It’s been nearly six months since Selena and I spent our 20th Anniversary in Playa Hermosa in the country of Costa Rica. Someone described Costa Rica as like visiting the Niagara Waterfalls, the Grand Canyon, the Amazon River, and Hawaii all in one place. The dramatic landscape is filled with great variance because it is between two continents and two oceans. This convergence of land and water makes the region a great bottleneck, rich in ecological diversity.
The first full day in Costa Rica was spent where you’d expect – the beach. While at the beach I found this green suede sneaker wedged between two rocks. I’ve often wondered what the story is behind that shoe. Who did it belong to? Where did it hail from? How did it get there? The following paragraphs are my imaginary answers to these questions:
It’d been a few weeks since he saw Rose who decided the two hour drive from Memphis to her sister’s house in Tupelo wasn’t out of the question. She had just suffered for twenty clicks of the annual marathon sponsored by St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Twenty-six point two miles translated into five hours of nothing better to do than reminisce about the events of the last year and search for anything that would remind her why this challenge meant so much. The last time Rose and Mary were together was when their father died eleven months earlier. He was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer delivered by a brain tumor; lasting only five of the predicted fourteen weeks. Watching the cancer syphon their father’s life was like watching a cruel wino guzzle a bottle he just stole from the corner liquor store. It would be good to see Mary.
To Dirk, the most striking thing about Rose wasn’t her plenteous beauty but the affectionate, placid way she approached life. It was her mild nature he was uncontrollably gathered to the moment they met at the book store on West Main in downtown Charlottesville. Something from Burke’s seemed appropriate for his soon-to-graduate-from-high-school cousin Mitch whom he remembered being a better than average student. Seeing Rose perusing a library of best-sellers a few aisles over seemed predetermined. It was one of those euphoric moments with rays of light accompanied by a cheery crescendoing chord he was sure everyone in the store saw and heard. However, neither light, music nor other patrons seemed to deter Dirk as a book by John Grisham instantly rose to the top of his list of lame gift ideas. As fate would have it, Dirk just finished his transaction when Rose and he met at the exit of the store.
Offering to get the door for her was something her father would have done for her mother, thought Rose. In an instant, Rose was taken to a surreal place watching her deceased parents interact only to be interrupted as quickly as it began by Dirk’s next words.
“So, you like books?”, a question he immediately regretted. Rose’s giggle seemed to relieve at least some of the pressure caused by his shoe fighting with his tongue for space in his ever narrowing mouth.
“Why would you ask that?” continuing the giggle…
Relieved that his first question wasn’t ignored altogether and knowing the impasse his previous inquest was about to create, he quickly took a different angle.
“I was hoping to get a present for my cousin who’s graduating next week from high school”, he said wondering if she’d even care.
“And, were you successful?”
“Yes, Grisham’s latest work…”
The fact that John Grisham makes a home in Charlottesville made this gift for Mitch a bit too cliche’ but Dirk didn’t care given his present circumstances.
The conversation remained light and exploratory until Dirk and Rose were suddenly snapped into reality by the loud voice of a tennis coach teaching a group of students at Forest Hills Park some nine or ten blocks away from Burke’s Book Store. Dirk was as surprised as Rose at their current location since neither of them lived in that general direction. In fact, Dirk drove downtown for his graduation shopping trip and was in and out of many of the downtown stores. Rose, on the other hand, lived in an apartment on nearby Church Street within walking distance to her job at Martha Jefferson Hospital, the bookstore and the newly discovered Forest Hills Park.
What was it about Dirk that allowed Rose to walk aimlessly with a perfect stranger to a park she’d never been to before? As the thought was resonating in her mind, Dirk asked if he could buy her lunch. “There’s a quaint Chinese restaurant near the bookstore that I passed while shopping”, he offered. “Do you have time to get something to eat?” Rose was familiar with Yaun Ho Chinese Restaurant and had eaten there before. It was quaint, she was enjoying herself and she was hungry… Within moments they were walking again volleying questions like the tennis ball they’d been watching a few minutes before.
Sitting at the table, Rose couldn’t help but notice the resemblance of some of Dirk’s features compared to her father’s. She missed him. It had been three months since he was laid to rest with full military honors at Morningside Cemetery in Brattleboro, Vermont. It was Dirk’s strong yet seemingly gentle eyes that Rose first noticed as they were exiting Burke’s. Next was his square chin that housed straight white teeth. “Daddy’s eyes and chin…” the thought of which brought her an ever increasing sense of comfort and security; things she’d been missing for a while now. Rose’s probing conversation resembled something less than an interview but something more than just casual interest. The two shared about their childhood, teenaged and young adult lives until the meal began arriving; first egg drop soup followed by a couple other courses.
After lunch, Dirk quickly snatched up the check and distributed the strangely unwrapped fortune cookies. Scanning the bill gave Rose the permission to open her cookie first. “Do not mistake temptation for opportunity” was the equivalent of a fire hose set on a Weber grill with briquettes barely producing white edges. As they were sharing an awkward and nervous laugh together, Dirk reluctantly began to crack open his light dessert comprised of flour, sugar and vanilla. “How could a perfect morning and seeming perfect afternoon be ruined by six lousy words on a little piece of pink paper?”, thought Dirk. “Who makes up this stuff anyway?”
The next six letters couldn’t have been more disturbing: HELP ME!
As confusion was beginning to grip Dirk’s countenance, he passed the feeble paper to Rose who after reading it scanned the restaurant for anyone in a desperate situation or hidden cameras thinking possibility they were on a TV reality show and didn’t know it.
