The heat of the Bakersfield summer sun beat down on the faded red 1971 Volkswagen squareback as David and Bill drove south on Highway 99 through the dusty brown expanse of the Southern San Joaquin Valley toward Los Angeles.
“God, I hate Bakersfield in the summer,” David said, squinting, unable to make out the Tehachapi Mountains through the dense summer haze.
“Only the summer?” said Bill. “David, this place is a pit three hundred sixty-five days a year. I can’t believe you lived here for ten years. And without air conditioning in your car!”
David glanced over at his friend who had pushed the wind wing as far forward as it would go to direct the air toward himself. Bill’s face was flushed from the 108-degree heat, his shirt damp with perspiration.
“It’s the people,” David said, as he eased forward with a twisting motion to unstick himself from the vinyl upholstery. “People make the difference. I don’t think much about geography.” There was a brief moment of what he imagined to be coolness as they sped through a rare patch of shade offered by a stand of eucalyptus trees on the west side of the highway.
“It’s such a gritty place,” Bill said. “Even the people are gritty.”
David ignored Bill’s intolerance. People are more important than places, he thought. The roar of the Volkswagen’s engine and the wind blowing through the wind wings made it difficult to carry on a conversation. Anyway, there was no point in defending Bakersfield or its people to Bill.
Merging from Highway 99 into the southbound traffic of Interstate 5, David eased the car into the left lane and accelerated to seventy miles an hour to have enough momentum to make it over Tejon Pass without shifting down. The tires slapped against the separations in the concrete pavement in a steady rhythm casting a hypnotic spell as David thought about Bakersfield.
When he left Bakersfield two years earlier, he hadn’t planned to return. But friends kept calling him back. Robert got a job in Sacramento. David drove to Bakersfield to see him before he moved. Paul retired. David drove to Bakersfield for Paul’s retirement party. Eileen died. David drove to Bakersfield to see her two days before she died.
It was a blistering 111-degree day in July. He drove up in the hottest part of the afternoon delayed by some last minute business with a Ph.D. student whose dissertation he supervised. He parked his car in the lot of Colonial East Convalescent Hospital, aware that he did not want to be there. He hadn’t seen Eileen in over six months.
At the hospital entrance, David paused, preparing himself for the usual convalescent hospital smells of urine and pine scented disinfectant. Ready to be depressed, he opened the door, surprised by a cheerful lobby and the cool relief of air conditioning.
“I’m here to see Eileen Burke,” he said to an overweight, overstarched nurse seated behind the reception desk.
“Burke. Eileen Burke,” the nurse said, running her fat index finger down the cardex file. “She’s in Room 209-B. Straight down the hall on the left,” she said, pointing over David’s right shoulder.
“Thank you,” David said, turning in the direction the nurse indicated. The carpet deadened the sound of his footsteps as he walked into the mint green hallway. He approached the room dreading his first sight of Eileen after such a long time. A desire to turn and run back through the lobby to his car seized him as he stopped, sucking in a deep breath and holding it to calm his nerves. Taking another step, he exhaled as he walked past Room 207. Eileen’s room is next, he thought.
The door of Room 209 was open. David looked into the darkness. The window shades were drawn against the intense afternoon sun. David could make out three beds. His eyes were drawn to the middle bed by the unmistakable whiteness of Eileen’s hair. Eileen slept, propped up on a mountain of pillows. Not knowing what to do, David walked back to the nurse’s desk.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Burke. She’s asleep,” he said.
“Oh,” said the nurse. “Are you her son?”
“No,” said David. “Just a friend. She isn’t expecting me. I don’t want to startle her.”
“Eileen’s expecting her son,” said the nurse coming from behind the desk, her starched uniform scratching and scraping with every movement against her fat body. “She’s a dear lady. Sharp as a tack.” She walked down the hall ahead of David, turning toward him as she asked, “Have you known Eileen a long time?”
“About twelve years,” David said. “She was Chair of the English Department at Bakersfield College. My first teaching job after graduate school.”
The nurse walked into the room and straight to the bed. “Eileen,” she said, taking Eileen’s hand. “Eileen. Do you know this man?”
Eileen opened her eyes and looked at David standing against the wall at the foot of her bed.
“That’s David,” Eileen said without hesitation. “Dr. David Holland.”
“Thank you,” David said to the nurse as she left the room. David walked to the side of the bed and took Eileen’s hand in his.
“David,” said Eileen, “how good of you to come.”
A lump choked David’s throat. He didn’t speak.
“How are things at U.S.C., Professor?” Eileen asked. “Professor. I love the sound of that,” she said. “You make me so proud.” Tears filled David’s eyes.
“They’ve ruined Bakersfield College,” Eileen said. “All of that football nonsense. At the expense of the academic program. It’s not the first rate academic institution we worked so hard to maintain, David.” He squeezed her hand. There was nothing to say.
“Well,” Eileen said after several minutes of silence, “I’m planning to get out of here soon. One way or another. I hope to go out on my own two feet.”
The sight of this once vital and robust woman, now frail and helpless, struck with the force of an earthquake at the foundation of his well-ordered universe. David felt uneasy. He wanted to leave.
“Well, Mrs. Burke,” he managed to say through his tears, “I don’t want to tire you.” He paused, tears running down his face. “You have enriched my life, Mrs. Burke,” his throat tight and his voice thick with emotion.
“Oh,” said Eileen with a faint snort, “I doubt that. And besides, David, there’s no need for hyperbole.” David leaned down and kissed Eileen’s cheek. That’s the old Eileen, he thought. Their verbal sparring. He longed to respond to her baiting. Holding her hand tightly in his, he stood up trying to smile. Weeping was the best he could do.
He kissed her hand. “Good-bye, Mrs. Burke,” he said, letting go of her hand and turning to leave.
“Good-be, David,” Eileen said.
“Let’s stop at Gorman,” Bill said. I want a large Coke with lots of ice.”