A few revisions, more grammatical errors fixed (unreal, really), so here is the completed story, all three chapters combined, not quite fifty pages, so pull up a chair and fix some tea/coffee/tequila and have a go.
I grew up on the doorstep of wild dichotomies, yet my parents never really tried to help us come to terms with the divergence they created – and maybe that’s because they were the source of our confusion. There were my four sisters and me – the lone brother, the oldest of the litter, but not by much – and I think we were all affected in one way or another. Some worse than others, of course. My parents went into a kind of reproductive frenzy in 1945 and didn’t stop for seven years, and I think my father paused then only because he was trying to figure out how was going to pay for all those new, yearning mouths, yet the picture I had of my mother, by 1952, was of a terrified woman who lived in fear that her husband might come home from work – ‘in the mood again.’ The thought of one more childbirth, I suppose, sent her into paroxysms of scissor-wielding rage – as if my father had even remotely expressed interest in doing the hunka-chunka, scissors would magically appear from behind her back – and she would begin snipping away at his testicles.
“Get that thing away from me!” she’d shout as she pointed at his Willy with her scissors, and those of us in the house old enough to have seen Dracula would have this vision of Van Helsing holding up a crucifix to ward off vampires. Almost funny when you see it in your mind’s eye – until you knew the backstory, I guess.
We lived on Academy Road, in the shadow of Elysian Park, on the east side of the park in an area just north of downtown Los Angeles – and Dodger Stadium . In fact, one of the seminal events of my childhood involved the Dodgers. The Brooklyn Dodgers moved to LA just as I hit my teens, and a new stadium was being built for them hard by the park, and by the time I was in high school professional baseball was inescapable in our neighborhood. My father, of course, loved baseball, and soon enough the Dodgers, too, while sports in general meant nothing to my mother, so going to games was something my father and I did together. Part of a trend, I think.
In time, we each graduated from Cathedral High School, the Big Catholic School just south of the park, and we went to nearby St Peter’s every Sunday morning, too. There was something weird about all that, too. In a city dedicated to the proposition that you needed to drive at least a half hour to find a quart of milk, we walked everywhere. To school, to church, to the local market – everywhere. Dad drove to work in Santa Monica in those days, to the Douglas Aircraft Company, where he was an engineer. He designed several parts of the old DC-3, but what I remember most growing up was his work on what would become the DC-8. He would bring these colossal drawings of the cockpit home and we would go over them, and we would daydream about the places people would go in such machines. How fast – more than 500 miles per hour! More than 3000 miles away – eventually over 5000! As work progressed on the mock-ups, we would drive out to Long Beach on weekends and look at the first working layouts of the cockpit, and eventually we watched the first pre-production airframes as they came down the line. I stood by his side and watched the first DC-8 take off, and as luck would have it later that day we went to our very first Dodgers’ game – together. It was a little like nirvana, I think…
Anyway, what it all meant? I grew up wanting to be just like him. I wanted to draw airplanes and have kids, raise my family near the park and go to St Peter’s, send my kids to Cathedral High, so I did just what dad did: I went to USC and started on my degree in aeronautical engineering.
But there was already talk about Vietnam, about a war starting in Southeast Asia. About how maybe they’d start drafting kids ‘any day now.’ Recruiters were all over campuses, all over the country in those early days of the war, and that proved to be one of the earliest divergent dichotomies I ran into. Kids with crew cuts, like me, and the kids who were beginning to look more and more like John Lennon and the rest of the Beatle-haired acolytes invading the country. Kids with football posters on their dorm room walls, and kids with day-glow posters celebrating peace, drugs and rock ‘n roll. And the poster above the bed in my dorm room was of a DC-8’s main panel. Annotated. And I knew the function of every button and dial on that control panel before I’d graduated – from high school.
Need I say more?
Two days after graduating ‘SC I swore an oath and got on a bus headed north, to Seattle, to OCS. Officer’s Candidate School. The whole Officer and a Gentleman thing Richard Gere would make famous twenty years later…that was my life for one summer. Then another year learning to fly. The the real deal. Getting shot off a pitching carrier’s deck at three in the morning, in a typhoon, dropping bombs all over Vietnam on multiple tours over the next three and half years. Then the arm twisting: please, re-enlist! No more combat, just training the next generation of pilots for combat – and just like that two more years disappeared – and I literally left the Navy as Richard Nixon waved good-bye that August morning, as he boarded Marine One in disgrace and fled to California.
Yet I was never “anti-war” – or anti-anything – for that matter. I was all for designing airplanes, and flying them, too, and that was about as far as my political engagement went. To say I didn’t care about politics would have been an understatement. I voted Democratic because my parents voted that way, and so did everyone else we grew up around. I barely knew what “abortion” was all about because no one ever talked about it – at least not in polite society, and I literally had no idea what homosexuality was until my third year of college. I never smoked anything growing up because my father didn’t, and the first time I smelled pot I thought someone was burning manure in my dormitory’s bathroom. My father drank one or two beers on Saturday afternoon, usually listening to a game on the radio while he worked on the yard or tinkered with stuff in the garage, and so later, if I drank anything at all it was beer, and two at the most. My father’s college grade point average on graduation was 3.88; mine was 3.89, and I tried not to gloat. He was very proud, however, at least I think he was.
We were Irish Catholics, and we hung out with other Irish Catholics; blue collar, hard working men and women who either built LA or patrolled her streets. Tons of cops, in other words, and with the LAPD’s academy just up the street from our house, ours was arguably the safest neighborhood in LA County. It also had the most well behaved kids.
The extent of the ‘diversity’ I knew of growing up was simply this: in my world there were Irish Catholics, and there were Italian Catholics. If we had a common language it was Latin, and maybe English. And that English would be replete with old world accents. The only thing I knew for sure was that Italians were different because their last names ended in vowels.
That reality changed little in the Navy. I was a serious pilot and I took the meaning of the oath I swore to the Constitution seriously. I held the words “we, the people” to mean just that. Not we the white people, but all us, as in: we’re all in this together. I thought that way because, by and large, my father did. Because the people in our church did. My teachers did, and even the cops who came over for my mother’s corned beef did. Well, most of them did. I think the first racism I experienced came in the form of scorching expletives a few of those cops would let slip when talking about the negroes down in South Central, or around Rampart Division.
The only negro I knew growing up was the old man who came by twice a week to mow lawns in our neighborhood. If there was a family that had only daughters, or no kids at all, they got their lawns mown by Mr Thomas. I’d hear his push mower spitting away, cutting little patches of grass on those infrequent afternoons he came by, and sometimes I’d watch him work. He’d have to stop every now and sharpen those turbine like swirls of blade, or pump some grease into the single axle, then off he’d go, pushing his mower across the grass. Fifty cents a lawn in those days, and he was as regular as clockwork. Always smiling, always whistling some indecipherable tune. I think for a dime or two he pruned bushes or weeded gardens, so as far as I knew he kept busy. He was the only black person I knew growing up. That’s the way it was.
When I came home in ‘74 I went to work for United Air Lines, moved to San Francisco for a few years, then to New York City, and I flew DC-8s for a whie, which was a blast for both me and my father, but we grew apart when I moved to New York, and that was something new for all of us. And I know I haven’t talked much about my sisters, but that’s because I think their lives were almost peripheral to both my father and I. All but my youngest sister, Patricia, that is. We always called her PJ, too. I barely knew her at all back then; she was not yet ten years old when I went to USC, and she came of age during the height of the counter-culture wars that defined the second half of the 60s. She was in trouble all the time too, doing drugs, pregnant – twice – before she got out of high school. Arrested once when she and some friends snuck out onto the runway at LAX; they laid down on the threshold, cringing as airliners flared just overhead and touched down a hundred yards away, and how I don’t know but the cops determined they were all tripping on acid. She was this red-headed lust bomb that wanted a father’s attention and never got enough, so she went looking elsewhere for love. Everywhere else, and so, of course, in due course she broke my father’s heart and he did exactly what he shouldn’t have and threw her out of the house.
When I moved to San Francisco after the war, into an apartment on a hill overlooking the bay and the airport, I’d not seen her since ‘68. My parent’s had neither seen nor heard from her in two years, yet one morning, very early on a Saturday morning, I was coming in after an overnighter from JFK and there she was, curled up on an olive green army surplus duffel bag – on my doorstep. I’d have never recognized her but for the shocking head of wavy red hair she had, and those insane freckles.
I knelt down and lightly brushed her hair aside, saw her face and wanted to laugh and cry, all in the same breath. She weighed maybe ninety pounds and the insides of her arms were covered with tracks; she smelled of beer and urine, and – of all things – patchouli. I opened my door and dropped my bag on the floor, then went out to rouse her.
Which turned out to not be the easiest thing I’d ever tried, so I picked her up and carried her to my bedroom, laid her out – and after I carried her duffel inside I called father.
“PJs here,” I remember saying before I’d even said hello and, as he’d been most upset about her behavior – and his own – I think he started crying. My mother was on the phone in an instant and I told her what I’d just found, and she wanted to know what they should do. “I think consciousness and coffee first, Mom. Let me talk to her, see what’s up. As soon as I know something I’ll call.”
I figured if coffee and bacon didn’t wake her nothing would, so I went to the kitchen and started in on breakfast, making more than enough noise to wake the dead, and sure enough, about ten minutes later in she came. Even looking half dead she was as seriously gorgeous as ever, and she walked over to my breakfast table and sat, rubbing her eyes first, then looking at me –
I was still in uniform, of course, looking every inch the figure of upright moral propriety – which, ahem, of course I was – and she grinned when I looked at her and said: “Well, there he is, ladies and gentlemen, Roger Ramjet!”
To which I replied: “Two eggs, or three?”
“You know, I could eat three, maybe more.”
“How long since you had something solid?”
She shrugged. “I passed out with some guys cock in my mouth last night. When I came-to he was passed out and his dick was still right where he’d left it.”
I was aware of staring at her, at the extremity of her behavior, and her need, and that until this very moment the contours of her existence had been a mystery to me. I remember thinking how shocked I was, how almost outraged I became, then how scared I was – for her. In two years no contact with any of us, and now here she was. Of all the people in the world she could have gone to, she chose the man most like the father who had cast her aside, adrift…to wander in the wilderness.
Why? I mean, really? Why?
