by Paul Saevig
When Dr. and Mrs. Lewin Yargee and their family first moved to Fullerton they bought a home on East Las Palmas, where Mrs. Yargee passionately admired the already tall palm trees on their property. They were stately, these trees, exotic and evocative of tropical climes and mysterious equatorial languor, as the Bantam pocketbooks she read all day by the swimming pool would say. There was just nothing all like them back home, and family always said so when they came to stay a summer. Mother and Daddy liked the picnics where they spread checkered cloth over redwood tables on the front lawn or driveway, so they could eat their ribs and burgers like back home, and their corn on the cob and sorghum grits, and see the palm trees in front of them.
Cora their daughter, woman of the house, said it was like being in Alexandria, Egypt, or Casablanca probably, or Tripoli, or Tunisia. They’d all wave to cars passing on East Las Palmas, and anyone could stop for a drink and visit, because the Yargees were good neighbors. They were down to earth. They had their heads squared on straight, Cora’s daddy liked to say.
In the cool of the evenings, Cora liked to take her Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour and her Old Golds out front to stand right next to her favorite palm tree, a Queen Palm, where she could hold her head right against the trunk and look straight up to the top, fifty feet the third year. She would collect the palm fronds when they fell down and used them for water color paintings she gave as Christmas, Easter and birthday gifts, always personally signed with soft blue paint:
Our Queen palm
East Las Palmas
With Love From,
The Yargee Family
Her babies came fast, though, first the twins Lester and Cawley, 8 pounds 11 ounces and 8 pounds 14 ounces; and then Rupert Samuel, 7 pounds 9 ounces, a Breech Presentation Birth!
Then her little girl, Brelantha Mae, 7 pounds 2 ounces, easy as pie, in and out, hardly 3 hours labor. Mama came to help, and stayed because of her own asthma and bronchitis, plus sugar diabetes. There was so much to do, and Cora's little men ate like oil field rowdies.
By the time the St, Jude Hospital opened, it was just a real good lucky stroke of Fate, everybody said, when husband Lewin was offered a position in Ear, Nose and Throat medicine. He shared an office suite down on Spadra with a surgeon.
Cora made friends with the other doctors’ wives, playing Canasta and contract bridge, with their Tuesday afternoon bowling league where they had to put a move on to beat their kids coming home from school. It was hectic, but Cora loved it.
She developed some big town sophistication without losing any of her gracious country ways. When Brelantha Mae (or Beelie) was three, Cora’s mother Florence finally had herself the blue hair rinse she’d always wanted, the kind her Aunt Mabel in Edmond alway had until she dropped dead of a bleeding gall bladder, and everybody said she looked beautiful with it. Florence,that is.
It wouldn’t have been right for Cora to say it, especially because poor Lewin worked so hard, but the East Las Palmas house was already becoming too small for their family, counting Mama and Daddy, and often as not Sister Marletta whose Darrell was simple, but a good man who loved her and their girls. The closets were jammed, the three boys were like stallions kicking their stalls at night in their bedroom, and Lewin needed a den could have for himself and the model airplanes he built, battleships, too.
Cora did what she could to fix up the master bedroom, and the sewing room, Mama and Daddy’s room, and little as the called her, because Rupert Sammy couldn’t pronounce Brelantha.
Lewin was good man but he squeezed a nickel until the old buffalo peed, and that was him. Cora thought the situation over and talked to Mama, who was the second of fourteen herself.
He was born in Nashoba, Oklahoma, sixth in a family of fifteen, to an elderly night watch man and his young wife, who was one quarter Osage Indian. Lewin told Cora confidentially that he could not remember his father ever talking to him. The old mana tyrannical and when he caught his two oldest daughters wearing makeup, he gave them a beating and kicked them out of the house permanently.
When the dust storms came, his father refused pay any more doctor’s bills and within a year, two of Lewin’s sister had died of pneumonia.
When his older brothers caught their father beating their mother for the umpteenth time, they tried to intervene and the old man shot one of them dead on the spot. The other brother, aged fifteen, took Lewin in relief camps, and soon he
went to work for his mother’s Uncle Mortimer, who dug holes and installed septic tanks.
As a strong boy, Lewin proved both helpful an resourceful, Uncle Morton took him on as an assistant, allow to sleep inside the man’s bachelor lean-to. When he was fourteen, Lewin was big enough to lie about his age and join the navy, where he was sent to Manila. He sent most of his pay home to Nashoba. When the war broke out n 1941, he alway had seven years in, and had ingratiated himself wit an officer who recommended km fro pharmacy mate training.
He spent the war working at Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu. When he heard alit an Oklahoma party, he met Cora Hermann, sixteen. the daughter of a non-commissioned officer from Stillwater who was killed aboard the USS California at Pearl Harbor. They married in December 1943 when Cora was three months pregnant.
As soon as the war ended, Lewin lucked out with an acceptance at the state college in Los Angeles, and after three years, the big medical school in Boyle Heights.
Cora and Lewin lived in studio apartment on Hldalgo in Alhambra, across from small park whee the twas could roam. One night when she told him she was pregnant, he picked her up a like a sack of potatoes and hoisted her onto his lap to hug her and love her good, and when he announced, “Elmer for a boy, Elsie for a girl!”, she shrieked and pounded her fists pretend-hard on his chest, and they both laughed out loud like country out-house builders on Saturday night.
Elmer and Cawley in their bristly blonde crewcuts ran up like hunting dog pups and said, “What?”
“What what?” Lewin asked them with a straight face. With his big head, his cigarette looked like a little piece of string in his mouth.
“Why are you acting funny here?” Lester demanded, three years old, stepping forward with his chin and chest out, starting a frown.
“Yeah!” Cawley insisted, spoiling for a brawl.
Lewin laughed and put his big hands on their heads with his arms out stiff while they tried to punch him.
“Your feisty sons!” Cora groaned.
Rupert Sammy came up wearing his temporary glasses and said quietly for all to hear, “Well, I’m not feisty.”
