Life's Rich Pageant Takes a Breather
It was two o'clock Sunday morning when Hazel the Houseboy knocked on the door to the guest bedroom. The timid knocking woke up Lois, who turned over and woke up her husband Joe. There was some kind of commotion out in the side lot. Joe pulled himself out of bed and went out to check on it. After he left, Lois got out of bed herself, put on her slippers and padded down the hallway to wake up her sister Frances. They went out to the kitchen and started loading the coffee maker. The sound of them talking in low voices and using kitchen appliances was enough to wake up their 70-year old mother in the next room. She pulled on her robe and shuffled out into the kitchen, asking them "what's going on out there, anyway?"
Out in the night, Joe followed Hazel through the absolute darkness to the vehicles parked on the high desert hard pack.
Hazel's real name was Allen. Frances' son Jeff brought Hazel to the family gathering, like a pet. He was Australian, and he slept on the couch at Jeff's beach house in San Diego in exchange for house cleaning.
The side doors of Jimmy's big primer-black cargo van were wide open. It looked like an open mouth in the darkness. Jimmy called the van a camper because he could sleep in it. Every one else called it the Black Dog. Joe could see Jimmy's feet framed in the door. Evidently he was lying down.
Jimmy was a paying roommate in the beach house. It was Jimmy who thought up the name Hazel, after the old '70s TV show about the maid who ran the house with a duster in her hand. The name stuck. Nobody called him Allen anymore. Party guests who picked mail off the floor at the beach house had to be reminded who Allen was whenever he got a letter from home.
Jimmy heard the two men approaching the van, their feet scrubbing through the pebbles and dirt. He sat up slowly. He was a sardonic little fuck with fine features and skin the color of a penny after it has been in circulation long enough to lose its shine. He had a spastic colon that was misdiagnosed as Crohn's Disease. Every female who ever saw him commented later on how good looking he was. But seeing him in the Black Dog's driver seat was like spotting Prince riding a motorcycle. Now, sitting in the blackness of the van, he held his left arm against his side like a broken wing.
"Feels the same then, does it?" Hazel asked him.
"No, it got better in the ten minutes you've been gone." Jimmy sneered.
The desert's blank darkness wrapped everything around them and made a perfect backdrop for the giant rhinestone net of stars hanging over them. But they weren't noticing the inherent beauty of the firmament just at that moment.
Joe stood in front of the van and rubbed his grey beard contemplatively. It looked like wolves had been fighting in the tall grass of his hair. Stalks of it stood up un-matted at random points over his bleary eyes. When he spoke, his voice was resigned to his fate as the eventual captain of this disaster. He would have to pull the ship off the rocks, as usual.
"Okay, guys," he sighed, "where're we at?"
Back inside the kitchen, Lois and Florence were listening to their mother perform a preliminary post mortem on the current state of affairs. All three women wore faded flannel robes patterned with the flowery, soft animal prints found on baby blankets.
"It all started with the drinking!" Their mother said with conviction. She wore the fright wig of a three-month-old home perm. She saw no reason to keep herself up. Her husband was long dead and she spent his railroad pension on the grandchildren now.
"I don't know why it is we can't have a family reunion without the children drinking like their lives depended on it."
Her face was as wrinkled as an elephant's ear.
Her daughters sat in chairs on either side of her, drinking their coffee. Born only nine minutes apart, they had never been identical twins but they were starting to look more alike as they aged. Lois' dark hair was graying, starting to look more like Frances' muddy blonde. And gravity was pulling at the skin under their eyes, giving them the same look of exaggerated sadness. They sat like war mothers, listening to a rant as familiar as the Lord's Prayer. They generally agreed with her, but they were less gruff about it.
"It's a wonder more people aren't awake," Lois said, "did you hear the yelling? It sounded like they were trying to kill each other."
What they had heard was the sound of Jimmy screaming in pain as Lois' three sons and their two cousins piled onto him on an improvised football field marked with propane lanterns under the stars. He made the mistake of catching a pass from Hazel.
Out in the dark, Jimmy, Hazel and Joe stood by the Dodge van with the high desert breeze blowing steadily over them. The desert kiln fires everything until it's hardened and alive, or clean and dead. Animals and plants that die there rot quickly away and leave little more than bone or fiber. The desert breeze smells as pure today as it did 10 million years ago. The three men were thinking about less sublime matters. Each of them was aware of what incredible fuck-ups certain persons below the age of fifty were.
