On his way out of Ann Arbor he stops at the used book store he's been eyeing since he got here. He'll get a few good books for the road. Keep him occupied at his stops. Better than holing up in a bar. Engrossing enough that he won't have time to second guess or turn around for Miami or Ann Arbor or any other place.
Walking into the shop he nods at the clerk behind the register. He looks around. The place is narrow, but crowded with books and shelves. Perfect.
"You stalking me now or what?" the clerk asks.
"Excuse me?" He looks her way again. Narrows his eyes, trying to place her. He ain't trying to stalk nobody, least of all a glasses-wearing clerk in a ratty gray cardigan. She's obviously just making fun, her eyebrows arched in amusement over her glasses. Or maybe not making fun - her eyebrows seem to arch naturally and sharply over the corners, giving her a permanent air of disdain or merriment, if only you could tell which is which. Juliet's eyebrows did that. James got to where he could (usually) tell which was which.
It's probably why she does look kind of familiar. Except . . . "Hey, you're the bartender, right?"
"Bingo." She taps the temples of her glasses. "It's these. Great disguise. Kind of a Clark Kent thing I've got going on. By day a mild-mannered book store clerk . . ."
He chuckles. "The cardigan adds to the look."
She smiles. "It's not mine. They keep it colder than I like here. Plus, I don't work for tips here, so. . . " She shrugs, leaving her sentence unfinished.
"Gotcha. So, your bosses know you spend your evenings slinging gin?"
"My parents own this place, so, yeah. They know. This is just a part-time gig, actually. Dad calls me up when he needs someone to fill in. Or, well, no, that's not even true. He has like a sixth sense when I need some extra cash, then always seems to need me to come by and help out."
"Nice of him," James offers, doubts creeping in. He's on his way to Albuquerque because this chick convinced him it was a good idea. Easy for her to say, because she's got super-duper Cliff Huxtable dad, but James is the opposite of that.
Unintentionally she twists the knife. "Since you're here talking to me, I'm guessing you haven't met your daughter yet."
"She lives in Albuquerque," he offers as an excuse. He bolsters it with, "I'm here to get books for the trip."
"Anything in particular?"
Not really, so he lets her show him around. Mysteries here, self-help ("I'm guessing 'no' on that," she sasses him, lifting an arched eyebrow) over there, a wall of classics, best sellers, some of her favorites. He has nearly 4 years to catch up on, and he appreciates her recommendations.
"For a bartender, you know an awful lot about this," he remarks.
"I have a PhD in literature," she says. "But I turned down a tenure track position at Northwestern because I wanted to focus on my writing." She rolls her eyes. "Stupid plan. Because," she spreads her arms wide. "Here I am. When I'm not tending bar."
"Still writing?" he asks.
"When I can. I'm Alex, by the way." She sticks out a hand for him to shake.
James almost swallows his chewing gum.
That poor girl, begging her Daddy to save her, betrayed in the end by a false Dad playing roulette with his daughter's life. God damn. He's doing the right thing by going to Albuquerque, right? He couldn't never be as bad as Ben, right? At least he's Clem's real daddy. That's important, right? Or is it? How much does blood really matter? He's doing the right thing. Isn't he?
Alex misinterprets his slack-jawed expression. "It's short for Alexandra," she offers.
He nods dumbly. "I'm uh . . ." he should introduce himself, but what are people supposed to call him here? Now? He's not Sawyer anymore, and he's not LaFleur, but he doesn't think he can handle hearing James. "uh . . . I'm Jim."
She snorts. "Wow. Jim. Great fake name, by the way."
"It ain't fake," he protests, although maybe it kind of is, and given the way he stumbled over it, well, she can be forgiven.
She smacks her thighs. "OK, well, Jim, feel free to look around. Holler if you need something." The bells on the door announce an older guy's entrance. Alex tilts her head that way. "It's my dad."
James' curiosity is piqued. He cranes his neck around the shelves to get a better look at this guy. For an old dude, he looks to be in pretty good shape. He's holding a cardboard box James guesses is full of books. He's got big hands and his arms and shoulders could belong to a man 20 years his junior. His hair is gray and neatly cut, receding at the temples, but thick on top. He sets the box on the front counter, and says a few words to Alex. She laughs then says a few words back. James can't stop staring. He doesn't understand why these people interest him so much, but they do. He can picture the guy a few decades ago, showing up with flowers at his own front door, taking his father-daughter date seriously, and no doubt charming his wife in the process (intentionally, for sure: guy's probably no dummy, knows how squiring his daughter around will play with his wife).
Alex's dad walks behind the counter, taking a few shuffling, limping steps to do so. His gait ages him the 20 years his upper body subtracts. Upon closer look, James sees that the guy's operating on one leg and one prosthetic.
He thinks then of Pierre. How Day 2 into Dharma Juliet blurted, "Hey! That's the guy with the fake arm!" and Miles said, "That guy is my dad." Then he thinks of Miles. How James basically walked out on him while Miles nattered on about getting to know his dad. James needs to get back in touch.
He gathers a few books, mostly watches Alex and her dad sort through the box, laughing and talking. Jealousy surges then, but a different kind than he's been feeling. This jealousy is productive. He can have that kind of relationship with his own daughter. He will go to Albuquerque. He will.
Alex's dad limps out of the store. James approaches the counter with his stack of books.
"What happened to your dad's leg?" he asks, almost immediately regretting the intrusive and unnecessary question.
