Nothing but a number

In approximately 40 minutes, I will be 30 years old. After months of unnecessary dread, I have come to peace with the unrelenting march of time and…oh to hell with it. Here’s the deal – I figured the best way to mark the occasion was to post the completed, edited Part One of my novella. In just a few short months I’ve grown from a woman with lots of ideas in her head to a writer with lots of words put to paper. I am incredibly proud of the body of work I’ve created in such a short time, and look forward to a lifetime of creation. So here it is, giving the ol’ “fuck you” to 30. Time to feed the beast!

Part One

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 could sit so gleaming in  Indio, California, a place burdened with desert dirt.

Mourners flattered her father.

“So peaceful.”

“Such a wonderful job”

“Looks so healthy, you wouldn’t think…”

The word “compressed” came to mind. Like he’d once been buoyant, but someone had applied gentle pressure that let his air seep out. Had she not already suspected the origin of the sweet smell, she would have guessed that the summer sun was bringing his unholy fragrance to her nose. But an opossum had once died in the basement of her college apartment, and the smell of death was an unforgettable, unmistakable thing that was absent today.

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! 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 them from her father’s original Keats Co. roadside market. The blondes were among Lydia’s 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, and 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 jacket pocket. She swallowed the last date and wiped a sticky hand on her polyester dress.

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.

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 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.

For the past three days, 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 around. He would leaf through catalogues, towering over them with his linebacker 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. Her tough negotiations had ground him to dust, and she half expected him to blow away when he saw the parlor, splendid for such a low price.

Clusters of guests filled the room. She considered each clique 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. The eldest among them remembered Lydia as a child, and called her by her nickname, “La Chiquita.”

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 and sent to bed before the poker games, but 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 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 in 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,” and she knew a financial storm was brewing.

He approached and shook her hand with both of his, lowering his head in an awkward bow. Mike was someone who was only comfortable talking numbers and would startle at common interactions. The funeral setting had made him white as a sheet, and his eyes darted around the room as he spoke.

“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 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 Hundred 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.

“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 had become tragi-comic given the news she’d received. 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 fuck out of the room.”

4:05p.m.

Lydia couldn’t help but stare at the struggle unfolding three seats to her right. Sam Baker, personnel manager at the farm, fighting to contain his bowels during the service. He was a glutton, and found roomy Dickies overalls the best possible solution to a gut he refused to tame. She  recognized the signs of discomfort – gentle shifting in his seat, followed by more pronounced changes in leg and torso position. Then came the sweat, pouring down his forehead and into the concave of his cheeks. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped down his face, rested an elbow on his thigh and grimaced as he released an exasperated sigh. She wondered if a pair of shit-filled underwear warranted a 10% discount in services from the Morris family.

What an odd, sad contrast to bear witness to. As distasteful as it was to discuss in polite company, the inner workings of the colon were a sure sign that you were alive. As with any well-planned building, the body needed a clearly lit exit. Lydia had a strong suspicion that revealing these truths would not ease Sam’s mind as his body worked with vigor to guarantee public embarrassment. Then, just as his face had transitioned from Roma tomato to Japanese eggplant, his wife Eleanor took his hand and with careful steps walked him towards the restroom.

Her father’s service was fast becoming a roast, with some guests ready to fill the roles of naughty jokesters. Carter Lambert, the owner of CL’s Liquor, recounted an incident in which Bill was short on cash, walked to his car, and returned with a deluxe box of Medjool dates, wrapped in ribbon like instant barter. Norm Schilling, owner of Schilling’s Dates, recalled Bill’s frequent poker game losses and biggest wins, and how his superstitious nature led him to prepare the same drink for each occasion, a double rye with two ice cubes. What the attendees saw as tender anecdotes, Lydia now saw as pathetic examples of a man lost at sea. Cash-strapped. Barter. Gamble. Loss. Fortune.

She noticed that someone had woven orange fans of date branches among the roses and ivy resting on the casket. Irony was forgotten here. It had been a late afternoon harvest, her father restless and bored. Feeling confident in his body, all thin, dark skin and smooth muscle, he climbed a date palm by himself to get the blood flowing after a disheartening, sweltering day in his office. Witnesses said that one moment he had been pulling himself up the ladder and the next he was out of sight.  They found him on the baked earth, head twisted and arms splayed in grotesque directions like the bones of a long-extinct bird.

