Connie awoke to Sam’s fingers stroking her cheek.  Unfair, she might have thought if she’d had her first cup of coffee. But Sam had the jump on her that morning, making her forget all about the night before.

“Mornin’ Sweetheart!” he said with his best Bogart impression. Sam was bright and alive, acting like Sam Spade, like he hadn’t done in years.   Sam was tall in a gangly way that made him look like a mass of gelatinous limbs, floppy and messy when he was sad.  And yet, when he was happy like he was now, his structure gave him the need to bounce like an Indian rubber ball.  He bounced off the walls and stretched his neck like a fighting cock.  Sam was thirty-three but Connie hadn’t seen him like this since before they married.

“ What happened?” Connie asked through a long yawn. She regretted her question as soon as she said it.  Sam fell one notch down from his perch of life. 

“Got a job,” he answered.

“A Job? Last night you didn’t have a job.” 

The phone rang.  Both Sam and Connie looked at the clock. 

“Eight-o-two.” Connie muttered.  “Hmmm...”

“That’d be the phone company.”  Sam said as he put on his fedora. “Guess that means we haven’t been cut off yet.  Call ‘em all my dear.  Call ‘em all today and tell them the cheque’s in the mail.”

Connie sat up, fully awake now.  “Sam?  What’s going on?  What happened to the big fight we had last night?  You didn’t have a job last night. The world was caving in and we hated each other.  Remember all that?”

Sam circled the brim of his hat with his forefinger and bit his lower lip.  Dropping the Bogie impression, Sam chose his words slowly as he sat on the edge of the bed.  “I had a job.  Just didn’t know if I was gonna’ take it.”

“What?  Why didn’t you tell me?  What is it?”

“I joined the CIA”

“Fuck off!”

“Serious.  It’s a classified mission.  I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.  Now I gotta get going before I’m late for my meeting with the director.”

Connie, never being good at losing control, chased Sam all the way out to his rusty old Impala, wearing nothing but her nighty. Sam finally gave up on making a clean getaway so he grabbed his wife by the shoulders and told her.  “Listen, last night, before I got home I met this guy.  I met this guy Connie and I’m gonna do a little favour for him.”

“A little favour?  What do you mean?  This ain’t something illegal is it?  Oh god Sam, what’ve you done...”

“Con! C’mon.” Sam chuckled the way he always did when he felt Connie was being ridiculous.  She hated that.  But again, Sam caught her off guard. “Meet me down in the city tonight. Down at our spot on the boardwalk.  Okay?  Meet me there tonight and I’ll explain all the details that I don’t know about yet.”

Sam had started his car before Connie realized that he’d let her go. “Be there at eight.” he called out as the car backed away. “ Fix your hair up. And wear some stockings.  Nights are getting cold, you know.”

Then Sam was gone and Connie, bare feet cold on the pavement, was left wondering if the neighbours, looking down from their windows, could ever have dramas in their lives like she did.  When did her life slip off the wagon of rationality?  How did she let it happen?

Connie went back inside and leaned over the bathroom sink to look at herself in the mirror. She looked old.  She couldn’t deny it.  Even after she splashed water on her face and turned out the light so that only the morning sun fell on her cheeks.  Why hadn’t she noticed before?  The crow’s feet around her eyes were obvious.  She knew it was all her man’s fault.  With all his ventures and falling dreams, he had tasked her sensibility almost to death. This time, he’d broken her.  She had nothing left to save him from himself yet again. 

“No more, Sam.” she said softly to her haggard image.  Connie was surprised how calm she was to realize that her marriage was over.  She didn’t think of all the legal hassles.  Wasn’t shocked that half of her life would be gone by tomorrow.  A passing had come, as natural as the coming snow.

She was in the living room suddenly, not aware of her movements, only noticing the stillness.  Nothing had changed about that room since the week they’d moved into the bungalow five years ago.  The yellowed shears stank of cigarette smoke.  The furniture had carved permanent ruts in the carpet a long time ago.  Connie stood there as inert as the floor lamp beside her.  Then, after a sigh, she went about changing her life.

Connie called the courier service where she worked and told them she wouldn’t be in.  It was no problem.  She hadn’t missed a day since she started there, fresh out of high school.

