The third chapter takes us back to the family in the car. Actually, the first name for this novel was “Life in a Car,” based upon a cartoon that a friend of mine had drawn. Looking at it now, it’s interesting that with the Lenny narrative, I manage to transition seamlessly, whereas with the family, it’s clunky and episodic. About the only thing I like in this one is the description of the accident. And that is something that I seem to be alone in. But it strikes me as crystal clear. This chapter is also precious — I have such a problem with sentimentality in my fiction! Also: the broken English bothers me somewhat. But it was just something I was around a lot at that time. Regardless, it’s Rick’s story here.
Chapter 3: Grandma
It is hard to say what makes a man attracted to a particular kind of woman. The conventional wisdom was that it was Madison Avenue and that every man most desired Twiggy or her current supermodel equivalent. Certainly, there were few men who would shove the Cosmo cover girl out of his bed but this really had much more to do with impressing friends than with their own desires. It’s like that old joke about the guy who is marooned on an island with Cindy Crawford (at her prime, of course) but is dissatisfied until she pretends to be his best friend Bob. Then the guy perks up and says, “Bob! You’re never gonna believe who I’m fucking!”
Rick never had this problem as he really didn’t have any friends. Sure, there were guys from work and sometimes they’d watch a ballgame and drink a couple of beers. But mostly his life was focused on his family and it had been that way long before he had his own. Sure, he was gruff. He bellowed at the kids and he patiently endured the badgering of Lucinda. But he loved them all, dearly.
Sexually, Lucinda was it. She had light brown skin like a perfect California tan. But Rick hated tans, they made the skin tight and crusted, and after a while, old. Then the tan lines! What man would want strange geometric white areas on his woman’s breast or groin? No, Lucinda was just perfect.
And he liked that she was from Mexico. Truthfully, native born Americans were a bunch of lazy, overpaid whiners. They were always on about how little they made and how the company was raking it in and if only they had the tools… if only. If only they’d stop jabbering and get to work. The Mexicans were always hard working and pleasant. He never did get the idea of the loafing, welfare recipient Mexican. Those must have been second generation, poisoned by the public school exposure to third generation Irish and fourth generation Italians.
The best friend he ever had was Antonio, a foreman at the dump who was a permanent resident but still a citizen of Mexico. They used to get together and watch Mariner games at Rick’s apartment. Antonio would always bring over some kind of weird Mexican beer. He couldn’t just stick with Corona; Rick had grown used to that. No. It had to be Negra Modela or some other beer he couldn’t pronounce.
“What don’t you just buy Bud, Antonio? You’re in America for Christ’s sake.”
“Yeah, Bud’s good. But this, very good.” And he would smile wryly in his self-effacing way. “Why you don’t have a wife, family?”
Antonio was married with a kid on the way within a year of coming over. She was American, Mexican American. Second generation, but Rick didn’t hold this against her. “I don’t meet many women,” Rick replied but he could tell Antonio had something more on his mind.
The whole family stood at gate C6; Rick, Lucinda, and the twins, waiting for Lucinda’s mom flying in from Veracruz. Rick was very worried about this. “We live in a goddamned car! Does she know that? Why doesn’t she get a motel room? That would be okay.”
“It’s fine honey,” she had told him. “She lives in Mexico!”
He guessed that she was trying to be funny, but it just made him more worried. To begin with, this was the first he’d seen of his mother-in-law since the wedding and he did not like the idea of her seeing how well he was providing for her daughter and grandchildren. And then where would they put her? In the trunk?
Lucinda insisted that it would be fine. Her mother too, as much as she understood the situation. The kids, they’d never even seen their grandma. She could have been Bugs Bunny for all they knew. But they were excited to be at the airport.
“Can we have a quarter?” Becky asked, pulling at his pant leg.
“For the phone!” as though it were obvious.
He reached in his pocket and handed her a quarter. “You can’t make a call with that.” The twins scurried away to the row of payphones. Rick looked over at Lucinda who smiled weakly and then looked at the twins. Danny lifted Becky up around the waist so she could insert the quarter. She came down and put the receiver back in place causing the quarter to fall down the inside of the phone. They both giggled as Danny took the quarter out of the return slot.