“That’s because you’re a little queer!” Lester told him, and quick as a flash, Lewin grabbed him by the back of his shirt collar, held up in the air, slapped him hard twice with the flat of his own big hand, and when Lester howled and tried not to cry, his father told him sternly:
“If I ever hear you use language like that to your brother again, I’m gonna knock you clear to Tulsa, mister! Do you hear me, Lester Yargee?”
When Lester snuffled in mid-air and said, “Yes, Daddy!”, his twin brother Cawley crowed and said, “What a chickenshit!”
Lewin set Lester down and by the time he rose to his feet himself, he had his belt in one hand and his son Cawley dangling by his little arm in his other. Cora pulled Breely, Lester and Sammy to her own body hard, and they all watched Lewin with Cawley.
“You don’t scare me one bit!” Cawley squawled. “You big stupid ape!”
Lewin sent streams of cigarette smoke out of his nostrils and inhaled hard with his mouth at the same time. He yanked at Cawley and swung him so hard the boy came loose and landed hard on his arm on the concrete
“You fucker!” Lester yelled at his daddy, but his arm hurt so bad, and now he couldn’t help but cry.
He tried to stand up but the pain made him dizzy and he lurched back to where his Grandma came to stand and fell in her arms.
“Lewin Yargee, what kind of trash are you?” Grandma said. “You stand clear now or Father’ll shoot you!”
“Look .. look ..” Lewin stammered and reached for his son Cawley.
At that instant, Cawley dived from his mother’s arms and drove his little body into his father as hard as he could, raining little boy blows.
Lewin picked him up with as much affection as he could to hold him in a position of truce, but Cawley sobbed now and said, “Look, what you did to Lester!”
Beelie screamed now and Cora handed him to Mama.
Sammy said, “Daddy, we’re just little guys! If you hit us like that, it’s not fair, Daddy!”
When Lewin picked him up to hold, too, Sammy put his arm around his daddy’s neck and said:
“Please, Daddy! Now Lester’s arm’s busted and he’ll never be able to play baseball again! Please don’t hurt us!”
Grandpa stood on the patio by his bedroom door, where his own voice came loud and raspy:
“You better git, Lewin Yargee!”
And he pointed a sixteen gauge shotgun at his sonic law.
“Daddy, no!” Cora screamed.
Lewin turned to face the other, after letting his little boys down. Without taking his eyes off his father in law, he walked sideways and backwards, and he older man followed.
They kept walking in their standoff until they were a ways off on a strip of lawn by the swimming pool.
“I’ll go, Ralph. Put that down, please. You don’t have to point a shotgun at me. There's children and women here. I’m leaving, all right? Just put that shot gun down, Harold.”
Everybody watched the two men, and little Beelie cried so hard her mama thought it might be a seizure. Florence and got down other knees and prayed with his hands folded against her chest.
“Dad’s right, Grandpa,” Sammy said. “Never point a shotgun or any gun against people, especially with others around.”
“Daddy, I’m hurt bad! Can’t you help me, please? Please? I can’t take it, Daddy! I don’t think I can!”
Before he finished, his twin Cawley slid hard from behind against his grandfather’s legs and holding his ankles, used the trick of head-butting forward to make him fall down.
While the old man’s dentures flew out of his mouth, the shotgun bounced once, did not fire, and slid across the cement into the swimming pool with a hiss and a plop.
Cawley stood up next to toe-hold man, and the little boy held with his fists up.
Lewin touched the top of his son’s head and ran his fingers back and forth across the boy’s crewcut.
He said, “Florence, you better call your cousin to come get Harold. Doesn’t she live in Dairy City? Stanton? I’m sorry, he can’t stay here any more. Please, take him down to Country Kitchen. Here’s twenty dollars. You need to take him home, Florence.”
“I know,” she said, with her Bible in her hand.
“Let’s all go inside,” Lewin said to his family.
First he took Lester in his arms, kissed his cheek, kissed his forehead, kissed the top of his head.
“Let me see that arm, son. I m sorry, I was wrong, way wrong. I promise I’ll make it up to you. Let me see that arm. I am going to give you something to stop it from hurting, Lester. Now you be brave, son!”
He worked on the kitchen, and told Cora to to please call Morgan his Marine friend from Okemah and his classmate ay the medical college. Morgan lived in La Habra.”
“Uncle Morgan will fix your arm up, Lester,” Lewin Yargee told his son.
“You shouldn’t have hit me, Daddy. That wasn’t fair,” Lester howled.
“I already said that, Lester,” his brother Sammy reminded him.
“Shut up, Sammy! I’ll knock your teeth out!”
“We shouldn’t probably talk that way to each other,” Cawley said, “We’re brothers.”
“That’s right, son. Soon as Lester's arm heals up, I’m teaching you boys all to box,”Lewin promised.
Cora rolled her eyes. She wanted to hold all four of her babies at the same time.
“I’ll be Sugar Ray Robinson,” Sammy declared.
“He’s a nigger, Sammy!” Cawley said with disgust in his voice, and Lewin smothered a smile.
“We don’t ever use that word or call anybody by it,” Cora reminded her sons.
A moment passed.
All of a sudden, Lewin Yargee vomited hard. He put his face in his big hands as if his head nightfall off it he didn’t.
He cried and it was as loud as and old car starting.
He bawling and choked out the words:
“I am so sorry, everybody! There’s no excuse for what I did. That was mean and cowardly. I’m ashamed of myself. I was evil to do that to my little son Lester!”
“Aww, Daddy, don’t CRY!” Lester begged him, and used his good hand to reach for his father.
“Everybody makes mistakes, Daddy,” Sammy said in a soft voice.
“Our little professor!” Cora said with enormous relief, and pulled Sammy toward her for a long, sustained hug.
Her face was slick with tears.
“Bobby Varner’s dad said his daddy kicked the shit out of him when he was a kid. I heard him,” Cawley said thoughtfully.
“Language, please?” Cora demanded, but with a smile.
Lewin Yargee walked in wide circle and held his face in his hands while he cried.