To perpetuate a cycle that would put her right back on the street? To make my life a living hell, if only to validate her own low opinion of herself?
“So, what else have you been up to?”
“Taking classes, at Berkeley,” she said.
That figures, I wanted to say. “Oh? What in?”
“Physics and cosmology.”
And I looked at her again, really more of a double take. “Really?”
“Yeah, ya know, I’ve been trippin’ out there for a few years so I figured I ought to study some of the things I’ve seen.”
And this was said with a straight face, mind you.
“Timothy Leary’s dead,” I sang.
“No, no, no, no, he’s outside, looking in,” she sang back to me, and we had a laugh while I put on a skillet full of eggs.
“I can’t remember how you like yours cooked.”
I poured her a cup of coffee and took it to her, and for some reason I bent over and kissed her forehead. “It’s sure good to see you,” I said, then I ducked back in the kitchen to turn the bacon again.
When I turned back to her she was staring out my window, at the runways laid out below. “You like it? Flying, I mean?”
“I think I’d like the travel part. See new things all the time.”
“I see the panel most of the time, then a lot of strange hotel rooms, but I know what you’re saying.”
“Think I’d be a good stewardess?”
“I think you’d be good at whatever you decided to put your back into.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Could you help me? Get there, I mean?”
I carried our plates out and sat next to here, and she turned, stared at the plate. “I think I need to turn my life around, Tommy,” she said, her voice hovering someplace under the rainbow, so gentle I almost couldn’t hear her.
“Well then,” I said, “you came to the right place, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” she said, and she looked at me just then in a way I’ll never forget, and in a way I could never describe, not in a million years.
I called the parents, told them what was up and what was down and that she wasn’t ready to see father just yet, and I heard some peace in the old man’s voice for the first time in a long time. She asked if I had a car, and I didn’t, not yet, but I was thinking of getting one. She said she had stuff in the pad she’d been hanging out in, over in Oakland somewhere, and she’d need to get it soon or risk losing everything, so I rented a van and we drove over, collected her things from three different apartments and I had to laugh. A few pairs of jeans, a few books and phonograph records…maybe fifty bucks worth of “stuff” – and that was her lot in life. She’d been traveling light, that much was certain. She always would, too.
We passed a Porsche dealership on the way home and I pulled in, had a look around. There was a Targa on the lot, white with a blue interior, and she went right to it, fell in love with it on the spot. I filled out the paperwork, my first loan ever, of any kind, and it was approved two days later. She went with me to pick it up and we drove down Skyline Drive and over to Half Moon Bay, ate artichokes above the beach and looked at the Elephant Seals basking on the sand. She was becoming a friend, my first sister to do so.
And to tell you truth, I’d never been happier.
Need I say more?
She graduated from Stew School a year later, and she snagged a posting in San Fran and started helping out with the rent. She’d taken my bedroom a long time ago; I was sleeping on a fold-out sofa-bed in the living room, sore back and all. On the rare occasion we were home together we’d sit up and watch non-stop Star Trek re-runs all night long, or go out for a burger and a movie, and time sort of slipped into this unexpected sequel.
When she graduated she bid for this crappy route – SFO to Orange County to Sacramento and back to SFO – and of course she got it, if only because nobody else wanted it, but she was home every night. I was home every other night, so we had a lot of time together. One afternoon I was in early and doing some housecleaning when she came in, dragging her ass in the usual early October heat, and she plopped down on the sofa and told me to “sit down, immediately!”
So I sat.
And she flipped off her pumps and dropped her feet in my lap.
“Foot rub! Now, before I die!”
“Peej, you need a boyfriend. Bad.”
“No. I need a foot rub. Now, please.”
And now of course I must backtrack. Explain that not only did I not have a girlfriend, I’d also never, and I mean not once, given anyone a foot rub. Not once. And not only was I a foot rub virgin, it had never been in my game plan to give any of my sisters a foot rub. Not one of them.
Yet I could see her feet were wrecks. Red, puffy in places, almost blistered in others, her need was acute, and real, so I got down to it – and she fell instantly asleep. I kept at it for a few more minutes then ran the bath and carried her in, told her to soak for a while, and that I’d find some lotion to rub on them. When she came out we resumed, and the first thing I mentioned – again – was that this was a far better activity for a boyfriend to manage for her, not her brother.
“I know,” she said, “but the thought of being with a man again revolts me.”
“Well,” I said – jokingly, I’m sure, “what about a girlfriend?”
And she looked away. “And what if I have a girlfriend? What then?”
“Do you?” I asked.
“Kind of.” And she explained how she and one of her dorm mates at the academy had had much the same experience she’d had with boys, and how they both felt ‘over the whole boyfriend thing’ by then.
And of course I asked if she had done anything with this girl.
“Like what, Tommy?”
“You know…whatever girls do with one another.”
“You mean, like…”
“Yeah, like whatever.”
“You want me to tell you about it, Tommy? Would that turn you on?”
“No, as a matter of fact it wouldn’t.”
“Oh,” she said, and she’d sounded a little disappointed, too, which I thought odd.
“I have some interesting news,” I added. “A chance to move over to 747s. First officer. A few months of training, then a posting to Kennedy. Probably JFK to Paris or Frankfurt.”
She brightened immediately. “Any chance I could tag along?”
This wasn’t surprising. When she’d mentioned wanting to travel, Sacramento wasn’t exactly high on her list of places to visit. Paris was, and this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I, for my part, had already looked into the possibility, and yes, it wasn’t a stretch, but she’d need another year or two under her belt before she could bid on one of those routes.
It was a logistics nightmare, getting her moved to New York and settled in a new apartment while I spent months in training, but father drove across with her, and I think the time was important for them both. I arrived expecting to find her in a one bedroom close to mine, but no, she’d picked out a really nice two bedroom place and so our life together continued – with little changed.
With Paris my first bid run, I found myself away much more than I had been, and she was locked into a JFK to Denver Stapleton run for at least a year, so we really were lucky to run into one another more than a few times a month. I came home one afternoon and found her in bed with another flight attendant, a woman, and I let it go without comment. Pretty soon almost every time I saw her she was with this woman, and I started doing a little research on her.
She was almost forty, and considered a hard case. She was curt, I learned, and often abrasive, but she was by any other measure an excellent flight attendant. She was routinely passed over for plum assignments and, I assumed after reading between a few lines, this was most likely the result of her sexual proclivities. The few times I ran into her she seemed almost suspicious of me, yet she was nice enough, in an offhanded way. And, I had to admit, with her around I’d never have to give my sister another foot rub – and that was a very good thing.
Yet when PJ did indeed get a Paris run that was too much for this other gal. She’d put in for the run countless times, and had been turned down countless times, so when PJ nailed it on her first try the woman lost it and disappeared. Fearful that I might have to resume foot rub duties, I asked what her intentions were now.
“I think I’m ready to jump back into penis infested waters,” she told me, and we laughed at that.
“What changed your mind,” I asked.
“Dildos never come in your mouth,” she said – with a straight face, “and I’m kind of missing that.”
“I’m sorry I asked,” I sighed.
“When’s the last time you popped your cork, Tommy?”
“I know. Awful.”
“Want me to get you off? Just a one off kind of thing?”
“PJ, shut the fuck up, would you?”
“Hey, I could use the practice.”
“Get a dildo,” I said, rumbling away in disgust.
So, she started on the Paris run. Not necessarily on my flight, but every now and then she ended up on my plane. One December we were walking the museums together and she took my arm, almost in the way husbands and wives do, a very casual gesture – and I knew it then. A woman just wasn’t going to happen to me. I was going to have to go out and find one the hard way. Problem is, or was, I really didn’t know how.
So, I asked the captain on my return flight. His recommendation: stay away from stews. That was it. Like the poor guy had been burned by that fire more than once. Our flight engineer recommended the bar scene at TGIFridays. So much for that, thank you very much.
I went out to use the head mid-flight and talked to the senior stew on the upper deck and her advice was straight-forward and to the point. As long as kids weren’t in the picture, she said, she was available.
“If it’s just something casual,” she repeated, “I’d love to go out with you.”
Her name was Brenda Collins, a nice Irish girl. She looked, those days, a little like Deborah Kerr, but with ta-tas the size of the Hindenburg. We went out that night, for a burger and a chocolate malt, and when I dropped her off she asked me in. So, as I’m sure you know, I ended up giving her a two hour long foot rub, which led to a thirty second, tonsil shattering blowjob.
We were of course married ten months later. About three months before our first, Michael, was born. She’d been married once before, and she told me once it just didn’t take. We celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary a few years back, so I feel most certain this turned out to be something a little more than casual. Even so, I still rubbed her feet, and she gave the most glorious rendition of Hail to the Chief when she played the skin flute.
PJ started to come apart at the seams when Brenda moved into my life, and for the first time I began to think that all those moments filled with tense innuendo had meant a lot more to her than they had to me. And all of a sudden I realized I couldn’t just leave her in the lurch. I started spending more time with her, taking her out to dinner with Brenda from time to time, making her feel like she was an important part of something new and better. I think I realized that, like the song, the more you give, the more you make. She went out on a few dates, and one of them took, another pilot, Derrick. She started having a life of her own again, a real, productive life of her own, and pretty soon we weren’t seeing each other all that often.
Brenda and I bought a house out past JFK, and life, for me, really started.
We had Michael, and not quite two years later a girl, Theresa, and even before I moved over to the left seat I was earning enough for Brenda to take extended leave and stay home with the kids. Both our fathers were retired by that point, and our parents came out for extended stays, some more extended than others, while the kids were in diapers. To help with the kids, my father said, but we ended up cooking ‘steaks a la Dad’ over charcoal every night I was home, and drinking our ritual two beers more and more often. Soon PJ and Derrick came over for those nights, too, and a separate, more enduring truce between Peej and pops was arrived at during that time, a peace that lasted ‘til the end.
And I don’t want to gloss over the next twenty years, but I can sum them up easily: they were remarkably uneventful in the way America was during those years. Staggering material prosperity and almost endless opportunity defined this world, and it seemed you had to work at being poor. Our kids grew up along those predefined pathways, went to Columbia and NYU, and my son stayed the course and went into the Navy, flew Hornets first in Iraq, later over Afghanistan, while my daughter went to med school in New Haven, finished her residency at Sloan-Kettering.
