Small Packages

Paul hates talking on the phone so Connie’s the one who calls his daughter-in-law once a month to catch up. She doesn’t mind calling Vicky. She likes hearing about the grandkids growing up too fast in the new house in Simi Valley where they’ve never been invited. Emily’s ten and Noah is almost eight.

“He’s right here if you’d like to say hello.” Connie holds out the phone but when Paul shakes his head no she puts it back in her ear. “He says to give the kids a hug.”

“We’re taking the RV up to Santa Barbara this weekend for Noah’s soccer tournament,” Vicky says. “My parents are coming with us.”

“How nice,” Connie says. “Maybe we could meet up with you guys somewhere.”

“Sure,” Vicky says. “I’ll talk to Robert and let you know.”

Her voice carries through the receiver and Paul rolls his eyes, slides open the screen door to the balcony and goes outside. Connie can predict the future. They won’t hear back from Vicky or Robert and then they’ll see pictures of the other grandparents on Facebook.

When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence.

“I found a band for Paul’s birthday,” she tells Vicky. His sixtieth is coming up and she’s talked him into a party at the Elks Lodge. She’s hired a taco truck and Trina, her best friend from work, is baking a cake. “They sound exactly like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”

“Paul’s going to love that,” Vicky says. “Robert too.”

Tom Petty is one thing Paul and Robert have in common. When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence. Men can be like that, Connie supposes. Maybe there’s nothing really wrong. Maybe whatever it is will work itself out.

She watches the sun sink through the black web of electrical wires and palm fronds behind their apartment building and smells garlic from their neighbors cooking dinner downstairs and the sticky-sweet scent of the joint Paul has just lit out on the patio. She wishes he’d quit. He’s already a quiet man and getting stoned doesn’t help his conversational skills.

They haven’t been married long, thirty-four months next week. She believes in celebrating every milestone and she’s got Paul in the habit too. He’ll stop by the Mini-Mart to buy her flowers and a card. She’ll pick up something special to eat on her way home from the nursing home where she works. She’s never been much of a cook, not like Paul’s first wife, Sheila.

Connie was married before too, a long time ago. Her first husband died young, in the accident she tries to forget but can’t help remembering every time she looks at herself in the mirror. She’ll be fifty-eight next year and almost made peace with her face and the fact that she never had children. When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

“They coming to the party?” Paul asks when Connie joins him on the patio.

“I think so.” The sun disappears behind the San Gabriel Mountains. She imagines a photograph of the grandkids with Paul, something she can frame and put on top of the dresser in their bedroom. Someone else could take the picture so she can be in it too, as long as she’s in the back and slightly out of focus.

*     *     *

The night of Paul’s party is warm for October and the air-conditioning at the Elks Lodge takes a while to cool the room down. The guests eat tacos out in the courtyard. Robert and Vicky and the grandkids are the last to arrive. Robert shakes Paul’s hand and glances over at a table piled with gift bags and cards. “I have something for you I didn’t want to bring,” he says. “I’ll get it to you soon.”

When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

 Robert and Vicky go inside with the grandkids and sit down at an empty table near the stage. Connie wonders why they don’t mingle. It’s hard to believe they’re shy. Vicky sells real estate; surely she’s good at conversation. Robert’s an investment broker, he makes his living convincing clients he knows what he’s talking about. They’re a little overdressed for this crowd. Robert wears a silk shirt and Vicky has on a linen sheath and three strings of pearls. Connie means to go talk to them but Trina needs plates for her cake and someone else wants to know where the bathroom is. She looks around for Paul later, planning to get a picture of him with the grandkids but the lead singer from the band asks her to unlock the door behind the stage so they can bring in their equipment.

One of Paul’s cousins is sitting with Vicky when Connie returns with the key. They have empty wine glasses in front of them and don’t notice Connie heading behind the stage towards the back door. Robert’s turned away to talk to the cousin’s husband and Emily and Noah stare down at their phones.

“Connie’s eyes make me nervous,” Vicky tells the cousin. “I can never tell if she’s looking at me or not.”

