ou lose your only kid, especially when you’re a single parent, and suddenly you’re the loneliest person on the planet. You can’t feel your tires on the highway any more. You don’t know if you’re driving or floating.
To survive, I forced myself to get serious about work; I was a Realtor back in those days. Don’t laugh. Business takes a lot of knocks but, rather than being tight-ass, business success can be a sort of reward of its own. Especially when you’re enabling just ordinary people to realize their deepest goals. Of course it helps if you’re hauling in big-time money, as I was then, I guarantee. Not the trivial success a pretty girl earns with boys or that too-easy high-school popularity but success built on hard work, striving, yeah, even professional excellence. I know that sounds dorky, but it headed off a crackup… and I came close. Work and solid results, okay—including a gorgeous new Ferrari, come to think of it—they took my mind off the kid who, I’ll be honest, had come to mean a lot to me.
Real estate may not be any glamorous profession, certainly not here in Cedarhill, in the good ol’ cowpie-kicking hills of southern Cal. But for me it was a continuing challenge and, tell the truth, nobody around here did it as well as this gal. It helped when Rodger and Veronica finally left town, and not without a little nudge from yours truly. Those two were a couple of certifiable jerks, and this whole mess, including the kid, started with them.
For maybe ten years before all this I’d hardly thought about either Rodger or Veronica. Old news—and happily so. Then one summer day back in the early nineties they rattled my cage.
It’s one of those hellishly steamy August days and I’m returning to the office in my brand-new Mercedes, air conditioning up full bore, nibbling Burger King fries out of the little cardboard box. Had another closing that afternoon and I’m stoked. (Laugh if you will, but being stoked is key to a Realtor’s success.) I’m heading down Eighth, past the crummy building I lived in when I got kicked out of the house after high school, and, of course, listening to Marley on the tape deck. Now that Rodg was back in town and running his dad’s Dodge dealership I’d taken to honking as I drove by because his big corner window overlooked the street. When he was in he’d wave back. That was it. I kept busy and what little male attention I required was covered, thank you.
You need some fill-in. Yours truly, Missy Wenzel, and Mr. Rodger Turnbull were lovers in high school, big-time, little paragons of precocity. At the time of this story, in those early Bill-and-Hillary nineties, our ex-passion flowers had acquired the prudent arms-length respect that relationship usually creates years later. Like we knew the materials were still combustible and we stayed the hell away from sparks.
Veronica and I had been best friends in high school. Of sorts. It was more of a Lone Ranger and Tonto thing. With yours truly the clean-living—ha—straight-shooting star. Veronica was go-fer, sounding board, money supply and wheels.
As I near Eighth and Main this sweat-dripping day I see Veronica’s red pickup parked in front of Turnbull Dodge. Rodger is stepping out and giving her a kiss good-bye. In broad daylight! Not wanting to barf on my Corinthian leather seats I hit the gas and peel through the intersection barely a second after yellow changes to red, flipping off some over-eager redneck driving a panel loaded with chickens. I can still hear them cackling after he slams on the brakes. I knew Veronica bought her truck from Turnbull Dodge but this was something new in customer relations. It was a known fact Rodg had lost his style in the Navy, but his eyesight, too? Veronica Halvorsen was nothing if not a geek—my long-standing opinion. Not an original idea in her life. Couldn’t handle one can of beer, if memory serves me. Rodg and I didn’t mean enough to each other for him to try to hurt me… but then…
At the next stoplight I call an old high-school friend on the cellular, a gal who keeps up on all the dirt. “Naomi, what’s with Rodger and Veronica?” I ask.
“They’re engaged,” she says.
“Don’t you bullshit me, Naomi. I’m dangerous, you know.”
“I’m serious, Miss,” she says. “Where you been?”
“This is like news from a parallel universe. Crown Prince Bonkers Over Pinhead.”
“She got him on the rebound, I guess.”
“Or sneak-preview Alzheimer’s on his part.”
“Stop that, Missy,” says Naomi, ever the pussy willow. “Veronica’s a great gal and looking quite sharp lately.” I could hurl all over those greasy fries scattered on my pinstripe Nordstrom suit.
“Veronica is Barnum and Bailey material,” I sneer. “Guess Rodger wants a babysitter.”
