Novel – The Straits of Juan de Fuca

December 11, 2013

The dead man, Everett Lovejoy, and I had never been particularly close. Lovejoy for the most part had minimal paternal involvement in my life from the time I was nine until I’d left home at 18 and joined the army to escape going to jail. My mother and Everett divorced a year later. My biological father was Sanchez de Fuca, a trumpet player of some renown in Mexico, and I have no memory of him. He was reportedly very talented, handsome, charming, and a notorious womanizer. My lovely mother was a modern dance teacher at the time, and once when Sanchez played an extended gig in Portland, she had been another one of his road conquests. He’d never known that she was pregnant. My mother mentioned that she had once tried to make contact with him, so at least he would have known I existed—like he cared. My mother had constantly checked the Northwest jazz club circuit on the off chance Sanchez would be playing in one of those clubs, but to her knowledge Sanchez never played in the Northwest again (not further north than San Francisco). One time my mother had even driven the 14 hours to the Keystone In San Francisco because Sanchez was reportedly playing there, but she’d missed him by a day.

My mother’s name was Victoria and she had often told me about the choice of my name, and about her name; about the maps she’d pored over as a young girl transplanted from northern Minnesota, and also how as a young girl she had ridden the ferry from Anna Cortes to Victoria, describing how beautiful and powerful the experience of that ferry ride had been for her. The San Juan Islands were dramatic, fantastic, and the straits this vastness. To the girl Victoria whose name would be forever linked to Vancouver Island, the passage across those straits had felt like she was sailing to the ends of the Earth. I was named after those straits. And today I wasn’t particularly sad or emotional as I watched Everett’s body being hoisted onto the gurney. He’d been more of an unfortunate reminder of my real and eternally elusive father.

My being at the scene of the crime had been no coincidence as Detective Porto had suggested. In my mailbox that morning was an envelope with just my name typed on it. The contents of the envelope were a single sheet of fine, lightly marbled paper, with an unsigned message, again typed, that read:


Not much of a performance, I thought.

I’m not sure how I ended up being a private detective, in Portland Oregon, in the late 1970s. Maybe my questionable origins and evolution is a matter of detective work in itself. I have no set of principles that I live by, and only a meager but universally accepted value system, which consists of the Golden Rule and a few of the Ten Commandments with a dash of Proverbs thrown in. The Tao-te-Ching is my main book. I’ve gained immensely from reading Lao-Tse and Chaung-Tzu and the philosophy is certainly tied in with the Shaolin, Ba-Gua and White Crane boxing I’ve practiced since leaving the army. I tend to follow my third eye, to go with the flow (or The Tao or Way), to pay close attention to instinct and intuition and the face of reality as opposed to the mind’s interpretation of it. Much of what I know now, and why I’m here, and how I make my way in the world, came from being in Vietnam where I developed a healthy bullshit sense regarding dangerous heroics, and command, and ideology, and the bullshit sense happened to keep my ass alive. I’m like the snake, I try to stay invisible. People don’t need to watch me watching them, or watching other people. I pretty much blend in with my surroundings. I don’t obtrude or intrude. I don’t stand out. I’m camouflaged. No one notices me. At times I think I’m invisible, or certainly that I have the ability to erase myself the way they used to show in old cartoons when the cartoonist was demonstrating how animation works, and Bugs or Daffy, or Porky would be shouting for help at their creator as first their limbs and then their torsos and finally their heads being erased on the page. I often feel like that. Like I’m made of ink and erasing myself all the time . . . But that still doesn’t explain how I wound up here.

Her shop is in Selwyn. It has a nice feeling about it: clean and well scented, with all its delicate handmade papers, writing boxes, calligraphy tools, stationery kits, Japanese prints and rice papers, fountain pens, nibs and inks. There was a monastic Buddhist appeal in its atmosphere, more in the Japanese Zen traditions than the Tibetan or Chinese. I feel comfortable coming into this store, and the moment I see her, Melanie always give me this sweet, infinitely suggestive smile, because she knows what’s coming. She is gorgeous, with an angelic sensuous glow about her, as in her work, something you immediately want to touch. But for now I’m here on business and figure I would get business out of the way. Hopefully it wouldn’t take very long.

“What do you know about marbled papers,” I asked her.

“Are you kidding?” she said. “This is my trade, my livelihood.”

“Right . . . So, I guess this paper could be one of your creations?” I said, showing her the note.

Melanie studied the paper cursorily. She didn’t need to examine a watermark.

“Yes, this paper is one of my own designs,” she confirmed.

“It’s beautiful.”

“Thank you. I like it too.”

Might you remember anyone who’s purchased this particular style of paper recently?”

“My God, Juan. I could go through my ledger and maybe find the order, but the paper could have been purchased a long time ago. I’ve been manufacturing this design for two years. And there’s always the possibility that your note writer didn’t buy the paper in my store, but maybe at a gallery, or The Gallery, or Powell’s Books, or some other bookstore or craft store that I sell to on consignment.”

“How about the ink?”

“Ball point.”

“A shame, using a ball point pen on your paper. Doesn’t absorb.”

“Definitely, such a waste . . . but the paper is no longer mine at this stage.”

“So I guess the note writer was not an aesthete . . . which means not likely someone who would shop at your store regularly, who would buy from you regularly . . . Do you have any employees?”

“You know I don’t.”

“But I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks. You could have hired someone in that time.”

“A couple weeks is too long for me, baby,” she said with a salacious wink. “I did recently take on an apprentice.”