It’s not like Connie’s never heard this kind of thing before though it’s usually from strangers and not from family. She can’t remember the cousin’s name which is not like her at all. Remembering names is one of her strong points.

“Grandma Connie’s creepy-looking,” Noah says.

“She’s not our grandmother,” Emily says in her clear, young voice. “She’s only Grandpa’s wife.”

The door to a van slides open behind the building and someone knocks. Connie’s feet are blocks of cement in her uncomfortable heels.

“That’s enough,” Robert says. “Show some respect.”

“You don’t need to yell at them,” Vicky says.

Connie doesn’t realize she’s been holding her breath until she exhales and finds she can move her feet after all. She swings the door open and the band brings their equipment inside.

Later, when she cuts the cake, she makes sure Robert gets a corner piece. Vicky says she just wants a taste. Connie cuts a small slice and dumps it on a plate, frosting side down. Since no one is watching, she spits on her finger and cleans off the knife, flicking the cake debris to the side of the plate with her thumb. She sucks the frosting off her fingers. Her fingertips are slightly purple from the way the red and blue Happy Birthday Paul letters have bled into the white frosting.

“Vicky,” she says, holding out the plate. “Is this a small enough piece?”

*     *     *

“We never got a photo of us with the grandkids,” Connie says later as they lie in bed. “They left early.”

“I’m surprised they came,” Paul says. “It’s a long drive for them.”

“It’s your birthday. Of course they came.”

“I could have been a better father.”

Paul’s said this before. “You’re a different man now.”

“I worked all the overtime I could get and sat on a bar stool every night until closing time. Robert’s lucky Sheila had enough sense to divorce me.”

Connie finds the place under his arm where her head fits perfectly. “What do you think his gift is?”

“I don’t know.” He pulls her closer. “Something too big to fit in the car, maybe.”

“Something nice to look forward to.”

*     *     *

Paul’s back goes out the week after his party. He can barely sit much less drive and he has to lay off work for a while. He worries about the loss of his paycheck even though Connie tells him not to. She makes enough at the nursing home to cover the rent although there’s no health insurance or retirement plan.

A month goes by and Paul seems to have forgotten about Robert’s gift. Connie hasn’t. She decides to forgive what was said, putting the blame on too many glasses of wine, and calls Vicky to check in.

“When can we get together?” she asks.

Vicky itemizes their activities. Emily has cheer practice on Wednesday, guitar lessons on Friday. Noah plays soccer on Mondays and Thursdays and his games take up the entire weekend.

“It’s a lot,” Vicky says. “I worry sometimes it’s too much for them.”

“Kids need time to be kids, I guess.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Vicky’s voice sharpens. “Let them stay home alone and play video games? I’m closing on three houses right now, and Robert’s under a lot of pressure at work.”

“Maybe you could take some time off.”

“My job’s not the problem. You don’t understand. You’ve never had to juggle kids and a career.”

“You’re right,” Connie says. “I’d like to understand.”

“I love my job. And the kids are fine. I’m just tired. I’m sorry. I should let you go.”

“Robert mentioned he had something special for Paul,” she says and waits.

“I’m not sure we’ll be down there anytime soon,” Vicky says after a moment. “Maybe you could pick it up next time you’re in the area.”

As if they’d ever be in the area. It’ll take hours for them to drive back and forth to the Simi Valley from Santa Ana. Even though Vicky’s probably hoping she’ll drop the subject, Connie can be persistent when she needs to be. She’s simply holding Robert to his promise.

“What would be a good day for you?”

“I’ll need to check my calendar.”

“I can wait. How about next Tuesday? Didn’t you say Tuesdays are good for you?”

“Did I?” Vicky’s annoyed. “We don’t get home until after five-thirty.”

“We’ll see you then.” Connie hangs up before Vicky can say another word.

“They want us to come up there,” she tells Paul later when they set up the folding tables in front of the television.

“You mean to their house?”