“I’m leaving Sam,” she said to her best friend who replied only with a gasp.  Connie hadn’t planned to say that, it just slipped out somehow.  Now that the words were out there, her declaration made public, Connie sprung into action with determination.  She packed and planned at the same time.  Forget all the lingerie.  Pack the alarm clock.  Pack the pill and the makeup and just the clothes that she’d need for two weeks of separation.  Finally she wrote cheques out to all the creditors from her own savings account.  It was a small investment for a new life.

 Connie wasn’t going to her mother’s house where Sam could find her and serenade her like she knew he would.  No, she was going to go downtown and hide out in some motel.  Then she’d restart her life after a few weeks.  After Sam had understood the finality of it all, then she’d start the proceedings.

By noon, Connie was firmly planted in her new life as a fugitive from all she’d known.  The “Have-A-Nap” didn’t rent by the hour but it wasn’t much better than that. When she was all unpacked and showered, she looked out the window at her shiny Volkswagen, “New Beetle.”  It’s clean Olive paint stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the old domestics in the parking lot and the old storefronts across the street in that dilapidated section of the downtown city core.  So she drove it across the street to the used car lot and sold it for a song.  It would’ve been stolen anyway.  Now she could use the money for an apartment and besides, she could walk to work from there.  Finally there was nothing left to do.  She wasn’t ready to call her folks yet.  Her Mom would only try to make her think that she’d lost her mind.  Not that Mom ever liked Sam.  It was just that she had been raised to stay the course.  In Connie’s family everything was complete when you were twenty-two, one job, one marriage for life.

And yet here it was at ten to two on a chilly Tuesday afternoon and here was this woman sitting in the heart of the city.  This Connie, sitting alone on the edge of a foreign bed, her fingers trembling with the fear of the unknown.  She wished she’d done everything slower so she that she wouldn’t have so much time to kill before meeting Sam down on the boardwalk.  What would she say to him that she hadn’t said so many times before?

Sitting at the dresser, Connie grabbed the motel stationery and put pen to paper.  But after a few minutes she grew restless, having realized that Sam would counter everything she might say. They’d just go round and round in circles, never going anywhere yet again.  There would be no arguing with him tonight.  She would grant him the respect of meeting him only to tell him simply that she was leaving him for good. And that would be all.

Connie looked at her watch.  It was five hours to the rendevous.  So now what?  She couldn’t just sit there, watching tv in the middle of a workday.  Sleep was out of the question.  There was too much noise outside–sirens and traffic and muffled voices--reminding her that life was going on around her, making her feel guilty about not playing her part.  So finally Connie got up and grabbed her room key and walked out to see what went on in this big world when she’d normally be stuck in a cubicle at work.

As soon as she stepped out into the shrill noise of the street Connie realized that it was a homing instinct that had brought her there, to that particular motel in that particular part of town. It was the ethnic part of Metro where all the Russians and the Poles had set up their bagel shops and garages generations ago.  It was colorful and loud and it was the place where all the kids from the burbs flocked to on Saturday nights.  It was where she went when she was a kid.  And there was “Pappa’s Pizza” where she and Sam first set eyes on each other when they were both just seventeen.

The instant lust between them had drowned out everything that day.  Connie’s giggling friends had just disappeared.  His friends gave up trying to get him to go down and check out the action on the board.  Even the smell of dough gave way to the sultry mix of his sweaty underarms and her cheap perfume.

Connie relived the moment like nothing had happened since.

“Hey Darlin,’ got the time?”

“Ah....Sorry.  No watch.”

“That ain’t what I mean Darlin.’” Sam had said with a hint of an accent to make himself sound cool.  Connie had looked up to see this mythic figure from some film noir.  He wore a T-shirt with his smokes rolled up against his shoulder.  Sleekly muscled arms descended on her when he leaned down, parting her friends as though they were just things in the way of his focused gaze.  A silly bowler hat rested on a shag of deliberately messed blonde hair.  Sam was a mishmash of James Dean, Sid Vicious, and something that might have been a burgeoning identity of his own. There was nothing fake about how his eyes made her feel like she was the world.

