(Excerpt from a novel) The brass player in a band he played with had a trumpet-playing friend out in the Imperial Valley, the fucking pointless desert, in El Centro, with a five-piece jazz combo. A jazz combo out there with all those mariachis. The guy’s sax player was quitting and moving. Probably moving and therefore quitting. It was a difficult place to decide to continue living. Cal started filling in at the jazz combo’s gigs, driving two hours each way for a $75 gig. But the trumpet player in El Centro also owned a music store. Offered Cal a job there, so he could stay, stop the driving. Plus the store’s instrument technician was a retiring band teacher, would stay another year and teach Cal basic wind instrument repair. It could be a life.
In 1983 he’d been full time in the Imperial Valley for almost two years. And not alone. The woman he’d brought with him had two kids. One, mercifully, a boy in high school, a year remaining, then the army. The girl turning 11. Sixth grade. Growing breasts. Make-up and her own phone were scheduled for next year, according to the woman, her plans for the $200 in monthly child support.
The woman with the kids was someone who’d just started hanging around at his gigs in San Diego, the last six months before he made the move. She was a friend of a friend of the band’s brother-sister singers. Started hanging around him. Made it easy. Or better put, he just didn’t say no.
The landlord would not buy new carpet, claimed he’d had it cleaned when the last renter moved out. Now two-years-plus into living there, with Trinity’s and Angel’s friends in and out every day (and night), there was no way to prove it wasn’t likely the truth. Cal checked the cost to replace the carpet himself. Too much, his business too new, his intake from the two jobs barely now covering rent, bills and food. He checked commercial carpet cleaning costs and told Virginia they could start saving to do that. Virginia responded that she was looking into getting a job at the Christian store on Main Street, in the storefront right beside the music store.
“Christian store?” he said, smiling, “What, do people go there when their pet lions get hungry?”
Virginia, squinted a little, looking back at him. “What?”
“Never mind.” He took a bite of oatmeal. It was 5:30 a.m., the kids both still in bed before school. He usually got to his repair shop by six to work 4 hours before the music store opened. Virginia made oatmeal in a double-boiler, topped it with a pat of butter and brown sugar. It was really good, but he doesn’t remember if oatmeal every day was his idea or hers. “What makes you think they’ll hire you, what qualifications do you have for a Christian store?”
“I’ve been talking to her, I go down there a lot.”
“Why? What are you buying there?”
“Nothing, mister skintight.”
Cal swallowed, drank some juice, then said, “I think that designation is for those clothes you’ve been buying Trinity.”
“Big words don’t make you smarter.” She scraped the ring of remaining oatmeal from the pot into the trash. The kids never ate oatmeal, thus the six or seven boxes of sweet cereal in the pantry. “Okay, Babes, I just miss you and want to see you, you’re at the shop and music store so long every day.”
“How are you seeing me from the Christian store?”
“I usually see you in there when I walk past.” She was filling the sink with soapy water to wash the one pot. “But sometimes I don’t see you. Where do you go?”
“I don’t know, back into the shop, to the restroom, the guitar wall, checking sheet music.” He got up to fill his thermos with coffee. The coffee pot was beside the sink, and his wallet and keys sat with the junk tray on the ledge of the pass-through window where a person washing dishes could watch the TV in the living room. The TV was on now, the sound down to almost nothing, people sitting around a coffee table with matching coffee mugs.
She said, “Who do you talk to on the phone so much?”
“Customers. Stores have phones so customers can call and ask if you have something.”
“I know that. I’ve worked in stores.” The pot clanked into the dish drainer, and the drain started sucking the hot water out of the sink. “If I work in the Christian store, we could have lunch every day.”
When he finished fastening the two lids on his thermos, put his wallet into his pocket, hooked his wad of keys to his belt loop, picked up the sack lunch she’d made for him, and then looked at her, he realized he hadn’t really seen her this morning. She wasn’t dressed yet, but had leg warmers over sweat pants. It was probably already 80 degrees. “Are you cold?” he asked.
“I have to stay in shape.”
His mouth opened, then shut. Best not to ask.
As Cal expected, the Christian store job never happened, but Virginia joined the church the Christian store owner went to.
Fridays the older kid, Angel, started appearing in the kitchen even before Cal came in for his oatmeal. Then he went back to bed for an hour. Friday afternoon was when he would take the bus to Las Vegas to visit his dad. But it took until Cal’s wallet was left flopped open after Angel went back to his bedroom (likely Cal coming down the hall a little earlier than usual) for Cal to realize he never had much cash left if he had to buy something, Friday afternoon or Saturday.
He mentioned this to Virginia. She said, “No, my Angel doesn’t steal, he’s not an animal.”
Cal said he was going to start keeping his wallet locked in the file cabinet but it was going to be a pain in the ass to go lock it up every time he got home and then unlock it every morning before he left. Virginia said, “Angel needed his allowance. I told him to get it.”
“Doesn’t Merle pay his allowance when he’s there — his child support?”
“Maybe it’s not enough. Maybe Merle came up short this week.”
“Why are you covering for him, he needs to be taught—”
“I’m his mother, you don’t know anything about raising kids.” Her wooden spoon broke in half when she slammed it on the counter.
