It's So Easy
"I don't wanna go to Gramma's."
"Grandma wants to see you very much."
The words were spoken without conviction, the sentiments weary and tattered. Jake wondered how long this altercation had been going on.
"Well I don't wanna see her." In the rearview mirror he saw Beth shift her gaze from her mother to himself.
"Beth," he said. She looked startled as if she hadn't expected to involve him so easily. "How old is your Grandma?"
"I don't know. Really old." In his peripheral vision he could see a frown gathering on Melanie's face.
"Then if she's really old she'll die in a few years and then you won't ever have to go see her again."
Beth considered this logic--he could see her face in the mirror, concentrating--and was quiet for a few moments. She looked eight or nine, younger than ten for sure. He didn't look over at Melanie. He didn't care really what she thought, he wasn't going to drive for five hours with a complaining brat behind his ear, and if she fired him, that was okay, there were other remodeling jobs. Taking the bridge to Oakland every day was a drag anyway.
But Melanie was quiet. Beth looked at him--she had found his eyes in the rearview mirror--and asked, "where do people go when they die?"
"I don't know. I've never died. Where do you think they go?"
"What's heaven like?"
"There are angels with wings and everybody lives on clouds and plays the harp. So boring!"
"Sounds boring to me too. What do think would be a good heaven?"
Her mouth twisted, to show that she knew all about grownup questions and that one so obvious couldn't entice her to conversation. She stretched and wriggled under her blanket. "This car is so small!"
"When you buy a car, you should buy a really big one."
She shifted her gaze to her mother. "How much more longer?"
Jake answered. "We are one-tenth of the way there, and we've driven for half an hour, so you can figure out how much longer."
Melanie turned in her seat. "Beth, would you like to read one of your books?" Her voice was carefully modulated, not too chirpy. Beth squirmed in her seat without replying. Melanie extracted a book from the satchel at her feet and handed it back. Beth turned the pages slowly and was quiet for a while.
They drove for a couple of hours, down the old Highway 99 instead of the newer Interstate-5 because Melanie's mother lived in Bakersfield. Every ten minutes Beth complained and Jake responded with good-humored logic, sometimes a bit bizarre but it held the girl's attention. And Melanie was mostly quiet, so it worked out well.
South of Chowchilla they stopped for lunch, a little town with one block of stores, some of them boarded up with plywood. A two-story clapboard building with its paint long peeled away held a café on the ground floor, double screen doors swinging out into the street and then inside to a high-ceilinged room filled with the rapid buzz of Spanish, dust motes floating in long columns of sunlight beneath slowly turning fans. The three of them sat at a booth with a Formica tabletop. When the middle-aged waitress came for their order, Melanie didn't look up but mumbled into her menu some words about how they probably didn't have any fresh vegetables right here in the valley where they grew them. The waitress couldn't hear her, so Jake looked up and smiled and asked if she could bring a fresh salad for "la senora, por favor." The waitress laughed at the few Spanish words he threw into his request but was clearly pleased by his attempt.
Beth wanted a chicken burrito and Jake had the same, and he ordered two Mexican sodas, tamarind flavor. There were several families in the cafe, three or four kids in a booth with two or three adults, excited because it was Saturday and the beginning of spring break, a week without school. In the middle of the room were small wooden tables where brown-skinned young men sat on bent wood chairs, drinking beer from long-necked bottles. They wore clean jeans and neatly pressed short-sleeved white shirts and white plastic cowboy hats. They laughed occasionally but were drowned out by the rapid talk of the children.
A young woman came in through the screen door, not much more than a girl, maybe seventeen or eighteen Jake thought. She wore a yellow dress that stopped above her knees and just below the hem a small purse swung from a long strap which wrapped over her shoulder. She went directly to one of the tables in the center and sat down with two young men. They greeted her and began to talk. The men were restless, eager to please, the young girl a little aloof, not showing much in her expressions. Her skin was sallow, the color of yellow pine wood that Jake sometimes used, her nose long and slightly crooked, with flaring nostrils.
Jake turned his attention back to the booth. "It's all very well," Melanie was saying, "to insist on bilingual education, as long as it's a good education, as long as they really learn something." He couldn't remember how this topic had arisen; so often he tuned out when Melanie went into one of her rants.
"It's easy enough," he said, looking across at Melanie and then to Beth at his side. "Have every Anglo kid speak Spanish at school from kindergarten through 12th grade, then in twenty years we'd have a bilingual population."
"That's so simplistic it's not even worth discussing."
"Well, that's my opinion."
She glared at him. "How good is your Spanish?"
"Not good. I can understand a little."
"Have you read Neruda?"
"Pablo Neruda. A great Chilean poet." She quoted a few lines in Spanish. Her accent was okay but he wasn't familiar with most of the words. "He wrote about love, the ecstasy and the disappointment."