Alex doesn't seem to mind, though. "Vietnam happened. He was a fighter pilot. Got shot down over North Vietnam, broke his leg in the crash." She shrugs, like this is all no big deal, ancient history. "He spent more than a year as a guest at the Hanoi Hilton, and they didn't exactly have the best orthopedic specialists on staff there."
She shakes her head, disagreeing. "The way he tells it, coming home was even tougher. They took his leg before he got Stateside, and then he got back to find out his wife was cheating on him. Plus guilt that his wingman died over there. Went through some real Born on the Fourth of July shit, you know? Drugs, you name it."
"Your mom cheated on a POW?" Jesus. What a freaking bitch.
She laughs. "No. That was his first wife. But you know who it was?" her eyebrows arch over her glasses again. So very familiar to him. "Terri Johnson!"
Another reference flies right over his head. He shakes his head in confusion.
"Right. You aren't from around here. She's a Republican state senator now. Big into supporting the troops, family values, all that. What a freaking hypocrite. Anyway, Mom and Dad think it's a real hoot."
"Huh," he remarks, hoping that expresses appropriate interest. Thing is, he don't care any about Alex's dad's bitch of a first wife, or, apparently decent second wife, or how the latter jokes about the former. What he does care about, what he asks is, "So, how did everything turn out OK for him? How'd he turn it around?"
What he means is if your plane crashes in the jungle on the other side of the world, you spend way too much time over there, lose your wingman, then come home to find everything is gone . . . how do you pick yourself up off the deck? And could I pick his brain for a little bit? And does he give out free advice?
Alex shrugs. "I don't really know. He sometimes talks about this one friend getting cancer, and then he realized bad stuff can happen to anyone, and, like, decided to stop feeling sorry for himself. He always gave that lecture when me or my little sister were complaining about how unfair life is or something. Anyway, he went back and finished vet school, joined my grandpa's practice, met my mom, got married, had my sister, yada yada yada. Retired and bought a used book store. The end."
"Hmmmmmm," James sort of grumbles under his breath. He don't really want Miles getting cancer to be the answer to him pulling his head out of his ass and getting back on his feet. And he certainly don't got vet school to finish or a dad to give him a job even if he did. He fakes interest, hoping to maybe learn another clue, like maybe he needs to do the right kind of drug, or throw himself into a hobby, or volunteer at a soup kitchen or something. "How'd your folks meet? I mean, where's a one-legged Vietnam vet go to meet chicks?"
"Anyone ever tell you you're a nosy parker?"
"All the time. Humor me. Come on," he wheedles. "Just tell me."
"All right," she says. "Physical therapy."
He guffaws, mentally high fives the one-legged ex-fighter-jock. "Ya realize that's like some guys' fantasy, doncha? Rehab nurse? I ain't even sure it's ethical, but even so, more power to him."
She wrinkles her nose. "Gross. I don't even like thinking about that sort of thing. Besides, she wasn't his nurse, she was a patient, too."
"Oh." That's way less exciting. "Your mom missing a leg, too?"
"No, she was in a really bad accident, and basically 'cause she was pregnant with me when it happened, she couldn't have all the surgeries she needed, her leg didn't heal properly. She started PT when I was old enough to leave with the on-site day care, met Dad, blah blah blah. You wouldn't even know it now, she doesn't even walk with a limp. But if she calls to tell you she thinks it's gonna rain 'cause her back's acting up or whatever? Well, Jess - that's my sister - she thinks it's all baloney . . . but I found Mom's more accurate than the weather guys."
He nods. He's kind of out of questions. And Alex's mom's weather-predicting arthritic hip or leg or back or whatever? BOR-RING.
Alex's dad gave up a leg and a wife and a wingman for his country. He may have figured out how to pull himself out of his, what was it Alex called it? Real Born on the Fourth of July shit? But this is different, it involves time travel and the fact that James' head is stuck in 1977, and the only way he's going to pull himself out of his own heart of darkness is meeting his daughter. No point dicking around here much longer.
"Nineteen seventy seven," says Alex.
"Excuse me?" his heart hammers. 1977.
She gestures at the stack of books. "Nineteen dollars and seventy seven cents."
"Right." He pulls his wallet from his back pocket and pulls out a twenty. "Keep the change," he declares, handing it over to her.
"Gee thanks, mister," she snarks. "Well, good luck in Albuquerque."
He fakes a salute and heads for the exit. He's a foot from the door when he catches on to the way she's just bamboozled him:
Oh, yes, Mr. Bar Patron, go meet your daughter. Yes, you should do this because dads are so fantastic, and mine was the best and he took me to dances and gave me a job and look how great we get along. Oh, yes, Mr. Bar Patron/Book Store Customer, you don't need to worry about anything.
That's what she told him. That's what she wanted him to hear. Because she wants him to go to Albuquerque. Because it's so damn important that he meet his daughter. And she's dropped in these little clues that he didn't catch right off. But the reason it's so damn important that he meet his daughter is not because of Mr. War Hero. Nah. Not that at all. And it's not fairy tales and roses and sparkly unicorns. It's darker and more poignant than that. She's bamboozled him.
He turns on his heels, heading right back up to the counter.
"Nice con, sister. Why doncha tell me what happened to your real dad?" he demands.
I guess (hope?) that by now it's clear what's going on here. FYI, Alex's mom has fed her a few BS stories (which you'll hear about in the next, last chapter), but all that about her "dad" (the Vietnam vet) is true. There's an unwritten story where he meets Alex's mom.