“Male or female?”


“Elderly? College student?”

“25 . . .” She smiled at my reaction. “Don’t worry. He’s gay.”

“I wasn’t worried,” I said.

Melanie thrust one leg toward me. She had on black stockings, or leotard, beneath a short black leather skirt. I loved the shape of her thigh.
“So, am I a suspect? It gets me a little hot thinking that I might be your suspect.”

“Everyone’s my suspect.”

“Must be hard to live that way.”

She came closer now and slipped into my arms. I held her tight.

“You’re a big piece of man candy, aren’t you? Mexican and —-”


“That must account for your size.”

“I think so, but my mother was a ballet dancer. Fairly petite. Or lithe would better describe her.”

“You have that perfect mix of Latin and Scandinavian genes.”

“Finns are not Scandinavian,” I reminded her.

Melanie’s apartment was upstairs above the store. She now closed the store, reached underneath the register and produced a neatly rolled joint (perhaps another one of her papers?).

“Come on upstairs,” she said.

She got out of bed and padded toward her dresser to get a cigarette. She had the most graceful and beautifully sculpted body I had ever seen. Her hair was this wavy reddish gold, but a color somehow all its own, and at the moment her hair made a lovely weave against her light-skinned back. She’d cut the front of her hair in bangs. She had green eyes.

I’d first seen Melanie at coffee and pastry shop next door. I’d been enjoying a strong Sumatran blend (this was in the days before I’d switched to tea) and staring out the front window, when a lovely young woman with soft hair passed by on the street. She had drifted quickly across my field of vision like some hazy remnant of a dream and then she briefly paused at the edge of the café’ window. A door swung open. I had forgotten there was an apartment above the book store next to the café. My mystery girl became literary, artistic. Maybe she worked in the store for inspiration while spending her evenings in the studio apartment, feverishly penning her great first novel, occasionally stopping her hurried but neat and calligraphic scrawl to gaze down at the life on her street: A look weighted with innocent contemplation. I might even be a witless passerby plucked by her Muse, grist for a significant character in her story. We might end up in love! I’d observed the plain dark wooden door that was barely noticeable in the shops’ row of faux art-deco façades. A light rain sizzled on the pavement. I’d left her a note wedged in the shiny brass mail slot of her door. The note had read: “To the Beautiful, Graceful and Flaxen-haired Writer of my Dreams,” and visited the store the following day under pretext, and exposed myself as the note writer. How ironic that I was visiting Melanie this afternoon about a note.

She had grown up poor in Washington State, in the Yakima Valley. There were weird family problems, and the domestic scene had been kind of fractured and depressing. Although she had some fond memories of her girlhood in the Yakima Valley, Melanie had quit home as soon as possible to attend The University of Oregon with some ambition of being a poet or writer. She had run with a fairly wild literary bunch in those days who had ties to Ken Kesey and she’d even been on the dairy farm a few times and knew him casually, and she’d also been lucky enough to have met Ginsberg, Corso, Ken Babbs and William Burroughs among others. But maybe because of her upbringing Melanie would not completely let go of herself or finding out how to make her way in the world. She had no inclination to end up on the streets, or even struggle, she understood the game and what needed to be done. She’d become obsessed with paper and the craft of hand-printed paper and paper making. She’d gotten her degree and attended graduate school, and she’d become a known artisan in the city and a modestly successful business woman, who also taught classes in paper making. She was creative and spiritual and sexually expansive without being crazy, addicted or simply out there. She still wrote and published poetry in some of the literary journals around Portland and Eugene, and some of her poetry was pretty good.

She lit a clove cigarette, the smoke making a shifting boa about her neck and shoulders, and I thought of the reptilian boa in the park. A cloying smell like incense or the cannabis we had just smoked penetrated the room—a clinging trail of our recent lovemaking. Melanie sat near me on the edge of the bed, smoking. The clove oil in the cigarette crackled a little as she drew on it, like some dud firecracker.

“What do you want to do with your life, Juan?”

“I think I’m already doing it,” I told her.

“Playing cop?”

“I am a cop.”

“You were a cop . . . and I’m not only talking about jobs or careers . . . but . . . how to live . . . how you want to live . . . what matters to you . . . that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? I know you’ve been through some bad experiences—growing up, the war, police work—and you’re kind of rootless, you have this very tenuous connection to your family and your roots.”

“Like you.”

“Not exactly. True, I’m not what you’d call a family girl, but I can hop in the car and drive up to Washington and my people, for better or worse, will still be there. But you never knew your father, you don’t see your mother, and you’ve known to question why you’re still here. You must want some meaning, some connection.”

“Maybe,” was all I said.

Melanie has finished her clove and is back in bed now and curled over me, talking into my chest, placing her words closer to my heart. These trysts with Melanie often veer to the more sensitive side of things, and I realize I’m thinking of Anna now, Anna Cortes. Melanie has this tendency to care and nurture, to get under the surface of things, she’s an artist, but one who wants feelings to matter, and while I admire that quality in her, the quality isn’t one that I happen to possess, nor Anna. Anna Cortes is all brains and instinct, a powerful combination. Melanie is brilliant too, but intelligence doesn’t define her. Like me, Anna tends to be clinical about relationships and not overly intimate. I rarely have the sort of conversations with the linguist Anna Cortes that I have with the fine paper designer Melanie. But when I do have one of those conversations with her I know it’s important and I should pay attention.


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