Lydia grew up thinking a lot about death, and the absurd ways people died. She would read a news story about a family of six dying in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, and wonder what each victim must have felt in their final moments, as each spark of life was snuffed out at the exact same time. She’d heard a statistic once about the number of people who died when vending machines fell on them. Reading the details of freak accidents over and over convinced her that her fate would be different. Her own mother had a slow death from cancer, and she expected the same from her father, maybe something to do with his liver or mind. But not this. Not a hand-over-mouth incident that created a traffic jam of Internet rubber-neckers on local news websites.

It had taken Sam Baker two days to reach her. She was participating in a three-day symposium about Gothic poetry at UC Santa Cruz, and had failed to recognize the new area code he’d called from – Indio was growing larger, and now boasted the digits ‘434.’ When she arrived, there had been no homecoming. No hearty exclamations from townies about the ‘Prodigal Daughter,’ or any indication that she had been missed. This wasn’t how these things were supposed to unfold. There were cursory offerings – dinner discounts at Hattie’s, beers “on the house” at Locke’s. What she really wanted was to either disappear completely from their view, or be celebrated for her return. None of this middle ground, hackneyed sympathy.

Grief and stress gathered behind Lydia’s eyes in two inky pools that fell drop by drop down her nasal cavity and echoed in her stomach. Each splash awoke a different sense to the realities of the day. DRIP, SPLASH – the smell of roses was nauseating. DRIP, SPLASH – all the hollow, wrinkled eyes made this look like a funeral of the dead, for the dead. DRIP, SPLASH – she’d had no appetite all week, but suddenly craved an open-face cheeseburger smothered in chili. DRIP, SPLASH – the cheapness of her dress was evident in her darkening armpits and itchy thighs. She thought perhaps the dress would disintegrate as she left the service, leaving her a wild-haired Godiva in the driver’s seat of a ’63 Studebaker.

At last, the carousel of speakers stopped, and Father Nelson said a final prayer. Mourners hugged her, the last remaining connection they had to a man who had, 40 years ago, created an industry in his image. She heard murmurs of the “end of an era,” and knew they saw her as the broken link in some old American ideal. 

5:45 p.m.

Guests gathered in the gift shop, where merchandise displays had been rolled to the sidelines of the room and stood like teenagers waiting to be asked to the dance floor. A series of card tables were draped with white table cloths and festooned with platters and bowls of  mayonnaise-based funeral fare.

Bev Daniels had planned the reception and was the first to greet her. Bev was the manager of the farm’s restaurant and gift shop, and was as close to a maternal figure as Lydia had after her own mother’s death. It was Bev who had whipped the place into shape after the Sunny Egg had closed and Bill bought the property. She saw in him a shared vision of Indio as a tourist oasis, with dates palms hanging over all of it, thick with fruit. Like Bill, she was fascinated by the cultivation of dates, their finicky nature, the way they tore off the pit like meat on bone.  She claimed that she had also invented the date shake, one of the most popular attractions in the region. She was the jolly face of oddball television segments about date farming, and she played the part to perfection.

Every part of Bev was soft – mushy jowls, hands lotioned twice daily with cocoa butter, even a smile that made little pillows of her cheeks. Her hair was a cotton candy still life, a bouffant trifle in a sticky web of Aquanet. You could feel the truth of her hug.

“Baby, do you need anything? You wanna glass of water or something easy to eat? I have a granola bar in my purse.”

“I’m OK, I just need to sit down for a little while.”

“Okay, baby. How’s that new job treatin’ you? I saw the book with your poem in it, and I’ll admit I had a hard time understandin’ it, but I could tell Bill just loved it. He always kept your poems when you sent ‘em around.”

“I’m really enjoying the job. I mean, USC is a much bigger campus than I’m used to, and the facul—“

“Well I’ll be right here nearby if ya need anything,” said Bev, interrupting. “I thought it was a lovely service, didn’t you?”

“It was nice, yeah.”

Bev melted into the crowd and Lydia filled her plate with food. Mounds of macaroni salad, sky-high ambrosia. Fatty, fluffy piles of comfort. As she was considering filling the last spot on her plate with butter rolls or baklava, she heard a voice that froze her in place.