“So what?” she asked, giving her friends a cynical glance, like she didn’t care. 

“I mean, you got the time to save me?” he had said, undaunted by her ice.

“From what?”

“From the fire you set burning in my heart.”

That was the line that made the world go spinning off into oblivion.

Their courtship was hard and furious over the next six months.  Looking back on it as she strolled slowly through the hectic bustle of the sidewalk, Connie couldn’t organize her memories of that time.  It was all just a kaleidoscope of lights and colour, of stars blazing in the inky black above the boiling surf down by the sea where Sam repeatedly tried to steal her virtue.  Her teasing had made it all that much more exciting.  Despite how trashy Connie had made herself look, teasing her hair big enough for two heads and wearing loose halters every which way, tantalizingly falling off her shoulders all the time, deep down she was still a good Catholic girl and it made Sam’s nostrils flare like a wild buck.

The tension forced streams of bad poetry from Sam’s mouth, made him spend gobs of money on fake jewellery, promise rings and ice cream cones.  She didn’t know where he got the money because he didn’t have a job.  Connie suspected that he was just another rich kid from the burbs like her but Sam never allowed her to see his home.  In fact he had done everything to make her believe that he was an orphan, a street poet, living off the heart of the crime-stained city.

Connie tried to force back those days.  She didn’t believe in living in the past.   But as the sea breeze hit her when she crossed the lights to the boardwalk, Connie crossed into the second year of their union.  That was the time of conflict and redemption.  Sam had fallen in with the Bully Boys.  He’d go down to the beach on summer nights and get into mass rumbles with some other mysterious gang.  Suddenly Connie was seeing great wads of cash being passed around during the “Bull Sessions” at the back of the pizza parlour.  The boys would make the girls sit up front and they’d talk quietly, sometimes signalling with ear tugs or other stupid body waves, things they couldn’t say out loud. 

There was a higher power controlling them.  They were young lieutenants in a war between small time hoods and shady law enforcement thugs.  A boy was killed one night on the beach, left there like garbage after all the soldiers had left the battleground.  That was when Connie had put her foot down and made Sam choose between her and a life of crime.  She set him straight.  Sam actually made her feel like he appreciated her for it. Until she caught him under the pier with Sherry, her now ex-best friend.

They fought their way for miles down the beach, until Connie’s feet were killing her and she finally accused Sam of being “a sick pig with no respect for anybody.”

“Oh you think so?” he screamed back at her. “You think I just couldn’t wait for it?  Well I’ll tell you Connie.  I just got bored with you!  You got no vision! You got no dreams!”

“Oh yeah!” Connie screamed back at him.  It was all she could come up with because she was too busy fighting back her tears.  Finally the truth slipped out of her, despite herself.  “You were my dream!  You were my vision, you asshole!  But you’re just a loser.”

Connie stormed off that night, leaving Sam speechless and still in the cold night. 

A week later Connie was home in her room, doing her homework and trying to forget her other life, down amidst the exciting lights and the passionate nights of the city when she heard the doorbell ring and Sam’s voice, respectful and shy like she had never heard him before, ask her Mom if Connie was home.

An hour later, after riding the cross-town bus, Connie was in Sam’s home, discovering that all her suspicions about his upbringing were wrong.  Sam was as far on the wrong side of the tracks as you could get.  His house was a trailer and his only other kin was his father, a man whose hand was permanently welded to a beer can and who didn’t stand to greet a lady.  Sam only let Connie stay in his home long enough to see where he came from and then he took her down to a park where teens drank beer in the open and sent plumes of dust churning from the smoking tires of their Dodges and Camaros.

Connie was speechless, giving Sam long enough to think carefully about what he wanted to say.  “I steal money from my Dad’s pension.  I gotta cash his cheques cause he gets too impatient to stand in line.  He don’t notice.  Most of his life he’s three sheets to the wind.” 

Connie would never forget the first sight she had of tears in Sam’s eyes.  “I miss you Connie.  I miss you so bad.  And you’re right.  I am a loser.  Down here it ain’t like where you come from.  There ain’t no grey.  There ain’t no middle-class mid-life crisis, maybe I coulda’ done better but it ain’t so bad.  Connie, down here there’s just winners and losers and Darlin’ you don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of that line.  I don’t wanna’ be on the wrong side of that line, Connie.  Please, please save me.”

