Time, or rather, how one spends it, or wastes it, seems to be a zero-sum game, time being the currency. It’s pretty frustrating that painting season is finally here. Yes, the surf prospects for the Juan de Fuca are not the best. So, I could focus on work. I should. Still, I am trying to cut back the manuscript for “Swamis” to a reasonable length, and, in spare moments, I do long to forget that I have to get a bill in the mail at the local post office in forty-five minutes, have to finish this job and write proposals for that job, have to go look at several more jobs. Errrrrrr.
The guts of this outtake will be included in my latest (third complete) re-write.
CHAPTER FIVE- TUESDAY, MARCH 4, 1969
There were way too many people at our house, too many vehicles parked on our gravel driveway and our mostly brown, mostly Bermuda grass lawn. I was hanging at the big window, looking West. Our best view. Freddy was outside, running between cars with Detective Lawrence Wendall’s son, twelve years old or so. One or the other would jump up and shoot a finger pistol and the other would duck. Both were laughing.
I first saw the yellow Karmann Ghia convertible, its top up, as it approached up the hill from Via de la Valle and stopped at our driveway. Yellow toward red, but muted by earth tones, rather than toward the green. The Sheriff’s deputy who was assigned parking lot duty as a sort of courtesy, leaned in. The car pulled ahead, made a five-point turn at the spot where the foundation for a separate garage had been poured, two-by-sixes and plywood stacked, and parked facing out. Getaway position.
A woman got out, removed her sunglasses, and set them on the dashboard. She was still wearing regular, prescription glasses. She saw me in the window, reached back into the car, took out a black coat and put it on over her sleeveless black dress, that matching her black hose. She had a string of pearls and a string of hippie beads around her neck. She nodded and pulled out a pair of black shoes – “flats,” a woman would say. She put the sunglasses back on and closed the door.
She walked around to the passenger side of the car, took out a 35-millimeter camera with a fairly long lens, aimed it at me in the big window, and took a photo. I didn’t move. She put the camera back on the seat, pulled one of several notepads from the dashboard and through the open window, and walked toward the house – all the while keeping her eyes on the window I was standing in front of, on me.
I had seen her at the burial ceremony, one of only two people there who those that categorize such things, would call black. She had been hanging back with those attendees who were not provided chairs. Front row to the grave.
“Goddamn reporter,” a whisper from behind me had said.
“Negro ‘Free Press’ Hippie slut.” A male voice I didn’t recognize said.
“You meant to say ‘black,’ and she’s not a hippie.”
“Could still be a slut though, huh?”
A voice from the row of chairs behind me, one I did recognize, said, “Brazen, though. Asked me if someone forced Gunny off the road or he was just driving too…” He was shushed when my mother was being led back to her chair. “…too fast.”
It may have been one of the few times I looked around at the mourners – the wake attendees. Not that I focused on who the asshole with the slut comment was.
“There’s no shortage of assholes and ignorance, and ignorant assholes,” my father would have said. “You have to tolerate the assholes… you should ignore the ignorant.”
He said it enough times that I would fill in the “If you can,” and we’d both laugh as if that was possible.
“How is it, Detective Dickson…” I heard the reporter ask one of the two detectives almost leaning on the sideboard between the family room and the kitchen “…that an obviously very experienced driver, in broad daylight, would turn almost ninety degrees from a straight section of highway?”
No answer. “Where was he headed?” No answer. “I checked with your dispatch, and…” She stopped. There would be no answer.
Dickson poured a drink from one of several bottles on the sideboard into one of several glasses lined up there. With his hand wrapped around the bottle, he pointed one finger toward the reporter. An invitation. She shook her head and he took a slug from the bottle. He pulled a paper napkin from a holder on the nearby table, set it on the sideboard, set the drink on the napkin, and turned away.
The reporter turned toward the man next to Dickson.
“How is it, Detective Sergeant Wendall, that hitting a patch of scrub brush and construction… equipment, that that would be enough to kill… someone?”
Wendall, older and taller than Dickson, lit up a cigarette, providing him with an excuse to go through the crowded kitchen and out the back door.