Impossible for Rodger to actually like Veronica or have any sexual interest in her was my immediate thought. Sexual interest in Veronica Halvorsen? Give me a break. I mean she’s like almost six feet tall. Titless, bony, unimaginative. Kee-rist!
Rodg and I had been voted Class Couple senior year. This was inconceivable. I mean it’s a small town.
I pull into slot numero uno at Homes R Us Realty and half-eat, half-gag on my Double Whopper. I pick up the phone again and call Breanna, one of my assistants.
“I’m taking the afternoon off, sweetie… heading off burnout,” I tell her.
“Miss, you’ve got an offer to make to the St. Martins at 3 and we’re closing escrow on the Porter place at 5.” Nearing terminal anxiety.
“Screw it, child. You handle the offer.” (Moan.) “No, Breanna, you handle the offer. You’ve got a license. Tell them… I said tell them, I have personally reviewed the offer and they’re making a killing. Tell them their kitchen sucks. Tell Tony to do the escrow bit. Those Asians won’t know the difference. I need some fucking time off. Jeez, six closings this month already. I won’t forget this Bre, sweetheart. Kiss. See you mañana at eight.”
Out of it. Thank you, dear Lord. I key the engine back into life and squeal out of the lot back into Eighth Street traffic. I’m thinking, shit, how’d I ever get into a styrofoam business like real estate? Coolest bitch in Cedarhill Class of ‘79. Ask anybody. Mean, nasty bitch. Laid at fifteen, a drunkard at seventeen, pothead at eighteen and in jail for Petty Theft-Minimart. That took care of the scholarship to Stanford. Aborted a baby—or nowadays don’t we say “terminated a pregnancy”—by the manager of the lumber mill at twenty and then drug rehab. And an effing Million Dollar Producer at twenty-five! Curriculum vitae Missy Wenzel. Classy Chick Makes Comeback, film at eleven.
Oh yeah, junior rodeo queen barely fifteen, little Miss Cherry—right before I briefly met the Ramona bull-tossing champ and became his little buckle bunny—forgot that sweetheart of an honor. But now Golden Girl has a jail record. Hopeless drunk, druggie. Those were the nice things they said. Everyone enjoying their crocodile tears over how screwed up yours truly had become. But little Missy, having missed the turnoff to Campus World, sobered up one Monday and entered real estate school. Of course, our little fallen star aced it. Got her license and went to work for a friend of her dear parents. This champ told Mom he was “always willing to lend a helping hand to one in need in the name of Jesus,” thinking, evidently, Missy’s darling little cooch would be the reward. But your rosy-cheeked heroine worked tirelessly, yes she did, six-days-a-week-plus the first six months, going door-to-door in a sober “professional” outfit that a year earlier I wouldn’t have buried my worst enemy in. Taking advantage of a smile that could melt a man’s heart—right?—and instantly turn a girl who should loathe me into an ass-kisser. Visiting every listed dump in Cedarhill and half the nearby cowtowns. Listening to people when they revealed what they wanted—home ownership being just about the most important non-human factor in people’s lives, those who’ve got no concept how to have some fun on a Friday night. Closed eight sales first year in the biz, best rookie year anyone in town could remember. Every broker in the north county was after ol’ Missy, either to go to work or to bed.
So I get back to the condo after this disgusting PDA and pour myself four fingers of Jack D. over the rocks. Never dilute good stuff. Ball was in my court. I had to do some thinking.
Rodger had gone to the Naval Academy, can you believe? with these middie-boy cruises every summer that hardly let him stop by town. Then he’d married a Baltimore deb, ultimate sorority cunt. He was stationed in some dweebie place like Diego Garcia. Missy had lost interest in men, other than a once-in-a-blue-moon fling with a mortgage banker who kept a hundred-footer in Cabo San Lucas or this married oncologist who had a ton of seminars—laugh track, please—in San Francisco that Missy occasionally enlivened, when the open-house load wasn’t too heavy. The abortion had left a, you know, psychic scar that still festered within this tender lass and mamahood wasn’t her cup in any event, if you know what I mean.
A year before this Harlequin Romance scene Rodger had quit the Navy when he was grounded from his squadron-commander job. Flunked the eye test. He had come back to town, voila!, to take over Dad’s dealership with this Annapolis groupie of his in tow plus two incipient-preppie little boys. Still belonged to some dippy Reserve outfit over at the Navy base, probably just to get discounts on Scotch at the commissary.