What seemed to put an end to all that prosperity, all that certainty, was 911. A few years shy of my mandatory retirement, I could just see one of the impacts on the World Trade Center while approaching New York City. We were still out over Long Island Sound, and I felt a pure, white hot anger I’d never felt in the skies over North Vietnam. Like many Americans, I began to hate any and everything about Islam and Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabians. When I saw a news report about Israelis and Palestinians at each others throats again I’d turn and look away. I had zero interest or sympathy for their endless bickering anymore, and in fact thought the most honorable way out of the situation would be to forgive Mexico’s debt and give Baja California to Israel in exchange for a few years peace. I figured with Israel out of the way the Arabs might let up killing each other, at least for a few months. Bitter? Me?
And after that it was so easy to Hate. Mexicans for this, Hondurans and El Salvadorans for that. Nigerians for failing to take baths seriously, Laotians for making better Thai food than Thai people. It seemed almost endless, the opportunities I created to simply Hate People. My politics became the politics of Hate and, like a cancer, I saw that Hate had begun to eat away at the very heart and soul of what it meant to be an American. I recognized Hate almost everywhere I went; the disease wasn’t confined to me. Maybe that’s what Bin Laden had in mind when he attacked America, but I doubt it. With a dozen people he accomplished what all the Japanese and Germans in the Second World War never could: he got Americans to turn inward and against one another, to begin tearing the country apart from inside.
My mood blackened with the country’s, I think, along like lines and for similar reasons. Parallel trends, I guess you could say. Not long after 911 my father began to deteriorate, and quite rapidly, too. I’m not implying a causal relationship, either. He was old and his heart had begun to fail while Clinton was still in office, and the years passed quickly after that…too quickly. He passed in 2003, my mother a year later, and that would have been hard enough to take – but Brenda fell ill as well. Breast cancer, and it staged out at IV by the time she was diagnosed. So, father in ‘03, mother in ’04 and my wife in 2005. My kids gone, out of the house, and then – one-two-three strikes and you’re out of love – right in the middle of the biggest increase in Hate the world had seen in seventy years. Oh yes. I retired too, so the one thing I loved was gone. A victim of the simplest, most predictable thing of all: getting old.
So, I say this might have been a parallel trend with good reason. We the baby-boomer generation had witnessed and come of age in the greatest explosion of material wealth in human history, and that explosion had taken place in our collective back yards. A huge number of kids grew up with tennis courts and swimming pools and really excellent schools, not to mention The Beatles and cheerleaders in really short skirts, and then, in the span of just a few short years all we’d worked so hard to build seemed at risk – and just then our parents started dropping like flies.
So, dark world events eclipsed by even darker personal shake-ups. Got it?
I went out to LA after Dad passed, to settle some lingering estate matters, and he wanted my mother to stay in the house now, and when she was gone it would pass to me. The rest of his investments would go to the girls, assuming those weren’t eaten up taking care of Mom, yet she failed rapidly when she learned of Brenda’s cancer. I think seven months passed between my mother’s and Brenda’s death, too.
And one winter’s day a few months after the girls and I buried Brenda, a blue sedan pulled up in front of my house and a Navy Chaplain walked up and knocked on my door, told me that my son had been killed in Afghanistan. I took the telegram and went upstairs to our bedroom and didn’t come out for days. I’d heard the phone ring, of course. I just didn’t answer. I couldn’t, you see. I knew I’d have to confront reality if I did, that I’d have to tell my sisters and my daughter – and I knew I couldn’t. And not come undone in their presence.
So Terry, my daughter, started calling PJ, who started calling me, and with no response they came out to the house, saw my car in the drive and expected the worst. They came upstairs and found me curled up in a tight ball, the crumpled yellow notice still in hand, and they read the words and fell to the bed beside me and we cried for what felt like weeks.
There was no body to bury; we were given a flag and the thanks of a grateful nation – and that was pretty much all there was to it. In the aftermath I looked around Long Island and finally realized I didn’t belong anymore so put the house on the market and moved back to my parent’s house on the east side of Elysian Park. Back to LA. Back into a part of the country that now felt more like Central America than the city I had grown up in. Back into the middle of the front lines of America’s wars of dissolution, where firefights were waged nightly between the cops and too many gangs to count, where body counts went unremarked in the local paper because they were seen as a little too incendiary.
In the end I went back because there’s no place like home.
Need I say more?
The house needed work, but so too did the neighborhood.
Dad’s next door neighbors for the last twenty years, Tom and Doris Parker, were still on hand, but everyone else I knew was gone. Oddly enough, many of the houses still belonged to cops, most long-time veterans with the LAPD, many of whom worked at the academy, yet even so most of the people around the neighborhood were not Irish Catholic anymore. Hispanic, I think, summed it up accurately, though there were a couple of black families around now, some Asians, too, and this last group had torn down the original bungalows and erected boxy little apartment buildings painted in weird colors. Maybe unheard of thirty years ago, yet the overall tenor of the neighborhood was little changed – beyond more bars on windows and a lot of alarm company signs on new, very strong fences. If you know what I mean.
Tom Parker had two boys working in the police department, and when the moving van appeared outside my father’s house the Parker brothers were soon on deck to lend a hand, and Doris invited me over to dinner that night. Shepherd’s pie and Guinness, of course. And some fresh soda bread. We talked about the good old days, they fretted about the neighborhood, and Tommy and Judd filled me in on the real score. The war zone started down the hill now, on the other side of the 110, and the park wasn’t safe after dark. Gangs and dealers, they said, and the cartels owned whole neighborhoods. Two judges’ bodies had been found so far this year, out in the desert with their heads blown off, a cartel signature. They’d rendered opinions against cartel members, and the cartel’s judgement had been as swift as it was final. Cops were being targeted, their homes and family members too. This wasn’t police work, Tommy Parker told me that night. It was war. A war fueled by drugs, simple as that. Their was suspicion in the ranks, that hispanic officers had been targeted and compromised, that there were more bad cops in the PD now than there ever had been before. Hispanic politicians were turning a blind eye, Tommy said, because most were on the take.
I noticed that the more Tommy drank the more worked up he got, and I saw Judd distancing himself as Tommy’s rant became darker, and after Tommy left Judd hung around a little, maybe to clear the air.
“It’s bad,” he said, “but not that bad, and maybe not all that different.” Everyone knew Irish politicians had been on the take, that Irish cops had patrolled non-Irish neighborhoods differently than they patrolled their own. But true enough, the cartels had made a big difference, that too many cops had been turned and were now on other payrolls. That judges had been gunned down, and too little of this stuff was making it into the news.
“Life’s not that bad here,” he said. “Tommy’s still makes the nastiest burger on earth, the beaches are still the best because the babes are still the hottest. I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he added, “and we’re glad to see you finally came back to your senses. Now, what are you going to do around here, besides pick your nose?”
“Get this house fixed up, first of all. Beyond that, not much.”
“You still fly?”
“Could you? I mean, could you teach?”
“Yeah, for a few more years.”
“Well, I ask because my daughter started lessons but the cost got out of hand. Think you could lend a hand?”
“Let me look into it.”
Fateful words, like out of the mouths of babes – lost in the woods.
So…when I started clearing brush from the back yard, Judd and his girl Rebecca joined in on the fun. Judd hacked away with a machete while Becky and I hauled stuff to a dumpster I’d had delivered. Two days of solid work and the three of us had the yard down to dirt, and then I had a landscape designer come by and look over the site. Becky and I talked all the time, of course, about flying. She’d been about five hours into ground school for her private, or non-commercial license, and she’d stalled out, wasn’t making enough money to pay for both the flight school and the hours of flight time necessary to go on.
And when I checked with local schools the next day I found the cost of flight time exorbitant, prohibitively so. I talked with a few schools about my experience and they all sounded more than ready to take me on, but that wouldn’t affect the prices any. Becky still wouldn’t be able to afford the flight time, even if I gave away my time for her ground school.
But what if I bought an old Cessna and brought her up to snuff? Could I do that myself, and have a little airplane to tool around the neighborhood? Have a little fun flying and teaching while I still could? I talked that over with one of the bigger flight schools and yes, as long as I was willing to teach and train other students for their regular fees, they’d take me on – and even maintain and store the aircraft for me. I’d be out a little up-front money, and I’d have to commit to teaching a certain number of students per week, but all in all, I could make it work. In fact, this one dealer said they happened to have the perfect aircraft just sitting around, so I loaded up the 911 with my log books and copies of my ratings and drove out to the valley.
The aircraft was a two year old Cessna Turbo Skyhawk JT-A with a dual G1000 panel, and I knew it had to be priced way more than I was willing to spend – “but this one has low hours and the owner might be willing to make a really good deal.”
“Like how much?” I asked, and the owner of the flight school wrote down the number on a post-it note and slid it over.
I whistled. “Wow. Who’s the owner?”
“I am,” Stan Wood said.
“So, what’s the deal?”
“I could use an instructor with your experience, simple as that. If you’re willing to do instrument and multi-engine, I can guarantee you a six figure income, and I’ll make a shitload more than that a year, so it’s a win-win deal. AND – I’ll float the note with twenty grand down.” And with that he held out his hand.
I think he was daring me to refuse, too.
And I took it his hand, then we went out and took her up. I’d brought along a camera and snapped away, planning out the evening ahead as I framed shots. And the thing is, there’s nothing like flying a little bird like a Skyhawk, and for the first time in months I felt myself smiling inside, and as she was just a gorgeous aircraft – and had a panel to drool over – I felt close to ecstatic.
So, I called Judd, asked him to bring Becky over that afternoon after he got off work, then I carefully baited my trap. By the time they walked in the door I was beside myself, trying not to grin.
“So, I began. I’m going to need some help ripping up this carpet,” I began, and I could see Becky deflate. “Next, I think we’ll repaint the house. Inside and out. How much do you think that’s worth?”
“I don’t know,” she said, now clearly depressed.
So, I went over and fired up my iMac, pulled up a photo of the back yard. “Come take a look,” I said. “Here’s what I have in mind.” I think Judd could smell the set up now, and he walked over, stood by my desk, motioned Becky to come over too.
And when she was by my side I flipped to the next picture, an exterior shot with me standing by the pilot’s open door. Then one of the panel, another of us out over the Pacific, dozens more, in fact.
