By Paul Saevig
The girlfriends from Golden Hill met for a lunch and a reunion, this time in a fish place they liked in Dana Point. Twelve of them came, from California, Hawaii and Arizona. They’d all known each other since childhood.
Most of the girls rode horses then. They rode up and down the hills in faded jeans and white blouses. Their horses walked, usually. All the way up to the lake and back. You’d see them on Valencia Mesa or on Rodeo, framed by the sunshine, and the breeze lifted their hair. Sometimes they giggled, or laughed at a private joke. Later on, you might go by to see them, or run into them at a party. It was good to be alive. For the longest time, what went on in the world below hardly seemed to matter.
Today they moved from subject to subject with the ease of a big cat stretching. Family, and grandchildren, husbands and exes. People they knew. Surgeries. Doctors. Parents. Seldom even half a minute passed without laughing. Incidents from sixty-five years ago cracked them up, a sweet mom long gone brought tears, and dances, movies, times a dad yelled, an unsettled rumor, a faithful horse, a dog they all loved, a car crash down the street, the Lion’s Fair, the swim club, friends who moved away unknown, vacations at the Royal Hawaiian, caravans to the river, all of it and more.
They talked about every year of their lives, in no special order, a loom of memory, endearing, bittersweet.
A new husband .. moving to Flagstaff .. hip replacement .. new recipe for tacos .. granddaughter engaged .. trip to Nebraska planned .. saw Trudy at Nordstrom .. heard Billy had prostate cancer .. Thelma’s mom is 102 ..
They drew comfort from beong together, reminded of a place in the world that was theirs. Sometimes they felt like twenty-five year-olds. These were people who understood them and loved them.
They took pictures, pictures of each other and the food they ordered.
“I love your sweater!” Linda told Sue, who’d mentioned Becky had been diagnosed with Graves Disease. They’d already learned
Ernie slipped in his yard and broke his wrist.
They all agreed Judy’s great-granddaughter is the spitting image of her Great Aunt Mabel. She taught them how to use makeup in a refined way.
“Do you like your GYN? Is she any good?” Nancy whispered to Michelle, who had to admit, “Not really.”
Their conversations rose and fell, reached crescendos, a human symphony with moods they shared in a zone of safety they wished they always felt.
“I’ll take this shrimp home with me ..” Sandy remarked, as if she’d considered her decision for months.
“Whatever happened to Ruthie Zeiser? Her dad was a fireman,” Betty said, and Patricia said, “Fire inspector, hon.” Jane thought their old friend had moved to Boston, maybe Cambridge.
They listened. They sat close together. Some spoke more, some were silent. Gladys and Linda didn’t get along that well, never had. There was a time Nancy and Marge feuded for eleven years, and now they sat together like kittens. Tina was Christian Science. Diane and Michelle were best friends, inseparable. They all went to camp together, Cotillion, swim club, riding lessons, barbecues, slumber parties, caravans to the river, Sunday school. Julie cried easily. Karen was blunt. Linda snored, Nancy still stuttered sometimes.
“I heard Angela’s cousin got a third DUI,” June said, and learned he’d lost his job with Ernst and Ernst. His mom had been their den mother.
“Christine had her teeth capped. She looks gorgeous!” Michelle declared.
"Her mom was just an angel,” Belinda said, and everyone nodded.
Their voices softened to talk about how Edith’s son in law drowned at Windansea. He’d been taking Oxycontin for years.
Nancy brightened the mood when she asked Angela, “Did you get that blouse at Neiman Marcus?” It had been Pucci in Beverly Hills.
When Joan placed her napkin on the table and said, “I’m stuffed!”, the conversation might have gone a new direction.
But Linda revealed, “Anyway, Joan filed for divorce from Teddy. We always knew it would happen. They’re still the best of friends. He got super-involved in his church, you know. Joan wanted to move to Wyoming. They never really had fights, exactly. Teddy could be so sarcastic. Joan always wanted more children. He would spend all his time on his classic cars. I don’t think Joan really tried to commit suicide. Well, she might have. She was going to a psychiatrist, a little Jewish guy. I love them both to death! She turned 75, and just decided that was enough. Teddy agreed. She’ll probably live up in Sam Ramon. Near Priscilla. Yeah. The oldest. It’s kind of sad but .. for the best.”
“I think so,” Linda said in a voice barely audible, and there was silence.