“Tuesday night,” she says, putting down plates of microwaved macaroni and cheese. “They get home from work around five-thirty.”

“You know how much traffic there’ll be at five-thirty?”

“I don’t mind driving.”

I mind. Robert promised he’d bring the gift to me.”

“They’re busy. It’ll be nice to spend time with the grandkids. See the new house.”

They eat and watch television for a while without speaking. “Maybe we could sleep in their RV,” Paul says during a commercial.

She knows he’s kidding. “Let’s splurge and get a motel. We can always cancel it at the last minute if we need to.”

*     *     *

Every time Connie has to pass a truck Tuesday afternoon, she murmurs part of the rosary and grips the steering wheel, feeling her shoulders hunch tight towards her ear lobes. Twice she has to get off the freeway because the lane ends and she can’t get over. Paul puts “Free Falling” by Tom Petty on the CD player. She asks if he wouldn’t mind turning it down. She needs to concentrate.

They still arrive at Robert’s house too early. It’s a huge place, three-car garage, basketball court on the side. A dog barks behind the cinderblock wall. No one is home. They get out of the car and walk around, stretch their legs. It’s hot. Robert and Vicky finally get home around six o’clock, kids in the back seat. Vicky and Robert go upstairs. Paul and Connie sit on the couch and watch the grandchildren watch television.

“How’s school?” Paul asks Emily.

She shrugs and stares at the television like she’s hypnotized. Connie sees Noah take secretive glances at her face.

“I was in an accident a long time ago,” she says.

“I know,” he says.

“It doesn’t hurt or anything. It’s just a scar.”

“Oh,” he says, staring at her openly now. “I scored a goal last week.”

“How about if we come see you play sometime?” Paul asks.

“That’d be okay.” Noah grins. He’s missing a front tooth.

Paul squeezes her hand.

Robert comes downstairs and says he’s taking them all out to dinner. Vicky’s right behind him in a cloud of perfume and an angry expression. Connie and Paul follow them in their car to a Mexican place. The food’s all right but the kids are antsy and Vicky’s not in a good mood. “It’s hard for us on a school night,” she says. “The kids still have homework.”

Paul limps as they walk back to the car after dinner. “My back’s killing me.”

She almost suggests they go straight to the motel so he can smoke and she can take a hot shower. “We won’t stay long,” she says instead and they follow Robert’s car back to the house.

Vicky takes the kids upstairs and Robert brings out a small gift bag. “Here you go, Pops. A little something I thought you’d like.”

“Good things come in small packages,” Paul says.

He tries to take his time unwrapping whatever it is even though there isn’t much tissue paper in the bag and there isn’t a birthday card either. Connie can see right away it’s a Laker’s cap, a give-away item. She’s seen the photos on Facebook of Robert, Vicky, Emily, and Noah sitting courtside wearing the same exact hat and matching team jerseys.

“Thanks, son. This is nice.”

Connie clears her throat. Robert gives her a quick glance and she realizes she’s glaring at him. At least he has enough sense to look embarrassed.

“I guess we’ll take off,” Paul says.

Robert follows them out. “Emily and I are going to see Tom Petty at the Forum next week.”

“You and Emily,” Paul says.

“Yeah, since she started playing guitar she loves the Heartbreakers.”

“The Forum,” Paul says.

“Orchestra seats. I can’t wait.”

Connie gets in the car.

“I imagine you’ll see your mother for Thanksgiving?”

“We’ll go to Santa Ana for lunch with her,” Robert says. “Then Laguna for dinner with Vicky’s parents. Our holiday tradition. Drive all over Southern California and eat too much. Maybe we could get together with you guys on the weekend.”

“I’d like that,” Paul says.

“I’ll talk to Vicky. We’ll let you know.”

Paul says goodnight and angles himself in the passenger seat. Connie starts the ignition and Tom Petty sings on the car stereo, “I Won’t Back Down.”

“His first solo album,” Paul says as she pulls away.

“I know,” Connie says. “You’ve told me before.”