“Hi cous. How ya doin’? That was a great service, wasn’t it?”

She knew she’d have to get used to that question if she was going to survive the evening.

“Hi Jack, what do you want?”

Her cousin Jack was the unofficial spokesman of the relatives who took part in bleeding her father dry. He had the long, limp body of a scarecrow, with straw-colored hair that usually poked out of a red Anaheim Angels trucker hat. But unlike a scarecrow’s friendly stitch mouth, his mouth was filled with offense –grey and yellow teeth sprawled in all directions.

Jack’s parents had died in a car accident on their way to visit him at Camp Pendleton, where he was training to be a Marine in the service of George W. Bush. He received an honorable discharge and began managing a bar in Twenty-Nine Palms. Rather than forget the petty grievances his parents had held against her father, he had instead turned up the volume, letting anyone willing to listen know about how Bill Keats never took care of his own.

He smoothed his unruly hair and stared at the ground as he spoke.

“I don’t want anything from ya, Liddy. Why you always think I’m tryin’ to put one over on you?”

“Sorry Jack, I’m just a little wound up  because I’ve had so much to do since I got into town. But really, what do you want to say? Because honestly, I don’t have the time or energy to play games with you the way Dad did.”

At this Jack’s face darkened and jaw tightened. It was when he fixed his eyes on her that she noticed for the first time that they were colorless, just a mass of pupil that made him look possessed.

“Hey now, there’s no need to get aggressive here. I don’t want to start shit at a funeral, that’s not how I want thing to go. Thing is, I know you thought your daddy was such a big, wonderful guy, but he never did help us with nothin’, except for some cash here and there. And I heard he owes someone else lotsa money, and they ain’t gonna let it go just cuz he’s dead.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“Alright whatever, I’m full of shit. But when they come to collect, you better not come to me to bail you the fuck out.”

With that, Jack gulped the last of his Heineken and threw it in a trash bin across the room. She turned her back to him and  heard him resume his rant for a few willing ears.

Lydia stared at the food on her plate, all warm and cold in the wrong places. She wasn’t sure why she’d doubted Jack’s claim. He was a liar, but only about the size of the fish he caught at Lake Perris or the number of girls from Claremont he’d laid. She wasn’t even sure if he was capable of a lie that chilling, although she had seen plenty of television newsmagazines in which relatives try to swindle wealthy kin through some bumbling, half-baked scheme.

The urge to escape consumed her, and she carried her food out the front door and sat on concrete steps. It was a Saturday, and is was common to see busloads of tourists pull into the parking lot and unload retirees or Asian tourists making a pit stop on the way to Indian casinos. Now the frontage road leading to the café was empty, waiting like a dog for its owner. Puffs of wind made dust swirl and dance across asphalt. The sky was blood orange and signaled another summer storm. The world had become still and tense.

It was when the stillness descended that Lydia noticed the car and three men about forty yards away. They looked like they’d come straight from a movie set in the 70s,  with their broad collared dress shirts and fat, stumpy ties. A sick, psychedelic mirage of burnt umber, goldenrod and olive. Their appearance should have been the butt of jokes, but Lydia knew immediately that their business was serious. The shortest and fattest of the three leaned against the hood and squinted toward the gift shop, arms crossed. He said something to another man in the passenger seat, who responded and pointed in the direction of the farm a few yards away. Then they looked at her as she lowered her head to her plate and pretended to focus on corn on the cob. The short man said a few more words, then got back in the car and drove toward the I-10 West that led to Los Angeles.

6:56 p.m.

The reading of the will was in a large indoor storage room. Folding chairs sat next to metal shelves stacked high with gift store non-perishables – organic hand cream, holiday ribbon candy, and bright blue cans of date crystals, the date shake’s secret ingredient. By this time the majority of guests had said their goodbyes and condolences, leaving behind stacks of wrapped leftovers and sympathy cards. The core farm staff remained and sat stoic in the back of the room – Bev and Sam as well as Roberto, who oversaw the mating and harvesting, and Nestor, who monitored the grounds. The families sat as a solid, united front in the first two rows, clans three and four generations deep leaning in with anticipation.