Fine. He was an old buddy it was nice to see. Wave to. Bump into at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon or some do-gooder bullshit. He’d thickened out and Missy never liked heavy men. Besides, he seemed hopelessly square, kind of struggling to play grown-up and avoid having any real fun.
Then, wham-o. She files for divorce. Story was she’s a Navy brat who loved O Club parties and thought selling cars was déclassé. That plus some Seal Team lieutenant from San Diego she’d taken a hankering to. Rodger Turnbull, former stud, ASB president, starting pitcher for Navy, fighter pilot, dumped by a broad!
I got the de-annexation news waiting for a plane at Lindbergh Field. Little R&R to Baghdad by the Bay with the cancer fighter—reservations top floor of the St. Francis and a knock-your-socks-off party the next night at Willie Brown’s house. The doc was a big Democrat. I mean, what’s politics good for except partying? That’s how ol’ Dubya got his start. Stilts Halvorsen—just remembered that was the name some of the guys gave Veronica back in Beaverdom—that’s right, we were the Beavers—school board changed it few years back—you can imagine the fun other high schools had with that doozy—she’s flying to L.A. for some of her typical tree-humping activism and told me the news. Had on a wide denim skirt, some kind of like Guatemalan folk-art blouse, wood beads, straight-brushed Judy Collins hair and this is the late eighties yet. I remember because Bush père had just beaten that sad little Greek guy.
“Poor Rodg,” Veronica says, actually saddened, missing not only the irony but even the comedy.
“Sic transit,” I say.
“What?” Veronica responds. With typical swiftness.
“Rodger gets sick on buses and all, Ronnie.” Blank look, but she’s working on a piece of spinach stuck on a tooth. “That may be why they grounded him. That may be why the Breck girl is leaving him—bummer on a family excursion. But would you ever think any gal would walk out on Mr. Right?”
“You did,” she says, trying to muster this sort of half-assed smugness.
“Not exactly.” It was the truth.
“You started running around right after graduation with that USC guy with the sideburns and the Lamborghini, Missy,” she’s almost scolding me in this sniveling way of hers. “Everybody knew it. And you and Rodg being Couple of the Year in the annual and all. You really hurt him. And Rodger’s a terrific guy. Whadya expect, Missy?”
“We were goofing off,” I tell her, remembering this guy—jeez, his name was Lance. “And that bucko had the greatest white teeth and that car of his and Rodger was still driving that damn Ram truck with the cheesy pinstriping.”
Veronica sighs out loud, right there at the ticket counter, obviously longing for crumbs from the table.
So I put it out of my mind. Rodger had developed a gut like a middle lineman. And the word was he’d become hopelessly religious.
I’d drive by the dealership with all those tacky “Get ‘Em While They Last” proletarian come-ons on the showroom window and I’d honk and Rodger—I know he positioned himself by his office window during lunch hour after he’d figured out my routine—Rodger, bless his Republican trickle-down heart, would smile and wave. He kind of lukewarm asked me to lunch one day, overplaying the cool hand, and I said I had a pretty hot staff meeting or some kind of crap and I’d take a raincheck. Then I never heard again from the dope. That kind of game playing. Get your knees dirty, Throttle Jockey, I was trying to tell him.
Meanwhile, that slut wannabe was making moves, though with her checkbook and not her bony little butt. Veronica inherited a few bucks and hadn’t clue one how to spend it creatively. Rodger was chairman of this fund-raising drive for the new Salvation Army concentration camp for homeless women and children. Veronica contributes like five grand when Rodger hits her up toward the end of the drive when it looked like they wouldn’t make their goal—a serious calamity for a guy incubating long-term plans for the County Board of Supervisors. Then he sells her a goddam pickup! She tells me she’s a country girl at heart and thought a pickup would give her a racier image—she used to drive this paleolithic LTD of her mother’s. When you’ve got to spiff up your persona by driving a pickup you’re in big trouble. To top it off, she signs up as a volunteer at the shelter and uses this new Valentine-red truck to haul food and bedding and crap to the place. Veronica is a schoolteacher—we all know how much free time they have—at the local Indian reservation—teaching blackjack and video poker, I figured. So she’s really chumming for Rodg now, I realize belatedly, and the sap is swallowing every morsel. Yours truly couldn’t care less about this schmuck but I hated to think that white-bread loser was bamboozling the sucker.