Her eyes were transfixed, and when I came to a closeup of the panel I paused, let her look long and hard. “Is that a Garmin 1000?” she asked.
“It is. One of the first in the country, too.”
“Jesus,” she whispered, then she turned to me.
“So, here’s the deal. Class meets here Tuesday and Thursday night. We fly Saturday mornings, rain or shine, at 0-800. You pay for gas, and you help me get this house cleaned up. We quit lessons when you’ve had enough or I die, whichever comes sooner.”
Have you ever been hugged by an 18 year old female LaCrosse player? It kind of hurts. On the other hand, turns out she was a damn fine little house painter.
Becky spent summers at her grandfather’s house next door, and she’d made a few friends in the neighborhood over the years, and one was another girl on the LaCrosse team with similar aspirations. She too wanted to fly, if not in the military then at the very least commercially. This girl’s name was Bettina Rodriguez, and Becky brought her by the house the very next evening.
“We wanted to know,” Becky began, “if the same deal applied for one more person?”
“What? Cleaning and painting, in exchange for lessons?”
“I don’t even know you?” I said, looking at Bettina. “Or if your parents would even approve of such a thing.”
And I had never seen a look of such despair in my life. Not once.
“But…are you willing to work hard?” I added.
“Now, what about your parents?”
“It’s just my mother.”
“Okay, what about your mother? Does she have any idea what you’re up to?”
“Any idea that you’re interesting in flying?”
“Only since second grade,” she said, grinning like I had just asked the stupidest question in the history of humankind.
“Is your mother home?”
“Well, you might see if she has time to come talk to me about this. And Becky? You’d better go with her. I think this may take some serious arm twisting on both your parts.”
I’d never seen anything move that fast in my life. They were out the door like two Phantoms on a night catapult launch – and I laughed a little as I went to the kitchen and fixed a big pitcher of iced tea.
I heard a knock on the door a few minutes later; I padded across the living room and opened it – and there was PJ, in tears, a taxi out front, waiting in the gloom.
“Do you have any money?” she blurted.
Need I say more?
I guess, in order to make a long story somewhat shorter, I’ll skip the details and just say that Derrick had had enough of PJ. He’d met someone new and filed for divorce, alleging PJs resumption of drugs, this time prescription opioids, as the proximate cause. She’d just retired from United and had nothing but time on her hands, and “Just look at me!” she cried. “I’m OLD!”
“Who the fuck isn’t?” I said, swearing for just the second time in my life. That’s sarcasm. You’re supposed to laugh. “Just what did you expect would happen after fifty three years?”
At any rate, about ten minutes after my narcissist, quasi-incestuous sister found her way back into my life, there came another knock on my door, one I held as vastly more important. I told her to go to our parents bedroom and to remain absolutely quiet until I came back to get her again. Maybe it was the tone in my voice but that’s exactly what she did, and when I heard the door close I went to the door and opened it again.
I don’t know what I expected, but there was this dark haired woman standing there, her eyes full of molten lava – the girls nowhere to be seen.
“Just what kind of sick pedophile are you,” this Hell-bitch from the Dark Side screamed, “to entice little girls with promises of flying lessons!?”
I, of course, did exactly what you’d have done in similar circumstances. I slammed the door in her face.
And I watched her tromp off across my yard – and straight into Tom and Doris Parker’s house. More screaming, then Tom Parker reading this peri-menopausal Whore-bitch from Hell the riot act. Ten minutes later Judd’s car screeched to a halt out front and HE tromped straight into his parent’s house. Then more screaming, and I mean real hispanic testicle cutting screams, then I see this She-devil stomping down the middle of the street and I swear I could see smoke and sparks and flames erupting under each step, then Judd was in a low crouch, sneaking over to my house while trying not to let this flaming female Tasmanian she-devil see him slithering between houses.
Ten minutes later I saw three flaming females marching right up the middle of the street again, this time right up to my front door, smoke trailing in their wake.
Polite knocking – while Judd ran to a back bedroom, trying to find a place to hide.
I opened the door, let slip my best, most polite “Yes?” as I stood there, my door cracked open not quite an inch.
“Oh, si, my girls did not tell me so much about you, Mister…”
“My name. Don’t call me Mister. It’s Captain. I flew 747s for 24 years. Y no me gusta ser llamado pedófilo en mi propia casa!”
A strong offense is, in my book, always the best defense. The more offensive the better.
“You speak Spanish?”
“Of course. And French. And German. And Italian,” I added, just for good measure, because I can ask where the bathroom is when I’m in Rome. I mean, can’t you? ‘Dov’è il bagno, nes pas?’
She was wide-eyed by that point, sputtering and apoplectic. I was quite enjoying myself by that point, too.
“I must apologize…” she resumed, but the point I need to make here is you need to know when you’ve won, when it’s time to just sit back and shut up, listen for a while and to not press the point home any further than absolutely necessary.
“No apologies necessary,” I said magnanimously. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“May we come in?” she asked.
I wanted to say something erudite, something learned, something like “promise you won’t cut my balls off – with a soup spoon?” But no, not me. I said something that sounded an awful lot like: “Of course you may.”
And then I laid out the deal. I showed her all my licenses, pictures of the Skyhawk. What I had offered Becky. What I was willing to offer her daughter in exchange for some work around the house.
“The girls mentioned painting? What are these lessons worth?”
“Around here, about ten grand.”
“For both, or each?”
“Then that is not a fair deal. For you.”
“Okay. What’s fair?”
“They clean your house, three afternoons a week, ‘til the end of time.”
“That’s not the deal I made with Becky.”
“For my daughter, then,” she said, turning. “Bettina?”
“Si, mama. I agree.”
“Then I do too,” Becky added.
“Fine,” I said, now looking this woman in the eye. “And I want one more thing.”
“And that is?” she said, returning my look with icy reserves of calm now. She was in her element now…combat had been joined and the game was afoot.
“You prepare Sunday lunch here, at my house, once a month, for a year.”
Her lips began to quiver, her eyes to twitch. I had her, and she knew it, then she turned to her daughter. “And? What have you to say to this?”
She turned back to me, utterly defeated, and said: “I agree.”
I didn’t know this at the time, but there’s no way you can win a battle of this type with a Spanish woman, let alone a peri-menopausal Whore-bitch from Hell Spanish woman. I might have known the simple truth of the matter if I’d had a clearer view of her face just then, of the sly, murderous grin that passed like the shadow of a cloud across her face – but I missed that. Funny how I tend to miss little things like that.
At any rate, I’ve left off something in my retelling of these events. Something perhaps vital to an understanding of events yet to come. You see, once the steam stopped pouring out of this woman’s eyes and ears she was really quite lovely to look at. Think Penelope Cruz, with streaks of gray in her hair – and very, very short. Like five feet and nothing.
Anyway, the prospect of a homemade Mexican dinner once a month for a year was suddenly more than interesting, and as they were about to leave I felt I’d made the best out of a precarious situation. I’d come out ahead, even.
“Oh? What’s your name?” she asked.
“Just call me Captain Tom. And yours?”
“Rosalinda,” she said as she walked out my door.
And I smiled. Billy Joel songs danced through my mind’s eye just then, but…
There was one other piece of music I ought to cue you in on. A dance, between PJ and Judd.
For once upon a time, during the height of PJs high-school-slut-phase, the first boy to get her pregnant was none other than? Yes, you guessed right: Judd Parker. The girl Judd swore to love until his dying breath? Uh-huh. She’s the one. And how about this one: the number of months since Judd’s divorce had been finalized? If you guessed three…close enough.
When I went back to my parent’s bedroom there they were, sitting on the floor – holding hands.
Need I say more?
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 – perhaps my mother’s hidden side. Clean and austere, she was 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 no grass 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 tiny, and useless, backyard in it’s unplanned aftermath.
The house is vaguely L-shaped now, kind of 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 dramatically. The heavily wooded lot was carved out of a hillside, and the rear takes off into a near vertical climb, the face of this new ‘hill’ a raw wound of exposed white shale streaked with intermittent ground cover and a few struggling trees.
I say ‘intermittent ground cover’ 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 our 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, after Dad built the addition 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, aside from a brick Bar-b-q my father and I built by the garage one summer. My plan now was to turn the area into an oasis of multi-level decks – and completely shaded by vine-laced 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 envision PJ waiting in the tepid water, begging for a foot rub, and all thoughts of a hot tub vanished in a snow-filled instant. But there was more, much more, I planned to do.
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, faux-marble yellows and blues, accented with truly lovely gold sparkles. Fashionable in 1938, I think. Wretched by 2006 standards.
So, need I say more?
Well, there was one bath in the original plan, designed by troglodytes for troglodytes, and the new one father added later. 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 Santa Monica plant. 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 I’m certain 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 in a few corners, too, and this we quickly dispatched with solutions of bleach and then lemon oil, and I pulled carpet tack-strips and filled all the 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 yard under tarps those nights, 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, and we tried to ignore sirens in the distance, but all in all it was fun.
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, and my room felt strange, almost foreign to me after.
The old kitchen? Gone, in a heartbeat. Ripped apart with pry-bars and a sledge, then hauled away. A cabinet company installed the replacements 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, as well as 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 evening, class was in session. Real, formal class. The kids wanted to talk airplanes all the time, and we did, but classroom time was structured, and tough. 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 because I wanted to stretch that time out a little, to take a measure of their resolve, their interest and dedication, and I wanted the week we finished up work on 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 so far. 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 over 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, then 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 the 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, clearly alarmed.
“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 we 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 we 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 – a 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. A different perspective, yet the same things.
Another steep turn, then I pointed ahead. “Dodger Stadium,” I said, 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. I 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 a few minutes later she saw the ground sliding 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 comforting now.
“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 then she 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 in this new divergence – 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 anew, 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.
The coin revealed it’s ‘head’ and I asked her: “Shotgun first, or coming back?”
“Back seat, then,” I said, helping her up, 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 engine. We talked some more about magnetos and why 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 while I repeated all we’d covered in class, then got our final clearance and moved out to the runway and applied power, started down the runway, with her mirroring my movements all the way down the runway. 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 feet, maintain a heading of 2-7-0.”
“Cessna 6-8 Romeo, traffic at your eleven o’clock, 3500, Southwest 737 for Burbank.”
“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.”
“Well, 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, 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.”
