California Mysteries

March 3, 2011
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The alarm clock blared from the nightstand, shaking me abruptly from glorious sleep. It sounded like a fire alarm. I stretched my arm and slapped around until I hit the off button. Maybe if I just hid under the covers, mom wouldn’t notice I hadn’t left for school. No such luck.
“Esma Collins, if you don’t get your butt out of bed right now you’ll be late! Let’s go!”
I groaned and slid out from under the covers. I stumbled down the stairs and into the bright kitchen full of sunlight. Wisconsin didn’t have this much sun, I wasn’t used to it. But my mother and I moved around so much I was never at home. I cooked myself up some Lucky Charms and plopped down at the table. My mother sat across from me reading her newspaper and drinking her coffee.
“Look who’s up! Excited for school?” she asked.
“If by excited, you mean completely dreading it in every way, then yes,” I replied between mouthfuls.
“It won’t be that bad! Just keep your head up, a smile on, and make some new friends! Before you know it, you’ll love it here.”
This was the same speech I heard every time we moved into a new town. Smile, friends, blah blah blah. The only town I’d actually liked was Oshkosh, Wisconsin. We’d lived there for three years, and I had made some great friends. But of course, mom’s job forced us to move. Now we were in California, where I knew absolutely no one. We had arrived here at the end of August, right in time for a new school year.
“Have fun at work,” I mumbled as I dumped my bowl in the sink and headed upstairs.
“I love you! Your day will be fantastic!” she yelled after me. How could she be so cheery this early in the morning?
I quickly brushed my teeth, braided my long hair back, and threw on some clothes. I picked a plain dark green shirt, jeans, and converse. I shoved my favorite rings on my fingers, grabbed my battered black Jansport bag, and hurried downstairs. My mom was already gone when I made it to my car. At least I had one thing here I loved, my blue Subaru outback. It never failed me.
I hopped in and backed out of the driveway. It was the third week of school, and I still hadn’t made any friends. I grabbed an open spot near the back and hurried toward the large main entrance. As I approached, it blocked out the blue sky in front of me. The huge sign proudly proclaimed in red and black letters that this was “Pickston High School, Home of the Pirates.”
This school was a lot larger than my old one. My old school held 300 kids, this one 1000. One more statistic I didn’t want to hear. I speed walked through the halls to my first class, arriving right before the bell. I hadn’t seen what Mr. Porter did to late students yet, and I didn’t want to.
The day crawled by slowly, every hour the same. I had already learned half of this stuff at my other school. The curriculum was easy, even though I was in all advanced classes.
I dreaded lunch all morning, and it lived up to my horrid expectations. Day after day no one offered me to join them at their tables. I sat alone outside in the courtyard, watching people interact. I hated being a loner. Some football players in varsity jackets sat against a wall with cheerleaders laughing on their laps. Some quiet and conservatively dressed kids sat doing homework at a picnic table. Some girls giggled into their hands in a corner, texting like mad on their phones. And then there was me, eating the lunch my mom had packed for me. My sandwich and other snacks had messages proclaiming that “every day is a great day” or “positive attitude equals amazing results.” I ate my food, soaking in the UV rays. Maybe I would actually be tan for once in my life. The bell yanked me out of my day dream, and I headed for the second half of the day.
The clock seemed to move in slow motion, the hand pushing against an invisible barrier with each tick. After what felt like years, the final bell released me and I hurried to my car.
Since my mom wouldn’t be home till late, I decided to explore. I still didn’t know the town that well. I drove around aimlessly until I found a cute downtown shopping area. I parked on a back road so I didn’t have to parallel park, grabbed my purse from the back seat, and headed out. I walked in and out of shops, not looking for anything, when I saw a sign proclaiming “Groovy Bob’s Record Shack.” Interested, I walked in the door.
A loud beep announced my arrival, making me jump. A voice yelled from behind a counter in the back, making my heart stutter step again. “Welcome to the shack! Today is buy two get one free albums so look around!”
I yelled back my thanks and began to browse. A large orange shag carpet, dirty and dusty, covered the floor. No wall space was visible; every inch was covered with band posters. New bands, old bands, classics, local bands, everything was represented. Old bottles sat on the window sills, filled with dried flowers. The sun shone through the bottles, making colored patches of light dance on the carpet. Dust motes floated lazily through the air.
I found a couple CDs of bands I liked, and approached the counter. The boy at the counter glanced up from the book he was reading and smiled. He was gorgeous. His skin was tan, long black hair covered his bright blue eyes, and his teeth glowed with whiteness.
“Find some good stuff?” he asked.
I nodded. When I reached for my CDs, I noticed a “Now Hiring” sign pasted to the counter.
“Can I have an application?” I asked, expecting I was too young.
“No need! I just have a quick quiz for you, and if you pass you’re hired.”
“Can I just have an application instead?” At that he gave a little chortle.
“You’ll be fine.” He slid a piece of paper and a pen over the counter. I grabbed it slowly, wondering if this was some big joke.
“First question. Three different kinds of music notes; please draw and label. Second question. Where did The White Stripes record their first album? Third Question. Name at least five songs by Iggy Pop.”
I scribbled down my answers and handed him the paper. His eyes zoomed back and forth, and his smile grew even wider.
“Wow! After fifteen interviews I was starting to lose hope. But you have passed the test! Would you like to start tomorrow?”
I couldn’t believe my luck. I still felt like I was being Punk’d. Was it possible I had just gotten my first job? And an amazing first job at that. In a retro record shop. With a gorgeous boy. I shook myself and remembered he was waiting for an answer.
“I’d love to! What do I need to wear? Is there a uniform?” I highly doubted it since he was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, but you never know.
“Nope, wear whatever you want. I’ll work with you for the first few days to get you situated. Bill, the owner, will be pleased I’ve finally found him a new worker. I am taking classes at a university in San Francisco so I can’t work every day. So, are you excited to start?” He jumped from topic to topic faster than a spinning record.
“Very!” I replied. “This is like a dream come true.” In more ways than one. But he didn’t need to know that.
“Sweeto! You can come around here tomorrow right after school and I will get you started. Oh, and get a work permit from the school. If you want to get paid, you have to fill out the forms.” He sounded almost as excited as me.
“Thanks! I’ll be back here tomorrow after school.”
“Awesome. See you then,” he said cheerily.
I left the shop, James’ goodbyes following me out the door. I walked slowly to my car, seeing California as a much more beautiful place. It was still weird to think I was about to have my first job.
I arrived home to an empty house, as usual. I turned on my speakers and cranked some tunage, hopping on my bed with my notebook. Time to write. I scribbled a few lyrics down, but no real inspiration came.
Before I knew it, my mom was shaking me awake.
“Honey, time for dinner! Wakey wakey. You know you shouldn’t take a nap this late at night, you’ll never fall asleep.”
I stretched and sat up. I must have fallen asleep writing. The sky outside had grown dark since I’d been asleep. As I entered the dining room, I saw the table was already set. My mom and I ate a pre-made meal from the local deli, with her firing questions at me about my day. I explained about my new job, and she frowned.
“Are you sure it won’t distract from your school work? And is that a very professional business?”
She could never be happy for me. I grabbed my plate and left the table, not bothering to ask to be excused. I’d probably have hell to pay for that in the morning, but I didn’t care. I went to bed annoyed, thinking what my dad would have said about this job. Maybe if he hadn’t abandoned us before I was born, everything would be a little better.