She turned back to Dickson.
“So, why is it the Sheriff’s Department is so reluctant to provide more information? Perhaps an autopsy report?”
“How did you get in here?” Dickson asked. “Miss…?”
“Lee Ransom, North County Free Press. I told the guard I’m a friend of Joe Junior’s. Guess he believed me.”
Dickson, then Lee Ransom, looked over at me. I waved. At her, not at him.
No, I didn’t know her. She was super hip and quite attractive. Her complexion was unblemished. Her hair was almost straight. Her features more European than African. She was black in the same way I was Japanese. But that was me categorizing. I could only justify this because I was categorized. Graded on some degree of whiteness on some sort of color chart.
Yes, I did the same. I graded white people on my ‘white trash’ scale; a Judgment based, admittedly, on how they reacted to me. And, because I’m not a total racist, which category I place a person into is subject to reassignment, if warranted. Humor, particularly satire, was a plus. ‘Tolerant’ condescension was a negative.
Ignore the ignorant, tolerate the tolerant… If you can.
Lee Ransom was obviously pushy enough to get into the wake, to move into our kitchen, a room overfilled with women any categorizer would identify as white. Off white, various shades. She didn’t stay long.
Dickson set the bottle down on a bare patch of the sideboard and pointed to the drink Lee Ransom had declined before. Lee Ransom downed it in one shot and handed Dickson the empty glass. Then she turned and walked towards me, her notebook under her arm. She moved the sunglasses up and into her curly but not kinky (another biased description), black-with-reddish highlights hair, like a headband.
She still had the regular glasses on.
“Lee Ransom,” she said.
“Lee Ransom,” I repeated, “I’ve read your, um, stuff. Thought maybe you’d be…”
“Yes. White, for sure.”
“Well,” she said, “I try to write white.”
High marks for the comment.
Lee Ransom and I stifled laughs. We both looked toward the kitchen where too many women were dealing with too many side dishes. There was laughter. Laughter. There were some quick laughs from the little groups in the living room. Shoulder slaps, stories about my father I had heard too many times.
“Tough but fair.”
“Always figured it out,” that followed by the clinking of glass and a “Gonna miss the bastard.”
Lee Ransom bumped against me and whispered, “I was hoping, actually, to speak to your… mother.”
I shook my head.
Lee Ransom would not be among the women who, one or two at a time, would take a turn entering my parent’s room and closing the door behind them. Two and a half minutes was the average time for condolences, reassurances, and tears, before coming back out and getting a drink or filling a plate at a borrowed table. Joining a conversation already in progress.
Lee Ransom followed me outside. Freddy shot me with his finger pistol and ducked between two cars. When he popped up again, Lee Ransom shot him with two finger guns. He looked at me before he fell back against the next car over.
Lee Ransom and I passed the garage foundation and headed towards the shed; a structure that was complete but unstained and unpainted, plywood with fir battens. I stepped around it, out of sight of the picture windows, and took a pack of Marlboros from the inside pocket of my black suit coat. Handed down from my father, it was, finally, only slightly too big for me.
“My mother called this a barn. She’s since dropped it back down to a stable.”
Lee Ransom lit up a cigarette of her own with a quite feminine lighter, then lit mine.
“Other witnesses have said someone was passing an old bus… the “Jesus Saves” bus… you familiar with it?” I was. I nodded. “So, maybe he, your father, maybe he was… maybe it was… heroic.”
“In a way…”
“My father always said,” I told her, “that the scariest thing he had to deal with, professionally, is, say, a wife beater. Someone in a domestic dispute. They don’t care if they live or die. For a while.” When she looked as if this information was off topic, I asked if she had spoken with the people from the ‘Jesus Saves’ bus.
