I needed to draw a picture in my mind – of my parent’s house and what I planned to do with her. Yes, her. She was, when all was said and done, a feminine house, full of a woman’s personality – my mother’s. Clean and austere, a Craftsman style bungalow that veered to an almost Japanese austerity. She had been overbuilt, even by 20s standards, and that’s the 1920s for those too old to remember such things, and she was originally planned and constructed with three small bedrooms and a single, smallish bath. She had a large – for the neighborhood, anyway – backyard – and almost none out front. Due to my parent’s reproductive tendencies – and here, rabbits should hop forthrightly to mind – father built – and I mean ‘he’ built, not some contractor – an addition off the back of the original structure. Their bedroom, as well as a nursery – that would, in time, become PJs bedroom – filled this addition – and left a resolutely useless backyard in it’s unplanned aftermath.
The house is vaguely L-shaped, kind of a fat rectangle near the street – the original structure – and a long extension protruding into the backyard – his addition. There are two concrete slivers of driveway that lead to the one car garage sitting on the back property line, and a rusting four foot tall chain link fencing surrounds three sides of the property. Which is, by and large, flat. Until you get about two feet from the back lot line – where things change. The heavily wooded lot was carved out of a hillside, and the rear takes off into a near vertical climb, the face of this ‘hill’ a raw wound of exposed white shale streaked with intermittent ground cover.
I say intermittent because everything living in Los Angeles exists at the leisure of, some would say the mercy of mother nature. Drought is the norm in the basin, yet when the arid plain on which the city was built isn’t parched it’s virtually a flood plain. The scorched earth could handle the rain that typically falls here – but for the mountains that line the north rim of the original city, and when the rains come the waters run down to that flat plain and cause all kinds of fun. Taken as a whole, there’s no real good reason for Los Angeles to be where it is, other than it provided a nice place to put the Hollywood sign.
So, the shaded back yard went from small to smaller, and in it’s uselessness it became an orphan, a neglected step-child that sat alone, unused. My plan was to turn it into an oasis of multi-level decks – and almost completely covered in viney trellis. When I sat back there dreaming of all the what-ifs and might-bes, maybe drinking my second beer of the evening, I envisioned a hot tub filled with nubile nymphs frolicking in the twilight, waiting for me with open arms. The next morning I would see PJ in the tepid water, begging for a foot rub, and all thoughts of a hot tub vanished in an instant.
The bones of the house were sound, but her guts were rotten. The wiring was ancient, the plumbing prehistoric, and the appliance were already dated by the time Eisenhower took office. The kitchen countertops were a brilliant white formica streaked with pale yellows and blues, accented with truly lovely gold sparkles. Fashionable in 1938, I think.
So, need I say more?
There was one original bath in the original plan, designed by troglodytes for troglodytes, and the new one father added. Father being an aircraft designer, the new bath resembled the toilet compartment in a brand new DC-6, circa 1954. The bathroom vanity and shower stall were constructed out of laboriously shaped and formed stainless steel, the work no doubt knocked off after hours at the old plant in Santa Monica. There was something almost charming about this little cabinet sized bathroom, too. You could sit on the pot in there and close your eyes, almost hear old Pratt & Whitney radials humming away at fourteen thousand feet – which was, I think, the point of the exercise. I had mixed feelings about ripping that room apart, I really did, but in the end I gutted that room too. I did not have the heart to throw that stainless work away, however, and it sits atop rafters out in the garage even now.
When the girls – Becky, Bettina and PJ – and I ripped up the fifty year old carpet, still clean and serviceable, mind you, we found floors of varnished Douglas fir, and in pristine condition. We found mould, too, and this we quickly dispatched with solutions of bleach and then lemon oil. I pulled carpet tack-strips and filled holes with putty, then wet-sanded the whole house in one long day, let her air out the next, then we set on her like locusts and applied a fresh coat of varnish on the third day. And we slept in the back yards under tarps that week, in old Coleman sleeping bags we found rolled up in the garage, while Doris Parker provided refreshments and chow. With an old Coleman lantern sputtering away in the dark, we told ghost stories while we tried to ignore sirens in the distance.
I turned my old bedroom into a new classroom, put posters on the walls of all the things you’d normally find in a flight school classroom. A couple of old tables and four chairs, two newish iMacs and a flat panel to watch instructional videos rounded out the space.