*     *     *

While Paul smokes in the motel parking lot, Connie cries in the shower and dries herself off with a thin towel. Even though she can’t see her face in the fogged mirror she knows her left eye is weeping. The doctors say the right tear ducts might unclog someday and if they don’t it’s nothing to worry about.

Trina claims happy tears come from one eye and sad tears from the other. It’s something her grandmother told her although Trina can never remember which eye is which. Tears are tears, Connie thinks. She’s pretended she’s not sad for so long she’s not sure she’d know the difference.

*     *     *

The only tickets Paul can get last minute are nosebleed seats. It costs twenty dollars to park in the Forum lot and the T-shirts are thirty-five each. Paul says he doesn’t like the designs and doesn’t want one. At least his back’s a little better, Connie thinks, as they climb the stairs up to the last row of the Forum. The opening act is Steve Winwood. The sound’s a little distorted up so high but they can almost see the big video screen. When Winwood finishes, most of the people in the seats around them head down the stairs.

“You want something to drink?” Paul asks. “I’m buying.”

She imagines him negotiating the stairs down and back up again. “I’ll have to pee. I don’t want to miss anything.”

They watch the crowd and wait for Tom Petty. A young couple standing at the bottom of their section seems to be staring at them. Connie automatically puts a hand across her face. The boy has a crew-cut and wears thick glasses and the girl has pink highlights in her hair. Connie wonders what it would be like to be so young and stylish with money and energy to spare. The girl runs up the stairs, two at a time, in heels no less, straight towards her and Paul, the boy right behind her.

“We’re looking for the people with the worst seats in the building,” the girl says.

“That would be us,” Connie says. She can feel the shock on Paul’s face. She doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but their seats are terrible.

“Here you go.” The boy hands Paul two tickets. “They’re down in the pit.”

“No thanks,” Paul says.

Connie elbows him. “How much do you want for them?”

“Nothing,” the girl says. “They’re free. We’re going to Winwood’s party. We wanted to give our seats to someone who’ll appreciate them.”

“We’re fine where we are,” Paul says.

Connie stands and hugs the girl thanks.

“It’s probably a scam,” Paul says when the couple is gone. Connie takes the tickets from Paul’s hands and heads down the stairs towards an usher. “Go down and keep going,” he says. They take two flights of stairs and then three more and finally they are on flat ground. Another usher motions them forward and points towards a group of folding chairs set up in front of the stage. The lights go down and the Heartbreakers walk out.

Connie’s never thought Tom Petty’s voice was particularly good, but tonight he sounds wonderful. The lyrics are crystal clear, the guitars ring, the keyboard slinks through the mix; the drummer brings everyone to standing. A woman next to Paul lights a joint and passes it to him. He takes a deep drag and Connie tries not to breathe in. She already feels lightheaded. She takes a picture of Paul with the band in the background. Someone taps her shoulder and she sees panic register on Paul’s face. When she turns around, it’s a large man, motioning for them to stand closer together.

“Let me get the two of you,” he says.

Afterward, they walk circles around the Forum trying to find their car.

“This building looks exactly the same on all sides,” Paul says.

“It’s round.” Connie laughs. “You’re stoned.” Her feet hurt from dancing. “Stop for a minute.” She adjusts the toe of her sock and pulls out her phone, brings up the picture of the two of them with Tom Petty in the background.

“That’s good,” he says.

“I’m posting it.”

“It’ll seem like we’re showing off.”

“Too late,” she says. “It’s done.”

*     *     *

Paul’s phone rings the next morning. “Hey, Robert,” he says and puts the phone on speaker, lays it down on the kitchen table between their bowls of oatmeal.

Connie can’t remember the last time Robert’s actually called Paul instead of texting or messaging or having Vicky call her.

“I’m impressed,” Robert says through the speaker phone. “You were down in the pit?”

“Someone felt sorry for us,” Paul says. “Great show, right?”

“We left early. This asshole kept smoking pot right next to Emily. How’d you get those seats?”

“We were up in the rafters and this couple picked us out of the crowd.”