“If I was a horse, I’d deserve to be shot dead and destroyed,” he said.
When Cora poured him a full glass of whiskey, he accepted it and drank it all down.
His face was red like a man who’d been in a long fight and just barely managed to win. At the kitchen sink he ran cold water over his head. Then he dried himself with a kitchen towel, a second, a third and fourth. With blue veins that stood out on his hands he reached into his picket and combed his hair with his comb,
“After what I did tonight, I don't deserve to stay with all of you here tonight, but I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said.
“May I please stay, anyway?” he asked them, and his big face had never looked as dad.
“Well, of course, Daddy! You pay the grocery bills and the utilities! You gave Mommy your sperm to make us all your babies,” Sammy said and started to cry again.
“Would you please dry up, Sammy?” Cawley said. “I just have something in my eye! It’s only a splinter in my eye! I don’t cry! Of course, Daddy! You’re our dad!”
“All right, but no more hitting! Not until I’m your size, Daddy! Deal?” Lester offered him.
“What then?” Lewin asked him with a grin.
“If you lay a hand on me, I’ll deck you!” Lester warned him. “You told me to stand up for myself. No one pushes me around!”
Lewin watched his son with his hurt eyes and his fractured arm.
“All right, it’s deal, buddy,” Lewin said.
“We also need to refine that perspective a little,” he added.
“Bullshit! I’m no coward!” Lester insisted.
He was writhing again.
“My arm is starting to hurt again, Dad! Can you give me a slug of something?”
“How about some rye whiskey?’ Lewin suggested, with a straight face.
“I’ll have a glass, too!” Cawley said.
“No whiskey for you cowpokes, but we’ll bring you some ginger ale,” Lewin told them. “Want some too, Sammy?”
“For the time being, I’ll pass, but thanks,” Sammy said.
“No more hitting tilI I get big, Dad! Remember!” Lester told him.
Cora and Lewin exchanged a look.
Wile Cora poured their drinks, Lewin looked arround to get their attention.
“Now listen, you boys. This is something important. I just realized. Sammy here is real smart. He can already read! Some boys are going to resent that, and give him a hard time, They’ll try to pick in him. I want you two boys to promise me right here tonight that you’ll stick up for your brother Sammy. You’ll protect him. If anybody tries to bother him or make fun ..”
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” Lester said grimly. “If anybody puts a hand on our brother Sammy, I will personally send that sinner to the Promised Land!”
“Lester! Where do you get these things?” Cora protested.
“TV, Mommy!” Sammy said helpfully.
“I promise, Daddy. If anybody tries to mess with Sammy, he’ll have to go through me, first!” Cawley pledged.
“Boys!” Cora repeated.
Color had returned to Lewin’s face, and the manner of a doctor again.
“Good. Thank you. Now from here on in, you’re going to see a better daddy and a better husband, I promise. My word is my bond,” Lewin said, and looked around them all around him.
Before he could say another word, they heard a man’s voice coming from the side door.
“Where’s the patient? I ain’t got all night!”
Uncle Morgan walked in, stout and wide, carried his little black bag, and he was a man with a gruff manner and merry blue eyes.
Cawley and Sammy stood at attention and sang;
“From the halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli
We will fight our country’s battles
The United States Marines!”
“At ease, boys. That’s fine. You sound more Like Marines every time!” Uncle Morgan said.
“I fell on my arm, Uncle Morgan! I was clumsy! I hurt it real bad! It hurts like a son of a bitch!” Lester told the man.
While Cora rolled her eyes again, the visitor took a seat next to Lester and gently as he could, palpated the little boy’s arm. He looked up at Lewin in a way no one else noticed, and frowned.
“Looks like a hairline fracture to me. We’ll know for sure in the morning when we take an X-ray. Lester, have you got time in your schedule for your mama to drive you down to my office, son? I know you want a big ol’ heavy white cast, but we need to X-ray you first to be sure.”
“I can make it, sure,” Lester shrugged.
“He’s got a very high pain threshold,” Sammy informed the doctor.
“Thanks, Sammy. I see you’re right. Lester, I’m going to wrap your arm up tight and I want you to keep it immobilized, all right? That means don’t move it too much, don’t play ball, no wrestling, no gymnastics. Just hold it nice and easy. All right?”
“You’re the boss, doc,” Lester agreed.
When Morgan worked on his little patient, Cora brought him a Gin & Bitters, his usual.
“You know what my daddy did if I cussed, Lester?” the man asked the boy.
“I guess I don’t, Uncle Morgan. Did he whip your sorry ass?” Lester guessed.
“No, son. If I used profane or foul language, especially in the presence of women or girls, or if I took the Lord’s name in vain, my daddy would stop whatever he was doing. He wold look me right in the eye and say, ‘Son, will you come wit me, please?’ He would lead me into the little chapel his own daddy built for his wife, Daddy’s mama.”
Everybody listened as the doctor worked on the little boy’s arm and spoke.
“My daddy would kneel down, Lester. That meant I had to kneel down, too. My daddy would close his eyes and say, ‘Heavenly Father? Jesus? I bring my little son before you this day. He has sinned in a child’s way,and I ask you to forgive him, please. He does not yet understand what his sin means. Or how much he hurts his mama when he courses or takes Your Holy Name in vain. His mama who brought him and his three brothers and six sisters into this world through the agony of her own womanly womb, and sacrifices everything to give him a good decent Christian home. He’s a good boy, Jesus. He does his chores. He minds, He respects old people. He has never hit a girl again after we told him not to. He gives part of his allowance to the starving babies in China ever month at church. We want him to study to be a doctor, to study in Oklahoma City so he can take care of kids with rheumatic fever and ricketts, and when they have measles, mumps, chicken pox and other child diseases. He says he would rather be a cowhand now, but we pray he will change his mind.’
“Then my daddy would wait. That’s when I knew what I wanted for my vocation, Lester. I knew how much pain I caused my dear mother when I cussed. What do you want do when you grow up, son?”
