A Slow Walk
by Stephen Peters
(C) The Gobbler: Blaze 1994
The car broke down on her first ride in it
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
"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
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
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
"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,
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.
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.