The old kitchen? Gone, in a heartbeat. Ripped apart with pry-bars and a sledge, then hauled away. A cabinet company installed the replacement in a morning, granite countertops went in the next afternoon, new appliances the day after and we were back in business. Judd and Tommy Parker helped me repaint the exterior of the house, and replace a few shaded patches of wood that had succumbed to rot, while the girls painted the inside of the house, and a livable structure emerged within a few weeks, with work on the bathrooms next up.
And during all this time, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, class was in session. Real, formal class. The kids wanted to talk airplanes all the time, and we did, but that wasn’t classroom time. My classroom was a Navy classroom. All business, no jokes, no war stories, and it took a few days but I turned those two kids into studying machines. Not coincidentally, their grades in school began to improve as they applied these new study skills to all their other assignments. Yeah, I’m bragging. I taught this stuff in the Navy for two years, so let’s just say I know how to teach.
We would do three weeks of classroom before our first flight together, and I wanted to stretch that time out a little to take a measure of the girls’ resolve, their interest and dedication, and I wanted the week we finished up the house to be capped off by their first flight with me – not to mention Rosalinda’s first of twelve Sunday afternoon fiestas. All in all, I was looking forward to Rosalinda’s after-church blow out almost as much as I was taking the girls up.
I’ve also avoided talking about the Second Coming of PJ and Judd. Deliberately, I might add.
It had been decades since I’d been around teenaged groping and non-stop necking – and, frankly, it was odd to see two old farts sneaking away in the middle of the day to fuck their brains out for a while, then hastily reappear with paint brushes in hand, trying not to look too smug, or too guilty. Personally, I think it was hardest on old Tom and Doris, because Judd invariably snuck into his old bedroom to hammer PJ, and despite their age they did their level best to ignore all this newfound nonsense – but I did see Tom’s smile when I obliquely referenced these goings on.
And one other funny thing happened during this time.
When the kitchen was disestablished as the center of our little universe, Rosalinda came down and invited PJ and I to dinner, at her house. We looked at one another, then at Rosalinda, and shrugged “Sure, why not…” Roughly translated, that comes out as: “Si, como no?”
As in: “I’m making empanadas tonight. Would you like to join us?”
“Si, como no?”
Or: “PJ? I’m going down to the Farmer’s Market. Want to come along?”
“Si, como no?”
Remember that old 74 Porsche 911 I bought when PJ fell in love with it? I never sold it, and now here it sat, covered under multiple layers of car covers. As I had supplemented this with various old beaters over the years, she still had less than fifty thousand on her odometer and I still used her sparingly. For everyday use I had a thirty year old Datsun pickup in the driveway, complete with lumber rack, for hardware store duties and Tommy’s runs, but when I wanted to go out and have some fun, the covers came off and I fired up the old six and popped the top.
And one night, after Rosalinda’s latest “Si, como no?” I asked her to go out on a little drive with me. I helped her into the old beast and off we went, into the valley.
“Ever been flying?” I asked, and she shook her head. “Never? Not in an airliner?”
“No, not ever.”
“Nice night out, isn’t it?”
She was looking up at the milky murk that passes for a night sky in Los Angeles and she seemed lost in memory, some place far away, and I let her come to terms with the moment, come back to me on her own. I made my way to the northwest corner of Van Nuys airport and parked, then walked with her over to the Cessna, showed her the key things about an airplane while I checked on a few odds and ends. Then I opened the passenger door.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Taking you up,” he said.
“Is this yours?”
She looked at me and shook her head a little, then stepped up on the strut and into the cabin. I belted her in and closed her door, walked around to my side and climbed in. I talked her through the checklist, explaining everything I was doing, then yelled “Clear!” out the open window and started the engine.
She grabbed the armrest on the door – and my arm – when the entire structure started shaking and vibrating. “Why is it moving so much?” she shouted over the engine noise, and I shook my head, handed her a headset.
“No need to shout now. Sorry,” I said.
“So, why is this thing moving so much?”
“Prop-wash,” I explained. “The propellor is pushing air back over the airframe and the wings.”
She watched as I made little adjustments to knobs and levers, listened as I talked on the radio, then she heard: “Cessna 6-8 Romeo, altimeter two niner niner three, winds light and variable, ceiling and visibility unlimited, clear to taxi runway one six right” – and then we were moving. I was talking about things like ‘departure controls’ and ‘terminal control zones’ and I knew none of it made sense to her, but she seemed to relax, figured I knew what I was doing. She just nodded her head and looked out the window when we started our charge down the runway.