“I want to play center field for the Hollywood Stars and buy a big restaurant where folks can get good food for a fair price and have a decent drink!” Lester looked in his eyes and answered him.
Quick as he could, the doctor pulled out his handkerchief and buried his face in it, shaking with laughter. He blew his nose with great honk, and when he was done, he looked back at Lester and assured him, ‘“You’ll have a lot of time to think it over, son!”
“When I get my cast, what do I do if some guy gives me lip, Uncle Morgan? What if a Mexican gives me the finger?”
“That’s not likely to happen, Lester. Come on, son.”
“Yeah,” Cora said in her soft voice and smiled at her child,
Uncle Morgan walked out back with Lewin and heard his story.
When he was done, Morgan said, “That’s a close shave, you big Okie. I’ll say a prayer for Harold and Florence. I suppose he did what he thinks was right.”
“Look, though. I’ve know all your life,since I was born sixty days after you in a tornado. Ordinarily, you do not have a temper, Lewin. Your brother Orville does, and Remuel did, like when he cut the wagon master, but not you. I’ve seen you lose your temper exactly two times in all that time. You’re human. Bygones be bygones. You’re the doctor, the one in control. But I’m supposed to report it when I see something like this. You know that.”
Their eyes locked, as our friends’ will. Then they came back inside.
That night Lewin stopped drinking. Not even a beer in a hot day. He stopped smoking because it was a dirty habit. He had call, but he tried with all his might to be done by 6:30 PM every day, and then came home with his kids and wife.
He never missed church after that, and began reading the Bible at night before he went to bed. Whenever he could, he volunteered to examine and treat the poor, the handicapped, the elderly and the mentally ill. He went down to Mexico several times a year for that, too,
The Monday morning after he hurt his little son Lester, Lewin Yargee bit his lip and made an appointment with a psychiatrist in Santa Ana. When he met the man the next Wednesday afternoon, he saw the man was a big fat farmer’s son from Minnesota, and a jerk, maybe but a pretty good psychiatrist.
When Lewin told Dr. Merlin Drean, MD a fourth fourth time how terrible he felt of hitting his son Lester so hard, he psychiatrist said:
“Jesus Christ, Lewin! Every parent makes mistakes. You spanked the boy, is what it amounts to. If that's the worst you ever do, they’ll pin a medal on you!”
Lewin kept going to the psychiatrist to learn all he could about his own behavior, how and why he got mad sometimes. He soaked up all the information and wisdom he could. He made notes and reviewed them regularly.
As a doctor himself he could see that Dr. Drean was a slob and a bully who irritated his patients for the hell of it, and probably couldn’t get a hard-on himself.
Maybe Dr. Drean did it because he thought it would teach his patients something, Lewin Yargee wasn’t buying that raft. The man annoyed him something fierce.
On his last appointment, Lewin watched the psychiatrist pull his wastepaper basket between his legs again and sit there to go through his mail while Lewin tried to talk about what was bothering him.
Lewin talked and let the man get started, claiming he was listening, and then Lewin stood up, took a step forward, picked up the waste paper basket and poured the contents of over the fat man;s head and shoulders.
When the psychiatrist cursed and struggle to wipe the trash off hm, Lewin spoke:
“You’re sarcastic with patients. You laugh at things we say. You roll your eyes and chuckle, You say ‘Oh, really?’ You talk down to us, as if we’re simple. Even me, a medical specialist. You’re a fat bag of gas and a tub of guts. You’re a lazy doctor who slides along and collects your fee anyway. You may have been a good psychiatric once, but it’s been a long time. You’re an embarrassment to your profession. You patients are fragile and you mock them. I don’t like you. Here’s your fee, paid in full, and you can pick it up off the floor. You big Swedish meatball. Goodbye and good riddance.”
With that he reached down to straighten the man’s tie, but brought his finger up quick to twiddle his nose. The man looked scared.
“Why don’t you report me? That’s about your speed! I have plenty to tell about you, you pathetic bully. Straighten up and fly right!”
Lewin Yargee opened the door quietly, stepped through, smiled pleasantly at the receptionist, and drove home. He didn’t feel one iota or remorse or guilt until he reached East Las Palmas, and threw it out the window after one block. If there was anyone he disliked, it was a bully.
As it turned out, the Yargee family remained in their East Las Palmas house for another ten years.
One year after the shotgun incident, Cora and her mother sent Grandpa Harold sent to live in an old folks home, where he acted combative. Lewin paid for a better place where they could take care of residents like him. The old man lived another eleven months before he died in his sleep, and then Florence followed him in four months.
Lester and Cawley fulfilled their athletic promise as Sunny Hills football players but much more as varsity wrestlers.
As a sophomore, Lester lost only one match all year, at a tournament in Bakersfield.
Cawley was the more polished wrestler, and technically excellent.
They were both blazing fast, and possessed uncommon killer’s instinct. Any time a Yargee brother got an opponent in serious trouble, he pinned him.
Cawley worked with Lester every day on his tendency to become annoyed at crooked wrestlers, when Lester would blow up and lose his focus. There were quite a few dirty wrestlers who didn’t have much else going for them.
At one tournament, there was a red-headed guy from San Diego Hoover High who used a feint to butt Lester’s head, and the referee never saw it. He made Lester's eye turn red and then Hoover guy started scratching him, too. Lester swatted his hands away, and his own face turned red, too. When the other guy started talking to him, Lester felt his concentration slipping away.
When the guy whispered that Lester’s sisters fucked niggers down under the Huntington Beach Pier, he spoke under his breath so it just sounded like mumbling to the referee. The expression on Lester’s face turned cold.
Both Lester and Cawley worked hard at home to strengthen their fingers, and when Lester laced his fingers with the San Diego guy again, he was at an advantage immediately and held it.
Behind 11-3, the guy got so frustrated he finally broke and took a swing at Lester, half slap and half punch. Lester knew if he leaned in, the guy would do it again, and when he did, Lester bounced a left hook off the guy’s midsection, and the referee never saw it. The other guy lay on his side gasping, and after 2 minutes he could not continue. Lester won, and later Sunny Hills took the match.
