For a solid three months I was the happiest man in L.A., in spite of the cops. I had a checking account, and for the first time in my life I was caught up on my bills.
But then Love walked in the door.
It was a cloudless day in October, the year was 1954. It wasn't hot or cold outside, but her dress was definitely a summer frock, white with a floral pattern. The thin straps lay loose on her brown shoulders. She didn't seem to be wearing anything under that dress--not that she needed to. The sunglasses had been pushed up to the top of her head, nestled in the big, floppy curls she'd had done at some beauty shop.
Her face is what scared me. It was too wide to be pretty and too flat to be handsome, but she was beautiful anyway. I wanted to feel my cheek rubbing up against hers.
The last time I'd felt like that about a woman I almost got killed. So the fast beating of my heart was a coin toss between love and fear.
"Is Reverend Grove here?'" she asked me in a breathy voice.
"Reverend William Grove. He preached with Father Vincent and Sister Thalia."
The skirt came down to the middle of her knees. Her legs were bare and her ankles were bound with thin straps of white leather snaking up from delicate sandals.
"I don't know any Grove," I said, forcing my eyes back to her face.
The name had some meaning to me, but it felt so distant that I thought it must be someone from long ago, maybe from down in Louisiana. Certainly not anyone this beautiful girl and I would both know.
She looked around the room, twisting at the waist to see for herself. She had a figure made for that kind of movement. Her eyes lit on a burlap curtain that hung over a doorway.
"Where's that go?" she asked.
"My back room," I said. Then it came to me. "You must be talking about the Messenger of the Divine."
"Oh yes. Yes."
The hope in her voice brought me up out of my chair. She moved toward me. Her hands reached out for me.
"They had a place look like mine down the street," I said.
"But they moved out. Must be two months ago now."
"What?" Her face went blank.
"Moved," I said. "Went away."
"I don't know. They moved out in the middle of the night.
Took everything. All that was left was an empty space and a few paper fans."
I was sad to make my little report because now there was no reason for her to stay and twist around. I realized that I had spent a little too much time lately wrapped up in books. I had the notion that I should go out to the Parisian Room that night.
Just then the young woman leaned backward and then crumpled forward, into my arms. As I stood there holding her steady, the fear fled my heart. At close quarters her scent was floral, but it was also sharp, like the smell after lightning strikes.
"You got some water in the back?" she whispered.
I nodded and led her through the heavy burlap curtain to the back room and put her on my cot. She was mumbling and crying.
"Are you okay?" I asked, perching next to her.
"Where did they go?"
I couldn't find the words to hurt her again.
"What am I gonna do?" she cried, turning her head, looking around in the dark as if the room might somehow transform itself into the church she sought. "Reverend Grove is the only one who can help me now."
"What's wrong?" I asked, thinking, even then, that I didn't really want to know.
"I have to find William. If I don't--" She broke off in tears. I tried to console her but she was bereft.
After a moment or two I heard the front door to the store come open. She heard it too and took in a quick breath. Her fear made me wary again. I rose up and went through the curtain to the store.
Copyright © 2001 by Walter Mosley
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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