We landed at Santa Barbara twenty five minutes later, and Becky almost fell out of the cabin. “My knees are shaking so bad,” 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 you might need to go over again, 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 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 anymore…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 my 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 playing off one another, pushing each other to do more.”
I sighed, knew I had to figure out a way to turn this into a lever to push 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, volatile. 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 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 about an hour ago.”
Madeline and I went way back. She was my oldest sister, born a year or so after me. If PJ was the hellion, Maddie had always 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 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 when she looked at me as I walked in 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 surely 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, say 90210, 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 over here, wondering how many burgers we’d put down on just this spot over the decades. There were a few more Korean signs on the storefronts 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 1966 – ‘cause the food tasted exactly the same that night as it had forty 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 was saying kind of penetrated the fog.
We’d grown up accustomed to the idea that our lives would be a little like Tommy’s. It would always be the same, too, from one generation to the next, and 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 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 going to happen in recognizable ways. Predictable, even.
Wow. That’s hubris.
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 soxer feet hanging out the window, keeping to the beat; I could 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 guy getting into an argument in the middle of the street, their 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, then started hosing down the parking lot with 9mm bullets, hitting the white guy in the neck, and Madeline in the left shoulder.
I told you her luck wasn’t 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, and it had. Call it another one of those divergent dichotomies, a 9mm cognitive dissonance.
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 department’s shrink, and after just one meeting PJ was on a regimen of antidepressants and bi-polar medications, 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, too.
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 perhaps more exclusive still. 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 of 911. I percolated along the edges of that abyss while first my folks fell away, and then while Brenda came undone. My son’s death, on the other hand, led me over 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. Because now, suddenly, I Hated myself, too, and I remembered looking in the mirror and wanting to claw the eyes out of that motherfucker’s skull. I was full of seething hate, and it was beginning to boil over onto the world around me.
That’s when the whole move back to California thing grabbed me by the throat. The California I remembered, that place I knew I was longing for, that state of mind that had, for us, always been the antithesis of Hate. I knew I had to reconnect with that vibe – soon – and that this was an act of self-preservation…nothing less than a last desperate attempt to turn away from Hate before it flame broiled me, and served me up with chili on top.
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 down again. I didn’t take time to understand her fear; I just slammed the door and turned away, so in a way she gave me my second chance. She came back to me, to apologize, to help set things straight for Bettina.
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 week’s 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 again. 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 PJ 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 shooting at 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.
But I think you knew that.
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 after that, the girls really 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 and looked them over.
“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 a button and hold it a few seconds, then release it. Understand?”
“So, these cones? Set in a circle, right? 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 away, 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 well enough by then, knew me just 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?
These divergent dichotomies of ours catch up with us over time.
I was my father’s son once upon a time, before I was on my own – before I became part of a new binary system. Another woman, Brenda, defined my life for the next twenty five years, our time longer but less complex than the time I spent in my father’s house. Brenda was all about love, the simplest, most powerful time there is, while my father was about unquestioned support, about passing on what he’d learned. Things like what makes for a good life.
Then hate came into my life. Slowly at first, but with gathering momentum. It’s hard to look back at those years because there are so few memories worth holding onto, looking back at. Hate blinds so completely not even memory survives. All that’s left is Hate.
And I found that Hate was a little like putting on a suit of shining armor. It’s hard, beyond rigid, a polished shell covering all our soft, vulnerable parts. Difficult to move around in too, the limited range of motion, I guess, accounts for that. You lower a visor when you suit-up in Hate, see the world ahead through tiny slits and there’s no such thing as peripheral vision anymore. There’s just the one way ahead, and even the parts of the story you can see aren’t really representative of the greater landscape around you anymore. Hate blinds you, makes you rigid, and about all you can do is charge off and hope it doesn’t hurt too much when you run into the walls of your own ignorance.
I put that armor on one day and intuitively knew it wasn’t a good fit, and I tried to cast it aside, turn away from all it wanted of me. Still, there came a time when I saw that cool metal still sitting there, cast aside yet still oh so shiny and strong looking, and I was tempted, sorely tempted to put it on again. But that’s when I fell into Rosalinda’s eyes. That’s when she cleaned my clock and set me straight, when I discovered how little I knew about life, even my own little corner of the world.
I think she was getting me ready for the last act of my life, an as yet unfinished comedy waiting for a little resolution. And I say this advisedly: when I looked back at my life with Brenda, from the vantage point of my time with Rosalinda, I understood I’d gone through almost three decades of marriage absent one vital thing.
I’d loved that woman to within an inch of our lives, yet in all that time I’d never felt the sort of passion Rosalinda brought to my life in one afternoon. I lay with her after and felt tugged between two stars, a planet caught in a tight binary system. Brenda’s had been a slow, steady warmth, probably more conducive to life but never too much so; Rosalinda’s was a spontaneous combustion, a cool blue star one minute, then impossible, blinding radiance the next. One had a sensible gravity well, pulling gently, holding me close, while the other went from zero-G to crushing in a flash – and once Rosalinda’s gravity took hold it was impossible to break free.
And Rosalinda’s love, once given, was never in doubt. One hour with Bettina convinced me of that. One hour hearing the real story behind that love left me in awe. Left me reeling in wonder. So much in love I had no hope of recovering.
But you knew that already, didn’t you?
Her mother fled Spain in the 30s, when leftist ‘revolutionaries’ – though legally in power – were challenged by rightist ‘counter-revolutionaries’ – supported by, among others, Hitler and Mussolini, as well as large corporations. It was, in some respects, a civil war between ‘the people’ and large corporate interests, global interests that had vast sums of money set aside to raise new armies wherever their control was at risk. The war rapidly became a proxy war, with Hitler using the conflict to ‘blood’ the Wehrmacht, to get them ‘battle-tested’ in his warm up to the main event, and the Luftwaffe conducted the first large scale aerial bombardments in Europe’s history. The leftists were, of course, supported by the Soviet Union, but Mexico also played a role in the conflict.
When, in 1939, it appeared the leftists were going down in defeat, those with money fled to the Americas. Some to the United States of America, many more to the United States of Mexico – but often by way of New York City, and Rosalinda’s mother was in this latter group. Nineteen years old and by all accounts as glamorous as any movie star, Bettina Louise arrived in New York City one December morning sporting a high fever and severe pain in her gut, lower right quadrant. Appendicitis, in other words, and she was taken to Columbia Presbyterian where a brilliant young surgical resident operated. In the course of her post-operative care, Bettina Louise found out she was diabetic and she fell in love with the young surgeon, a man named Paul Latimer, and of equal importance, he fell in love with her too.
Bettina Louise went on to Mexico City after she recovered, but the two corresponded and their love only deepened. Her father was against all this, of course, and did not want his daughter getting mixed up with some unknown Yankee – from Oklahoma, no less – but when the surgeon finished his residency he took the train to Mexico City and that was the end of that. Paul had no trouble finding work, of course, but with his new family’s ‘connections’ he soon found himself working for the Ministry of Health – and knee deep in Mexican politics.
And of course, as his family’s political connections were ‘leftist,’ they still were invited to lavish political dinners, many at the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. And, of course, as rightist, corporatist powers emerged after the war, they took power in Mexico City, and they began to purge the government of anyone even remotely leftist, or ‘communist.’ Fearing for their lives, again, Bettina Louise’s family fled to California, to Los Angeles, and Paul, of course, went with them. He had no trouble finding work in California because he was a US trained and licensed physician, and his political work was as yet unknown.
Of course, all that was before the McCarthyite purges hit the United States, and within a year Latimer was unmasked as a high government official with deep ties to the Soviet Union. He was, in due course, stripped of his medical license and eventually jailed for lying on his immigration forms, and he died in federal prison under circumstances that remained unclear for decades, having never seen the baby girl born to him and Bettina Louise in 1952.
After the McCarthyite ‘Red Scares’ subsided in the mid-50s, Bettina Louise was offered a part in a movie, and because her family needed the money she took the role. Over the next ten years she worked in several westerns, many with big stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck, but she was never considered anything like a leading lady. No, she played the Mexican barmaid or the downtrodden shopkeeper’s wife, a decorative ‘extra’ with rarely a speaking part, but because of good looks she was always in demand and she always made good money, enough to buy a house near Elysian Park, enough to raise her daughter and take care of her ailing parents. After her father passed she took care of her mother, took work in an office at Paramount Studios, all while she raised her little Rosalinda. Because she was not simply attractive, she made better than good money in the back offices, for more than a few years, too.
Bettina Louise’s mother passed and then it was just the two of them, and Rosalinda took an interest in nursing after her grandmother’s death, though in truth medicine was really what interested her. Bettina Louise had taken her family name, Rodriguez, after her husband’s supposed disgrace, and in Los Angeles she was regarded as one of ‘them,’ a Mexican and therefore some kind of Third Class citizen. Yet she wasn’t so surprised when most of the locals she talked to didn’t know the difference between Spain and Mexico, or that the State of New Mexico was in America, not Mexico, but she accepted what was and moved on. She tried to keep away from people who, in their ignorance, perhaps, found it so easy to judge, too easy to look away.
In time Bettina retired. She settled in for the duration in her little house by the park, saw Rosalinda graduate from nursing school and begin working at County SC. Her diabetes, always a problem, soon became a bigger issue and she lost a leg two years later, and that marked the beginning of her end. She lived long enough to see Rosalinda fall in love with a physician, then she too was soon gone. The physician would leave soon, too, for greener pastures.
I listened to Bettina’s retelling of her family’s origins in fascinated awe. So easy to see where her passionate intensity came from, her drive to excel. And me? I’d always considered her Mexican, when in truth there was nothing at all ‘Mexican’ about her, or her mother. They were Spanish-American, in truth as European as I, yet how comfortably had I slapped one set of labels on them – not to mention entire sets of expectations – because of a name. A name I knew nothing about. Because my expectations were so hollow, as hollow as my understanding. But hell, I guess you knew that already.
School had just let out for the summer when our third Saturday of flying came ‘round, and the girls were full of joy, full of all the anticipation that comes with graduating from high school. What came next had already been decided, of course. They were both starting at UCLA in August, so we had some serious flying to do over the next two months.
And I should say I had some serious flying to do too. Stan had me booked up several hours a day, five days a week, usually working with pilots trying for their instrument or multi-engine ratings, and before I knew what was happening to me I was working longer and harder than I ever had before. I mention this as I’d never planned on something like this happening. No, this new life had, quite by accident, found me – yet I wasn’t sure I wanted my life to be so suddenly all-consuming and hectic.