In high school the only way Veronica H. got any attention at all was because she was my go-fer. And we hung a little together—she had this scabrous car of her mother’s she got to drive all the time and it was definitely convenient as the Miss had Silas Marner parents who couldn’t bear the thought of the insurance increase if I drove—and, of course, I did hit the juice a little now and then. Veronica’s only other claim to fame was third-string volleyball team and she’s practically six foot, tallest girl in our class, and still couldn’t spike for didley squat.
Before long Rodger and Veronica were living together in a condo at the country club but naturally they called on me to help them find a house. Rodger had kept the brats and wanted a country place with some acreage in or near Cedarhill—couldn’t be over $2 million! Veronica, I was profess-sionally informed, wanted to have horses. If she can find a horse suitable for her Ichabod Crane body and Elmer Fudd timidity.
I gave it some deep thought, along with other calculations, waited till school was back in session and then called Rodger at work.
“Missy! How you been, sweetheart?” The cuddle-bunny! Friendly, you know, but now there’s plenty car dealer in the voice.
“Look, I’m up to my ears today but I think I’ve got just the right place,” I say. “Idiots have it listed way too low, one mill six and they’ll even hold the paper if you want to go financing. Comps say it’s worth two, two-five. Rebecca Durer has it listed and she’s leaving for Europe in three weeks and she wants to move it pronto; she’ll know there’s no financing problems with a Turnbull. Old Stage Road just beyond the Smiley ranch. Can you meet me there in half an hour? I’m dropping everything to show you this.”
“I can, Miss,” he says after this telling pause. I think he’s trembling at the other end. “But I want Ronnie to see it, too. And she’s got school till three or so.”
“Look, you can take a peek and we can get it put on ice for a few hours while we noodle our offer. Veronica can see it when she gets off work. I know Becky and she’ll give us a couple of hours. She’s got a La Jolla couple seeing it tonight and they’re hot to trot. We’ve got to beat them. Look, this place is an absolute dream, with stables out of Flambards.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” he says, Mr. Decisive.
See-through white blouse, lace bra. Spike heels. First eye shadow I’ve put on in years. Touch of Chanel. Ride ‘em, cowboy!
I’m waiting by the big wrought-iron gate to the estate. Here comes Rodger in a cap-D dipshit Caravan with dealer plates. He’s still got that red-faced look he had in junior high, the Campbell Soup Kids look, and the shock of oak-colored hair over his brows. But he’s a guy who always looks like he’s ready to do business, leaning forward, whether it’s “Let’s leave the dance for half an hour and drive up to Cobbles Mountain” or wading into a fistfight in the parking lot. But now when he speaks his voice is a note too high. Does he realize what we’re getting into but he’s got too much cojones to run away?
“I had to leave a message on Ronnie’s machine,” he says. “She’s gonna be excited.”
“Oh, Lord, I know she will, Rodg.”
“Don’t remember this place, Miss. Pretty new?”
“Three or four years. Doctor at Scripps Clinic built it—Beverly Hills architect. Why don’t you park here and I can drive you around the grounds. This place has got its own woods!”
I had remembered how Rodg and I used to ditch and go down to the pond off Old Stage. We’d pretend we were Robin Hood and Maid Marian in Sherwood Forest—he had this Robin Hood feather hat he’d gotten at the Del Mar Fair—and go chasing about until I fell on a pile of leaves or something, pretending to be winded. You can guess the rest.
“Just beyond your property and down in that glen there’s a wonderful pond. Can you imagine taking the boys to look for tadpoles?”
I was taking off my heels. “You won’t believe how beautiful it is, Rodg. Let’s take a quick look.”
“Sure, Miss. It’s gorgeous. Seem to remember… But how many square feet did you say the house had?”
“There’s enough. Enough. I guarantee you.” We were heading down the path, me quick-stepping and Little Lord Fauntleroy dragging his groom-to-be heels, swatting at gnats.
“It’s really the house I’m interested in,” he’s mealy-mouthing. “We’ll be doing a lot of entertaining.”