When Lester got in fights at McDonald’s on South Euclid, or the Teen Center or Knott’s Berry farm, there were no such extenuating circumstances. Lewin grounded him, took away his motorcycle, took away his car, and wondered if there was anything he could do to block his son’s slippery slope to the penitentiary.
Lester was a handsome kid with a bad boy expression that a lot of the girls found irresistible,but he hated school and he couldn’t bear to sit still for sixty minutes at a tme, let alone allay,
His twin Cawley discovered he loved animals that took him in a different direction by age 7. He volunteered at the SPCA, worked as a kennel boy for vets, mucked stables for the chance to ride, took in stray cats, and collected a menagerie of turtles, lizards, hamsters, parakeets, and other creatures. He read all he could about them and learned to be a good science student. If he could, he’d go to veterinary college. Failing that, he’d work as a cowhand at a ranch.
He lacked Lester's magnetic enthusiasm and brash outgoing nature, and preferred quiet settings where he could read and be with animals. While Lester attracted too many girls and got bored with them almost immediately, Cawley was bashful, would worshipped a girl from afar, and if her child somehow meet her somehow, he’d adored her with an intensity that would pit her off, no matter how sweet and kind he was, and how handsome She’d have to cut him loose, or she’d suffocate from his attention. This happened more than once.
Her twins worried Cora half to death.
As for the palm trees that Cora once held so dear, by now they reached over hundred feet heavenward, every one. At that height, the fronds they shed had a wider range to drift and fall in the wind, as much as one two hundred feet in every direction, including the middle of the adjoining street, and guess who got blamed.
Cora called the fronds her guided missiles, and despised having to hauling them off from wherever they landed, these lacerating bunches of airborne garbage that could carry rats and noxious insects as passengers, too. She contemplated every conceivable means to be rid of them including use of explosives, poisons, roaming goats, even high horsepower pulling, but none were feasible. Unless she shelled out enough dough to have them cut down, with the necessary city permits and licenses, she was stuck with them.
She still dreamed of living closer in to Sunny Hills, nearer the hospital, Ranchtown, Jimmy Smith’s, The Barn, and the high school. Unless Aladdin came to whisk her East Las Palmas house into the blue yonder, though it was no go. While the situation hardly rent her heart asunder, but she tried not to dwell on it.
A trifling happenstance of a hot June day changed all that, when Coral lay sunning herself in a new Catalina bathing suit beside her swimming pool, with a new Joan Didion novel face down beside her. As the rays of Old Sol warmed her skin, Cora dozed,
She nearly leaped out of own her epidermis when heavy frond crashed not five feet from her own paint toenails. She cursed an oath, danced a tango of rage, and felt a low growl rise deep in her throat. Her expanding exasperation that could suffocate her many times over.
She drank a Fresca with little ameliorative effect. She paid attention to her own breathing until she grew faint. Light-headed then and dizzy with resentment, she picked up her phone and caked her husband;s office. Of course his receptionist answered, the one Cora nicknamed Cutie Pie Size 2 , and the woman asked to be put right through.
“Doctor is with a patient now,” the girl trilled.
Cora her toes into the carpet in an effort not to scream.
“This is an emergency,” she said, as plaintively as she could.
“Please hold,” the girl said: one word, pleasehold.
Carlene imagined her own blood pressure rising, an oil gusher in the sands of Araby, a fountain of no caring platelets spraying her rich arterial blood over the Western Hemisphere, and still she waited. To breathe more easily, she reached around to untie her top, and sank into her husband’s easy chair, a red naugahyde canyon retreat for manly hips. She closed her eyes and felt drowsy, and then she heard Lewin’s West Oklahoma twang on the hone:
“Cora, we’ve talked about how I need you not to call me at the office, hon!” he began.
But she was no longer his young bride, the nursing other his feisty whelps, or submissive as befit her station.
She closed her eyes and said, “You listen to me, you trifling dumb ass Okie! I’ve asked you fifty times to get those palm trees cleared from my sight! One of them just missed exsanguinating me today. Hop to it!”
“Cora, you’re — “
“Husband, may I have your solemn vow you’ll arrange a crew to be here first thing in the morning, with scythes so sharp? Or will you will you spend your male menopause in the dog house?”
“E-ahh-uhhgh-yeeuhess, dear.” he dipthongized, or so it sounded to her,
“I have to go,” he added, and hung up.
She looked around for something she could throw. There! A tasteful stack of recent W Magazines. She opened the window frame and despite a caravan of bicycling neighborhood retirees on the move out yonder, herself bare breasted as an Amazon warrior woman, she sailed one glossy periodical after onto East Las Palmas, past the waving riders, high above perchance to land on East Hermosa, others for distance, beyond the houses across the street, until none remained, and glossy driblets of Cora’s own Jean Nate scented perspiration slalomed through the curving terrain between her inner bosomy quadrants, 4 to 6 o’clock and 6 to 9.
That was it, thought to herself.
She changed into smart plum trousers and a matching midriff top, proud she had a flat enough stomach to pull it off. She combed her hair, checked her makeup and gargled carefully with Lavoris after fitting a bowl around her throat and shoulders to shield her outfit. Then she stepped into sandals of Roman leather from a shop in Beverly Hills.
As she came down the hall, she always remembered how Loretta Young made her entrances on TV, flowing from one room to another, and as long as none of Cora’s own sons left a jockstrap or a Phillips wrench that would trip her on the floor, she could do the same.
She told them:
“I’m expecting a call from the palm tree removal people. Tell them to come any old time, even 3 A.M. if they can. Urgent. Got it?”
Later she’d say she should have known from the meek way her son Cawley said, “OK, Mom.”
“I’m going shopping, boys,” she said, and kissed them both on her way out,
“Help me get this set up,” Lester told Cawley, when their mother walked out the door.
“No can do. Don’t try it, man,” Cawley told him calmly.
