by Paul Saevig, ‘67
Audrey drove in from Beaumont to San Juan Capistrano on Friday morning for her father’s birthday on Sunday. They’d all have a good time together, laughing and telling old stories. Her sister would come down from Malibu and her brother from Pasadena, Mom would make her famous Pineapple Upside Down cake, and they’d all sing “O Danny Boy”.
She was a small woman with big hazel eyes and a triangular face. She’d been to Mom and Dad’s new place only a few times, Audrey. Unlike most parents who content themselves with a small condo or even a place in a retirement community, Dad bought a ten-acre ranch with stable, corral and a trail through the hillsides. Audrey had to laugh, because he always did things in a big way. She just didn’t know anybody like him any more, as rich and powerful.
She found them sitting down to lunch in the big kitchen, with her dad’s back turned to her. He was just hard of hearing enough to allow her to sneak up, throw her arms around his shoulders, and kiss his cheek. She felt the old man tension in him relax, as he turned around to embrace her.
But when he saw her, he asked, “What the heck are you wearing?”
He meant her red baseball cap with gold letters spelling a phrase.
“Make America Great Again, Daddy!” she cooed in the little girl voice she sometimes used with him.
“Take it off, please,” he ordered her.
Audrey looked around at Mother, and her own sister Jane the retired Stanford professor, and saw pain of embarrassment in their faces. Quietly as she could, she removed her cap, stuffed it in her bag, and felt twelve years old again, as she usually did here. She was seventy-two years old, with two years at Fullerton Junior College and one at Cal Poly Pomona, a mother of three, the retired bookkeeper of her husband Butch’s motorcycle repair shop for thirty-three years.
“Have a seat, Audie! Good to see you! How was the drive?” her father asked her.
She realized he’d ask the same dumb question of any guest probably. She wasn’t quiet sure, and recited the answer she was certain no one cared about.
“I love your haircut,” Jane said, and touched her sister’s cheek gently. “You were always the pretty one.”
Audrey smiled instead of thanking her.
“Well, almost 98, huh, Dad?” she told him. “Will any other Civil War veterans come to the party?”
“Oh!” Mother cried in mock-shock.
Her father threw his white head back and laughed.
“McClellan and Meade said they’d stop by!” he cracked.
“Good one,” Jane admitted, in that funny way she had of laughing, as if it made it hard to breathe.
“How are you, sweetie?” Audrey asked her mother while she hugged her. “Does Daddy still beat you?”
They all shrieked with laughter again, and shook their heads. Mom’s hands were alarmingly pale and bony, with brown and purple stains on top. She was a maiden of ninety-five herself.
“I thought maybe we could all ride this morning, if it’s not too hot,” Dad said. “We have a mare you’d like, Audie. We put in a little pond below the ridge, by the big oaks. Nice for the animals.”
“That pond has been here for ages, Mark,” Mom corrected him.
“It was almost dry and clogged with old muck. We cleaned it out and refilled it, dear.”
“How do you feel, Daddy?” Audrey inquired. He looked sinewy and vital as ever, but she worried anyway.
“Well, I still have a pulse. I have medicine so I can still ride with my arthritis. Same old bronchitis. Chronic. I passed a kidney stone last year, and it’s no Club Med holiday, Audie. I guess I’m good for the next fifteen minutes, anyway.”
“Mark,” Mother objected with her loving blend of worry and involuntary amusement.
He’d been a medical intern at Good Samaritan Hospital on Wilshire Boulevard where she was a nursing student in 1936, when they met. She waited for him in Glendale with baby Jane while he served as a medical officer with America troops in North Africa. He always said she was the brains in the family. She threatened to leave him in 1953 unless he quit drinking, after he crashed his Packard sedan into a pepper tree on Valencia Mesa. Later on she gave him permission to drink an Old Fashioned and a second, but no more. Audrey figured if her mother died, her father wouldn’t last two months.
