A World the Color of Salt (3 page)

BOOK: A World the Color of Salt
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I followed his gaze to the same ribbon end fluttered down at the stand near the ladies' restroom. The door was cracked open, something I hadn't noticed before. We looked at each other. “Somebody used it,” I said.

“Damn,” Joe said.

Joe was turning the corner, ready to scare the bejesus out of the rookie, I guessed, by the time I got my key in the car door. When I opened it, the interior light shone on something in the grass under the hedge I parked near. I reached down and picked up a roundish, gold metal object about the size of a walnut. It had a small hole in the back and flanges around the rim.

I didn't want to go back in when Joe was doing his thing, didn't want to fuss with Billy K., didn't want to find a bag-and-tag for something that probably wasn't even evidence. The metal thingy had been over too far in the grass, a long way from the outer perimeter tape. In a moment of doubt, though, I pushed my car door closed and took one or two steps toward the store and Joe. And then I returned. Why distract him now, when he had some chewing out to do? Once in the car, I pulled out a Kleenex from the box on the console and set my gold gadget in it, twisting the top of the tissue for a handle, and put it in my right pocket.

On the way out of there I was thinking about the FNG and feeling sorry for him. I thought, If the rookie took a wee in the ladies' because the men's was taped, maybe no harm. At least it wasn't the taped one. Maybe. Tomorrow. We'd see.


I could get silly with Patricia. She'd be good for me now. I called and asked if we could meet at Chi-Chi's in Huntington Beach, near her house. How she and I ever became friends is beyond me. We're so different. Nearly six feet of pretty, all legs, Patricia has deep red hair bottle-streaked with blonde, and a child's voice. The first time I heard it, I thought she was putting me on, but it's hers. And the men just love her. She jokes about her lack of frontal topography, but if so, it sure doesn't interfere with the number of possible dates one woman could have in a lifetime.

The day I met her I was in the parking lot at Alisos beach after some breathless jogging—whose idea was that anyway, I asked myself, swearing off it forever. I was putting gear back in the car when she came up from the sand, walking on the side of her foot, saying “Ow-w!” and laughing at the same time. The small guy with her danced in front of her, holding her at arm's length around the waist as he kept saying, “Bummer, man.” With one hand she clutched at the top of his head, and with the other grabbed up her ankle to inspect her foot, the blood on the bottom bright and shiny as an open tomato and the sand like white salt around the rim. To the rescue I came. I gave her a minipad from my purse, told her to stick it in her shoe till we could get her someplace. The little dude split, saying he'd be in touch. I said I knew where there was an emergency hospital. On the way to ER, she kept telling me how nice it was of me to do this, and then she'd convulse with giggles. I thought, What we have here is a certifiable loony, until she told me that the little dude had been following her
around all afternoon so she wound up smoking dope with him in a cove. She hadn't been able to figure out how she was going to tell him she wasn't going home with him, and that made her nervous, which started her laughing, and he just thought she was having a good time.

Sometime during our drive to the hospital she asked me if I was home on spring break, meaning, was I a college student? No-o-o, I said. But I didn't mention what I did. I just said thanks for the compliment. I said I worked for the county. Later, by months, I told her precisely how.

At Chi-Chi's, six overhead TVs were tuned to rock video, as always. Go to the restroom and you get piped-in KROQ, as in K-Rock. Food servers sing those annoying songs on your b-day, and I suspect people pretend they have birthdays when they don't, for the free dessert, because you can't get through a meal without at least two attacks of happy singers interrupting your conversation. But the thing is, voices and laughter shoot off all the hard surfaces, and you've got two choices: Drink and join in, or curl up and die.

I walked in, the food smelled wonderful. Broiled everything. Cilantro and lemon. Good green things. Patricia wouldn't be there yet. I waited for the hostess. Someone forgot to write the special of the day in the smeary center of a blackboard. At the top, painted words read, “What Foods These Morsels Be.” When the hostess came, she was wearing a blue-and-white flowered island dress pinched high up one leg. I asked for a certain table facing the water, even though it was night. In the daytime, you can see a square foot of Pacific Ocean with a shadow of Catalina Island behind it. I just needed to know it was there. Through fake fig leaves I watched the men at the bar. Red faces, heads whonked up out of their shoulders as they waited for a football moment on the TV. Two big guys. I thought of Jerry Dwyer. He would have been watching the game, Rams losing to the Forty-niners; a Rams man nonetheless.