Jake grunted and filled his mouth with burrito. One of the men at the center table raised his hat and dried his brow with a blue kerchief, smiling at the young girl in the yellow dress. Beth asked for another soda. When the check came, Melanie analyzed it and laid down some money, then rose and said she was going to find the bathroom. She asked Beth if she needed to go but the girl shook her head wildly.
"We'll meet you outside," Jake called after Melanie. He saw that she had paid exactly for herself and Beth's food, no more, so he added money for his own meal and another few dollars for a tip. Why were rich people so cheap about small things? His father used to answer, "that's why they're rich," whenever he asked that question, and Jake got the joke but was still mystified, as he was so often by other people's behavior.
On the curb he extended a hand to Beth and she took it without looking at him. "We need to stop for gas soon," he told her, "so you can use the bathroom then if you need to." They crossed the street and he unlocked the passenger door and held the seat forward while she scrambled into the back. As he straightened up he saw Melanie stopped about twenty feet away, her mouth open. He followed her gaze across the street, in time to see the young girl in the yellow dress climb a set of wooden stairs at the side of the clapboard building, followed by the sweating man. The building took them in quietly, a dark haven from the broiling sun. The sign over the door read "Hotel" in letters which had long ago been red.
He turned his head back as Melanie turned to look at him, her expression registering first confusion then enlightenment and then something he couldn't identify, perhaps resignation or shock or just concern that Beth might have noticed. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. If Beth had not been so close by he might have spoken, said something to ease the moment. Instead he walked around the front of the truck and unlocked the driver's side, leaving Melanie to walk slowly to her side.
"I want another soda," Beth whined as they accelerated onto the highway. "Those were good."
"You've had enough, Beth. You're going to pee your pants if you're not careful."
Beth glared at her mother. "No, I won't."
"Tell you what," Jake said into the rearview mirror, "on the way back we'll stop here again and you can have another soda then."
But Beth wasn't with them on the way back. Midmorning on the following Monday Jake drove up to the small stucco house in Bakersfield to find three generations of women waiting on the porch. Grandmother was tall and thin and managed to look elegant even though she wore a patched and faded blue dress with a white apron. She had gray hair pulled back in a bun and reminded Jake of a silent film star grown old. She invited him in for coffee.
Melanie was clearly nervous, walked in and out of the kitchen tapping her fingers on her thighs while Jake chatted with Mrs. Agnos, who really had been in movies, only in minor roles that he had never seen. She and her husband had moved out to the valley when they retired. Jake liked her. She looked at you and raised one eyebrow while she listened and her face registered approval or amusement, and often subtle doubt, as if she let your words drift by and heard the inner voice which you stopped at your tongue. He wished for an instant that he had spent the weekend here instead of Los Angeles. Martha had seen immediately that he was lonely and told him so, told him that she couldn't start up with him again, that he would always be a friend but that he had to get on with his life. Through the kitchen window he could see Beth flying back and forth on a wooden swing hanging from a large cottonwood tree.
Jake admired the house, and Mrs. Agnos told him that her late husband had built it, done the rough and finish carpentry, the plumbing and electrical, even the stucco siding. When he accepted a second cup of coffee Melanie went outside and Jake found himself talking about his plans.
"There are a couple of areas in San Francisco, they're slummy right now, but they'll definitely improve. A lot of good old houses, solid Victorians, just neglected."
"And you can do all the work yourself?"
"Mostly. I'm not so good at the electrical. I wish your husband were still here, I'd ask him to help me." He grinned, a little embarrassed in case she thought he was too familiar.
But she returned his smile. "I wish he were here also. There's loose shingles on the roof, rattle all night sometimes."
"That's easy to fix. Sorry we don't have more time here."
"I didn't mean that. You have your own work to do if you're going to get ahead." She offered him more coffee but he waved his palm to indicate no. "I'm glad Melanie knows you. She's always gone for the intellectual type, gurus and professors who don't know their ass from a hole in the ground." Her eyes lit up with a flash of anger. "Excuse my language."
"That's okay." Jake looked her in the eyes because she wanted him to, but he didn't know what else to say. Just then Melanie came back into the house and said it was getting late.
Jake thanked Mrs. Agnos for the coffee and looked around for the bags. Melanie told him that Beth wasn't coming, she had decided to stay with her grandmother for the week. Jake almost asked if he could stay too, and let Melanie take the truck back to Oakland.
Mrs. Agnos offered her hand and then placed her other hand over Jake's knuckles, held him like that for a few seconds. "How nice to meet you," she said before releasing him.
"Nice to meet you, too." Melanie was already outside and he turned to follow her. Grandmother stood on the porch while he loaded Melanie's suitcase.
Beth came around the side of the house. "We're going now, Beth. You be good and listen to what Grandma tells you."
"Bye, Mom." She stopped in front of the truck.
"Goodbye, Beth," said Jake. "See you soon."
The girl scowled. "You promised me a soda."
