|Jim Read and Bob Isaacson at Allan Hancock College Graduation, 2010|
It was 12:54 and Mabel Carver was pushing her oversized cart to the checkout stand at Costco. She was angry at the girl in the frozen food section who was serving free hot olives because she kept fiddling with the olives and didn’t get the samples out in a timely fashion. Mabel made a quick note of the contents in her cart: three bottles of moderately priced California Merlot, a large plastic bag of oranges, two huge slabs of salmon (although she really only wanted one), beef jerky, Viactive to keep it all running through her system smoothly, a bottle of Christian Brothers Brandy, and a bottle of vodka for Gus. Gus. She wasn’t sure if she really liked Gus, but he came around every other evening for a snort and to complain about how the neighborhood had gone to hell. What had she forgotten? The brandy, the only thing she really wanted for herself. She also had a huge bag of coffee beans; she would have been happy with Taster’s Choice instant, but her kids had given her a newfangled coffee bean grinder, and her guilt wouldn’t let her leave it unused.
Gus. What was she going to do about Gus, she wondered, as she slowly wound her way towards the cashier. Gus. Gus. Gus. Gus. If she said his name over and over again, she would always think of a leaky pipe for some reason. Maybe it was the sound. She could see him sitting in her late husband’s La-Z-Boy chair, going on and on about how the next door neighbor’s kids look like they are gangbangers and the guy down the street seems to always have his car up on cinder blocks, doing god knows what to the rusty old Camaro that never seemed to leave the driveway. Gus had obnoxious oil stains all over his own driveway form his own truck overhauls and Easty Ad bargain relics that he had collected over time. Gus clearly thought the two of them had a future, but she had had enough of living with men and their smells and oil stains. What to do with Gus?
She stood, pondering this problem, standing on the cold, grey concrete slab that nowadays seemed to pass for décor. Damn, she thought, her feet felt sore and the cold seemed to penetrate right through her white Costco tennis shoes. Her fingers absent-mindedly ran over the bag of oranges, and she thought for a moment of her childhood. When her father uprooted their family from Iowa one freezing February morning and moved them to the Central Coast of California, she thought she’d been transported to heaven. To her the smell of orange blossoms seemed to signal spring more clearly than any robin, and it seemed like the two orange trees were always blossoming in her back yard. Her late husband had planted them for her, along with trailing jasmine and a climbing rose bush that seemed to explode with flowers every April. Such thoughts seemed to momentarily warm her tired legs.
“I really love to poach the salmon,” the elderly man behind her said, indicating by gesture that both had bought the same thing. He was older than she was, tall, darkly tanned, wearing oversized square photo-grey glass and an immaculate white cap with crossed golf clubs on it perched on top of his white hair. The beak of the cap was white as snow, unlike Gus’ dirty stained one due to his constant work on home improvement projects. This man was wearing searsucker blue pants and what looked to her like white golf shoes, and he had a new-looking, dark blue polo shirt on top. His arms were very thin, but the skin still held the firmness of someone who still had a fairly active lifestyle. “My wife used to love to make salmon before she passed away, but I can’t quite seem to make it like she did. Keep trying though,” he added. “Name’s Tommy.”
Mabel and Tommy stood and talked about what life was like for the recently widowed, finding that they had quite a bit in common. Both of their spouses had passed away in the same month in the same hospital. But they had different doctors. Hers had cancer and his had diabetes. After the cashier finally rang her up and she paid, she looked at Tommy and felt a sudden pang of regret at having to leave him. Tommy seemed to read her mind, saying “would you care to join me for a Costco pretzel and soda?” She jumped at the chance.
“My wife, Janet, she was a heck of cook, really could poach a salmon. She loved to play golf, too. Our dream was to retire to Hawaii and play golf on Maui all year round,” he said. “We could have done it. We’d even put some money down on a retirement condo, but after she passed away, I couldn’t go through with it,” he added.
Mabel and her husband had talked about going to Hawaii for years, but Orrin had hated to fly, so their yearly vacations mostly consisted of going to Laughlin or a bargain hotel in Palm Springs. They loved the warm, balmy desert evenings where they could sit together unspeaking and drink cocktails late into the. The long bouts of thick, cold afternoon fog on the central coast made them retreat indoors at night and watch TV. But in the desert they felt like royalty, or at least celebrities, in a more warm, luxurious world. There was just something special about it.
