Now Dorothy looks back and what she sees is her husband Charles packing and leaving her. How she comes in the front door after work and there is Charles coming down the stairs with a suitcase in one hand and an envelope in the other.
“What’s up?” she asks. “Are you going somewhere?”
“I was leaving a note,” he says, holding up the envelope.
“A note,” she repeats.
“A note,” he repeats.
“Where are you going?” she asks again.
“I’m leaving,” he says. “It’s all in the note.”
And she sees him hand her the envelope and jerk out the door like a cartoon on fast-forward, and she sees twenty-two years of marriage fly from him like dust.
“Who is it?” she asks, loudly, at the door. She drops the envelope on the floor.
He stops and turns and frowns and glances sideways to see if any neighbors are listening, but there is nobody out on the street because it is not a weekend. “It’s nobody. It just isn’t working anymore. It’s not worth the fighting and all. It’s all in the note.”
Now she knows it was somebody, and she knows in six weeks Charles is living with a woman who is many years younger than she, Dorothy. She throws the note away before Charles has even driven down the driveway, and so has never read it and doesn’t know what it did or did not say.
* * *
Now, remembering, she is forty-five years old, and in sole possession of a house in Torrance, in LA, with the green Pacific on one side and the humming Harbor Freeway on the other, although she does not notice these things often anymore. She also has a job she hates as office manager in a busy cosmetic surgery practice with six busy cosmetic surgeons.
Now she knows she saved her life by taking two weeks of the many weeks of vacation she has never used. She packs up some clothes carelessly and drives north in her newish Toyota Rav4. It is already evening, and she has always left on trips early in the morning. She has a vague idea of visiting Justin, her twenty-one year old son. It’s been a few months since Charles cartooned out the door and she has not told Justin. She has no idea if Charles spilled the beans. Perhaps he left a note somewhere.
Justin lives in a cabin in Palo Colorado Canyon on the Big Sur coast, with his girlfriend, whose name is Willow. He works collecting trash and cleaning up campsites and restrooms at Andrew Molera State Park. As part of his job he gets to use a state pick-up truck.
Dorothy calls Justin’s cell phone from a motel in San Louis Obispo to tell them she is coming. They are surprised.
“Is everything okay, Mom?” Justin asks.
“Everything is perfect,” she tells him. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll leave here early.”
But of course everything is not perfect. She is frightened and lonely. There is an empty ache in a place always filled with family. She is afraid she does not really know Justin, not the grown-up Justin. There has been a distance between her and Justin in the past year, because Charles did not approve of how Justin was conducting his life. She does not understand what it means to be the parent of an adult. She has never even met Willow.
She heads out on Highway 1. She passes San Simeon and soon the land falls away on her left, giving way to vistas of the Pacific. She feels like she is clinging to the cliffs that rise from the gray ocean. Grassy brown hills surround her, stands of dark Monterey pine and tall eucalyptus. Curtains of fog and mist rise and fall behind, patches of blue sky and wide shafts of sunlight. Wide beaches suddenly appear below, strewn with boulders. The sea hammers and foams at them. But she feels numb. She knows there is beauty and grandeur, but it passes over her like the fog, like the mist.
The coast unreels. Her arms are stiff from steering around the curves and switchbacks. The sun heads toward the western horizon. She just wants the drive to be over.
She crosses the Bixby Bridge, set like a kid’s toy across its rocky gorge, and then there is Palo Colorado Road. She takes out the map she drew on the back of an old receipt when she talked to Justin.
* * *
Justin and Willow’s cabin is at the end of a steep dirt road, nestled in a grove of coast redwood and bay laurel. Ferns dot the hillside behind the cabin like green eyes. The cabin is built of stout planking with a mossy shake roof. Justin’s state pick-up is parked outside. Dorothy pulls up beside it, her car in four-wheel drive for the first time since she bought it. Shadows pool under the thick trees, flow toward her as the sun sets.
The cabin door opens and there is Justin, tall, bearded, his hair trimmed short, dressed in jeans and boots and a red flannel work shirt. Behind him is a young woman, and she is actually willowy. She has long dark hair, and is dressed in a long skirt and a green turtle-neck. Tears spring into Dorothy’s eyes when she sees them. Who are these bright young people?
Inside, the cabin is warm and close. A fire pops and wavers in a big stone fireplace. Justin stands proudly, a big grin on his face. “Mom, welcome to my home,” he says.
“Yes, welcome, Mrs. Pardue,” says Willow, and hands her a stoneware mug of wine, and gives her a peck on the cheek.
“Willow, thank you.” Dorothy takes a sip of the wine. It’s a cheap red, astringent, but it doesn’t matter. “Willow, please call me Dorothy,” she says. Then she thinks of something, realizes something. “I’m going back to my maiden name,” she tells them. “I’m Dorothy Kramer now. Again.” She turns to Justin. “I hope that’s okay.”
