“This can’t possibly be the right address.” I muttered under my breath, checking my mobile map.
I stopped in front of the immense, iron gate which barricaded any road travelers from the elegant Pacific Heights mansion perched atop a manicured lawn. I was rarely summoned to neighborhoods of this stature. Plus, amid the illumination of the holiday lights still adorning the stately property I couldn’t miss the black, Lincoln town car parked near the entrance of the circular driveway. Who needed a taxi when there was clearly a sufficient limo at hand?
Surely, the dispatcher entered something wrong.
Just as I put my car in reverse, a woman appeared on the second-floor balcony, waving me toward her. As the gate simultaneously creaked open, I noted the name plate affixed to the iron that read, “Wellington”. Scrolling down to my trip assignment details, I found the client initials, “V.W.”. What did the “V” stand for?
Putting my car in drive, I eased my foot on the gas pedal, as the woman disappeared. I inched forward until a sudden halt of my breath jolted my car to a stop. Could the “v” possibly stand for . . . Victoria?”
An older woman now stood on the front steps, smiling, waving me forward. Upon reaching the front door, I stopped the car and stared. She was an attractive, elderly woman dressed in a pair of blue, Nike track pants with a matching, zipped up funnel neck jacket. Her long, silver hair was drawn up in the back with loose curls framing the sides of her face.
“Good evening,” she said, as she opened the back door and slid into the seat. “I’m Victoria Wellington.”
It was the Victoria Wellington. I knew it was her the second I arrived at the front steps. She was just as stunning in person as she was on her magazine covers. She leaned forward, extending her right hand over the front seat. With a hesitant turn toward her, I reached for her hand, which she firmly grabbed.
“And you are?”
“Josh. My name’s Josh.”
“Splendid. Is that short for Joshua?” She released our hands, sitting back in her seat.
“Please call me Vicki.”
Whaaaat? Victoria Wellington was sitting in my Toyota, and for the life of me, I’d no idea why.
“Ok, Ma’am—I mean, Vicki.” Clearing my throat, I tapped onto my trip ticket. “So, where to? It says here, ‘Destination to be determined’.”
Victoria—Vicki, released a powerful sigh and smiled.
“That’s right. Destination to be determined. I just want to drive around tonight and have some fun on New Year’s Eve, and I’m looking for someone to help me do that.”
I pressed my lips into a fine line, fiddling with my watch. Her request was quite unusual. I swallowed hard, glancing at her face through the rear-view mirror.
“Joshua, look at me, please.” She folded her hands in her lap as I turned around and met her gaze.
“First of all, do you know who I am?”
“Of course.” I chuckled. “If I didn’t, my wife would have my head. She idolizes your fashion designs.”
“Good—now that’s out of the way. I’ve no specific plan for tonight, other than to not be driven around in a limo.” Vicki turned her head to the window, looking out at her palatial mansion.
“I just want to be . . . normal.”
Vicki faced forward, attempting to stifle a wheezy coughing spasm threatening to steal her breath.
“I’m all right, Josh.” She offered me reassurance as the cough subsided and she settled back into her seat. “So . . . let’s go!”
Turning forward, I drove around the parking circle and exited the gate.
“Where would you like to go first, Ma’am—I mean, Vicki?”
A wide grin filled her face.
“You know, I’ve never been to see the sea lions at Pier 39. Let’s start there.”
It was difficult for me to imagine Vicki hadn’t availed herself to all of San Francisco during the time she’d lived here. Then again, what did I know about the life of a famous fashion designer? No doubt, she frequented high-end establishments with little time for routine sight-seeing endeavors. Rumors suggested she was hardly in town much anyway.
“Josh—let’s go by way of Lombard Street. Limousines can’t make those sharp, crooked turns very well.”
I smiled and nodded.
We soon approached what was heralded as the most crooked street in the world. Vicki grinned throughout the entire one-block section of its steep, hairpin turns. I felt as though I needed to pinch myself to remember who was riding in my car.
As we approached the tourist trap of Pier 39, we could hear and smell the evidence of sea lions before we could see them. I pulled off to the side of a curb to let Vicki out.
“Oh no, Josh. Park the car. You are to fully participate with me in our adventures this evening, and keep the meter running.”
This wasn’t customary at all, however, the soft yet commanding voice of this prominent, wealthy woman compelled me to oblige. She pulled on gloves and a hat as I maneuvered a parking spot. Stepping out of the car, the loud barking of sea lions and the pungent odor of rancid fish directed us. Vicki’s eyes were the size of saucers, with a smile to match. Nearing the pier, we watched for nearly a half an hour as sea lions swam around, picked fights, and pushed one another off the pier.