“Oh, Mark moved into assisted living in Calabasas Hills,” June said. “Courtney called me. His second wife is just a doll, really. I believe she was a real estate broker. Yeah. Well, he was getting forgetful. He started driving over people’s lawns ..”
“Haha! I’m sorry – that’s not funny .. but hahahaah! Poor Mark!” Linda interrupted.
“Sad,” several women murmured.
Brenda confessed her blood pressure was way up. Joyce admitted she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. Monica said, Me, either. Karen said, Me, too. Nancy revealed her youngest grandchild was deep in the autistic spectrum. There were tears, hugs.
Becky described taking her grandchildren to see Taylor Swift. Wow! A blast!
Thelma said she was glad her Pete was finally selling his damn sloop! Laughing.
They began looking at their watches. Excused themselves to go to the john. Sat up straighter, drank water, looked at the bill, asked for bowser bags.
Karen had to get back to Flintridge-La Canada.
Maureen walked out with her.
Linda wanted to look at cards next door.
“Oh, I heard a guy in our class died a few weeks ago,” Michelle said. “Suicide. Don Croddle. Or Dan, I guess. Yeah. I didn’t know him. In Rialto, I think it was.”
“Really?” Nancy asked, while she looked for something in her bag.
“Don Croddle?” Linda said.
“I think so.”
“That sounds kind of familiar.
“Where did he live?” Betty said, and held her jacket.
“Sunny Hills West? Maybe?” Linda suggested, and put on her sunglasses.
“Did we know him?” Betty said as she stood up and stretched her legs.
“Not me,” Thelma said.
“Not me,” Monica added.
“That’s too bad,” June said and signed the check.
“I gotta get movin’ ..” Becky said.
“OK ..” several others replied.
“Let’s do this again in 6 months.”
“OK, love you guys!”
“Me, too, you!”
The next morning in Napa, Trip was in the habit of beginning his day with the Orange County Register on his Mac. He sat down with steaming Cream of Wheat, brown sugar, chilled milk and orange juice, and saw an obituary for Don Croddle. The name sounded familiar and he began to read. When the deceased was descruved as a graduate of Sunny Hills, Trip was baffled. Newspapers had begun indicating when people committed suicide, which had been an invasion of privacy except for celebrities. Trip disapproved. He made a mental note to look this guy up in a yearbook later.
He did some work down at the stables, sorted through a closet for old suits and sports jackets to give the Goodwill, and started a strip steak to make sandwiches for lunch. When his wife Helen sat down in the table by the window, she talked about their youngest grandson, and suggested they walk over to the winery later and check out a band that would be playing. Trip agreed, and wondered why he felt anxious.
After sitting down with a new book on the Battle of Antietam, he remembered the guy who committed suicide. He kept his Sunny Hills annuals inside a cabinet, and pulled out 1966-1967. When he found Don
Croddle, the face still looked no more than slightly familiar. He thumbed through a few more pages before he gave up and decided to take a nap. Not someone he actually knew.
He slept longer than he meant to, and awakened feeling melancholy. Since he sold his brokerage, he missed seeing dozens of people every day. Napa was
Helen’s idea. He would have preferred one of the beaches on the coast.
He took a couple of cold beers down to the stable where he could relax. The sound and the smell of the horses always did that to him. There was a bench in the stable with comfortable cushions and he sat down to think. From where he sat, he could see part of the corral where the new foal had learned to run with confidence last week. As he began to daydream, he found himself thinking of a Sunny Hills girl named Louise Truxton. She loved to ride, sometimes with her dad on Murphy Ranch. He hadn’t seen her since one of the first reunions. They used to go out. Now he was curious.
He took a swig of beer and dialed Mike Wilkes’ number in Alamo. Best friends since 3rd grade.
“You ever hear anything about Weezie Truxton, Mike?”
“Not really. Her husband died. Hold on. Miri? What’s Weezie Truxton up to these days?”
Trip heard Mike’s wife’s voice in the background, and thought of the suicide guy. Shadows were falling on the corral.
“Trip? Nancy Sliddell said Weezie’s lives in Laguna now.”
“OK. You remember a guy named Don Croddle?”
Mike asked his wife.
“Not really. Miri read he killed himself. I think I heard Mr. Croddle owned a bar in Stanton. Sorry.”
“OK. You guys going to the Jackson Browne concert?”
“I guess so. Miri got tickets.”
“Helen wants to go, visit a few wineries.”
“Yeah, you could come up.”
They left it at that.
A minute after he hung up, he remembered an incident and called Mike again.