Justin shrugs. “Dad told me what’s up,” he says. “It is what it is.”
* * *
Dorothy, Justin and Willow sit at the table, a heavy trestle made of redwood planks, which Justin built. They sip more wine. They have just finished eating, brown rice, stir-fried veggies. Justin and Willow are vegetarians.
Justin starts to get up, hesitates, sits back down, then gets up again. He takes a wooden box from a bookshelf, returns to the table.
“Justin,” says Willow.
“It’s our house,” says Justin. He opens the box, takes out a little pipe and a tin box full of dried leaves and tiny buds. He fills the pipe, lights it, takes a deep drag, holds it out to Dorothy.
“Justin,” says Dorothy, “is that what I think it is?”
Justin nods and grins.
“I didn’t know you smoked marijuana,” says Dorothy.
“Of course not,” croaks Justin around a mouthful of smoke. “You’re my mom.” He and Willow break into giggles.
Dorothy takes the pipe, inhales cautiously. The taste seems familiar somehow, sweet, campfire, spice. She hands the pipe to Willow, waits for something, something new, something changing or challenging. And waits.
The pipe goes around and around. They talk. They laugh and laugh. And laugh. Dorothy leans back in her chair, holding her stomach. “Stop, no more,” she protests. “I can’t laugh anymore. My stomach hurts.”
After a moment Dorothy looks around. “I don’t know what the big deal is about pot,” she says. “It doesn’t do anything. I mean, when’s it take effect?”
Justin and Willow look at each other, splutter with more laughter.
“What?” says Dorothy.
“We’ve been laughing for an hour,” says Willow.
“Really?” Dorothy looks around as if she is seeing the room, Justin, Willow, herself, for the first time. “Do you have anything for desert?”
“I have some chocolate,” says Willow.
Later, the walls lean in, coals tick in the ashes of the fire. Dorothy lies on a pad in front of the fireplace, in a sleeping bag. She smiles, drifts into dream.
* * *
The next morning Justin and Dorothy have climbed the ridge behind the cabin. It is Justin’s day off.
Hills thick with trees surround them, a distant glimpse of the Pacific.
“It was fun,” Dorothy says. “I’d do it again. But I don’t know if anything changed. I’ve been married so long. It’s hard to think of what comes next.” She tosses a rock down the hillside. “But I shouldn’t be talking about this with you.”
“I’m a grown-up now,” says Justin. “And so are you. People get together, people split up. It happens.”
“But we were married twenty-two years,” says Dorothy. “That’s not just getting together.”
“I know something that could change things,” says Justin.
* * *
Now Dorothy knows she is crazy, around the bend, driven mad by regrets. She has agreed to take LSD with Justin and Willow. She calls in to work, to tell them she is taking another week off.
“Well, we’re covering the week you asked for,” says Dr. Berman, the senior partner in the group, Dorothy’s boss. “But another week? I can’t promise anything.”
“I have several weeks of vacation coming,” replies Dorothy. “I’m with my son and I intend to stay another week.”
“I can’t promise anything,” repeats Dr. Berman. “We may have to replace you.”
“I’ll contact you when I’m back in LA,” says Dorothy, and that is that. Now she’s an official doper. She’s smoking pot, she’s about to take LSD, she’s blowing off her job, she’s crashing with her son. What’s left?
She spends the next couple of days getting ready. She takes long walks. She drives down to the coast, to Rocky Point, sits on rocks watching the pounding of the sea. While Justin is at work she helps Willow clean the house.
Then it is the day. Justin and Willow make a ritual of it, bringing the LSD capsules out on a tray, with glasses of water. Dorothy feels her heart pounding, but she swallows hers.
Willow puts on some music, classical Indian, Ravi Shankar. The three of them sit in the sunny clean cabin.
Dorothy does not ask this time when it will take effect. She waits.
In time, her body begins to feel heavy. In time the walls appear to be breathing.
* * *
Now Dorothy looks back, and what she sees is her mad self turning and turning beneath towering sequoias like a bird, and she sees herself hearing the liquid voices of the trees, and the dry voices of the ground, and the airy voices of the sky, and the dark voices of the hidden sea, and all these voices make an endless song, of which her voice is part. Looking back, it seems to her that this song is something she once knew but had forgotten.
Dorothy the Dope Fiend, sings Dorothy, dancing alone.
Richard Jay Goldstein lives in Santa Fe, where it’s nice and quiet, thanks. He’s a retired ER doc, has been writing for about 20 years, and has published 40-some stories, essays and poetry in the literary and sci-fi/fantasy/horror press, including a few anthologies. His wife is percussionist Polly Tapia Ferber.