I talked on the radio almost all the time after that, but told her we were flying out towards Thousand Oaks, and there they would turn and fly over the mountains to Santa Monica, and from there to downtown. She would see things from up here she’d never imagined before, I told her, and she told me she felt like a bird more than once, especially when he made steep banking turns, and then she saw a black thing in the air ahead, and that we were going straight for it…
And in an instant they were inside the thing. The air grew cool and the ride very rough…
“What is this?” she cried.
“A cloud,” I told her.
“We are inside a cloud?”
“We are. Yes.” And when I looked at her she was smiling, her eyes full of wonder.
And a moment later, when we popped out of the cloud, she could see city lights ahead again.
“Are we over the mountains now?”
“Yes, that’s Santa Monica just ahead and to the left a little. We’ll turn and fly right over the airport.”
She could see the big marina ahead, and bigger airplanes coming and going from LAX, and then the freeway down below, the 10, pointing the way downtown, and I think it was the scale of the city that seemed most shocking to her from up here. Down on the streets the city feels endless, but almost always the same – flat and never-ending sameness; from up here she saw a land choked by crowded houses and buildings and endless streams of cars. People everywhere she looked, miles and miles of people, in every direction. Different, yet the same.
Another steep turn, then I pointed ahead. “Dodger Stadium,” then: “there’s our street, and the park,” and she peered through the window, looked down, saw her car in front of her house and this new perspective made more sense, if only for a passing moment, then all was as before. Endless disorientation, never ending humanity.
Yet I think then she understood I knew my way around this weird new place, this world above, and now she could understand why the girls wanted to learn about this world. He explained they had been up in the air for less than an hour, but to drive this route in a car would have taken all day.
‘And on foot?’ she asked. ‘How many days?’
I had to admit I didn’t know, but that I wouldn’t want to make the attempt.
And few minutes later she saw the ground coming up, then a bump and a chirp, braking – and we were on the earth again – and turning a little like a car, then ‘driving down a street’ to a parking lot. Familiar things, motions and concepts she understood. Then men outside guiding us to a ‘parking place,’ putting blocks of wood under our wheels, tying the wings down to the earth. A fuel truck pulled up, filled tanks in the wings while we walked back to the car, then we were sitting in the familiar again, driving down the freeway through canyons of people, surrounded by people – all of it now comforting.
“You hungry?” I asked.
“Si, como no.”
A few minutes later, sitting in the car with burgers and cokes I felt my own wave of the familiar.
“Why did you take me up there?” she asked.
“I think you needed to see the world from the perspective your daughter wants to see it from. See what it is she’s about to learn.”
“Okay.” She seemed to pause for a moment, order the words she wanted to use just so. “I’m a little afraid. Of all this.”
“Our kids grow up. They move on.”
“Perhaps, but it wasn’t always so. Bettina would stay with me, not so long ago. Even after she married. She would stay and have her babies with me, I would take care of her, then one day she would take care of me.”
“Is that the life you want for her?”
She shook her head. “No, I am jealous. I would love nothing more than to face life right now, at her age again, with so many choices. I never had such choices.”
“And she has these opportunities now because of what?”
“The only immortality we have is through our children.”
“What of your children?”
I turned away from that question, from her, from the memory of my boy’s death.
“And?” she asked, again.
“My son was a pilot. My daughter is a physician.”
“Oh, no,” she whispered.
“How’s your burger?”
“Terrible, but I love them, even so.”
“Nothing nastier, that’s for sure. I couldn’t face life without Tommy’s”
And thenshe took my hand in hers, held it for a moment. “Thank you,” she said, “for sharing all this with me.”
She hadn’t let go of my hand just yet, and I turned, looked at her. She was leaning back again, looking up at the sky, lost in thought. “It will never be the same,” she sighed.
“Old ways are bound to change when we tear down the walls of our experience.”
“A part of me wants to not allow Bettina to fly.”
“Yet if she must, she must with you. You will take care of her.”
“As if she were my own daughter, yes.”
And Rosalinda’s eyes? They smiled at me, and my world lurched off the rails.