“Oh, look!” Vicki smacked my arm. “It’s a Ghiradelli ice cream shop. Let’s get ice cream!” Vicki cupped her hands with her gloves, shielding another coughing spasm.
“But, it’s only 7:00 o’clock. Did you want to have dinner first?” I asked.
“Life is short, Josh. One must always eat dessert first. C’mon.”
With that, we proceeded to Ghiradelli Square where Vicki insisted we both partake of one of their “Golden Gate Banana Splits”. We sat on a bench in silence, attacking our treats. The tart of the crushed pineapple meshing with the sweet, vanilla ice cream was nothing short of heavenly. Upon finishing, Vicki folded her arms in front of her, staring out in the crowd for a long moment.
“Take me to Chinatown. Then, let’s have some dinner.”
Resigning myself to the “job” at hand, I finally relaxed a bit and allowed myself to enjoy time spent with Vicki Wellington, although the experience remained a bit surreal. The more we talked and laughed, the more remarkable she became. Instead of the shrewd, short-tempered, brazen business woman my wife had read about, Victoria Wellington was elegant, charming, patient, and fun. We drove through the financial district past the iconic Transamerica Pyramid, wandered around Chinatown, and made our way to Fisherman’s Wharf. And for some strange reason, I inconspicuously turned off the meter.
“Do you like seafood, Josh?”
“It’s my favorite.”
“Great. What about that place over there?” Vicki pointed past the crowd to the ‘Chowder Hut Grill’.
“Are you sure?” It was hardly a joint frequented by someone like Victoria Wellington.
“Is the food good?” I nodded yes.
“Then, I don’t see a problem.”
We brushed shoulders with passersby and made our way inside the restaurant, managing to settle into a vacant table in the back. I ordered the clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Vicki ordered a turkey and Havarti cheese sandwich.
“What—no seafood for you?” I asked.
“Nope.” Vicki folded her hands in front of her. “I don’t have much of an appetite for anything anymore, aside from ice cream, but I try to eat a bit of protein when possible.”
As we waited for our food, Vicki freely shared elements of her life leading up to and including her lucrative career. With great admiration, she spoke of her father’s influence on her ability to believe in herself and go after her dreams.
“He was a wonderful man, Josh—died too young. I loved him dearly. I also failed him.”
“How so?” I boldly inquired.
“My father used to repetitively recite a quote from Antoine de Sainte Exupery, saying, ‘In giving, you are throwing a bridge across the chasm of your solitude.’”
I met Vicki’s eyes, holding her gaze for further explanation.
“I’ve been ruthless in my pursuit of success.” She continued. “I did whatever it took to climb my way to the top, and in the process, I hurt a lot of people who actually helped me get there. I wasn’t kind, I wasn’t helpful . . . I didn’t give to others.”
“How about your marriage?”
“Ha!” Vicki snorted. “I was technically married, but there was no relationship. He wanted to stay home and have a family—I wanted to travel and was unable to have children. We fought most of the time. One night, in the middle of a heated exchange, I told him he couldn’t reason with a tiger when his head was in its mouth.” Vicki took a long sip of her water.
“The next morning, I was served with divorce papers. No, I didn’t give of myself in life the way my father encouraged me to. As a result, I created that chasm of solitude he spoke about. I regret that . . . deeply.”
“I’m sorry, Vicki.”
“It’s all in the past now.” Vicki stifled a few coughs as our food arrived.
“So, tell me about your family—your wife.”
In between slurps of clam chowder, I shared how my wife, Molly, and I rent an apartment in the southwest part of San Francisco in the epitome of suburbia. We have two small children. Molly works at home doing part-time data entry. It doesn’t bring in much money, but it helps.
“Molly’s mom died when she was young,” I said. “And, my mom was never around. We didn’t want that for our kids, so Molly stays at home with them.”
I reached in my wallet and pulled out a recent photo, extending it to Vicki.
“What a beautiful family. Molly’s lovely.” Vicki pointed to Molly. “Oh my! You have another on the way, too?” I nodded.
The photo tumbled from Vicki’s grip as an intense coughing wave interrupted us. She drew her napkin to her face, coughing repeatedly. When the coughing finally stopped, Vicki rolled her eyes and excused herself to the ladies’ room.
“I’ll be right back.”
