All Purpose Bees – Chapter 2

Morning Becomes Eddie

Edward Adnan Leghari Ortega stood before the full-length mirror. Buzzed black hair, deep set marble eyes, light brown skin. Tall to the point it might cause trouble at sea, built a little too big to give the impression of intelligence. Ed was more than comfortable in his own skin. He considered himself a complete package. Others always more interested in dissecting the component pieces. In academia his physicality and laconic California responses were often taken as dullness. Stapleton thought of him as the oddest collision of two families, the Ortegas and Legharis. One German Mexican, on the land a hundred years, founding fathers that chased cougars from the hills. The others, recent arrivals part of a Punjabi wave that transformed transportation up and down the Central Valley.

The outside traffic rattled Ed’s mirror, shaking his image as he worked the knot in his tie to satisfaction. His mind was on navigating this morning, traversing the Stapleton familiarity that always rubbed him wrong. He had come to understand the mix of concern and curiosity that drove these interactions, but found it suffocating. When people spoke to Ed, they knew not only his history, but had been actors in the crazy courtship and lived the lasting ripples of his parent’s brief union.

“Beta, we need to get going. They are expecting us.”

They. There wasn’t much of a they left on the Ortega side. His uncles passed on. One too young while serving overseas, the other cancer five years back. It was now extended family, the remaining Ortegas from the other side of the hills.

“Coming Nanee.”

His father, Jimmy, had never cared for punctuality. The irony of Ed rushing for him now.

Had. It was the first time Ed thought of his father in the past tense. Jimmy Ortega, beloved rogue of Stapleton, dead at fifty-seven. Heart attack. Fitting, he’d given everyone a heart attack at one point or another. Now he was gone.

Carpeted stairs strained under big soled shoes. Fingers brushing along wood paneled walls, warped and faded with age. Maybe his grandparents would listen this year and remodel the house. Ed had long stopped trying to move them off the truck stop into a nice neighborhood. God knows they had the money. It was convincing them to step away from the action. The travel center perched on the intersection of Route 22 and 109, both mainlines for the Punjabi gossip that had an insatiable hold on his grandparents. Funny how they who were once so scandalized, took delicious delight in the tales that trickled in throughout the day.

The red Honda Odyssey was pulled in front of a Reserved Parking sign. His grandfather high up in the captain’s chair, charcoal suit perfectly pressed. They also owned the laundry in town and that was the one luxury his grandfather allowed himself. His everyday wear a collection of perfectly pressed safari suits. Never a crease or a wilted collar. To be so old you gave zero fucks about fashion. Still, Daadi carried it like a boss with his gold rimmed aviator sunglasses and bushy snow-white beard.

The minivan smelled of produce, only one chair in the back for Ed. The rest had been pulled to haul supplies.

“Have you prepared your speech?” Nanee asked.

She was a tiny wisp of a woman. Energetic and sprite, her mind still quick enough to be in everyone’s business at once.

“On the flight in. It’s strong, it’s Stapleton. People will say good things about it later.”

She smiled. He knew that’s what she wanted to hear. It had been too long since she had her Eddie to gush over. The door shut and car pulled out onto the blacktop.

He’d been back a full day and no one had mentioned her. Ed had tried calling, texting, but her phone was off. He didn’t know if that was purposeful or if she just lost interest in the outside world again. Always hard to tell where his mother was on her journey. What he did know what that word had gotten to her and word had come back. Nanee made sure of that. One of the Sikh truckers would have carried a message up to Shasta, another would have carried back a reply. This was their preferred method of communication. It had taken the family forty years to find the right amount of distance, the correct delay.

“Is Ami coming down?”

It was twenty minutes to the service. Had he not asked, they would have let him walk blind into the church. Ed always had to pull news of his mother out of them. He understood, saw what she put them through, but at times like these he felt they took it too far. No one should have to ask if their mother was coming to their father’s funeral.

“No Beta. She says she’s too fragile to attend. There’s a letter for you back at the house.”

Likely sitting there this entire time. Communication a one-way street. Ed dropped the matter, it would never be resolved, so no point bringing it up today. He needed to be clear, calm. Soon enough he would have to get up in front of Stapleton and say all the right things, the things everyone knew were not true, but needed to be said anyway. He loved that about this place. Everyone, no matter who they were or what they had done, was sent off right. The Ortegas had always made sure of that, and now it was time for town to return the favor.  

Four Eggs for Jimmy

“Al Nezerjian.” The man called out. Al paid him no mind. He kept his eyes down, studying the silver embroidery on his black special occasion boots. Al knew what the man wanted. He wanted to use the funeral as an excuse for business. He wanted to turn condolences into considerations. These were the only type of conversations the two men had. Al never let himself get boxed in, but today he was bound by the borders of solemnity and ceremony. This wasn’t the sort of place Al would raise his voice or speak his mind and the man knew that.

“Al Nezerjian, I know you hear me.”