“Remember when they found a kid sleeping in the equipment shed, and he turned out to be drunk? Coach Barnett was pissed.”
“Come to think of it, I do.”
“I’m pretty sure that was this Don Croddle. He’d been in that shed with his bottles since lunch.”
“I remember he threw up ..”
“Yeah. So he killed himself.”
“The obituary said Rialto.”
“Yeah. I didn’t know him.”
“Me, either,” Mike said.
After he came inside, Trip still felt anxious and couldn’t explain why. He and his wife walked to the concert, about a mile.
Now that Faye Summerral was a widow, she usually spent Sundays with her mother. She would pick up Grace at the “senior community” where she lived, if the old lady was feeling well, and they might drive to a seafood restaurant Grace especially liked. They used to see a movie at Fashion Island sometimes, but it became too difficult for Grace to sit that long. Now they usually drove to this or that spot where Grace could watch the ocean, or they might stop at Sherman’s Gardens in Corona Del Mar. Once in a while they’d go over by Lido Isle and eat a hot fudge sundae while they watched the bay. Faye enjoyed Grace’s stories, her anecdotes about growing up Pasadena and going east to Wellesley College. During the war, she used the Japanese she learned from their maid to translate at a government office in Downtown LA. She met her husband Roger on December 5, 1941, when he walked to Clifton’s Cafeteria from the big law firm where he worked. Grace walked over from her office and when they sat down at nearby tables, he saw her Thomas Wolfe novel and asked what she thought of the protagonist, Eugene Gant. They got to talking, and the next evening, went dancing at the Green Hotel in Pasadena. Afterwards he kissed her on her parents’ front porch and asked if he could see her again. “I think so,” she said merrily, and early Monday morning, he came to her office to say goodbye. He was enlisting in the navy and asked her to write to him. Before long, he was sent to the South Pacific where a fellow attorney was named Richard Nixon. By the time Roger got home, he and Grace had decided to marry.
These visits always left Faye wistful and melancholy. Grace was fading, Faye’s own children and grandchildren lived in Monterey, and she didn’t feel like seeing other men after her Scott died of liver cancer, after a life of light drinking. One of Faye’s consolations was her old friend Weezie Truxton. But Weezie was married with four children who lived nearby, so Faye didn’t see her often enough.
That Sunday, Faye and Grace watched a video of “North By Northwest” with the old lady’s favorite, Cary Grant. She fell asleep and stirred many times but enjoyed it. Faye pushed her wheelchair out in the sun for fifteen minutes, and that was enough. The two women embraced and kissed, and Grace wanted to lie down.
When Faye reached her condo in Big Canyon, there was a Post-It message on her door. From Weezie’s daughter Amelie, it read:
AUNTIE FAYE, CAN YOU COME DOWN TO MOM’S? WE’LL BE EXPECTING YOU. – AMELIE
Faye knew something was wrong. She took a shower, changed clothes and started down.
She didn’t like to drive any more. Traffic was backed up from the entrance to Newport Coast. Somebody in a Ferrari had been T-boned on Coast Highway. She hated that expression. Miranda Steinlen’s family used to rent a cabin in Crystal Cove all summer. Now that was fun. They could have parties on the beach and no one interrupted them. She heard it got wild later. That’s where Anita Szell got pregnant. Faye was at Stanford by then.
The gate at Weezie’s was open. As soon as she walked into the courtyard, Amelie came out and hugged her.
“Mom had a panic attack,” she whispered.
Weezie had not been the most beautiful girl at Sunny Hills, or the most desired because that took a certain kind of figure. Instead, she was the one “soshes” considered gorgeous, and the honor roll students. It was said she only made out with two or three boys there. There was a simplicity in her life that others decided must hide something. “Louise has secrets”, some said. She was early to rise, early to bed, always did her homework, belonged to a few clubs, made mostly A’s, and she had a serious air about her. She made friends with Faye her first day.
Faye wanted to see her, but she was lying down. The house was the kind where the view of the ocean seemed to be straight down. She talked to Weezie’s husband for a while and then their daughter Lola and her children. They called her “Auntie Faye”. They asked her about living in Switzerland and while Faye talked, the waves broke hard on the rocks below.
Then Weezie came out in a white sweatshirt and pants, ghastly pale for the first time Faye had seen since they were college roommates. Her hands shook, too. Weezie led her friend out to a long veranda where no one would hear them. She took out a cigarette but only held it.
“I flipped out,” she said.