But there were Rosalinda’s eyes waiting for me when I got home, and that made all the difference. Oddly enough, I was really happy those first few years…
I”ll see her throughout eternity standing in the kitchen, chopping and stirring, explosions of life in the air, twirling between the counter and the stove – turning the mundane into something like wild magic. She was a magician. Nothing less than that. She was one of those special souls who make life worth living.
Yet Bettina was now, more than anyone else in my life, the anchor that held me fast to the here and now, and I know that must sound distorted and strange. Where was Terry, you ask, my daughter? In all this had she simply disappeared?”
Well yes, if you must know, she had.
But that was about to change, too.
She called one day that June, and she was, like women in my life tend to be when she called, in tears. She’d been counting on getting a position at Sloan-Kettering, but that hadn’t happened. She was devastated and needed some ‘Dad time’ – as she called it – but I was no longer just out the Long Island Expressway. I was about as far away now as I could possibly be, and she was in a cab headed to LaGuardia, would be at LAX in six hours…
This, coming at five in the afternoon. With a full day of flying lined up tomorrow, starting at 0800.
I turned to Rosalinda, then elbows deep in pyrex bowls full of marinading something, and told her the deal.
“Tonight? She is coming tonight?”
“Excellent! I have time to make a paella!”
Dear God: When you have a minute to spare, would you please drop me a note, give me some sort of clue what it is with women and food? Yours truly, Clueless.
She, of course, called Becky, and then the three of them got to work. Kitchen cleaned and ready for inspection? Check! Maddie’s bedroom, ready for business? Check! Bathroom? Ditto! In two hours the house was an immaculate conception ready for hard duty, then the girls hit the cupboards and got to the real work at hand.
Me? Get out of their way, and stay away.
So I drove across town to LAX, got there about a half hour too early, sat around thinking about Rosalinda and Bettina – and Terry. What would happen when they mixed? Two unstable compounds joining under unknown pressures and temperatures…what would emerge? And would anything survive the reaction? For some reason I thought of stars colliding, and wondered what happens then.
My girl looked like she’d just been discovered, near death, in a concentration camp and set free. Emaciated. Gaunt-eyed and scarecrow-thin. She didn’t look like a cancer researcher – she looked like a cancer patient…with about a week to live. I wanted to cry, then I thought about Rosalinda standing in that kitchen – and I laughed.
“Dad? What is it?”
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking about unstable chemical reactions…”
She looked at me like, well, I think you know, don’t you?
And I filled her in on my life since Long Island while we got on the 405, then the 10. About working on the house, a house she might have seen once in the past twenty some-odd years, and about flying with Becky and Bettina. And then – about Rosalinda.
“Dad? You’re seeing someone?” She sounded hurt, disbelieving.
“It just sort of happened.”
“Nope. Spanish. Her father was from Oklahoma, a physician, trained at Columbia.”
“They’re waiting up, cooking some sort of blowout dinner.”
“Really? Oklahoma food?”
I grinned. “I have no idea, kitten.”
She used to love it when I called her that. Now she seemed distracted and angry.
“So, what happened in New York?”
“They didn’t want me, that’s all.”
“Any idea why?” If she’d been acting like this, I knew the reason, but Terry? Not my little Terry…?
“I’ve been having a hard time, Dad.”
“Since Mom died. Since you left me.”
A-ha. Thirty one years old and having a case of full-blown separation anxiety? Someone, somewhere along the line had screwed the pooch – and that someone had to be me, didn’t it? Yet in a flash I was seeing PJ in my mind’s eye, hanging out there in the air apparent. Curled up on her duffel bag in San Fran, talking at breakfast about some drugged out cock dangling from her mouth. What goes around comes around, I think I might have said – while trying not to choke on the irony.
“Are you angry at me for leaving?”
She nodded her head. “Yeah, but I understand. You have your life to lead, and I get that.”
“And that means there’s no room in my life for you? Is that what this feels like?”
“Yeah. I know I’ve been busy, inaccessible, but everything happened so fast and I turned around and you were gone…” And she was crying, real off to the races crocodile tears. Instinctually I thought about heading over to Tommy’s, but no. Time for a new tradition, I thought.
A game had just finished at Dodger Stadium and traffic was a little tense, but we were swimming against that tide, the going not too bad, and we pulled into the driveway a little before midnight.
Of course the entire neighborhood was ensnared in the scents coming out of my, well, Rosalinda’s kitchen, and even Terry’s first remarks were hopeful, but stepping into the house was like stepping into another world. Lighting and furniture: perfect. Pitcher of sangria on the table, fresh citrus floating on top. Candles everywhere, the dining room table almost ablaze with them. It was almost five in the morning for the New Yorker in Terry, yet she came alive in all the sudden attention.
Rosalinda had made a paella with scallops and huge prawns, and just to confound things a bowl of her guacamole adorned the middle of the table, and while I took Terry’s bag back to Maddie’s room she settled in, with the girls passing snacks and wine while Terry looked around in a daze.
Unable to drink anything but water these days, I sat back in a fat chair in the living room and watched the night unfold like some kind of lorded paterfamilias, and within an hour it was apparent that Bettina and Terry had suddenly become something like, well, if not sisters then really good friends.
And that was the last thing I remembered.
I woke up at six, feet up on an ottoman, a blanket tucked neatly under my chin.
The house was, of course, spotless.
I showered and was gone before Terry woke, and when I came back a little before noon she was still unconscious. Rosalinda came in after three and Terry was still snoring away, so she filled me in on the parts I missed.
Terry put down most of the sangria in short order, after I conked out, then put down a six-pack of beer and was rummaging around for the hard stuff when Rosalinda stepped in and pumped the brakes. The three girls talked until four or so, then Terry started crying and Rosalinda sent the girls away.
They talked some more after that, until Terry began running out of steam, then Rosalinda helped my little girl to bed. Interesting conversation, too, I think.
Because Rosalinda now knew the lay of the land. The contours of my existence a priori, I think you could say. She finally knew the other Brenda, our backstory, and Terry’s and Michael’s, too. She learned what it was like to grow up with an airline pilot as father, all the nights away, the big events missed. What my son was like. Why I couldn’t talk about him. Even what my parents were like, too. All the million things I’d turned my back on and walked away from.
Rosalinda was always a good listener, an empath full of compassion – a rare combination – and by the time the evening was done she knew what was bugging Terry, what my girl had come searching for.
“And that is?”
“A job, here in LA. Someplace where you’ll be about ten minutes when she needs you. Which will be often,” Rosalinda added. Then she scowled a little – always a bad thing – and she looked at me: “You should not have left her so suddenly.”
“I know, but I…”
“See her, and you see your wife.”
“Yes, but I…”
“Had to get away from the memories.”
“I know, but I…”
“Have yet to grow up, face the responsibilities of being a father. You had your job as an excuse, but now you are free of that. Well, the bill has just come, and it is now past due.”
“So, what do I…”
“I have an interview set up with Oncology on Monday morning. Now the job is to get some food down her, pack a few pounds on her between now and then.”
Terry, for her part, took the position at County SC. I helped her put some money down on a downtown loft, too. About ten minutes away, on an average day, I think.
Need I say more?
That summer was loaded with divergent dichotomies, more than a little cognitive dissonance, but it passed by so fast.
Terry, moving cross country for the first time. Helping her settle in, learn the ropes of this strange city. I took her to Tommy’s of course, then had to explain, for the next several hours, why her stomach was rumbling like a volcano. And that it was not necessary to apologize, just roll down your window, please, and let the air sweep it out…
PJ.? Where do I begin? When would it end? She and Judd, on the ropes within weeks. Then we found out she had stopped taking her meds and a whole new struggle began. Got her back on medication and she evened out again, but that’s when we learned a hard truth. Many psych patients don’t like their meds. They devise all kinds of weird ways to stop taking them and not talk about it – until the cake blows up in the oven. Judd loved her, I mean the real deal, and he wasn’t about to give up the fight, but it went deeper than that.
She came home on her bad days, went into the parent’s old bedroom and sometimes she’d just sit there, looking at the corner where Dad’s bed used to be. When I found her on those days I’d load her up in the Porsche and we’d drive out Sunset and go sit on the rocks above the surf, listen to the seagulls before heading in on Beverly, stopping off at Tommy’s for an order of memory with chili and cheese on top.
Maybe the biggest deal that summer came along in the middle of August, on a cool Saturday morning at the airport in Van Nuys. The girls took turns pre-flighting my Cessna, then, after our obligatory coin-toss, Becky saddled up and taxied out to the active. I stood there with Judd and PJ, Judd’s ex, too, a cute thing named Candy, and of course Rosalinda and Bettina were there, Terry too, and we watched Becky make her dash down the runway, lift up and fly a long, extended base, then settle in for a gracious landing. She taxied back to us and shut her down, and after she’d grasped the significance of the moment she bolted out the door and ran – right into my arms.
“You’re a pilot now, Becky,” I whispered in her ear. “And I’m so proud of you.”
Bettina was next of course, and I held Rosalinda’s shaking hands as her daughter charged the runway, and I looked at her up there, so proud of her – proud like a father, maybe like her father would have been – when she turned on final and the landing light popped on. My fingers were shadowing hers, I was feeling my solo again for the first time on a long time. I watched her landing with something more than pride in my eyes, too. I loved her, simple as that. When I turned and saw Rosalinda’s tears, she reached up and wiped a few off my face, too.
Flying was far from over in the little house on Academy Road. Classes were still held every Tuesday and Thursday evening from six ‘til nine – and for the next four years, too. I took them through their instrument and multi-engine ratings, let them use 6-8 Romeo to build hours and hone skills, then they got their instructors tickets. Too soon they graduated from UCLA and both were soon gone, following in my footsteps one more time, both of them into the Navy. Both of them, in time, pilots.
One more thing happened that summer. Rosalinda and I drove up to Vegas after the girls started school, and we tied the knot, made it official. Strange too, telling Bettina that next week she could call me Dad now.
She smiled, told me she had been for a while, if only to herself.
But of course, I’m thinking you knew that already.
Terry took it well. Better than expected, anyway. She had a sister, finally, and that cushioned the blow.
