The Bad Project

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Chapter 32. Thanksgiving in LA/Crystal

Earlier in the semester, when they had been closer, Crystal had invited Marianne to spend Thanksgiving with her and her family, and Marianne had agreed. Her parents were dubious, wanting her to come up to the Bay Area, but they finally said she could stay. The girls sat in the back seat together, riding to Crystal’s house with her brother Jason, who had driven out to pick them up in his old white Honda Civic. Crystal hoped getting away from Carson would help them restore the closeness they’d had earlier.

“What’s death, do you think?” Marianne asked.

“Uh oh,” Crystal said, “I have no good feelings about that question. Why do you want to know?” She looked out the window as they whizzed along the 210 Freeway towards Pasadena. There wasn’t very much traffic, luckily.

“For my philosophy class. We have to try to understand everything, and what’s our basis for thinking that too. Sometimes it makes my brain hurt.”

“Oh. Well I don’t know. My Grandma’s sister Auntie Tal can sense dead people; she has the second sight and—“

Jason waved his arm wildly over the back of his seat. Crystal said, “What?”

“You can’t talk about that stuff outside the family, girl. It’s not real, makes us all look bad like we believe in superstitions and like that. Like we’re stupid.”

“Chinese people believe in lots of things you can’t see too,” Marianne said.

Jason snorted and said, “C’mon, get real. That stuff’s for babies. You girls are about grown up, why don’t you act like it?” He signaled and pulled off the freeway at Fair Oaks/Marengo, then turned north.

Crystal and Marianne exchanged glances that promised future conversation, and changed the subject.

“What else are you doing in that class?”

“Trying to decide what’s real and what’s not. The professor broke a plate the first day. It was really confusing. He said after it was broken the idea was more real than the plate. But why? The pieces were still there, and where was the idea? It was still as airy and invisible as before.”

Jason snickered in the front seat now. “That stuff doesn’t sound like it’d be too useful in the real world,” he said. As an engineer, he was dismissive towards mere thinking, as opposed to constructing things.

“Well, now we’ve moved on to ethics. That is supposed to be more important in everyday life.”

They pulled up in front of Crystal and Jason’s Grandma’s house on North Lincoln Avenue. It was in Altadena, not far from where Rodney King, whose beating had caused the riots back in 1992, was from. It was a neat, medium sized ranch house with well-trimmed front lawn, a concrete path bisecting the lawn, a large front porch, and a porch swing. Beds filled with purple petunias and yellow and red dahlias burgeoned on either side of the steps, and spikes of red and yellow cannas rose up under the front windows.

“Welcome! Grandma loves her plants,” Crystal said, noticing that Marianne was admiring the petunias. “Let’s go on inside.”

They opened the screen door and unlocked the door. The foyer could barely fit the three of them, so they went into the living room, furnished with red velvet couch and chairs, highly overstuffed, and flowered drapes from floor to ceiling, looped back with thick gold cords. Grandma came rushing out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a wrap-around apron, with a big smile.

“Hi there Marianne! I remember you from the concert. Welcome to our home, we hope you’ll enjoy the visit.”

“Thank you, it’s so nice to visit with Crystal. We’ve become such good friends.”

“Sit down, sit down. Can I get you some ice water or ice tea?”

“Ice water sounds good to me,” Marianne said. The others agreed, and they all sat down, except for Grandma who scurried off to the kitchen to get the waters.

She handed them around, then grabbed crochet-trimmed coasters and put them under each glass on the coffee table. “Makes rings if it sets d’recly on there, you see,” she explained in a kind voice. “Now tomorrow we’ll eat the feast at 3:30. So eat light at breakfast and nothing much at lunch either. Save room!”

“We will, Grandma. What do you want us to do to help?”

“I’ll find plenty if you want to help. Just come out to the kitchen tomorrow any time. But relax today, there’s nothing to do right now. We’re having burgers cooked out back for supper today. Is that okay? You eat meat Marianne?”

“Oh, yes, I eat anything. No problem.”

“I’m going out to the kitchen to finish the potato salad fixins.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“He’s still at work; he’ll be home directly. Why don’t y’all unpack now?”

“Okay,” Crystal said. “Let’s take our bags back here,” she said to Marianne.

They walked along a long hallway towards the back of the house and turned right at the end into Crystal’s bedroom. She had twin beds, the headboards off-white with gold touches, and they had half-canopy drapes around the pillow ends. The canopies were blue and white checked gingham with little ruffles at the bottom. The bedspreads matched.

“Crystal, this room is so dainty. At school your décor is a lot plainer than this,” Marianne said.

“Yeah, my taste changed. But it seemed silly to redecorate here when I wasn’t going to be around much. Sorry, it’s all a bit much.”