If only happiness were always that easy, Rick though.
Normally, Rick spent Thanksgiving with his parents in Corvallis. But that year, for some reason they had decided to spend it in Las Vegas as part of some old folk’s tour or whatever. When Antonio heard him talking about this strange turn of events he immediately, eagerly asked Rick to spend the holiday with his family.
“I don’t know. You’ll probably serve burritos or something.”
Antonio assured him that they loved turkey in Mexico and after two days of concentrated assault, Rick agreed. He made it a point to bring a twelve pack of Budweiser in cans to the event.
“You didn’t need to bring beer, I have a case a Tecate!” Antonio said as Rick entered his house for the first time. Antonio led him into the kitchen. “This is my wife Corrina,” he said pointing to the slightly plump dark woman basting the turkey. She looked up and smiled brightly. “This is Rick, and…” he said referring to the petite young Mexican woman standing aside eating salsa with a carrot stick, “this is my youngest sister Lucinda.”
Somehow, Rick and Antonio managed to find themselves in the backyard, each with a Tecate in hand. As Rick remembers, he never did have a Bud that day. “You’ve set me up, Antonio.
“What?” Antonio said bewildered. And then, as if changing the subject, “What you think of Lucinda? She’s no married, you know.”
“That’s a surprise.”
“You no like her?”
“No, no,” Rick took a swig of Tecate. “She’s very pretty, beautiful.”
“Good! I make sure you sit next to her at dinner.”
“No!” But of course he did and privately Rick was glad even if the situation was awkward. She was pretty and she had an open, positive demeanor that contrasted nicely with his calm discontent.
The skyway tunnel gate opened and passengers began trickling out with their brief cases and carry-ons which they tugged along like reluctant dogs. “Danny! Becky!” Lucinda called and pointed to her side. They dutifully obliged just as Rick saw his mother-in-law coming up the tunnel. Actually, “saw” was incorrect; at four foot eleven, she was invisible in the increased flow of departing passengers. But he could hear her.
With the food they serve, Santa Lucinda! You’d be loco to eat it. She always brings her own, or starve. Better to starve a little than die a lot.
Rick knew there was another reason he was dreading this. At best, she was a chatterbox in only one language, a language he didn’t understand. At worst, a chatterbox in two languages like now. When the crowd broke she saw them and yelled, “Lucinda!” Lucinda ran to her and they embraced while the passengers moved aside and past, irritatedly. Suddenly, her mother burst apart from her and widened toward the twins, “El nino! La nina!” And she ran to embrace them almost as quickly as they ran for cover behind their father’s legs. Stymied, she looked up at Rick and laughed, “Senora loca!” she said, “Senora loca!” and hugged him.
Antonio’s whole family was from Veracruz, a gulf port town in the south of Mexico. Lucinda was visiting for a week but he made sure that she stayed long enough to ensnare Rick. He was always talking about her. A couple days later, he came over for the Mariners vs. the Giants, a six pack of Bohemia in hand. “Hey! What you think of my sister?”
“Don’t push, Antonio.”
“You no like her? I think you like her.”
“She’s fine. I like her.” He stumbled. “Really, I don’t even know her.”
“Then know her. I think she like you.”
And it went on that way until Rick asked her to a movie. Before he could blink, he was in a Catholic Church in Veracruz. Now he was in a car, his home, God help him, with his wife and kids and exuberant mother-in-law in the middle of the back seat as they pulled out of PDX.
Lucinda and her mother had been speaking almost hysterically together in Spanish. This presented a problem for Rick. On the one hand, he didn’t know what they were talking about and so could pretend that they were just birds twittering in the background. On the other, forced to speak in English they might say less. He opted for the latter given that he was somewhat interested in knowing what they were saying, at least as long as he didn’t know.
“Mama said we should go out tonight and she’d take care of the kids.”
“No money,” he grunted.
“I give you,” the mother-in-law chimed in eagerly.
“Where would we go? We can’t take the car.”
“We could go to that motel, we haven’t been alone in a month.”