"Okay, next time." He stood by the driver's door, key in hand. Beth darted forward and hurled herself against him, wrapped her arms around his waist for an instant. Then she unwound herself and ran up onto the porch, where she grabbed grandmother's hand and looked defiantly at him.
Jake gave her a lazy salute and got in the truck. He braced himself for the trip alone with Melanie, but she was quiet at first, so he was able to lose himself in the sights of the valley, brown fields with dust devils whirling over them, and in the distance rounded hills, still green from the winter rains. After about an hour Melanie roused herself and thanked him for how good he had been with Beth on the trip down. That was easy enough, he told her.
"No really, you were great. You were just so calm. You had an answer for everything."
"She just wants attention."
"Don't I know it! Most of the time I feel drained." And she went on to complain about how hard it was to be a single mother, how little help she got from her ex-husband, how her most recent (now ex) boyfriend was a wonderful man but so busy getting his Ph.D. that he didn't have time for anyone. As she drove the conversation to herself, Jake let his attention wander back to the landscape.
"How do you know what to say?" she asked. "Do you have kids?"
He was startled out of his reverie and flattered that she wanted to know anything personal about him. "No, no kids. I'm not married."
"Well, you should be. You're good with kids."
Her directive was an affront, heavy feet tramping in his dreams. "There'll be time for that. Right now I'm too busy working."
"It's hard to get ahead, isn't it? Next year I'm going to have to go back to full-time work. I've only been working half-time because of Beth, until she gets more comfortable with the divorce." She anticipated his question. "I only have enough money to fix up the house because of the divorce settlement. I have to keep it in good shape. It's my only asset." Jake nodded. So that explained why she was willing to share the drive in a battered pickup, she needed to save money also.
They stopped for dinner in a different small town, where the waitress and the few patrons in the restaurant were Anglo. Melanie was preoccupied. She asked him a few questions about her house, when he might be finished with the repairs, and what he thought about adding a room; but mostly she stared at her plate and was quiet. Jake looked at her carefully while she was busy with her food and decided that thoughtfulness added character to her plain broad face.
When they came out of the restaurant, the sun had just slipped behind the western mountains, leaving the peaks sharply outlined in deep gray. Above the horizon the sky glowed a rich apricot, and a few wisps of white cloud, edged with lavender, hung in the bright blue, now beginning to darken. Melanie grabbed Jake by the wrist and stopped him in the middle of the street. For long moments the rich colors hung in the sky, unchanging, as if the world itself hesitated. Then the hues slowly deepened. Jake felt engulfed, suffused by the thickening light, by the still, humid air. No car moved, no leaf stirred, even the birds were quiet, and they looked on in silence until the western sky turned a fiery red. Melanie let go of Jake's wrist and he felt like taking her hand but she walked forward at that moment.
Some of the oncoming cars had their lights on. Jake turned on his lights and tried to remember if he had a beer in the refrigerator at his flat in San Francisco. When it was almost completely dark outside Melanie leaned forward in her seat, far enough so that her head was between her knees and her long hair fell forward onto the floor. At the same time she put her left hand on his thigh, as if to steady herself. He thought she was sick, about to throw up. "Do you want me to pull over? Are you okay?"
"I'm all right. Just go." She stayed in her awkward position for a long time without moving and her breathing was normal. Her hand felt leaden on his thigh. When they passed through the lights of a roadside business he could see at the edge of her sleeveless blouse the white strap of a camisole glistening against her olive skin. A twinge of desire ran along his veins.
He didn't know what else to say. He was relieved when he got on the freeway and was heading up the east side of the bay. Eventually she retrieved her hand and raised her head, looking not at him but at the road ahead.
"Why are you going this way?"
"This is the way to Oakland. Your house."
"Aren't you taking me to your house?"
Then Jake understood her long silence, holding her head between her knees while she felt her blood draining away, while she made her decision. "You don't want to go to your house?" He felt dense, practically repeating her words, but he was stalling, not answering her directly, trying to understand what she included in her bold question. It was easy to be tempted.
"My old boyfriend is there. He's been house-sitting. I mean, I let him stay there so he could work on his thesis." Jake thought perhaps the boyfriend was not so ex, otherwise why not just tell him thank you and goodbye; but he said nothing because he had figured out by now that for Melanie it couldn't be that simple, and that, as he was soon to know even more fully, she invited complications into her life.
"If I go home I'll probably sleep with him." She squirmed deeper into her seat but didn't turn her head, still looked at the road. "I'd rather go to your house and sleep with you." His groin tingled, awakening from a long sleep. She made it sound simple, not a passion, just a way to escape an awkward situation. He didn't have to pretend. "But now," she said, "we're going the wrong way."
"It's easy enough. We'll just go over the Bay Bridge." He looked in the rear view mirror to see how close behind the traffic was, changed lanes, then turned and gave her a smile. She twisted her head a little to return the smile, then blinked, sighed loudly, and turned again to look at the road.
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