“I like it. Probably a lot better than you do!”

“Thanks.” The two were unpacking into drawers in the big dresser, off-white again having gold touches along the suave bends along the edges. Crystal used the top drawer and Marianne the second one. Crystal showed her guest where to hang up her clothes that needed to be shaken out, in a closet along the hallway. She gave her a towel and wash cloth and showed her where to put them in the back bathroom that the girls would share with Jason.

They went back to the living room and sipped water. The door opened and Crystal’s Dad walked in. “Hi big girl!” he said, hugging Crystal. “This must be your roommate. Introduce me!”

“Dad, this is Marianne Wu. She’s from the Bay Area.”

“Hi there Marianne. Welcome. Do your folks celebrate Thanksgiving?”

Crystal cringed. Why did he think Marianne wasn’t American?

“Sure, we do.” Marianne said. “But we have stir fried veggies instead of the kind you probably have. And sometimes my sister Susie makes fried dumplings for an appetizer. I guess that’s not kosher.”

He laughed. “I don’t think Thanksgiving is particularly kosher. But just thinking about what we should be grateful to have is important, our society is so materialistic these days.” He looked thoughtful, wrinkled his brow, and Marianne wondered what he’d ask next. But he didn’t ask another question. He took his briefcase to his room and took off his shoes, putting on some leather slippers. When he came back, Grandma brought out a beer for him.

“Dad, would it be okay if I worked ten weeks at Carson this summer?” Crystal said.

“Um, tell me more.” He stood and looked at her, holding the cold beer and smiling.

“Dr. Pirkley asked me to work with him on a project about malaria resistance of red blood cells, and it’s for ten weeks, and it pays $3000, and I get free housing but I still have to pay for food, and…”

“Okay, take a breath,” her dad said, hugging her with his free hand. “That sounds great. It would look good on your med school application too. I just need to check the financial aspects of it, but I think it should be fine.”

“Whew. Now I can look forward to it. I talked with Dr. Pirkley the other day and he made it sound like it would be very helpful in Africa because we could use the results to match patients with treatments. I’m pretty excited.”

“Okay, I can see that you are. Very cool,” her Dad said. He sat down and put his feet up, turning on the TV with the remote control. It was a business program that Crystal and Marianne weren’t too interested in, but they watched to be polite. The host was discussing college endowments, and the president of Carson was being interviewed by telephone. His typical publicity head shot was being displayed while his voice was playing.

“Hey, there’s the leader of your school, Crystal. If he raises a lot of money, your tuition could go down. Hope he’s smart,” Mr. White said. “Me too,” Marianne said.

They talked a bit about the TV business news, then Grandma summoned them for supper. Dad put a lot of catsup on his burger, while Jason put a lot of pepper on his. Marianne put a slice of tomato and a huge wad of lettuce on hers.

“You can’t eat that, Marianne. Your mouth is too small,” Jason told her. But she proved him wrong.

“The lettuce squashes down when I bite,” she said.

“Huh. Your mouth is just bigger than it looks.” Jason said with a smile.

Crystal worried that Marianne would be offended, but she looked amused. She told herself to relax, but she couldn’t stop worrying that something would go wrong.

After dinner, Crystal took Marianne for a walk around the neighborhood, just to get outside for a while. They walked down ’Christmas tree lane” with its enormous deodar trees. A lot of the families left the strings of lights on the trees all year, but they were only turned on in December. The dark green trees with drooping branches were spooky, they agreed. They stopped at the library and went in.

“I like the Japanese style they used,” Marianne said.

“I thought you’d find it too plain, but I like it a lot. Didn’t you tell me if it’s not over the top modern, it’s not for you?” Crystal asked.

“Okay, but I can appreciate the simplicity of Japanese architecture too,” Marianne said. “I just wouldn’t live in a house like that myself.” She paused for a minute, then said, “Remember when you started to tell me about your Auntie Tal?”

“Oh, yes. Jason squelched that. Well, she has the second sight. Everyone in the family knows it. She doesn’t come downstairs any more, so you have to go up two flights of stairs to her room in Aunt Elvira’s house. She feeds the bats that live under the eaves with a baby dropper and honey water. She’s kind of weird. But when she looks at you, it feels like she’s X-raying your heart. She really sees what moves you, and if you’re trying to hide something, forget it. I try not to go see her very often. She scares me.”

“Did you say before that she can sense dead people?”

Crystal shivered. “Yes, she says she can. She doesn’t really talk to them, but she refers to what they’ve said, just like they’re not dead. She might say, ’Lidie says you ought notto be betting on them football games with them white boys. They done cheated you before and they gonna do it again.” When she says the ghost’s name, she sort of nods to where it might be, towards a chair or the bed. It gives me chills even to think about it.”