“Linda called this morning to chat. She said somebody from our class died. It was in the paper. So we talked about other things.
“Remember Ann Pillsbury? From West Hermosa Drive? She lives in San Francisco now, last I heard. One day before school, she sat down in the Senior Area. Those cement benches? People come and go, and then a guy comes up behind her and starts messaging her shoulders. One thing about Ann was she didn’t like to be touched. This stranger is really digging his thumbs into her shoulder muscles. She told me later she pressed himself against her back.
“I was about ten feet away and I saw her pitch forward on the ground. They said later she fainted, but it was a convulsion. Trip picked her up real fast and ran to the nurse’s office. She called an ambulance. I remember Ann made a choking, gargling sound. The bell had rung and not as many kids saw as you might think. Dr. Spencer admitted her to Brea Neuropsychiatric in the canyon. She was there five days and then sent home. She missed a school debate.
“Ann Pillsbury did not have epilepsy. She was totally freaked out. The guy ran the other way and they found him behind the tennis court walls. Ann’s dad wanted him arrested, but technically he’d only touched her shoulders that they could prove with witnesses. Instead, he transferred to Buena Park, and a few weeks later he dropped out to enlist in the army.”
Weezie couldn’t look Faye in the eye. When Faye said, “Don Croddle?” Weezie shut her eyes tight and nodded.
Faye started to remember then. She’d heard other girls warn each other against this guy, in front of the restroom mirrors and in the locker room. She didn’t give it much thought. There were quite a few guys the girls avoided.
Amelie came to the patio door and said they were taking up dinner.
Weezie glanced that way and then looked at Faye. She held the sleeves of her shirt.
“When I was first married, we lived in Los Feliz while 00 worked downtown. One Saturday I went home for Dad’s birthday. I stopped first at the Pantry, and when I came out it was raining. I used the key to open my car door, and a guy’s hand covered my mouth. He pushed me down hard between cars and ripped my blouse open. I could hear the cars on Harbor. He was about to do it when one of the cars started, and then he ran away. It was Nancy Pennock’s dad.
“He gave me his coat and helped me up. I was kind of numb. He said we could call the police but I just asked him to take me home. He was very sweet about it. So that’s what I did. I didn’t even tell my mom for quite a few years.
“I knew my dad and husband would hunt that guy down and kill him. Then where’d I be?”
She didn’t have to tell Faye any more. They went inside for dinner but they didn’t eat much.
Up to that morning in the Senior Area, Trip and Weezie had it all planned out. She’d be in Palo Alto and he’d be in Santa Clara. They didn’t come out and say it, then, but when they graduated, they’d probably get married and probably go to the same law school.
But when she came back to school, things were different. She didn’t want to kiss him and asked him to understand. He could come over for dinner, but she didn’t want to go out, or even sit under the trellis in her parents’ back yard and look through a telescope at the moon and stars with him. She agreed to march with him at graduation, but not to attend any of the parties. She went home with her parents. Days later, she took a plane to New Hampshire where her great aunt lived, and spent the summer reading classic novels.
Trip didn’t see her again for ten years.
He thought of joining VISTA or the Peace Corps. They let him into Redlands and then he transferred to USC.
That night in Napa, he worked on a jigsaw puzzle, a special kind he ordered from Belgium, a panorama from a the Battle of Gettysburg. His wife usually went to bed at 7.
Over the years, he’d learned how to think about something indirectly and without his full conscience mind. He found that process helpful in monitoring certain investments.
He did not think about Don Croddle, whom he never knew anyway. There were a few familiar incidents he’d witnessed with partial attention. The guy totaled a girl’s new GTO at Hillside drive-in hamburgers. Another time he was on LSD at school and tried to climb up on the roof of the gym.
He was also at a wedding in Atherton when Weezie’s sister Margie told him about the incident in front of the Pantry.
He became short of breath and his knees weakened. Finally he cried, not from sadness but from frustration. That was the only time he ever got drunk.
Now he pushed his chair away from the jigsaw puzzle and found his coat to go down to the stable.
There was a funeral service at a Church of the Nazarene in Rialto. They were already started when Linda walked in and took a seat. She didn’t see anybody she knew. The minister was a man in his twenties from Indonesia, and he didn’t say anything about the deceased that wouldn’t apply to most men. There was an Indonesian woman about twenty years old wearing mourning clothes, and she had a mixed race son about 3. Linda felt her own curiosity drain away. As politely as she could, she rose and walked out. She decided not to tell anyone.
No one would be interested.