Chapter One

OK so here I am, moving a mountain stone by stone. I’m posting a chapter at a time – note that editing will occur, chapters will merge and change, but I’m posting each one to keep myself accountable. Not sure of the title, but I’m calling it “Land of Fruit and Nuts” for now 😉

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I.

2:40 p.m.        

The funeral parlor smelled sticky sweet. Mid-afternoon sun streamed through windows filmed with lily pollen and oil soap, making the room seem more a gauzy dream of death than the true thing. Humidity from late summer storms made every movement heavy, every scent lingering, every word gummy as it left the mouth.

What Lydia noticed first about the room was the polish on every visible facade. Ornate mahogany columns that held nothing aloft, spindle-legged tables with tiger’s eye tops, oak plank floors that sagged and creaked under years of living and dead weight. The casket. All halo-bright and shining, as if maids had been working all morning to revive the interior. She wondered how a room in a town burdened with desert dirt could sit so gleaming.

Morris Funeral home had been in business in Palm Springs for over 90 years, and was a true relic of desert expansion. Lee and Camille Morris had traveled by wagon from young Los Angeles to seek a monopolistic fortune in preparing and burying the dead in a place where families were not given much choice in the matter. Those were different times, yet the business still stood, fat with bills and coins of the desperate.

Lee Morris III had shepherded her in the kind, mechanical way that was common among funeral directors. He had a soft voice that became  firm as she struggled to make the hard choices. He’d pull a list of prepared responses from memory in order to expedite the meeting.

“You should think about not only what your father would have wanted, but also think about what your guests will want to see when they arrive. I understand these are difficult things to balance.”

Lydia knew Lee was accustomed to doughy widows whose grief allowed them to be pushed in certain directions. He would leaf through catalogues, towering over them with his wide, strong chest, horsey veneers and tanned face so unlike the Uncle Fester or Lurch type one expected. He’d suggest Stargazer Lilies instead of standard Calla. Rich cherry wood instead of oak. A gilded urn. She’d been a pill since day one  because of her ability to see through every gentle murmur of  “what about hydrangeas instead of baby’s breath?” They had gone to high school together, and she had witnessed his more overt attempts at bullying. She was a tough negotiator, and had ground him to dust. She half expected him to blow away when he saw the parlor, splendid for such a low price. But that smell…she didn’t recall that part of the bargain.

She searched the room for the source of the scent, and found it on an end table next to a plump velveteen loveseat. A great ceramic bowl of blonde dates sat in the sun, each one wrinkled and oozing from deep fissures. Of course someone had brought dates. The blondes were among her favorite – small, delicately flavored, not too chewy. Her father had been the first in the Coachella Valley to purchase two blonde date palms, one male and one female, to breed the new varietal. She plucked a handful from the bowl and ate them one by one, spitting pits into her palm and putting them in her pocket. She swallowed the last date and wiped a sticky hand on her polyester dress. Black hid everything, didn’t it?

Since her father’s death , Lydia had reverted to childish thievery and concealment. Pits in her pocket. A pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses stolen from a vendor on the Venice Beach boardwalk. She had even planned to stuff the black dress into her purse at the local Goodwill until she’d seen the eagle-eyed manager looking in her direction. Her heels felt four sizes too big, like she was playing dress-up in her mother’s closet. Still, she kept her face hard as stone as she slid from mourner to mourner, shaking hands and kissing cheeks.

Clusters of guests filled the room. She considered each one an adversary, and observed their strengths and weaknesses. First there were her father’s farm employees – the lithe young men who harvested dates by climbing up ladders built into tree trunks, who flooded the fields once a week, who trimmed and bred and sorted. He was like a father to them all, and their heads hung low as they gathered and spoke in soft Spanish. They were the least of her worries, and could be won over with time.