The mere presence of so many relatives reinforced Lydia’s belief that they didn’t know her father at all, or had even made an effort. Bill Keats had a legendary sense of humor, and the more you got to know him, the more elaborate his pranks and tricks became. Those late nights of poker were punctuated by sharp, loud laughs after a player found a phony ice cube with a fly inside it, or his beer sprinkled with cayenne. Little, sweet gestures that meant no harm, and made everyone closer and warmer and more at ease. He still had copies of MAD magazine delivered to his office, at first reading it cover to cover, then sticking to “The Lighter Side” in his old age. This may have explained why his debts rarely rose to the surface of his thoughts – “What, me worry?” Lydia believed his final joke would be his greatest.

Mike Johnson entered the room with a single 9×12 envelope tucked under his arm. He’d ditched the suitcase and removed the jacket that had grown progressively damp and limp. He dabbed the shiny baldness that crawled across his scalp and surveyed the room. Settled in behind Bill Keats’s old steel desk (brought out for the occasion), he stretched his fingers wide then opened the envelope.

“Good evening everyone, and thank you for being here. I know it’s been a long day, but I assure you this will go quickly. If you recall, Bill was very kind to his guests, but you always knew when you’d worn out your welcome.”

He received a few light chuckles and began to read, speaking slow and clear.

I, Bill Keats, an adult residing at 15000 Shadow Mountain Road, being of sound mind, declare this to be my Last Will and Testament. I revoke all wills and codicils previously made by me.

 

I appoint Michael Johnson as my Personal Representative to administer this Will, and ask that he be permitted to serve without Court supervision.

 

To my daughter Lydia, I leave financial and administrative control of Keats Co. Dates and all related estates. Keep the vultures away and the wolves at bay (I hope you like my poem, dear).

To the vultures, also known as my extended family: you will now be handed what you have coming to you. I hope you take the sweetness with a grain of salt.

Bev walked from relative to relative, handing each a gift bag that held a long, wrapped box. She pursed her lips and tried to hide a smile. As each tore into their gift, the wave of gasps, cries, and expletives grew stronger. Some stormed out, while others gaped in bewilderment as white tissue  curled around their feet. Each had received a box of assorted dates (Blonde, Medjool, Deglet Noor, Golden Zahidi), with a crisp 100 dollar bill under the lid.

Jack was the first to approach Lydia, shaking the box lid impotently.

“What the fuck is this? Did you know about this?”

“How the fuck would I know about it!? He died in an accident, no one expected it!”

Her body grew warm from her toes to the top of her head, and her vision narrowed. So much had happened in the span on five minutes that her body had given up normal function, and she collapsed into the chair.

“You can’t even get up and defend yourself. You’re a coward, and your daddy was a coward, and you’re gonna get your due for treatin’ us this way. Some of us come almost 50 miles to this funeral and this is the thanks we get? Well, think you should know now that your daddy’s jokes weren’t never funny, he was a damn fool.”

“JACK! Where in the world do you get off talkin’ to Liddy that way?”

Bev had broken away from the Fontana cousins long enough to intercede.

“Shame on you! Talkin’ to her like that when she had nothin’ to do with anything Bill said. Now, you and your family need to leave right now. Go on. Before your dates get cold.”

Bev waved a dismissive hand and turned her back on the fury.

Chaos lasted only a few minutes, as the families soon realized there was no recourse if the old man was dead. Mike Johnson looked too official and alien to approach with his suit and leather and four-color ballpoint pen. And of course, it would be in poorest taste to unload their despair on Lydia. They crammed into pickups and minivans and spread out in all directions on their way to desert outposts.

Each new reality made Lydia’s stomach flip. Debts. Cars. Men. Own. Operate. The years she’d spent pushing the farm away from her had only made it more attracted to her. Even the career she’d chosen was the antithesis of hard labor, with its esoteric nuggets that only a select few could hope to interpret. The world in Indio was plainspoken and straightforward. So open and earnest and clean. Familiar and terrifying. She had known the outcome all along, but now was it fully-formed, practically pulsating.

Bev swept and scrubbed the remnants of the afternoon, her tears mingling with sweat and teal eye shadow.

The day was over, and already a long list began to take shape in Lydia’s mind. She murmured the first verse of an ee cummings poem.

carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

i fear

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