The highway Motel 6 next door to Mel’s Tavern. Sadly, that was a very appealing thought to him. But he hated the idea of begging for money. He already hated having Lucinda’s mom stay with them. “Welcome, Mrs. Valencia, to our wonderful ’65 Bel Air, I mean home.” This was the standard kicker: he wanted to accept the offer but he wanted everyone to think that he was against it, that he was just going along to keep the peace. “What about the kids?” he asked.
“Mama will watch them.”
“But they just met her!”
Rick looked in the read-view mirror. The twins were sleeping on either side of her with their heads resting on each shoulder. “I guess,” he said. “If you really want to.” Lucinda snuggled up next to him and kissed him on the cheek as they drove home down the highway.
They walked across the parking lot, passed the clubhouse and out onto the street, hand in hand like high schoolers in love. They thought they would stop at Mel’s for a drink or two and then check into the motel. This was not exactly a night on the town, even by Greenboro standards, but it was nonetheless a major treat.
It was late afternoon, and a Thursday, so Mel’s was slow, just a couple hard-core old-timers at the bar and a young couple talking slowly, earnestly, quietly at a booth in back. The woman looked up as they entered, she’d been crying. Rick and Lucinda took a booth two up from the young couple.
“Of course I still love you. I always loved you. But God, you’ve really mucked things up.” The woman said.
The bartender called from behind the bar, “We don’t have a waitress, you’ll have to come up here.”
Rick pushed himself up and looked at Lucinda, “What do you want?” She shrugged, whatever was fine.
Rick looked over the bar–there wasn’t much. “Do you have Corona?” The old man closest to him glanced up uninspired.
“In a bottle,” the bartender replied.
“Okay, I’ll have that and a pint of Bud.”
When he returned, the couple’s argument had accelerated. She said, “It’s out of the question.” He said something unintelligible and took her hand gently. She jerked it away. “No,” she said curtly.
“Maybe this isn’t the place for a romantic drink,” Rick whispered and set the Corona bottle in front of Lucinda.
She bent towards him, “He wants her back and she don’t know. I think she’s hiding something.”
“I’m sorry,” Rick said. She looked back puzzled, so he continued. “That I’m out of work, that we’re homeless, that I’m not providing for my family like I should.”
She grabbed his hand and put it to her face. “Things will get better. I love you.”
The front door burst open and the setting sun filled the room, as two skinny kids practically ran inside. They were maybe 23 but the bartender seemed to know them. The boy went up to the bar and slammed a bill down. The girl kept walking straight back like she was in a hurry for the bathroom.
“Two Henry’s, Ken,” Jason said. Ken started pouring and looked back.
“You’re in a good mood today,” he said.
“Business has been going well.”
The old man turned to him. “Show me that card trick again.”
Jason pulled a deck of cards out of his pants and said, “I’ll show you two.”
Rick turned to look at the back of the bar. The girl wasn’t inside the bathroom but on the phone. She punched a number in and hung up. Then she walked briskly to the bar and kissed the boy on the cheek. The couple in the booth got up, walked gravely to the door, and left.
Lucinda smiled at Rick. “You worry too much,” and then lifted the Corona bottle to her thick red lips and drank.
The payphone at the back of the bar rang startling everyone except the old times who continued their methodical alcohol ingestion. The girl shot up and ran to the phone. “Hi… Rachel… Yeah… Forty minutes! Mel’s… okay, okay.” She slammed the phone back into the cradle and walked dejected back to the bar.
“This shouldn’t be so unusual,” Rick said. “Having a drink, spending a few minutes to ourselves. I’ve got to get a job, any job. Working at Taco Bell would be better than this.”
“It would improve your Spanish,” she smiled. “No. That wouldn’t pay what unemployment does.”
He took a long drink of beer and felt its relaxing charms like a back rub or a hot bath. “I just feel like a failure.”
“You’re no failure.” She reached over and kissed him on the lips. And then again and parting his lips with her tongue, caressing, tender, passionate.
When at last, they separated, Rick blinked his eyes and smiled at Lucinda who smiled angelically back at him. “Maybe we should leave,” he said and finished the last drops of his pint.