Bettina folded her legs into the Porsche’s back seats, and the three of us drove to Van Nuys very early that next Saturday morning. We spent hours walking around the Cessna, opening engine cowlings and standing on ladders, peering down into fuel tanks and opening fuel petcocks, looking for water in the gas. Working controls, seeing how they worked, and why they worked the way they did. We talked engines and batteries, how they worked, why they failed. How barometric pressure effected everything from altimeters to engine performance in a climb. How ice formed on a cooling engine in a slow descent, and what that meant when it happened. Endless little things we’d covered in class were poked-at and examined out here in the real world: felt, touched, minds wrapped around, questions asked, and yet it was my job to lead them to answers they already knew.
I was teaching them to think again, for themselves, to ask a question then look for answers. Independent thinking, I think it’s called. When they ran into a wall, I showed them the door through the wall, or a way around it, but I always led them towards tools they needed to work out the answer. Give an answer, I told them, and it’s forgotten within minutes. Learn an answer and it stays with you for a lifetime.
Then I pulled out a coin and tossed it. “Call it,” I told Bettina.
He revealed ‘heads’ and asked her: “Shotgun first, or coming back?”
“Back seat, then,” I said, helping her in, then showing her how the seat belt worked, then I helped Becky into the left seat, got headsets distributed and volumes checked. Becky had been up a few times before and was a little more sure of herself, but this was Bettina’s first ever flight, and her jitters were on full display. I held up the pre-start checklist and watched Becky run through the items, then call out “Clear!” before she started the motor. We talked about magnetos and how gyroscopes needed time to spin up, why there was two brakes, a left and a right, then I demonstrated how to make a really sharp left turn, then another, an even tighter turn to the right.
“Now, you try.”
And she worked the pedals and toes, with my hands and feet hovering above my set of controls all along, just in case, but she took to it naturally.
I checked in with the tower, got our runway assignment then turned to her: “My airplane,” I said.
“You follow through on the controls, feel what I’m doing.”
We taxied out to the holding area and I ran through the engine run-up procedure, then got our final clearance and moved out to the runway and applied power, started down the runway, she mirroring my movements all the way. I contacted departure control, got clearance to make the turn for Thousand Oaks.
“Okay, your airplane,” I said, “climb at 300 feet per minute for 2000, maintain heading of 2-7-0.”
“Cessna 6-8 Romeo, traffic at your eleven o’clock, 3500, Southwest 737.”
“You got him?”
She scanned, then, “Yeah, there he is.”
“Call it in.”
“What do I say?”
“How about 6-8 Romeo, got him.”
She punched the transmit button and said: “6-8 Romeo, got him.”
“Now, look at your instruments. Your drifting right and in a descent.”
“No, you looked outside and stopped scanning. Can’t do that, kiddo. You’ve already lost enough heading and altitude to bust your check-ride…got it?”
“Yes…” she said, looking dejected.
“And stop the pity party. Get your head back in the game, and I mean right now. Re-establish your heading and the climb. What are they, by the way?”
“300 feet per and 2-7-0.”
“Okay, try 300, not 4, and 270, not 265. See what happens to your airspeed when your climb at 400 feet per?”
“6-8 Romeo, traffic one o’clock, 5000 and descending, King Air en route SMO.”
“Got him?” I asked as she looked high and a little right.
“Call it in.”
“6-8, got him.”
“6-8 Romeo, clear to three thousand five hundred.”
“6-8 Romeo,” she replied.
“Okay. Gimme two hundred more RPM, increase climb to 500 feet per.”
He fiddled with the mixture, leaned it out a little as they gained altitude and watched the cylinder head temps until he was satisfied.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“We’ll cover that next week,” he said. “Keep scanning your gauges, then the sky. Six-pack, sky, then again and again.”
“6-8 Romeo, maintain 3500 and cleared direct SBA, contact tower 119.7 and good day.”
“6-8 Romeo,” she replied. “Okay, now what?”
“Let’s try one the old fashioned way. Tune 113.8 on NAV 1…okay, your drifting again. Scan!” I said, then I tuned in the VOR, set the display to overlay an old style VOR needle on the main screen, then swung the needle until it centered. “Okay, come to 2-8-9 degrees, and we’re at 3500 now so cut power a little, and re-trim for level flight.”
“You.” She cut power a little, then reached down and turned the trim wheel until she didn’t have to fight the yoke anymore.
“So many things…”
“If it was easy a monkey could do it.”