Al heard him alright, but he kept on walking. One boot in front of the other, thumbs tucked around the screaming eagle belt buckle, his head down, a felt fedora hat casting shadow over face. He heard the man behind him pick up the pace. The crunch of loose gravel getting louder as the man’s strides increased.

Al was there to honor the dearly departed Jimmy Ortega. Good ole Two Eggs Ortega. He’d been Al’s neighbor, breakfast buddy, and one-time romantic rival. Al paused, looked up at that giant fried yolk in the sky, and remembered that day Jimmy ordered a four, four, and four instead of the usual two egg special.

“Hungry today?” Al had asked.

“Famished.” Jimmy answered.

“Up early?”

“Up late.”

Coffees arrived at the table and the conversation was dropped. Ten minutes later, four runny eggs, four greasy links of sausage, and four butter smeared pieces of rye arrived in front of Jimmy. Al was on a muffin kick back then, trying to keep his cholesterol down. He finished well before Jimmy and turned his attention to his phone. The original Harry Potter was playing in Turlock, a special event. It was his opening with Betty. After a back and forth, Al finally booked a proper date with the woman he’d been chasing for months. Feeling full of himself, he slid his open phone across the table. By then Jimmy had finished his eggs and was wiping up the mess with a slice of toast.

“You should have waited. She’s going to be exhausted after last night.” Jimmy pushed the phone back across the table. “Breakfast is on me this morning. Enjoy your children’s movie. Maybe you’ll get to hold hands.”

Things would have been so different had Jimmy just stayed dry. He fell off the wagon that night and couldn’t get himself back on. Al chased him down to Kern and brought him back for treatment. Jimmy had one request of Al, “look out for Betty for me”. Betty never needed looking out for, but Al did anyway. That’d been his real opening and a half year later, Betty quit her accounting job and moved in. It had been a long time before Jimmy and Al had eggs again, but they had. Al ordered four eggs that day. The two of them rolled in the aisles over that. They carried the joke for years. Now it was gone.

The world was a little smaller today.

Al would have to go to Dove’s Nest tomorrow and order four eggs for Jimmy.

A hand landed on Al’s shoulder, jerking him back to the present. It hurt Al, punched him hard in the memory. He was spending too much time in the past. Returning to this moment was getting harder. A real come down. His future was emptying out, his past filling up. It worried him, seeing the world around him become sparser. He missed the noise, the chaos, having ten people to get back to. He was starting to grow scared of tomorrow. He only had tomorrow because he took it from Jimmy.

“Hands off me Smith.”

“Why didn’t you answer me Nezerjian?”

“I was spending a quiet moment with Jimmy. Unlike you, I’ve got some respect for the dead. The answer is no.”

“You don’t even know what I’m asking for.” Smith replied.

“But you’re asking. That’s all I need to know. Get out of my face Smith and don’t try going behind my back to Betty. She actually hates you.”

“You’d rather we do this in probate? Fine with me.” Smith looked down at him with a big shit eating grin. “I figured you’d be happier to work this out in your natural element.”

“What are you talking about? There’s no business between you and us. We bank in Merced.”

“Oh, but we do Al, we do. You’re a guarantor for Jimmy. You remember that irrigation system he put in? Of course you do, your signature is on the loan.”

Al took his hat off. He ran stubby fingers through his thick dyed hair. He remembered helping Jimmy out. He just couldn’t remember the number. It was six figures for sure. If it had been smaller, Jimmy would have handled it on his own. The trouble was that all those numbers ran together. It’d been an expensive stretch and guys had to stick together. He’d lent his name and credit to a half dozen groves, the same way that they had lent theirs to his.

Christ. He had to talk to Betty. This was the weak link. Al looked up at Smith, that big jawed, crew cut, son of a bitch. San Jaoquin Commercial held notes on half the independents in the Valley. All of those notes were secured by the land. When the land wasn’t enough, a neighbor stepped up and acted as guarantor on the loan. Everyone was signing for everyone. Modernizing was expensive. Sweepers, harvesters, blowers, drips. A guy could have five different notes guaranteed by five buddies. At the time, the growers thought they were putting one over on the banks. Now, Al realized the banks were about to put one over on them.

“How much Smith?”

“A hundred seventy-five thousand.”

“What’s the interest?” Al asked.


They could handle that if they had to. They wouldn’t though. Ortega’s land was worth plenty. Its sale would cover all debts. Smith was just using this moment to show his cards. He was showing he knew where Al was weak. Al made a note to find out who owned San Joaquin Savings. He was starting to see the future and it was emptier than he realized.

The Pew

It had been awhile since Betty stepped inside Saint Peter’s church. She wasn’t a church goer, but there had been a time when social obligations called them here to celebrate. Those had fallen off as grandparents made their last trip through these doors, freeing children from the pretense of faith. The interior brought back memories. It was getting rarer to encounter architecture from the analog age. Everything today brushed steel, frosted glass, digital displays. She looked at the stained glass, simple stations of the cross done for a farming community. She followed the bare wood beams up to the lofted white plaster ceiling. Soft, somber organ music played from the side of the altar. This was all so out of sort with Jimmy, but he wanted to be buried with the rest of his family. Catholic mass was the price of admission.

