A Slow Walk

by Stephen Peters

(C) The Gobbler: Blaze 1994


The car broke down on her first ride in it alone.

Sixteen two months ago, and with a new driver's license in hand, Marie had waited patiently for the car to be purchased by her mother. It was an old Volkswagen, 1967, but it was a car. It was freedom and possibilities and all the other things with which the automobile had been associated since H. Ford made them cheap enough for anyone to own.

The sun's glare was on the surface of the ocean. From the car's window, traveling along the Pacific Coast Highway, she could see sparkling waves and a distant sailboat. It was a clear warm morning. A pilot's kind of morning. The perfect day to solo.

The Volkswagen's engine coughed while waiting for a traffic signal. Marie accelerated a little harder and stayed in a lower gear going up a steep hill. At the top the car stalled. Marie did the smart thing, letting the car roll almost a mile to the bottom of the hill and onto the shoulder. It wouldn't restart. She stayed calm and sat inside for a few moments. She was somewhere north of Malibu not far from Zuma Beach.

"Some first ride," she thought. Thirty minutes out, stalled, with the ocean still a mile west.

Marie got out of the car. A Porsche went past, a black blur, and the backwash made her short blonde hair stand up. She ran across the highway and walked north. South was back up the long hill. Maybe there was a telephone in the easier direction.

After a mile and no gas station or phone, Marie passed a sign off the shoulder that read: BEACH ACCESS. She stopped. The car could wait. She decided to go down to the beach and lie in the sun. It wasn't exactly what she'd imagined. She'd wanted to look out on the ocean from some viewpoint high above on the coast highway, her arm resting casually on the top of her new car, sunglasses down, the continent behind her.

So this was a first lesson--don't let a machine take something away from you. Adjust.

The road was unpaved, two dirt tracks through weeds and trees, wide enough for one vehicle. It was a road for a jeep, bumpy, overgrown. There were much simpler approaches to the shore all up and down the coast, with parking lots and restaurants. Why anyone would use this road, she didn't know; unless one wanted privacy. The beach at the end would probably be empty.

Marie walked slowly where the road curved downhill through a small wood. Ahead she could see the top of a palm tree, but the wood was dense enough to obscure the ocean. She kept going; it was cool here, from the sea breeze and shade. She went faster, wanted to get to the beach quickly, get some sun, then take care of the car.

When the road straightened, she saw someone standing in the undergrowth. He was bent over, his hands probing the grass. Stepping quietly, Marie tried to go past without being seen; but the person stood up, startled, then smiled and waved.

"Hi," he said.

He was a young man, and when he came closer, moving his feet noisily in the brush, Marie saw that he was very good-looking and probably not much older than she. A small canvas bag hung from a belt around his waist.

"What are you looking for?" she asked him.


His name was Willy Kleinholder and he said he was looking for a mushroom similar to one that appeared in springtime on the Kansas farmland where he grew up.

"They grow year 'round in California," Willy said. "My father knows how to cook them. They're delicious."

While Willy told her about the mushrooms, Marie was paying attention to his smile--wide open, symmetrical. Natural, unaffected smiles were always symmetrical. And she was noticing his hands, too--hard, worn a little, with black dirt under the fingernails from poking under the grass. But the fingers were long and graceful and moved with surprising gentleness when they dropped a fragile, brown mushroom into the canvas bag.

Willy had stopped talking. The silence made Marie look up at his face again. The smile was still there.

Marie smiled back. "I grew up in a small town in Western New York," she said.

They walked to the beach together past Willy's parents' car, a jeep parked farther down on the dirt road. They sat in the sand and watched a single jogger run past at the water line. The air had gotten heavier and the jogger's shape was softened by sunlight on a haze suspended above the ocean. After the jogger was gone, no one else came by for an hour.

Marie and Willy talked about moving to Los Angeles three years before at almost the same time. They laughed looking at themselves, their wild hair and stylishly sloppy clothes. Each admitted that this was not the appearance they had maintained in their small towns. Willy named his high school in Los Angeles; it was not the same as Marie's, but they didn't live that far from each other. Willy was seventeen.

"You've been driving for a year," Marie said.

"Yes, it's great."

"I just got my license."

At noon Willy got up and went down to the shore brake where he washed the dirt off his hands. He waved to Marie and she took off her shoes and walked with him in the wet sand, holding hands, her fingers linked in his. The soft pressure of his palm made her want to close her eyes.

Later, Willy drove her to a gas station on the Coast Highway. A mechanic went with them to Marie's Volkswagen and got it running again. She drove home, taking the long way through Topanga Canyon. The next week she had dinner with Willy and his father. One of the dishes was a mushroom specialty.

Much later, a month, Marie kissed Willy. Eventually the became lovers and after a time, friends. They moved on, wrote a letter or two, then lost touch and lived far apart.

In the following years, when driving, most likely with her children wrestling in the back seat or her husband listening to a ball game, Marie would occasionally recall the day when she was sixteen and first drove alone in a car. If the old Volkswagen had not broken down, she would have flown right past the dirt road and Willy Kleinholder and his beautiful, beautiful hands.

She'd learned two things that day on the Pacific Coast Highway--the second being that sometimes a slow walk is better than a fast ride.


Editor's note:

Stephen Peters is a friend of the Gobbler who has lived in California now lives in Hawaii. He has contributed other short stories to our pages. This was originally written for a daughter of his friend on her 16th birthday.