They landed at Santa Barbara twenty five minutes later, and Becky almost fell out of the cabin. “My knees are shaking,” she said. “I can hardly walk!” Even Bettina was nervous now, and it showed.
So, I shadowed them as they chocked the wheels and tied-down the wings, then led them into the little terminal for private pilots, a so-called FBO, or Fixed Base Operator, and called a taxi. I sat and listened while Becky exploded in a torrent of excited recall – and anticipation – already critiquing her performance, looking for things she could do better next time. All you can do is sit and listen and watch, pick up on things, and I did until the taxi pulled up, then I took them down to the harbor and they talked all the while. We ate fish and chips and drank cokes and talked for two more hours, then rode back out to the airport and I told them to pre-flight the aircraft, then followed them, looking over every move they made. Becky sat in back this time, and I watched Bettina closely as she climbed in and buckled up. She moved with calm assurance, there was a snap in her voice and in the way she moved about once she was belted in, something I recognized in an instant.
Bettina was a born pilot, and I knew that after about thirty seconds watching her. It’s something you can spot real fast, once you know what to look for.
On our climb-out she scanned better, she could multi-task better, manage distractions better. So much better I knew this was going to become a real problem, real fast. She’d be twice the pilot Becky could be, in half the time, and with competitiveness a given their friendship might soon grow strained, or worse. When we were driving home on the freeway, with Bettina in front this time, I looked at Becky in the rear view mirror, saw the indecision in her eyes, knew it was time for ‘the talk.’
We drove to Tommy’s and got a sack of burgers and some Cokes then drove over to the park, and the three of us walked over to a picnic bench. “How’d you think the day went?” I asked.
“I can’t do too many things at once,” Becky said. “It’s like I get overwhelmed.”
“What are you thinking when that happens?”
“It’s like I’m thinking about how I’m supposed to be thinking, not doing it, and it’s a…”
“It’s a feedback loop,” I said. “First you distract yourself, and then you start questioning everything you’re doing. Pretty soon you’re not in the cockpit…you’re flying inside your head, like an a daydream. And you keep that up, pretty soon you’re dead, too.”
I paused, let the words sink in.
“So…what do I do? Quit?”
I shook my head. “Nope. We work on a few tricks I know, to help keep you focused.”
“Actually, driving in a parking lot.”
“You’ll see. Tomorrow, after Bettina’s mother tries to kill me with her salsa.”
We drove home a little later, and I tried not to watch Becky watching Bettina, but it was hard not to. Recognition hits first, and hard, then envy settles in, and I knew I’d have to stop this, and fast. I pulled into the driveway and then into the garage, and the girls went in and started getting the house ready for tomorrow, and I went next door, to the Parker house – because I knew Judd was waiting for me.
“How’d it go?” he asked straight away.
“Becky ever have any issues with ADD or ADHD?”
“No,” he said, a little surprised by the question.
“Good, so it’s just nerves. I need to spend an hour with her in the car tomorrow. Some multitasking exercises. Becky and Bettina…they’re competitive and jealous, aren’t they?”
“Since kindergarten. Best friends, and always competing off one another, pushing one another.”
I sighed, knew I had to figure out a way to turn this into a lever, to help get Becky up to the next level. “Okay. About eight in the morning, my house.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Can do. What’s up with PJ?”
“I hope you aren’t asking me, Judd, ‘cause I’d be the last one to know. What’s bothering you?”
“Moody. Up one minute, down the next. She ever been to a shrink?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Mind if I take her to someone I know?”
“You’re asking me?”
“Well, seems she won’t do anything you don’t approve of.”
“Who’s your friend?”
“Not a friend. A department shrink who helps out with other problems that come up.”
“He any good?”
“She. And yes, very.”
“You have my blessing. Need me to talk it over with her?”
“What are you thinking? Bi-polar?”
He shrugged. “No clue, man. Not my pay grade.”
“So, Becky? You think she has what it takes?”
“I think so. This stuff comes easier to some than to others…”
“And Bettina? She’s got it nailed?”
“You’ve seen this before, I take it?”
He nodded his head again. “Still, you think she can do it?”
“If she doesn’t give up, yeah.”
“She’s not a quitter. Never has been.”
“You gonna quit on PJ?”
“Nope. Not doin’ that again. By the way, you been by your place yet?”
I think I raised my eyebrows at that. “Really?”
“She had suitcases. Note I used the plural.”