They’d been surfing at Huntington, got back and weren’t sure what to do next. Cawley figured he might stop by at Annie Kimball’s family’s house on Catalina where her mother liked hm, see if he could clean the pool for her and get invited to lunch, see if Annie wanted to do something. Or he might check out Vern Craydor’s family ranch in Chino where the big mare was due, see if Vern’s little sister Ginny was home from private school, maybe take her up to see the drags in Irwindale.
He and Lester didn’t always do everything together, and more and more of his brother’s friend were losers.
“Just help me everything marked off before Teddy can get down here,’ Lester said. “Then you can split.”
Teddy was Teddy Broudmire, Nora Broudmire’s big brother from Fullerton High who was in the Marine Corps. Cawley didn’t trust him. Teddy hung out with guys at the donut place on Brookhurst, hoods. They would break into houses.
“Dad said he didn’t want Teddy up here again,” Cawley mentioned,
“He won’t know unless somebody tells him,” Lester argued.
“C’mon, man. Why do you want to cut down a tree? There are rats inside, man.”
“So? Are you kidding? I always wanted to cut one down since we were little. Remember that big old palm on Malvern near Mickey Kelvin’s house? Before they moved? That was bitchin’!”
“That tree crashed on Debby Saltstrom’s dad’s new Imperial and totaled it!”
“So? I know! That was hilarious, Cawl! remember when he came outside and said, ‘Jesus CHRIST! Jesus CHRIST!’? That was classic!”
“No, The answer is no.” ‘
“What else are you going to do? Stay here and jack off on the roof? Start living, Cawley! You read too much!”
Lester grabbed Cawley’s Mustang keys from the kitchen table.
“I am not allowing you to waste another day of your life, man!” Lester told him.
Cawley didn’t even answer. It wouldn’t be polite to go to Annie Kimball’s until least 9 AM because her brothers brought their laundry home from USC and had their old water polo buddies that went to FJC over. They were all animals who would bodysurf at The Wedge at night during winter storms. They who laughed if one of them broke his nose on the sand banks. Lester said he’d kick any one of their asses if they messed with him. In fact a guy from West Fullerton did fight Jerry Kimball last summer the Golden Bear when at the Butterfly Blues Band was there but some guys broke it. He was about 6’6” and an All-American goalie or something, maybe all-conference. Her brother Timmy was staring medical school in the fall, the one with the Maserati. Maybe he’d sell it.
Cawley could also drop in on Butch Cavendahl and see if his sister Jolene was there. Maybe that would be best. He made out with her two weeks ago. They could pack a lunch and go down to Laguna Canyon. She had really fine grade freckles on her thighs, too.
Cawley held his hand palm, up.
“Keys? I’m shootin’ down to Kenny’s first,” Cawley told him.
“Not until you help me get squared away with Teddy,” Lester said with a grin, and that's what Cawley was afraid of. That was a psycho grin and Dad even said. Once Lester thought he bother you in some way, he couldn't resist it, no matter what happened to him.”
“Look, Les,” Cawley began, and looked right in his brother’s eyes. “If you get in trouble again they will try you as an adult. No more Youth Authority. You could end up doing time, and you’ll have it on your record, whatever it might be. Come on, Lester, We’ll do something, OK. What do you want to do?”
“Don’t try to act like Dad” Lester snarled.
“I’m not. But I’m responsible for you. You’re my brother. If you get messed up, it hurts me, too. Mom told me, ‘Don’t let Lester get in trouble’.”
“She said that? Mom said that?”
“Well, she said help him, help your brother.”
“They never cared about be. It was always Cawley, Cawley, Sammy, Breely,” Lester said.
“That’s so untrue!”
“I’m the black sheep of the family,” Lester said.
“Of course you’re the black sheep of the family, Les! You plan it that way You love being the black sheep! It’s your thing! You love it!”
“You don’t know shit!”
“Remember when Dad broke my arm? When we were little? He hardly even touched you!”
“That’s not how I remember it, he threw me across the room, man.?? He was mad. He didn’t mean to hurt us, though. He even bawled and apologized.”
The psychologist said Lester went almost into another state of mind when he was like this, so Cawley expected it. He didn’t expect Lester to act reasonable right now.
“You know, Mom would do anything for you, Lester. She loves you so much. The rest of us, too, but she has a tender spot in her heart for you,” Cawley said softly.
“Yeah. I know what. Let’s go down to the old pancake house in Anaheim. I’m hungry. I want some apple pancakes.”
When Lester didn’t say anything, Cawley went on.
“We’ll take Carrie Filbert! She’ll go. She has a crush on you, man! You can’t do anything, though. She’s so cute. But she’ll go. Come on. You like the Chocolate Maple pancakes! It’ll be fun. Put on a good shirt!”
Cawley reached for the wall phone to call Carrie and Lester started to smile.
“I’ll ask little BeBe Huarte, too! They’re best friends! Ha! Take the little freshmen girls for pancakes! It’ll be a blast! .. Carrie? This is Cawley!”
“I don’t know, man,” Lester said, and then he was on his feet, walking to the garage. Cawley told Carrie he’d call back.
Lester stood where Dad had all his tools and rummaged around. He was looking for something. Then he looked up on a lower rafter where Dad kept his new chain saw, where it was safe from little kids. Cawley watched this hold the tool in his hands, looking out the blade that seemed as long as he was tall, jagged and razor sharp.
“Let’s get started,” Lester announced.
“You can’t do that!”
With his free hand, Lester lifted the garage door and stepped out onto the driveway, set way back from the street. Of all things, Cawley heard the birds singing and smelled the bacon frying in the Essenbeck kitchen next door. He heard splashing from their pool, too, and his brother turned to look at him, as if to say, “Well?”
Lester didn’t like what he saw and reached into his pocket for Cawley’s Mustang keys. While his brother watched in horror, Lester drew his arm back and the keys across a shot fired na into a banked solo of ice plant. His face had no expression all. Then Cawley noticed for the first time that Lester had a snub-nosed 38 Special stuck his waist band where his shirt tail concealed.
“All right,” Cawley said. “What next?”
