Wednesday, August 25, 2004


The check engine light came on and the car started to jerk and cough until finally it died altogether. Nanette, Peggy and I sat there in the dark on the side of Highway 10, semis roaring past, whipping through the heat of the summer night. As each one passed Nan’s little white Toyota Corolla shuddered like a whipped dog. It was about 9pm and we had been trying to get out to Yucca Valley, near Palm Springs for the last 2 hours. We were going to stay in a house, well okay, a shack that Nan’s father owned. It was built sometime in the 40s – no insulation, no phone and certainly no air conditioning or swimming pool. We didn’t care though because the most important thing it didn’t have was adult supervision. We were 17 and to us, this was the ultimate freedom.

Our plan was to lay out in the desert sun, smoke cigarettes and drink the beers we’d pimped at the liquor store on our way out of town. I wasn’t a big fan of beer so I had my Boone’s Farm “Tickle Pink” wine. We also had a couple joints that I had rolled from my dad’s stash. We didn’t care that the temperature would probably hit 109 degrees during the day and not go much lower than 95 at night. It would be fun just because we could get as drunk and stoned as we wanted and stay up late. For entertainment we’d brought along my portable stereo and a bunch of albums, including Richard Pryor’s “Is It Something I Said?” that Nanette had “borrowed” from her brother. This was a time that pre-dates boomboxes, much less Ipods with mini-speakers. It was also in those days before cell phones.

Which is why we were sitting on the side of the highway on the verge of panic. After some discussion we popped the hood and got out of the car. We had no idea what to do but looking under the hood for a clue was at least something. If only it hadn’t been so dark. We pretneded to check the oil and the water in the radiator and got back in the car… and it started. We got a little further and it died. We kept this up for a while because we really wanted to start our weekend getaway – but finally when we got close enough to an offramp Nanette went and called her dad. Who came out in his car and drove slowly in front of us – stopping more than once to get something out of the trunk of his car. It was only much later in life that I realized that Nanette’s dad and mom got a divorce because he was 1) gay and 2) alcoholic. All those stops? He was refilling his glass.

We ended up staying at his very chic and air conditioned home in Palm Springs that night. We got there in time to catch the news where the top story of the evening were the human remains that were found out in the Yucca Valley – not far from where we’d be staying. Without a phone. There was suspicion of foul play possibly related to a snuff film that was supposedly produced in the area. No suspects were in custody. With my morbid fascination for all things serial killer and deviant ways to die I didn’t sleep all night, finding it impossible to drop off to sleep when fantasies of what snuff film making serial killers lurking in the Yucca Valley would do with our 17 year old selves.

The next morning Dad and Nanette took the little Toyota to the mechanic and then he dropped the three of us, along with our smuggled contraband, off at our vacation getaway. Despite the fearful sleepless hours of the night before and the oppressive heat, we still gaily waved as we watched the dust kicked up by his Cadillac hang in the dead still air around us. As soon as he was out of sight we went inside to change into our bathing suits, set up the stereo with speakers at the windows and mix up some cocktails. It was 120 degrees inside and the interior of the shack was akin to the hellhole at Yuma Territorial prison. There was no breeze. But there were also no adults. The latter lack simply won out over all the other things we didn't have. It was a simpler time and we were just delighted to be there – with no car, no phone, no air conditioning. In the middle of the desert where human remains had recently been found.

The Hilton Sisters we were not.

We hung out all afternoon roasting ourselves in the sun and drinking ourselves into oblivion. The only respite we could find from the heat was to take an ice cold shower. And it was good that we enjoyed those because there was no hot water. Unless you count the initial gush of scalding water from pipes seared to temperatures created by nuclear fission by the sun which seemed to be only about 100 feet away from the surface of the earth. As the scorching ball of fire began to set we lit up a doobie, that’s what we called a joint in the olden days, and sipped yet another cocktail as we sat on the rusty, rotted lawn chairs on the hard packed, sunbaked square of desert that made up our “patio” and blissfully enjoyed the Technicolor show as Jackson Browne serenaded us from the speakers that held up the windows.

Once it got dark we started talking about the “human remains” and wondering aloud about the snuff film. Did they use a shack, much like our own? It was so easy to imagine the sordid murder playing out – especially since we were all alone out there. Paranoid in the dark. We decided to go inside and get something to eat. That’s the nice thing about the munchies. They can distract you from all the negative emotions like terror. It’s like someone flips a switch and all of a sudden perverts wearing masks and black rubber gloves carrying chain saws don’t seem that scary because you’ve got Milk Duds and Doritos and OH MY GOD! They’re the best Milk Duds and Doritos EVER!