“You better go. I heard a meltdown in progress an hour ago.”
Madeline and I went way back. She was my oldest sister, born a year or so after me. If PJ was a hellion, Maddie had been the family angel. She was soft-spoken, demure, brainy as hell and not the cutest girl that ever walked down the aisle, but she’d been the first person I’d called after Brenda passed. She’d married an economist who currently taught at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and she had worked as an administrative assistant of some sort for the past twenty years, wherever her husband had happened to land a teaching gig. When I walked across our lawns I saw an Arizona plate on the back of an old Ford Focus and sighed, then walked into a Mexican restaurant.
My new kitchen had been turned into something straight out of Like Water For Chocolate. Cutting boards loaded with chopped herbs and spices, peeled avocados and chopped tomatoes, pots on the stove bubbling away, meats on the counter marinading in pyrex bowls full of complex organic compounds – and there, presiding over all this sorcery: Rosalinda.
“Sure you’ve got enough food there?” I asked, incredulous.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I have relatives in town for just a few days, so I’ve asked them over.”
“Oh, no, more the merrier,” I think I managed to say, black steam pouring out of my ears. I heard wailing from one of the girls’ rooms and took off down the hall. Bettina and Becky were vacuuming and dusting my room, casting wary glances towards PJs old digs – so I ducked that way, expecting the worst.
And there she was, Madeline, curled up on PJs bed, bawling like a three year old. With her head in PJs lap, and they looked up when I walked in – and Maddie flew off the bed and into my arms – and then the crying went off the scale, sounding like police cars in the distance, coming closer every second.
“Divorce?” I mimed to PJ, who simply, and curtly nodded her head.
Maddie’s was always the hard luck story, and I don’t know how she did it. She wanted kids, so of course he couldn’t, was as sterile as a cuckoo. He couldn’t hold down a job, something, I think, about him not being a very good teacher. She’d drifted from menial job to menial job, paycheck to paycheck, and even Dad wondered how long it would last. Implosion had been considered inevitable for years, and now it looked like things had come to pass – and the residue was all over the house now.
“Tell me what happened,” I sighed, because really, what else are big brothers for?
Something about despair and suicide and how she was dragging him down, how she had to leave now or he’d simply end it all. So, she’d packed her bags and run home to LA, for the old house, hoping someone would be here.
Boy, had she hit the mother lode.
“Come on,” I said, “I know just what you need.”
We tromped through the house and out the door, piled into the old Datsun and made the run over to Tommy’s. Let’s not mention my farts were starting to smell like chili-cheese-fries, this was an action rooted in dire human need. When a human being, even a Los Angeleno, is in such need, food is an obvious route to succor and solace, but for someone who grew up near downtown Los Angeles, there are few places that scream comfort food more loudly than Tommy’s. If you live in a certain zip code it’s Nate ‘n Al’s further out Beverly, but for the rest of us it’s Tommy’s. Trouble was, my last two meals had been at Tommy’s, and my gut was already rumbling; one more Tommyburger with chili and cheese and I was sure I’d blow like Vesuvius.
But such is the measure of a brother’s love, right?
Need I say more?
We sat in the truck’s bed and munched away, talked about all the times Mom and Dad had hauled our asses down here, wondering how many burgers we’d put down on just this spot over the decades. There were a few more Korean signs down here than in 1960, but other than that not much else had changed. They probably hadn’t changed the grease they fried their potatoes in since 1965 – ‘cause the food tasted exactly the same that night as it had fifty years ago.
So, Maddie talked and we listened. It was time, she said, for another new start, another reinvention of the self, and that’s when what she said kind of penetrated.
We’d grown up accustomed to the idea that our lives would be a little like Tommy’s. It would be the same, from one generation to the next, that our lives would be just like Mom and Dad’s. Just like Tommy’s. We’d grown up, probably one of the first generations in human history accustomed to something like this idea we had of the American Dream, but it hit me just then how rare this moment in time was. America had won the war, true enough, but we’d won the peace, too, if only for a couple of generations, and now we expected that History was just going to roll over and play dead, that change was all dead and gone. What did that guy write? The end of history?
Wow. What a moron.
This is what change feels like, I said to myself. For everyone else around the world, that train had left the station a long time ago. Change was happening again at a blinding pace everywhere else, but we’d been slow to get back on that train, happy to stay off for as long as we could. And now, here it was, Change, and we had been stupid enough, or careless enough, to think that change was about recognizable things. Predictable things, even.