“Stretch this tape all the way out to Las Pamas,” Lester told him, and handed him the end while he held on to the box.
Cawley didn’t think too much as he paced it off and his brother steed over to the largest Queen Anne palm where he held the box against the trunk.
When the tape was taut, Cawley turned around and Lester gave him the OK signal. He took a oar pad and made a note with a ballot pen.
They repeated that procedure and measured from eleven more palm trees to spots Lester indicated, and then made his notes. Cawley didn’t see a pattern.
When he came back to talk. Lester was in his own world again. He started out one way, closed one eye to concentrate, and made a note that was little more than slash. He studied the line of eucalyptus trees along the west side of the property, and seemed t gauge the hedges closed to the driveway, and the little fountain Mom had placed in the middle of the lawn, next to a small laurel tree. Time and again he returned to the big Queen Palm, where he leaned on his hand against the trunk, turned his body as if to push it over, and stepped away.
Cawley guessed that there trunk might be ten feet around, twelve, maybe. Deceptive, but huge, and solid.
Lester took a yellow chalk his pocket and made marks on the Queen Palm, marks just below his own waist height. Efficiently, he walked around the tree to make more marks. They didn’t look like anything Cawley could read or like anything he’d ever seen, either.
Then Lester stepped back and took off his watch to put n his pocket. It was 9:23 AM. Cawley relaxed his own attention and Lester startled hm by yanking the cord on his chain saw hold it like a word before him.
He addressed the huge Queen Palm and twisted his saw to cut a line across her trunk, waist high for him. The blade disappeared in sawdust and fumes until Lester pulled it out, gentle as a passionate lover, and slid it back in the groove he’d started. He braced his entire body to hold his saw, within feet spread and sprawling the Queen Palm. He stopped to reach inside her and clean away the sawdust with loved hand,, an delicately once more to get al of it and make her clean inside.
He moved his blade down three inches lower for a second cut, one that would join the first, and pressed hard with his blade. Again he brushed out sawdust and resumed. Soon he had a wedge, a wedge he could yank and pill out with his hands, and now a hole cleaven on the side of the Queen Palm.
He placed his hand in the incision, felt around, pulled out sawdust. He wanted it clean and free. Wen he was satisfied, he stepped back from the Queen, five feet and ten and fifteen, and looked up along her side of one hundred twenty feet of her trunk outlined against the pale morning sky.
He studied her and cocked his head to one side, and then he looked a his brother Cawley for the first time several minutes.
“She’s not completely true,” he said. “See what I mean?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“See that dark area, about forty feet up? That thickening? Darker than the rest of her?”
“She wants to turn. She wanted to look the other way a little, a little more toward Harbor. It’s too late now. That’s been years and years. She’s leaning, though, We can’t see it but she is,” Lester told his brother.
Cawley didn’t know to say.
“I wish I’d seen that,” Lester said and took up his chainsaw.
He paced off more area and looked at the Queen Palm, from different angles. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and neck.
“There are a couple of saw horses out in back in the storage closet. Can you bring them out, Cawley? Put a move on it, OK?”
When Cawley lugged them to the front yard, Lester smoked a cigarette he held in his teeth, and he squinted when he looked up to the top to the Queen Palm, across to the telephone lines, and backdown to Las Palmas.
Cawley saw him grin and his brother said, “Jesus Christ!”
“Do need to call for help?”
He told Cawley to bring the line Dad used from the garage, and they tied it to Dad’s new pickup, hi pride and joy.
“This is bassackwards!” Lester admitted with a laugh.
He stood on the ground and made a big loop with the line, tied it real careful, and then climbed on the roof to the master bedroom.
“No, this won’t work,” he said, and frowned.
But then he had an idea.
“Get Dad’s spear gun. Bring the line, too.”
When Cawley came back with it, Lester smiled and said. “You better do this, man. You’re a better shot! Come on up. Yeah, bring the spear gun!”
He explained to Cawley exactly how he should fire the spear into the trunk of the Queen Anne, just below he 999 head, and they gave it a trial run.
But that was one hundred ten feet and the spear once reached half that far, bounced off the trunk and fell not the driveway.
“That’s OK!” Lester shouted, “THAT’S OK!”
He told Cawley to aim for a spot halfway up the Queen trunk where the spear would reach the trunk at a more level angle, share as they could make it.
When Cawley shot again, the spear embedded itself a good six inches into the trunk.
“Heyyyy, per-FECT-o, Jose!” Lester yelled, and gave a war cry.
“Now it’s time for your cowboy skills, son!” he continued.
He described how he wanted Cawley to throw a lasso that would catch on the spear and if, possible, go around it. He could throw as many as he wanted to and achieve that effect.
Cawley took pride in his throws, and although the result was neither neat nor tidy, the twin brothers stood back to admire a spear holding one dozen stout lines and wrapped around the Queen Anne, holding her tight.
Now Cawley tied the ropes to the pickup, and Lester liked at his watch again.
“Teddy should be here by now!” he grumbled. “Anwyay!”
He explained to Cawley how to drive the pickup away from the Queen Palm at exactly the angle Lester showed him, and they had to work at it a while before that happened,
“The line won’t be completely taut, but it’ll pull,” Lester said,
They took their positions and Lester began to saw the Queen Anne, this time at head level, above the wedge hole he cut earlier.
The sun was out now, the morning haze cut through, and it was getting hot. Lester pulled off his shirt, tossed it aside and worked
with sweat running off his toes, shoulders and arms. If chips of wood hit him, he didn't care.
It took a long time. He would saw into the Queen Anne for a while, step back, and then resume wit a slightly different angle. He used his own touch and his intuition to tell how the palm might move, how she absorbed this murderous insult of his saw blade, she how she might retaliate with stabbing shards of quick lethal wood that snapped and flew like razors.
He heaved and held his saw, sensitive to shifts in the Queen Palm no less subtle than a lover’s.
Sometime he thought he heard a crack, or heave, and he may have indeed, in the noise of the bees, crows and swirling hawks in the wind where wasn’t always possible to know for sure.