After lunch, Dr. Cranmer checked the patio thermometer and saw it was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. No riding now, not until dusk, maybe. Instead they pulled on their swim suits and lounged at the umbrella tables by the pool.
Audrey knew what was coming.
Dad wore a ridiculously sharp dark red Stanford long-sleeved cotton T-shirt and matching shorts. Mom had selected one of her seemingly infinite supply of Waltah Clark Hawaiian swimsuits, this one golden snowbush plants against a pale green jade background. Audrey wore a modest two-piece suit in amber with red trim and a black and red Harley Davidson motorcycles T-shirt over it. Jane wore a vestal virgin pure white Stanford sweatshirt and sweatpants, with “The Farm” in tiny red letters at her breast, although she’d been something of an civil rights marcher and heller at college. Audrey thought they all looked silly, but adorable.
Dad surveyed his domain visually, sipped an Old Fashion, turned to Audrey and inquired, “Trump?”
“We all voted for the President, yes,” she replied.
“Well, things are just not working. We need a change. We needed a president who understands how business works, and what business needs. We need a president who will secure the border. We need a president to relieve the obscene tax burden on the American voter. We need a president who get tough on debtor nations and mean it. We give away billions of dollars to nations who don’t appreciate it, and squander it. A president with a reasonable policy on gun rights for every citizen, including assault weapons. We need integrity in the White House, and an end to the Clinton/Obama filth. We need a president who means what he says and says what he means, Daddy!” Audrey explained.
“All right,” he said in his professional diagnosis voice. “Where did you learn all that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you read that, Audie?”
“Not exactly, I don’t have much time to read. Besides, you can’t believe what you read in the paper.”
“Well, that’s true in a general way. You have to be selective and careful about what you read. Did you learn what you said in books?”
“Daddy. I run the house and we usually have one or two grandchildren visiting. I do all the cooking and I bake, too. We bowl three nights a week in leagues, and go on a Harley ride avery weekend with the club. I teach Sunday school and I have aerobics at the church, too. Plus my garden and I make some of our clothes when I have time. I don’t sit around reading books, Daddy.”
“Oh, Audrey,” Jane exclaimed.
“Don’t say that, Janie!” Audrey snapped.
“Girls!” Mother cautioned them.
“Do you watch the news on TV, Audrey?”
“Fox News, Sean Hannity, of course.”
“All right,” Dr. Cranmer said. “Butch talks about Trump and politics?”
“You know he does, Daddy! Come on! I know what you’re saying. I swallow everything they say, without thinking. That’s not true, Daddy!” Audrey raised her voice to say.
“That’s enough!” Mother said in her orthopedic surgery ward nurse voice.
Jane looked as if she might want to cry. Their father leaned back a little in his chair and sipped his drink while he looked out over the horizon. Only Audrey waited for the next person to speak, to conclude this discussion she considered unfair, a trap.
“We shouldn’t stay out here too long,” Mother announced. “We’ll get burned anyway.”
“Quite true, dear,” Father agreed, now with a serene look about him.
“Excuse me, please?” Audrey said, and got up to walk up the steps to the house.
She found a bottle of vin rose in the refrigerator and poured herself a glass. She kept thinking she was seventy-two years old, with five grandchildren already. She loved Mom and Daddy with all her heart and always had. She poured another glass and drank it. She shouldn’t have come here today.
Out the side door, Mother had a garden of irises, marigolds. touch-me-nots, azaleas, gerbena, daffodils, day lilies and more. She could make anything grow and thrive. Audrey moved from flower to flower, touched the petals, smelled their scents. The colors pleased her and consoled her. It was quiet here and she was alone with beauty.
So much time had passed. She hadn’t been back to Sunny Hills in over thirty years. She was afraid to go, which was silly. She’d been to one reunion, the twentieth, and not again. It was too much and too hard. Learning classmates had died was unbearable. If that life was so long ago, why did it seem so familiar sometimes?