“I can imagine.”
“You say there’s a pool?”
“Practically junior Olympic,” I exult in my President’s Circle voice. “With a Bel Air cabana… and a Jacuzzi probably hold half a dozen, if things don’t get too athletic, if you know what I mean.”
I actually detected embarrassment in his chuckle. What’d the Navy do to this guy?
We came to the pond, although mud hole might be a more accurate description. There were these tiny violets in the shade of a giant sycamore and, as you might expect, a few crumpled beer cans. Thank God no condoms. I turned to him, taking in a slow breath. “God, Rodger, this is so beautiful. It takes me back.”
Rodger really looked at me for the first time.
“Oh, shit, Missy. Oh, shit.”
I was in his arms. A moment later we were on the grass beside the pond. You can guess the rest. Annoying thing was he kept saying, “Oh, shit.” He was still saying it when we were straightening out our clothes, me thanking Victoria’s Secret for the white lace bra.
We started back up the path to my Mercedes. And, oh shit, here comes Veronica. Veronica is… well… stratospheric, as I have already implied. She hit me once and I’m on the canvas, with, honest to God, blood coming out of my mouth. How’s that for drama?
Rodger is in Ronnie’s goddam pickup, heading toward the front gate. I’m on my perfidious ass, bleeding.
Of course, the place we were visiting wasn’t on sale. It was the oncologist’s pad. He and his wife were still in Europe with the kids.
Rodger and Cinderella bought a place on the other end of town with some third-rate brokerage.
That year, despite pissing away Rodger’s commission, I was Homes R Us’s top-selling agent for all of San Diego County. Financed a couple great trips to Vegas to play lonely single girl.
She who laughs last continued to be my motto.
I became very large with child after this episode. In real estate one learns that timing is everything. Let it sink in for a minute. I refused Rodg’s offer of child support, as long as the whole town knew he was the papa. But that freak Veronica continued to cling to him, can you believe!
It was a boy, Rodger Wenzel by name. I made sure he was in the same kindergarten class at Cedarhill Academy with their first little girl.
We weren’t talking by then. Arranging his rare dear-poppy visitations by e-mail. After a year, the wimp threw in the towel. He sold the goddam dealership and he and Veronica and their two darling girls and the Navy brats moved away to the L.A. area. But those charmers had each other for consolation, after all. Can you believe, that prick now owns a Brentwood Rolls-Royce dealership. Among others. And that cipher Veronica, I heard, is still fretting over the homeless and other social refuse. She’s actually the president—Veronica!—of some status L.A. homeless charity and on the board, no less, of the L.A. Museum of Fine Art. God as my judge, Ronnie don’t know Picasso from Dick Tracy. These two crackerjacks are in the L.A. Times social columns all the time. Son of a bitch sued me for little Rodger’s custody with the best domestic-affairs attorney in L.A. and won. We were in and out of court a year. I fought like I’d never fought for anything, believe me. But he had me—booze, coke, too many different guys at the house, caught on film leaving for Chrissake, even used my moldy juvie record against me… Lost that one. Lost it. Hey, who bats a thousand?… No, no, I’m okay. Keep it to yourself but I’m gonna pour myself one. Shake a little when I think about all that shit. Nah, I’m fine. Water under the effing bridge. You move on… The Ferrari and the Italian stud sold it to me—hairy-back bastard, he was—well, they helped for a while. I even took work seriously—for a few months.
Nah, I don’t visit the kid. Forget it. You think I’d want to drive up to that vulgar gingerbread mansion of theirs, next door to some sleazy sit-com producer, I understand.
You doin’ okay with that? No hurry at all.
Real estate business ain’t been too good in Cedarhill since Clinton closed the Navy base. Then the gov shoved that asinine rehab center for L.A. crack addicts down our throats. Friggin’ politics. And then the lousy recession. Best brokerage in town but we went belly up. And I was back on the sauce again big time… Don’t show it a bit, do I?… Tending bar here don’t pay that good but, hell, you meet a lot of interesting guys. And I like to have a little change of pace in that regard, if you know what I mean. You got nice eyes, even dim as it is in here. The oncologist? The bastard left his wife and ran off with Miss Cedarhill of 2000. Terrific, huh? But I want you to know that was after ol’ Miss had dumped him.