The two talked for half an hour. She talked about her children, and he talked about his career—something to do with launching commercial weather satellites at Vandenburg., He was excited about how the satellites had changed the way weather was predicted, He tried to explain the technology to her, but she couldn’t follow exactly what he said. He was clearly an engineer of some sort, she guessed. He said he had gone to Dartmouth College after the war and had studied at Cornell on the GI bill. It was as if he had not talked to anyone for a long time. The way Tommy talked to her made her feel alive, though, warm, like a young woman on a patio with a swimming pool in the desert, the red and pink sunset spreading out a against the darkening mountain outcrops. A warm wind lifting her hair off of her shoulders, like a scene from a made for TV movie she had once seen made from one of her favorite romance novels.. She didn’t want it to end, so she refilled her soda so many times that she started to worry that she’d have to go to the bathroom. She was afraid that by the time she’d get back Tommy would disappear. Again, he seemed to read her mind.
“Would you like to come over this afternoon for a drink?” he asked her. “I could really use a second opinion on how to cook the fish,” he added, giving her an excuse to justify going over. What kind of woman wouldn’t be willing to help such an elegant bachelor, obviously in need of some cooking help? “And from where I live, you can really see an amazing sunset, at least if the fog doesn’t come in. The weatherman said it might rain, and there would be high clouds moving in from the west. That would mean no fog.” She agreed to come over at four, so he quickly wrote down his address and phone number on the back of her Costco receipt. She wasn’t surprised to see that he lived in Elkhorn Estates, one of the newer and tonier addresses in town. It was on the south end of town, near open hills with rusty oil derricks sticking up on the low rolling hills. Her hand felt ice-cold as he enfolded it in his own large hands, half-shaking her hand and half holding it to himself. Mabel felt herself blush involuntarily, and she quickly excused herself and headed for the restroom. A few minutes later she found herself waiting in the long line to get outside to the parking lot, where she hoped she might get a glimpse of whatever car Tommy was driving, although she knew deep inside that the odds of spotting him in the huge lot were slim. Children were screaming and young mothers busy chatting as the long line to show your receipt wound towards the door.
“Hurry up,” she thought to herself, as the woman in the red Costco vest at the door whose job it was to match everyone’s receipt to their purchases insisted on gabbing with every fool going out the door. It always made her feel like some sort of criminal to be checked and double-checked like this. Finally, Mabel’s turn arrived, and she thrust the receipt into the gabby girl’s hand, barely pausing as she wheeled her oversized shopping cart into the parking lot. She looked around, but Tommy was nowhere to be found. Every car leaving the lot seemed like a banged up SUV or a midsized Ford, and Mabel was sure Tommy would be driving something more elegant. A strong wind from the south blew papers and sycamore leaves through the vast parking lot. Crowds of people walked back to their parked cars, some carrying new umbrellas. “Oh, well,” she thought to herself, “I’ll see him this afternoon.” She loaded her goods into the back of her Oldsmobile—one young man had the audacity to ask her if she needed help!—and headed home to unpack and get ready for tonight.
As she rolled into the short, uneven concrete stub that served as her driveway, she noticed with relief that Gus’ beat up Ford truck was nowhere to be seen. That was good; she could get herself ready without having to explain to old nosey what she was up to. She was just about sick of Gus, really; everything she did he’d poke his big nose into, asking endless questions. “Where have you been? What’s for dinner? Have you seen my extra set of keys? But no, he wasn’t here now. He was likely immersed in some long overdue plumbing project beneath his sink, she guessed. She wondered why his sink area seemed to smell so badly: there was probably a leak with long forgotten moss-covered Ajax cans and Windex bottles piled under the sink. Gus was right about one thing, she thought. This neighborhood really is going to hell. Bizarre spray-painted tags marked the wall of one of her neighbors, and another neighbor seemed to be conducting an experiment to see how high, and brown, the grass in his yard could become. It wasn’t always like this, she thought. Not when Orrin and I bought in here. It was really different. There were more engineers from the base then. But they had all moved on, moved elsewhere, back to Florida or Vandenberg Village near the country club, or Elk Horn Estates.
When she and Orrin bought the place in 1963 it was a brand new subdivision. She remembered touring the model homes, amazed at the spaciousness of even the 1200 square foot model. The builders called that model “The Love Nest,” and Orrin said that was some kind of sign. Never mind that they had one baby in diapers and another on the way, the place seemed spacious compared to the apartment they had been living in. Looking back, she supposed that Orrin always had been a bit cheap; they could have afforded more than the $65 mortgage payment at the time. Still, it had been a nice neighborhood for the first twenty years that they lived there. Something changed,though, right around the time Reagan first became president. Suddenly extended families started moving in, and the place became a magnet for every other ne’er-do-well in the city. She and Orrin talked about moving out, but then one spring day in 1985 he dropped dead of a heart attack, and any extra money she had would so go to pay for the kids’ education. These last 15 years had been lean ones, and soon she felt like a stranger in her own neighborhood. Except for Gus, she couldn’t name a soul on the block.