“The woman, Portia, says she was asleep. The man… Julio, Julio Lopez, said there was a line behind the bus. It wasn’t running right and one car passed them. Surfboard on the top. Then another one, a gray car, possibly a foreign car, tried to pass. Someone… your father, in an unmarked car… It was coming… fast. No siren, but lights. Lopez saw that the car couldn’t make it back in, so he hit the brakes and tried to pull over to the right. But there wasn’t enough time. Your dad tried to pull into that construction site. Gravel. Foreman there told me it was like trying to drive on marbles, and your dad was going… fast. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
I gave her an expression I hoped said that I wanted to know more.
“Anyway, the bus, it did go into the ditch on their side. Had to get towed out… later.”
Smoke from our cigarettes combined and was blowing around the shed and toward the house. I lifted the plywood covering a windowless opening and propped it open with the stick on the sill.
“That’s my mom’s horse, Tallulah, in the corral. My mom calls it a paddock. Fancy. Then, she also calls horse shit ‘road apples.’ Or droppings. Also.”
This amused Lee Ransom. That pleased me. We both blew smoke into the empty stall.
“Look, Joseph… I have spoken with your dad. Before. I hung out at the station in Vista, probably way too much. I was always asking him about why the…”
There were pauses. Inhale, speak, blow out smoke; but the reporter talked very quickly.
“No one ever seems to get arrested for the, um… the marijuana in the orchards. The backyard industry. The cash crop. I mean, shit, it’s out there. I can figure out where to buy it, who to… who to buy it from. So, maybe someone should… have the guts to answer me just why the… swear word… my parents taught me not to fucking swear… why these dicks can’t arrest… someone.”
I wasn’t responding.
Lee blinked and reset her calmer expression. “I do some, some meditation.”
“Probably helps, huh?”
“Not so much. I mean, meditation… do any of us really want to know our innermost thoughts?”
Apparently realizing she was talking too quickly again, she took a breath, blew it out fully, and said, “Cleansing breath.” Then she took a drag on her cigarette, held it for a bit, and blew it out slowly. “I worry I might have a dark side.”
She waited for me to laugh. I did, and then she did. We were both laughing.
“Anyway, your dad… he called you Jody.” Short pause. “Oh, you’re not, not, um, fond of it? I get it. He explained it – Marine Corps cadence.”
“Yeah. Jody. The name has… implications. To a Marine, anyway.”
“Yeah. So, um, Joseph? Could you tell me about… that day? What happened, maybe, before?”
“Well… the tow truck driver said, about the scene, that there were lots of cars: Cop cars, an ambulance… He said he saw a Japanese woman down there, down where your dad’s car ended up. How did, uh, how did your mother happen to… get there? I mean, then?”
“That’s it?” I nodded. “Inexplicable as in unexplainable, or as in, you won’t explain it?”
“It could be… both.”
That was unnecessarily rude.
“They took a statement, me, my little brother. Detectives from the Highway Patrol; they had to do the investigating because… law. Sheriff’s Office brought in a new guy to handle it on their end. Langdon. You should know this.” Lee Ransom backed away a bit. “Oh, you do know.”
“Case closed… even though no one has located the driver of the…”
“The gray car. No. Not yet.”
I blew out the smoke from a last long drag on my cigarette, exhaled, watched the smoke until it was gone. I rolled and squeezed the filter until the paper came off. I rolled the filter until it was fluff and dropped that into the stall.
“Field dressing, I think they call it? Or maybe it’s field stripping?”
Lee did the same stripping with what remained of her cigarette and tossed that in the stall.
“Droppings,” I said. “Do you want a quote… from me?”
“I kind of fed you one. ‘Heroic, in a way.’ Okay with you?”
She seemed pleased for a moment.
“Here’s something else – Julio. It’s Chulo. All the surfers call him Chulo. His close friends, from when they were kids, they call him Chulio.”
“No, I’m not one of them. He’s older, he’s a local; and I’m an inland cowboy.”
“It’s, um, a term of, another term of derision.”
Both Lee Ransom and I looked around when Freddy and Wendall’s younger son started having words. Lawrence Wendall, Jr. had joined the game and it was, evidently, the Wendalls against Freddy.
“The way it goes,” I said, looking over enough to cause the older Wendall to back away. “I was never a cowboy in ‘Cowboy and Indians.’”
