probably the only time in my life anybody ever asked me from one grocery store line to the next to check for cigarettes. I wanted to ask the man in LA from whom I'd bumbed the cigarette where he was from, in order to see where Pall Malls might be popular, but he had already left.

While I was rubbing the cigarette out on the sidewalk, a huge black car, a Lincoln Continental or a Cadillac or something similar, pulled up to a halt beside me. As I was looking at my feet, I didn't notice Blake behind the wheel until she honked her horn. I slung my backpack into the back seat and sat down next to Blake. She was wearing a turquoise dress, with a colorful shawl around her neck.

"How's Sally?" I asked.

"How do you like my new things," she said, holding up her arms to model her attire.

"You look real nice," I said. "You always look real nice. But what about Sally? Did she get caught stealing this car?"

"No," Blake said, "you rented it."

"I should have known," I said, imagining more threatening credit card companies calling. "So what happened?"

"It's a crazy story," Blake said as she pulled out onto the freeway.

"Can we go see her?"

"I guess we can if you want to."

"How far is it to the jail?"

"Oh, a couple of hundred miles," Blake said.

I knew Los Angeles was, geographically speaking, a big city, but that was ridiculous. "Two hundred miles?"

"She's in Mexico," she said, "in Tijuana."

"You'd better tell me what happened," I said.

"We'd better go back to my room," Blake said. "You need a drink."

She was right about that.

* * *

It seems Sally got herself into a little jam (if Blake was to be believed, and I had nothing else to go on). It had not taken them long to become bored with Los Angeles, and they thought Mexico might be more interesting. Blake had been to Mexico before, bringing back a number of articles of Mexican clothing she had picked up for bargain prices. This was, it turned out, one of the main lures of the venture _ Sally, as I've mentioned, liked to spend money, and Mexico is evidently a great place for it. When they got to Tijuana, they tried to buy the whole town. Sally had already gotten several dresses, some jewelry, and a blanket, when she saw a pair of shoes she just had to have.

"She didn't have enough money," Blake said. "Even dickering with the salesman, she still couldn't strike a deal. I didn't have much left, either _ we'd stashed a good bit here in the room before we left. So I told her maybe we could come back tomorrow. Then I went back outside onto the street. She stayed around and bargained some more.

"You know," Blake said, "Sally can be real trying."

"Well I know," I said. "And a lot of fun sometimes, too. But what happened?"

"I was standing outside on the sidewalk, and there seemed to be some kind of commotion going on inside. It was like a typical Sally trick, I figured, and I didn't really want to have to put up with it. Then this police car came driving up, and before you know it, out comes Sally in handcuffs. Evidently, she'd tried to trade some marijuana for the shoes."

"I didn't think Sally took any pot on the trip," I said.

"I gave it to her," Blake said.

"But you don't even smoke," I said.

"I know," Blake said. "I took some for Sally, just in case."

"Have you been to see her?"

"I didn't have enough money with me to stay in Tijuana, so I just hustled back here and gave you a call. You can handle it. You know how to deal with Sally."

True, I've had my share of experience in dealing with Sally and her problems, but I don't know anything about Mexican jurisprudence. "I think we'd better go down to Tijuana," I said. "I guess I need to see what's up."

"Okey doke," she said, "let's go." She grabbed her keys and headed out the door with me just behind. When we got to the car, she handed me the keys. "You drive," she said.

"This should be an experience," I said. "Which way to Tijuana?"

"You should head out that way," she said, pointing, "and get on the freeway."

"Hang onto your hat," I said as I started the car, although Blake was not wearing a hat.

As I reached for the gear shift, she put her hand onto mine. "Then again," she said, "you could go that way." She pointed in the other direction.

"What's there?"

"Arizona," she said. "You always wanted to see the Grand Canyon."

"But what about Sally?"

"Don't worry about Sally," Blake said. "She's not going anywhere."