No more than one or two weeks later, one morning just after the clock radio-alarm came onto the oldies station at 5 a.m., Virginia fell out of bed instead of getting up. Then, still curled on the floor, she vomited. She couldn’t stand up straight to get from the floor to the car. Cal pulled on his t-shirt and jeans, stepped into his tennis shoes, threw the blanket over her and half carried her out the door, then had to leave her sitting on the brick planter to go back into the house to unlock his wallet and get his keys. Down the hall in the bedroom, the clock radio was playing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
Hours later, in the waiting room, a doctor came to sit beside Cal and let him know that Virginia had an ectopic pregnancy and they would have to remove one of her ovaries, as well as the embryo. He knew how hard this was, the doctor said, but ectopic pregnancies were life-threatening and suddenly turn what should be a happy, hopeful time of discovering there was a new baby coming into a sad time of loss that Virginia would need help and support to recover from. And Cal too, the doctor said, would feel it.
Prior to going to the shop on Saturdays, Cal mowed and trimmed the yard before 7 a.m. He would do it even earlier, but running a mower and edger earlier than 6 seemed rude. (No one having thumping parties with their stereo speakers outdoors seemed to worry about being rude on Friday and Saturday nights.) By the time he swept the sidewalk, driveway and front porch, it was over 80, maybe even nearing 90. He’d been finding cigarette butts on the front porch the last few weeks. Virginia opened the front door and asked through the security screen if he would like a fried egg sandwich and coffee. The kids were still in bed, the air conditioner already on. A fan blowing from the pass-through ledge across the kitchen made the egg sandwich cold by the time it was in front of him at the table, but it was still good, the egg crackly brown at the edges, cheese melted over the top, the toast light brown, not too hard.
“Trin and me’ll be coming downtown to get some shoes for her. Maybe we can meet you at the store and get lunch?”
“She needs shoes already?”
“There’s a new style of high-top tennies. I might get me a pair too and start jogging again.” She wiped the congealed bacon grease from the pan with a wad of paper towels.
“Did her check come?”
“Money money money, it’s all you think about.” Virginia whirled back to the sink. The fry pan clanked against the already-chipped enamel.
“Someone has to.”
“How about think about me, my needs for a change?”
“Okay, what do you need, we’ll go later … together.”
“Some needs are … okay, how about when are you going to make me be an honest woman?”
The mouthful he chewed, as good as it tasted, was cold fried egg. “It’s up to me to help you be honest? What happened to your new church—”
“It’s not about them, but yes, since you asked, they do agree.”
“Okay.” He tore off two more bites before chewing. Through a full mouth, “What is their agreement?”
“We’re living together like a man and a woman.”
“You mean one of us is pretending?” He wished he hadn’t said that. He stuffed the last big piece of egg sandwich into his mouth before he’d swallowed the last two bites, stood with his coffee.
“Are you really this dense?” She slapped the counter with a towel. He looked, but she’d evidently been killing a fly.
“Well, apparently I don’t know what we’re talking about. Maybe you can catch me up to speed later.”
“Later, always later. You need to make me out to be an honest woman.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you want?”
“We should be married.”
He didn’t say anything, watching another fly creep toward a grease spot on the stove, then pause to rub its hands together.
“It takes two to say I do. Think about it, Cal, you have a job, I keep the home and raise the kids, it’s like serendipity.”
“It is?” He retrieved his ballcap from the table beside his plate, put it back on. But his keys were across the kitchen on the pass-through ledge, and his wallet locked in the file cabinet. “So if you had a job, it would be a different story?”
“You’re purposely twisting everything upside the head.” With a butter knife she tapped on the counter, like a rim shot emphasizing every downbeat: “I’m sleeping in your bed. You should take me there to be your wife.”
He put his hand on her shoulder as he went behind her to get his keys. “We’re doing okay, let’s just keep it this way.”
Six months later, just when the short months of mild winter temperatures were climbing back into the spring 90’s, the wedding ceremony took place in the backyard, under a chicken wire canopy covered with tissue-paper carnations. Trinity wore a miniskirt and midriff off-the-shoulder top. Angel wore stonewashed jeans and a t-shirt with a suit coat. Cal asked him if he’d found the coat in the hall closet where some of his old clothes had been moved, but Angel said, “Dude, no, I don’t do handed-downs.” Angel brought the stereo speakers outside and spent a week making mix tapes for continuous music. He asked Cal what he wanted to contribute to the playlist, but, besides the fact that Dexter, Pharoah or Coltrane should never just be mood music, Cal couldn’t imagine them in the vibe for this.
Virginia wore white. At least not down to the floor, full, swooshy or trailing. But definitely lacey. Cal had asked, when she showed it to him, “White? What’s that all about? You’ve been married before.”
“I feel like it’s my first time.”
“Then that flower girl and best man you’ve got lined up were immaculate conception.”
“At least they’re supporting me.”
“Okay, maybe they can take over with the rent and electricity.”
“Don’t be a dufus, it’s my wedding.”
He’d let her set the date when she’d told him she was pregnant again, in January. He wasn’t sure how it would have happened, with how seldom he relented and how careful he was when he did. He knew enough to know it could. But in February, after the invitations had gone out and the caterer paid half (more than wiping out the carpet-cleaning savings), she said it had been a false alarm. The next one, over the summer, wasn’t, but was another ectopic, and, now being married, the hospital bill put him into a deeper hole than the wedding had already hollowed out.