Desert Bag

The last time I remember viewing that sage brush-dotted terrain was 37 years ago when Joan picked me up from the Reno airport and we drove to Susanville where, only a few months before, she’d traded UC Berkeley classes for those at Mt Lassen Junior College.

I had flown only once before on my Senior trip to Disneyland. Exhilarated by independence and oblivious to protocol, I grabbed my suitcase from baggage claim and threw it in Joan’s trunk. The desert scenery flew by as we talked nonstop for the next 2 hours.

Always the good hostess and big sister, Joan carried my bag into the guest room and plopped it on the bed. “Make yourself at home” she said, obviously proud that she had a home, however small, to share.
When we decided to go for a hike, I went to my suitcase for my tennis shoes and discovered a lock that I’d never seen before.

“You grabbed the wrong suitcase, you doe doe!” Joan said with exasperation.

I hung my head in shame. After years of being the coddled youngest child, I’d flubbed my first attempt at self sufficient travel.

Joan called the airline. “My sister picked up the wrong bag on her flight from Oakland.”

“You need to return the bag back to the airport immediately,” they demanded.

“I’m not driving back to the airport,” Joan said flatly. “You need to put my sister’s bag on a bus to Susanville and I will send this bag back to you.”

“That’s not acceptable. That could take a couple of days,” they responded.

My guilt overflowed. “I’ll drive your car back, Joan. They shouldn’t have to wait for their bag because of my stupid mistake.”

But Joan ignored me as she spoke into the phone. “If you want the bag, you’re going to have to wait for it.” That was that. Joan had a way with situations: her way.

As guilty as I felt for having taken that poor person’s bag, I marveled at my 21 year old sister’s control of the situation. Maybe one day I’d learn to be the same way. Even at that time, I doubted it.

Outta the Park

“Take my car,” Paul’s dad, Stan, said when Paul broke the news of Joan’s murder. “You’ll need a lot of room to take the family to the funeral.” Cars didn’t come much bigger than his Caddie. Lovingly nicknamed the Pimpmobile by Paul and his brothers, the sleek convertible sported smacking red interior.

“We may need it for as much as a week, Dad,” Paul replied.

“Take it.”

By the time we left San Leandro for Susanville the day after we learned of Joan’s death, our team had grown from the “now there are 6” of our immediate family to “now there are 12” including Paul; Sue’s current partner Dee; her ex partner and bona fide family member Anita; Glenn’s friend and sometimes partner Phoebe who had once walked around naked in the kitchen of the house she shared with Patrick and friends in Santa Cruz while Paul and I stared at the bowls of berries we’d just picked from the garden; Joan’s ex boyfriend Larry who was now Joseph and out of the closet; and Mom’s friend Frances, an incessant talker who had appointed herself our trip’s documentarian.

Mom and Dad drove in their white Grenada with Glenn, Sue, Dee and Anita; the rest of us swayed down the freeway in style on those luscious red seats. Aside from a funny comment here or a witty comeback there, we were a sad solemn group.

We arrived in Susanville that late afternoon to be greeted by Dan and his parents, who stood bleekly in front of the motel where they had arranged for us to stay. Our hugs, though heartfelt, were hollowed by the stark absence of Joan.

It was too early for dinner and our appointment with the mortuary wasn’t until the next morning. What to do? Some of Dan and Joan’s friends were gathering at a friend’s house. One of them asked if we’d like to join them. Devoid of the will to do anything but numbly follow, we all ended up in someone’s dirt backyard in lawn chairs watching a couple of guys hitting baseballs.

Patrick, who’d been sitting by himself smoking, turned to face me.
“You’re up, Peg.”

“What?” I asked, willfully pulling myself out of the scene I’d replayed dozens of times in the last 24 hours since Dan’s call: Joan and I were sitting in my living room sharing a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough laughing as my cat, who was cleaning himself, leaned too far backwards and fell off the couch. If only we could laugh again.

“It’s your turn at bat.” Pat said.

Shocked by the suggestion, I laughed. “Me?” I was lousy at hitting.
What was he thinking?

“Yeah — show them how to hit the ball.”

Never one to say no to Patrick, I shook my head, stood up and walked over to the guys playing ball. “Can I hit one?” I asked, smiling meekly.

The guy with the bat shrugged and handed me the bat.
“Pitch it easy,” he called to his friend.

I missed the first pitch, and the second. By the third, everyone’s eyes were on me. I was gripping the bat and cursing under my breath. “Goddamn it, Patrick.”

The pitch seemed to come in slow motion as I swung. Finally connecting, the ball flew over the far fence and into the neighbor’s yard. Everyone in my family stood and cheered.

I jumped up and down, hands high.
The rest of the folks seemed genuinely baffled by all the hoopla over one hit.
But our team really needed a win.

