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Authors: T Jefferson Parker

California Girl

BOOK: California Girl
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CALIFORNIA
Girl
T. JEFFERSON PARKER

For Tyler and Thomas

Long may you run

Contents

1

I drove past the old SunBlesst packinghouse today. Nothing left…

2

“Because the Vonns are direct descendants of murderers, that’s why,”…

3

That night Max and Monika Becker loaded their four sons…

4

Andy steered the Submarine up Red Hill Avenue, into Lemon…

5

The Becker brothers all made it home the day before…

6

David stood on the crumbling asphalt of the old Grove…

7

Janelle Vonn showed up for David’s service on a drizzly…

8

Nick found Casey Vonn at Foothill Rents. Sundays were busy,…

9

Andy read the Vonn arrest reports early Monday morning. He…

10

The wind blew hard that day, the first strong Santa…

11

Nine the next morning. Three hours of sleep. Day warm…

12

Andy sat in the Journal newsroom and looked out the…

13

David set the ladder into the back of his work…

14

Nick sat in Assistant Sheriff Gorman Harloff’s office arranging his…

15

They went to a late lunch at the new place,…

16

Andy Becker crunched along a gravel walkway toward one of…

17

David took two days off from work. Then another. He’d…

18

Janelle Vonn’s pale blue Volkswagen Beetle sat in the shade…

19

He was on his way to headquarters by seven. A…

20

“Two weeks and no suspect in the Vonn murder,” said…

21

Lynette Vonn lived up in Huntington Beach. She let Andy…

22

Nick walked into the Tustin Union High School varsity locker…

23

Nick and Lobdell walked into Mystic Arts World in Laguna…

24

David walked the new chapel that morning with young Darren…

25

David followed Nick and Lobdell into the interview room. He’d…

26

It took Nick almost one hour to make the evening…

27

The next morning Andy stood on the porch of 1303…

28

“So yesterday, Shirley’s doing the laundry and guess what she…

29

That Sunday David sat in the first row of the…

30

Nick steered the Red Rocket south on I-5 while Lobdell…

31

Andy got Katy and the kids to the hospital in…

32

Andy spent the night and half of the next day…

33

On Nick’s first morning home he had breakfast with his…

34

That evening Andy stood off Laguna Canyon Road snapping pictures…

35

On Sunday two of the major county dailies intimated that…

36

Orange county superior court, Department C-7.

37

“Listen to me, Nick. Everything we thought about Janelle Vonn…

38

The next evening I drove up to the Stoltzes’ house…

39

Three days later I was guest of honor at the…

 

1

HERE AND NOW

I DROVE PAST
the old SunBlesst packinghouse today. Nothing left of it. Not one stick. Now there’s a bedroom store, a pet emporium, and a supermarket. Big and new. Moms and dads and kids everywhere. Pretty people, especially the moms. Young, with time to dream, wake up, and dream again.

I still have a piece of the flooring I tore off the SunBlesst packinghouse back in sixty-eight. When I was young. When I thought that what had happened there shouldn’t ever happen anywhere. When I thought it was up to me to put things right.

I’m made of that place—of the old wood and the rusted conveyors and the pigeons in the eaves and the sunlight slanting through the cracks. Of Janelle Vonn. Of everything that went down, there in October, 1968. Even made of the wind that blew that month, dry and hot off the desert, huffing across Orange County to the sea.

I have a piece of the picket fence from the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza, too. And a piece of rock that came not far from where
Mercury 1
lifted off. And one of Charlie Manson’s guitar picks.

But those are different stories.

 

LATER I MET
my brother Andy at the Fisherman’s Restaurant down in San Clemente. Late August. The day was bright as a brushfire, no clouds, sun flashing off the waves and tabletops. Andy looked at me like someone had hit him in the stomach.

“It’s about Janelle,” he said.

Janelle Vonn in the SunBlesst orange packinghouse in Tustin.

Thirty-six years ago, two brothers who didn’t look much alike, staring down at her and across at each other while the pigeons cooed and the wind blew through the old slats.

A different world then, different world now.

Same brothers. Andy stayed thin and wiry. Tough as a boiled owl. Me, I’ve filled out some, though I can still shiver the heavy bag in the sheriff’s gym.