Cawley waited for his brother and for the Queen Palm. He watched his rear view mirror cos a signal and would not allow himself to pay the trick radio for the blasphemy it would spoil the moment with.
The Queen Palm buckled, seemed to rotate a fraction of an inch, shuddered in the sky before settling place, and Lester gave Cawley no signal. He attacked her again his Queen Palm, with his driving saw that tore at her yellowing flesh, n she stood her ground stoically.
Ten more minutes passed, and now the Queen Palm listed, turned and leaned toward the *** house next door, possibly to fall on their corner dining room whee the family prayed every night before their supper, as Lester knew it might but what could he do?
Inside the truck cab, Cawley gave it the gas, heard is tires squeal, smelled his exhaust, los his own ability to rate for microsecond ay a time, felt his own scrotum tighten, felt his own perspiration greasy in the heat, and goose it again, a little more, a little more.
He couldn’t see the Queen Palm, one hundred fifteen feet of her, or feel how she shuddered n one long last pre-sneeze.
She gave way. She was falling, slow at first as Lester watched, gathering palm sped and momentum, falling like hammer on the Essenbeck family lawn and fence, shaking the ground, not even one full inch from the roof corner. And then she hid herself in smoke and dust.
Lester came at a sprint. Cawley set his brake and ran to his side. The choked and gasped for the air to clear and see what the had done, and Mrs. Essenbeck ran outside screaming with her children too long for school. Carrie came unbidden with the first Giovanni’s extra large pizza of the say, pepperoni and Canadian bacon, a jagged ice of which Lester Yagree tore off with his free hand to devour and chew with Coor’s Beer as lubricant.
Cawley his brother retreated to the sage of the front porch where he collapsed and lay laughing, howling, his own sanity terminated, or, simply glad it was over. A moment later he would rise and spring or the pool n back, buck ass naked be reached the air able thryrpuise depths and the fierce, old immersion, But he want back,m back out the front,ou to here his twin brother Lester stood, with one colder in his feee hand, marking the envy palm tree with his wie chalk so true.
They chopped down ten more palm trees that day with only minor damage, and by dusk wen their father arrived from his day at the office and hospital, they saw his blue green eyes stretch dinner plate wide in horror behind his Lincoln Continental windshield,
He slammed on the brakes, abandoned the vehicle and chased across five family lawns at his reprobate son, pirate of his own loins, impious wastrel, his darling young one.
He bellowed and cursed as he ran, in no tongue or patois witnesses could fathom, spittle caked his own cheeks where the wind impeded him, and in a final high keening he thrust his arms toward to strangle the life from his boy, his first lovely twins, progeny, black West Oklahoma dirt blow human by his breath, Lewin’s own. His won he would kill now under the tall Las Palmas sun.
Lester waited for hm, shirtless, slit-eyed against the glare, with fists held loose agains his chest, his chin down, lead for forward.
“Let’s go, Dad! I waited for this! You son of bitch child-beating bully of an Okie trash bastard! Try me, Dad! Shoot one, see if it lands! You’re a big tough guy, aren’t you, Dad? Breaking a little guy’s arm when he was three! You go first! Try me!”
And there they were.
They stood in a clearing of felled palm trees, a ring of dust and horses flies.
Lewin Yargee looked like he might do it, too.
There must have been fine neighbors and kids and visitors watching now. They’d be glad for some excitement on a slow day in the hills, a great story they could tell for years and years, at high school reunions and at gatherings that lasted late into the night for friends who knew each other since they were infants in back yards bordered by orange groves and stables and avocado trees.
Not all of them heard the little red T-Bird convertible coming on Las Palmas and up on the driveway to park beside a palm that blocked her.
Mrs. Cora Yargee looked fresh in plum slacks and didn’t care who knew it. She carried a pink box fastened by string Judy Lynn’s Bakery Downtown and it was an open question whether the man and his son noticed her until she reached their peripheral vision and she pulled the stings of her pink box to extract first one and then a second blueberry custard tart, banned inner hands as she brought them to their faces the man’s and the son’s, to rub in and squash and dig into their eyes. She speed nap clear of t mess, and nodded to her daughter Breely across the way.
The girl put her forefingers in her mouth to whistler, and on cue, a husky local attorney approached with a legal contract to for someone to sign. Behind him stood a real estate broker known from one end of town to another.
Cora handed her husband a silver Cross pen and said, “Sign it. If you don’t, I won’t.”
Lewin Yargee wihed the blueberry custard filling forms face and fami hands to take th in and the legal document.
“2376 Richman Knoll! 6 bedrooms! 3 baths! Wet bar! Javuzsi, swimming holland stables for 4! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!” the attorney bellowed.
“Drinks on me at Dal Rae, everybodyGD, I’m hungrier than a tomcat in a brand new cat house! Ha ha ha!” the lawyer shouted and brayed with laughter.
Cora got her house.
Lester went into the Marines a month later, did two tours in Vietnam, came home n one is and his deck shuffled, and on the morning of the day after he reentered The World, apologized to his dad.
“You were a tough little guy,” Lewin told him.
“I know I was, Dad.”
“How come, son?”
“I wish I knew, Dad.”
They didn’t say anything for a while — they were on the back porch, sipping coffee, watching the hummingbirds and the feeder.
“You sure cut down those palm trees, didn’t you, Lester?
“I sure did, Dad.”
“But how’d you know how? Nobody showed you how to cut down a palm tree, son.”
“I guess I winged it, Dad. You want to know what? I almost crushed the neighbor’s dining room with a palm tree,”
“You did? How? How come you didn't dig around the root, Lester? You did it the hard way, Les! Tell me!”
So he did, Lester did. He and his dad didn’t always get along so great after that, but they always talked and enjoyed each other.
Cora still lives in that house on Richman Knoll and smells ninety-eight years old.
She stills sits in the sunshine almost every day, too, and if she wants to take her top off, there’s no one who can stop her.
That’s pretty good, isn’t it?