Tommy’s was all about that moment, all about hanging on to the past. In my mind’s eye, I could still see crew-cut boys driving by in BelAirs, see their girlfriends’ bobby soxed feet hanging out the window, still hear the Big Bopper and Wolfman Jack on the radio, so the bangers driving by with Mac10s and trunks full of ‘product’ just didn’t register on my radar. What did register was a brown dude and black one getting into an argument in the middle of the street, words heating up quickly, then the brown dude’s friends pulled them apart and everyone drifted away. Until the brown dude got to his car.
A white guy standing there asked the brown dude what was happening, and the brown dude reached into his car and pulled out a Mac10, and then started hosing down the parking lot with 9mm bullets, hitting the white guy in the neck, and my sister Madeline in the left shoulder.
I told you her luck was never the greatest.
By the time paramedics got her to County SC she’d lost a lot of blood, and after surgery she was listed in ‘Critical’ condition. By that time, of course, Rosalinda’s first backyard party was a wash, my Sunday taking Becky driving was as well. Life happens, I guess.
We brought her home a week later, thankful she hadn’t officially quit her job – yet – and still had insurance, and as soon as her husband heard about the event he drove over. They had a tearful reunion, and it looked like there was still some hope there so I tried to help them both along as best I could.
Something else kind of remarkable happened. Well, two something elses.
The first, Judd was as good as his word. He took PJ to see the police departments shrink, and after just one meeting PJ was on a regimen of antidepressants and bi-polar medication, as well as huge doses of Vitamin C for a week and some sort of ‘hormone thing.’ Judd passed-on word that we probably wouldn’t see any changes, dramatic or otherwise, for at least a few weeks, but no, by the time Maddie came home from the hospital I could see little differences emerging.
The second was a little more consequential, for me, at least.
Rosalinda camped out in my kitchen that week. She came over early and got breakfast going before we trooped off to the hospital, and when she got in from work she came down and got dinner going. I, for my part, resumed ground school, with only one class missed. Stan Wood had about a dozen students lined up and waiting for me, but he understood, put that off for a couple of weeks.
I opened by mentioning divergent dichotomies, and I need to pause here, talk about the second divergence that came to my life that week.
In the aftermath of 911 my hate for all things Arab knew no bounds, yet for many Americans I think hatred became more pervasive, and more exclusive. Us and Them, I think, as in whites vs the world. At least that’s the way it felt to me within a few months. I percolated in that mess while my folks fell away, and then while Brenda came undone. My son’s death, on the other hand, led me to the precipice, and I could feel a palpable anger directed towards everyone after that. Seriously, I was an equal opportunity Hater, no matter the race or gender. I was burning up with Hate.
And one day I looked in the mirror and saw that Hate in my eyes, and the feeling of revulsion was overwhelming. And now, suddenly, I Hated myself, too, and I remembered looking in the mirror and wanting to claw the eyes out of that mother fucker’s skull. I was full of seething hate, and it was beginning to boil over.
That’s when the whole move back to California thing grabbed me by the throat. The California I remembered, that I knew I was longing for, had always been the antithesis of Hate, and I knew I had to reconnect with that vibe – soon. This was an act of self-preservation…nothing less than a last desperate attempt to turn away from Hate.
The first time I saw Rosalinda’s eyes all I saw was her anger, her own brand of Hate, and I slammed the door shut to keep that Hate away from me. Like an alcoholic pushes away from the bar and walks out into the night before he falls. I didn’t take time to understand her fear; I just slammed the door shut and turned away, and in a way, she gave me my second chance. She came to me, to apologize, to help set things straight.
When Rosalinda came to help after Maddie went down, when I looked into her eyes that night, love came to me – like an epiphany. Not lust or attraction. Love, the antithesis of Hate. Reaching out, caring; that kind of love. She took care of me, and us. She wrapped her soul around me, all of us, and carried us past our anger, through our despair, and by weeks end I was so profoundly in love with this other person I hardly knew it left me breathless. She left me breathless. And feeling alive, like I hadn’t in years.