After a certain age, getting old is funny. Like a series unexpected, not to mention unwanted compromises sneak up on you at all the wrong times. Maybe we should expect the unexpected that attends aging, yet getting old is something relatively new for our species. Some people did indeed live to old age even thousands of years ago, but for all our history it’s been a relatively recent development – and I think that’s why most people are blindsided by the changes.
First, things start to break, things like bones, but then maybe your hearing or sight starts to fade, yet I soon figured out that the real killer is losing your sense of humor. If that breaks down you’re screwed, because all the rest barreling down on you soon becomes unendurable. Think of it this way: no one likes a sore loser, and you’re going to lose this one, one way or another. This thing called life…and no matter how well you take care of that meat and bones sack thingy that holds your brain, it will stop working the way you expect it to one day.
Before that day rolls around things are going to start to hurt. All those broken bones in high school, when you were growing up? Yup, they’re gonna hurt. The time you fell and twisted your ankle? Yup, that too. Then the real fun starts. The colonoscopies. The prostate exams or the PAP smears. Maybe a mitral valve will fail or your arteries will clog, or this or that and on and on. All those medical specialties in the hospital? They each represent the myriad ways we can take on our way out of this life, and your options are almost unlimited, too.
I had two other sisters and I’ve not mentioned them as both checked-out early. Deirdre in an automobile accident when she was seventeen, and Stacy, of uterine cancer at thirty. And then there was Michael, in Afghanistan. My parents and Brenda. You get used to the idea as the years roll by, that this is a one way trip and no one gets out alive, but that’s not the point. It’s the time between birth and light’s out that matters, assuming anything at all really matters.
Judd came home one day and found PJ curled up in her favorite chair, only she had breathing. No warning, just gone. She’d had a stroke of some sort, an aneurism up there somewhere, and it was lights out. Nothing dramatic until the funeral, then all kinds of drama.
Rosalinda prepared one of her massive blowouts that night, and all our friends came over a few hours after the services, including half the LAPD, and I cooked steaks out back, just like my dad and I used to. By the way, did I tell you about that?
It was a ritual, Dad and I, cooking steaks. Ever since I was a spud.
Twice a year he bought a side of beef, literally – half a cow – and twice a year we got a load of steaks wrapped in white butcher paper, ground beef, sausages and ribs – half a cows worth all packed into a chest-style freezer he had in the garage. Mom made a huge salad and cottage fried potatoes, and the night before Dad whipped up his marinade, and pay attention here, ‘cause I’m going to pass on his recipe.
In a two cup measuring cup, put about a cup of catsup in, then around a half cup of plain yellow mustard, add a hefty dash of Worcestershire sauce, a splash of soy sauce, a dash or two of Tabasco, some garlic, a pinch of cumin and, to top it all off, an ounce or two of bourbon – in a pinch, whiskey. He had this little bare metal skillet he used to simmer this concoction in, reduce it to a thick sauce over low heat, then he added a little more bourbon and lime juice, salt and fresh cracked pepper and stirred it until well mixed. He’d take six steaks and rub that sauce all over them, wrap ‘em up and stick ‘em back in the ‘fridge ’til cooking time.
When it was time to cook he got his fire going super hot, to cook down the charcoal, and once he had a good bed of coals he’d toss a couple of stumpy cubes of wet mesquite wood on the coals, then toss the steaks on.
After PJs services I cooked forty New York strip steaks just like that, and I’d like to think she would have appreciated the gesture. She rarely ate meat – unless I was doing up ‘steaks a la Dad,’ at which point she became a ravenous carnivore. I had the same old metal skillet, the same recipe, the same brick and mortar Bar-B-Q we’d built in the back yard, and the results were – the same. Rosalinda, however, did not make potatoes and salad. Heaven forbid. Two paellas, enchiladas, empanadas, taquitos and enough guacamole to feed four hundred people. I charcoaled some flank steak and chicken and she made fajitas – as snacks before the main event! Judd called all the local patrol officers over for dinner, and they drifted in one by one, giving me a new perspective on how popular she’d become with all his friends in the department.
Of course Becky was there, Bettina too. Becky, still in the Navy, still flying, and Bettina now with, gulp, United, flying 777s from Houston to London twice a week. She told me she was engaged that night, to a flight attendant of all things. A nice guy who was trying to get into med school, flying to make ends meet when they collided. Becky? Devastated, in the end closer to PJ than she had been to her biological mother, but more than that, she told me: PJ was her best friend that last year in high school, when we started flying together, another thing I never knew.
That’s another thing about getting on in years. You start to learn where all the bones are buried, where all the skeletons have been hiding, but in truth I think I found they’d always been there, hiding in plain sight, waiting for me to get smart enough to figure it all out.
Judd gave me all PJs diaries; little books she’d kept under lock and key since high school. All of it, the cause of all her anxieties laid out in nauseating detail. Her fights with Dad, the guilt my mother laid on her doorstep, how she looked up to me – yet hated my guts because I was the boy and so got all the good time with Dad. I read through them one night a few weeks later and I was stunned to realize how central to all our lives my father had been, yet how peripheral Mother had been. He dominated everything about our lives while she remained in the background, he was always the main course while she kept to the shadows, making her salads and potatoes. And PJs sketches of my mother revealed a troubled soul. Kind of mean, a borderline alcoholic by the time PJ was in high school, the classic portrait of a woman who could have, and should have done so much more. She was a woman who chose to remain at home and raise her kids, probably because her mother had too, and she saw no way out of the deal.
There is a little attic space in the house, and I hadn’t been up there in years, yet I found references to a box PJ had put up there buried in her diary. She’d labeled it ‘Mom’s stuff’ after we cleaned up the house, after Mom’s funeral, yet I’d never seen PJ do it. We’d always kept some stuff up there, things like Christmas tree lights and ornaments, things we didn’t use often, and I didn’t think there was much else up there, so this came as a surprise.
And so I crawled up there one day, flashlight in hand, and I tripped and stumbled my way around the rafters until I found PJs scribbling on a dried out box, and I carried it downstairs to my flight training classroom, opened it up like an explosive ordnance technician might open a suspect suitcase. Pictures and lots of academic transcripts lay on top, some of the things she’d written in high school and in college under that layer.
I picked up the photographs first, most in black and white, though a few were color prints – and those had faded badly in the attic’s heat. Yet one thing was immediately clear: my mother had been a babe. Runner up in a Miss Pasadena contest, 1938, images of her on bandstands at a county fair, images of a sort of vitality that seems forgotten these days. Report cards, from first grade through high school. All As, not one B, not in any subject, over twelve years. Her transcripts from USC, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, top of her class, an English major. Her senior dissertation, on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Transcripts from work towards her Master’s degree, said work cut off abruptly two months before I was born. Never resumed.
I carried her dissertation to bed that night and read it, all 117 pages of it. I didn’t understand half the things she wrote about – she was so far over my head I felt like a dullard – but I learned enough to understand that I’d never known her in the least. She was this dull creature who kept to the shadows, right? Who made salads and cottage fried potatoes while Dad designed airplanes that carried movie stars around the world.
Madeline moved back in a few months later, after her husband passed, and we stayed up nights talking about mother a lot after that. My surprise was a surprise to Maddie, because she’d known mother quite well. Mother was also, I’d never known, an accomplished pianist, yet father didn’t think that warranted buying a piano, which had devastated her. All kinds of little contests of the will played out between them during our childhood, too, and I ended up with this image of my mother as someone my father had slowly worn down over the years, beaten in a war of attrition, and as father wanted nothing more than a son to follow in his footsteps I got all his attention. The girls got the leftovers, maybe a little more after I left the house to go to USC, yet what struck me was how much the girls wanted time with him. It had to be obvious to him, yet he never relented, never spent much time with them, and I had to wonder why.
I found her diary in the bottom of that box, wrapped in brown paper, bound tightly with old shipping twine – like there were secrets inside she couldn’t quite get up the nerve to destroy – and I thought long and hard about cutting those cords, releasing her memories. I fixed myself a glass of iced tea and went to the living room, sat in the light, hoping to find resolution in her wanderings.
It’s a remarkable document, a chronicle of her times as much as it is about her life. Starting at age fourteen, she wrote a new chapter once a year, on her birthday. She recorded the most important things of the past year, both in her immediate life and the momentous happenings in the world around her. And she loved to write, apparently. She wrote beautifully, too, in handwriting so shatteringly clear, in prose so lucid there was no way you couldn’t see the point she driving home.
Growing up in the 30s, destitute lives all around her, the glamour of Hollywood just a few miles down the road. December, 1941 was important to her not because of events in Hawaii, rather because of a movie that came out just days before – Sullivan’s Travels – which at first seemed to sum up her experience of the Depression. Her own divergent dichotomies, if you will. Stranger still and unknown to everyone in the family, or so I thought, she had been one of five actresses to audition for the role Veronica Lake played in that movie.
My mother? An actress? This was news to me, so I read through her undergrad transcripts again. I found the classes in drama, more classes in stage and film production. Oblique references to casting calls at Paramount and MGM. All news to me, so I asked Maddie.
“Did you know about all this?
“I had no idea.”
“You were never close to her.”
“That’s not true.”
“She was my mother. Of course I was close to her.”
“Is that why all those years you sent Dad birthday cards, but never one to her?”
I didn’t have a pithy comeback ready for that one, did I?
“Father didn’t want her acting,” Maddie told me with an air of finality, and I guess that really was that. She loved my father, and the idea of having a family, more than she was willing to entertain the notion of striking out on her own. And Rosalinda listened to that exchange with a world-weary, all-knowing glaze in her eyes, like yes, she too knew all there was to know about men and Hollywood, and how choices were narrowed and narrowed until there was little left beyond the burned our shell left by compromise and compliance.
There were more surprises in that box, more cause for introspective analysis and a sense of how thoroughly I’d betrayed my mother, but in the end it felt like some sort of choice had been demanded of me, some forced oath of fealty that I never understood. Some oblique choice very early on. Like I could be either my father’s son or my mama’s boy, and that was the divergent dichotomy that stumped me. Probably the first choice life threw at me, yet even so one I just couldn’t remember anything about it. Maybe the choice was lost in a haze of unconscious denial or, more likely still, lost in some obscure coding sequence in my Y-chromosomes; if so, whatever ‘it’ was had forced me to grow up almost completely cut off from my mother.