What if, she let her mind wander, Tommy took her away from here? Thirty years of scrimping and saving and postponing her dreams had almost left her unable to even conceive such a thing. She’d always thought she deserved better. A lifetime of hard work and never complaining, of suffering foolish men’s dreams and schemes replacing her own had almost drained the life from her, but suddenly something stirred deep within. Tommy would be her knight in shining armor, come to vanquish the near poverty that defined her life. Not just economic poverty, either; the spiritual and intellectual poverty she suffered was worse than having to buy bulk goods from a cavernous warehouse. Tommy was her ticket out of here, her chance to redeem the last quarter of her life. She’d have to act quickly, she thought, with so many pushy old broads in this town. She ran to her index file of recipes, furiously flipping through for anything with Salmon in it.
The next few hours were filled with the kind of primping that she hadn’t done for thirty years. She briefly debated running to the May Company to buy a new outfit, but the month was shaping up to be a tight one and there wasn’t enough time. “I’m like a giddy girl heading to the prom,” she thought, but though she realized her foolishness, she didn’t stop the preparations. It was just like her rationale for buying Lotto tickets whenever the prize got over $20,000,000: somebody’s got to win, she would tell herself as she made a special trip to the liquor store. Somebody’s got to win. At last five o’clock came; she grabbed her purse, her stained and faded salmon recipes and headed for Elkhorn Estates.
Elkhorn Estates had gone up just about the same time as her neighborhood had started going downhill. One of her best friends in the neighborhood had sold her house and moved out there in 1983; Mabel just realized that in nearly 20 years she’d never gone out to see her friend. It was funny the difference a few miles of suburbs made in a friendship sometimes. Why was it just she and Gus? As she nosed her Oldsmobile into the gated estates, she gasped silently at the opulence. In front of the gate she caught a glimpse of a huge mansion with huge Doric Columns in the front; Mabel though them a bit tacky, but she was amazed at the size. Who lives in these houses, she asked herself over and over. She could have sat there all day just gawking at the estates beyond the closed gate, but first she had to get back to the security guard, who was asking her who she was coming to see. A gust of wind from the south moved over the tall eucalyptus trees like a wave of the sea. The guard had a plastic rain cover over his policeman’s hat.
“I’m here to see Tommy…” she trailed off, realizing that she didn’t get his last name. “Wait a second, I’ve got the name in my purse,” she stammered, and started pawing through the salmon recipes, coupons, and breath mints that filled her purse. Where was that Costco receipt, she wondered. She must have had fifteen receipts in her purse, but not one of them was the one that Tommy had scribbled his address on. Like the first blast of cold water in the morning shower it suddenly hit her—in her haste to get out to the parking lot, she hadn’t taken the receipt back from the gabby girl checking receipts.
“Listen, young man,” she said, “Do you know a gentleman named Tommy who lives here?”
“Tommy who, lady, I need a last name,” he answered and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. She tried to describe him, but the guard seemed to have no interest in helping her. Just then a silent black Lexis with gold trim drifted in behind her, waiting to get through the gates. “If you aren’t an invited guest, you’re going to have to turn around now.” The guard added, “ This is one of those gated communities.”
She drove home automatically, barely paying attention to what she was doing. A few spots of rain hit her dusty windshield, but they dried before she got home. It was as if the car had a mind of its own and took her home. Her mind raced through all the possibilities—maybe the girl still had her receipt. Maybe she could go to Costco every Friday around noon and she’s see him again. Maybe she’d go back to Elkhorn Estates tomorrow and there’d be a different guard. Maybe Tommy would hire a detective to find her.
As she pulled into her truncated driveway, she noticed Gus’s truck out by the sidewalk where he always parked it. By now he had his very own oil stain in front of her place. He’d let himself in to her house, and she found him sitting there on the Lay-Z-Boy, sipping a vodka drink and watching the local evening news. “Don’t care what that weather girl says,” he yelled to no one in particular as she walked through the door, “Don’t look to me like there’s gonna be a change in the weather anytime soon. This wind is just a dry heave if you asks me.” He took another sip of his drink. He had been waiting for her to microwave up some Costco dinner. “Those weather satellites of hers don’t know shit. All you gotta to do is look out the damn window to know the goddamn weather. Any fool knows that. Any fool.”