And it was as Spring around the old house. Love was everywhere Rosalinda happened to be, and when she fed us, her love found it’s way into our bodies. Yeah, sure, PJ was dosed up to the gills on psych meds, but the change was in her eyes too. When Judd came over the night Maddie got back, her’s wasn’t a juvenile love anymore. It was this new, serious thing; now all manifest purpose, not simple adolescent lust. The way she held his hands, the way she listened when he spoke…we all knew something was up, some kind of big change had finally hit her where she lived. Maybe she was finally growing up, but if so I think it had something to do with whatever it was in Rosalinda’s eyes.
Rosalinda and the girls had turned Maddie’s old room into a fairyland by the time I carried her into the house. Canopies and candles, something out of the Arabian Nights, and Maddie cried when she saw the results, but the point of all this was simpler still.
When I watched that banger shooting up the parking lot across the street from Tommy’s, I watched someone shoot my history, my comfort, right in the heart, and I felt my world filling with Hate again. And I found my way away from that darkness in Rosalinda’s eyes.
Need I say more?
PJ and Judd didn’t announce any kind of engagement. They just got in the car, drove to Vegas and did the deed, came back and told our little world what they’d done. End of discussion. By that time PJ was like a cactus flower blooming for the first time. Everyone was in love with her happiness, even Becky.
Maddie went back to Tucson, in love with life for the first time in years.
Flight school started in earnest, the girls sweating academics for the first time in their lives, living for Saturday morning and all the joy that entailed.
A few days after Maddie came home I loaded Becky up in the Porsche and she drove us over to the parking lot at Dodger Stadium, Judd waiting for us by an unlocked gate, and we drove in, set up some orange cones.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I began, once she was behind the wheel again. “See this old radio? You tune-in new stations by turning this dial. You try it.”
She turned the knob slowly, moving from station to station.
“Okay,” she said. “Got it.”
“These buttons underneath are used to pre-set a station. You punch it and hold it a few seconds, then release it. Understand?”
“So, see these cones? Set in a circle? Go in and drive around the inside of the circle without hitting a cone.”
She entered the circle and started driving round and round, and she found it wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be, but she managed.
“Now, without taking your eyes off the circle, I want you to tune in your five favorite radio stations.”
“Don’t take your eyes off the cones, Becky. And don’t hit one.”
Within seconds she blew the cones and we stopped, and I let her reset the cones with her father, look over the scene and take a breath.
When she was behind the wheel again I resumed. “Now, look at the radio again. Look at the buttons, think about how they function, what they do, and what you have to do without being able to look at them.”
“Got it,” she said a minute later.
“Okay, eyes closed. Now, tune in five stations, and see your actions in your mind’s eye while you do it.”
She set about tuning them, and did so quickly.
“Now, open your eyes and reset them, retune five more stations, and this time, look around out there, everywhere but inside the car.”
She did it, and a little faster this time.
“Okay, now back into the circle. Once you’ve got a nice smooth turn going, retune back to your five favorites.”
It didn’t take her a minute.
“Okay, now out of the circle, loop around and re-enter, only going in the opposite direction this time.”
This was harder, but she just managed.
“Okay, stop. Now, do it in reverse.”
“In reverse. Use your mirrors.”
This took several tries, and I started talking, purposefully trying to distract her, but she just managed. An hour more, changing directions, changing speed, changing stations until the poor old radio was about to bust and then we stopped.
“Now, study the NAV COMM panel on the G1000 until you know it like the back of your hand. Guess what we’re goin’ to work on Saturday?”
“Yes you will.”
She laughed and Judd took her and away they went, to pick up PJ for some time together, and I drove home to the empty house, thinking about which project I might work on the rest of the day. When I walked into the house the kitchen smelled like heaven, and I could just see Rosalinda stirring pots and chopping herbs.
“Do you ever tire of cooking?” I said as I walked over.
She turned, smiled, and I could see she was in a different kind of mood. She turned down the flame, covered the pots then came over to me. She took my hand, led me to the back of the house, to my bedroom.
I think she knew me by then, knew me well enough to let me into her world just a little. She was an astonishing woman, too. Gentle, in the beginning, then as we played each other’s music she went from soft jazz to heavy metal – deep, frenzied, confusing.
We lay together after, she with her hands crossed on my chest, her chin resting there, those eyes looking into me. I’d never once considered moving on after Brenda, really didn’t feel it necessary – yet now I knew something was happening to me…
And really, need I say more?
And here ends the second part of this little ditty. © 2017 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | and it’s all smoke and mirrors here, ladies and gentlemen, so move along, move along.
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