The Blue Bible

I’m opening up the hardcover journaling book that I bought a few days after I returned from Joan’s funeral. The slim keepsake — blue with gold Persian-style interwoven flowers and crests — is the bible of my rebirth through grief that began that June morning after Dan’s call. Typing paper with scribbled sentences and neatly written notes on yellow legal pad are folded and crammed between the cover and first page, remnants of burning thoughts and late night messages occurring too far from where the book happened to lie.

My desk is awash in tearful “Dear Joan” letters and I haven’t even opened the book to the first page. I thumb through the gold leaf pages, afraid to feel the raw emotion of those crossed out days and months where July became August and Saturday became Friday night. Who knew what day or time it was? Who cared? Joan was gone. No amount of crying or writing could bring her back. But still I tried.

Tucked carefully between the last two pages, leaves, brown, but still hinting at their original purple hue, is a pressed iris — Joan’s favorite flower. Touching its petals makes me feel closer to her than all of my writing combined.

Call Back

I’m flying to Reno then driving to Susanville in a couple of weeks to meet with the detective on Joan’s case and see what information I can get from her file. I’ve debated about calling her husband to see if we can meet to talk while I’m there.

Thinking of calling Dan brings me back to that warm June morning 31 years ago when, without thinking, I’d chosen black pants and a black top from my closet. I shook my head as I hung them back up. What was I thinking? All black was hardly the festive outfit to wear for the birthday breakfast I was preparing for my neighbor Joanne that morning!

I clicked on the Mr. Coffee. The aroma of the rich brew filled the air as I neatly laid out the pastries on my prettiest tray. The phone rang as I was setting the table. I assumed it was Joanne. “Hey Birthday Girl!” I chirped.

“Uh, Peg, it’s me…Dan.”

If we could pick one moment in our lives where we could wind back and take a different road, that would be mine. Having recently shared with Joan that I’d had a dream that Dan had called to tell me she died, I thought the call was a joke. But even a seasoned prankster like Dan couldn’t fake such a somber tone. Hearing it, I tried to scramble back up that road. “I’m asleep,” I thought. “I’ll wake up and Joan will be fine.” But the coffee kept brewing.

“Peg…Joan’s dead.”

Now the road was warping and rolling and I was on the ground. I fell and pulled my legs and arms into the fetal position, hoping against hope that I had never been born. That would be preferable to the pain beginning to seep in all around.

That call to Dan is just going to have to wait.

Connecting the Detective

After 3 weeks of trying, I finally connected with the detective at the Susanville Police Dept. that was recently assigned to Joan’s case. He admitted he hadn’t yet reviewed her file, but said he would soon.

“I know it’s been 31 years but I’m at a point in my life where I’d like to do everything I can to help you solve my sister’s case,” I said. “I think I’m finally emotionally detached enough that I’m willing to provide whatever insights I can bring to bear on the evidence that you already have and work on my own to dig up more information.”

“Considering the gravity of the case, I’m not sure how much I’ll actually be able to share with you from the file,” he replied.

“I’m willing to work with whatever you have,” I said, hoping he noted my pragmatic tone: surely the last thing he would want would be to hold someone’s hand as they relived their sibling’s murder. But that was the furthest thing from my mind.

For decades, I’d stayed as far away as possible from any details of Joan’s case. Suddenly, I had to get into that file.

Dog days of writing

Somehow I forgot how tough it is to write when the kids are out of school and what’s left of the long spring grass beckons from the hills.
I like seeing my fourteen year old son and his friends, somewhere between not liking girls and having a girlfriend, sit in a circle joking on the trampoline oblivious as the girls they’ve invited over, eyes covered in makeup, walk past to get their attention. One day soon, maybe even by the end of summer, the boys will break from their circle to follow, but not yet.
It’s early — only the cat, dog and I are awake — but already so warm that I’ve drawn all the shades. The dog pushes her face into my thigh to get me moving. The sun is rising and soon, the heat of the day will move us indoors. But for now, the tall green grass awaits.

Let’s Go Back

Let’s go back to when Joan and I were 12 and 9, halfway to ten. A boy from school — kind of a thug who was bigger than the rest of the boys in Joan’s class because he’d been held back — had a crush on her and followed her home from school. Although Joan could hold her own around girls, exhibiting a devil-may-care attitude that made them envious, boys — especially big boys with loud voices like this one — made Joan watchful and quiet.

I watched from the living room window as Joan avoided the boy around the spherical juniper bush until he grabbed her sleeve and pulled her close to kiss her. When she screamed, I dashed out the front door and rammed head first into the boy’s side.

He turned, enraged. “Who do you think you are, you little twit?” he asked derisively. Joan wiped away a tear.

“Leave my sister alone!” I screamed, face flushed, taking s step back as I raised my fists. Joan laughed.

“You’re both crazy like your mom,” he sneered before spitting into the juniper and sauntering away.

Although Joan put her hand over her mouth as we walked toward the front porch, I could see the smile beneath it.

Now let’s move forward.