They hugged and kissed with abandon until Connie looked at her lover, her dream, and said “From?”

Sam picked up on the cue. “From the fire you set burning in my heart.”

So long ago.  Connie found herself sitting on a bench, looking at a freighter out on the ocean and she realized that that was the last time her and Sam had fought their way to complete forgiveness.  Redemption without a trace of baggage left over. A year later, they were married and therein began their relentless descent into half-finished issues.  It was always her pragmatism coming up against his “visions.” Her savings account.  His get-rich-quick schemes.  Her mortgage.  His hunger to see Australia.  Her steady job. His pyramid investments.  Until finally there was nothing but baggage.  Finally it had all come to this, Connie, alone on a bench looking at a new life far out on the horizon on a sea barren of any dreams supplied by any man.  Connie looked out to that sea and wondered if Sam had been right about her being boring.  Could she fill that flat ocean with dreams of her own making?

Connie wondered about that until five past eight. Only then did she look at her watch and realize that Sam was late.  No surprise there.  But it didn’t matter to her.  The sun had set and the boardwalk was coming alive.  Rice rockets and muscle cars were cruising for action with their sub-woofers thundering down the waterfront.  Lovers were strolling along the beach and somewhere down there, beyond the very same pier where she had caught Sam cheating on her years before, the lights of some distant carnival flickered in the night sky.  For a second or two, Connie tried to wonder what was going on down there.  In the next second, she was balling her eyes out.  She was crying beyond all control, remembering all the good times of her youth and how it had all faded away.  Connie cried and cried until it hurt.  And then finally she raised her head from the lake of salt in her hands and saw a twenty dollar bill lying in the sand.

Connie blinked and focused to see if she was imagining it.  No.  It was there.   So she pulled herself to her feet, strolled across the sand and picked it up.  She laughed at the good fortune.  Could this be a sign?  She wondered.  Never one to be superstitious, Connie stuffed the bill down her top and shivered in the autumn chill.  And then, after she sighed, she looked down into the moonlit dust and saw another bill.

And then another.

A hundred bucks later, Connie was following a paper trail down the beach.  Her spirits picked up and she couldn’t deny that she was on a roll.  This had to mean something.  She had to be on the right path.  It dawned on Connie that life must be a cycle.  That she had to come to the edge of the abyss to see a new beginning and that yes, she could be alive again, as much as she was so long ago.  Maybe everything that dies comes back.  Someday.

Connie could love again.  She could feel the wonder of the city lights and the passionate nights.  Not with Sam of course.  But that wasn’t the point.  The fact was, a light rain was falling, the stars were gone and all she felt was clean and fresh.  Springtime was falling from the coming winter and every step she took down the beach only brought Connie more wealth.

Under the pier of betrayal, Connie found even more twenties.  She was getting rich, and between the old musty pillars she finally had a clear view of the carnival going on a few hundred feet away.  The lights flickered and people stood around under the night sky.   They waited for Connie to join in and light up the night with her rebirth.  And she would.  She swore she would.  Her cold, wet hair tickled her bare shoulders.  She felt the rain on her breasts and the lively dance aching to break free in her thighs.  She was new, like she never thought she could be.

But it wasn’t a carnival before her.  The lights flickering in the night came from the light bars of half a dozen police cruisers and an ambulance.  The people milling about all had the same night-black attire and all of them had their heads hung over a body lying in the sand.

Connie didn’t freeze in the horror of the scene. She simply felt her heart fall inch by inch down through the cavern of her body as her feet carried her over the money trail until it ended at the open briefcase lying in the sand.

“That’s my husband,” Connie heard herself say to no one in particular.  As she fell into the swarm of questions from faces and voices that all moulded together into a swarm of chaos, Connie never lost sight of Sam’s Fedora, blowing across the sand on a strangely sudden gust of wind, blowing away from his bullet-ridden back and his left hand still clenched around the open briefcase.  It blew away into the night, spinning and swirling and just begging for Connie. Begging for her to come for one last ride.