Yet a few days later Maddie had one more insight to share, one more bombshell to toss my way.
“I was thinking about it after the other night, and I remembered something she told me once. She said something like she resented you from the first because she’d wanted a girl, someone who could help her stand up to Dad.”
Rosalinda was working in the kitchen just then but she heard those words and froze. Like some cosmic tumbler had just slipped and fallen into place.
Then she turned to Maddie.
“And you just now thought of this?” she said. “This most important thing? Do you want to torture your brother, too? Like all of you tortured your father?”
And Rosalinda ran out of the kitchen. Maddie sat and wept for a while.
Families are complicated things. Dangerous, too, if not handled carefully. Like marriages, families can swiftly move from beneficial love-love relationships into uncharted love-hate toxicity, and I was left reeling in unseen implications after that revelation. Like: when had my mother’s resentment settled in to roost? When she first picked me up and held me? When I suckled at her breast the first time? And had father seen her reaction and stepped-in, tried to intervene? Only to make things worse, to drive her to new extremities?
I reread her diaries after that and the most obvious things stood out now. No mention of me over the years – until I graduated high school.
Then, the only significant words about me in all her writings: “He’s gone now.”
Was that a sigh of relief, or an admission of failure?
What had I been to her? Why had all my sisters wanted attention from my father, attention he was unwilling to give them? Had my mother’s resentment of me fueled his resentment? Not only towards his wife, but his daughters, too?
Is that why PJ made her way to my doorstep in San Francisco? Why the boundary she saw between us was so amorphous, or is polymorphous a better choice? PJ always seemed in a state of flux, pulled by different tidal flows. Had she been caught up in the ongoing drama between mother and father and been unable to pull free? Or had her biochemical imbalances predisposed her to a kind of schizoid break – like manic she took Dad’s side, then depressive she recoiled to Mother’s point of view. If so, I don’t know how she survived.
The point is, I think, she didn’t. Not well enough to break free of those flows, certainly not well enough to stand on her own as an adult. Not until Judd came along and helped her over the bridge, to walk free of the tides to the other side.
Yet now I had to ask myself one last question.
Had those tides affected all of us? And how? Did the difference between PJ and myself reside solely in some obscure coding, or had something else been put in place to get me through?
Had the walls she placed between the two of us actually served to protect me?
Odd, I thought. Kind of ironic, too, in a ‘what if’ kind of way, because pretty soon I realized there were no answers in these speculations, just all sorts of new, unexpected doubts. Casting memory in these new lights did little to settle the matter, did nothing to ease my mind, because I didn’t want or need to redefine my existence, my relationship with either of my parents, or PJ. They were gone now. Even Brenda and Michael – gone. Why redefine these things? Why not let the dead have their rest?
I remember reading an article about that time, something about astronomy. About galaxies colliding. About how those huge spiral bands interact in such collisions. With all the vast distances between stars still in play, stars within the galactic bands of each galaxy could avoid collision when two galaxies ‘collide’ – or there could massive, devastating collisions. Stars could be, literally, ripped apart, their remains set adrift – until, that is, gravity pulls these remnants back together – and new stars are formed. In the endless seas of space, such collisions are more common than you might expect, too.
And maybe families are like that, I thought.
Random collisions tear us apart, and in the aftermath we reform in other, more comfortable gravities.
We had a big coming together when Bettina got married, not quite a collision but we had our moments. She’d met this big, garrulous Texan during the ‘meet & greet’ – when your pilot stands by the door as you deplane – and they’d sparked a wildfire and took off from there. Scott Kelly was working for an oil company, spent all his time flying to Africa and Saudi Arabia, but he wanted to settle down some, maybe have a kid or two – his words, not mine – and Bettina was good with that. Sort of. Really, I didn’t think she wanted to get off the merry-go-round just yet, give up her seniority and so miss making the captain’s list, but where women and biology are concerned I plead ignorance.
I thought maybe we could block off Beverly and have a street party at Tommy’s but Rosalinda wasn’t having any of it, so we settled on a church wedding and a street party centered at my house. Most all the neighbors were up for it, and there was kind of an otherworldly, old world vibe about the whole thing. Everyone, and I mean everyone walked down to the church together, and after we walked back up the festivities began in earnest. Rosalinda had set it up where each house had a little party going down and people wandered from house to house, party to party, with tequila and champagne flowing in surreal abundance. As the sun went down the party moved to the street, and the band played while people danced out there under billions of lights strung up across the street. Bettina and Scott cut the cake out there and a roar went up when they danced, and not long after they cut another rug and took off to the airport to catch a plane headed for some island in the South Pacific. I thought the whole thing looked a little like colliding galaxies, but maybe that was just me.
Things got real quiet around the house after that. Like Rosalinda had seen the page turn once again, and a new, not quite unexpected chapter was about to unfold. I think most wives know this chapter is coming, and this is the one they really don’t want to read.
This is the chapter where their husbands get sick and die.
This part of the story begins with the husband feeling a little too tired, then he experiences a fullness in his lower left gut. He’s no longer interested in eating, too, and she gets really scared after that.
She makes an appointment, because he is, of course, too stubborn to admit anything’s wrong. The appointment is with ‘someone she knows’ – and not his daughter, who is otherwise more than competent to tell him he is experiencing indigestion. She takes him to the appointment because she is sure he will otherwise slip off to a movie and come home four hours later, telling her nothing’s the matter.
Said doctor, a man with tiny hands and sharp, ferret-like eyes, palpates the man’s belly and orders blood work and an MRI. Two hours later they rejoin the doctor in his office, a quiet, windowless room with cozy warm lamps all aglow, and the ferret faced man says something that goes a little like this:
“Welcome to the final chapter of your life. You have pancreatic cancer and you’re going to die real soon. There’s not a goddamn thing we can do about it, so why don’t you go home and figure out how you want to do this.”
I mean, really, I could tell you how he spent the next half hour telling me this, but what’s the point? I’d have appreciated the short and quick over all that florid nonsense any day, but the thing is – Rosalinda was in the room too, and she wasn’t taking this news too well.
She was the one who asked if there was nothing that could be done. No chemo, no immunotherapy?
“Not when it’s this advanced.”
“It’s metastasized. Liver, lungs, throughout the gut.”
Then there was the dreaded: “How long has my husband got?”
“Best guess, six weeks, two months, tops. Maybe less.”
I checked out after that, just sort of shut down and drifted away. If there’d been a window in the room I’d have gone over and stared at all those colliding galaxies, but really, at moment like this things don’t make much sense.
We walked over to Terry’s office after that, without an appointment I guess you’d say, and we told her the news. Well, Rosalinda told her. I just sort of stood there in a foul, mute humor while the words flowed between them, thinking about how I wanted to ‘do this.’
What the fuck did that jack-ass mean? How did I want to do this? I didn’t want anything to do with this. Leave me alone. Go Away. Take your science and shove it up…!
Go out in a blaze of glory, perhaps? Is that what he meant? Or in a haze of morphine? Alone, in hospice, or at home, surrounded by family and friends? Or maybe flee, run into the arms of desperate measures, waiting con-men and other assorted jackals ready to offer comforting do-nothing measures, for a price? My guess was the poor guy had seen it all, had grown bored with charlatans and quacks. He had science to sell, not peace everlasting, and as I presented a no-win scenario he had little to pass along other than science’s absolute benediction: “nothing we can do.” Let the chorus sing it to the angels: “there’s nothing we can do.”
Rosalinda called the girls that night, and we took Terry and Maddie out to dinner after we talked things over. I, of course, asked for soup and took two spoonfuls, and that put a damper on things so I tried to eat more.
And that becomes the metaphor you live with those last few weeks and months of your life. You try to do things so the people you love won’t be too upset by the prolonged ordeal of your passing. You try to slip away, slip out of sight when the ugly things happen.
Rosalinda, on the other hand, cooked.
People, both friends and family, were a constant flood, and Rosalinda fed them all. My death was not going to be a lonely affair, not if she had anything to say about the matter, and things proceeded along nicely, that is to say I went from bad to worse much sooner than anticipated. In fact, I barely made it three weeks.
Maddie was there, of course, to ground me to my past, and Bettina too, holding me fast to a once and certain future, my last dichotomy. Terry stood back, terrified, and Rosalinda held her close, and the last thing I recall was standing out on an airport runway, watching Bettina come in for that first landing of hers. How I watched her turn onto final and settle in the groove, and how she turned on that landing light. How proud I was of her. I watched that light as it grew closer and closer, until there was nothing left but the light…
And then I was in this quiet, dark place, maybe in a rowboat on a lake in the middle of the night. Stars overhead, vast fields of stars. I saw an island ahead and started to row that way, then I saw my mother and father there, and my sisters, too, all of them waving at me, then stars colliding up there in the night, playing such strange music, their shattered light washing over me as I smiled in Rosalinda’s eyes.
© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | fiction, nothing but fiction…just smoke and mirrors here, folks…so move along, move along.
The knights image above is mine, taken inside the Met Museum in NYC. The image of the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies, above, is a NASA image depicting what our night sky may look like 3.75 billion years hence, when our galaxies collide and combine. I’m hoping for ringside seats, too. Be there or be square.
Oh, know what this is? Messier 104, aka The Sombrero Galaxy, a large, edge-on galactic disk. It’s real far away, too, like 29.3 million light years away, and you’ll need a large scope to see detail like this from your backyard (try this one), but I love this Hubble image as it’s crisp enough to resolve some stellar formations, including globular clusters. Yet here’s the deal: look at the image for a while, wikipedia has a high res image, too. Really stare at it, on a large, hi-res monitor. Then let the number 5-800 billion roll around in your head. As in 5-800 billion stars. Thats the estimated number you’re looking at. An upper end estimate is in the 1.2 trillion stars range. Now, go deeper still. The area of the sky you see here is equal to the area of your thumbnail, held roughly at arms length from your face. And in this area of the night sky there are more than 100 galaxies of similar size that you can count – again, in just this one image. M104 is positioned in the south now, near the Virgo cluster of galaxies, to the ‘right’ of the star Spica and just up from the constellation Corvus. In binoculars it shows up as a very faint smudge, while a 4-8 inch scope reveals a bit more structure. In my Takahashi FSQ-106, I can resolve many features seen here in 6-8 hours of combined exposures.