Bernice didn’t like the park because the Joshua trees, in her words, were stunted and weird-looking. Which I get but, as I told her, that’s the point. She allowed that was so, but still insisted we leave early and see “real trees.”
Sometimes being Bernice’s friend is hard. We’ve been friends for 40 years and our partners are dead and neither of us had biological children, so we make do. It’s a nice life most of the time.
I demanded that we stop and take our pictures in front of two trees whose branches reached towards one another, their trunks curved and bowed by the wind. In that picture, Bernice is smiling, even though she’d been bitching and moaning all day long. Me, I’m stone-faced because I don’t like my teeth.
“Are you ready Chlo?” she asked as I broke down my tripod.
“Not really. But whatever.”
“I’m hungry. Let’s go to Arby’s.”
After we ate and washed our faces in the Arby’s bathroom, and giggled over stall graffiti, we drove until the Interstate 5. We stopped at a crappy hotel and I ate greasy cheese pizza from a local place—2 stars for taste, 3 for crust, 3 for cheese, 1 for grease. One of the higher ratings yet.
Chloe asked me why I bothered with the rankings and when I told her that it makes me happy and it keeps me busy, she shook her head like she just couldn’t fathom it. Of course, she watched a lot of tv in her pajamas, so she wouldn’t. It took months to convince her to take this trip.
We slept in the same bed, waking each other because I snore and she thrashes like a boxer. I wish we could afford separate rooms. I’m not poor, but my income is fixed and if I’m taking an extravagant three-week long tour through Zion and Arches until we end up at Yosemite, I’m going to cut some corners.
The next morning, she yawned, “You ever miss Lou?”
“Do I miss my dead wife? What kind of question is that?”
“I dreamed of Franky last night,” she continued. “He was cooking sausages. Maple and Italian and those weird ones the hippies sell you from farmer’s markets.”
“I bought dill sausages from this dredded white guy with a nice smile. It was not good.”
She puckered her lips and scratched her scalp beneath bone-white hair. I wish mine was like that, but it’s still got stray color and just looks dirty. I could dye it, but why?
I waited for her to continue and when she didn’t, I rolled out of bed. She grunted, turned over and didn’t say anything else until we dropped off the keys to the kid behind the counter—he must have seen some doddering old biddies because he started giving us unwanted advice. Bernice said, “Boy, we didn’t ask for directions, did we? We know where we’re going.”
I might not like Bernice sometimes, but I always appreciate her. I don’t know if I ever would have said anything like that. My style was to hint around something and sigh a lot. Must be because I was raised Methodist. When we started driving, I told her I admired her and she grunted and pulled out a book.
We were just entering Sequoia, the trees stretching into the sky looking upon us like benevolent titans, when the storm hit. “Now, these are trees,” Bernice said. It was the first thing she’d said in hours. The rain hit the windshield in big, fat blobs and I imagined the tree-giants crying.
I was in some kind of mood.
“They’re big as hell,” I said, turning the wheel into a perfect 3-point turn. Lou could never do them, always grumbling and whining when it took her eight or sometimes nine points. Once it took her twelve. This was back when her girls still smarted from the divorce and then again over our marriage.
At least I can parallel park, she’d said, shading hers mouth with a hand to hide her grin. I’d turned to the girls and winked and they laughed back. It felt like heaven. She’s just diverting the conversation. Let’s keep her honest.
Bernice and I retraced our drive to the next crappy hotel in silence. “Let’s get up early and drive through that one tree,” I finally said. “You know the one.” I was flipping through the channels while waiting for the delivery guy. When it came, I would record the date, time and name of the pizza place in my journal and rank all the domains. Someday maybe I’d make a blog like the girls encouraged me to. There’s infinite pizza places and it makes me happy.
Maybe I wouldn’t though. Projects don’t always have to have an end goal. Sometimes they just get you through the day and keep your hands busy and remind your there’s a purpose to everything.
Bernice didn’t answer so I looked around and saw her leaning on the kitchen sink and staring at herself in the mirror, her eyes all watery. “You ok?” I called.
“The funny thing,” she said, her voice catching, “was Franky hated sausages. He wouldn’t go near ‘em. Said they tasted like the devil’s leavings. He wouldn’t even cook them for me. I made them myself. It was the only thing he let me do in the kitchen besides make coffee.”
I walked over to her and put my hand on her shoulder. She swallowed and smiled and wiped her eyes and I could see the grief leaving her body, because it was an old grief. I understood that kind of pain. As the years went by, I kept on waiting for it to disappear entirely, like fog in the morning, but it never did and I know it never will but what’s life anyway, but an endless hope for the night to break?
Michael B. Tager is a writer, editor, and mostly vegetables. Find more of his work at michaelbtager.com.