“If I’d known you had those kinds of connections, I would have asked you to get me tickets.”

“We got lucky for once.” Paul clenches and unclenches his fist. “Is it so hard to believe your old man might have a bit of luck once in a while?”

Connie touches his arm.

“What are you pissed off about?” Robert asks.

“You could have invited me to go with you and Emily. You know how I feel about the Heartbreakers. It was my sixtieth birthday. Kind of a big deal.”

Robert’s voice bristles through the speaker. “We came to your party. We gave you a gift.”

“You did. A hat.”

Connie sucks in her breath. Paul’s never sarcastic and immediately he backs off.

“A nice hat. Did you think any more about Thanksgiving weekend?”

“Turns out Vicky has to work on Friday. And Saturday we’re heading up to Pismo with a bunch of friends. Taking the sand toys. We’re giving Noah Emily’s ATV and buying her a new one. It’s going to be a blast.”

Connie shoves away from the table. The chair legs scrape the floor. She lets her bowl and spoon clatter down in the sink and turns on the kitchen faucet full blast.

“Maybe Christmas then,” Paul says.

“I’ll let you know.”

Paul hangs up. “That right there is an example of why I don’t like to talk on the phone.”

Connie takes a few deep breaths until she feels calm again. “I don’t know about getting together with them for Christmas. It’s our anniversary.”

“Three years,” he says, and manages a smile.

He’s a good man with a big heart she might not deserve. “I was thinking of buying a pie from Marie Callendar’s. They usually have them on sale around Christmas.”

“Cherry,” he says.

“I know, it’s your favorite.”

*     *     *

On Christmas Eve, Connie waits in line at Marie Callendar’s and tries to decide if she should buy one pie or two. She couldn’t talk herself into calling Vicky this month, so she’s not sure what their plans are. If she and Paul end up going to Robert’s house, they’ll need to bring something. She thinks about how much money there is in her purse and when it’s finally her turn at the cash register she says, “One cherry pie, please.”

“There are some almost ready to come out of the oven,” the clerk says. “I’ll be right back.”

“Why don’t they have more people working the register?” a familiar voice says behind her. “It’s Christmas Eve, for God’s sake.”

Connie glances over her shoulder. Paul’s first wife Sheila is in line a few customers back. Although Santa Ana is not a small town she can’t help running into Sheila once in a while. When the clerk comes back with her pie Connie hands him a ten-dollar bill and waits for her change, then turns towards the door. Sheila’s impossible to avoid. She’s gained a lot of weight since the last time Connie saw her picture on Facebook. She’s no longer plump; she’s fat.

Good, Connie thinks and feels momentarily guilty about being so mean-spirited until she notices the smirk on Sheila’s face as she sizes up Connie’s old Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings, the same ones she wears every year.

“This line is ridiculous,” Sheila says. “I still need to go to the market. I’m making tamales tonight with the grandkids.”

“They’re spending Christmas with you.”

“Christmas Eve anyway. Vicky will insist on leaving first thing in the morning to go to her parent’s house. At least I get to do Santa Claus this year.”

“Well,” Connie says, attempting a smile that feels more like a grimace. “Enjoy it. I’d better get back to work.”

“I thought you’d retired already.”

“Not yet. I like my job.”

Sheila smirks again. Connie wants to take the pie out of the box, smash it in Sheila’s face and watch the red cherry juice run down her cheeks and collect in the folds of her triple chins. Instead, she blurts out a quick, “Merry Christmas,” and flees towards the door. She places the pie box carefully on the floor of the passenger side. Her hands shake a little, so she decides to sit there for a minute and calm down. She won’t mention seeing Sheila to Paul. It will only upset him.

It takes all the strength she has not to run into Target and buy him something special. A complete set of those “Die Hard” movies he likes so much. New speakers for their CD player or even a few packages of socks and underwear. They’ve agreed not to exchange gifts this year but she’d do anything to fill up the big gaping hole Sheila has ripped through her holiday spirit.