"Wellll, I guess we better get you to a hospital," Joe said.
Lois' sons and their cousins had left the crime scene while Hazel was waking Joe. They piled into Jeff's Civic and drove across the freeway. They found the only after-hours bar located within a hundred miles, snuck a twelve-pack in and continued drinking. Most other family members were sound asleep in tents. Alcohol provided a pleasant buffer against the chaos out in the parking lot for more than a few of the slumbering clan. Inside the kitchen, the women were uneasy that they were the only ones awake. They wanted more people to wake up join them in their debate on what went wrong and why.
"Are you sure John didn't wake up?" Lois asked her sister.
"You know he could sleep through Armageddon and the Second Coming combined," Frances replied.
"Maybe we better start some more coffee anyway," Lois said, "and maybe we should make some hot chocolate, too."
"I'll start the hot chocolate," their mother said, and started to brace herself to rise up out of her chair before Frances put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
"You sit there, Mom, you've had enough to do tonight."
These were empty words. Everybody who came to family gatherings knew it was Frances who never sat down. She was always finding a dirty dish to wash, or somebody who looked like they might have cleared enough room to pack in another homemade meat pastry.
She went over and pulled the teakettle off the stove and started filling it with tap water.
The only sound inside the car was the muffled drone of the tires meeting asphalt at high speed. Neither Jimmy nor Joe had any conversation in them. Joe was just focused on staying awake and keeping the car on the road. Jimmy focused on the dull pain of his shoulder, steadily pulsing in his brain. After awhile, the car developed a squeak when it went over a rough patch of road. It was as if the vehicle couldn't stand the tension itself and had to act out and break the silence. Joe made a mental notation of the squeak. He was an actuarial accounts manager for a national insurance corporation. The car was depreciation to him, an appliance that would be replaced when it developed enough defects or logged enough years and miles.
Back inside the kitchen, the women talked about famous injuries in the family history.
"... the same year Nathan cut off the tip of his little finger, remember?" Lois had the best memory.
"Well he probably didn't need the tip of his little finger anyway," her mother snapped, "he never used his hands to work very much"
"He cut it off when he was delivering newspapers?"
"What, was it a really bad paper cut?"
"No mother," Frances replied, "he was working the late shift, baling up papers for delivery. The machine caught his finger and nipped off the tip."
"Oh, that's right. I'm losing more of my mind everyday."
The women were silent for a moment. The sky outside was beginning to lighten up slightly as the sunlight filtered around the curve of the earth. There was no sound from any of the tents pitched out in the scrub brush and hard dirt.
Inside the tent of the hospital linen curtains, the doctor didn't give Jimmy any warning; he didn't want to fight the natural reaction to tense up. He felt for a good grip on Jimmy's upper arm and then suddenly pulled and snapped the shoulder back into its socket. Jimmy wasn't expecting it, and he yelped. The doctor lifted Jimmy's arm to check range of movement, then left the room. Fifteen minutes later, a nurse brought a cheap cloth sling in and fitted it over Jimmy's shoulder. The ride home was tense again. Jimmy was embarrassed by his crying out when the doctor relocated his shoulder. Joe just wanted to go back to bed. The sun was coming up when they pulled off the asphalt onto the dirt road to Frances' and John's lot.
Jimmy got a little sleep. But the Black Dog was a broiler by 9 a.m. He trudged over to the patio and sat down, cradling his shoulder gingerly in the sling and wincing dramatically. He stared balefully at Hazel and the three brothers who had slept a couple hours after returning from the bar. They were drinking beer already. On the other side of the patio wall, Lois and her mother sat at a table in the garage playing Hearts with some of the younger wives. Grandmother looked out at the young people on the patio every time the door opened. She could see them drinking out of beer cans and her eyes narrowed in disgust.
"Even after all that mess last night, they're drinking," she said to her daughter.
Out in the dirt, waves of heat shimmered up off the hard pack. Another hot day. Someone opened a beer on the back patio, and the fizzy pop echoed across the lot. The sun hung in the sky like a fiery lollipop. Nothing moved. Minute hands on wristwatches everywhere poised to jump another click on the dial. On the patio, one of the younger wives started laughing, but stopped when she saw Jimmy staring at her.
Published December 2006