There were the other date farmers in the region – all the men as wrinkled as their harvest, and their wives just as plump. She recalled sneaking out of her bedroom at night as a child and listening to the Sunday dinner conversation between these men and her father. Sometimes she was caught before the poker games, sometimes she was lucky and would hear them mumble and curse into the night. She could still hear the ice cubes clinking in their highball glasses and the smell of pot roast. Each had varying levels of interest in buying the farm. Each in turn would see her full grown and prepared for battle.

Speaking loudest were the relatives, an assorted box of aunts, uncles, cousins. All were residents of the Inland Empire  – the Yucca Valley clan, the Palm Desert gang. Dirt poor and in the throes of several addictions. Their beaked noses matched their carrion-hungry gazes – each one hoping for a piece of the pie. All she remembered of them were their cars disappearing in the dust after her father had again slipped them cash for this investment or that opportunity that soon rotted on the vine. Unworthy opponents.

She rattled through the rest of the list in her head – the old women who packaged the dates in white tissue and gold boxes (red and green for Christmas, pink for Easter), the distributors who sold the boxes at airport terminals,  the grocery store managers, liquor store owners,  mechanics, the unknown friendly and unfriendly faces. All here for him.

Mike Johnson stood at the outskirts and caught her eye. He was her father’s part-time accountant, and would be reading his will in the evening. He had been a phantom for ten years, fading in and out of view depending on how interested Bill Keats had been on his bank account. Sometimes she wouldn’t hear about Mike for months, then her father would say, matter-of-fact:

“I talked to Mike last week.”

Mike approached and shook her hand with both of his, lowering his head in an awkward bow. He was someone who was only comfortable talking numbers and would startle at common interactions. She’d seen him jump when a waiter asked to take his order.

“I think we need to have a quick talk prior to the reading of the will. It will help prepare you for any surprises.”

“Ok, where can we talk? You’re making me nervous.”

“Lee will let us use his office. Sorry, I don’t mean to make you feel that way.”

Lydia settled into a low armchair across from Mike. He pulled a manila folder from his briefcase and laid paper on the desk in stacks one inch apart. Some were yellowed and printed in dot matrix, others smelled like fresh toner.

“I’m going to explain things in simple terms, and then we can get into some of the more complex issues. The farm was incredibly profitable. It still is. Bill made sure he had people in place to make it run smoothly after he died. The problem here is his personal assets. Given the profitability of the farm and his own expenses, you would assume he was a very wealthy man. Lydia, he had $18,000 in his personal checking account, $3,000 in savings. That’s next to nothing.”

Mike paused and braced  for her reaction, but she had seen this coming and only nodded. As sure as the world spins on its axis, her father was guaranteed to amass and squander a fortune. It happened in uneven seasons, and she measured it in Christmas presents – a limited-edition Barbie in ’92, a foal with red ribbon woven in its mane in ’93, thrift store books and electronics in ’00. A signed card and box of chocolate-covered dates last year.

“There’s also the matter of your grandparents. From what I understand their care at Shady Palms is around $2,000 a month. I’m assuming you’ll want to continue their care?”

“Ok, I have the big picture, so can we wait for the rest of it? I have a lot of bullshit to deal with before the end of the night.”

Mike leaned back and sighed. He saw a bit of Bill in his only daughter.

“Sure. I know you’re a smart woman, so you know this situation will need to be taken care of sooner rather than later. But I understand you have obligations today, so let’s wrap this up.”

She returned to the parlor and the smell again hit her with full force. She knew the dates weren’t some practical joke, but their presence was tragic-comic. She envisioned some kindly neighbor smoothing her go-to funeral attire, applying just the right amount of lipstick as to not seem gauche, hanging a small purse on the crook of her elbow and  buying a bag of blondes from their original Keats Family roadside market. She knew very little of her father’s true wishes, but she knew he would have seen this gift as truly absurd. She carried the bowl across the room and placed it in Lee Morris’s hands.

“Here, have someone set these out for the reception, but get them the hell out of the room.”

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