“Hi,” Patricia said. She sat down across from me. Over a deep-purple skirt she wore a hot-pink nubby-silk business jacket, which was frankly stunning with her red hair. Big glass purple-and-pink earrings glinted at her jawline. Her face is round and soft-looking, as if it doesn't belong to her lengthened
and considerably sinewy body. It's a voluptuous face, if you can say that about a face, and it sports two dimples: one where you might expect, by the mouth; the other in an odd place I still find myself wondering at—the muscles pull in to form a little hole just under her right eye, riding the crest of her cheek. These twists of muscle make her look twice as happy. She smiles, you can't help smiling back.

“Guess what,” she said.


“I passed my real estate exam.”

“Congratulations. You can buy dinner.”

“I will.”

“No, you won't.”

Leaning in, she said, “I can quit my friggin' job now.” She worked at a small import electronics firm in Laguna Hills, performing everything from minor sales to inventory control, but basically she was a clerk. I remember when she started wearing jackets with her dresses so she'd be taken more seriously. “When I sell my first million-dollar home, that is. Till then, tote that barge.”

“Next week,” I said.

“Next week,” she agreed. “We're in a recession, right? Well, they are just
going to quit building homes, no way. I was driving up from San Diego last week and could
believe my eyes.” Her red curls swung. It was not hard to imagine her telling a potential buyer, Have I got a dollhouse for

Any fool could have sold houses two years ago, and though this year's market collapsed for the ritzy ones, there was still potential in the more modest homes, she said. And she was right. Hills everywhere are shorn and scraped to white bone. Rows and rows of pink, peach, white, sand, and buff structures cut across the horizon in layers, with about twenty feet between them and no visible trees. Whole communities spring up virtually overnight. First you notice the giant water tanks rising like stacks of beige poker chips on the brown hills. Later, quick-growing trees will hide them. On the freeways pickup trucks with illegal aliens in the beds, their hats pulled low, arms dangling on their knees, travel to the new sites to work landscaping and any other back-breaking labor. Above it all float the dislocated ravens, circling, perching on light
standards or scavenging cast-off lunch sacks, always with their mates, but sometimes in congregations of four or six, croaking, saying, What the hell is going on here, folks?

Though I live near the beach and work inland, I drive south often with my neighbor's dog just to feel I'm getting away. I walk the washes or park on a hill, take out my binoculars to look for birds, and see instead the methodical scouring of Orange County. Especially in the spring, you can't escape the steady
of carpenters nailing roofs, shirts off and muscles gleaming in the sun. Or the low rumble of earth movers. Once, in a sort of valley, the sun had pinked the sky to the west, the workers had gone home, and there, in the blue shadows of a horseshoe-shaped set of hills, I counted thirty-one beige hulks, gathered like insects settling in for sleep. It was scary.

I said to Patricia, “You realize there's going to be no more room for marines or illegal aliens anymore? They might get rid of Pendleton,” referring to a base down the coast.

be too bad,” she said. She'd been staring at my hairstyle for a long time without saying anything. I'd had my hair cut three weeks before, readying myself for my return to work. Ever since, I'd been feeling like a victim of a Carol Burnett skit. With the sunny part clipped off, the hair was definitely blah, more brown now, but not a pretty brown. She finally said, “Your hair looks good.”

“You're full of shit. Thank you.”

“No, really. I'd go even shorter. You got the ears.” She pulled her own hair back to show off flaps, I will admit. I smiled. It's not often you get a compliment like that. Then, changing subjects by making a funny wince, she said, “I'm sorry I didn't get by.”

“No problem. I wasn't crazy about seeing people.”

“I hate hospitals.”

“So do I.”