As Vicki arose and left the table, my eyes caught the center of her napkin laying open before me.
It was tinged with pink.
When returned and sat down, I narrowed my eyes and leaned forward.
“Vicki, are you coughing up blood?”
With her eyes fixed on mine, she combed her fingers through the ends of her silver curls with absent-minded strokes.
“Joshua, I’m fine. This is not new. I’m just dealing with a bit of a condition. I’d rather not talk about it.”
We sat in silence for a long moment, holding each other’s gaze. Her eyes seemed to glisten with sorrow.
“Now then.” Vicki broke our concentration. “It’s almost midnight on New Year’s Eve. We should have time to go one more place, right?”
“Where did you have in mind?”
We got back into the car and I began the short drive to the top of Telegraph Hill. As we approached the parking lot for Coit Tower, Vicki gasped, covering her mouth.
“Oh Josh, it’s wonderful. My father used to take me here as a little girl. Why, I haven’t been here in years. Don’t think I can manage the steps these days though!” We both chuckled.
We took the elevator up to the top of the 210-foot structure. As we overlooked the city sky line and the Golden Gate Bridge at the stroke of midnight, I set my cell phone to play, “Auld Lang Syne”.
Vicki blinked back tears and whispered.
Vicki stared out her window in silence during the drive back home. Reaching her front entrance, I stopped the car and turned to speak.
“Shhh.” Vicki held a finger up to her lips. “I know what you’re going to say. I saw what you did earlier tonight—turning the meter off. Regardless, I insist on compensating you. Money is something I can freely give. Allow me to do that.”
Vicki handed me a thick envelope and stepped out of the car.
“Josh, I cannot express what your companionship has meant to me this evening. You listened to me, indulged my whims; you shared your life with me. Thank you.”
For the next several weeks, I couldn’t shake my encounter with Victoria Wellington. I often glanced at our “selfies” and thought of the words her father spoke to her. Maybe my wife and I could visit. Reflecting on our moments together at the top of Coit Tower, I had an impulse to obey.
The next day, I purchased a simple gift from a souvenir shop at Pier 39. I mailed it to Victoria, hoping for a chance for Molly and me to follow up with a visit. Three weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from an attorney, requesting my presence at Victoria’s house. The letter clearly indicated I was in no legal trouble. On a sunny day in March I drove to the Pacific Heights mansion. The wrought-iron gate readily opened upon my arrival and I was met at the front door by Victoria’s attorney, ushering me inside.
“Good morning, Joshua. Please have a seat.” An older gentleman greeted me with a kind voice, motioning me to sit down in the front parlor. Victoria was nowhere in sight.
“I’m Victoria’s physician.”
Sudden nausea engulfed the pit of my stomach. Where was Vicki?
“You need to know, Victoria had lung cancer. She’d been sick for a while. Naturally, she didn’t want the public to know. She died last week.”
I shook my head, feeling as though I’d just lost a good friend.
“Josh,” said the attorney. “I’ve known Victoria many years. She was a successful, but lonely woman. In the short time you spent with her, you had a profound impact on her. She reviewed her intentions with all of us here.” He extended an envelope to me with a gentle smile. “This is for you.”
My trembling hands took the envelope, pulling out the folded paper. I smoothed the paper and read silently.
If you are reading this, I’m afraid it’s too late to say good-bye in person. I was hoping to see you once again and meet your beautiful Molly. Please know, this past New Year’s Eve was the best I’ve ever celebrated, all because of you. Amid my dark, lonely, empty life, you brightened my world by your genuine company. Thank you.
With much sincere thought, I’ve reached a decision, which I’ve shared joyfully with my staff. You are a bright, deserving, young man and I’d enjoy nothing greater than to bless you and your family with a portion of my wealth. My accounts have been designated for worthy charities, however, it is my wish to bestow my home to you and your family, with the only condition being you keep my current staff in place and treat them well.
You may recall me sharing, I never paid it forward to those that helped me and supported me along the way. This is my only chance to do it now. I pray, in turn, you will go on to do the same in your life.
Oh, and thank you for reigniting my childhood with the Coit Tower snow globe. Now you can pass that along to that new baby of yours.
My best wishes are with you and your family,
Tears anchored at the corners of my eyes as I looked up to see the snow globe sitting atop the fireplace mantle. Instant thoughts flashed to the beginning of our New Year’s evening. Humble gratitude filled my spirit.
I’ll be forever grateful I wasn’t at the wrong address.
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