Stiff after hauling a load of avocados from Salinas to Indianapolis, Jeff stretched his limbs, ambled to his cousin Maxine’s door and rang the bell. Half of the chimes hissed and squeaked, giving what was once a sweet melody a spastic feel. The Victorian cottage was on New Jersey Street a block from where Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones had mesmerized locals with his utopian visions before packing up and moving, along with most of his congregation, to California.
Jeff waited a while without a response before trying the bell again, then grinned when Maxine opened the door.
“Hey, Jeff. You’re a sight for sore eyes.” She brushed thick red bangs from her eyes; they swung right back. Once coiffed and sprayed to beehive perfection, Maxine’s tresses now flowed freely well below her elbows. “Come on in.” She backed up to make room for him in the foyer.
He stepped over the threshold and was greeted by a pungent smell. “Whew, what’s that?” He gave her a hug.
“Patchouli. I would think you’d have run across it by now with all the travelin’ you do, cuz.” She shuffled toward to the living room. “Anyway, sure am glad to see you.”
Ferns and spider plants hung from the ceiling in the hall and at the entrance to the room. Jeff ducked several times to avoid knocking into them. “I don’t really get around much, just stick to the road and try to get home as quick as possible to Barb.”
“Sure am glad you two finally got hitched.” Maxine sat in a threadbare recliner and pulled at a tuft of escaped stuffing at a seam on the arm, then motioned to the couch, which was a folded futon covered with a paisley-print spread. “Have a seat.”
“Ah,” Jeff said, easing himself down. “This sure is low to the ground. Not like the couch Grandma gave you for your home on Walker. This whole place is different, real different.”
“I gave my house and everything in it to the church. No way to undo that. Can’t cry over split milk. I’m a renter now—and a free spirit.”
“There’s something to be said for that. You don’t get blindsided by bureaucrats who decide to route a highway around your town.”
“Bright Corners is cut off now?”
“Yeah, and businesses are closing left and right.”
“Will you guys be all right?”
“You can always stay with me, wherever I go.”
“I appreciate that.” He lifted a paperback from a pile of books and magazines on the wicker coffee table. “The Teachings of Don Juan, huh.” He thumbed through the pages. “I heard some talk about this on the CB. The guys all think he’s a fraud or nuts or both, but then the whole world seems nuts these days.”
“It’s a best seller! Do you think everybody who likes his message is crazy?” She slapped both hands on the chair, sending dust right into her face. She leaned forward and coughed. “This old thing might not have been such a good find.”
“Do you need some water?” He put the book down.
“Nah, I’m fine.” She stood and circled the room, then sat down beside him. “So what brings you here in the middle of the week when it’s not anybody’s birthday or wedding or a holiday barbecue or anything?”
“I was hoping Velda would be home.”
“She’s asleep in the back. We had kind of a wild night.”
“We stopped in for a drink at the Whistle Stop and were in a booth, thought we had privacy, but before you know it, a guy breaks a glass on Velda’s head.
“But why would someone—”
“It was bleedin’ somethin’ awful. We had to go to emergency—”
“But why crack Velda on the head, I—”
“She couldn’t sleep a wink last night. It’s not like the wound was all that bad once it was cleaned up either, no concussion or anything. Heads just always bleed to beat the band, don’t they? And those people. At the hospital. They got carried away, I think, and did the stitches too tight. That’s why she was so miserable.” Maxine leaned against Jeff. A tear slid to the corner of her mouth. She licked it off.
He put an arm around her. “I’m really sorry. But I still don’t get it. A whack out of the blue like that.”
“Out of the lavender maybe.”
“Never mind. You’re too square to know anything about being queer.”
Suspecting Maxine was pulling his leg, Jeff shifted position so he could see her face. “Queer? Come on.”
Maxine looked away, focusing on her lap. She intertwined her fingers and rubbed her palms with her thumbs in a frenzied rhythm. She could pretend she was joking or stick with the truth and risk her big, lovable, clueless cousin’s condemnation. She quickened the pace of her fidgeting. “Yeah, queer, okay? We were snugglin’ and kissin’ in the booth, and this great big man with medals pinned all over his jacket beaned her. Almost got me, too.”
Jeff covered her hands with one of his to still the movement. “You and Velda are an item?”
Sensing curiosity, not judgment, she continued. “We started out as roommates after we parted from Jim Jones and his giant messiah complex, but then love just grew. We’re not exclusive.”
“Velda’s still married, you know.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You mean you’re—”
“We’re bisexual. We love men and women, both.”
“Not at the same time, no orgies.”
“That’s reassuring.” He smirked.
“No need for sarcasm.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just concerned. That’s all. You’re not kids, you know, like those dropouts flooding to San Francisco. You’re mature women.”
“It’s not just kids chasin’ dreams to the Haight-Ashbury.”
“I suppose you’re right. How did the reverend take it? The idea of you two—”
“There was nothin’ between us before he left town. I expect no church would be okay with us now.”
“It does seem to fly in the face of the Good Book, but then, I must confess I’ve read little pieces of it and surely heard plenty of readings in church, but I’ve never read the Bible much. I can’t say for sure what it really teaches about stuff like that.” Jeff raised his arms above his head, stretched his legs alongside the coffee table and yawned. “It seems much of it is open to interpretation.”
“Like life itself.” Maxine eased herself up and ambled to the window, pulled aside a beaded curtain and peered out. “That’s some rig you’ve got. Your home away from home.”
Jeff looked toward the window. “Sure is.” He cleared his throat, turned his head toward Maxine and asked, “So when do you think Velda will wake up?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.” She continued to look out the window.
“It’s really important.”
She swiveled around and squinted at him. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“If ever there was a time for her to return to Kiminee, it’s now. Her family needs her.”
“Oh, well.” She shrugged. “The kids would be better off with their mom, naturally, but no one can convince her of that.”
“I guess the news hasn’t reached as far as Indianapolis.”
“News? It drives us nuts, everything bad all the time, so we don’t get the paper, don’t have a TV.”
“Carly Mae’s gone, probably kidnapped. And the local Jewel Tea man is dead, probably killed by whoever took Carly Mae.”
She paced the room. “Oh, no, oh, my, oh, shit!”
“Come here.” He stood and opened his arms wide.
She slid over and snuggled into his embrace. With her ear against his chest, she listened to his strong heartbeat and took several long breaths. “Should I wake her up?”
“Maybe not just yet. I guess an hour or two won’t make much difference.”
Maxine looked up into his face and saw the wrinkles above his nose and around his eyes had deepened. “So, are we okay? You and me? You seem—”
“I’m all worried and jumpy, but it’s because of what I have to tell Velda, not because of … you know.”
Maxine let go of her cousin and backed up a few steps. “Let’s get dinner ready. Lots of veggies to chop. It’ll keep us from frettin’ ourselves silly.”
He bent over, touched his toes and rose, face flushed. “What are we having? Porterhouse? Tri tip?”
“In your dreams, cuz, in your dreams. You’re about to make your first vegetarian feast.” She took his hand and the two strode into the hall and toward the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Velda slept beneath a tie-dyed sheet, her body warmed by late-afternoon sun. Through an open window, a breeze carried the whiff of rose petals from Maxine’s yard mixed with hamburgers grilling next door and fumes from a multitude of vehicles traversing the city. Velda dreamt on, unaware of the upheaval awaiting her.
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