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Im towed to the closest open garage in the closest small town. Maybe 300 people living across a two-lane highway from some kind of industrial farm. Its my lucky day, because the owner of the garage is running for mayor. Today hes raising money by hosting a big picnic in the local park, and Im invited to go while the garage investigates my station wagon. The manager of the garage, a friendly, nice-looking guy in his 40s, drives me to the park and talks about his divorce and loneliness and desire to settle down again. Sometimes when Ive gotten tired of big-city demands and disappointments, Ive joked about escaping to a small town and marrying a mechanic. As I listen to his lonely, hopeful voice, I turn my eyes heavenward and think, Just kidding!
At the parking lot we separate and I head off toward the activity. There are about 50 people scattered about, most of them eating hot dogs and sitting at picnic tables in the shade of a stand of listless trees. Some wander around and greet neighbors. Theres a touch-football game in progress. I get some lemonade and pull a chair up to the ticket table.
A young, plump woman is in charge of the tickets. I smile hello, she smiles back, content and easy in her demeanor. Shes okay with whats going on in her life. Maybe kids, a faithful loving husband, civic involvement. Or maybe a divorce and freedom at last. Next to her is a teenage boy, all skinniness and ears and a gosh-darn kind of enthusiasm. When he hears Im from L.A. the questions start. How often do I run into movie stars? Once a year. Have I ever seen a drive-by shooting? No, but there was a shootout in front of my door once. How can I stand the pollution? I quit smoking, and they have emission controls now. Suddenly the questions stop and the boys lower jaw starts dropping lower. I turn to look, and coming toward us is a vision of tall, lanky, movie-star blondness. I blurt out, What the hell is she doing here? and the plump woman smiles, points to the football game and says, Shes married to him. I think, Of course, the two most beautiful people in town. What choice did they have? I wonder if her beauty isolates her from other women. How does she exercise the power that comes with that kind of beauty in this small town? What else do they have in common? Why have they stayed here? Meanwhile the teenager is becoming frantic. Damn, shes the best thing Ive ever seen! Is she married? Damn I want her! He jumps up from his seat and sits back down. What the hell can I say to her? The plump woman looks at me. We dont know if we should be amused at this burst of uncontrollable hope, delusion and testosterone or be concerned for the safety of the woman. She arrives and asks for two lemonade tickets. The boy, grinning from ear to ear, does not shy away from the golden opportunity. In a tone of unbridled giddiness laced with sincere concern, he asks if shes enjoying herself. She takes her tickets, mutters, Yeah, its fun, turns and walks away. Theres an awkward moment among the three of us, and then I notice my mechanic friend waving at me. I say my goodbyes and get a warm smile from the plump woman and a sheepish grin from the boy.
My car needs to be towed to Bakersfield, about an hour away. Its late afternoon, and the sun is warm and low in the sky and will be at our backs. The divorced mechanic drives. I ask a lot of questions. How long had he been married? Why had it ended? Why should his boss be mayor? Did he have hobbies? Had he always been a mechanic? Clouds have been gathering. We finally pull off the highway, and as we take the exit curve he points out the mechanics shop under the pass. Theres my motel, conveniently located behind a McDonalds and a Dennys. The suburban edge of Bakersfield surrounds us. Im having the perfect American experience: highways, broken cars, motels and easy access to French fries. My escort pulls into the motel lot and unhooks the wagon as I register. I unload my suitcases in my room and it begins to pour. I open the curtain, fall back on the bed and lie there listening and watching the rain fall. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, only one phone call to make. Was that thunder? I really needed to stop. Feel completely uncompelled. Stare at the rain. Watch a movie. Maybe three or four. Sleep. Stare some more. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. The unexpected has taken me to a place I absolutely had to get to. It rains all weekend. The sun is shining.