“Do you think our spirits live on after we die, really? Or do you just think she believes that?”

“I guess I think they do, at least sometimes. Maybe you hang around if you’ve been mistreated or disturbed by your life, but if you’re happy, you just go to heaven or join with God or something. I need to give this some systematic thought. Right now, I have a lot of leftover ideas from childhood, and I haven’t really thought about them for a long time. They seem incoherent and confusing.”

“Well, take Philosophy! That will make you think all these things over, probably more than you want to.”

“What do you think about death?”

“I think….I really think when you die, that’s it. I know you live on in people’s memories, but I don’t think there’s any ‘you’ there any more after you die.”

“Has anyone close to you ever died?”

“My cat. Not any person. I’ve gone to family funerals. But not of anyone I was really close to.”

“Well, my mother died. I dream about her sometimes.” Crystal stretched her arms high above her head for a minute. “I don’t think she’s gone out of existence. She was too real. I know she’s still somewhere. I just don’t know where.”

“I’m so sorry, I had forgotten. How old were you when she died?”

“Twelve.” A tear rolled down Crystal’s right cheek, and Marianne gave her a hug.

“I think of her when I read the part in Romeo and Juliet where she talks about Romeo shining through the stars. Do you know it?”

“Not really, we never had to learn stuff out of Shakespeare.”

“It goes like this. “And, when she shall die, Take her and cut her out in little stars, And she will make the face of Heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night And pay no worship to the garish sun.” I changed the “he” to “she” for my mom. I feel her presence on starry nights, feel like she always shined on the world when she was here.

A chilly wind made both women shiver. The desert wind that had cleared the air was building up for a strong wind storm that night.

“Let’s go see what’s on TV,” Marianne said. “I think there’s a special on Darfur that I wanted to see tonight.” They went to watch television.

The next morning, Grandma drafted them to chop vegetables, tie together turkey legs, chop giblets, and mash potatoes. Every time they finished one job, another one popped up. They talked while they worked, partly about school activities and partly about Altadena. Marianne asked about how it got to be so racially integrated. Grandma explained that when black people started to move in, the white people started to move out. But not all left; a lot stayed. The neighborhood stabilized as a mixture, and has worked fine for about thirty years. She told Marianne that Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa had come to visit when one of the churches’ youth groups installed a stained glass window honoring him.

“He said he was amazed at how beautiful it was to see black and white children working together in school and playing together on the playground. And that man could dance! He showed ’em all how to do some moves at the party out on the school grounds.”

“Did you go to the service and the party?” Marianne asked.

“Yessiree, couldn’t keep me back from it. I don’t go there to that church, but my friend Maisie took me along. I wouldn’t give anything for it, what a man he is!” Grandma had a huge grin. “He done asked one of the little white girls, ‘Is that Latin you’re singin’? and she said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ But it was! Maisie told me she took Latin in high school, and that was what they sang. But this little miss didn’t know that. Tutu, he just cackled.”

“What did they serve at the party?”

“Oh, just rubber chicken like always. Church parties not places for good food. But they had a DJ and some good music playing, and Tutu got up and danced all around up there on the stage. We all clapped along to his beat. He somethin’!”

When the feast was ready, everyone pitched in to bring it to the dining room. The table was loaded down and each person had a tiny space to eat, but everything was delicious. After the meal, Grandma, Crystal, and Marianne put everything left away in the kitchen and then dropped on the living room couch to rest.

“Yum! I think that was the best feast I ever had,” Marianne said.

“What a meal!” came the chorus from all the others. They sat stupefied, half watching a football game on television. When it got dark, Crystal and Marianne went out in the back yard.

“It’s the Santa Ana condition, wow it’s so clear. You can really see the stars,” Crystal said.

“I wonder if anyone lives up there. It would be cool if they did,” Marianne said.

“You do have a great imagination. You should be a writer,” Crystal said.

“I hope I can. I need to work on my piece to submit so I can take an upper division writing class next semester. They make you apply with a writing sample for all the classes after the first one, here. I have an idea, but no time to work on it. But the deadline is in a couple of weeks, so I have to get started.”

“Can’t you submit something you wrote for the Carson Circus or the Carson Clarion?”

“Maybe, but they aren’t my best work. I want to make sure they accept me into the class.”

“Okay, but I thought they were great. Especially the one about the computer contest.”

“That was sort of a memoir piece. It was fun to recreate the tension of that class, how competitive all the boys were, and how Henry tried to sabotage Dan’s program. I liked writing that. Stories are harder, because you have to make it all up.”

“Well, good luck. I’m cold, let’s go back inside.”

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