“What do you suppose it means”, Rose whispered?
“I’m not sure. Do you think it’s a joke?”
“Hard to say”, not remembering anything about the waitress that seemed out of place. “Look at this paper…it’s white and the note is hand written. What should we do?”
“I’m not sure right now”, said Dirk. “Let’s get out of here and talk about it outside. We can’t risk anyone overhearing us right now.” Near the exit, Dirk made special notice of the cashier as he paid for lunch wondering if she wrote the note or acted strange in any way. “I’m freaked out”, Rose offered as they quickly scampered away from the regal memory being forged at Yuan Ho’s. The thieving hand written note was about to change their lives in ways they were unprepared for.
Outside the restaurant there was a strange sense of normalcy as they stood on the sidewalk trying to decide which direction to go. The warm, humid air outside mixed with anxious sweat slapped Dirk in the face like a soaked dish towel. Two things kept him from running away; one no more obvious than the other.
“What should we do?”, asked Rose. Hesitating for only a moment Dirk said, “I think we should look around. I’ll explore behind the restaurant in the alley and you stay here. Here is my cell number. What’s yours?” The reality of the situation made him regret asking for Rose’s number that way. “If we see anything strange text me or I’ll text you and we’ll meet again. I’m only going to the back of the building.” The couple exchanged cell numbers and Dirk headed to the alley separating Main Street and Maury Avenue while Rose tried not looking suspicious near the front of the restaurant.
The non-public nature of an alley keeps it dingy. The lack of light, collection of trash and narrow passages are enough to add caution to any one’s momentum. Turning into the alley, Dirk was asking himself, “which one of these is Yuan’s?” Since none of the doors were labeled, he found himself counting spaces and comparing them with his very limited knowledge of the store fronts on the street side. “It’s got to be one of these”, Dirk thought choosing one of three doors.
Finally, Dirk narrowed it down to one door concluding a restaurant would be throwing away food that would be dripping grease and juices on the ground, which would collect more dirt, grim and dust than one discarding non-food items. The path in front of this door was darker presumably from collecting more dirt and grim which seemed to match his conclusion. “This has to be the restaurant, but now what do I do”, Dirk silently asked himself as he noticed a rusty ladder five feet from the ground affixed to the side of the building on the opposite side of the alley. The ladder led to a metal deck about two stories above the restaurant door and could provide a decent vantage point in which to view any suspicious activity. Without a moments hesitation, Dirk used his arms to begin climbing the ladder until his feet touched the bottom rung and quickly approached the deck. Getting onto the platform, he sat down; back against the wall, facing the restaurant door and pulled out his cell phone.
Sending Rose a text, Dirk wrote, “Dirk here. In the alley and found a place to watch from about 2 stories up. What are you doing?” After pushing send on his phone Dirk started noticing other things about the alley that might prove helpful during the stakeout. His platform was just one in this series of platforms and one of several other sets of ladders and platforms throughout the alley on both sides. Also, handle-less metal doors seemed to provide egress onto the platforms but would need to be opened from the inside. As he began wondering what was inside his door, his phone vibrated. It was Rose.
“I’m scared. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Dirk responded, “Can you come back here? If so, I’ll meet you on the ground and help you up the ladder.” A few seconds later his phone produced this reply, “OK”. Dirk responded, “I’ll meet you in the alley. Come quickly.”
Within seconds, Dirk was descending from his observation deck. He felt like a fish out of water waiting for Rose who decided running would attract too much unneeded attention. Every second seemed like ten and Dirk struggled to act naturally when someone from the other side of the alley opened their door, emptied the trash and looked suspiciously his way before disappearing through the same door.
Just as Dirk was beginning to wonder what happened to Rose, she approached him from the opposite direction he expected which startled him. Together they approached the ladder and Dirk helped Rose get her foot on the first rung. Hearing Rose climb and making sure the no one was watching them make their way to the platform, Dirk grabbed the ladder and started his ascend.
The haste of the moment robbed Dirk of the opportunity to give Rose instructions about how to actually get onto the deck at the top of the ladder which ended about twelve inches above the surface of the platform. Getting onto the deck proved to be a little tricky for Rose who paused until Dirk was right below her and could tell her what to do. “Just get to the top of the ladder, put your hands onto the deck and pull yourself up.” Rose’s beauty was equalled by her frailty. Her upper body strength was barely sufficient to pull herself through the twenty-eight inch square hole cut into the expanded metal deck.
Just as Rose made it to the platform, Dirk heard someone opening the restaurant door. The only part of his body not frozen were his eyes which he used to watch someone wearing a white apron carry out two loads of trash and smoke a cigarette. Seeing the alley door close gave Dirk permission to break his frozen state. Since Dirk was at the top of the ladder, he pulled himself onto the platform. Using the wall for extra leverage, he clipped his heal on the metal deck while he pulled his leg through the opening which jarred his shoe loose and sent it tumbling to the ground below. In Dirk’s mind, the shoe couldn’t have crashed any slower. The few choices he had at that instant narrowed to one when the restaurant door opened again leaving Dirk and Rose in frozen animation and exposed. It was the apron wielding restaurant worker coming out to smoke another cigarette.
It takes the average person seven minutes to finish a cigarette. Considering it would take all of one second for the restaurant worker to notice the shoe, he had about four hundred and twenty opportunities to do so.
To Be Continued…