San Clemente, and you have to think Nixon. The western White House, right up the road. I picture him walking down the beach with the Secret Service guys ahead and behind. Too many secrets and nobody but the seagulls to tell them to. Andy’s newspaper ran a cartoon of him once, after he’d been chased out of office, and the cartoon showed him walking the beach with a metal detector, looking for coins. Thought that was a funny one. I kind of liked Dick Nixon. Grew up just over the hill from us. He was tight with my old man and his Bircher friends for a while, used to come to the house back in the fifties when he was vice president and in the early sixties when he’d lost for governor. They’d sit around, drink scotch, make plans. Nixon had a way of making you feel important. It’s an old pol’s trick, I know. I even knew it then. In fifty-six I graduated from the L.A. Sheriff’s Academy and Dick Nixon sent me a note. The vice president. Nice handwriting. It’s still in my collection of things.

But that’s a different story, too.

“You don’t look so good, Andy,” I said.

Brothers and we still don’t look much alike. An old cop and an old re
porter. There used to be four of us Becker boys. Raised some hell. Just three now.

I looked at Andy and I could see something different in his face.

“What gives?” I asked.

“Listen to me, Nick. Everything we thought about Janelle Vonn was wrong.”

2

1954

“BECAUSE THE VONNS
are direct descendants of murderers, that’s why,” said David Becker. “One of their relatives got hung in Texas. And I saw Lenny Vonn bust a brick with his bare hands once. One chop. That’s exactly what he’ll do to Nick’s head. The Vonns are crazy.”

The Becker brothers. Four of them, walking down Holt Avenue in Tustin for a rumble. June and still light out, the sun stalled high above the groves like it didn’t want to come down. Air sweet and clean with the smell of oranges.

Nick was second oldest. He imagined Lenny Vonn’s hand crashing into his skull. Wondered how a skull compared to a brick. Nick was sixteen and strong, had played Tustin varsity football as a sophomore, started both ways. Not a talker.

Andy was the baby. Twelve, skinny, buck-toothed. He wasn’t officially a part of the rumble but figured there was no way Lenny Vonn could crush Nick’s skull. Nick was God.

David, the one who had seen Lenny Vonn break the brick with his hand, was eighteen. He was the oldest and smart but graceless and unformed.

“I’ll yank Casey Vonn’s head off and piss down his neck.” This from
Clay, fifteen. He smiled at each of his brothers in turn, a clean, straight-toothed grin that was both knowing and mean.

Clay had gotten them into this. Grabbed dumb Casey Vonn’s new baseball cap and tossed it over the fence to the German shepherd that snarled and snapped and threw himself at the chain link every time the school kids came past. Clay laughed while the dog tore it to shreds. Told Casey he’d throw
him
over next time. Casey so dumb he believed it.

The next day at school Casey’s big brother Lenny shoved David hard against the lockers and said it was rumble time for what happened to Casey’s cap. Lenny was large and chinless, with an enormous Adam’s apple and sideburns like Elvis. Brothers, said Lenny, three-on-three, the packinghouse, no weapons. On David’s face, breath like coffee and cavities. David asked Lenny to forgive Clay, said he’d pay for a new hat. Lenny spit in David’s face.

The Becker brothers angled into one of the grove rows, walking along the irrigation ditch, clods of earth throwing them off-balance and doves whisking through the sky above them. Nick led the way.

“The Vonns got two sisters,” said Clay.

“Can they fight?” asked Andy.

“Maybe I’ll
make out
with them when we’re done beating up their brothers,” said Clay.

“They’re seven and five,” said David. He knew right from wrong and wrong angered him. He was going off to college in September. He stopped and shook out a Lucky Strike and tapped it on the side of his lighter. Nick saw his hands shaking.

“Gimme a cigarette,” said Clay.

David gave Clay the pack and lighter. He lit one and put another behind his ear.

“Me, too,” said Andy.

“No,” said Nick.

“I don’t want to do this,” said David. He coughed. He’d spent hours the night before praying for courage.

“Fine,” said Nick. “It’ll be me and Clay.”

“I can fight,” said Andy.

“No,” Nick and David both said.

Clay’s cigarette looked good so Nick plucked it out of his mouth and took a puff.

Nick saw by the look on his face that David didn’t want his baby brother to see him get his ass kicked.

“Keep your hands high,” Nick said. “If we stay back-to-back we’ll be all right.” Like there was a science to this kind of thing.