By the time I woke up the next morning, my mom had already left for work. I barely made it on time, but that wasn’t anything new. I daydreamed my way through my classes, becoming fully awake with the ding of the last bell. I ran to my car with work permit in hand, pumped to start. I roamed around a little in my Subaru, trying to trace my route from the day before. After twenty minutes, I found the right street.
He looked up from the book he was reading as I entered. “Welcome to your first day. Nice Ramones shirt, by the way.”
As I sat down on a stool, he disappeared into a back room. He returned a moment later, Beat on the Brat blaring out the old speakers.
“I love this song! It’s one of my favorites by them,” I said.
“Yeah, same here. My dad was the first person to show me the Ramones, I was six,” he laughed.
I nodded uncomfortably; I never knew what to say when people brought up their dads. I had always imagined my dad as being the kind of guy to rock out to The Ramones, but that might just be wishful thinking.
The time clicked away easily, a few people roaming the shop and buying albums. I learned how to work the register, check out customers, and where everything was located. Soon, it was six o’clock. Both our stomachs were growling, so James decided to get us some food.
“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Can you handle the shop by yourself? And do you like fish sandwiches? I know a place with the best ones.”
“I think I can do it. And I would love one! Thanks! Here’s five bucks, is that enough?”
“My treat. Consider this your first bonus.” And with that he flounced out the door.
No longer than thirty seconds after he was gone did a man enter the shop. He was tall and average weight, with a clean shaven face. He had short black hair, speckled with gray. His eyes were bright green and seemed to stare right through me. I couldn’t help but gape; it was like looking in a mirror at my own eyes. He shook himself and browsed the shop, picking up and setting down numerous items. After what felt like an eternity, he approached the counter with a few CD’s. When I looked into his face to tell him the price, I saw a vulnerable expression covering his face. It disappeared quickly, but I know I hadn’t imagined it.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” he asked quietly.
“Depends what it is,” I replied.
“Are you somehow related to Primrose Collins? I’ve been trying to find her, and you look a lot like her.”
“What are you, a creeper?” I blurted out. I started to wish James hadn’t left.
“No, of course not! I made a big mistake and need to find her.”
“Well, I’m her kid. What did you do?” I questioned.
He stared at me like he’d seen a ghost. “How old are you? And what’s your name?”
I felt weird giving this guy my information, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t find on the internet. “My name’s Esma. And I’m seventeen.”
His face looked joyous and pained at the same time; there was no other way to describe it.
“I was your mother’s boyfriend long ago, then left her to go on tour with my band. That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. I wonder if she was pregnant and never told me…” he drifted off into thought as I sat there dumbfounded.
“Hello? What are you saying? You can’t just barge in here and not explain yourself!”
“Let’s call your mother and figure this mess out.” He kept staring at me like I’d run out of the room if he blinked.
I picked up my phone and called my mom, begging her to pick up.
“Hi honey, is everything alright?” She sounded worried, which was probably because I rarely called her.
“Mom, come to my work right now. There is a man here claiming to be your old boyfriend. What’s going on?”
There was a short pause, then her quiet voice responded saying, “What is your address? I’ll be there in a few.”
I ran outside and read her the address and street name. She hung up without a good bye, never a good sign. I walked back in the shop, the mystery man staring at me.
“What is your name? You haven’t told me anything about you,” I asked rudely.
“Oh, sorry. I’m Martin Davis.”
The thought that this man might be my father grew like a balloon in my mind. I felt like I was in a crazy dream. We sat in awkward silence staring at each other until my mother entered. The moment she laid eyes on Martin, her jaw dropped.

“How can you show up here, after all these years? Where have you been?” she whispered.

“Why did you never tell me I had a daughter?” His loud voice startled me out of my thoughts.

“You left me. We did fine on our own,” she replied.

“Are you saying this is my father, then?” I cut in.

“Sadly, I am. I hoped that you would never have to go through this,” she said this as she stared at Martin.

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