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CALIFORNIA STORY Short Fiction

Hacienda del Sol

September 03, 2006|Dorothy Pier | Dorothy Pier lives in Los Osos. This is her first published piece of fiction.

"One of these days, Mom," Jerome told her when he phoned Sunday evening, "I've got to settle down."

Images of a wedding, a wife and grandchildren spun into Polly's head. She wished she could shove her arms through the receiver and hug her son. He had always been such a loner, traipsing the world with everything he owned on his back, but somehow he'd managed to stay alive, working as a fisherman, a lifeguard and a skipper of a garbage scow.

Strangers, women mostly, returning from Timbuktu, phoned to say they had met Jerome in a bar. He was fine, they had gushed, more than fine, handsome, funny, charming. How proud she must feel to have such a delightful son.

Postcards from Cuba, Chile, New Zealand, Thailand, Australia, Burma and India obliterated her refrigerator door. Whenever she took out the milk, she'd turn one over to read his adventures, described in precise square handwriting so much like Harold's.

Every other year Jerome appeared at her door in ragged shorts, long hair and a fearsome beard. He'd shave and shower, leaving white patches on his coppery cheeks. Lord knows she wanted to feel proud of her son. Every penny she'd earned went for Jerome's education. How little the vagrant in her guest room resembled the child she'd nurtured in her heart.

"I've bought some land in the desert," Jerome finally told her. "I can retire there when I get old."

Retire? Jerome had retired the day he'd graduated from college. His phone call confirmed Polly's worst fears: Her son

had deteriorated from nomad to recluse to hermit, an agnostic prophet fated to wander the desert for 40 years.

She didn't ask where he or the land was located, because she didn't want to hear his answer--Morocco, Lebanon, Syria.

"I want you to see my place."

"Oh, you have a house?" A house with mice, scorpions, spiders and snakes. A sod house like her grandfather had built when he'd settled on the plains.

"Not yet. When I get some money together, I might build something."

This was the touch, the gentle touch. Money for a piano crate, a trailer, a mobile home.

"It's outside Borrego Springs."

"Burrito Springs." Polly repeated Harold's old joke.

"Yes," Jerome said. "Can you drive here or shall I come and get you?"

"I can still drive," she snapped, wishing she'd kept quiet for once. She didn't want to fight traffic for four hours to reach the middle of nowhere.

"Good. Some friends from Carlee's told me about a funky motel, Hacienda del Sol. I'll make a reservation for you."

"We'll see," she vacillated, using words that had saved her from having to say yes or no throughout his childhood.

Jerome phoned the next two Sundays, each time more insistent. Finally, he said, "Mom, if you don't come now, it'll get too hot. You'll have to wait until October."

"All right, then. Next Friday."

Thousands of gigantic wind turbines whirled on either side of the freeway as Polly drove through San Gorgonio Pass. Maybe the windmills had attracted Jerome, a Quixote for the 21st century. In Cabazon, dust obscured dinosaurs built near an Indian casino. Polly cocked her head, heard Jerome in the back seat, 6, maybe, 7 years old. "Can't we stop, Mom? I've never seen a dinosaur."

Must have been 90 degrees that day. Harold drove from one mirage to the next on the two-lane highway, decades before the Morongo tribe conceived the idea of making millions from poker.

"No, hon. You've got school tomorrow. We've gotta get home."

As soon as she rounded Christmas Circle, Polly spotted a blazing neon sun over Hacienda del Sol. A woman in a blue muumuu, her white hair cut into a butch, answered the office bell.

"Your son called. He'll arrive at 3," the manager said, unwinding her spiel. "While you're waiting, you can have a swim. The Mexican restaurant behind the motel makes gigantic margaritas. It's the best place to eat. Avoid Carlee's. That's where the locals hang out. A pretty rough crowd."

In her room, Polly switched on the swamp cooler and inspected under the bed for scorpions, then went to relax by the pool. Jerome--taller, thinner, tanner, his eyes a darker, clearer green--caught her napping in a chaise lounge. When he hugged her, a holster on his hip poked her belly. "How about a hike before supper?"

"On your land?"

"No, let's save that until morning, when you're fresh."

Hmm, worse than Polly had guessed.

They got into her car. Jerome drove out of town and turned off at the campground. "Remember this, Mom?"

This? This sagebrush? A few yards farther they came to a picnic table, then another and another. Yes, she remembered sitting at one of these tables, Harold on one side, Jerome, barely tall enough to rest his elbows on top, on the other. The pleasure of that day returned and filled the hollows inside her.

Jerome parked around a bend. "The palm grove, remember?"

A sign at the entrance to the path warned, "Hot, dry trail. Carry one gallon of water per person."

"It's all right, Mom. I've got a couple bottles in my backpack."

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