Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Destiny Maker

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January 2, 1974. Marcus’ house was one of the one-story rock, brick and stucco modernist suburban houses that screamed Southern California. They seemed ultra-modern, or at least they did in the late 1950s. Now, however, it was 1974, and it seemed very Cold War and Space Age – weirdly innocent for this moment in time, with gas shortages due to an oil embargo, and daily news of more casualties in Vietnam.

There were three emergency vehicles in the driveway, and each one had a flashing light on the top. The neighbors, attracted by the blue, yellow, and red lights flashing in the dark street, walk up hesitantly.

They saw me, tears streaming down my face, and asked in hushed voices, “Is everything okay?”

I couldn’t say anything without breaking into shuddering sobs, so I just shook my head “no” and felt tears splash onto my hands, which I had clutched in front of me.

When Dad dropped off Marcus at his house, he had no idea that something was so terribly amiss inside. Dad and I drove back to the Palm Springs 1930s film colony converted into a motel, and walked through the lobby. “Sir, you have a message,” said the clerk.

The message was from Marcus. “Something’s happened to Mom.”

Dad called Marcus. Then he called the police, ambulance, and sheriff. Marcus’ dad was still in the foothills, checking out a few things on the Atajo property.

Dad and I got in the car and drove as quickly as we could, past the Safeway, Taco Pronto, Lee’s Gobi Desert Szechuan, Shempy’s Dry Cleaning, and then turned at the 7-11 convenience store at the corner of Palm Desert Avenue and Atadero Drive. Marcus and his family lived at the end of a small, circular street. Palm trees, orange trees, and yucca punctuated the gravel and natural “desert pavement” lawns. Distant lights twinkled from the mountains that made a spectacular backdrop to their neighborhood.

“Is she okay?” I whispered, as we pulled up. Marcus’s thin shoulders were silhouetted in the large bay window in the front room.

“Wait here. Don’t go inside,” Dad said to me.

“Don’t worry. I don’t want to. I’m not stupid,” I heard myself say. I could feel waves of emotion starting to overcome me. My knees began to tremble involuntarily.

After a few minutes, Dad emerged. His face was pale, his lips tensed together.

“Is she okay?” I whispered. I knew what the answer would be.

“It looks like she died of a massive concussion,” Dad said. “At least that’s what they said it looked like. I didn’t see her.”

“What happened?” I asked. I imagined the possibilities. Smoking in bed wouldn’t do it. Tripping over a dog in an inebriated haze? I felt guilty for imagining that might have been as drunk as she was the evening we had dinner at the restaurant.

“She was in the bedroom. A statue of some sort fell on her head. They said they she probably died instantly,” said Dad softly.

Fireflies flashed silently in and out of the yuccas. A cluster of prickly pear cactus that the landscape designer had artistically positioned between the stucco wall and the curved tile and flagstone walkway to the house cast eerie shadows as the lights from the emergency vehicles flashed. I stepped forward and opened the wrought-iron gate.

“There’s Marcus,” I said. Marcus left the house and stepped on the wide front porch, and stood next to a line of cacti, each in a large hand-thrown clay pot. In the distance, I could hear a phone ringing.

“She had been in bed. They said it looked like she was reaching for something on the floor next to the nightstand. She leaned over and a statue on the nightstand fell over and hit her on the head.”

“Huh?” I tried, but I could not get a mental image of that scene. A statue on a nightstand? Reaching for something on the floor?

“I thought she was in bed.”

“She was. But when the statue hit her on the back of the head, it knocked her out of bed,” explained Dad.

Something about Marcus’s slender shoulders, his fragile shadow, made me overcome my hesitancy. I slip past Dad, through the gate and up the flagstone and tile walkway.

“Marcus! I’m so sorry.’ I couldn’t say anything more. The idea of his mother lying on the floor, with a statue on her head was beyond grotesque. I wondered what kind of statue it might have been. Was it one of those knights in armor that had become so popular around here? Was it a giant Mexican bowl or some kind of pottery?

Marcus held a piece of paper in his hand, a set of keys in the other.

“Let’s go. I need to go. I need to get out of here,” he gestured toward me.

“But the ambulance is blocking your dad’s car.” Marcus’s dad had arrived moments before.

“I’ll drive around it.”

“But there’s the sheriff’s car next to it,” I pointed out. The lights flashed, and for a moment I thought of the garish flashing lights of a traveling carnival. Tilt-o-Whirl? I couldn’t remember the name of the ride that invariably made someone sick.

“Then let’s go back here,” he nodded toward the back of the house.

“Watch for snakes,” I warn. “Dad says they’re everywhere around here.”

“You don’t think I don’t know that?” retorts Marcos. He shoves his car keys into his jeans pockets and grabs my arm, guiding me toward the darkness on the side of the house. We walk past the air conditioner, which sits silent and motionless in the quickly cooling desert night.

It is cloudless and stars are beginning to appear. He guides me around the walkway until we are on the back patio. The lights of the swimming pool illuminate the water, and emit the characteristic aqua-turquoise glow of swimming pools at night. He nudges me toward a dark corner of the patio, where a chaise-longue extends toward the pool.

“Here. Take this. Hide it for me. Don’t let anyone see it.”

“What is it?”

“It’s what Mom was reaching for when the stupid garage sale Michelangelo head fell off the nightstand and cracked open her skull.”