She'd already waved down the waitress and told her what I'd drink, ordering for herself a vodka Collins to my Bud. Patricia used to kid me about Colorado Kool-Aid when I drank Coors. What I really like is whiskey. The reason I like it is the reason I stay away from it.

I said, “We got a serious murder my first day back.”

“Aren't they all? I couldn't handle it, I really couldn't.” She was holding her glass with both hands, wagging her head at me. She rested both thumbs on the side of her nose and peered at me over the glass.

“You think I'm bad. You should meet a coroner.”

“No, thanks.”

“There're some cute marines working autopsy.”


“Yeah. Big, handsome guy the week before I left. You would've loved him. He's cuttin' skulls and clippin' ribs with the best of 'em.” She was looking at me with the silent fascination and repugnance most people show on their faces when I get feisty and talk about it. I said, “Of course, the reason he was there was because he was on detention. One too many DUIs, so they put him on morgue duty for a week. No indoctrination. Just, wham! Here's the hedge clippers, here's the saw. You'd think that would deter the stupid shits, but it doesn't. Last year they had a guy doing cut-ups one week, two weeks later he's back, only this time through the rear door. Stubborn.”

Patricia took a drink, then her voice dropped low. “I still can't match you up with that . . . stuff. Police work, yeah, maybe, but even that. . . . I mean, cops are so often jerks. You're not. Except when you're trying to gross me out.”

“It's science. Mental.”

“What bothered you about the one you said—?”

“This was close to home, sort of. An acquaintance of mine. A kid, twenty, a college student. He worked at a store near me. He has no face this morning. They did a true number on him.”

“I don't want to hear about it,” she said quickly. But she did. She always did. Until the stuff got too grisly, and then she'd begin her nervous giggles. Usually I'm careful not to enhance the gore, unless I'm feeling bitter. It was hard for me to restrain myself, but, with very few details, I told her about the Dwyer case. Her attention held until I said the creeps got only about two hundred. Say it was a hundred thou and people's interest picks up. That's cynical of me, I know, but it's true. Like, Don't bother me with fifty-cent murders.

A distraction at the bar saved Patricia from hearing more:
Some dude with muscles up the wazoo telling a red-faced blond guy to go for it, the other guy saying sure, sure he would, right after you. Had to be they spotted Patricia. Nobody else around, to speak of.

Patricia poked a hole in the air in my direction and said, “We got to get you a guy, Samantha.” She looked over at the pickings along the bar. The dark-haired guy smiled. Then the blond. Yep. Patricia. Patricia doesn't know me as Smokey, doesn't know anything about my reckless days. I was going to tell her sometime, if it seemed right. She always uses my full name—not Sam; not Sammi, as my family does; not Mandy, as a few in high school tried to—because she doesn't like people to shorten

I said, “Don't worry about it, please.”

“A guy is what you need, my friend. And look, you're lucky, you got no worries now. No pills, nothing.”

“There's just forty kinds of disease around,” I said. I really didn't want to get into it.

She whacked four fingers on the edge of the table. “Girl, we're having a party, we're getting you laid.”

“This is giving me a headache,” I said, and she screamed at this. It unglued the ice in her glass. She leaned in and said, “Poor baby. Eat two men and call me in the morning.”

I love that girl.


Santa Ana, the seat of Orange County's government, is cut through by one of the ugliest and most clogged freeways in the world, day or night. 1-5 tries to ride on top of the city, but signs for motels, service stations, RV rentals, and U-Haul yards peep over its shoulders. Down the median, a concrete wall topped with fencing separates the drift of cars going the other direction, and in front of you, always, is a huge semi with mud flaps bouncing the silver silhouette of a woman resting on her laurels.

I should have gone home. When I left Patricia I said I was going to. My condo's about seven miles down the coast from Chi-Chi's, on a bluff overlooking the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, called Back Bay for short, a place I've learned to care about because it's teaching me about birds. The bay is an estuary holding some kind of distinction for having been created by an earthquake rather than by erosion. That should impress somebody, but they keep building, and we keep moving in. Housing prices are sky-high for anything in these parts. I am incredibly lucky to live there. An aunt I don't even know very well rents it to me.

BOOK: A World the Color of Salt
2.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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