“Take varm clothes, Gina,” Mom says. “Is cold at night.” She’s said the same thing in the same moose-and-squirrel accent since I was twelve and going off to summer camp.
“Mom,” I say, “it’s May.”
“Sveater veather,” she says, pulls the aforementioned garment out of my dresser, and lays it atop my duffel.
It’s the bulkiest sweater I own, bright red, and makes me look like a big, fuzzy chili pepper. It also takes up half the duffel, but it was her gift to me. Need I say more?
We have this conversation every time I leave home for more than a day and I always leave with extra sweaters, extra sox, vitamins of all kinds and—
“You have your obereg?”
This literally means “protector” in The Mother’s Tongue and, like the sweater and vitamins, is something Mom will not let me leave home without. Not that she’d admit to being superstitious. But with a PhD in Russian folklore, a fascination with arcana, and a vast collection of materia magica from all over the world, she views packing an amulet as a practical consideration. Better safe than sorry, after all.
I reach into my jeans pocket and retrieve the obereg du jour—the smallest of a set of nesting matryoshka dolls that have spent some time under the altar at Our Lady of Kazan.
“See? I’m all obereg-ed up.”
“Good,” she says. “Don’t vorget to say goodbye to Edmund.”
I never forget to say goodbye to Dad, who never says word one about sweaters, vitamins, or amulets. My down-to-earth Japanese-American father only ever asks: “Did you pack your sidearm?”
I sometimes think people with dysfunctional families have it easy. Okay, not really. My odd but stubbornly functional family is what got me through my teens, my epic washout from the police force, my broken engagement, my ex-fiancé’s trial for attempted murder, and my current meanders. They don’t seem to mind that at twenty-four I’m still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up.
Now, as I speed my Harley northeast on Interstate 80 toward the picture postcard capitol of Northern California, I reflect that I have always and only wanted to be a cop. I still do, notwithstanding I’ve proven I’m not cop material.
I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a P.I., but I have reservations. Not because the work is hard and dangerous—no problem, I have an obereg for every occasion—but I mean, honestly, how seriously would you take a detective who’s five-foot-two and weighs ninety-ish pounds in a soggy trench coat?
Hence, I am heading upstate for a Gold Country walkabout, thanks to my high school buddy, July Petersen, who insists I come up and check out the California Forestry Department.
Gina Miyoko, Forest R-r-ranger. Right.
The drive takes three hours and I reach Grass Valley depressed and strung out on Starbucks. No fewer than three large men—also mounted on Harleys—observed that my hog is “a lot of bike for a little girl.” That’s one chauvinist pig-dog per hour.
July lives with her parents. This is not because she’s a deadbeat, but because she likes living with them. July’s parents are nearly as odd as my own. As evidence of this, I offer the fact that she has a brother named March and a sister named October. One wonders what would have happened if March had been a twin. Or had been born in May or June.
July is a cop—California Highway Patrol. She is also my hero, and has been since high school when she assumed the full time job of protecting our little quartet of social misfits. We were misfits for reasons of stature: Rose Martinez was too chubby; July was too tall and buff; Lee Preston and I were too small. We were the Spratts, Mutt ’n’ Jeff, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy—all rolled into one much-maligned group.
None of us dated much, including July, notwithstanding she was statuesque and blonde. In the years since, she hadn’t sprouted any significant others, so I am understandably floored when, over lunch, she asks casually: “So, you want to help me plan my wedding?”
She smiles into her Thai coffee. “Wedding. You know the thing where you stand in front of a minister and trade poetry?”
I’d be standing in front of a Buddhist monk and a Russian Orthodox priest, but whatever. “When?”
“July, of course.”
“Wouldn’t miss it, but I’m not sure how much help I’ll be. You may recall that I flunked Wedding 101.”
Her smile fades and she gives me a glance screened by long, coppery lashes. She’s about to apologize for something she couldn’t possibly have saved me from.
I spare her the awkward moment. “I didn’t know you were dating.”
“I wasn’t. I don’t do dating.”
“So, who’s the lucky guy? Do I know him?”
“Yeah, pretty well, as a matter of fact. Lee Preston.”
