All Bob Griese’s Fault
by Kathryn Wilkens
I unlocked the car, slung my canvas bag of ungraded papers onto the front seat and climbed into my kiln on wheels. Burning my hands on the plastic steering wheel, I rolled down the window, cranked the engine and switched on the radio, my only solace. Appropriately, “Light My Fire” played as I followed Francisquito to the San Berdoo Freeway and merged with westbound traffic. I squinted into the sunlight glaring off the pavement and other cars. Mine stood out—a boxy 1964 Comet bearing Indiana plates and a McCarthy for President bumper sticker.
I lamented the Comet’s lack of air conditioning as the wind stung my eyes, bringing tears. I’d had a wretched day at school, trying to teach Spanish to seventh graders. What was I doing here? I hated California and it was all Bob Griese’s fault.
If he hadn’t, as quarterback, led Purdue to a winning season the previous year, if the Boilermakers hadn’t been invited to the Rose Bowl, and if my roommate Donna hadn’t visited Pasadena and fallen in love with it, then she wouldn’t have suggested that she, Christie and I move out here after graduation. All three of us had found teaching jobs at a junior high in La Puente, and at the end of August left the Midwest with clothes, records, books and a few things cadged from our mothers’ kitchens.
In our first hectic days we had found a furnished two-bedroom apartment on Rosemead Boulevard, arranged for utilities and bought pots and pans at White Front. We applied for California drivers’ licenses, opened bank accounts and enrolled in night classes at Cal State LA. After signing loyalty oaths to the Constitution, getting fingerprinted at the police station and writing lesson plans, we were ready to teach.
Now, “Light My Fire” gave way to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” I remembered how Donna had returned from California gushing about palm trees, blue skies and balmy temperatures. So far I’d only seen a few scraggly palms. The sky was whitish-yellow overhead and brown in the distance. And what she called balmy I called hot. The California I saw was an agglomeration of concrete, gas stations, billboards, stucco architecture—and walls and fences around every property.
The only good thing was that it never rained. At least that’s what The Mamas and the Papas said.
I missed my family, but I couldn’t go back to Indiana. I wasn’t about to break my contract and crawl home. There I would always be the “baby” of the family. How could a baby attain the authority to become a good teacher? I’d have to stick it out. Besides, as I downshifted for the Rosemead exit, I doubted my Comet would make the return trip.
Donna, Christie and I settled into a routine of school and night classes. Unless Donna cooked, dinner was a bag of tacos. On Fridays we TGIF-ed at a seedy bar called Goldy’s Living Room. Christie flirted with the coaches and Donna soon hooked up with a science teacher, Steve. One time Steve brought along a buddy, Sam, who worked for Edison. Sam was divorced with two sons. He’d be a good friend, I thought, but he had different plans for us. He asked me out to dinner the next night. We found plenty to talk and laugh about, so I had a good time. When he took me home, though, the goodnight kiss he gave me was a disappointing brotherly smooch.
Two weeks later Sam stopped by my apartment after work. As we were sitting on the sofa listening to music, it started to rain. He charged out on the balcony and stood there for a long time watching water fall from the sky. Every time there was a lightning flash, he said “Wow!” and cocked his head, waiting for thunder. “I’m grooving on this storm.”
“I thought it never rained here!” I said. “What are you so excited about? I moved out here to get away from rain!”
He just grinned at me. “Wait until you’ve lived here a while,” he said. “You’ll see.”
I shook my head. He was a little weird, but he was starting to grow on me.
It stopped raining the next day. I had a class after school, so it was dark by the time I downshifted onto the Rosemead off ramp. Looking north, I saw strange lights glimmering in the sky. Not up high, but about halfway up my windshield. They were too large to be stars or planets. They could be low-flying aircraft except they weren’t moving. Helicopters? UFOs?
The phone rang as soon as I got inside and peeled off my pantyhose. Christie answered and handed me the receiver. It was Sam. I mentioned the impossible lights.
“You were seeing the towers on Mt. Wilson,” he said.
I was silent for a minute. “Wait—there are mountains here?”
He laughed. “Yeah, it’s been smoggy—you probably haven’t seen them yet. If you’re not busy I’ll come over and show you.” Of course I was busy. I had papers to grade, parents to call, lessons to plan.
“Sure,” I said.
We drove through towns—I couldn’t tell where one ended and the next one began—and then on a road that wound uphill. He pulled into a turnout and parked. We got out and leaned against the car. I looked at the lights of the cities—a blanket of twinkling dots that stretched miles to the south, east and west. “If it were daylight you’d be able to see the ocean and Catalina Island,” he said.
He came close and wrapped himself around me. He was a big guy, tall and warm. He smelled good. I had to stand on my tiptoes when he kissed me—not a brotherly smooch this time. “I’m glad you came to California,” he said.
I turned and looked again at the enchanted landscape below us. “You can thank Bob Griese,” I said.
© Copyright 2010 Kathryn Wilkens. All rights reserved.
Kathryn Wilkens began writing for publication in 2000 and has placed several travel articles in The Los Angeles Times. She has also written essays and articles for Writers’ Journal, Personal Journaling, Verbatim and The Christian Science Monitor. Four of her essays have appeared in anthologies, most recently “Sea of Blue Ink” in Writers and Their Notebooks (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).