*     *     *

When she gets home from work and plugs in the tree it doesn’t cheer her up like it usually does. It needs presents. She finds some Christmas paper in the hall closet and wraps up some old games for the grandkids. She doesn’t have any ribbon though and the gifts look like orphans underneath the tree so she puts them on the top shelf of the closet. The kitchen table is too fussy, she decides, with the six Santa Claus placements and the evergreen candle in the center. She takes four of the placements off the table and stuffs them in the closet on top of the gifts.

When the phone rings, Connie barely recognizes Trina’s voice. “I hate to ask,” Trina says after she finishes a coughing attack, “but could you work for me tomorrow? I’m running a fever and I can’t keep anything down. I know it’s your anniversary.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Connie says. She can use the extra money. She’ll ask Paul to come with her. They’ll make a day of it.

*     *     *

On Christmas morning they eat cherry pie for breakfast before they leave for the nursing home. Paul wears a Santa Claus hat and she puts on the Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings. Someone brings in a spiral-cut ham and there’s red and green Jell-O salad and too many store-bought cakes.

Paul plays card games and helps the residents with jigsaw puzzles. He sees her watching him and smiles from across the room. Someone’s grandson picks out Christmas carols on the piano and she hears Paul’s tenor singing harmony.

They’re both tired when they get home and find a box propped up next to their front door. Paul brings it inside.

“It’s from Robert and Vicky,” he says. “The kids even signed the card.”

There’s no good reason to feel guilty. “Too bad we missed them,” she says.

“They could have let us know they were coming.” It takes him a minute to loosen the ribbon and open the box. He unfolds a black leather jacket, holds it out in front of him and turns it around so she can see the embroidery. The Heartbreakers logo, a red heart pierced with a Gibson Flying V Guitar.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says, trying it on.

It’s a little too big for him. It’s more Robert’s size. “I’m sorry I made you go to work with me today.”

“Are you kidding? I had a blast. It was a great way to spend Christmas. And our anniversary.”

“You could have stayed home and been with your family.”

“I was with my family.” He crosses the room and wraps his arms around her. “They should have brought something for you.”

“I don’t need anything.” She buries her face in the soft leather, feeling the tears start. “You should call and thank him,” she says, hoping the jacket muffles the choke in her voice.

“I’m busy right now,” he says, kissing the top of her head, holding her tight against him. She wants to stay there forever but she needs to blow her nose and wipe her eyes so she won’t ruin the jacket.

“How about a piece of pie?” she asks, pulling away and trying to turn her head so he won’t see the tears.

“Are you crying?” He holds her face gently with both hands, his brown eyes worried. “Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m fine,” she says. She goes in the bathroom to blow her nose. She’s at the point now where she can inspect the scar on her face and not flinch. She never was a beauty, not even before the accident. Something about her reflection tonight though is different. The scar seems diminished in comparison to the crow’s feet stamped around her uneven eyes. She’s older, of course, and she’s tired. She looks her age. She wipes her nose again and sees what’s changed. She’s crying out of her right eye.

“You sure you’re okay?” Paul calls out from the living room.

“I will be.” She smiles at herself in the mirror and turns off the light. “How about some ice cream with the pie?”

“Sounds good,” he says.

He opens the patio door and lets in the noise from the freeway. A steady stream of cars heads home from family parties, trunks full of presents, kids asleep in the backseat, parents looking forward to taking them up to the snow tomorrow or what about Disneyland? What about New Years? Super Bowl’s coming up, then Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s and Easter and suddenly it’ll be summer and the grandkids will be another year older.

She’ll call Vicky in the morning. She’ll ask about their Christmas and thank her for Paul’s jacket. She’ll suggest they meet somewhere special for lunch next week, their treat. Some place convenient, just off the freeway, halfway in between.

Mary CamarilloMary Camarillo’s fiction has appeared in Extracts: A Daily Dose of Lit and The Ear. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband and their terrorist cat. She is a recovering CPA and a lifelong music lover, frequently found stalking Los Lobos across the country.