“Lee? Criminy, July, you’ve known Lee forever.”
She shrugs. “You think of someone as a friend long enough, sometimes you don’t know there’s more there until something happens, and you realize things can change. You know what I mean.”
I do. Dad had nearly died (for the first time) when I was thirteen. He’d been on the Grass Valley PD then, and a drunk driver had nearly taken him out during a routine traffic stop. I still can’t drive through the intersection of Sutton and Brunswick without sweating.
“Lee got a job offer from a radio station in San Francisco. As we discussed whether he’d take it, we realized . . .” She shrugs eloquently.
“So he’s staying at KNCO?”
“Nope. He’s going to SF. I’m going to the SFPD.” She pauses to give me an oblique glance. “Which your Dad has apparently not mentioned.”
“He helped set up the interviews.”
“I owe him one,” I say, not sure exactly what I owe him.
We spend the afternoon bumming around Grass Valley and its über-touristy twin, Nevada City. That evening we dine with July’s parents and Lee, who has grown from a geeky adolescent to a drop dead gorgeous man. All in a compact 5-foot-7-inch frame.
“You’re too tall for him,” I tell July as we police the kitchen after dinner.
“Height-ist are we? That’s one step away from sexism. You, of all people, should be sensitive to issues of stature.”
“I’m just saying,” I object, “that you could’ve let me have him. He’s a titan in my little universe.”
We sit on the Petersen’s deck, playing Gin Rummy by fragrant citronella candles (which seemed to amuse the mosquitoes more than deter them), and watching the breeze toss the treetops below the house. Further down the hill, the security lights of the Petersen’s brickworks spill into the two lane county road that separates it from Wray’s Wrecks.
The lights at the wrecking yard are dimmer, and I can make out a row of trees on the opposite side of the long, two-story garage. I catch the flash of car headlights from the highway beyond the lot. Good place for a wrecking yard. Easy access for tow trucks, and Highway 49 does a bang-up job of supplying business.
“July says you’re thinking about becoming a private eye,” Lee says as he trounces us at Gin for the third time.
Jan Petersen—short for January—makes a tsk-ing sound. “That’s a dangerous job,” says she whose only daughter went into law enforcement right out of high school.
I’m not thinking about becoming anything at the moment, but I rise to the bait. “Not with the proper training.”
Jan shakes her head. “It’s just hard to imagine you skulking around alleys, carrying a gun.”
“Taurus Magnum,” I announce. “Lightweight, small, and a pretty shade of blue. Recoil’s a bitch, but I take target practice twice a week.”
Lee grins at me across the table. “I’d think you’d have an advantage not looking like a textbook P.I. Who’d suspect Tinkerbell of casing them?”
July agrees absently. “Uh, huh . . . Now what’s gotten into Bob?”
We all follow her gaze. Wray’s Wrecks is ablaze with light.
“Jiminy Christmas,” says July’s Dad (whose name is simply and sensibly John), “he’s got every light in the place on.”
“Maybe he’s trying to flag down passing UFO’s,” I offer.
John Petersen chuckles. “Wouldn’t surprise me. Bob Wray is an odd duck. A truly nice man, but odd.”
We watch as a trio of random-sized dogs fans out from the garage that dominates the northeast corner of the long yard. The place is several acres in size, but doesn’t look like any wrecking yard I’ve ever seen. Not that I’m a junkyard aficionado, but anyone who owns a Harley is more than passingly familiar with them. This one’s peculiar, even at first glance. There are no dizzyingly vertical piles of car corpses or randomly scattered body parts. Bob Wray’s junkyard is relentlessly horizontal and scrupulously tidy. The wrecks, viewed from the Petersen’s front porch, are laid out in a grid of neat, even rows.
“You suppose he has a Harley carburetor?” I muse.
“Who doesn’t?” Lee asks. “Question is: is it any better than the one you’ve already got?”
“I have four. You can never have too many carburetors.”
The lights at Wray’s Wrecks dim as suddenly as they came on.
“Huh,” says July.
“Gin,” says Lee.
I rub the matryoshka in my pocket and reflect that perhaps the old Church Fathers are right: card games are demonic.
* * *