The SunBlesst packinghouse sat behind the railroad tracks in the middle of the grove. The tracks marked the city limits but everyone thought of the packinghouse as being in Tustin. It was a big wooden building with a metal roof and twenty-foot-high metal sliding doors that let the conveyors swing out to the freight cars. The wood was black with creosote. On one of the doors was a giant painting of one of the SunBlesst orange box labels. It showed a raven-haired beauty holding out a perfect navel orange and smiling. Behind her were rows of orange trees. The sky above the trees was indigo blue and the words
California Girl
charged out of it in bright yellow letters. Once someone had left a flatcar of labels outside and the Becker boys threw them into a Santa Ana wind that blew them all over town, onto the lawns and streets and school yards, and everywhere he went for a week Nick saw that pretty woman offering him an orange.

The Vonns were waiting for them by the railroad tracks. Lenny had his T-shirt tucked in tight and his cigarettes rolled into his right shirtsleeve, Levi’s cuffs rolled into two-inchers, work boots. His brothers more or less the same. Black hair and big round ears. Lenny flicked his smoke into the gravel and stared at Nick.

Nick figured it was him against Lenny, Clay against Casey, and David the oldest against the middle Vonn kid, Ethan. “What do you say, Lenny?” he called out.

“I say fuck you.”

“That’s all?”

“And your whole ugly family.”

Casey Vonn laughed. Then Ethan.

Nick stopped at the bottom of the railroad berm, where the gravel
led up to the ties and tracks. David and Clay came up beside him. Sweat rolled down David’s cheek. Nick turned to see young Andy hanging back in the orange grove.

“You know, Lenny, we could just apologize to you and not fight.”

“It’s too late for apologies. The dog ate the hat. It was new.”

“Then you apologize to us,” said Clay. “How about that?”

“For what?” asked Lenny.

“For being so dumb,” said Clay. “Look at you dumb shitheels trying to be cool.”

War screams, then, and gravel chattering and dust rising as the Vonns hurled themselves down the berm.

Nick figured on a left from Lenny because of where Lenny kept his cigarettes. Lenny flew toward him and Nick stepped away and got him with a left hook. Lenny wheeled and came back at him and Nick drove a straight right into his nose. Felt the crack. Lenny went to one knee, wiped the blood off his face, and looked at it. Pouring like a faucet thrown on.

“Gung fuggin kiw you.”

The blood unnerved him and Nick let Lenny stand up. Knew it was a mistake but let him up anyway. He caught Lenny coming in with a big left haymaker that landed high above the ear and sent a bullet of pain up his hand.

Then someone clobbered Nick from behind and he was down before he felt or heard it. Looking back, he saw Clay pummeling Casey, David down and looking his way but no opponent in sight, Andy still watching from the trees. Then a shadow falling above him and Nick understood someone was about to club him again.

This time he heard it. Ethan behind him with something big and heavy. Felt the jolt, then the loud whine in his ears. Lenny kicked him in the face. Kicked him again in the ribs. Nick felt the fight huff out of him.

Clay slugged Casey one more time and climbed off. Saw Ethan Vonn swing the short thick branch at Nick and his brother crumple like something dead and Lenny kicking him hard.

Clay covered the distance fast and jumped Ethan the clubber from
behind. They fell onto Nick and rolled off. Clay came up with the club and caught Lenny low. Lenny stumbled back, two disbelieving eyes wide open through the blood as Andy rocketed through the air and knocked him to the ground.

Ethan struggled to his feet, turned, and labored up the berm.

Nick got himself upright as Lenny shrugged off Andy and sidled away, half crawling and half falling after his brother.

Clay kicked at him but missed.

Andy, on hands and knees, breathed fast and hard.

“Yer fuggin dead,” said Lenny.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Nick.

“Dumb shitheels,” said Clay.

Nick picked up the club, then took a knee like they did in football. His head hurt and he felt the vomit stirring inside. He watched two Lennys make the top of the berm, faces and sideburns and shirts soaked in blood. Twin Caseys clambered up next, both blubbering, eyes swollen and lips cut. He felt a hand on his shoulder and he knew without turning it was David.

Nick looked up to see four girls looking down at him from the tracks. Then just two. The bigger one had brown braids and wore a dirty pink blouse. The younger one was dark-haired and dimpled and had an inquisitive look on her face.

The older one stepped down the berm a few feet toward the Becker brothers and launched a white rock that flew wild. Then another. She scurried back up and ran away.

The younger one followed her sister’s footsteps almost exactly. She had a faded blue dress and a red ribbon in her hair and a pair of scuffed brown cowboy boots. An orange in each hand. The SunBlesst girl’s baby sister, thought Nick. Looked about five.

“I am Janelle Vonn and those are my brothers,” she said.

She dropped the oranges and scrambled back up the gravel and out of sight.

BOOK: California Girl
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