She still kept in touch with three of the other Lancelles and two boys from her neighborhood, or men, goodness, men now her age. They told her scraps of information about the old people they know. It seemed remote and yet intimate at the same time. Audrey couldn’t stand it. To tell the truth, she hated bowling, too.
One girl who’d been her best friend for a while in fourth grade had been conducting an affair with a guy from West Fullerton for forty years, off and on. Her youngest daughter was his, they said. They said one of the guys who went to Berkeley had been investigated by the FBI. They said one of the wild girls from Sunny Hills West lived with a French aristocrat in Monaco, and he was a billionaire. What could Audrey believe?
She found a chair and wanted to stay here in the shade with the flowers. The traffic back home to Beaumont would be impossible until midnight at the earliest. She couldn’t leave without spending a little time with Daddy, with Mom, even Jane. Their brother would be stopping by, too.
They all thought she was an idiot and always had!
There should be a joint in her bag. Part of one. She looked. There it was. She lighted what was left and drew the smoke into her lungs. She concentrated on the flowers, and began to feel high. She would never have smoked dope at her parents’ house, not even in college or as an adult, and her mother would skin her alive. She picked up a fallen forget-me-not petal, and crushed it in her fingers before she smelled it. The first thing she thought of was a family on Rodeo with forget-me-nots in their front yard.
The high faded soon and she walked forward to the edge of the patio, where she could look down at her family. They seemed amicable. Did they miss her? Or were they talking about her?
She had to leave, and she could apologize later. Maybe traffic wouldn’t be too bad. She let herself out the gate, got in her car and started down the hill to the freeway.
Along the way, she saw her brother Bill coming in the opposite direction. They both turned around and stopped in a side street.
“Leaving already?” he asked her with a grin.
“Don’t tell them you saw me. Yeah.”
“Right, Something wrong, Audrey?”
“Now what could possibly be wrong?” she replied.
He grinned again and said he’d call.
She resumed her trip home at 11:45 AM and pulled in her driveway in Beaumont at 3 PM. She found Butch in the garage working on a 1940s motorcycle.
“You’re back?” he said.
For a moment she wondered if he sounded stupid. She thought too much about people being stupid today. She brought him a cold beer and sat down to talk while he worked.
“I just got real uncomfortable. They ragged me about politics,” Audrey explained.
“Figured they would,” Butch said. He was a big man even at seventy-four, with white hair and a butch haircut, a Fu Manchu mustache and kind blue eyes.
“I shouldn’t let it get to me,” she continued.
“What did they say anyway?” he asked her, putting down his wrench to listen.
“They basically said I don’t know what I’m talking about, about politics and Trump,” she said.
“Well, I like your mom and dad, but they’re liberal leftists. We have to expect they’d say that. They’ve been in power too long. I mean not them, but people like them. That’s a Democrat strategy, to smear all their opponents. They’re part of the deep state to put all conservatives in prison. That’s why they have the global warming hoax, to try to scare us all.”
Butch’s face turned red while he talked, and his voice got louder. While Audrey knew what he said was true, she was getting a headache. She felt a little depressed, too. She might never see her mother and dad again. Maybe she should go back.
“We know better,” Butch concluded. He went to Audrey and held her head, the way he did when she had a nightmare. He smelled of sweat, leather and motor oil, a smell she’d learned to enjoy. She knew he would always protect her. He had six brothers and they were all great guys.
They went inside and after Butch took a shower, they sat down to watch an action movie. Butch could describe the engine of every single car and motorcycle they saw onscreen. After a while, Audrey dozed in his arms.
When she woke up ninety minutes later, it was time to think about dinner. They decided on steaks from the freezer, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, and all the fixin’s.
“You think maybe we should go down Sunday for my dad’s birthday?” Audrey asked her husband.
He took a deep breath and answered.
“Well, we can if you want, babe. The thing is there’s bound to be a fight. We don’t back down from nobody,” he said.
She knew right away he was right.
“One day this week I’ll take you down and you can send some quality time,” he added. “It’ll be easier when it’s just you and your parents.”
Finally Audrey could smile again. That might work.