Rick waited out front while Lucinda visited the ladies room. Mel’s was on the corner of 12th, a very busy street, almost a highway connecting the southern Portland suburbs, and Macdonald, a minor street but large enough to require a stoplight. The speed limit was 35 but most of the cars speeding down 12th were doing 55. A Datsun pulled up from behind Mel’s on Macdonald and idled at the red light–the young man inside singing along with some unheard song on the radio. A line of cars passed by, a mixture of the rural, suburban, and urban influences: a pearl white Lexus, a red Chevy pickup, line green Tempo, and an old tan AMC Gremlin rattling along. The light turned yellow and the young man in the Datsun put the car into gear. A block away a brand-new white Toyota truck, jacked up high sped along 12th. Behind the wheel, a young white boy, maybe 18, maybe not. Next to him, a young Mexican, probably the same age. They were screaming along but the light just clicked red. They’ll try out those virgin brakes, Rick thought.
The Datsun pulled out across the intersection. The white boy looked at his Mexican friend and laughed, his left arm hanging out the window feeling the cooling evening air. The Datsun was accelerating through the middle of the road when Rick realized how fast the truck was approaching, 75, maybe 80 mph. And the white boy still laughing, his head turned toward his friend. The Datsun driver was oblivious, singing energetically. The Mexican looked forward and screamed, silent in the noise of the traffic. Rick stumbled back against the wall of Mel’s. The white boy looked up dumbly just as he entered the intersection. The truck smashed the back quarter panel of the Datsun; it sounded like thunder. The Datsun spun around, traveling diagonally down 12th. The truck plowed into the ground, flipping over the Datsun and turning sideways onto the driver’s side–grinding to a stop while the Datsun slid past and into a row of trees on the right side of the street.
Silence. The momentary silence before any reaction was possible. The first was the most anguished scream of terror and loss. “Mi amigo!” the Mexican cried from the truck. “Mi amigo!”
Rick ran to the truck, the bottom of the truck, and looked in through the passenger door window. He found the young brown man was sitting on the steering wheel, sobbing. He looked up at Rick pleading, “Mi amigo.” He friend was below him, half fallen out the window, only his waist down visible inside the cab. Rick offered the Mexican boy his hand and pulled him out.
The young man emerged from the Datsun, bleeding from the head, dazed, but otherwise okay. The bartender was the first to reach the door of the tavern. Rick was helping the Mexican, his breath saturated with alcohol, out of the street. He was sobbing and muttering, “Mi amigo.” Rick handed him to Ken, “Give him to my wife, she speaks Spanish.”
The young couple came out of the door. “What happened?” the guy asked.
“An accident,” Rick said heading into the street to rescue the Datsun driver.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Ken yelled.
Rick came to the young Datsun driver who was standing in the middle of the road, staring at the remains of the white boy. The head was a mangled red mess and the torso soaked in blood with tatters of intestine and stomach in a brief line along the asphalt. “No hurry,” Rick yelled back and grabbed the Datsun driver, guiding him across the street.
“Don’t look,” he said as they walked back to the sidewalk.
“Did I do that?” the young man asked.
“No, don’t worry. It wasn’t you.”
When Rick got to the sidewalk, Lucinda was talking to the Mexican boy. He didn’t understand much Spanish but he knew that the kid wasn’t making much sense. He still mostly said, “Mi amigo.” Ken was inside calling for help. The young couple was leaning against the wall smoking and watching. The old-timers were back inside drinking free doubles.
After the police came they took the Mexican and the Datsun driver away for questioning. Rick and Lucinda held each other and watched while the tow-trucks arrived and worked on up-turning the truck. Before long, the police had one lane open and traffic was squeezing past.
Ken came out. “Can I get you two a drink on the house?”
“No, thanks,” Rick said. “I think we’re just going to go home.”
“I understand,” he said. “I really appreciate how you handled the situation.”
“What else could I do?”
A Dodge Dart pulled up in front of Mel’s. The two Mexicans motioned to the young couple who got into the back and the car sped away.
Rick and Lucinda walked the four blocks back to the KOA. The sun had just tipped below the west hills but it was still light. Mrs. Valencia was setting on the hood of the car watching the twins play jacks. She looked up, “Back?”
Rick picked up Becky and Lucinda picked up Danny and they sat on either side of Lucinda’s mom on the hood.
“Yeah,” Rick said. “We’re back.”