Then we put on the Richard Pryor album. And smoked pot and drank and listened to it over and over again until we had it memorized – laughing so hard we were crying and our faces hurt. Eventually we turned off the light to go to sleep and almost immediately fear was my bedfellow, but then Nanette goes, “So I was walking down the street…” and I got the giggles so bad I almost wet the bed. Richard Pryor is the real deal – a genius. And I thank God that we had that album with us because I could have easily spent the whole night completely freaked out about someone finding our human remains in that shack in the desert. And that's not nearly as fun.

The next morning at what seemed like dawn there was a knock on the door. We all sat up immediately, the rush of adrenaline canceling out, for the moment, the humongous hangovers we would soon be sporting. We whispered frantically back and forth,
“Get the door!”
“No! You get the door!”
“I’m not getting the door!”
“Who do you think it is?”
“I don’t know, get the door.”
“Could it be your dad?”
“He doesn’t get up this early.”
“Well, I’m not getting the door.”
The knocking came again, louder this time, followed by a woman’s voice, “Yoohoo, ladies!”

That didn’t sound like a psychopathic snuff film murderer, so I answered the door. It was one of Nanette’s father’s friends who’d come out to see if we wanted a ride back to the house. She stood there eyeing the empty beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays as we told her that we weren’t ready to go yet. We still wanted to hang out a little longer. She left telling us that she’d let Nan’s father know that we were okay and that he should come back around noon. We were too freaked out to go back to sleep so we took ice cold showers and cleaned up the shack which got hotter and more sweltering as the sun rose in the sky and by the time he arrived we were ready to go lounge by his pool and eat tuna sandwiches in his air conditioned kitchen.

The Toyota wasn’t ready until after 4pm so we didn’t get on the road again until about 7:30 since we decided to stay for dinner. It was Sunday night, but it was summertime and we didn’t have anywhere to be the next day. The sun was setting as we hugged goodbye and said our thank yous. I don’t remember exactly what was wrong with the car, but it was fixed and we were headed home. At least we were until just a short distance before we reached Riverside. When the car died on the side of the freeway. In the dark. Again.

We got out of the car and stood around peering under the hood. The freeway at least had dim lights in the emergency lane. Not that we knew what to look for or what we might be looking at. Nanette had just pulled out the oil dipstick and was peering at it when a car pulled up and stopped in front of the Toyota. Peg yelled, “Get in the car” the urgency in her voice making us move posthaste. As we sat in the car, Nan clutching the dipstick in her hand, a Hispanic man came to her window. She cracked it a smidge and in very broken English he offered to help us. “No, that’s okay, somebody’s coming. Thank you though.” He went on his way.

As did the next four people that stopped to help through the small crack at the top of Nan's window. We kept thinking that the car would start like it had before and we would be able to limp to an offramp at least. But no. It was sicker than before. After what seemed like two hours of jumping in and out of the car I’d finally had it. I was sick of being stranded on the side of the road. I was tired and I was sunburned and I wanted to go home. So when a black Camero pulled over with tinted windows with a black power sticker on the back window I decided that I was going to go with the nice black guy with the huge afro who was offering to drive us to the nearest gas station.

Peggy was horrified. Certain that for sure our bodies would be found raped and murdered in some ravine. At that point I truly didn’t care. Death would’ve been preferable to what amounted to pergatory on the side of Interstate 10. So with Peggy and Nanette stuffed in the backseat with all of our luggage I pulled the passenger door shut and said, “let’s go.” And that very nice and most wonderful gentleman drove us to the nearest gas station where he dropped us and all our shit off with Thermo Jet at the Mobil gas station.

Where we sat on the curb and watched the low riders cruise sloooooowly past the gas pumps, the cholos inside staring at us and making sexually suggestive remarks because it was a slow Sunday night so why not scare the three white girls sitting at the gas station like the Beverly Hill Billies with all that luggage and a portable stereo. Therm Jet told us all kinds of stories gang violence and such and advised us to come sit inside so that we didn’t get in trouble.

So it’s coming up on 11pm and we’re sitting in a filthy gas station lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs hanging out with a guy who’s made up some kind of super hero name for himself. Tall and lanky in his dirty wife beater t-shirt under his oilstained coveralls, with red hair and a brillo pad beard the color of cinnamon he was more than happy to have the company. When Nan described the sound the car made before it stopped he nodded sagely and said, “Mmhmm, sounds like yew threw a rod – yee’re gonna need a whole new injin.” Nan’s eyes filled with tears. So did mine but more because it seemed like I was going to spend the rest of my life in the grimy sweatbox that was and is the inland empire.

Finally about midnight Peg’s brother showed up to pick us up and take us to her mom’s house in Anaheim Hills. It was decided that her mom would take us home the next day on her way to work and Nan could have her car towed off the freeway during daylight hours. We immediately fell into an exhausted sleep in the air conditioned bliss of a home where there was parental supervision and the peace of mind that came with it. For all our desire to be independent and out on our own it was really just too exhausting for more than a weekend.

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