Betty looked out the open double doors into the daylight. Al was talking to Smith. It looked like a doozy. She’d hear all about that later. That piece of shit used the most inopportune times to lord it over the rest of us. She bet he got the news from morning paper, no one wanting to call and share grief with him. He probably flipped the paper each morning, opened it from the back, and thumbed directly to the obituaries to see if any customers passed on. That fucking vulture. At this point Smith was living on legacy. Most folk had smartened up, did their new business online or made the drive up to Fresno. Still, he had his hooks in plenty. The way he was talking to Al, she knew he had them in Jimmy’s estate.

She turned towards the altar, eyes on the pews, searching out the proper place to sit. They were close to Jimmy, not just neighbors, but good friends. There was a brief moment when she considered him potential partner material. That twinkle of mischief so charming, how quickly it descended into mayhem. She was his last great flame out. A dubious legacy, the woman that broke Jimmy Ortega. In town, men of a certain age looked at her, sizing her up, wondering what made her so special. Those same looks given on the way into church this morning. Blue pilled savages, aging creeps, no respect for their friend in the casket. After she took up with Al and moved in next door, Jimmy tried his best to behave. The bottle stayed, but the wild man went away. That’s when the collecting started. Everyone agreed to look the over way on that. He was like the ex-junkie who smoked two packs a day. It was better he made a mess of his corner than the rest of the world.

Peggy Wilson turned, gave Betty a nod. Betty expected them to be in Hawaii, not here during the dry dusty business of harvest. They likely came back for Jimmy. Good people that way. Peggy scooched her husband Carl deeper into the pew. There was a girl with them. Betty didn’t recognize her, probably some poor relative dragged off a Lanikai beach for this. Pretty thing, some flair to her, unlike staid old Peggy and Carl. Betty’s knee touched the carpet, arms tracing the sign of the cross, then she slid into the pew. They were two rows behind the family, a good and proper place for Jimmy’s neighbors. Good and proper was Peggy’s specialty. The Ortega land stood between the Nezerjian and Wilson places. As crazy as Jimmy had been, he was one of them, a part of daily life.

The music changed; the priest called upon the congregation to rise. Few still knew the rituals, the automatic instinct long since lost. She turned towards the door. Al was a pall bearer. He looked old, small opposite Jimmy’s boy, but he was dignified. Al was an old soul, certain of his link in a great cosmic chain. He felt the echoes of ages in his bones. While Betty dismissed a lot of Al’s new age instincts as wet brain, pot, and old age, she knew this much of him was true. That’s what brought them together. He was in touch with the world on a fundamental level, a familiar to the past, an eternal optimist for the future. On her bad days, he was the only one who could reach her, give her the strength to get out of bed.

Men wondered what power she had over Jimmy? They would be disappointed to know the truth. She showed him a sadness so deep it brought him low, made him run. Her abyss haunted him, it showed him how far he could fall if he wasn’t careful. He walked the line out of fear, nothing else. Simply fear of a black terror, the void inside. Now it had reached him, and he was free of Betty forever.

“My father loved life so much, sometimes a little too much.”

The audience chucked, Ed on the podium breaking the tension. He could work a room, there was some charisma in him. That little bird of a grandmother always going on about how bright Ed was, how gifted. MIT this and MIT that. Betty didn’t expect this side from the boy. Hardly a boy. He had three years on her daughter. He might be the sort of man Betty would want to see her come home with one day, assuming she favored men. Betty wasn’t sure of that, the girl was coy, using a vocabulary that didn’t exist when Betty last had to consider things like orientations and what to do with certain strong emotions that didn’t fit in a box called friendship or in a box called desire.

Her mind was a whirlwind this morning, on everything but Jimmy. Poor guy. She’d given him a lot of thought over the last few days. Had been up his house, seeing to things, making sure the business carried on. He wouldn’t mind if she used his funeral as a place to connect a scatter gun of thoughts and emotions that echoed across the church.

“Our relationship grew stronger over the years, my father was always happy to hear from me, and I to connect back to Stapleton…”

Ed was laying it on thick now. Everyone knew he considered his mother’s father to be his real father. Jimmy was an anchor, something to lash yourself to when there was no better option, but nothing you wanted to carry with you. His mother some sort of a fairy, a forest elf. More skittish than a deer. Betty and Al lived in Los Angeles when all that was playing out. They didn’t move up until later, during the time when people still weren’t so talkative. The situation was so delicate that one wrong comment could cast the whole affair off balance and ruin the life of the child. It took a while for the Leghari grandparents to corner their own daughter, then a while longer for them to beat back the Ortega name in court. No one could fault the way he turned out and it was those two that made sure of it.

“There will never be another Jimmy Ortega. Our community is less colorful today, but he’ll live on in our memories. We love you dad.”

Good boy. He played that eulogy to a tee. Stapleton’s lost son returned to the flock, his father sent off right. Al squeezed her hand. There were times when she wondered if he could really read her thoughts like he claimed he could.