“My neighborhood… always had one kid trying to be the cowboy. He liked me. I got to be kind of an Annie Oakley,” Lee said, going into a sort of proud, Annie Oakley stance, “Once.”
“I can see it,” I said. “Lee… Annie, Lee Anne Ransom. Pen name. Maybe.”
“Oh,” she said, “If I… yeah, readers would know I’m at least not a white… man.”
We both smiled.
When Lee Ransom and I looked around, Larry Jr. had Freddy pinned against the hood of a car.
We (Lee Ransom, the three kids, and I) shifted our gaze to the front door. A woman pushed out the screen door, stepped two steps down from the deck and onto a concrete pad, a casserole dish in her hands.
“Wendall’s wife,” I said. “Theresa. Separated… I heard.”
Theresa Wendall’s high heels didn’t make the transition from concrete to the Bermuda grass. She started to fall forward. Her hands were moving forward, the casserole dish was moving forward. She dropped to one, then both knees. She had to let go. The dish skittered across the weak version of a suburban lawn.
Lee Ransom moved quickly, dropping to one knee. “Corning Ware,” she said, retrieving the glass lid, placing it back into position. “My mom has one just like it.”
Detective Wendall was, very quickly, out the door and standing beside his wife as several other wake attendees gathered on the porch. Theresa was almost crawling to the dish.
“It’s not my fault,” Theresa Wendall kept saying; “not my fault.”
Wendall crouched next to his wife; one hand on her shoulder. He looked at Lee Ransom. Not unkindly, maybe appreciatively. Lee stood up, backed toward me.
“It’s not broken, mom,” Larry Jr. said, he and Freddy and the younger Wendall kid scooping what looked like lasagna from the grass with their hands, seriously considering putting it back in the Corning Ware dish.
“You can leave it,” I said. “We have some chickens. They’d…” I shouldn’t have looked at Mrs. Wendall. She wanted to scream as well as cry but had to smile. “They’d love it. I had some myself. Good.”
Wendall looked at the reporter and me as he helped Theresa to her feet. His expression was less appreciative, more like embarrassed. I stuck both hands out, palms down, fingers spread, in what I hoped was a ‘not a thing’ gesture. It might have more resembled the ‘safe’ gesture from a baseball umpire.
Lee Ransom was looking at the detective, shaking her head. I took the combination of the movement and the expression to mean, ‘this is off the record.’ She then looked at me with an expression I took as ‘is this a story?’
“No, Terry, it’s not your fault,” Wendall said as Theresa removed her high heels. She handed them to her ex-husband and put one hand on their son as he presented the covered dish. Theresa then let the last of these tears fall, let out a quick laugh, and turned toward the people now gathered at the door. “My special lasagna… with Bermuda grass.”
I did notice at the time, and will note here, my mother was not among the people gathered just outside and at the door. This was a story, but a side story.
Wendall escorted his estranged wife and their two boys to where Mrs. Wendall’s station wagon was parked. They got inside but Wendall didn’t. Freddy went to the window of the back seat. Neither of the Wendall boys looked at him.
Freddy turned, looked at me, laughed, shot both Lee Ransom and me with his finger guns, both hands this time. We both reacted properly to being fake wounded. Or fake killed. Freddy laughed, put his hands in his pocket holsters, and went back to the front porch.
“In Cops and Robbers, Lee Annie Oakley Ransom, I always played Cop.”
Heading down the driveway, Mrs. Wendall waved at Lee Ransom and me, then at the Deputy who had been directing traffic as she passed him. Off duty. He joined Wendall, who had just finished another cigarette, just tossing the butt into the patchy Bermuda grass. Both cops looked at the cigarette, both looked at me. Both headed back toward the back door of my father’s house.
“Where I grew up,” Lee Ransom said, “when I got just a little older, we played Cops and Robbers with real cops.”
I didn’t ask, but she added, “Kid who liked me… want to know?” I did. “He’s fine; up in Sacramento working for some state representative.”
“Sure.” The reporter shook her head, dropped her sunglasses back over her regular glasses. “Yeah. Sure.”